This is a guest post from John Robertson, the owner of the blog Maps of the Mind.
At the start of last year, I decided to commit to a plant-based diet. This final step came after years of being in this very strange place of being a supporter of plant-based diets and generally understanding and agreeing with every argument for them but somehow never fully adopting or sticking to it.
What changed? In short, I took psilocybin truffles on two consecutive days, and through a series of events that unfolded in the aftermath, something shifted inside me. While before it was harder to eat a vegan diet, the situation has flipped so that it’s actually harder for me to not eat plant-based. This post is my conversion story.
I want to emphasise here that my aim is not to place any type of diet above others. As a previous meat lover who has eaten more than my share of meat in the first 30 years of my life, I am not judging others for their dietary choices. The purpose of this post is to share my story and perspective. My hope is that, as a recently transitioned plant-based eater, I might bring understanding to people who fall on both sides.
On the Term ‘Vegan’
The word vegan is a loaded and divisive term, often carrying negative connotations. Merely saying the word can bring up emotions in people and even trigger a backlash, so I prefer to use plant-based. In this post, however, I will use the term plant-based and vegan interchangeably to avoid repetition.
I’ve previously adopted vegetarian and vegan diets to varying degrees for short periods over the last decade or so. Those periods nearly always came after finishing some kind of spiritual retreat where they served vegetarian or vegan food. The time on these retreats worked as an immersion step to adopting the diet. I felt good about making the change because of other things I’d come across down the years such as factory farming footage, Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Savor, and the environmental impacts of meat and dairy production.
However, sooner or later, I’d succumb to eating meat or dairy again, and though generally inching closer to a vegan diet, I continually found myself having slid into a place of being fairly casual about it. The last time this happened was late in 2018 after I’d attended a psychedelic society retreat. Afterwards, I’d adopted a 95% vegan diet, only eating non-vegan at meals out. I can’t even remember now when or how it happened, but by 2020 I was again eating plenty of cheesy omelettes, casual in my pastry and chocolate selections, and chowing down pork in tonkotsu ramen at my favourite Japanese restaurants.
Two Powerful Sessions With Psilocybin
This story begins in my professional life. As part of research into psilocybin tolerance and dosing patterns, I was trying a dosing pattern with a colleague of mine from the New Moon psilocybin retreat project. I had picked up the pattern from the Inward Bound team, an Irish organisation that also runs psilocybin retreats in the Netherlands. It was two sessions in two days, stepping up the dose so that the second day is triple that of the first. We approached and set up with the standard psychedelic therapy style: indoor, headphones, eye masks, preselected playlists etc.
Day one was a fairly intense session. After taking 22 g of truffles, I had something of a minor breakdown, shedding tears in realising how, in my drive to push the retreat project forward, I’d come off course and gotten swamped in a project that dominated my life and stressed me. The project began with honest intentions, but had quickly outgrown our estimations of the work involved and toppled a healthy work-life balance. I lay still with feelings of sadness until the session wound down.
After some dinner and sharing, my thoughts turned to session number two. I was in for 66 g! I looked at my colleague and with an excitedly nervous smile said “oh and I’m absolutely terrified for tomorrow”.
He returned the smile and said something along the lines of “Oh I’ve given up at this point! I’m just gonna have to surrender and take what comes”. Wise words from an experienced psychonaut.
Day two’s session was predictably intense for both of us. There were plenty of bumps on the road but we both came out the other side ultimately grateful for the experience. Discussing the tolerance, we laughed at the fact that there didn’t really seem to be any buildup; the session was about three times as strong as the first. My colleague concluded at the end of the day that it was a ‘legendary trip’.
The effects of this double session were not all said and done with at the end of the day, however. I had been fairly shaken and was highly sensitised for what ended up being weeks afterwards. Returning to my day to day life in Berlin, I walked around the streets of my local Friedrichshain neighbourhood feeling vulnerable and at times verging on jumpy.
During this period my experience of yoga began to take on a new depth. I began to experience yoga in a different way than I ever had before. At my local class, I was entering states which I would call psychedelic, with insights into areas of my personal life mysteriously emerging. This would happen especially towards the end of the class. It became predictable to the point that I started bringing a small notepad into class to journal after each session, making notes on my thoughts or creating to-do items to commit to things that were now clear that I needed to act upon.
Though a lot was being stirred up internally, I remained functional. I took steps to restore the balance I needed in my life and continued with my responsibilities for the New Moon project.
Nothing about my diet changed though, until Alexanderplatz.
A Transformational Day: Meeting the Activists at Alexanderplatz
A few weeks after the session, on a wet and rainy Saturday in Berlin, I am home at my flatshare in Friedrichshain when my buddy Guido texts on the ultimate frisbee WhatsApp group that he will be with another ultimate friend Ryan performing some music in the hub of Alexanderplatz.
I jump on my bike, cycle down the road and arrive at the area of the city that stands beneath the base of the TV tower that can be seen from around the city. The music is fun; we are a small group and in a patch of shelter, Ryan freestyle raps, improvising on people walking by. After a little while I decide to head home, say goodbye to the group and start walking back over to my bike.
As I walk past the Burger King I notice a scattering of people loosely gathered around two people standing back to back. As I get closer I can see someone in the middle of the group wearing a mask, and across the front of their body is a TV screen. I recognise what is on the screen: a video of factory farming.
I take a pause and just stand, watching the footage.
I see many things.
I see cows being slaughtered.
I see animals crammed into dark dirty warehouses, rammed up against each other, packed in, with no natural light and no freedom of movement.
I see cows being hung from their legs, their throat being slit and blood gushing out.
I see pigs jolting in pain and shock as they are violently jabbed and prodded with rods that carry the force of electricity.
I see animals living in fear, on edge, even before the shock comes – they are used to it, and have even come to expect it as part of their existence.
I see humans taking joy in their power and dominion over these animals.
I see submission.
I hear their squeals of pain, their sheer intensity and pitch, even though there is no sound.
I see cows being trapped. I see them stuffed and bloated, overfed, and overloaded. I see a cow so huge it can’t stand to support its own weight, lying on its side, tubes attached to its orifices, white liquid being pumped from its body.
I see the faces of the pigs, I see the pure sheer fear and terror and sadness in their eyes.
I see living beings put into boxes, caged.
I see life caged, trapped.
I see fear, pain, abuse, violence.
I see injustice.
I stand there just taking it in.
A guy in his early twenties comes over to me, introduces himself and asks me if I’m open to talk. I nod.
He asks me if I know what it is I’m seeing and if I’ve seen these types of videos before. Yes, I have.
He asks me:
“How does it make you feel?”
This is what really gets to the crux of it for me. I take a moment to put a word to my experience.
It was disgusting. As I stood there, I felt totally repulsed.
I had seen factory farming footage before but it never hit home like this. What was different this time was me. I was in a highly sensitised state and confronted with the reality of animal production. With the help of a little guidance, I was connected to my feelings.
The existentialist Søren Kierkegaard said that “Truth is subjectivity”. What he meant by this was that our thoughts and feelings are fundamental to our experience of reality. Our subjective experience of life is what makes up our existence. That is our lived truth. And here is the truth of my subjective experience is this: when I am confronted with the reality of what is happening in the industry it makes me extremely uncomfortable and gives me the firm belief that I want absolutely no part of it. I don’t want to contribute to it or even condone it in any way.
Sometimes the period after a trip is called the afterglow. When we are forced to face challenging feelings, I think aftermath is more appropriate.
Myself and the young German student carried on talking for a little while. He wanted to seal the deal and gave me the usual stats about the environmental impact of the meat industry. Getting tired and hungry, I told him I had to go. He gave me some resources to help me stay vegan (I’d told him about my previous forays), some movies on the topic, organisations that offered support, and websites that offered practical advice for adopting a plant-based diet like recipes and shopping lists. Right before I left, he asked me if I wanted to put on 3D goggles to go inside a factory farm. Too much. I declined his offer, thanked him for the conversation and walked away with a firm resolve to play no further part in this gross abuse of animals.
Over one year later, I am still vegan.
More than that, I am at a point where I honestly believe that in the future we will look back on animal exploitation how we look back on slavery now: dictating the existence of other living beings, controlling them to the point where they have zero liberty, and keeping them alive purely and ultimately for our own means.
For me this shift in my understanding and being is an example of how psychedelics can be transformational; how they can become a catalyst for change at an individual level, and the ripples of that spread out into the world. And I am not the only one who has had a vegan/psychedelic moment. There are many others. This is why I continue to champion psychedelics as a powerful force for positive change in the world.
. . .
On the theme of ethical consumption and psychedelics, here is an article from Tim Ferriss that I think all psychedelic users should read:
John Robertson is a psychedelic explorer, activist, and guide. His work focuses on access, empowerment, and community – and his mission is to spread the wondrous gifts of psychedelics by helping people learn how to use them with a DIY ethic. John blogs at Maps of the Mind. You can find him on Twitter at @mapsofthemind.