It’s often assumed, because of the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, that tripping can help people shed nihilistic and depressive worldviews. In fact, this does happen for many, with feelings of existential joy and a yes-saying to the world suffusing the psychedelic state – and these feelings of optimism and life affirmation can carry over into sober life, becoming one’s newfound perspective. One’s existence can feel pregnant with meaning and value, rather than stripped of it. Patric Plesa and Rotem Petranker have argued in an article for Frontiers in Psychology that:
an integral part of the excitement around the resurgence in psychedelics is in response to a meaning and alienation crisis that correlates with rising rates of anxiety and depression. Framing the absence of meaning as neonihilism, a contemporary correlate to the 19th-century phenomenon with unique features present in a neoliberal cultural context, we explore whether psychedelics combined with group therapy can provide answers to modern experiences of meaninglessness.
But psychedelics aren’t always anti-nihilistic. Both negative and positive trips can result in users feeling nihilistic, which can become a source of ongoing distress. This is a risk of psychedelics that is not discussed enough.
The Nihilistic Trip
Not all trips are full of love, light, values, and meaning. Some trips can be nihilistic in nature. These are the sorts of experiences where all meaning disappears, or there is a perception of the inherent meaninglessness of the universe. This can feel cold and bleak, and induce feelings of panic and despair. The ‘ultimate reality’ or base level of reality one has ventured to can feel like an eternal nothingness – an infinite void. A nihilistic experience like this can be viewed as insight into the nature of reality, and it may, indeed, be a source of genuine insight – objective (mind-independent) values and meaning might not exist after all. This is known as cosmic nihilism since it is nihilism from the point of view of the universe.
However, cosmic nihilism does not necessitate terrestrial nihilism: a belief that human life, on this planet, is meaningless. Of course, adopting cosmic nihilism may lead one to terrestrial nihilism (if there is no objective value, on what solid basis can I subscribe to any particular value?). Any chosen values can seem completely arbitrary and baseless. But this is a philosophical position that needs to be defended, not a matter of logical necessity. Many philosophers defend theories of meaning and morality without referring to cosmic or divine values.
On the other hand, a nihilistic psychedelic experience may involve the conviction that human life itself is meaningless and pointless, and if this is strongly held onto when the experience is over, then this would be psychedelic-inspired nihilism. Because of the life-enhancing potential of psychedelics, this may seem a surprising possibility, but there are many accounts of people finding that psychedelics inspired or strengthened their nihilistic views. (Here it is worth noting the idea of psychedelics as non-specific amplifiers of consciousness; those who already have nihilistic views may find that psychedelics amplify them during the experience, although this is not always the case – psychedelics can also dissolve or challenge nihilism and philosophical pessimism.)
Using psychedelics can also result in a spiritual emergency: a term coined by Stanislav and Christina Grof, which means when a breakdown in meaning induced by a spiritual experience becomes overwhelming and unmanageable. A spiritual emergence, also coined by them, is when this breakdown in familiar meaning and values leads to positive outcomes: greater freedom of personal choices, or a chance to be, think, and act differently, from a place of different values. But if a spiritual emergence is not worked through, one can feel destabilised. One may feel like one’s identity, values, meaning, purpose, and beliefs are now empty, which can lead to anxiety, depression, disconnection from others, and a lack of motivation.
But spiritual emergencies are not permanent (even if they might feel that way at the time). The writer Jules Evans, for instance, penned a piece for Psyche on how set, setting, and integration are helpful when dealing with a spiritual emergency, these being factors that were essential to recovering from his own spiritual emergency after an ayahuasca retreat. Set is the attitude you take towards what you’re experiencing (Evans recommends the Stoic perspective). You should also make sure you’re in a peaceful, supportive, and non-judgemental setting when going through this crisis state, as this human connection and love will help settle your mind, and some integration may be necessary too (if the crisis state is related to unresolved personal issues).
Nihilism After Profoundly Positive Psychedelic Experiences
Ironically, the most ecstatic psychedelic experiences can end up leaving users worse off (in sober life) than they were pre-trip. I have come across accounts of people who felt highly destabilised for months after their experience with 5-MeO-DMT (also called Bufo, after the toad Incilius alvarius, previously named Bufo alvarius). This is arguably the most potent psychedelic experience one can have. Rick Strassman, for instance, has pointed out a study showing that 70% of 5-MeO-DMT users reported flashbacks after a retreat.
One individual (who will remain anonymous) said in a group chat that it took 3-4 months before they felt like themselves again. Their experience was very beautiful and ineffable. It felt like they went to the source of everything, and their identity was unified with the totality of existence. They felt amazing for a few weeks following the experience, as if reborn: they were more connected to their physical body, to the activities they were doing, and to nature. But later, things changed. They didn’t want anything from life because nothing could compare to their 5-MeO-DMT experience in this lifetime. Everything felt pointless. The career, hobbies, and time with friends they enjoyed before were no longer enjoyable. They struggled with this for a few months and aren’t in that place anymore but they do wonder whether any person can be ready for such an experience and if it ultimately makes living a human life more difficult.
This case highlights how the heights of ecstatic experience can lead to not only ‘post-ecstatic blues’ (as reported by some participants at psilocybin retreats); it may also lead to a kind of prolonged comedown we can call ‘post-ecstatic nihilism’. Rather than normal life simply feeling dull in comparison to a beautiful, profound psychedelic journey, it can feel pointless. Indeed, some mystical psychedelic experiences can be marked by a feeling of arrival and endpoint: this is the highest point and goal of human experience. One can experience a level, an upper limit, of freedom and bliss that feels like the perfect place to be; it is a genuine heaven, which before may have felt abstract, vague, or fantastical – an eternal place of happiness invented out of the fear of death and aversion to suffering.
Coming down from this height can be tough. If you return to the humdrum, inconveniences, stresses, and difficulties of everyday life after such an experience, you may question what the point of human life is since even the joys you can feel will never compare to those felt in the mystical state. Ennui may then follow. This becomes an integration challenge: how one can integrate such heights/depths of human experience into normal life, which is not and cannot be an uninterrupted, unadulterated experience of bliss. But such integration is possible and commonplace. Ecstatic experiences can inform sober consciousness so that one can find a (down-to-earth) degree of joy in being human. A sense of meaninglessness may then be replaced by gratitude for having returned to Earth in this body. And one can come to accept, and appreciate, that sober life should not be pure bliss.
Is Psychedelic-Inspired Nihilism Always a Bad Thing?
The poet, psychonaut, and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz found that his psychedelic use fostered a nihilistic worldview:
The Western attitude is unwholesome. It is moral. Morality, the great isolator, the great separator, divides man in half. To return to the unity of the vision is to reconcile body, soul, and the world. … [Psychedelic] [d]rugs are nihilistic: they undermine all values and radically overturn all our ideas about good and evil, what is just and what is unjust, what is permitted and what is forbidden.
As Paz argues here, and which others argue, psychedelic-inspired nihilism may be something to embrace and celebrate. Philosopher of psychedelics Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes also defends nihilism in his essay ‘Neo-Nihilism: The Philosophy of Power’, published in his book Noumenautics: Metaphysics, Meta-ethics, Psychedelics (2015). This essay partly served as the inspiration for the Marvel character Karnark – a superhero who can find the weakness in anything and use his training and strength to exploit it.
Sjöstedt-Hughes discusses his neo-nihilism in the context of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, which states that human beings – the whole cosmos, in fact – are undergirded by the will to power. This means that everything that exists seeks power, with the will to survive being the lowest degree of this force. Sjöstedt-Hughes also argues, in line with Nietzsche, “To claim that power seeking is immoral is to seek power.” Both he and Nietzsche reject the notion of objective morality, believing it to be an illusion, with the former saying that “morality is more akin to fashion than to technology”; as in, it is whatever accords with the current cultural ideology, rather than being something that objectively progresses from ‘worse’ to ‘better’. Morality is framed as merely a system that affords some people power over others. “Nihilism, in the sense in which it is used here, means that there exist no objective morals, no absolute good nor evil,” says Sjöstedt-Hughes.
It is very possible for psychedelics to evoke or bolster such a worldview since they challenge the meaning of concepts on a very fundamental level, with great rapidity and intensity. As Third Wave founder Paul Austin states in a podcast interview with Sjöstedt-Hughes:
this idea of going beyond good and evil and just from a personal experience, I got into Nietzsche as a result of doing psychedelics…I had my first psychedelic experience, when I was 19, at the end of my sophomore year in college. And within three to four months I was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, Gay Science. And really, psychedelics were this unraveling of what you were talking about. This unraveling of all of these subconscious assumptions of morality that I had made and that had been indoctrinated into me, and I started to unravel those with the psychedelic experience, and that led me into Nietzsche.
To Sjöstedt-Hughes, “Nihilism is the key to liberty and power”, instead of being a philosophy, as is commonly assumed, that saps your will, motivation, and zest. He clarifies in his essay that neo-nihilism, while rejecting objective values, does not reject values per se. Traditional nihilism often denies the existence of truth (which contradicts itself since it is a truth claim that truth does not exist), and Nietzsche denied the same, although this was a denial of objective morality. Neo-nihilism accepts certain types of truth and values. Sjöstedt-Hughes notes a distinction between theoretical nihilism and practical nihilism: the former is the view that there exist no objective values, while the latter is that there exist no values at all. He claims that “neo-nihilism does not reject the existence of values, it only rejects the existence of objective values.” After all, “living is valuating” since one can value food when hungry, beauty, friends, peace, and whatever is in our power interest. Nietzsche himself promoted the values of strength, courage, endurance, growth, and advancement, as these all increase power. Neo-nihilism, according to Sjöstedt-Hughes, breaks bonds and “destroys old values to enable the creation of values new.”
The psychedelic experience can be seen as Nietzschean, or neo-nihilistic, in the sense that it takes you beyond good and evil (to reference the title of one of Nietzsche’s works) – beyond all dualities, in fact. Values no longer appear fixed. Psychedelics have long been known – and defended – for their cultural deconditioning effects, challenging the values of the cultural milieu one finds oneself situated within. This can be incredibly liberating, as Sjöstedt-Hughes contends in his essay. And for such individuals, the nihilism inspired by psychedelics is not a cause for despair but an invitation to decide for themselves what their values should be.
One may still be wary about adopting the position that the ultimate value is advancing your own will in a world of competing powers. This may, at first glance, seem like a horribly selfish and inhumane attitude to possess. Nonetheless, the will to power is really about mastering one’s own instincts, and overcoming obstacles and weaknesses; it is not about subjugating others, as Eva Cybulska stresses in an article for Philosophy Now. Nietzsche actually promoted a noble, strong kind of helpfulness towards others, whereby we help others so they can become greater individuals (but he rejected pity because this involves looking down on others and enfeebling them). He writes in Beyond Good and Evil (1886):
In the foreground there is the feeling of plenitude, of power, which seeks to overflow, the happiness of high tension, the consciousness of a wealth which would fain give and bestow:—the noble man also helps the unfortunate, but not—or scarcely—out of pity, but rather from an impulse generated by the super-abundance of power.
One may not necessarily agree with this view of helpfulness, however, and it is entirely possible for psychedelics to inspire a morality based on compassion rather than power. And this may indeed be the more common path that people take after psychedelic use.
Psychedelics can sometimes inspire or amplify nihilistic views, which as we have seen can be either negative or positive from the stance of well-being and life satisfaction. There will be several individual factors that will determine these starkly different responses. But what is vital is that more attention is given to the value- and meaning-dismantling power of psychedelics. This can occur in a range of contexts: in personal spiritual use, in recreational use, at retreats, and in a clinical setting. And so it’s important individuals are both aware of the possibility of this occurring – and if it does, how best to respond.
Some people may (understandably) struggle a lot with finding all of their values rendered baseless and empty, which can cause a spiritual emergency or existential crisis. Others, meanwhile, might find that this challenging of the status quo – the values they’ve unconsciously accepted from the culture they grew up in – can be an opportunity to embrace a positive nihilism: one which rejects the existence of objective values but which encourages us to create our own values. For another psychedelic user, even this kind of nihilism can seem anarchic and prone to competitive individualism. Some may not feel that such a worldview is helpful after an earth-shattering psychedelic experience. The belief that ‘nothing matters’ can feel freeing or crushing; it’s all a matter of perspective.
It would be useful and fascinating to see if researchers could uncover the links between psychedelic use and nihilistic views: if certain experiences (e.g. mystical vs non-mystical, positive vs challenging) are correlated with increased nihilism; if psychedelic use, in general, is correlated with less nihilism (I suspect it is); and if psychedelic-inspired nihilism is associated with lower or higher levels of mental well-being, life satisfaction, connection to others, connection to nature, and so on and so forth. Much more needs to be uncovered about the links between psychedelic use, worldviews, and mental health.