“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.” -Sent-ts’an c.700 C.E
I’ve had my ego distorted by psychedelics a few times. I don’t regret any of these experiences, because they are not bad trips, they’re lessons. But I wish I had a technique to fall onto in those times of existential angst. As a younger man, I had powerful and persuasive thoughts arise while on psychedelics that scared me. Once they arose, I’d actively try to not think about them.
This caused me a few unnecessary lessons, but the lessons led me to research, and thus we are here. I’ve found some science to help me understand why my mind did this, and a technique to help me through those moments. I’d like to share this with you, and if this helps even one psychonaut when the Unconscious comes rushing and crushing, it’ll make the work worth it. (To get right to the technique, scroll to “Surf-The-Urge Technique.”
(All unattributed quotations are from Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct.)
Daniel Wegner, who is now a professor of psychology at Harvard University, was interested in white bears. He had heard a story about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s older brother asked him to not move from his spot until he could stop thinking about a white bear. The brother left and returned in the evening to find Tolstoy still struggling in his chair. This led Wegner to do an experiment.
What is now the famous “White Bear” study, Wegner asked 17 college students to do anything but think of a white bear. They couldn’t (for the curious, read chapter Nine of The Willpower Instinct). Wegner dubbed this effect “ironic rebounding.” When we specifically try not to think of something, due to the way our mind works, we will always think about that thing. Robert Anton Wilson would be delighted if he heard how Wegner attempted to explain this.
The Operator, Monitor, and Ol Bob
Wegner suggested the reason ironic rebounding happens is due to the mind dividing the task between two parts of the brain; the operator and the monitor. When we tell ourselves to not think of a white bear, our operator thinks of everything but the bear. However, the monitor is the checker. It is constantly running in the background to monitor whether or not we are indeed not thinking about the bear. Eventually, the operator will tire or lose focus, and the monitor will seep into the conscious mind, and the thing it had attempted to make sure we didn’t think about becomes thought about.
Robert Anton Wilson divided the mind into the Thinker and the Prover. The Thinker is the conscious mind. The Prover is automatic. It will continually work to attempt to help the Thinker. The Thinker needs to be careful how it directs the Prover.
The implications are beyond the breadth of this post, but as it applies to the exploring psychonaut, there is a very practical application.
Avoiding Ironic Rebounding
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., suggests in The Willpower Instinct;
“How can you find your way out of this confusing dilemma? Wegner suggests an antidote to ironic rebound that itself, is ironic; Give up. When you stop trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions, they stop controlling you. Studies of brain activation confirm that as soon as you give participants permission to express a thought they were trying to suppress, that thought becomes less primed and less likely to intrude into conscious awareness. Paradoxically, permission to think a thought reduces the likelihood of thinking it.”
Do not resist any thought. Do not go into a trip with the mindset of avoiding any kind of experience. When you do this you prime your Monitor to look for any signs of this experience and inevitably, it will arrive.
James Erskine, a psychologist at St. George’s University of London took Wegner’s research further;
“Erskine suspects that the process of ironic rebound is behind all of our self-sabotaging behavior, from the breaking a diet, to smoking, drinking, gambling, and having sex (presumably, with someone you’re not suppose to be swapping DNA with.”
His hypothesis is, if the Operator/Monitor is really how our minds work, then whenever we focus on a goal by focusing on what not to do, we are setting ourselves up to fail. His remedy; turn the “I won’t” into an “I will.” (Instead of trying to not think about life’s lack of objective meaning, seek to find awe in the immensity of the sun or the beauty of a blooming flower.)
So, what is the scientifically supported technique for psychonauts experiencing a challenging trip?
In one of the cruelest experiments I have seen approved, twelve smokers were asked to not smoke for 12 hours then to come into the lab. They were sat in a room with chairs facing the walls so they couldn’t see each other. Each were given a pack of cigarettes. The cruelty came into play once they thought they could start smoking. They were asked to wait five minutes between each micro task of the smoking ritual.
Take pack out of pocket. Wait five minutes. Unroll foil, wait five minutes. “Pack” the cigarettes, wait five minutes. Pull one out, wait five minutes. This went on for 90 minutes! Half of the women were taught the Surf-The-Urge Technique, half weren’t. They only did this torture once, and were monitored for four weeks.
“By day seven, the control group showed no change, but those surfing the urge had cut back 37 percent. Giving their cravings their full attention helped them take positive steps towards quitting smoking.”
The Surf-The-Urge Technique
When you feel an urge, sensation, feeling or thought that triggers the automatic response to resist, take 90 seconds and simply notice the sensation. Where in the body do you feel it? Is it hot or cold? Is it sudden, pulsating, or constant? Does it increase in intensity or fade? Does it have a shape or a color?
Use the breath as your anchor. Breathe into the sensation. And imagine the thought as a wave. Watch it approach, feel yourself glide over it, and feel it float away. All of our emotions and urges are in this wave form. Do not try to stop the wave. Surf the urge.
When you are in the midst of a psychedelic trip your conscious mind may not have the reins. In order to have a chance of using this technique when you need it most, you’ll need to make it a habit. If you meditate, incorporate this into your practice, if you don’t meditate, start. It’s simple.
Make the commitment to sit still and attempt to keep your mind on the rise and fall of your breath. To practice this technique, meditate as long as it takes for the urge to move arises (this may only take a couple minutes.) When you feel the urge to scratch your nose or adjust a limb, this is when Surfing the Urge starts.
Notice the sensation. Feel where it arises, it’s intensity, and don’t resist, but don’t accept it. Just notice. After 90 seconds, itch the itch, move the limb. You did it.
Write down the Implementation Intention “When I wake up, I will practice the Surf-the-Urge technique for 90 seconds.” Get a notecard or calendar and draw big Xs on days you complete this challenge. And if you feel up to it, try to increase how long you surf the urge.
(Surprisingly, as I was gathering my notes for this post, I listened to Tim Ferriss’s recent podcast with the alien Tony Robbins and was happy to hear that Robbins has a technique very similar to this that he uses everyday. Check out the podcast and the amazing documentary “I am Not Your Guru.”)