Walk on water in just one day

Margot* is desperate to lose weight.  She believes she knows what she’s supposed to do, has read all the books, but can't get started.  I understand how Margot feels but my problem wasn’t food.

Walking on water wasn’t built in a day

This is what Kerouac said after Timothy Leary had turned him onto LSD. But, when it comes to overcoming addiction, I know you can walk on water in a day. Even if what sustains you from then on is the memory of a miracle. 

I stopped drinking as the unintended result of going on a 10-day spiritual retreat run by a remarkable woman called Zulma Reyo.  The retreat involved hours of meditation and, in my case, weeping. We gazed into mirrors, spoke in gibberish, were reborn (this time out of a hairy blanket) and symbolically died to ourselves.  It saved me.

No poster boy

The embarrassing thing about getting sober was that for a long time I couldn’t explain how it happened. It wasn’t like I’d gone to AA, suffered for months in drafty church halls and done the 12 steps. When people congratulated me on my willpower, the best I could say was I’d been rewired or that a switch had been flipped and I no longer wanted to drink.

A few weeks after the retreat, Zulma asked me how I felt. The truth was that the state of euphoria I’d been in after the retreat had faded, leaving behind it intense confusion. I was 46, I’d been a drinker all my adult life and, daft as this may seem, it was one of the things that defined me. I’d also never quite grown up. Finding out who I was meant to be now was taking a bit of time.

‘I have no desire to drink, thank God,’ I said in answer to Zulma’s question.

She looked at me, pursed her lips, and said ‘God doesn’t come into it. It was all you. Why can’t you simply be someone who doesn’t drink?’

‘Oh yeah,’ I said.

Although I was (and still am) conscious of tempting fate, eight or so years later I feel the same. I have occasional nightmares about drinking, where I’ve started all over again. Sometimes I see sunlight shining through a long glass of beer and think it would be nice to have one. But in my heart of hearts I don’t ever want a drink.

So what happened?

Acid and AA

It’s no secret by now that Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, “credited the psychedelic drug LSD for alleviating his alcoholism and believed the drug could be used to treat others as well”.

Wilson came to believe that acid could help “cynical alcoholics in discovering some level of spiritual awakening” and an appreciation of beauty, and also to “terrify the common drunkard into never picking up a bottle again”.

Even though Wilson was cautious in his espousing of the benefits of acid, he never stopped believing that LSD helped him storm barriers erected by the ego and experience god or the cosmos directly.

The benefits of the new psychedelic renaissance

We’re entering into a time when the power of visionary plants like ayahuasca and psychedelics like LSD to enable healing and personal growth is being increasingly explored. In an interview with psychedelic warrior Daniel Pinchbeck he makes the point that Native Americans use the visionary plant peyote to treat alcoholism and that Iboga can help cure junkies.  

The straight medical establishment is also increasingly researching into the benefits of visionary plants like magic mushrooms as well as psychedelics like LSD and ecstasy. “In The New Yorker, the journalist Michael Pollan profiled scientists at New York University whose experiments with administering psilocybin have had largely positive results—particularly among participants stricken with terminal cancer. And in the U.K., 12 patients suffering from clinical depression will take magic mushrooms in a study next year at London's Imperial College.”

(When I was at Burning Man a dusty-bearded stranger told me that one of the big pharma companies had pitched camp in the desert behind an impregnable ring of shiny RUVs. Inside, volunteer chemists were gleefully testing psilocybin-based drugs with impunity. Very JG Ballard.)

A psychedelic experience without drugs

Taking visionary plants and psychedelics can, of course, be dangerous. No-one disputes the fact that LSD can bring psychological problems to the surface with terrible consequences (I always think of the car hauled out of the lake in Psycho). And, no matter how careful you are, there’s always an element of Russian Roulette involved in taking anything mind-altering.

But, in my experience, there’s also no question that the benefits of going beyond thought, rationality and words into a different state can be hugely transformational. I would never suggest Margot takes drugs of any kind to change her relationship with eating and food but I do think there could be an enormous benefit in her diving headfirst into the right kind of guided mindlessness.

Because, I’m here to say that it can work. A couple of years ago, while still trying to make sense of what happened to me on Zulma’s spiritual retreat, it dawned on me that I’d had a psychedelic experience without drugs. It wasn’t much different from what happened to Bill Wilson but without any of the attendant fear and risk that goes with taking psychedelics.

And I had the kind of enlightening adventure I’d recommend to anyone. So, if you’re struggling to overcome any kind of addiction or compulsion, you might want to look into investing in a reputable retreat instead of the latest self-help book or months of therapy. Me, I fancy Vipassana.

Mr Purpose Brandon Peele’s third question

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*Not her real name.