Encounters with negative entities
Welcome the demon, expel it, or ignore it?
Why do we focus on challenging trips? We’re trying to map the most common challenges people face during and after psychedelics, so we can provide information, stories, data and helpful advice. This is not the whole story of course. This week, there’s a story in Stat News by Danielle Meinert, who had ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder) her entire life. She wondered if psychedelics could succeed where other treatments had failed. She did her research, including reading our research, and decided it was worth the risk. It cured her – which is wonderful news. In addition, some of the challenges people experience on psychedelics turn out to be ultimately positive, in their estimate. With that in mind, here’s a story about another sort of challenge that can arise.
Chloe was a 37-year-old nihilist and dominatrix with complex PTSD from a difficult chilhood. Her emotional problems got worse during the pandemic, living alone in her apartment in London. She says:
Hitting rock bottom was a good thing. I finally started properly healing myself after a lifetime of trying but failing. And it was with psychedelics. It was just me and myself, no therapist, no coach, no mentor, nothing, just me and a book - Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker - and a bottle of LSD. Starting on June 29th 2020, I started doing a 100-microgram trip every week and applying Pete Walker’s re-parenting technique. When I discovered there was more than one inner child I went down the Internal Family Systems road and decided, right, I’m going to save all my inner children.
The process went well:
You can go back through your memories, relive them with intensity, and stand up for your child self. I felt like my body was reprogramming itself afterwards, it was like being reborn.
Chloe felt lighter, blissful, full of love for herself and others. She also felt her worldview shift from nihilism to a more spiritual frame, as she experienced unusual phenomena like moments of synchronicity, meeting ancestor spirits and regressing to past lives. She came to see the cosmos as guided by a higher force. And she went through what she describes as a shamanic awakening. During one trip, she started involuntarily singing, feeling like her voice was clearing and purifying her spirit. The process went on the next day, and then carried on for weeks and months.
After nine months of tripping and re-parenting once a week, Chloe got the message it was time to slow down and integrate. She did. Six months later, she decided to do another big trip, this time with mushrooms which she had grown herself. She took 100 grams of fresh magic mushrooms - an extraordinarily high dose. It was not a pleasant experience:
I felt something inside of me, in my ass cheek, anchoring me down to the ground and stopping me from spreading my wings. And it felt like a parasite. I realized it was something spread throughout my body, and my voice was trying to get rid of it and eject it. I said ‘Oh my God, you’re a parasite’. That moment, it appeared before me in the room, a sort of purple blog, like a tumour, with all these thin tentacles coming out of it. It was a female demon. At the end of each tentacle was something she used to distract people so she could feed off them – alcohol, partying, porn, Instagram. When I got distracted by the tentacles she would disappear, but I’d keep track of her and not let her get away. I realized she would dangle these things in front of people then lay eggs in them. She laid the eggs through people’s trauma, and then they wound others. It felt like me versus her. And suddenly I was channelling Gaia, and she was screaming ‘get off my planet’. It was like Ripley versus the alien.
The idea of being possessed by a parasite touched on one of Chloe’s deep fears:
That week, I'd been doing gardening and I'd found loads of slugs in the roots of my strawberry plants. And I've been having trouble with growing mushrooms because there was contamination everywhere. Parasites were showing up in my life. They were always my biggest phobia – ticks, leeches, fleas, tapeworms.
It was a ‘horrific’ experience, she says. And in the days and weeks afterwards, she felt ‘absolutely shaken’.
I was singing as hard as a could, trying to unhook her tentacles that were inside of me. Sometimes I could even feel her moving inside of me. The trip felt unresolved. Suddenly I thought ‘oh my God, demons are a thing’.
How to deal with demons
It is quite common to encounter ‘entities’ – what other cultures would call spirits, angels or demons – while on psychedelics. A 2015 survey of 800 psychonauts by Fountonglou and Freimoser found that 46% of ayahuasca-takers reported ‘encounters with suprahuman or spiritual entities’, as well as 36% of DMT-takers, 17% of LSD takers, and 12% of psilocybin-takers. Similar percentages reported ‘experiences of other universes and encounters with their inhabitants.’
This sort of entity-encounter is typically a positive experience, but not always. In a Johns Hopkins survey by Davis et al in 2020, 2561 people said they encountered entities while under the influence of DMT. They usually described these entities as a guide or helper, but 11% described the entity as a ‘demon’, ‘devil’ or ‘monster. For 78% of people, the entities were experienced as ‘benevolent’ or ‘sacred’, but 16% felt they were ‘negatively judgemental’ and 11% felt they were ‘malicious’.
Whether positive or negative, entity encounters can upend a person’s worldview. Most respondents (72%) in the Johns Hopkins survey thought the entity continued to exist after their encounter, and 80% said that the experience altered their fundamental conception of reality. The number of respondents who identified as atheist fell from 28% before the encounter to 10% after.
Encounters with both positive and negative entities are particularly common on ayahuasca. In Bouso et al’s 2022 paper on adverse ayahuasca events, which used data from the 11,000-respondent Global Ayahuasca Survey, 14.9% reported feeling ‘energetically attacked or a harmful connection to the spirit world’ (of course, an energetic attack could be experienced as coming from another human). Such experiences may be particularly common in ayahuasca experiences because of the setting of shamanic culture. One reader tells me: ‘I think shamans plant this idea with you when you arrive [in the Amazon']. Then they can help you and expel your demons and you feel satisfied.’
Negative entity experiences weren’t quite as common in our post-psychedelic extended difficulties survey, but they did crop up. We included demon and hell encounters in one theme, ‘Sense of hell / evil presence / fear of afterlife’ (which occurred in 4% of responses), and experiences of feeling possessed by humans or non-humans in another theme, ‘Possession beliefs’ (which occurred in 2.3% of responses). Here’s one response themed as ‘Sense of hell / evil presence / fear of afterlife’:
I often remark that it took 10 years to get over the bad trip…The trip itself had a demonic aspect, and I subsequently had night terror type events that were vaguely reminiscent. I felt somewhat disintegrated for a long time
Marc Aixala, psychotherapist in the ICEERS support centre and author of Psychedelic Integration, says: ‘these phenomena are becoming the quintessential spiritual emergencies of our time, and they pose a real challenge for clinical practice’.
Experiences of spirit-possession, while normal in Spiritist traditions like Santo Daime, are completely anathema to western medicine, yet they pop up occasionally in western psychedelic literature. Albert Hoffman felt possessed by a demon during his second LSD trip on ‘Bicycle Day’:
A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and down and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa. The substance, with which I had wanted to experiment, had vanquished me. It was the demon that scornfully triumphed over my will.
Another famous example happened to the author Daniel Pinchbeck. He tells me by email:
I had the experience of a kind of entity coming through me many years ago, after taking DPT with a friend – I wrote about it in Breaking Open the Head. I did some exorcism / banishing rituals to free myself from it, as described in the book. I wouldn't say it was entirely ‘negative’. I ended up getting fascinated by Rudolf Steiner's ideas about ‘Luciferic’ beings that make alliances with humans and augment our capabilities, although it is a complicated bargain... This is similar to the Djinns of Islamic lore, or the Daimon that Patrick Harpur writes about in The Daimonic Reality and other works. In the Classical world, men would have altars to their Daimons, which represented the spirit of ‘inspiration’. I also had the experience of a voice speaking through me for a week that identified itself as the Mesoamerican creator deity, Quetzalcoatl. I wrote about this in my book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, now republished as Quetzalcoatl Returns. It was not something I imagined to be possible - a shocking experience. It happened when I was in the Amazon in Brazil, working with the Santo Daime. The experience was difficult but also integrating the experience was very difficult.
The question of how to deal with such entities (positive or negative) is an issue at the blurred boundary between psychotherapy and theology. The most common attitude – taught by veteran Johns Hopkins psychedelic guide Bill Richards, for example – is that if monsters arise during the experience, you should accept and transform them. Bill has said:
‘In and through, in and through’ is the mantra. If an inner dragon, boogeyman, or monster should reveal itself then we go right straight towards it as rapidly as possible and say, ‘Well, hello. Aren’t you big and scary! What can I learn from you?’ And so instead of running away and getting into panic and paranoia and confusion and even perhaps needing to go to a psychiatric emergency room, you look it straight in the eye and say, ‘Boy, you’re an ugly part of me but what are you made of?’And when you go towards it, inevitably there’s insight…I always say what devils hate most is being embraced.
This is of course a Jungian attitude - you should recognize and accept your ‘shadow’ when it arises. It’s also an attitude one finds in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which has been an influential text for psychedelic science ever since Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert made it the basis of their 1964 Psychedelic Experience Manual. In Tibetan Buddhist theology, any monsters, demons or wrathful deities you encounter now or in in the afterlife should be recognized as aspects of consciousness, real at the conditioned level (and perhaps deserving of compassion as suffering sentient beings) but empty-of-self at the ultimate level, and transformable through insight.
Not all cultures or worldviews would agree with this theology of demons. In western occcultism, demons are not aspects of your psyche, they’re real (as much as anything is real) and you better know how to defend against them and dominate them, or they will dominate you. Amazon shamanism likewise teaches the independent reality of negative entities and the necessity of psychic self-defence. Marc Aixala writes:
In a traditional Indigenous context, these situations must be resolved by an experienced shaman who can expel the entities and restore balance. However, the situation is more complex when the affected person is a Westerner who constructs their reality based on Western cultural parameters, and they may or may not partially agree with the animist/ spiritist worldview. This means that treatment by shamanic means is often only partially effective and can sometimes even be quite harmful.
So what is a good response, in Marc’s opinion?
An alternative treatment would typically include elements described in the usual literature designed to help the person settle down. However, the resolution of a possession experience often requires some work under non-ordinary states. In my experience, such cases are best handled in the context of Holotropic Breathwork, where manifestations of demonic possession are not judged, and their expression is supported, whereas in ceremonial contexts these types of experiences can be disruptive…
Among psychedelic researchers there is not yet a consensus about negative entities and cases of ‘demonic possession’. Most ignore the issue, perhaps out of fear of provoking the Christian Right. One exception is Rick Strassman, a veteran psychedelic researcher most famous for his DMT experiments in the 1980s. He stopped those experiments when participants reported negative entity encounters. He has become open to the possibility that negative entities are real and need to be defended against. I saw him speak at Breaking Convention in 2015, where he said:
How can we tell if these beings are for us or against us? When opening yourself to spiritual worlds, it’s not all love and light. It’s important to know how to protect yourself, how to pray.
I asked him to say more on the topic this week, he told me by email:
Bad trips happen and it's usually because of frightening content. Whether or not that content originates in one's own mind or ‘somewhere else’ doesn't really matter. It appears in the mind and that's where one deals with it. The last such episode I had like that, I meditated and accepted the content and it got worse and worse. Then I started praying to God using some simple Hebrew prayers, and the situation resolved. If one believes in angels, then demons also have a place. The location doesn't matter. These beings represent things about which we were previously unaware, or only dimly aware, and then we need to deal with them, or the information they convey.
‘I meditated and accepted the content and it got worse and worse. Then I started praying to God using some simple Hebrew prayers, and the situation resolved. If one believes in angels, then demons also have a place.’ - Rick Strassman
One of the things that makes such experiences particularly challenging today is they are so at odds with our culture. Enlightenment culture defined itself as secular, disenchanted, purged of the demons that haunted the 17th century and before. Entity experiences were simply pathological and psychotic (and in fact, people in psychosis do often report feeling like they’re in a world full of demons). Other cultures, including pre-modern western culture, had maps and guides. Scholars specialized in ‘demonology’ and drew up elaborate classifications of demons like the Biblical baddies: Leviathan, Lucifer, Behemoth, Asphodel, Satan and Mammon. Most cultures have socially-accepted rituals for exorcism - if you get possessed by a demon in Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt or Iran, for example, the cure is a ‘zar ritual’, a multi-day party where you exorcise the demon through dance (and a lot of cigarettes apparently).
Chloe, by contrast, felt totally alone, confronting a demon without a name that no one else saw or was aware of. She went through that solitary struggle for 18 months.
How Chloe recovered
Finding social support was crucial for Chloe. She went to a spiritual awakening group and sharing circle hosted by the Psychedelic Society in London. Once a month, she would share a bit about her struggle with the demon (who she had nicknamed The Mother - which is sure to delight to the Freudians out there!) The group did not judge her or pathologize her. She says: ‘There were a lot of moments when I wondered if I was going mad. Through the spiritual awakening sharing circle I discovered Stanislav Grof 's book on spiritual emergencies, and that helped me.
She was talking to a person from the group on the phone one day, and they said something as a joke: ‘I am the darkness’. She says:
That phrase ‘I am the darkness’ just sat with me. I thought, oh my god, this is it. I am the darkness. The darkness is needed for there to be the light. It's part of the whole. I've been trying to eject this thing from my body. And what I need to do is what I did with all my child parts, which is when I see something I hate about myself, I embrace it and love it. And so I did the re-parenting technique: ‘I see you, and I'm so sorry I rejected you.’ And the demon was weeping.
When she’d first seen the demon, it had a sliver of light in its chest. Now she felt there is light in the darkness and darkness in the light, and the two polarities support each other. She came back, in a way, to a classic Buddhist / Jungian approach to demons, seeing it as an aspect of her wounded self, also ‘real’ at another level, while at a higher level simply an aspect of consciousness. She says:
My biggest lesson through all this has been to TRUST AND SURRENDER. Trust the journey. Trust that you are safe. Trust that everything that is coming up is for your good even if it doesn't feel that way at the time.
A re-enchanted / demon-filled world?
Some people hope that psychedelics will lead to a re-enchanted world where we are reconnected to nature and the animist universe. But that could have a dark side - we could return to what Carl Sagan called ‘the demon-haunted world’ - a culture of curses, spirit possession, exorcisism, the evil eye, prophecies, ‘vibes’ and other superstitions. That would be a worst case scenario for rationalists, for whom the great achievement of modernity and the scientific method is to leave such mumbo-jumbo behind.
But one can take a pragmatic and trans-cultural view. Modern psychiatry expelled demons, but created disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is the modern version of a demonological compendium. In it the gods have become diseases - Phobos, Greek God of fear, has become phobia, Pan has become panic disorder, divine mania has become bipolar disorder.
The modern demonology of the DSM is not so far from the ancient one. When one ‘has’ a disorder (like social anxiety, say, which I had for several years), it can feel like the disorder has you, like you are possessed by a parasite or demon that seeks to dominate your attention, energy and life choices. When I used CBT to recover from social anxiety, we were taught to say: ‘I choose not to give my Automatic Negative Thoughts any power over me’. It was practical occultism, psychic self-defence against what I’ve called ‘the octopus of anxiety’.
It’s interesting that Danielle Meinert, the lady I menfioned earlier who cured herself of ARFID with psychedelics, saw the illness as a purple monster during the trip. She asked it to leave, and it did.
The secular idea of a ‘mental disorder’ and the animist idea of a ‘demon’ can work together. Carolina Pilara was a facilitator at the Temple of the Way of Light in Peru, a leading centre for ayahausca tourism. Back in 2018 she told me how she would help translate concepts from shamanic to secular culture for the clients:
We have facilitators to reframe things. This is why it's not necessarily practical or valuable to have extensive conversations with a maestro [an Amazon shaman] without a facilitator present. They might say 'hey Jules you have this demon that is haunting you', which might frighten you. The translation might be 'you're very sad and need to work with that'. I think both of these descriptions can be true. But what is more important is to focus on healing, and moving forward.
There’s a limit to what we can know is genuinely and truly ‘out there’. Is a virtue connected to an angelic being, or a vice connected to a demon? Who knows. I am open to the possibility that malevolent non-human intelligences exist, but I choose not to focus on it. The place we experience everything is in our own mind and body, and that’s where we need to do the work.
Chloe’s journey didn’t stop there, by the way. She is now training to be a Buddhist nun.
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