Hi Mary–

Curious because I never really hear you talk about it much. What is your opinion on utilizing psychedelics or taking other forms of mind-altering substances to awaken?…. Have they been a part of your path? Should I use them if I am interested in becoming more conscious? … (I already have but just wondering haha)

  • Matty

How can you tell when a teacher has embodied the path? How can I tell when I have?

  • Student asking questions (permission offered to chat about this)

Hi Matty-

I have utilized many things that would go under the “substance” framework (for simplicity, ingesting something to alter consciousness) that have shifted my consciousness considerably. I do feel as if many of those experiences offered me profound insight into my nature, have increased my shamanic capacities, and have been initiatory in my work as a spiritual healer. They have also allowed for me to understand the experiences of my clients on a much deeper level.

However, we also should keep in mind that we do many things on a daily basis that shift our consciousness considerably. For example, I find that floatation tanks (sensory deprivation tanks) considerably shift consciousness, and for a long period of my life they were crucial to my spiritual development (and general sanity as a sensitive person in a world of noise). I find deliberate usage of breath, meditation, dream work, ritual work, body position/gesture (yoga/mudra) and communing with the Other to also create profound shifts in consciousness. 

If you have ever really listened to a piece of music that truly puts you in that transcendental place, this is a profound shift in consciousness. Art, beauty, music, dancing, nature, being in excellent company, having a good laugh– these are all capable of drastically shifting our consciousness in positive ways, and of expanding our perspective so that we can see ourselves and reality a bit differently.

We of course also have things that obscure our consciousness, or drag it down. We are all familiar with the various ways that we decide to avoid or run away from ourselves. Some of those ways can be spiritual (utilizing spirituality to look away from our lives, called spiritual bypassing)

It is part of the path for every sincere devotee to question where they may be utilizing spirituality to see themselves or reality more clearly, and where they may be utilizing spirituality to avoid themselves or deny reality. 

As someone who has meditated for over twenty years I found that over time my tolerance for many external substances waned, or that I no longer felt the need for that type of catharsis. This happened with workshops and external seeking as well– at one point I was a workshop junkie, going to upwards of ten a year, reading thousands of books, participating in elaborate rituals that took months if not years to prepare for, gaining large amounts of degrees and certifications. 

The thought of that now makes me a bit tired. It sounds a bit pretentious to say that I don’t need those things anymore, as I still regularly check in with friends and colleagues and receive work when need be, but there did eventually get to be a point where even sitting down for meditation or having it be a separate practice, and “doing” all of this sort of spiritual “stuff” began to feel unnecessary. 

There also came a point in my life where I began to question the role of catharsis– of needing loud shocks to the system, something drastic to create large shifts and reorientations to reality. I began to see how workshops, rituals, and even meditation had the capacity to both deeply immerse you in reality, to heal and resolve so much so quickly… as well as had the capacity to overwhelm, to overload, to distort, and to take you away from living in present-day reality.

I eventually realized that I would rather sit quietly with the breeze, in communion with the lake near my house, and to listen to the forces that surrounded me, than to force myself away from this type of being-ness. I became much more focused on my internal nature, and on living my life, assisting others, and in following the flow of my creative inspiration, than on finding more outer things to occupy myself or distract me from the present moment.

It took me a long time to get to this place, and a lot of work, but it is reflective of where I am now with my perspective. Who knows, maybe in a few years I will pick back up my copy of the Greek Magical Papyri, or feel the call to smoke pot or to learn from mushrooms again. 

I now recognize that I am in a space where I simply wish to live my life, and that many of my experiences, including psychedelics, allowed me to get to a place where I can simply live my life. I am very thankful for the experiences that I had that allowed for me to come into this place, including my experiences with psychedelics and other methods of altering my consciousness. 

I suppose my experiences with psychedelics were like an experience with any good teacher. Referring to them as “substances” is actually diminishing their consciousness, their vitality and reason for being. It was a word I used for simplicity of purpose (to define terms and talk about “taking” substances), but really we “take” substances that alter our consciousness every day.

I am sipping on Nettle tea as I am writing this, and the sandwich I am going to eat for lunch will also be a substance that changes my consciousness. So we are really talking about degrees and large experiences (shifts) that result in some type of catharsis, or a large enough cracking through of reality that we emerge believing that we have had a substantial shift in perspective. We are talking about a reality in which we believe that we need cathartic experiences of reality to drastically shift our perspective.

But truly, we have all of these small shifts in consciousness every day that can be as significant as the larger ones, if we are willing to witness them. If we notice what we consume– mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically– and how it affects us, we can truly see how these small choices really make up our lives. The large and cathartic choices certainly can create a substantial shift, like a large wave crashing upon the shore, but it really is a question of why we are looking for that wave, and what purpose it will serve in our lives.

To work with any of these substances on a deeper level is to recognize them as teachers, as guides; as forces that we can intersect with that can show us aspects of our own nature.

Those who work with them with this mentality are going to be much more successful than those who are unable to respect the spiritual nature and massive wisdom that such teachers offer.

This is perhaps different, but in many ways the same, as having a human, physical teacher who can also guide you into the deepest terrains of your soul and allow you to excavate what is creating pain in that place. To be around any good teacher, plant, “substance”, or human, is to see our potential, and to be guided to a place of increased awareness, healing, and clarity. 

Psychedelics and other experiences and substances that drastically alter consciousness have their place. They can allow for someone to gain a top-down experience of reality, to see through the layers of reality. They are not necessary, and are not the path for everyone. There are plenty of ways to alter consciousness, and many of the more gradual paths (gradual work– for example, meditation for a long period of time) tend to result in better integration: more grounded, clear, and embodied individuals.

The ability to have a top-down perspective of reality can allow for a drastic reorganization of reality, an understanding and healing of internal nature to the point where the person emerges a new person. The experience has allowed for them to see outside of the trauma and beliefs that they were so immersed in, like a person wading through mud into clear waters. From that perspective they can realize that who they are and what they believe is due to trauma and unclear thinking and to slough off that mud.

Often we do not realize that we are wading through mud, or that we can change being stuck in that mud, or that who we are is not that mud. It takes a lot of awareness to understand the personal, societal, familial-ancestral, religious-spiritual and other constructs and traumas that have made us who we are. It takes even greater awareness to recognize that we can heal them, or at the very least change our perspective on them.

To have this type of perspective, to know that we are not that mud, no matter if through substances or through random divine inspiration, allows for awakening. It can be a profound way for people to witness themselves, to heal, and to resolve long-standing issues that are difficult to resolve any other way.

Experiences like these can also be difficult to integrate for people. They can result in spiritual emergency (for more on this, see my course Spiritual Awakening for Clinicians). This is a state of overwhelm or being locked into trauma that is too much to integrate, or resolve, after the experience.

In rare cases there can be a triggering of latent psychosis, mania, depression and suicidal tendencies. Although these experiences are rare, it is important to note them, as when we get pulled under by the tides of our emotions too quickly, it is difficult to reach out for support.

In rare cases people can get locked or stuck in a spiritual state that requires a skilled shaman to help find and integrate that part of their soul. There are also issues that can arise because during a period of massive expansion and exploration, the energy field is quite open and vulnerable. Issues most often arise energetically and spiritually because a skilled shaman was not present as part of the ceremony or ritual in the first place. This type of medicine, or experience, is not just a psychological experience. It is also a deeply spiritual one, and requires someone attuned to the spiritual layers of existence to ensure that the experience is safe and helpful physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

What is much more likely to occur is that experiences can result in so much arising, or such a different perspective, that what ends up happening is that the person goes back to their “regular” life and the experience sort of becomes like a great vacation. 

Beautiful to remember, but as the life and work and family come back into focus, the experience becomes a distant memory, rather than something that has changed the consciousness of the individual on a permanent basis.

In this mentality, it is easy to misunderstand the experience; to think that it was a result of the substance, rather than understanding that the substance unlocked your own perspective within. Or at the very least was like a teacher or guide, offering you insight like any experienced mentor would into your own nature.

Experiences can also result in ego-inflation. This happens because the experience didn’t integrate well. We all have likely met these folks, and they will continually be obsessed with the experience, or the substance, and they will be sure to tell you about how wonderful and conscious they are and how great the substance is. 

There can also be considerable ego-distortion. This is also the result of poor integration. This happens because we have our initial experience… and then we have the stories we tell ourselves about that experience. After our initial experience we add on our hopes, fears, what others think, what we want to think, go into chatrooms and online all to ascribe meaning and purpose to our initial experience. This can mean that the actual experience and our memory of the experience (the stories and meaning we ascribe to the experience) can become two totally separate things.

This is part of the reason why I suggest people get a solid teacher or mentor. Part of their role is to help the student cut through ego-distortion and ego-inflation. This allows for them to solidly integrate their experiences, and to do so in a clear and helpful manner.

A good sign of someone who has integrated their spiritual experiences is that they realize no matter who they are, or how conscious they are, that there is still room for growth, expansion, and further awareness.

Spiritual awakening results in connection, in seeing the humanity in one another; lack of integration or ego-inflation results in feeling superior and separate.

We can have spiritual experiences that are quite transcendental, but if there is a blockage towards looking within, and doing the work, it can result in distortion, delusion, or this type of inflation. 

This particularly happens with experiences that are meant to offer us large top-down, or expanded, views of reality. Basically, energetically, what should happen after is a filling in of the middle ground. Our more simply, if you find a “short cut” from A to Q, the rest of the alphabet needs to be filled in to embody the work, to make it a part of you.

Otherwise it remains unintegrated, and the “spiritual self” that has such an experience and perspective and the “ordinary self” that is still struggling with pain and darkness and struggle and fears and inadequacy and trauma remain separate.

Put even more simply, even if you get an elevator ride to the penthouse for a temporary look down at the city, to truly claim this experience (make the penthouse yours), to make it fully a part of you, it is necessary to stop at each floor. To embody each floor. To know each floor.

Otherwise it is like the person is divided: a part of themselves that is locked within this transcendental perspective, this greater awareness, and another part of themselves (or many parts of themselves) that are still struggling with emotions, the existential pain of being a human, ignorance, delusion, etc.

If someone is willing to look within, to look towards the dark shadowy aspects of self, the ignorance and delusion and separateness that remains, those two aspects of self can meet and integrate. But it can be difficult for someone to move away from their transcendental experience and look towards their humanity, their bodies, their Earth/darkness, and their suffering/separateness that still remains unresolved.

In this way catharsis can become addiction, and psychedelics or any other substance can be used to avoid reality, to disassociate from reality, to separate from humanity, rather than to more deeply connect to the self and the world.

I have known many individuals who have made these sort of experiences part of their healing trajectory to great effect, myself included. 

But it is easy to be overwhelmed by such an experience, or to have an experience like this and return to “ordinary” consciousness because to integrate it would mean to deal with what is dark, wounded, and simply not working in our lives. Basically, it would mean the daily work of soul-making: the small decisions and work with unresolved emotions and reactions that are the gradual, necessary work on the path.

I have worked with plenty of people who have had a lot of trauma that arose and needed help to integrate; with people who had experiences where things energetically, spiritually and emotionally went sideways due to inadequate support; and with people who are residing on a cloud of ego-inflation, never able or willing to take that elevator to the rest of the floors to truly do the work of awakening.

To answer my student’s question: the embodied soul is a free soul. It is someone who shifts your perspective simply by being near them. Their embodied awakening, the stillness and being-ness that has been found within them, radiates outwards. To read their words, to hear them speak, to be in their presence, changes something in you. It allows you, in some small way, to find yourself.

So to sum up

Any experience of drastic consciousness change can offer a massive opportunity. By using that opportunity wisely, it can allow for anyone to cut through to a more expanded perspective of reality. Do research, feel safe with who is looking out for you when you are energetically-spiritually and emotionally open and vulnerable during these experiences. Find someone to help you integrate what has come up after. 

Realize that such cutting through allows for someone to see beyond their ordinary reality, but it is by tending to ordinary reality, to the body, to the emotions, that someone can integrate these experiences and have them be a part of their daily, lived reality… to connect more deeply to reality, to themselves, and to the world, which is the stuff that awakening is all about.

Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual teacher and author. Her books include The Spiritual Awakening Guide and Working with Kundalini.

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