Psychedelic Worldview Flips + Secular Society
Are we prepared for all the worldview flips that are about to happen with the Psychedelic Renaissance?
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Here’s something that’s been floating around my head for months: when somebody’s long-held paradigm of reality is upended by a life-altering, worldview-flipping, transpersonal experience (e.g. on a psychedelic), what happens next? For example:
You feel a sudden sense of direct contact, union, or oneness with an Ultimate Reality, the Universe, “God,” or the Divine. That’s it, you’re no longer an atheist. You know death is not the end. Or…
You met benevolent spirit beings on the trip. You’re positive the encounter was more real than normal reality, and you are certain the entity continues to exist in a different dimension of reality. Your fundamental conception of reality has forever changed. Or…
You begin to believe in spirits and psychic ability after you encounter a deceased relative who tells you that the red notebook your grandmother has been searching for is in the wooden chest in the study — and it turns out to be true.
***NOTE: I’ve previously discussed these types of non-physicalist belief changes, but as a quick reminder they can include beliefs in reincarnation, existence of consciousness after death, communication with the dead, and attributing consciousness to other living and non-living entities. Physicalism is the philosophy/worldview that everything in the Universe is composed of physical matter, and is the philosophy on which modern-day science is based.***
If you come from Western culture, these are not inconsequential belief changes! Western mainstream culture and the media mock non-physicalist beliefs and are not friendly to other worldviews. And who would dare tell their physician for fear of being put on antipsychotics? So, what happens when you — a person with a wonderful new take on life and deep spiritual sense — is (re)born into a secular culture?
Even though there exists research on the positive and long-lasting outcomes of psychedelic-induced mystical states (1, 2, 3), entity encounters (4), and spiritually-transformative experiences (5, 6) — such as decreases in anxiety, depression, and addiction, and major increases in empathy, compassion, gratitude, connectedness, openness, altruism, curiosity, awareness, authenticity, integrity, a sense of higher purpose and meaning in life, and liberation from past attitudes and beliefs (7, 8) — I’ve been wondering whether there is any data about the journey.
This is on my mind because it's personal. Last year, I had the most profound, psychedelic trip of my life. Listen, I was well prepared. I had read almost the entire scientific literature on psychedelics and behavioral health, had already had a spiritual awakening, and was used to thinking about existence and “reality” daily. My experience wasn't worldview flipping, because my worldview had already been flipped. But, the experience of leaving my body, losing my identity, experiencing merging with the entire Universe and all of space and time, and becoming paradox itself, changed me in ways that I can never put into words. Returning to this 3D reality was, as they say, an ontological shock (for which I gratefully had tons of integration support). And to be clear, it was the most meaningful experience of my life.
Since then, I can't help wondering how much worse the ontological shock would have been for someone who hadn’t been so familiar with spiritual concepts like non-duality. Or more broadly, what happens when a secular person experiences a transpersonal event in an altered state — one that causes them to question their paradigm of reality, accept non-physicalist beliefs, and forever change their sense of self and of the world (see here). The outcomes are mostly fantastic, but how easily do people accept these shifts?
I can't stop thinking about how big of an issue this will be as more and more people use psychedelics.
That’s because changing one’s worldview is no trivial thing. I would know because I’ve been through that hellfire (and wrote an entire book on it). We may not realize it in our daily lives, but our identities are (to some extent) built around our worldviews.
I’m a believer. I’m an atheist. I’m an agnostic, a rationalist, an existentialist, a Republican, a Democrat.
So, when something happens that upends your understanding of reality, and you have to update your worldview, your identity comes along on the chopping board. From a rational perspective, it might seem like updating an identity is an easy thing to do when you have new evidence or new experiences.
But, let me tell you, it’s not.
It can untether you. It’s really, really hard to change the way you think about reality and to change your identity. It can feel like death and rebirth because it is death and rebirth. Because you feel like you don’t know who you are anymore. And if you don’t know who you are, you don’t know how you relate to the people and things in your life anymore. Egos and identities do not quietly slip away because part of you knows that they will take old friends and interests along with them.
The way you view relationships, life events, life’s meaning — everything! — are influenced by your worldview, so when that flips, your psyche needs time to update. Days, months, maybe even years or a whole lifetime. Sometimes, when a person is stripped of their pre-existing beliefs and philosophies about life and undergoes deep psychological change because of a profound (spiritual/mystical/transpersonal/self-transcendent) experience, they can succumb to a state of distress, or spiritual emergency, especially if they don’t have a framework for understanding the new insights or adequate social support (9). You need concepts, people, and tools to get through it (but it’s definitely worth getting through).
So when I see data from the psychedelic literature casually mentioning these flips, I can’t help wondering: um, what about the details? Let’s say you began believing in a higher power and other dimensions of reality. So… did you start praying? Did you start buying crystals?
Did you feel comfortable sharing that you now believe in spirits and that plants have consciousness with the people in your life? Did anyone react negatively? Did you feel understood? Did you lose friends? Did you stop attending church and get kicked out of your community?
What tools did you use to integrate the experience and your new beliefs into your life? Or, do some experiencers dismiss it entirely, knowing that integration means inviting upheaval into their lives?
And I’m particularly interested in this one: how much does the cultures of your social group, family, and especially society affect how you integrate the experience?
**omg there are so many exciting potential studies here; psychedelic researchers (I know some of you read this): someone should research this!**
I couldn’t find any psychedelic research specifically on the personal journey/consequences of a non-physicalist worldview flip, especially from encountering transpersonal events. However, since these transformative flips can happen in other states — such as meditation, breath work, intense prayer, near-death experience, etc — I did find a bit there. I’m saving that for next time, though, because there’s a lot to say…
But, the important point I want to make today is this: as psychedelic therapy gets approved and legalization/decriminalization efforts spread across the world, how well prepared are we to support non-physicalist belief changes and worldview flips in the most secular, physicalist society in the history of humankind?