Samuel Douglas · November 13th, 2020
By Samuel Douglas, Philosopher and Vice President of the Australian Psychedelic Society
Mindfulness, explored through meditation and other practices, is being aware of, and accepting, the present moment. While the idea can seem simple, it’s both powerful and potentially challenging. Psychedelics, at subtle microdoses or awe-inspiring macrodoses, can be similarly life-changing. What might happen if we put them together?
A micro-boost to our mindful practice
A big part of mindfulness is non-judgment—not categorizing things as good or bad. But the first step in this is to be aware of our surroundings, and our thoughts and feelings. Research shows that microdosing increases our absorption in whatever is occupying our attention, and reduces how much our minds wander when concentrating.
By helping us pay attention when we observe, microdosing can enhance the depth of our mindful experience within the moment. That’s especially true when we approach microdosing through a science-based lens. Microdoses of psychedelics such as LSD can improve our brain’s ability to adapt by creating new connections. Many mindfulness practices produce neuroplasticity effects in the brain, suggesting a potent synergy when combined with microdosing.
Seeing the world with new eyes
As well as helping us learn to observe rather than judge our thoughts and feelings, I think macrodosing, where we embrace the full psychedelic experience, could play a role in cultivating another of the seven pillars of mindfulness: beginner’s mind.
I had some experience of this myself many years ago, during my very first macrodose. I was sitting outside in the cold night air, around a table with a mix of old friends and people I’d just met. At some point, I noticed a mysterious object on the arm of a stranger across from me. Everything about it was so utterly confounding that I couldn’t contain my curiosity. I left my seat and stared at this unfathomable thing from a few inches away, entirely oblivious to the fact that all conversation had stopped.
“What is it?” I asked in an awe-struck whisper.
“That,” my new friend replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “is my watch.”
For just a few minutes, I’d experienced this most familiar object, a wristwatch, as if I’d never seen one before.
Experiences of beginner’s mind need not be as intense (or socially awkward) as this. But the combination of macrodosing and cultivation of the practice of looking at things anew can give us potent insight into the world, and our place in it. Existence, from the natural world to the things we create, is spectacular. But habit makes us forget.
And how often do we mix up how things are with how things should be? To see something, as if for the first time, strips away our mental baggage. Beginner’s mind gives us access to our experiences without us filtering them through our expectations. Not just a tool for personal growth, this ability to identify when tradition is limiting our thinking is vital for innovation and business leadership in a rapidly changing world.
It goes both ways
It’s not just that microdosing or macrodosing psychedelics can enhance mindfulness—the benefits can flow in both directions. I’ve found this is particularly true in cases of challenging experiences.
Lots of people who’ve practiced mindfulness meditation would be familiar with something known as a body-scan meditation. Very roughly, this is where you practice non-judgmental awareness and inward observation of your body, including any physical sensations or emotions that might arise.
Being trained to observe what might be uncomfortable or confronting is invaluable. Research indicates that mindfulness can help counteract adverse reactions to psilocybin. For me, the benefit wasn’t that I never felt anything negative during these experiences. Instead, it was the conscious experience of not avoiding feelings such as anxiety, which has led to a subtle but persistent change in how I experience it in everyday life.
Mindfulness also plays a role in psychedelic integration. Being aware of the thoughts and feelings that arise for us in the days and weeks after a profound experience allows us to make sense of them, or to let go of striving to make sense of something that simply is (which is a whole lesson in itself.)
While science has yet to explore this combination fully, it would not be a surprise if psychedelics and mindfulness became a potent combination. Mindfulness can enhance the positive effects of psychedelics, and psychedelics can help us to be more mindful. Both increase our brain’s capacity to adapt via neuroplasticity.
Perhaps the most potent application of mindfulness and psychedelics is that mindfulness can be with us wherever and whenever we need it. We can’t microdose every day, but we can always cultivate moments of non-judgmental awareness. And while most of us probably don’t have the opportunity to macrodose every time we have a difficult problem to solve, we can cultivate a beginner’s mind and look at it without being so weighed down by our preconceptions.
We can always take a breath, and just be.