The discernment of psychedelic prophecies
Psychedelics sometimes lead to predictions. How can we know if they’re reliable or not?
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One evening a few years ago, Jonathan smoked DMT and encountered an entity. The entity told him he was going to die when he was 46. He told our survey:
I am currently 46 years old and will (hopefully) turn 47 next February. This has given me lasting difficulties up until the present moment and will continue to do so until I reach 47. This may well have been myself telling myself this as I seem to recall adding (and I don't know if this was me or not) 'If you don't change your lifestyle'….To this day I cannot work out if it was a naughty trickster entity, a conscious thought of my own or an actual truth being told to me by a knowledgeable entity from another dimension. It has scared me enough to stop smoking and start exercising and in fact today I completed the UK NHS app 'Couch to 5k'.
Some might think the impact of this DMT prophecy has been positive, in that Jonathan has improved his lifestyle as a result. But he says it’s been very difficult.
I have often thought that I could have a heart attack at any moment or a fatal car crash. These intrusive thoughts are probably common among anxious people but have been exaggerated by my experience to the point of me actually telling my GP about my trip…I feel like I'm in a no-win situation because of the ‘change your lifestyle’ caveat…If I die before my next birthday DMT was right and if (because of my lifestyle changes) I don’t die, then DMT was right again…Spiritually it's done me because I sort of believe in entities that can be malevolent tricksters which spoils things, but if I make it to 47 I cannot view this entity as anything but benevolent because they may well have saved my life. Or is it all in my head? I don’t know. It's played on my mind a lot.
One of the most common uses for psychoactive substances in non-western cultures has been divination and prophecy. According to ayahuasca anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios, ‘the single most important function of plant hallucinogens in the Amazon area is to divine the future’. Mediumship and prophecy also play a central role in the Santo Daime ayahuasca church. Yet hardly any attention has been paid to this topic in the psychedelic renaissance, at least, not in academic research or in psychedelic journalism.
There is, however, some data, suggesting about a fifth of people experience precognition, and 36% clairvoyance, while on psychedelic drugs. Many more receive messages from psychedelic experiences telling them what to do with their lives – get married, move to another country, invest in crypto, become a shaman. Some of these predictions and commands turn out surprisingly well, others prove catastrophic and are examples of ‘epistemic harm’ – our way of knowing is negatively affected in a way that harms our or others’ lives.
We’re going to examine some of the evidence, listen to some of the anecdotes, try to answer why ecstatic experiences often lead to prophecies, and think how we can practice discernment regarding future predictions.
The only researcher to look into psychedelics and future predictions, as far as I know, is David Luke of Greenwich University, who is a colleague on the Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project. He tells me:
the common definition of shamanism is ‘going into an altered state of consciousness at will, possibly with psychedelics, to transcend time and space and bring back useful information’. The idea of divination of the future is embedded there in that generic definition. There are many instances of this, from the first reports of explorers and and colonialists going to the Americas and encountering psychedelic-using indigenous people. And then of course there are many examples of westerners taking psychedelics and spontaneously having precognitive experiences.
Dave gathered some of the historical research on psychedelics and paranormal phenomena from the 1960s, and in 2005 did his own survey of paranormal experiences among psychonauts. He found 36% reported clairvoyant experiences while on psychedelics (sensing something was happening elsewhere) and 21% reported precognition experiences while on psychedelics. He says: ‘They have a visionary experience and then they find out afterwards, ‘oh, right, that was actually veridical’.’
Of course, one remembers the visions that ‘come true’ while forgetting all the visions that don’t. That being said, you do hear interesting stories in psychedelic-land, like this one from psychedelic journalist Patrick McConnell. He tells me:
I came to Peru for the first time five years ago, and drank ayahuasca in the Sacred Valley. In the first ceremony, I saw myself living in the mountains with my wife in a beautiful adobe house. At the time I had just met my girlfriend, and I was living in Canada. My girlfriend loved the tropics and would never live in the Andes where it’s cold all the time. So I set the vision aside. We got married, and during COVID we moved to different places – we lived in Guatemala, then in Nicaragua. And during that time, my wife had a dream. She was in a bus in the Andes, and it was a dangerous road, so she got off the bus and saw a beautiful waterfall. She woke up the next day, looked at Instagram, and there was a story about a man who was on a bus in the Peruvian Andes, and had to get off because it was too dangerous. And there he was standing by the same beautiful waterfall from my wife’s dream. So she said to me ‘we have to go to the Andes!’ We went there, and she hated it. It was too cold. But then she did an ayahuasca ceremony, and she felt incredibly hot. And since then, she’s adapted to the weather! Anyway, to cut a long story short, after a year or so, we found a beautiful adobe house in the mountains. And that’s where I am now.
There are also reports of strange clairvoyant entanglements happening during psychedelic experiences. One instance happened to me six years ago. As I recounted in Holiday from the Self, I went on a 10-day ayahuasca retreat and got into psychological difficulties afterwards, experiencing several days of intense derealization. During those days, Dr Oliver Robinson had a dream in which I was experiencing a psychological melt-down – he noted it in his dream diary. Another friend, not one I get to see often, had a sudden intuition that I was in some sort of crisis, and contacted me to see if I was OK. Dr Robinson now works with me on the Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project, by the by.
People can receive frightening precognitive or clairvoyant messages on trips, such as that they or a loved one are going to die. Thankfully they’re not usually accurate, but sometimes they are, as in this example from a survey respondent:
At a seven-day retreat, I saw my brother die in four horribly different ways during my second ceremony. During my third ceremony I cried as I said goodbye to him (and others). I journaled about my brother. I almost wanted to leave the retreat to make sure he was ok. One of the first things I asked my husband when I text messaged him was, “is my brother ok?” He was ok. I talked to my brother after the retreat while I was in Peru. I flew home on a Monday night, my brother died the following Wednesday. I felt I was able to be a better support to my family since I already mourned my brother’s death in ceremony but that’s not true.
More common, in my limited research, are psychedelic messages that someone is in danger or dead, which turn out not to be true. I recently interviewed Jon, a young man in his 20s, who took a high dose of magic mushrooms and arrived at the insight ‘you should get back together with your girlfriend’. He did, and almost immediately felt it wasn’t the right decision. He spoke with a friend about this and expressed his intention to break up again. He then took magic mushrooms again a week or so later, and had a very difficult trip, during which he got the strong sense that his mother had died. And, in his own words:
What was so visceral about the trip was this sense that I hadn't stuck to the rules somehow, I hadn't done what I'd said that I was going to do in the previous trip [get back together with his girlfriend], so my mum had died, and it was all my fault.
He was tripping on his own, and spiralled into a terror that he’d caused his mother’s death. He couldn’t reach her on the phone, so called his brother with the news their mother had died – his brother was obviously deeply alarmed by this. Eventually they located their mother, and Jon calmed down and came down from the trip. He’s OK now. But the experience was very unsettling to his idea of himself as a mentally-stable person, and to his faith in magic mushrooms as a reliable source of information.
Seeking life-guidance from psychedelic drugs
While it may be less common among westerners to use psychedelics for divination purposes, many people do take them to receive life guidance, especially when they feel like they’re at a fork in the road. And sometimes, that guidance (or how they interpret it) turns out to be dubious.
After the pay-wall, why are we so prone to prophecy during ecstatic experiences, and how can we learn discrimination. All subscribers get a free copy of the introduction to Breaking Open, and access to our video library, with interviews and Psychedelic Safety Seminars. We have an unrivalled archive of articles on psychedelic harms and how people cope with them.
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