Altered Traits, Not Altered States

This post was inspired by my conversation with Dax DeFranco, co-founder of the Altered Conference in Berlin, Germany. This year’s theme for the conference is: “Altered States, Crisis, and Opportunity.” In thinking about how the three aspects of the conferences’ presentations might come together–altered state experiences, conscious practices, culture and society–I wrote the following piece.

“The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits.”

-Huston Smith

Psychedelics are a powerful catalyst that, when used intentionally within a larger path, can be an accelerator for personal growth. This framework can be religious or secular, psychotherapeutic or shamanistic.

For many people, myself included, when we first come to psychedelics we are not on this path. One great benefit of these substances is that they can provide perspective into habitual patterns of negative behavior or false worldviews. Psychedelics can bring a sort of creative destruction that’s necessary to shake up the status quo in our lives.

Yet life is a balance of dynamism and stability. These forces are constantly cycling through our own bodies, through the larger collective, and through the universe. Sometimes we need to shake things up because they have become stale; inertia and complacency have set in. Yet connecting to those forces that ground us are also absolutely essential and appropriate with time.

Thus for me psychedelics over the long term must be seen not as a path in and of themselves, but as a profound tool–a gift from nature, really–to assist us in self actualization and to enhance our capacity to live in harmony with each other and with the planet.

The greatest value of these entheogens does not lie in their ability to produce altered states of consciousness, but in their remarkable capacity to induce altered traits of behavior.

This is the same road to which contemplative practices and plant medicines/psychedelics can lead us. To me it isn’t either/or, it’s both, and they work synergistically.

We should apply a similar criteria to our meditation and yoga practice. How does your practice translate into your life “off the cushion” or “off the mat?”

What good is your yoga practice if it’s not making you into a more content, happy human being who is–at least, most of the time–more present, kind and compassionate to those around you? If you can do a headstand consistently but can’t regularly be kind and considerate to other people you are not advanced in yoga, or even intermediate: you’re just an asshole who can stand on his head.

When working with contemplative practices we have to occasionally pause and reassess where we’ve made progress and where we’re still stuck in deeply rooted patterns of thought and reactivity. The day to day work of cultivating attention, self awareness and emotional regulation through yoga, Qi Gong, and meditation is crucial.

Yet it is precisely in these areas in which one feels stuck that entheogens can help us to cut through these knots. They can invite us into a direct experience of profound insights–not mere intellectual knowledge, but a deeper level of perception that pierces through the spider web spun by our own ego, the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world does or does not operate. These moments can shatter the illusion that we are separate from each other.

This is the matrix into which entheogens invite us: the discovery that life is an exquisite tapestry in which all of us are deeply interconnected, with all of the beauty, awe, inspiration, frustration, sadness and tragedy that accompany this state of affairs.

We’re still stuck in delusion if we think that we can head home after the ceremony and the work is done. The work has really just begun.

This recent article from Chacruna hit the nail on the head: “Why a Culture of Integration is Critical for the Modern Psychedelic Movement.”

Context is key. When we rip something out of a particular time and place–a plant, a technology–without a deep understanding of the other variables that were essential to the flourishing of that practice or system we not only disrespect those who showed us this wisdom, we miss out on on the chance to realize the full potential of this discovery, at best, and, at worse, we put ourselves at great risk.

This is a seemingly obvious point to anyone coming from a traditional background in which these substances, such as Ayahuasca, sacred cactus, or magic mushrooms, were used as sacraments and as medicine. While the experiences themselves can be magical, they’re not the end game.

This leads to a lot of confusion about people’s expectations and what constitutes a “bad trip,” which Dax brought up in our discussion. Challenging experiences on psychedelics often lead to some of the most worthwhile and enduring insights. If our intentions for working with these substances are rooted in a deeper intention to change for the betterment of ourselves and others we reframe how we interpret these experiences–moments that can be unimaginably trying, yet profoundly transformational.

If we can really tune into the message that the final destination is altered traits, not altered states, the true potential of psychedelics will begin to unfold before us.


Altered Conference



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