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NUMINOUS adj. /ˈnuːmɪnəs/ A term derived from the Latin numen, meaning "arousing spiritual emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring."

The Paradox of Letting Go in Psychedelic Experiences: A Psychedelic Conversation

The tension between control and surrender is pivotal in discussions about psychedelic experiences. In this context, Ben (not his real name), a participant at a Numinous Ways retreat, explores this paradox under the guidance of Sam, a psychotherapist and facilitator. These experiences challenge individuals to relinquish their usual mental and emotional controls to tap into their transformative potential. Control in daily life helps maintain safety, manage responsibilities, and ensures stability, acting as a foundation for competence. However, psychedelic experiences require a different form of engagement where traditional boundaries blur, and reality can seem altered, necessitating a surrender to the journey without attempting to steer its direction.

This creates a paradox where the everyday need for control conflicts with the need to let go during psychedelic experiences. Maintaining control can lead to resistance, manifesting as anxiety or fear, which may result in uncomfortable experiences. Conversely, too easy a surrender without adequate preparation can overwhelm an individual. Effectively managing this tension involves thorough preparation, building trust in the process and setting, and integrating the insights gained afterward into daily life. This balanced approach allows both control and surrender to coexist and enrich the individual’s life and growth. Sam uses metaphors and thoughtful dialogue to help Ben navigate his journey of struggle, understanding, and eventual surrender, providing philosophical reflections and practical advice for those exploring similar paths.

A Psychedelic Conversation

Ben just walked out of the breath-work session soon after it had started. I followed and caught up with him. The breath-work was winding him up, and he wanted to talk about the big trip he had planned for tomorrow. His first trip had been revealing he said, but he was missing something.

‘How do I let go?’ He said powerfully, ‘I cannot do it, I tried really hard. I am saying to myself that I am letting go, I am surrendering, but I just kept popping out. My brother came to me again and again, the fucker. The one who wished I’d never been born. I felt things. I was definitely tripping.’ 

‘But you weren’t there where you wanted to be, you knew. There was somewhere else, but you couldn’t find it?’

‘That’s right I just couldn’t let go.’ He replied, searchingly.

‘So what I noticed is that you were talking in your trip, like we explored earlier on. Talking keeps us in our everyday mind, its a way of naming things, separating them. Language works in our everyday to make sure that we don’t bump into things, to use them in a correct way, to manipulate them, to get others to do what we want. Think of our names, how they distinguish us from others, literally separate us. So you talking to yourself is a way of staying in the known world, of comforting yourself. Even as you are telling yourself to let go you are holding on. You are trying to make everyday sense out of something that doesn’t make sense through words.’ 

Ben looked at me earnestly. ‘Holding on. Yes I could feel it. So you are saying don’t talk. But then what?’
‘It’s like you are standing in front of a door, its open just a little but you are not walking through. You are looking at the door, and saying to yourself, there is a door, there is something beyond it but I don’t know what’s through that door on the other side, If I could just see what’s there first before I go through it.’

‘Yes, so its like I know something is there but I am not able to reach it. I am afraid to walk in. And you are saying that even as I tell myself to relax I am holding myself back?’

‘Ok lets try this. What I would like to do is encourage you to sigh out loud when you want to talk in your next trip, a long sigh on your out-breath, so you are literally and physically inviting your body to relax rather than mentally, and that may trigger your mind to let go.’

‘Ok, but..’

‘Sure that’s not enough. That’s a practical thing that you can do, but your mind is very powerful, you have had to fight to still be here, you are not going to give that up easily.’

Yes surrendering, people say just surrender. But if I had surrendered in the past… it’s not a neutral term you know.’ I carried on. We were looking each-other in the eyes. ‘You are hugely determined, think of how you built yourself a new career. To master that, the practice, the determination, the bloody mindedness. But that strength, that has enabled you to get here. The way you attempted…’

‘Yes, I used absolute bloody-mindedness and a refusal to quit…’

‘So you go all the way in what you do. Taking no prisoners. And that skill, to make it this far, is also paradoxically what you need to let go of. The more determined you are to let go the more you are trying to use the mind to go somewhere that the mind, your mind as you know it, cannot is scared as hell because it means by letting go it won’t be in control anymore.’

‘So you are saying that how I built my career, how I have kept myself alive, how I managed to survive everything my brother threw at me is now getting in my way?’

‘Yes that’s it.’

He continues. ‘And the way that I work, and then train in the gym and then I just scroll aimlessly, fall asleep and then do the same again. I only have 2 modes, grinding and zoning out. I am protecting myself from something. That’s why I cannot find a really satisfying relationship, I stop myself first…’ Ben looks away, seeming to be with the heart ache, the longing to discover another way of living, of understanding how to surrender without giving up.’

I continue. ‘Perhaps a different metaphor will help, imagine you are standing on the bank of a river, now your goal is to go into the river and let it wash you away. You want it to wash you away but each time you try to surrender to it, to lie down in the water you feel that his act of surrender will kill you. So you fight against it, but at the same time you have opened the flood gates, the psilocybin that you have taken is like the river flooding, but you keep your head above the water, terrified of drowning. That would be useful if you weren’t safe here in the retreat centre, with the other men in the pod who you have made friends with, the other facilitators who you trust. If there was danger around that you needed to be vigilant of, the dangers of growing up, of being a young man, if they were here, not just inside of you, you would be right not to trust. But you are safe, here and you know it, but now you are scared of the inside, scared of the dangers you will find, or will find you if you let go. But remember that the river will only take you away for between 4-6 hours, and then the waters will subside, you will find yourself washed up on the other bank, wondering how the hell you got there, but it will be you, even more of you we could say than before.’

So now as you come back from the trip you will have lost your clothes in the river, and the rucksack of tools you carry with you to keep you safe, its empty. Now, scattered in front of you are your survival techniques, your ideas of how life works, your years of practice at staying in control, of managing anxiety, of not letting others in, survival skills that you once needed, that formed who you once were. But now you realise that they were all needed in the past, your perspective has changed, you have been washed away in the present, in the torrent of creative power that is the psychedelic, so changed that you realise some of these survival skills might be redundant. You can start filling up your rucksack again, but the past that you carried with you is now just that. It’s past. You lost your personal identity and became one with the river of life. You
realised your true nature. What seemed so big, so overwhelming in the past seems small now. Even death may seem small to you now. You have become life itself, so yes you need your self, with a little ‘s’ to get around, to catch a bus, but you don’t need to run the same programmes anymore. The same thoughts don’t need to loop around. These habits they used to be part of you, you couldn’t separate from them. Now after the trip you are wondering whether to pick them up again, turning them over in your mind.

‘Ok, so some people are better at letting go? They don’t need such a big dose to let go, but I need a lot of mushrooms?’

‘How much are you planning on taking again tomorrow?’ I ask.

‘I’m planning on a full dose initially, followed by a smaller booster dose later on to extend the experience,’ he replies.

‘That’s a lot, but it’s also safe to take that much. Yes, so you are stepping into a raging river
in the hope that it will carry you away, but remember those people, you must have seen them,
they have taken a psychedelic in an unsafe environment, perhaps at a party or a festival and
they are literally freaking out, convinced that they are having a bad trip, they are grabbing
hold of your arm and pleading with you or someone else to save them. The mind is so strong
you see, when it really isn’t safe, or you have memories of surrender in general being an
unsafe thing to do, it can even stop you from becoming life itself, from even losing your fear
of death and having an experience of divine bliss. So there you are creating a river, saying,
‘come on then, let me have it,’ and then holding on to the bank for dear life.’
’Ok.‘ Ben replies, ‘I need to let go of what has kept me safe, to discover that I am safe?’
‘That’s it, absolutely. And then you can discover that you are life itself. You walk through that
door, into the unknown, the unknowable, the experience of Self that is ineffable, beyond
words, or to use the water metaphor, you leap in the river and are swept away. And so what
happens next during your trip?
‘Well I am bloody well hoping that you are going to tell me?’
‘You disappear.’
‘I do?’

‘Yes. You become one with everything. There is no separate self to say, ‘I am looking at this.’ ‘I am feeling that.’ You are the feeling. You are the seen. You are the seeing. All at the same time. You realise that the bank is the river. The river is the bank, and if I know you, you start laughing to yourself, but then you don’t know if you are the laughter, the air, the mouth laughing’

‘That sounds crazy. And I am worried about going insane. What if I go mad? What if people look at me and think, bloody hell that guy is nuts, he has gone insane. That worries me.’ Again the earnest enquiring look spreads across Ben’s face. ‘Sure it does, at the moment. But all of that is swept away. The idea of something ‘other’, an
other judging you, or you judging you, of you being separate and the whole idea of judgement itself becomes ridiculous. And anyway the facilitators are not going to judge you, and the other’s? Well they are all tripping their tits off.’

Ben laughs for a moment. ‘So I don’t care?’ ’You are not even there to care.’ ‘I am not there, so I am dead?’

‘Psychedelics are great for end of life anxiety. Perhaps you are dead in a sense, whatever dead is, or just more alive than you have been for years. So alive that you are dead to who you thought you were.’

‘And I will just pick up where I left off afterwards. So there is nothing to worry about? You are saying that I will come back again?’

‘Exactly. You are there again as you start coming down, but this time with more agency.’

’Agency, I love that word. Say more.’

‘You are more free on the other side. Your survival techniques, some of them stopped you from being who you are, some of them were getting in the way, in the way of love, of being loved and being loving. These had become part of your personality, now you see them scattered around you, and you can chose whether you need to pick them up or not. You have lost what may have been self-defeating habits, You may find that before you were recreating the past, a past that was holding you prisoner. That doesn’t mean you cannot keep yourself safe when you need to, you however are not pre-empting danger and staying in fight/flight mode.’

‘Ok. But this is just knowledge. I mean it’s brilliant the way you have described it. But that’s not the same as experiencing it. You are using words after all.’

‘That’s true. And to follow the Taoists, ‘those who speak do not know,’ because words separate us from who we really are. So yes that’s right, so you need something that you can tell yourself as you see the river coming, something that will help you to leap in, or just lie down. Remember that when you have discovered you can breath underwater, you will come up again to the surface in your trip and you might say something like’ ‘Wow!!! And then back
in you will go.’

‘Dani said that is exactly the experience she would wish for me. Christoph said to ask the mushrooms to help me let go.’

‘That sounds like great advice.’

2 hours later. Just before the trip. ‘Sam I am so scared right now.’ And Ben holds out his
arms for a hug.
‘Yes, that makes sense, also what about if its a good thing to be afraid – you are about to do
something really important!’
‘Yes I am.’
4 hours later; ‘F**k me, F*****g amazing.’ He goes under again, face in a state of bliss.
The next day Ben explores his experience in our pod meeting; ‘You were fucking right. I
don’t believe in God or anything, but oh God! I cannot describe it, I walked though the door,
into the river, whatever.. I don’t even know what happened, but fucking hell. It was
incredible. (Tears in his eyes). So wonderful, (More tears) And there was all the stuff with my
brother and I was just like, fuck that’s so small. And there is me, and there is this… this, and
then I…f****g amazing. So beautiful.. SO beautiful.’
‘I think you have rediscovered awe. You let go. Now things that were overwhelming you are
‘right sized’ as Dani said?
(Breathing out and sighing.) There’s just so much, its… I cannot describe it… there are no


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