This is a rambling post based on some reading I've been doing of the DMT Nexus and my own experiences. It is obviously personal in nature but I think I've articulated my ideas well.
The Western world (whatever that means), in modern times, is spiritually and socially empty. The driving force of the present society, the belief in and support of "the free market", has managed to create a steady stream of often inane technological advancements while totally breaking down social relations. A society dictated to by the market tends, over the course of time, to turn all relations between people into transactions--our social ties become debts and receipts. Individuals relate to one another in the form of empathy, as if to say: your experience is validated only by my similar experience. Social relations may exist at the household level, but there is little sense of wider community left in the developed world.
Individuals in the modern sense are a new invention, not defined through their ties to others but by what we might call taste. A man of taste says: I exist only by assimilating commodities into myself, I am defined by my ability to curate my appearance. Since this definition of self is based on outward appearance, it is inwardly completely empty. This condition feels inescapable, because it is presented as the only valid option. Acknowledging that this system is ultimately a meaningless death march is considered a breach of etiquette (and etiquette is very important to the world of appearances). The subject who, for whatever reason, feels alienated by this world or cannot bear to live within it, can find no outlet or guide because the infrastructure of his mind--his worldview at the base level--makes an island of him.
The basic assumption of self-improvement is that one is broken. We can liken this to Heidegger's idea of a tool as either ready-to-hand or present-at-hand. When a tool is ready-to-hand it disappears; the user is not holding a hammer and swinging it to strike nails, he is simply nailing. The hammer becomes an extension of the user's body. A broken hammer reenters consciousness as a separate matter, it becomes present-at-hand. The subject of self-improvement holds themselves present-at-hand. To view oneself in this way is to objectify oneself. It is a disagreeable state to be in. At risk of being pretentious we might call this the root of all pathologies.
A person faced with this state of being separated from oneself will inevitably attempt to improve it. Since social ties are completely undermined, he will almost always seek to change himself by himself... this tends to fail for a lot of reasons, but these are outside my scope. People of this nature have several general shapes: some turn to fitness, some dissolve themselves in work, some pursue material interests, and some attempt to narcotize themselves with media or actual narcotics. There is much overlap in these classes and I suspect my readership has been part of some of them--I certainly have. Each of these dresses itself in the clothes of "love": become fit to find love, love your work, love money/food/etc., love media, love drugs. They also take up the place of the community and religion. Consider drugs: they act as a source of ritual (habit), celebration (the high), and confession (perpetual recovery and relapse).
There is, finally, the psychedelic subject, called the psychonaut for brevity, who takes the strangest path of all. Psychonauts will often tell of remarkable personal improvements and deep knowledge (which they can never seem to relate cogently). Self-improvement pairs well with the supposed mind-expanding benefits of psychedelics. If I am broken (as my self-consciousness posits), then I ought to shed some light on the walls of my mind, to find their shape and note down the cracks and blemishes. But what the self-improver fears most is to look at themselves in a materialist way and work on concrete patterns of thought and behaviour. Instead he wants, so to speak, to work out of the corner of his eye and in the most general way. The fear that he feels is a reminder of the material world, and its exactness.
There is a tension here. To take a psychedelic afraid and apprehensive is to simply become schizophrenic for some definite amount of time. Acknowledging this, psychedelic thought supports letting go of the material, and in fact one of the highest marks of a psychedelic experience is "ego death"--completely letting go of one's conception of self. Fear is the enemy of the psychedelic experience, because it is a grounding emotion. The psychonaut's highest goal is to lose their reference point and become dissolved in the universe, and since he apprehends himself and his world through his fear, this fear must be eliminated.
Note: I could substitute fear for anxiety, anger, cynicality, pessimism... or any emotional state which is directed at material aspects of the world. The vague "happiness" often reported is a directionless self-satisfaction; happiness is an emotion that cannot be apprehended since reflecting on it indicates that it is over.
It is difficult to pin down the beliefs of most psychonauts, since their spiritually is unsystematic and directionless. A common thread is belief in consciousness as a sort of field, with the brain as a tuner. If this is taken as a starting point the psychonaut is unquestionably also a gnostic; he believes in the supremacy of spirit over body, and yearns for direct knowledge of the greater Spirit. Dissolving one's consciousness in the universe is reaching for gnosis. Another key part of psychedelic thought is that there is something to be gleaned from the psychedelic state of mind. This is often presented as "purer" knowledge of "the universe". When psychonauts are willing to present their theories they are inevitably either banal or downright tautological.
"I lay in bed, meditating, allowing the natural joy of the universe, and the spice to flow through me. I reached a point of perfection. A point of perfect harmony, happiness, and well being. I realized that I am actually addicted to feeling bad, addicted to dislike and judgment, and addicted to clinging to the familiar and comfortable. I am unwilling to let these things go because I am so used to them, I don't know what life would be like without dis-ease." One of the psychonaut's goals is permanent stasis, where nothing drives personal change and a serene, delirious joy permeates. Perhaps the murdered, raped, poor, and oppressed should simply meditate?
Since we are trying to stay in the material realm I will give little credence to this knowledge, but explore some ceremonies that are seen commonly on the DMT Nexus. Of specific interest are sensory deprivation, and long stretches of meditation. These procedures have the goal of emptying the immediate contents of one's mind by starving the senses for long periods of time. Again, these techniques are underpinned by the idea that cutting oneself off from the material is a sacred act. After much practice, these techniques are often able to induce visions in the vein of DMT experiences, although they are much less intense.
The yearning that we can discern in these actions (in the way that cooking is "yearning to satisfy my stomach") is a yearning for nothingness. Psychedelics demand a complete devotion to the principle of inaction; the wisest psychonaut moves the least. This is not to say that letting go of certain entrenched beliefs or grudges can't help people, nor that psychedelics have not driven real change in people. However, psychedelics play a trick in that they tie a user's self-improvement to the commodified enlightenment provided by, for example, LSD. It says: your change was driven by this drug, so you can't really change without it. LSD becomes a spiritual/philosophical fix in the way that morphine is a physical fix: it makes problems disappear.
But I digress. We are considering extreme cases of heavy psychedelic users to draw out the core principles of psychonauts. Psychedelic thought and ceremony is often argued for by an appeal to history: x culture has practiced these ayahuasca ceremonies for thousands of years or x religion--usually Buddhism--is based around meditation. There is evidence that ayahuasca has popped up occasionally, with the oldest evidence of it being from 1000 A.D. The next evidence of it is from the 16th century, so its continued use by one or many tribes in the Amazon or Peru or Bolivia is by no means a sure thing. In recent history ayahuasca has been commodified and sold to wealthy upper-middle class people in the form of Peruvian retreats or brewed by curious twenty-somethings. Pure DMT is similarly easy to produce at home. It is widely believed that these brews were used as spiritual tools in the past. The vague and undirected spiritual thought that we have considered is a recent invention.
Psychedelics used in this way are generators of "empty meaning". The experience takes the form of a meaningful spiritual event, but upon reflection it contains no content, or the psychonaut's realizations are completely obvious. For the psychonaut who seeks to improve himself, psychedelics will not lead him "out" of his problems but lead him further into himself. Remember, holding himself at hand means that he believes he needs to be fixed. People do not break like hammers, and the endpoint of self-improvement is to stop treating oneself like an object. Instead, psychedelics urge the psychonaut deeper, to warp and annihilate more and more of himself until something positive happens. This just alienates him further and further from the world and himself.
"And so, I am in the process of losing myself. The "I" is more like a program, and the I is addicted to itself, to its own deeply conditined patterns and reward/punishment systems. I am an addicted individual, as many people are. I cling to my ideas for the sake of "I". Yet there is a peace behind what the individual knows. Lately I have been quite frustrated with what I see going on in the world. But I let myself go, and realized that my opposition to whatever happens only strengthens the whole war."
What the psychonaut eventually concludes is that he is totally fucked up. To bear existing any longer he must completely lose sight of himself. This is what is meant by surrendering to the experience, and not being afraid. The psychonaut foregoes the particular varieties and beautiful experience of life for what there is in general: universe, consciousness, source, eternity, so on. He wants refuge from the chaos that he himself is causing. He wants the delirious peace of a baby's innocent smile. Happiness cannot be used to build a system; it is a makeshift world with no hope of holding. He manages to be happy by some definition, and then wakes up and is suddenly forty.
People who are deeply entrenched in these patterns of thought are unable to give them up. There is no reference point that they acknowledge as real. The only path is to pursue deeper knowledge, to bathe in the universe. This is why I posit that psychedelic thought is the expression of a profound desire for meaning, and the expression of being completely lost. Psychedelic thought is nihilism that looks back upon its path of destruction and cries.
The two sources used for this article are archived below and linked to in the text.
Autistic Mercury: 4Chan, Heidegger, and the Embodiment of Self-Improvement
Dear Nexus; I've Realized I Am an Addict and a Loser