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What Can We Learn From Bad Trips?

Before my first ayahuasca ceremony, a close friend who had worked deeply with the medicine told me, “If things get dark, remember it’s impermanent, and everything will be okay.” I remember thinking: Psychedelics don’t get dark for me. I’ve never had a bad trip, and that’s not going to change.

After drinking the brew, I lay back on my mattress in our remote cabin and drifted through a soothing state of mind, mildly elevated, yet close to waking consciousness. Of course people would blow ayahuasca out of proportion, I thought. This is gentle as can be.

I approached the Colombian Elder for the second drink, inviting a deeper experience. Shortly after I returned to the mattress, vivid images formed in my mind – colorful, three-dimensional tentacles unraveling. I followed them, hypnotized, into what seemed another dimension, until the sound of pounding footsteps startled me into awareness.

A woman in our group sprinted outside, holding her head and screaming in pain. Her cries echoed in the distance, soon joined by the howling of coyotes in the woods. I shot up in alarm and looked around the cabin – or, what had once been the cabin. Now, it was the bowels of an organism, and I was meaningless matter being digested.

Darkness surged, terror followed, and dozens of strangers surrounding suddenly vomited into plastic bags as if spewing the gurgling depths of their decaying souls.

There was no way out, and it had only just begun.

What is a Bad Trip?

I began with this anecdote not merely to highlight my first experience of a “bad trip,” but because when people ask me about my most powerful psychedelic experience, this ayahuasca journey springs to mind.

Why do I choose this painful journey as my most impactful, given my many blissful experiences on other substances? Perhaps it’s because in these blissful experiences, I’ve maintained some sense of control, some sense of identity, some ability to return to “normal” consciousness at will. In that ayahuasca state, I had none of those. I was helpless, experiencing reality in a way I could never have conceived, a reality where I was not me at all.

So is a bad trip simply an experience where we are totally out of control, or where we lose our sense of self?

The truth is that we’re still in the early stages of understanding what a bad trip really is. Indigenous shamans may believe that bad trips are spiritual emergencies, requiring a purge of negative energies. Western clinicians may think that bad trips are the result of being in a non ideal mindset, or connected with underlying trauma. But ultimately, the only person who can categorize a trip as “bad” is the person who has endured it.

Bad trips are as diverse as you can imagine. A bad trip can feel like the world is ending – or like you’re dying. It can feel like everything you think you know is wrong, or that you are responsible for all the suffering in the world. Bad trips can last minutes, or they can last days. They can be immediately traumatizing, or produce trauma that only surfaces years later.

Just like any psychological trauma, a bad trip can take some time to recover from. They are capable of causing PTSD, and some people require long-term psychological help after particularly intense experiences.

But some bad trips can trigger powerful healing, or transformation. So what happens when a traumatic experience produces healing? Can we still call it a bad trip?

Is a Bad Trip Always a Bad Thing?

Ever since the ‘60s, “bad trips” have been used as a warning against psychedelics, associated with panic, breakdowns, and psychosis. Many avoid psychedelics entirely due to their fear of such an experience. Although both conventional wisdom and decades of research suggest that the risk of bad trips can be mitigated by controlling the “set and setting,” this isn’t always the case. Even though I had a well-controlled setting – a comfortable cabin and experienced facilitators – my ayahuasca experience induced ineffable terror.

Stanislav Grof, psychedelic therapist and co-founder of Transpersonal Psychology, described psychedelics as “non-specific amplifiers.” Even with optimal sets and settings, we can’t predict what internal realities psychedelics may amplify, especially at high doses. Every imbibing is an act of courage – a decision to face your depths, however they may manifest.

But the term “bad trip” is problematic. On one hand, a “good/bad” dualism is a simplistic model that values pleasure over pain – and psychedelic journeys tend to obliterate dualisms anyway. On the other, these “bad” trips could actually have more transformative potential than the “good” ones. In fact, some people seek them out. Siobhan Warwicker, writing for VICE, called such folks “horror trippers.” These people find meaning in the terrifying experience, for this terror forces them to confront the darkness within.

Deliberately inducing bad trips for healing or transformation is not a new concept. In fact, it may be almost as old as human civilization…

Rituals of Trauma: Bad Trips Then and Now

In his 1705 book The History and Present State of Virginia, historian Robert Beverley Jr. detailed a Powhatan tribe ritual created to transform boys into men of leadership. It was called “the huskanaw.” After two days of dancing and feasting that culminated in a metaphorical, ritualistic “death” of selected boys, the chiefs brought the boys into remote parts of the woods. The boys remained there up to nine months, receiving little sustenance apart from “wysoccan,” a brew that incited vivid and horrifying hallucinations, dysphoria, and violent spasms. When the spasms became uncontrollable, the boys were locked in cages.

Wysoccan is believed to be jimsonweed, better known as Datura. Nicknamed “Devil’s Snare,” Datura is regarded as one of the more horrifying psychedelics in existence. According to user “Robigus” on Erowid, Datura “will laugh as it blends the terrors of your imagination with your everyday life.” Quoth Robigus: “Do not take it unless you are willing to risk leaving this place forever.”

The Powhatan administered wysoccan to literally wipe out boys’ memories of childhood. If they returned to the village and so much as recognized a childhood friend, they were sent back to undergo the huskanaw again. Boys often died on the second huskanaw, if not the first.

Awful as Datura may sound, it appeals to some. A fellow called “Wyrd” described his experience as a visionary journey involving a cloaked woman, a talking dog, and an old farmer. Wyrd’s dissociative experience converged around hundreds of insects crawling over his body toward his mouth, ears, and nostrils, causing him to panic and start choking – until the cloaked woman told him not to fight, and surrender to his death. When Wyrd did, the insect choking him transformed into a ladybug and drifted away. For Wyrd, this experience marked “a gateway from the world I was reared in, and the world I now walk in.”

Entering a state that consistently induces dissociation, amnesia, sickness, and psychosis exemplifies an extreme level of horror-tripping. Still, the approach converges on the common motif of value derived not only from age-old rites of passage but bad trips in general, the motif Wyrd used to title his account: “A Rebirth.”

Ketamine Mummification and LSD Terror

These rituals of rebirth are being replicated in some modern Western psychedelic settings.

Julian Vayne, in his book Getting Higher, describes the “Temple K Initiation Rite.” The practice involves individuals voluntarily mummifying their bodies in black cling film, snorting ketamine, and then wrapping their faces, leaving only a hole for breathing. The mummified individual enters the dark depths of a “K-hole,” a dissociated emptiness void of sight and sound. When bodily control returns, they find their body is constricted. But when the guide then cuts the cling wrap, the individual emerges as if born again.

Perhaps this emergence-from-darkness has therapeutic effect. In 1976, professor Walter H. Clark traveled to Mexico to undergo a treatment from Dr. Salvador Roquet, whose therapeutic approach blended Western psychoanalysis with Mexican Indian shamanism. In his ensuing article,“‘Bad Trips’ may be the BEST TRIPS,” Clark described a Clockwork Orange-style situation in which patients were administered a psychedelic – 250 micrograms of LSD for Clark – and exposed to “scenes of violence, death and crude pornography, apparently designed to shock and disturb the sensibilities.” What followed was a disorienting experience of sensory overload Clark described as “a descent into hell.” One man, who’d been injected with ketamine, collapsed to the ground, writhing and vomiting in anguish. Though terrified, Clark noticed that the staffers treated this man with remarkable compassion:

“I realized that the whole ordeal had been manufactured for the patients’ benefit,” he wrote, “and that what had seemed like hell had really been a heaven.” 

Clark recognized, “Dr. Roquet deliberately sets up a bad trip to bring the patient’s worst fears and problems to the surface,” the intention being “to overwhelm the carefully built defenses that often make the patient’s neurosis or psychosis invulnerable to a physician.” Two years after his experience, Clark reflected, “My zest for life has been more positive than ever before.”

Bad Trips are Not Always Healing

It’s important to concede that while bad trips can provide breakthroughs, they can also traumatize people for a long time. Although Dr. Roquet was attempting to utilize terror to heal neurosis, we don’t know how many of his patients suffered from long-term trauma.

One survey of over 2000 people who had suffered a “challenging experience” with magic mushrooms found that around 150 of them felt they had suffered long-term psychological damage from the trip. And these people weren’t exposed to terrifying images in a research lab, like Dr. Roquet’s subjects.

Others have exploited the heightened vulnerability of the psychedelic state to their advantage. The classic example is Charles Manson. It’s widely reported – and confirmed by former members of his “family” – that Manson used LSD to brainwash his devotees to execute horrific murders. When reality dissolves, the mind becomes suggestible, especially when it’s predisposed toward a pseudo-savior – or, in the case of MK-Ultra, employees of the CIA.

MK-Ultra is the codename for the CIA’s two-decades-long covert project to harness drugs, especially LSD, for mind control and psychological torture. While some people participated by choice – including novelist Ken Kesey, who proceeded to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, paint a school bus, and spread LSD far and wide – many were forced to endure tremendous psychological trauma. The CIA primarily recruited the broken and marginalized, including mental patients and prisoners. One prisoner, Whitey Bulger, was injected with LSD every day for more than a year. Upon injection, he and other inmates were forced to remain in locked basement rooms for 24 hours while receiving an onslaught of interrogation designed to “break” the mind. Writing about his experience, Bulger described two men who “had to be pried loose from under their beds, growling, barking and frothing at the mouth.”

“I was in prison for committing a crime,” Bulger wrote, “but they committed a greater crime on me.”

These days, who knows what Mansons or Federal operations are traumatizing vulnerable people. We do know, however, that as plant medicine grows in popularity, people unequipped to facilitate rituals are causing great harm.

For instance, Octavio Rettig, a self-declared “shaman” despite belonging to no legitimate linage, has gained notoriety and power for administering 5-MeO-DMT, considered by many the most powerful psychedelic in existence. He believes that inducing a bad trip on purpose is important for healing – but his behaviors have led to at least one death. A recent Open Letter from concerned members of the entheogenic community contains numerous accusations that Rettig regularly subjects participants to psychological and physical abuse. He’s known to pour water down the throats of incapacitated trippers, kick people’s convulsing bodies, and even use tasers on helpless victims. Nonetheless, Rettig defends his behaviors and appears entirely convinced of his philosophy.

So, not all bad trips are good trips in disguise. One should never subject another to a bad trip, unless that is the consented desire, and they are provided adequate expertise and support. Whether it’s a ritual or a therapy, any psychedelic ceremony should attempt to minimize harm unless there is very good reason to venture into traumatic territory.

Healing and Insight From Bad Trips Through the Jungian Shadow

When we do decide to purposefully explore trauma with psychedelics, the aim is often to come out the other side having reached some healing revelation.

Stan Grof, speaking with Tim Ferriss in 2018, said, “Someone on a bad trip, is dealing with a difficult aspect of their unconscious,” adding, “When it’s coming up, it’s coming up for healing.” Given Grof’s facilitation of over 4,000 LSD therapy sessions, many involving seismic doses (up to 1,500 micrograms, as reported in LSD Psychotherapy), he knows what he’s talking about.

Likewise, the treatment manual for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, as written by MAPS for their FDA clinical trials, states: “…any fear, memories, etc. that keep coming up are doing so to be healed, to be more fully understood, and the participant’s psyche/inner healer knows when the best time is for this to occur.”

Bad trips, in this framework, emerge from the unconscious to incite healing. A helpful model comes from Carl G. Jung, who posited an unconscious region called “the shadow.” The shadow is our “darker” nature, our Mr. Hyde, whose reality we’re cultured, if not hardwired, to avoid. Yet we must face the shadow if we seek healing or rebirth, for as Jung wrote, “Enlightenment does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

And Jung would know, given the fact that after he split with his mentor Sigmund Freud in 1913, he underwent a multi-year “confrontation with the unconscious” that involved paranoia, hallucinations, nightmares, and flirtation with insanity – though many believe that flirtation became a full-fledged symbiosis. Jung may not have imbibed a psychedelic, but he evidently underwent one of the longest-lasting bad trips in history, which he documented via visionary paintings and calligraphic text in The Red Book, published posthumously. Though Jung admitted this experience “threatened to break me,” so he shared that it yielded the remainder of his life’s work, including his influential theories of archetypes, synchronicity, and the collective unconscious. In an interview toward the end of his life, Jung called this period “the most important time of my life.”

Integrating the Shadow in Bad Trips

In a society that so prizes pleasure over pain, we are conditioned to regard difficult experiences as “bad” and avoid them at all costs. This encourages an energy-sucking struggle to shut out challenging material, such as traumatic memories and painful emotions. As we confront the shadow, we redirect this energy, opening the doorway to cognitive potential – a process Jung likened to alchemical transmutation, from “base metal” to “gold.” When we integrate shadow content instead of fleeing, we take crucial steps toward manifesting the Self, our true nature, in the here and now.

Though we often flee the shadow, we see the necessity of its confrontation reflected in countless stories. Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter must face and integrate their internal connections to Vader and Voldemort in order to manifest their heroic nature. Frodo Baggins must endure the sadistic call of Sauron to destroy the Ring of Power. Dante must descend through nine rings of Inferno, for only in descending the underworld can he ascend into Paradiso.

Intellectually stimulating though this stuff may be, it’s a much different story when you’re actually experiencing it. Despite a prevalence of “white light” near-death experiences recounted, death still terrifies the bejesus out of us. The “ego death” psychedelics can incite often garners similar response, for this experience can feel like death itself.

Ego Death in Bad Trips and Vajrayana Buddhism

In Vajrayana Buddhism, life is preparation for death. The Bardo Thödol, better known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, instructs practitioners on the dying process. In death, consciousness travels through three bardos – intermediate, transitional states – on its journey toward rebirth. The third, called the “sidpa bardo,” is filled with imagery and hallucinations of unresolved conflicts and fears emerging from the individual’s karma – the shadow, perhaps, manifested as reality. Meditation and dream yoga – the Vajrayana practice of dream travel – prepare one to navigate the bardos, for only in its navigation can consciousness experience liberation.

From this perspective, bad trips, especially those involving ego death, could provide training in navigating the terror of the dying process. Such was the thesis of Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, who modeled their 1964 book, The Psychedelic Experience, on the Bardo Thödol. The authors described ego death as:

“…one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn. Symbolically he must die to his past, and to his old ego, before he can take his place in the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.”

There is a clear crossover between the authors’ description and rituals like the huskanaw and Temple K Initiation Rite. Ego death may be painful, and terrifying, but if we experience it in a supportive setting, it can become transformative when we allow ourselves to surrender.

Emerging into Dualisms United

Back to my personal bad trip story: As the overwhelming, other-dimensional visions of ayahuasca threatened to break me, I found the strength and willpower to stand. On impulse I looked toward the Colombian guides sitting at the front of the cabin. One leader looked up, sprang to his feet, and guided me to kneel before a large bucket for purging. I fought my sickness, clenching in confusion, and he whispered a single word: “Surrender.”

His dark eyes reflected radiant light. I gripped his shoulder, leaned over the bucket, and allowed my body to release what it needed to release, including all the shame of purging that made my helplessness seem so terrifying. Painful as purging felt, it spread relief through my body.

He guided me back to my mat, where he performed a cleansing ritual, bowed, and departed. Alone again, I faced the frightening images that still churned in the shadow of my mind. As I surrendered to them, they lessened their hold.

I’d built my ego to filter out the “bad.” When the “bad” reared mightily, my ego was helpless, and ultimately destroyed. In its absence, consciousness continued, and the guides’ soft strumming of nylon-stringed guitars carried me into the most powerful sense of peace I had ever known – a peace sprung from gratitude for all that is, the light and the dark, within and without, coexisting in a vision of wholeness that has since informed my waking life as I travel toward death and beyond.

About the author, Sean Lawlor

Sean Lawlor writes about psychedelics, consciousness, and drug policy, with occasional detours into surreal fiction. He lives in Boulder, where he's training to become a therapist at Naropa University. Through all endeavors, he harbors an insatiable desire to take up the Gonzo torch from the great Hunter S. Thompson. Instagram: @seanplawlor

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1 Comment

  1. Frederic C. on 01/09/2020 at 4:23 AM

    Beautiful write up, thank you!

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