A theology of 'meh' experiences
Psychedelic culture and medicine needs to move beyond a fixation on the bells-and-whistles 'classic mystical experience'
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Benjamin enrolled in a psilocybin study at an American university. He was looking for spiritual refreshment after a period of dryness and a felt distance from his God.
He was given two doses of psilocybin. His first dose, which was his first proper psychedelic experience, was a sumptuous, gorgeous experience, filled with awe, gratitude and other positive emotions. Because of that, he expected his second, bigger dose to be ‘even more awesome and transcendent’. He tells me:
Instead, I essentially found myself in seven hours of ‘cosmic boredom’. No light, no colour, no emotion, nothing. I didn’t have language for all of the nothing that I experienced. The subjective experience was waiting for something to happen. I even told the guide a few times ‘Can I be done? There’s nothing happening here’. He advised me to go in and stay there, something will change, and it really didn’t. The only thing that happened was I became really concerned about a gas bill I hadn’t paid.
I was primed for the fireworks. It was disappointing for me and for the trial team - it was very evident, when I reported what was happening, everyone in the room was down. I was expecting a reified ‘mystical experience’ but I was scoring zeros and ones on their scale. So it felt like a meaningless experience.
Psychedelic literature has a bias towards extremes. People are more likely to talk and write about their absolute best experience, or their absolute worst. But what proportion of psychedelic experiences are less mystical and more…meh?
I suspect there is a great ‘silent majority’ of psychedelic experiences in the middle, between heaven and hell. Not very good, not very bad, not life-altering, just…meh.
I asked Reddit’s Psychonaut page – have you ever had meh psychedelic experiences? Yes, the veteran psychonauts told me, lots:
It might have something to do with how psychedelic experiences are expressed. At least on Reddit, most of the stories I see about LSD or mushrooms are someone having a life-changing experience. All these stories built up a certain expectation, so when I finally took mushrooms I was really underwhelmed by the whole experience. I did them 3 times and each time I had mild visuals with an interesting headspace. Not to say I didn't enjoy the trips, but I was really expecting something more impacting. After a trip I'll wake up the next day and feel like the same person I always was.
Others said their first experience, like Benjamin’s, was huge, but everything since then has been progressively meh:
I may be an outlier here but after having a massive life changing experience on half a tab 2 years ago, I've never had an experience be anywhere near as good and "meh" definitely describes my last few attempts. I assume it's because I am failing to live up to the expectations these substances create for me
Several responders spoke of the error of having too firm expectations of what your trip should be like. ‘If you take psychs with the intention of having a life changing experience, I’ve found it won’t occur. It’s when you aren’t ready for that experience that it hits and it HITS HARD’.
‘I was waiting for a moment…but the moment never came’ - Flaming Lips, Ego-Tripping at the Gates of Hell
We’re often told we should ‘set an intention’ for our psychedelic experience, but there’s a fine line between intention and expectation or even demand. Lana Pribic, host of the Modern Psychedelics podcast, says that western culture comes to psychedelics with a control mind-set, when the whole point of psychedelics is to let go of control, including control of outcomes:
The very nature of psychedelic journeys is journeying into the unknown. We need to have a level of comfort with this unknown and that requires us to release expectations.
There’s something very human about ‘meh experiences’. It’s not confined to psychedelics - in life in general, we can have a huge build-up to some hugely-anticipated moment - the first night with a longed-for lover, say, or a trip to a festival, or a pilgrimage to some sacred spot, and when it finally comes, it is just…meh. I asked Twitter if they’d ever had ‘meh moments’ and received some funny replied, like this from Stew Harrison:
Niagara Falls. I think TV has spolied a lot of would-be great experiences. No terrifying closeups or drone shots going over the falls, no staged near-misses… Stood there for five minutes and thought, ‘that’s a lot of water - shall we get a coffee?’
Or this White Lotus-esque meh experience from Merry Colella:
I traveled to Sicily, rented a car, and went all the way back to the little town my great grandfather came from. The few people around on the Main Street area stared at me, not much to see or do, and a stray dog started following me around till I got back in my car and left. Not sure what exactly I was hoping for (I think I wanted to have some kind of internal feeling) but I got nothing lol.
I feel there should be more ‘meh moments’ in western literature. Not raptures and epiphanies but anti-climaxes. Not Death in Venice, but Meh in Venice. Crime and Meh. Apocalypse Meh. Jorge Luis Borges understood the beauty and humanity of such moments. He wrote: ‘this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.'
In ordinary life, meh experiences are disappointing but often quite funny. In psychedelic therapy, they can be devastating.
Our project has received some emails and survey entries from people who say the most difficult aspect of their psychedelic experience was that nothing much happened, and they had such high hopes and expectations of salvation.
Here’s one entry to our ‘extended post-psychedelic difficulties’ survey:
I think one of the most difficult aspects was the absence of significant change. During the trip, I felt edgy and a little bit rudderless, but afterwards, I felt like the changes were insignificant and disappointing. I am thinking that the dose was not sufficient, so will be trying again with a higher dose.
After the paywall, more examples of ‘challengingly meh experiences’, and a consideration of a broader theology that encompasses not just the peaks but also the meh.