Are hallucinations are a "Comforting Delusion?" Glimpses of another reality? Communication from your subconscious?
What if I told you some of my most profound experiences had been hallucinations?
Overpowered by ayahuasca, I couldn’t move. I lay on my mat and watched the vast, multidimensional wheel of life, spin into infinity above me, all around me, endlessly creating. Permanently etched into the wheel were all my life’s decisions. I saw the truth of how my past decisions created this spiral. The solidity of this artifact felt harsh and cold because choices were forever. It spun before me, forcing me to reflect on what I can never change. Yet, as the wheel rotated I saw how I could attach new, better choices. The wheel was constantly being created. These new marks too would stay on the great wheel forever.
For thousands of years traditions around the world have placed great significance on having "visions." They can be highly symbolic or metaphysical. Other times, like the one above, the message is direct. What is consistent is meaning.
The western mindset is far less comfortable with these concepts, but the reality is they are part of the human experience whether or not you choose to partake in psychedelic journeys.
What Do Hallucinations Feel Like?
Hallucinations mean "to wander mentally" in Latin. Officially they are false perceptions and can affect any of our five senses without external stimulation.
Many of us have experienced hypnagogic hallucinations when falling asleep or hypnagogic ones when transitioning between sleep and wakefulness. These are often strange, like the content of dreams, and easy to dismiss as meaningless scrambled brain signals as we change states.
Yet, it is no secret that pioneering explorers of the human psyche like Freud and Carl Jung emphasized dreams being a language of the unconscious.
And while dreams are not exactly the same as hallucinations, when trying to interpret either one, there is overlap on how we can go about turning seemingly esoteric symbols into meaningful experiences.
A Traditional Perspective on Visions
Traditional perspectives on psychedelics have been somewhat consistent. Psychedelics allow access to another reality, a portal to higher planes rich with useable information. Divining the future, healing the sick, attacking others, or even communicating with entities across a multidimensional cosmology were perfectly valid.
Of course, most of you reading this are like me, trained to be critical of such fantastic claims. We need proof of the validity, particularly when hallucinations can be so strange. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby points out "proving, reproducing, showing your hallucinations" is a pretty difficult task. Narby explains that in the culture we have been raised in, claiming that there is real or valuable knowledge in hallucinations is psychosis.
Do Psychedelic Hallucinations Have Meaning?
We are far more comfortable dismissing intense dreams or wild hallucinations than examining them. After all, they aren't real, right?
Our lack of curiosity or training does nothing to stop psychedelics' from creating vivid, "more real than real" hallucinations. Psychedelic hallucinations are not always visually impressive geometry or synesthesia, but the feeling of profound significance accompanying them can be difficult to ignore.
A fine example is "ego death," when people seemingly leave their bodies behind to "experience higher reality," returning with fantastic new perspectives and are sometimes able to sustain long-term changes like quitting smoking, beating depression, or dying peacefully. These are established outcomes in psychedelic research.
Yet, while many covering the topic, myself included, love to attribute these profound changes to scientific concepts like neuroplasticity, a rewiring of the brain. Yet, I know that after having a "mystical experience," I get far more from examining the content of my experience rather than seeking some kind of pharmacological understanding.
Do Hallucinogens Simply Provide a "Comforting Delusion?"
Michael Pollen questioned in "How to Change Your Mind" if patients undergoing end-of-life therapy with psilocybin could be merely experiencing a "comforting delusion" when connecting to a higher meaning that made their upcoming transition easier to deal with.
The question has gained traction and enters into realms of philosophy concerning the origins of knowledge and truth. Essentially asking whether or not psychedelic hallucinations are "real." Chris Lethby points out in Philosophy of Psychedelics this isn't a question the average rational mind commonly considers.
Exploring metaphysical beliefs about the nature of the universe is a part of psychedelics for many people. The implications of trip reports that challenge established fundamentals about reality isn't something psychedelic researchers have the tools to explore. This then begs the question: do metaphysical insights on psychedelics matter?
An important fact is that not everyone is flying through hyperspace when they take psychedelics. It is a highly individual experience. Looking through a crack in the matrix of the architecture of reality tickles our curiosity but can be distracting from what psychedelic researcher Breeksema points out are far more consistent takeaway from psychedelics:
“insights, altered self-perception, increased connectedness, transcendental experiences, and an expanded emotional spectrum”
How to Make Meaning from Hallucinations
As Jeremy Narby reminded us, being intent on "proving" your hallucination is likely not going to end well. As most of us will not become shamans or prophets, not needing to push our unique visions into the world at large is fine.
Hallucinations can be uniquely symbolic within the story of your life. Yet, certain visions can put us in a challenging spot. Understanding whether or not they are "real" can feel extremely important, and getting external validation may be a stirring impulse.
And while certain professionals or people can help decode visions, it is important to remember your hallucinations are for you. What matters most is the personal meaning found within them.
There is no need to "prove" to anyone you met an alien on ayahuasca. Sure, some of us might be overwhelmingly curious as to whether or not the alien was real. Still, if you cannot integrate such an exploration into your life later, you find yourself in a difficult situation.
Making sense of hallucinations is, however, not always a simple task. Like trying to understand dreams, establishing any kind of narrative that feels grounded can be overwhelming.
Can Carl Jung, Symbols, Collective Unconcious, and Archetypes Explain Hallucinations?
Dreams and their wild imagery can be interpreted as symbols presented to us from the subconscious. The subconscious is beyond our waking or conscious thoughts. It does not use the same language or patterns of communication that we were taught.
Carl Jung was an enthusiastic explorer of this realm of potential knowledge, even teaching himself to hallucinate with what he called "active imagination." Jungian analysts are trained to interpret symbols from the subconscious and find their deeper meaning.
While Jung was critical of psychedelics, thinking they could potentially open up repressed content, people were not ready to deal with. While his life's work on the symbols, archetypes, and the collective unconscious has left what some consider to be valuable waypoints for exploring psychedelic states.
Jung also warned exploring too deeply into the collective unconscious should be done carefully.
“The trick is not to experience the collective unconscious but to know what to do with the experience”
Personal Meaning Making and Psychedelic Visions
The goal of working with hallucinations is meaning-making by figuring out what symbols mean to you. This process might require professional support, but resources for exploring your subconscious exist.
Fracousi Bourzart, the author of Consciousness Medicine, frames visions as "patterns of energy that can be perceived visually." She suggests that when someone has received a powerful vision they paint it, write out the narrative, act it out, or mime it. The goal is to study and explore this pattern as deeply as possible.
While studying a vision in whatever way seems fit, it is also important to be present with how the vision makes you feel.
It is not necessarily about what you literally saw, but in the way that you saw it. Can you make associations with it? Was it scary? Pleasant? What emotions do you feel when you revisit the visions? Can those emotions be connected to another part of yourself?
Psychedelic Integration for Hallucinations
If through personal exploration or working with professionals, you can find a message that makes sense to you, the next step is to integrate these feelings, messages, inspirations, or changes you desire into your life.
This is the hard part. I always say taking the substance is the easy part. Sure, I'm the first to admit challenging psychedelic journeys are some of the most intense experiences a human can have, but the longstanding changes are the real work.
I joke that sometimes psychedelics will give us a "freebie." It is possible to come out of a ceremony with something wholly resolved. Sometimes next steps will be abundantly clear. But other times, we are only given hints about work we will have to first discover before we can even begin.
Psychedelic hallucinations — be it a vision, voice, feeling, or even a bodily sensation — require us to work at interpretation and then integration.
Being ready and willing to step into these challenges is key to getting the most out of psychedelic experiences. Doing psychedelics can take an incredible amount of energy. Letting a journey slip away by simply labeling it "trippy" or "weird" is a missed opportunity.
Do not surrender to confusion. Trust you can figure it out. And if you can't find that trust, hire a professional.
And know that when you find the meaning, you will know it.
And I believe you can find it.