The first time I ever sat with ayahuasca I was in a small maloka in the Amazon jungle with four other travelers. Me, them, the curandero, and our shamanic tour guide all nervously sitting in the dark, listening to the jungle, and wondering what would happen next.
I drank the first cup and waited…nothing. I drank the second cup around an hour later…still nothing. I could tell by the sounds and movements that something was happening to everyone else. But for me…still nothing.
Speaking not a word of Spanish and having no experience with this medicine, I crawled across the maloka to our guide and asked her what I should do. She told me to drink more…so that’s what I did.
Three full cups in, I once again returned to my mat, sat my eyes closed, and waited…and waited…and waited. Still nothing.
By this point, I was frustrated and angry. I had traveled all this way and spent all this money and was coming to the rather abrupt and disappointing realization that the medicine I was so desperately seeking healing from just wasn’t going to work for me.
So I just gave up. I laid down on my foam mattress, closed my eyes, and tried to fall asleep.
The second I let go of control I purged what felt like a beach ball and was instantly shot to the stars where I not only met my creator but received the knowledge of how the entire universe was created and the sacred geometry to prove it.
This is only one story I could offer about the nature of control and psychedelics. I surprised one of my first teachers after rather consciously walking and talking on 600μ of Orange Sunshine.
Another time, after drinking two very strong cups of huachuma, I held space for a dear friend while he did his work. I got nothing. A little buzz and tingle here and there but nothing profound.
I simply assumed that the medicine wasn’t very strong for me that night so after six hours by the campfire, we both went inside. I laid down on the couch and the minute I closed my eyes the medicine rocketed me into the depths of my own heart cave where, for the first time in my life, I truly wept for the abandonment I felt as a child.
The media, and even the scientists, are telling us that psychedelics are powerful tools but I can also tell you they’re no match for the power of our minds.
Characteristics of Control
In today’s zeitgeist, the words “control freak” get thrown around rather casually. I coach many entrepreneurs and business leaders who are quite proud of their resilience and ability to control (themselves and others).
To better understand the nature of control I’ll actually point towards its opposite to look through the lens of the Big Five personality traits. Number one of the big five is openness. The remaining four are conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
123test.com states that ”High openness correlates to being more creative and open to new ideas.” Other signs of openness include imagination, artistic interests, emotionality, adventurousness, intellect, and liberalism. All traits with a high correlation to the effects of psychedelics.
Alternatively, people who are low in openness tend to see things literally and focus more on the practical, straightforward, and concrete. I would also include perfectionism into this category which is just a fancy wrapper for control.
In other words, a psychedelic or mystical experience directly correlates with the characteristics of high openness — and the complete opposite of low openness.
When it comes to psychedelics, high openness (aka a lesser need for control) often makes for deeper, easier, and more powerful experiences. Low openness (aka a high need for control) can lend itself to surface-level, highly cerebral, and potentially challenging journeys.
Roots of Control
The causes of controlling behavior are vast. Medical News Today lists three causes: anxiety, personality disorders, and learned behaviors.
In all honestly, looking back over the hundreds of people I’ve worked with over the past decade, I’d say a fraction of them present with severe anxiety or a personality disorder.
On the other hand, learned behavior is such a broad category that I think it’s beneficial to drill down a level deeper. PsycholoGenie offers a pretty understandable list that includes: difficult childhood, a loss or hurt in the past, insecurities or low self-esteem, and ego & pride.
Show me someone who doesn’t fall into at least one of those buckets and I’ll gladly buy them a cup of coffee.
More often than not, I encounter high degrees of control from individuals who’ve experienced some level of trauma (big T or little t), abuse, or neglect. Many times their childhoods required them to perform for love and validation or included some degree of chaos; divorce, death, addiction, etc.
What makes it even trickier is many of these individuals forge the skills learned in their difficult childhoods into useful and powerful tools to be used later in life. Their problems solving ability, orientation towards achievement, and higher levels of vigilance make them perfect C-Suite executives, founders, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs. They’ve converted their maladaptive behaviors from debits to credits.
Mixing Control and Psychedelics
Far more often than not, people with such a deep need for control have little to no awareness of how tightly they’re gripping onto their perceived reality. The shadow of controlling behaviors has been so tightly fused to their personality for so long that they don’t even know it’s there.
Decisions are made and situations are maintained to simply keep all the balls in the air. These decisions can very often be more unconscious than conscious because the decision maker is simply living their life the same way they always have.
People who crave control have a deeply felt sense that if they don’t do it, then it might not get done. And if it doesn’t get done then something bad might happen. And if something bad happens, they’ll be the ones hurt or blamed.
So what happens when psychedelics try to rip control from the clutches of a frightened human?
One word: discomfort.
Looking at it through an internal family systems lens, imagine the sensation of a psychedelic substance entering your body as an intruder slowly creeping its way toward your front gate. Feeling the unfamiliar sensations of the “come up,” your mind sounds the alarm, your protector parts muster, grab their weapons and armor and rush to stand guard till this invader has disappeared.
Looking at it from another angle, imagine yourself standing in front of an open door. On the other side, total blackness. You’re afraid of what might happen if you take another step so you’ve got both hands on the doorjamb resisting as much as you can. Whatever psychedelic substance you ingested is standing behind you pushing as hard as it can to push you through this unfamiliar portal.
For all you know, you could be standing at the threshhold of infinite bliss and freedom but your mind perceives it closer to the experience of death. In the end, the fear of the unknown is far worse than the pain and discomfort of the known so the resistance continues.
At this point, one of three things usually occurs:
Fight. When working with individuals in a ceremonial setting, there’s really no easy escape. Often times participants are discouraged from talking or interacting with facilitators or other participants. The experience is between you and medicine. Without help or guidance, this can result in a very long journey filled with lots of mental and physical discomfort.
Flight. If given the chance, some journeyers will try and run from the situation; literally or metaphorically. I once had to restrain an ayahuasca participant for 2.5 hours to prevent them from driving away in a car. All the while they were screaming at me, demanding I was a demon that needed to be exorcised. Milder symptoms of a flight response could include a desire to walk or talk their way through an uncomfortable experience. These behaviors are simply a shifting of awareness from internal to external to avoid what’s happening on the inside.
Surrender. Depending on the facilitator, substance, dosage, and overall mindfulness of the journeyer, some may be able to calm themselves enough to eventually slip behind the veil. As Bryan Muraresku points out in his book, The Immortality Key, “If you die before you die / You won’t die when you die.” At the root of this control is a fear of one’s own demise. Our egos are meant to keep us safe; dying is not on their agenda. But once surrender occurs, journeyers can often find a deep sense of release, peace, and connection that they’ve never before experienced.
If you’re anything like me and the millions of others who possess a love/hate relationship with control, you may be wondering how best to use or deepen your practice with psychedelics.
Having both done the work myself and also worked with hundreds of clients over the years, here are a few strategies I’ve found that can ease the struggle of letting go.
Set and Setting. The higher your control response, the safer you need to feel to fully let go and surrender. This may mean working with a trusted friend or facilitator whom you feel comfortable and safe working with. Journeying in a setting that offers a very high level of privacy, where you know that anything that happens is welcome, is also a great way to relax your death grip on control.
Mindfulness & Breathwork. Whatever you’re doing on your meditation cushion or yoga mat transfers very well to the practice of psychedelics. Sit in a meditative posture and consciously invite the medicine into your system. Remind yourself you are safe and that this is for your healing. Try to use longer exhales than inhales to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Lower Doses. If your control originates from trauma, abuse, neglect, or simply learned behavior, it’s highly possible you could use psychedelics to actually do work on the control before attempting deeper journeys. Using lower doses in combination with a trained facilitator may give you insight into the origins of your control and help you release it. Using these new insights in talk therapy or somatic work can be a parallel path forward. Bigger is not always better.
Work with a Facilitator. If you’ve been going at this alone or have only been sitting in group settings, it may be very helpful to work with a trained facilitator who can help prepare you and guide you through the process. Just knowing you have one-on-one support can make your experience exponentially easier.
Use a Booster. A single large dose to start your journey can often cause turbulence and discomfort during launch. Going from zero to ten in 45 minutes can be a shock to the nervous system. Start with one-third of your desired dose and allow it to get you to a three or four. Once that’s active, take the final two-thirds, sit back, relax, and practice your mindfulness and breathwork till you hit ten.
Use an Empathogen. The most successful method I’ve found to reduce anxiety and control is starting the session with an empathogen. The opening of the heart and softening of the hard outer shell does wonders for receptivity and openness. The empathogen offers a smokescreen for the psychedelic to sneak in, unnoticed, through the back door. If you don’t have experience combining substances or have any potential health contraindications, you should work with a trained facilitator to investigate a multi-substance experience.
Movement. The act of laying there quietly repeatedly thinking to yourself, “Is it happening yet,” can sometimes be the biggest roadblock to launch. Our minds simply won’t relax because of the uncertainty of what may be coming. Going for a walk or even doing a little yoga during launch may be just the thing you need to let the medicine work its way in.
Different Substance. All substances don’t always agree ever every body — and maybe not during each phase of your healing journey. For early-stage PTSD or trauma work, MDMA may be the best place to start versus diving into the deep end with ayahuasca. If you’ve struggled with LSD, try mushrooms. If ayahuasca was a miserable experience, try huachuma. If you’re not sure what to do, find a facilitator experienced with your symptoms who also understands multiple medicines and protocols. A one-size-fits-all approach to healing is rarely the answer.
Higher Doses. I list this one last because it’s contradictory to all the others. Personally, my transformation work is based on the Buddhist principle of non-harming. If your control mechanism is strong, there’s probably a good reason for that. At some point in your past, it protected you from harm (perceived or real). Ignoring it is akin to abandoning a part of yourself that’s kept you safe. But if you truly believe that the experience you need lies on the other side of the veil, a high dose with the help of a trained facilitator may get you over the hump. It could also be one of the most miserable experiences of your life. You won’t know which till you’re halfway through.
As I mentioned above, if you have a strong attachment to control there’s probably a good reason for it. Even if you think it’s a requirement of your current job or way of life, the roots of that behavior likely originate in childhood.
My healing journey started with my physical body about fifteen years ago. When I asked the trainer how long it would take to lose 20 pounds, he asked, “How long did it take you to put the weight on?” It didn’t take fifteen years but it also didn’t happen in a single trip to the gym. The hard truth about healing is that it takes time — usually longer than we’d like.
First, keep in mind that a single psychedelic journey (even a ‘shot to the stars’ kinda journey) is not going to make it all disappear. The media has done a pretty spectacular job convincing many that these substances are magic bullets. Well, they’re not. They should not replace the work you’re doing with a qualified coach or therapist. I would encourage you to look at psychedelics as a tool on a long journey of healing with a lot of integration work in between your experiences.
Second, there are a number of other ways to begin softening your control without the use of psychedelics. Roleplay, psychodrama, yoga, tai chi, mindfulness, and somatic psychotherapy or coaching are just a few ways I’ve used in my process to soften my hard outer shell.
From personal experience, I know I’m making progress when I can use lower doses to do deeper work. What once took three full cups of ayahuasca now only takes a half ounce. My ability to work with the medicine rather than fight against it is a sign that my trust is increasing and my need for control is decreasing.
Compared to other modalities, psychedelics may be able to offer quantum leaps in our healing but they’re rarely a once-and-done event so please be patient and give yourself lots of grace along the way.
And just remember, you’re perfect and you’re right on time and the path is wiser than the traveler.
Want to go deeper? Download a copy of the Psychedelic Field Manual.