To Friedrich Nietzsche, the correct response to the trials, tribulations, and tragedies of life was one of embrace: a yes-saying attitude. This has since become known as the Nietzschean affirmation of life, and we can juxtapose it with the Schopenhauerian rejection of life: a no-saying to suffering.
Nietzsche championed “Saying yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems,” as he writes in Twilight of the Idols (1889). This attitude was based on his belief that to be a yes-sayer – to affirm life, in all that has been, currently is, and will be – lends itself to health, vitality, strength, and power. In Ecce Homo (1908), he states: “My formula for greatness in men is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.”
The opposite, meanwhile, of saying no to life – a rejection, turning away, resignation – Nietzsche saw as weak, unhealthy, and unnatural. This disgust towards life was pathological, a kind of sickness, he insisted. Nietzsche moreover disdained the outcomes of the Schopenhauerian rejection of life, including self-denial and pity, which he viewed as central to the Christian ethic, an ethic that degrades the human spirit.
To be fully alive and human, according to Nietzsche, is to fully embrace all that life has to offer, no matter how stinging, harsh, and outrageous these offerings may be. As well as encouraging health, Nietzsche thought you cannot say yes to the pleasant without also affirming the unpleasant: “Did you ever say yes to a pleasure? Oh my friends, then you also said yes to all pain. All things are linked, entwined, in love with one another.”
Furthermore, to Nietzsche, suffering is deeply valuable, with our interpretation of it being what provides meaning to our lives. Our pain and misery test our true worth and shape us into better people. Aligning himself with the ancient Greek outlook of revering pain, Nietzsche opined in Twilight of the Idols, “In the doctrine of the [Greek] mysteries, pain is pronounced holy; the pangs of the woman giving birth hallow all pain; all becoming and growing – all that guarantees a future – involves pain.”
To achieve psychological growth, health, and resilience, we have to suffer, as we are meant to – and the greatest, most admirable people, Nietzsche argues, are those who can endure the greatest suffering.
The Nietzschean affirmation of life, this saying yes to everything, can sometimes find its expression in the psychedelic experience. This can happen, I believe, in two different ways. Firstly, in a psychedelic state, one can be overcome by a renewed (or new) zest for life. There is a yes-saying that gets evoked, an inner and jubilant welcoming of the whole tapestry of human experience. In these moments of psychedelic yes-saying, the affirmation is loud, clear, and complete, and any sense of rejection is absent.
The second manner in which yes-saying might occur is in the confrontation with struggle. Psychedelics can present us with moments, sometimes prolonged stages, of mental discomfort and distress. It is normal and habitual to reject these feelings through resistance and the wish to abolish them. Common psychedelic wisdom states that resistance is likely to just keep that mental suffering going, or worsen it.
A Nietzschean approach to difficult psychedelic experiences, however, involves saying yes to them: this means accepting, approving, and even thanking what is happening. When affirmed, difficult experiences become zestful; they can enliven us, viscerally unlocking a reserve of energy and joy. In thinking about the Nietzschean affirmation of life and its application to psychedelics, I was reminded of Rumi’s brilliant poem, The Guest House:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
This very much fits in with Nietzsche’s conception of sorrow: we shouldn’t shy away from it or reject it, because it may elevate us towards a mountain peak of joy.
Psychedelic experiences are like dramatic plays in which the Nietzschean affirmation of life is put to the test: difficult feelings we wrestle with in the everyday – such as anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed – may be intensified and placed on the centre stage in an altered state, becoming so loud so as to demand a response. And how do we respond? To put it simply, we can be a yes-sayer or a no-sayer in such moments.
When the yes-saying attitude is taken and everything uncomfortable is embraced, the whole character of the experience can change; it becomes perfect, in a sense. Nietzsche too makes this point in The Antichrist (1895): “The world is perfect – so says the instinct of the most spiritual, the Yes-saying instinct.” This instinct allows enthusiasm to replace anxiety.
But if one has had the experience of yes-saying during a psychedelic experience and discovered the way it transforms suffering, this is not a lesson that applies only to this experience and no others. These states can be seen as the training ground for the trials and obstacles we will inevitably run up against in everyday life. When you reflect back on the zest for life or affirmation of negative experiences felt in a psychedelic state – and remind yourself of the subjective changes that followed – you may come to see that every experience is susceptible to this attitude and to the improvement that follows.
Yes-saying is often a common feature of the psychedelic experience, helping to benefit both the experience itself and its long-term effects on an individual’s attitudes. To integrate profound moments of yes-saying under the influence of psychedelics, it might be useful to absorb what Nietzsche has to say about yes-saying and apply this attitude to everything, no matter how painful or ugly the situation may be. Doing so makes the world and all of one’s life take on a beauty it didn’t have before. Yes-saying is also an animating force, vivifying a mind that perhaps for too long has been demoralised.