Psychedelics and Self-Actualization
Perched at the apex of the pyramid illustrating Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, you will notice a mystifying concept— self-actualization.
To Maslow, the pinnacle of human existence meant the pursuit of self-actualization. After one meets the basic physiological needs and attains a certain level of love and comfort, then the individual begins to explore and realize his or her full potential.
Maslow’s theory was first published in the early 20th century and has since received its fair share of criticism. Still, Maslow’s approach has permeated into mainstream awareness because the structure of the hierarchy makes sense to the average layman.
It makes so much sense, in fact, that the desire for self-actualization, for realizing the full human potential and becoming better, has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar mega-industry. Self-help books, fitness trainers, gym memberships, health foods, non-profit, even for-profit social ventures are always promising the customer some self-fulfillment or satisfying development.
These tools and services can all be very useful. But they can’t work magic alone. Too many people expect to buy something or pay someone and have the work done for them. They want to set and forget any questions of restlessness or potential. It doesn’t work like that. Self-actualization is an ongoing, self-critical, challenging process. No product can change that fact, and no product should.
So, what now?
In a culture awash with distractions, how can someone interested in personal growth navigate past the emotionally enticing services sold around every corner? How can they understand and, even, challenge their greatest potential?
Two ways come to mind:
- Reaffirm self-actualization as a process that is rewarding because it is a process
- Use psychedelics
Self-Actualization As A Process
As an animal, it is part of our nature and instinct to seek. Exploring gives our life meaning and pleasure. It takes us from A to B. Humans need this ability to grow. Self-actualization, ultimately, is a more sophisticated and knowledgeable version of this primitive, seeking instinct.
But a big problem arises when people expect an external pursuit to finish the job. For, pursuing an external object for internal satisfaction will never amount to becoming a whole, permanently satisfied being.
Seeking and self-actualization are processes. They must constantly be pursued for a person to remain happy. Think of your left bicep. Yes, you can train your bicep to lift or move certain amounts of weight and accomplish. But, to maintain a high level of strength, you must test it. You must subject it to the timeless pursuit of bicep curls and one-arm pull-ups (maybe?) If you do not test it, the bicep will become weaker.
Unfortunately, many people mistake their natural desire to evolve as a hassle to deal with, like pulling a tooth. When they can’t shake their seeking impulses, they often misunderstand such desires as an outcome of unfulfillment or lacking.
But this idea of seeking, of exploration, signifies a person’s basic needs are met. People should feel blessed to have the urge to seek, because it means they are ready to become better.
Treating self-actualization as an instinctual process allows a person to hear their internal voice, instead of seeking the final attainment of an external object or achievement. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
After realizing this, you will no longer expect objects to save you from imperfection. Instead, you will begin to focus on the tools that can help you continue to explore and grow.
Which brings us to those lovely drugs called psychedelics.
“Pursuing an external object for internal satisfaction will never amount to becoming a whole, permanently satisfied being.”
Psychedelics As A Tool For Self-Actualization
Currently, we are within a period of resurgent interest in psychedelics, specific to how such substances uncover mysteries about the nature of our mind. Recently, scientists revealed brain scans of people under the influence of LSD. The scans showed increases in activity between areas of the brain that usually do not communicate with each other.
The results go a long way in supporting the idea that psychedelic usage takes us out of our “default mode network”, or DMN. The DMN is a name given to the network of brain regions accounting for everyday patterns of thought, including memories, ruminations, judgments, and all the thoughts that contribute to the sense of self.
The default network, more or less, is responsible for thoughts in your head that appear like an unexpected present from your Great Aunt at Christmas. Yes, you weren’t expecting them. Yes, sometimes the gifts are most excellent. But many times, you only get the same pair of gray wool socks that came in the stocking last year.
Still, in other situations, these default thoughts become barriers. They stand between you and your better self. Chronic anxieties, grudges, fears, and doubts remain common to any person who calls himself a homo sapiens. And since they are endemic to humankind, we often tie them to aspects of human character. Many times they remain this way – at least as long as you allow them to control your actions and limit your beliefs.
Psychedelics, however, provide a radically different and liberating experience, removing you from this default mode. Aside from the science, there is a wealth of anecdotal testimony attesting to the transformative and educational effects of psychedelics. Seasoned psychedelic users (a.k.a. Psychonauts), or even those lucky enough to have experienced a single transformative trip, often report losing their sense of self.
Many have used psychedelics to help find new solutions for old problems. Psychedelics make many users feel like children, a byproduct of the decreased default mode network activity, which becomes cemented during adulthood. Often, users discover new insights, or examine habitual thoughts, behaviors, and feelings from an outside or detached perspective.
Psychedelics, when under controlled and informed use, offer so much more than out-of-this-world hallucinations or funny stories. In truth, these substances reveal deeper aspects of self by expanding consciousness.
As a tool, psychedelics can be used to confront challenging aspects about one’s self, to examine and re-examine goals, desires, and beliefs from a new perspective, and to discover hidden facets of our minds that have been obscured by default, automatic thinking.
In realizing your potential, having the ability to step back and perceive your life from a different perspective proves incredibly valuable.
As You Think, So Shall You Become
The beauty of self-actualization as a process comes from its expansive nature— your potential is only limited by imagination. And when self-actualization becomes an enjoyable process, you experience discontent without feeling shameful, knowing that it signifies bounty and human instinct.
Psychedelics play an important role in self-actualization by acting as a powerful tool in overcoming our default mode, which often provides limiting, discouraging, or misguided thoughts and beliefs. Furthermore, the experience of an altered state of mind while under psychedelic influence often acts as a wake-up call.
In taking psychedelics, the point is not to just ‘get high’ and replicate the empty process of chasing to feel fulfilled.
Rather, consuming such substances provides an insight into the possibility of a different way of thinking. It shows you that there is more to your mind than you know. It provides new content for you to think about, and entirely new perspectives and lenses to view such novel content through.
As Bruce Lee said, “As you think, so shall you become”. When you take the plunge to explore your mind, you consequently explore our own possibilities.
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