Most people are aware that taking psychedelics can lead to profound and enlightening experiences. Less known is that a type of visceral self-knowledge that can also be achieved by playing on our basic senses. Our senses – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell – are very closely linked to our ability to reach a psychedelic state. By learning how to harness light, sound, and certain physical sensations, you can induce a psychedelic trip without the use of any substances. Let’s dive deeper into the phenomenon of getting high without drugs.
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Defining a psychedelic trip
Simply put, a “trip” can be described as a temporarily altered state of consciousness. Yet that doesn’t fully encompass, or even begin to explain, what it feels like to be in a psychedelic state. An altered state of mind, by definition, is any mindset that is different from your neutral disposition. All drugs that can get you high in any way will produce an “altered state”, even sleeping can be considered so. But a psychedelic state is different.
A psychedelic state can vary in intensity, but all trips have a common thread – they are sentient in nature. They make you feel something. Psychedelics affect all the senses and can change a person’s thought process, and their sense of time, space and reality. They can also produce auditory, visual, and sensory hallucinations, although what exactly anyone experiences is subjective to so many different factors.
The substance (or substances) taken, the dosage, the person’s tolerance to psychedelics, their current state of mind, metabolism, overall personality type and background, and possibly even genetics, can all play a role in how psychedelics affect a person. Or better yet, all these different elements combined might be more accurately described as a blueprint to how a person’s mind will accept psychedelic trips in general, whether via drugs or other methods.
The mainstream belief is that such a state can only be reached through the use of entheogenic substances. And while that may be the easiest, fastest, and most familiar method, it’s certainly not the only one. Things like meditation, sensory deprivation, light therapy, and certain breathing techniques can get you there too.
When we trip, regardless of what causes the trip, the brain reacts in a similar way – with an increased activation of delta and gamma waves and the suppression of alpha and beta waves. When we are awake and alert, the brain is dominated by alpha, beta, and gamma waves. When we sleep, delta and theta waves take over. The pairing of “alert” gamma waves and “sleeping” delta waves, could explain why psychedelics trips are akin to dream-like states that we experience while still awake.
Meditation has existed for millennia with oldest documented evidence of the practice coming from India sometime around 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. During the Silk Road transmission beginning in the 1st or 2nd century, Buddhists brought mediation to China and other Asian countries, and it eventually spread across the globe.
Meditation is about awareness. It’s about learning how to observe whatever is going on in your own mind without any judgement. It’s about training your thoughts so you can truly feel what you want to happen in your life, and thus manifest it with the energy you put out into the world. It’s believed by many that the power of the mind can be used to change one’s entire life course, as well as heal nearly anything wrong with the human body.
A word you may hear often if you delve into the world of meditation is ‘Mindfulness’, which is the ability to be fully present and engaged with whatever is going on right now. The past and future don’t matter, you need to focus only on the current moment in time. While this may sound relatively simple… believe me, it’s not.
Just like any other skill, learning to meditate can bear its own unique set of challenges. It can be very hard to drown out the mind chatter, or the constant bustling of the mind. One of the best ways to do this is to focus on your breath. Focus on the inhale, feel the oxygen move throughout your body, then slowly exhale. When you notice your mind beginning to wander, refocus on your breathing.
If you’re able to reach a deep, transcendental form of meditation, you can put yourself in an altered state of consciousness similar to what you’d experience with psychoactive substances. Of course there is not a tremendous amount of research to back this up, but a small-scale study of 24 practicing shamans found that when they entered a “shamanic healing state”, their EEG-measures (level of electrical activity in the brain) showed higher criticality in the gamma waves compared to the control group, something also seen when psychedelics are used.
While I personally do try to meditate (not nearly as much as I should, but occasionally), I have never been able to reach anything close to an ethereal state. This can be extremely challenging to achieve for the novice meditator. It takes a lot of practice and dedication, but I will certainly keep on trying.
Sensory deprivation experiences, or restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST), are growing in popularity as a legal and substance-free way to “trip balls”, as it’s commonly described. In pretty much every medium to large city in the US, you can find isolation tank locations and schedule a reasonably-priced float. On average, a 60-90 minute float session costs around $100, however, most places offer memberships and many people opt for monthly visits.
Sensory deprivation therapy tanks were invented in 1954 by John C. Lilly, an American neuroscientist and physician who aimed to study the “origins of consciousness by cutting off all external stimuli”. The idea is very straightforward – a large soundproof tank is filled with water and Epsom salt and heated to skin temperature. The person enters the tank nude and floats weightlessly in the silent darkness.
Sensory deprivation therapy can have many different psychoactive effects including hallucinations, connectivity, and creativity. A few studies have been conducted on float tanks over the last few years, like this 2015 study that compared people who were more prone to hallucinations, and people who were less prone to them, to see how each group would react to REST. They found that both groups experienced hallucinations of similar intensity, and the high-prone group showed only a slightly increased frequency.
Another study published the year prior in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine discovered that sensory deprivation floats can lead to “increased originality, imagination, and intuition, which can all lead to enhanced creativity”. Additional published research has linked sensory deprivation to thought clarity, refined focus, more fluent learning, and improved performance in school and career settings.
While I have very minimal experience with sensory deprivation (I’ve only tried it one time), I can vouch for the fact that it was trippy during the session; and afterwards, I left feeling positive, clearheaded, and inspired. I definitely recommend, and would do this again myself. I could see the benefits of doing monthly or bi-monthly sessions.
If you’ve ever heard the term “seeing the light”, you probably know it as an idiom, meaning to perceive or understand something in a new, more positive way. Often, this phrase is used in reference to a spiritual breakthrough or sudden awakening, but today, we can actually take this term to mean something more literal.
Enter the Lucia N°03 Hypnagogic Light Machine, invented by Austrian neurologist and psychologist team, Dr. Dirk Preockl and Dr. Englebert Winkler. The purpose of this system is to create an altered state of consciousness using light. Because the electrochemical activity of neurons allows the brain to respond to a stimulus in one millisecond, it can be easy to reach this state using minimal external stimuli.
The methodology is relatively simple as well. Sessions can be solo or in groups. The tone is set so it’s quiet and peaceful for the subjects. In most cases, noise cancelling headphones are used, either to play relaxing tones and/or frequencies, or simply to block out any extrinsic sounds. Individuals will lay down or be seated in reclining chairs, they close their eyes, and a lucia light is propped up roughly 2 feet away from the face. For the next 30-90 minutes (session length depends on location and customer preference), white lights at various frequencies are flashed at the participants.
The inventors of this light offer a scientific explanation for why this works, with research to back it up. “If you use a flickering of 9HZ, the occipital pole will take over the same vibrational frequency,” explains Proeckl. “When people tune into a trance state it will then have other distinct frequencies produced by the brain, a kind of harmonic ratio. That is, it produces an equivalent of musical overtones, often extending into the gamma range, an area usually only seen in experienced meditators.”
Although a single session can lead to substantial changes in perception, people typically claim that a series of sessions is best for more intense trips and long-term benefits. Hallucinations can include colors, patterns, wormholes, and various sensations. Reports of similar or shared hallucinations have occurred in couple and group sessions. A friend of mine who recently tried light therapy echoed this sentiment, claiming that “what you see is created by you, and my buddy and I saw the same image in a few moments, which was interesting.”
Adding to this, a new startup company seeks to emulate this experience from home using one of the most omnipresent devices in our society today, the smart phone. Two UK inventors and engineering students, Tom Galea and Jay Conlon, created an app called Lumenate, which uses the phones flashlight to create light sequences similar to those produced by the lucia light.
Breathing isn’t simply for getting oxygen into our bodies, but the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the brain that improves several types of neurological functions. The practice of breathing yourself into a trance-like state is known as holotropic breathing. Coming from the Greek words, “holos” meaning “whole”, and “trepein” meaning “to move toward”, the word “holotropic” translates to “moving toward wholeness.”
Some describe the experience as divine, while others say it’s more like a very intense form of meditation. Regardless, the basic principle here is to follow a specific breathing pattern in which the person exhales a high level of CO2, but without reaching the point of hyperventilation. The official term for this state is respiratory alkalosis, and it can lead to lightheadedness, elevated thoughts, physical sensations (like random tingling), minor hallucinations, and a range of therapeutic benefits.
Holotropic breathing techniques have recently been made famous by a Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete named Wim Hof. Blending a few different types of yogic breathing patterns, which he dubbed the “Wim Hof Method”, is said to be the root of his success.
Also known as “The Iceman”, Wim Hof is possibly best known for his affinity for the cold. The now 62-year-old has run countless marathons above the arctic circle (all while shirtless, mind you), he has been observed diving under ice at the North Pole, and he regularly enjoys 90+ minute ice baths. He attributes this seemingly inhuman resistance against cold to his breathing techniques.
Final thoughts on tripping without psychedelics
The world of mental health desperately needs a makeover, in the form of novel approaches to treat people. We know that, broadly, pharmaceuticals are not cutting it. The only thing we can do now moving forward is to look outside the box. There has been a lot of talk lately about psychedelics and how tripping can permanently improve a number of psychiatric disorders; but taking these substances can feel extreme for some people, particularly for those who have limited experience with such products in the first place. The thought of tripping without drugs may be more appealing for a large group of consumers who could benefit greatly from these services, and as a society, we still have barely scratched the surface regarding the potential of these therapies.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advice, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics. Should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.
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