Set your intention

In less than a month, I will be sitting in the Amazon jungle, tripping out on ayahuasca. I'm in the midst of my preparation for this nine-day retreat. I have to start the special diet - no pork, no alcohol, no drugs, and no masturbation. There goes my Friday night. 

The Temple of the Way of Light, the centre where I'm doing the retreat, tells participants to set their intention:

Your intention is your mantra, focus and thread to the material realm. It can help you keep focus while engaged with this deep work. Ayahuasca will show you many things, but you can also ask her what to show you. When trying to understand and make meaning of your experience with this medicine, you will find your original intention a helpful reference.

Consider: What do you need? Where are you stuck? What do you want to know about yourself? Are you in a relationship that is causing you to suffer? Are you looking for resolution with something? Do you need clarity? Do you want to believe in something bigger or love yourself more? Whatever your questions, find the ones that are the most deeply present for you and write them down.

This ties in with one of my main findings from The Art of Losing Control - when we're opening ourselves to ecstatic experiences, the best way to make sure you don't wipe out is to remember the advice of psychedelic researcher Timothy Leary: pay attention to 'set and setting'.

'Setting' refers to the context in which you're unselfing: the guides, the other participants, the music, the art, the ritual, the natural environment, the values of the community. Is it a safe space to unself? Does it have good healing support in place if people have difficult experiences? Does it have good values or is it exploitative, controlling and cultish?

Checking the setting is particularly important when you're taking psychedelics, because they make you so suggestible. You can find dark stories on the internet of psychedelic tourists ending up abused or in sex cults (that's pretty much what Charles Manson's 'Family' was - check out this great podcast series on it). I wouldn't do psychedelics again unless I was very sure that the Temple is a safe place with trained therapists and wise healers on hand.

'Set', meanwhile, refers to the intention or attitude that you bring to an experience or ritual. Again, this can be a crucial factor in determining if your experience is healing or harmful. You realize, when you're in deep states of absorption or trance, quite how sensitive your mind, emotions and body are to the attitudes and values you bring.

There was one moment, on a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, when I was sitting in absolute agony from the pain in my knees and thighs. Tears were rolling down my face. It was an hour-long meditation, I was about 40 minutes in, and I thought there was no way I could possibly get to 60 minutes without moving my legs. Then, somehow, I shifted my attitude to one of equanimity, and the pain totally transformed and disappeared.

So what's my intention for the ayahuasca retreat? I'm not expecting a joy-ride. I've heard from enough people who've taken ayahuasca to expect it to be physically and emotionally hard at times. I'm prepared for moments of fear, pain, nausea, loneliness, disorientation, and so on. I have coping mechanisms for the darker moments: remind myself to trust the process, trust myself, follow the breath, don't fight it, focus on love. Little maxims like that can help you steer on the big waves. 

But my main intention is to heal and open my heart, and improve my ability to trust myself and other people. This has been my mission throughout the last five years of researching and writing The Art of Losing Control. I wrote in one of the drafts:

Midway through my life, I decided to go beyond Stoicism and search for the ecstatic. As an introverted, cerebral, bachelor academic, I wanted to loosen up and learn to let go. Stoicism helped me create an 'inner citadel', a sense of detachment and personal control, which lowered my social anxiety. But I still felt lonely and disconnected. Safe in my citadel, I yearned for the surrender of love.

As Simon and Garfunkel put it, in a great critique of Stoicism:

I've built walls

A fortress, steep and mighty

That none may penetrate

I have no need of friendship

Friendship causes pain.

It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.

I am a rock

I am an island

I have my books

And my poetry to protect me

I am shielded in my armour

Hiding in my room

Safe within my womb

I touch no one and no one touches me

I realized Stoicism - itself a very individualist philosophy - was not the raft I needed on the next stage of my journey. I looked, in 2012 and 2013, to Christianity to give me a greater sense of connection and community, and it worked to some extent, but failed in others. I failed to meet either Jesus or my wife, or to find a church I felt at home in. Apart from that, a complete success.

This month, I turn 40, and I'm as single as ever. I know I'm not alone in that, and that many of you are single and happy with it, finding meaning in your friendships, work, creativity and spirituality. I also have much to be grateful for. It may be that I haven't 'settled down', got married and started a family for external, objective reasons - I haven't met the right person yet, or I'm just a natural loner.

But I wonder if there are internal, subjective barriers, which I can shift. I was almost permanently single in my 20s, when I was recovering from social anxiety and PTSD, and only really started having relationships in my 30s. I was still pretty jumpy then. I think I may not trust that I'm capable of family life, or that I can be with others that much. When you've had trauma in your life, you expect things to go wrong - you expect people to die, relationships to collapse. That's why Stoicism helps - it teaches you to be detached. But I think I need to trust myself and accept myself as an imperfect, vulnerable person who needs other people (a very un-Stoic idea), and to accept the other person too, with all their imperfections. I am far too critical both of myself and others.

Of course, there is something paradoxical in this search of mine over the past few years. In search of connection and ecstasy, I spent four years largely alone, reading and writing. Now, in search of relationships and community, I head off into the jungle, alone. Doh!

It may be that Ayahuasca tells me to learn to love and accept myself, whether I'm single or in a relationship. It may tell me, you are always in relationships, and you are always alone, and you need to accept and appreciate both these states. It may be that neither Jehovah nor Ayahuasca are into being treated as a cosmic dating app.  It may be she has something completely different to tell me.

It may be I am utterly crazy to try psychedelics again, considering my bad trips when I was 18. I wouldn't take this step unless I felt it was necessary, and that I had done what I could to prepare myself and manage the risks.

I'm very lucky, of course, to have the time and money to invest in my personal growth. Lucky, privileged, self-absorbed, white, bourgeois, cis-man me with my white middle-class problems! I know, it's kind of bullshit. But I don't expect this to be particularly fun. And I am focused mainly on trying to help other people, by sharing whatever wisdom I come across. That's the most important intention one can set. Without the intention outwards, it's really just a journey up one's own arse.

If you enjoy this blog, please support it on Patreon. Then you get to request what I write about and research! This week, Patron Alex asked me to describe the bad LSD trips I mentioned above, the sadistic f*ck. OK Alex, here goes. The main thing I struggled with, both times, is I couldn't think of anything to say! I had an identity, at that time, that was very focused on performance and approval, and suddenly I felt totally blocked, and negated. I then became paranoid that I was somehow letting everyone down by being so silent. I think I had both introverted and extraverted states in my personality, but the extraverted states had been much more affirmed and approved of - a new study found that mothers would prefer their babies be extravert to a host of other, more moral, characteristics.

The second bad trip - the worse time - I was at a clubbing after-party, on LSD, and didn't know anyone well. I sat in the corner feeling incredibly afraid and self-conscious, so afraid I couldn't move - it was a complete body-freeze situation. Eventually I left the room, lay down in another room, and imagined I could hear everyone else in the room talking about me. I then didn't talk about the experience, to anyone, for years. Genius. So really, the LSD exposed a flaw, or crack, in my character - an identity over-weighted towards pleasing and impressing others. I hope, this time, I will be able to deal with that particular monster if it arises, firstly because you don't really need to chit-chat on an ayahuasca ritual, secondly because I'm now much better at expressing my emotions and asking for help, and thirdly, I've learned to care less what others think of me. We'll see.