I had a bumpy start to micro-dosing several years ago. It wasn’t exactly psilocybin mushrooms, but 4-AcO-DMT, a synthetic analog of psilocin, which psilocybin breaks down into inside the body. This molecule is legally in a grey zone, and I ordered it from a Canadian lab in exchange for Litecoin. Months later, a small square stamped envelope arrived in the mail containing a cute postcard, as though from an adorably old-fashioned grandmother, only it also contained a tiny zip-lock bag of fine white powder. This was the pure concentrated molecule, so I diluted it with a food-grade solvent called propylene glycol, but not so precisely that I knew exactly how much of it to take. So I set about figuring out the dosage in a low-tech way: I just kept taking increasing doses until I clearly felt it, then dialed it down. This worked somewhat, but when I ran out and had to mix the next batch, I had to do this process again. It was inconsistent, and I didn’t get it very right. There were days that it made me feel all wobbly, as if my mind were an old chest cracked open, with insects spilling out of it in all directions. (I now realize that those doses were too big.) This was the opposite of the famed calming and concentrating effects that I was looking for. So I stopped.
Months went by, then last year, I did a full shrooms trip with friends. It was interesting, but not groundbreaking. My first psychedelic trips were radically revealing and transformational, but after many more of them, it seemed that I had seen much of what there was for me to see, and this was another such trip of diminishing return.
On the next day, however, I woke to this rare abiding stillness. My mind is usually a restless arena where thoughts and imaginations ceaselessly jostle for an easily-distractible attention. But here I suddenly was, in a quiet spacious hall, resting in equilibrium like water that has found its level. Events and people that normally fling me powerlessly into streaks of imagination, judgment and reaction, were arising and passing away in this space, impersonally and peacefully. I made some mental notes: 1. I might have only a low residual level of the mushroom from yesterday, which is giving me this stillness. 2. This must be what micro-dosing tries to achieve, and I finally see what is possible. 3. This is a much more valuable effect to me than a full trip, and needs much less of the shrooms, so 4. Let’s try again and get this micro-dosing right.
I browsed online for more information, and found an informative blog post about the Stamets stack. As I progressed through the article, learning that it had helped the author with his epileptic seizures, and with his job as a lawyer, and with his balance in jiu-jitsu, and I saw that his pen-name was in Chinese, it began to dawn on me that I may actually know this person in real life. A day or two later, I had him on the phone, answering my list of questions. Surprisingly, he said he hadn’t got much of a calming effect, which was my main goal, but he said he didn’t have a restless mind in the first place. So we conjectured that the mushrooms may influence different minds differently, depending on how the mind is, and what needs to be balanced. (My girlfriend then was a therapist, and I remember she once said of a trip, enigmatically, that the mushrooms had given her exactly what she needed.) The other effect he mentioned was his improved physical balance. I had expected all effects to be solely mental, so this surprised me.
Towards the end of the call, I heard that he was not micro-dosing any longer. I didn’t get a definite reason, but I also didn’t pry. Months later, I would find myself in the same spot, having stopped micro-dosing, but without a clear reason.
I ordered Lion’s Mane and Niacin, powdered up some albino penis envy mushrooms, found an actual 1/4 measuring teaspoon, and began my more careful Micro-dosing Part Two.
A golden age dawned. As I continued a consistent dose, the clarity I had glimpsed returned to pervade my mind. I often feel like the clutter of technology, rapid entertainment and the busyness of life have turned my mind into a crowded and noisy place, and I long for a quiet mind that I half-remember having as a kid, when the world was simpler, and I would immerse myself into one thing at a time. I was now transported back into that mind. Intellectual work, which is my job, sometimes feels to me like building a house of cards in the middle of a tornado, But now the disruptive noise was much quieter, and my intellect was zipping through this space uninterrupted. I saw things more clearly and connected them more quickly. I had become smarter, without actually having to become smarter. I was more creative and less socially anxious. I had an easier time looking in the mirror, and found myself and others more attractive. My therapist girlfriend, who is very perceptive of people, noted that I stood taller and made more eye contact. Temptations seemed easier to overcome. I gave up smoking any cannabis, even the occasional social beer, and coffee. It was simple: the state I was in seemed the best I could be.
There’s this scene in Limitless where the protagonist is in a belligerent encounter in the stairwell with his landlord’s wife, when his recently-consumed nootropic pill hits, and the world fills with light, and he feels, I was blind, but now I see.
Yes, this is how I felt. My world actually seemed to glow brighter with clear light. There was an all-round levitant effect. (I don’t want to use antidepressant, since it suggests that this was remedying a depression. This was a buoyant positive effect, upwards of normal life.) I was just content with life, even the simplest little experiences, like sitting in traffic and looking at the car in front, observing the patterns on my shower-curtain, pressing keyboard buttons in my vision science experiments, thinking, life is good.
And yes, my physical balance indeed improved, and my rock-climbing got better, as noted too by my friends. Now that I was experiencing it from the inside, I had a rough theory of this effect. Mind and body are regulated by the central and peripheral extensions of a single nervous system. So physical jitteriness may be a broader extension of mental restlessness, and conversely, my newfound balance seemed like a natural extension of my mental equilibrium. My entire nervous system had calmed down.
I also noted that many of the effects of micro-dosing are the same as those of my mindfulness meditation. And when I would meditate during the micro-dosing season, it seemed that the two would join hands to double the benefits: in a single breath I would sink deep, and would emerge from my sits with a deep peace, bliss, and vibrance for life. Every time I journal, I mark my well-being score out of 10, and my average is 7 with rare fluctuations. During this season, rare 8’s and an unprecedented 9 appeared on the pages. It seemed like I had cracked the code of life.
When it comes to ways of feeling better, I see a dichotomy. On the one hand are the shallow methods that are easy and deliver quick relief: entertainment, feel-good drugs, distraction, consumption. They work fast, but not deep. They do not address the root cause of the ailment, and wear off soon, and then one needs an increasing dosage to feel the same, which is also known as tolerance, the Hedonic treadmill, or addiction. These methods eat through our natural strength and healing capacities, so that if one stops, there is withdrawal: they are flung back into a worse state than they were before they started. On the other hand are the deep methods such as exercise, meditation, healthy eating, therapy. These methods are harder, make you work, take longer, feel unpleasant, delay gratification and expose darknesses within, but you earn your passage to deeper, truer, lasting benefits. And they don’t create tolerance and withdrawal in the same way: if you stop one of these methods, they still leave you in a better shape than before, not more broken than before you started. (It is true that people can get ‘addicted’ to exercise etc., so maybe these two types of methods are not exclusively separable, but there is still a clear continuum between them.)
When I would be challenged by people about the addictive potential and side-effects etc. of psychedelics, I took pains to break down my view of this dichotomy. I am admittedly not very knowledgeable on big pharma antidepressants, but in my shallow understanding, they do not address root causes, often require increasing doses, and cause withdrawal when stopped (very conveniently for their manufacturers’ financial interests), so I lumped them in with the shallow methods, and viewed them with distrust. Psychedelics, on the other hand, as I argued to my friend on a long evening walk, seem more akin to therapy or meditation, a deep treatment. And so an ‘addiction’ to psychedelics is more like my ‘addiction’ to rock-climbing, and less like an addiction to heroine, and I didn’t believe that they would engender tolerance and withdrawal in quite the same way. I had the religious reverence for psychedelics that you see in many places. They will push away the darkness, and heal and improve everything in your life without side-effects. All their criticism I have heard is illegitimate: the propaganda of paranoid authorities, such as political and religious, and also authority-minded individuals, who are threatened by the disruption of structures of power and control that psychedelics can bring about, and historically have. Don’t fall for it. Psychedelics are wise, authentic, perfect; they know what they’re doing beyond your imagining.
And then, gradually, my micro-dosing stopped working.
First I noticed that the positive effects were not so pronounced any more, and life seemed to quietly return to neutral. I wasn’t sure if this was tolerance, or, as my friend put it, simply gradually forgetting what life used to be like before, and adapting to the new normal as the neutral baseline. (But what is the difference between the two?) What happened next was that the micro-dose days remained neutral, but the two non-dosing days started to feel worse than neutral. Tell-tale sign of tolerance. Maybe it’s not me, but the shrooms have lost their potency, said a voice, but it seemed like a temptation to up the dose and get on the addiction treadmill. And I absolutely did not want to do that. So I stopped micro-dosing.
Immediately after, a long slow wave of depression engulfed me for weeks, maybe months. Was this withdrawal? Is micro-dosing not so much of a deep method then, but more akin to a shallow feel-good drug? I am still not sure to this day. I found a study reporting that other people also stopped micro-dosing because it was no longer effective. But I also contracted a prolonged viral illness at that time that sapped me of energy and well-being, so it could have just been that. Plus, I have always experienced intermittent waves of depression, and one may have arrived just then and defeated the micro-dose. Each of these, I reasoned, would have the same effect that I experienced. After I published the first version of this blog post, I spoke to the guy whose Stamets blog I’d read, and he said that although he stopped micro-dosing, it left him feeling better, not worse. I also sent this post to a fellow blogger who’s been writing for years to a large audience about life experiments, and he said he’s played with micro-dosing too, and not come up against any limitations so far.
Recently I took a micro-dose out of the blue, and as I sat under a tree on campus, watching a brilliant afternoon sun on the grass, I noticed an anxious, fretful mind melt away to an accepting, spacious stillness. I asked myself, there are multiple ways in which my mind is better now than just an hour ago: clarity, focus, awareness, acceptance, vibrance, vigour, joy. But can I identify a single fundamental shift at the core of all these improvements? And it seemed that I could indeed trace them back to one causal source.
You know, there is a dull pain that forever ebbs and flows in the background of existence. It drives people their entire lives to overcome it through all sorts of pursuits, exercises and indulgences. And over the course of the last hour, without my lifting a finger, this existential pain had just magically melted away, for no clear reason. And so consequently, my mind had ceased its neurotic fretting and strategizing over its condition, and returned peacefully to the world it had been pushing away. I hadn’t exercised or become a better meditator, hadn’t unearthed, processed and healed buried trauma, hadn’t practiced accepting life just as it arrives. I had only consumed a cup of tea and waited. It was clear that I didn’t earn it, and didn’t understand it. And so I knew that it could all go away at any point, as mysteriously as it had arrived, and I would be none the wiser. And there’s no way around the truth of this conclusion, regardless of whether my micro-dosing had stopped working due to tolerance, illness, depression or impotent shrooms.
There was an elderly man called Peter with unclear affiliations to the university, who used to book a room in a building to teach evening classes of easy yoga. He had a lazy eye and dressed in loose white clothing, seemed good-natured, and liked to give hurried spiritual advice. I think he saw himself as a bit of a guru. He once straight up told me in about as many words: Don’t eat meat. That animal didn’t want to die. It was preachy, but its sharp directness did have an influence on my decision to became primarily vegan. He also told me, Don’t drink alcohol. I said, okay, what about psychedelics? He said, Hmm, even those, they squeeze something out of you more intensely than is natural. I didn’t quite like it, but those words have stuck with me through the years.
Then years ago, I was in a New York museum, in an offshoot event from a psychedelics conference, where a member of the ‘psychedelic sangha’, a society of Buddhist psychonauts, was guiding us through an exhibit of ancient Buddhist art, while commenting on the intersection of Buddhism and psychedelics use. Carefully considered, he said, the Buddhist bar against intoxication should not apply to psychedelics, and that the two paths, both oriented towards cognitive liberty, were in harmony, not in conflict. I could not feel fully assured by this manifesto; there was some splinter in my brain. I asked him something along the lines of: it seems that personal and spiritual work are necessary to do oneself, the hard way, so aren’t psychedelics a kind of cheating out of it? I think I was trying to ask, is there such a thing as a free lunch in this universe? I don’t remember his exact response, but he did not seem to share my doubt.
I have not decided against micro-dosing. In fact, as I am writing this article, I have decided to start again with a lower dose (1/4 tsp of dried mushrooms every 3 days), with nearly-imperceptible acute effects. But I am no longer as idealistic as I was. I now hear more clearly the deep intuition in me, that arises perhaps from the heart of this world that we inhabit, that there is no free lunch here. In my experience, micro-dosing can lift one out of a condition of relative dullness, depression and misery onto a brighter, clearer platform where it enables and supplants other deeper practices, but by itself it cannot cushion for you a permanent, comfortable path of life. And so it may be yet another in humanity’s long line of technologies that arrived with the promise of utopia, and failed to fully deliver its vision. The cosmic game is not so easily won.
As I envision my future as a researcher of psychedelics, I want to stay careful and neutral as we delineate their benefits and limitations, and in that spirit I wrote this post. Only with a balanced reporting of the negative results can we fully trust the positive results too. The truth, as someone said, never hurt a just cause.
And so this time, even as I may continue micro-dosing, I depend on my other deep methods for surer footing: meditation, exercise, community. The self-awareness, resilience and security that I have cultivated with these will not as easily reverse as the effects of micro-dosing might.
After a few weeks, I stopped the micro-dosing that I began when writing this post. It helped me again to climb a few rungs in my well-being. Then I was doing good enough in life, so I felt it wise to stop, rather than tempt fate again. There was no withdrawal at all, and I have kept feeling good since.