Stoicism and Psychedelics
How the ancient Greek philosophy can help people navigate and integrate psychedelic experiences, by Jules Evans
This week, I’m going to look at the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism and the role it can play in helping people to navigate and integrate psychedelic experiences. I will also address a criticism made by Stoic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, that the ancient Stoics were hostile to ecstatic experiences, and it’s inappropriate of me to talk about using Stoic techniques in connection with psychedelics.
Stoicism arose in Athens in 300 BC, about a century after the death of Socrates. Its name comes from the Stoa Poikile, the ‘painted colonnade’ under which Stoic philosophers taught – anyone could go and ask them questions. They offered their philosophy as a therapy and way of life, which promised to heal people of emotional suffering and give them an unshakeable tranquility. Like Socrates, the Stoics taught that all you need to be happy is to develop your inner virtue, then nothing that fortune can throw at you will upset you.
As I wrote in my first book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, Stoicism was a big influence on the two inventors of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. I came across Stoicism and CBT in my early 20s, when I was struggling with PTSD and social anxiety after a bad trip when I was 18. Stoicism and CBT helped me a lot to deal with all the damage of that bad trip – I’ve even said (in this TEDX talk) that Stoicism saved my life. How so?
Firstly, Stoicism taught me how emotions arise and how I can change them. For six years I felt totally at the mercy of my negative thoughts and emotions. Stoicism taught me that emotions are created by beliefs, and I can change my emotions by changing my perspective. As Epictetus put it: ‘it’s not events, but your opinion about events, that cause you suffering’.
In my case, there were two beliefs that were perpetuating the suffering after my bad trip. First, I held the belief ‘I have damaged my brain with drugs, and now the rest of my life is ruined’. According to Nir Tadmor, who runs a psychedelic harm reduction organization called SafeShore, many people who have bad trips are unable to accept them and carry on with life because of this belief (I’ll interview Nir for this newsletter next month). Second, at a deeper level I held the core belief: ‘People must like me, and if they don’t it’s a disaster’. During my bad trip I felt deeply paranoid and socially anxious, and this social anxiety continued for the next six years or so.
Stoicism helped me realize it was my beliefs, rather than my brain chemistry, that was perpetuating my suffering. It taught me to focus on what I can control and accept what I cannot. I could not change the past – I had a bad trip, an adverse event, and now I had the choice to accept it and go on with my life, or not accept it and suffer forever.
Stoicism helps us get some distance from our thoughts, emotions, and the whole telenovela of our life. It teaches us to zoom out and realize that, at the end of the day, our life is just one life, millions have lived and died before us, our planet is just one planet out of trillions in the cosmos. It helped me get a cosmic perspective on my life-drama, and to accept the adversity that had befallen me. It taught me to shrug.
With regard to my social anxiety and paranoia, Stoicism taught me that I can’t control what others think of me or whether they like me or not. But I can control my attitude to myself – I can choose to like myself and support myself even if others don’t like me. Yes, my social status and life-opportunities were affected by having developed PTSD. But my soul, ‘the God within’, was untarnished. Finally, Stoicism gave me daily practices to help me challenge my old negative beliefs and behaviours, and reinforce my new, wiser beliefs and turn them into automatic habits.
Stoicism wasn’t the only thing that helped me recover, however. I also had a near-death experience, which I’ve written about here. The NDE gave me a deep sense that I was OK, I was loved, and that it was my beliefs causing me suffering (the same lesson that Stoicism gave me). It transformed my attitude to my self and the universe at a deep level.
That weird near-death experience is the main reason I’ve always been very interested in ecstatic experiences, their power, and the question of how to balance the rational and the Ecstatic. I realized that Stoicism / CBT can heal you at a rational level, but that mystical or ecstatic experiences can heal you (or harm you) at a deeper level.
That’s why I wrote my second book, The Art of Losing Control, which is about how ecstatic experiences can help or harm you, and their place in contemporary western culture. Researching that book re-sparked my interest in psychedelics – here was the quickest and most reliable way humans have found to get a mystical experience.
After writing that book, I wondered if psychedelic therapy could heal me at a deeper level than Stoicism / CBT had done. Stoicism had made me very self-reliant and independent, but it hadn’t opened my heart to love (the Stoics aren’t big on romantic love, despite the existence of a Stoic dating app).
So, in 2017, I travelled to the Amazon jungle to take part in an ayahuasca retreat. Why, you may ask, would I ever try psychedelics again after such a negative experience 20 years earlier? Perhaps I was desperate – I needed to change my life and find a way to open my heart, and psychedelics felt like a sort of electro-shock therapy.
I anticipated a bumpy ride, and expected the psychedelics to bring up the trauma from 20 years earlier. That’s precisely what happened (as I wrote about in Holiday from the Self). Challenges arose during the retreat and for about two weeks afterwards, when I was in such a dissociated state I sometimes didn’t know if I was in a dream or the afterlife.
Stoicism-CBT helped me both during and after the retreat. During the retreat, I used the Stoic technique of ‘maxims’ – I used short memorable phrases to set my intention before ceremonies, and to remind myself of helpful wisdom while I was tripping. One of the most useful maxims was ‘this too shall pass’ (actually a phrase from the New Testament), which I used when the trip was particularly intense or painful, to remind myself to let go and accept it.
I also reminded myself of the Stoic virtues of courage and firmness – Amazon Shamanism teaches that people need to be firm and strong in their confrontation with the ‘pruebas’ or tests that the medicine will bring them. That’s a very Stoic attitude. Epictetus said: ‘Difficulties show men’s characters. When life is difficult, act as if God the gym-trainer has matched you with a tough sparring partner.’
For the two weeks after the retreat, when I was very dissociated, Stoicism helped me ride the waves and come back down safely. I could have freaked out with the belief ‘I have permanently damaged myself and am never coming back from this’. But I didn’t. Instead, I used the frame: ‘this is a temporary spiritual emergency from which I will emerge OK’. And that’s exactly what happened. Your frame or perspective is so important in any life-experience, including extreme mental states.
Although it was challenging and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, the ayahuasca retreat did what I asked it to do. I think it helped me heal and open my heart at a deeper level than Stoicism-CBT could do. 20 years earlier, I had reacted to that bad LSD trip by closing up – I didn’t tell my friends or family about the experience or the subsequent trauma for years. 20 years later, I was forced to rely on friends and completely open up to them. My friends took care of me, when my heart was incredibly open. I think that was very healing for me. But there are probably safer ways to get this sort of deeper healing.
There’s a lot that Stoicism and CBT leave out in their rational approach to healing and flourishing. They leave out the interpersonal, the relational, the family, the power of ancestry. They leave out the body. They leave out love. This is why I am not a card-carrying Stoic (despite having a Stoic tattoo on my shoulder). I don’t think any philosophy, or any psychotherapy, is perfect. I am eclectic, and see the strengths and limitations of multiple philosophies and healing modalities.
I have been criticized by other modern Stoics for this eclecticism and for suggesting Stoicism can play a useful role in psychedelic culture. Massimo Pigliucci, philosopher and author of How To Be A Stoic, wrote:
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