A psychedelic journey into OCD
A conversation about consciousness with the doyenne of psychedelics, Amanda Feilding
I wasn’t raised to think about my mind through the lens of consciousness. As a child of the western mental health system, I’d inherited a suspicion of anything resembling depth psychology and a blind faith in cognitive behavioural therapy. The latter eased the acute OCD which had once made me suicidal and gave me enough relief to start feeling happy. But it did nothing to dislodge the more ineffable discomfort that still returns every day: a tightness in my chest; an existential anxiety; mechanistic, automatic thoughts. It felt like something was stuck. But where? Not in my “unconscious”. I’d been taught that was a dirty word.
The first chink in my rigid perceptions came two years ago when, during a meditation retreat, I had what I can only – and still embarrassingly – call a transcendent experience: 90 minutes of shimmering, unbroken consciousness, glowing lights, all-body-tingles and expansive, endless love. As a sceptic and an agnostic atheist, “God” was not a go-to explanation. And my secularism, which had given me no lexicon for spirituality, left me uncomfortable with how corny and banal it all sounded. Try saying “oneness with the universe” to a bunch of yuppies and watch the eyebrows rise.
When I started researching to better understand what had happened to me, my curiosity was piqued to discover there was an overlap in phenomenology and neurophysiology, between deep meditation states and psychedelic states. Had I experienced a kind of sober trip? How could a mind which was usually so sticky with worry become so radically altered? It was the first time I’d considered that there was another way of being beyond my default, churning neuroticism.
So I approached Amanda Feilding, not just because she’s one of the most influential people in psychedelic science and an icon of the British anti-establishment, but because she’s an artist and a philosopher, and exploring consciousness seems as much an artistic task as a scientific one. What was my “stuckness”, and could a big dose of psychedelics set me free?
Feilding, 76, Countess of Wemyss and March, has always lived at Beckley Park, a moated 16th century hunting lodge in Oxfordshire. I am welcomed by staff through its studded Tudor door into a flagstoned sitting room. Every surface is lined with paintings, artefacts, treasures, curios. Feilding enters: tall, graceful and charismatic. We sit in front of the fire. She leans in and speaks softly. What brought me here?
I tell her. “It’s like there’s something locked inside”. I place one hand on my sternum and the other on my throat. “A physical constriction. Something beyond words. I’m on a personal quest to understand it.”
She nods: “Everything I’ve ever done has started with a personal quest.”
Feilding’s fascination with consciousness started young, fed by the romanticism and isolation of Beckley Park – “it was a kingdom unto itself here” – and by the books on philosophy and psychology her father encouraged her to read. She had mystical experiences as a child. She remembers feeling overwhelming, all-consuming empathy over paintings of Christ crying. I’m reminded of similar experiences in my own childhood, which sound too much like the ghastliest of song lyrics to retell here (yes, there were angels involved).
As a teenager, Feilding was the Oxbridge hopeful at her Catholic school. She requested books on Buddhism and mysticism from the nuns. “They said ‘no’, I said ‘bye’”. And at 16 she left England with £25 in her pocket to travel the world. “I created my own education.”
It wasn’t until nine years later, in 1965, that Feilding first took LSD. “A man who’d become my boyfriend had synthesised it in his kitchen in Ibiza, and after turning the island on, he brought it here.” What was it like? “Like a trip to the funfair.” The experience lit a fire underneath Feilding. She wanted to discover everything she could about consciousness through this new tool.
But by then the moral panic over LSD had begun. The first wave of research in the 1950s and 60s had started to show the therapeutic potential of psychedelics in treating depression, addiction, anxiety and the existential suffering of dying. When the molecules seeped out of the lab and onto the street, they got entangled with the ’60s spirit of resistance: “People went to the park and took LSD with their girlfriends rather than go to a jungle and get shot at. It was considered a threat to the establishment.” The US made LSD illegal in 1970. The UK in 1973.
So Feilding did her own thing, namely four decades of personal experimentation, scientific research and creative collaborations. At 27, while examining the effect of changes in blood flow on consciousness, she famously trepanned herself (drilled a hole in her skull) and filmed it. An audience member fainted during the New York screening of the resulting art doc, Heartbeat in The Brain. As someone who’s just emptied the contents of their head in a very public way through my TV show, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Feilding’s method of putting herself at the centre, literally, of her own learning.
In 1998, Feilding founded the Beckley Foundation, a psychedelics think tank based in the ancient cowhouse next door, which carries out research and lobbies for evidence-based policy reform. Why? “So I could go into the House of Lords and the UN, like a Trojan horse, armed with science.” In recent studies carried out as part of the Beckley Foundation research programme, psychedelics were found to dramatically improve treatment-resistant depression and help people quit smoking. Beckley hopes to see prohibition lifted so that millions can be helped legally in therapeutic settings.
But for now, no such settings exist, which is why last year I found myself on a gonzo psilocybe truffle-buying mission. It was not my intention to trip. I’ve read enough about these substances to know that someone of an anxious disposition should approach “the big one” with care and consideration. But I wanted to acquaint myself by experimenting in small doses.
Rookie error number one was getting them posted to my work address. Rookie error number two was being away for the delivery and therefore leaving them festering in a pigeon hole for a week and a half before retrieving them.
“What kind of a package is it”, said the post room attendant.
“I mean like, ASOS or contact lenses or what?”
“Just a small – to medium sized – package”.
I squirrelled the tiny jiffy bag home and opened it to reveal a clear plastic pouch of nobbly golden hazelnut-type growths. Vacuum packing had safeguarded against rot but they’d started to discolour. Worried, I took to Google. It was of paramount importance that I dried them immediately in a culinary dehydrator – the kind used for desiccating coconut and jerky. I stroked my imaginary beard at the open kitchen cupboard for many minutes before suspending the truffles in a tea infuser in front of an electric table fan and tended to them like a fretful mother bird all afternoon. By nightfall, when they still hadn’t dried, I texted my housemate.
“Pls don’t turn off the oven babe I’m baking.”
The gas mark numbers had rubbed off years ago so I couldn’t tell you the temperature, but it was very low (too high and you’ll kill their chemical potency). By morning they were little woody rocks and therefore, I hoped, preserved. I guessed the grammage of a small dose by eye, chopped the truffle and put it in hot water to make a “tea”. The chunks floated and got stuck in my teeth so I fished them out and ate them off a spoon. Then went to work.
The effects were mild but tangible. I felt energised, sharp, effective. Like I’d taken a few Pro Plus. I banged out what felt like hundreds of emails. The productivity could’ve easily come from placebo. There’s not yet any data on the effects of so called microdosing, but Feilding and her collaborators are currently carrying out the biggest ever self-blinding study into it.
Why bother tiptoeing into psychedelics when I could just go to the park and get fucked up? Because I know I need to be held metaphorically and often literally by people and places that make me feel safe. In the UK, in 2019, there are no such psychedelic safe spaces. No legal ones anyway…
As coffee and shortbreads arrive, I ask Feilding what discoveries her science has uncovered. “We’ve shown that psychedelics reduce activity in the Default Mode Network”, she says. The DMN is a collection of hub centres that work together to control consciousness, policing the amount of sensory information that enters our sphere of awareness. It watches every coming and going so you don’t have to. It is the over-zealous bouncer at the doors of your mind; or “the doors of perception” as psychonaut Aldous Huxley put it.
The riff-raff it turns away ranges from “useless” information you don’t need to re-learn (like the outline shape of trees), to potentially harmful information (like the sudden nightmarish dread I felt as a child when I had my first intrusive violent thoughts). Under trauma, the theory goes, the DMN’s hyper-control works devastatingly well, physically blocking off neural pathways to pain in an attempt to keep us safe. It suppress emotion in the moment and in doing so, prevents it from being vented in the long term. It regulates, tightens, suppresses.
“That might explain the constricted feeling in your chest,” Feilding suggests. “Traumas cut paths in the brain, like your trauma has cut a path in yours, that are very deep and difficult to get at.”
It’s thought that psychedelics work by disrupting the DMN’s rigidity, reducing its stronghold on the brain and allowing buried information to resurface. This may explain why trippers report accessing and letting go of deep childhood pain.
In 2016 Feilding teamed up with Dr Robin Carhart-Harris and Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London in a groundbreaking study which visualised this process for the first time. The study produced two neuroimages: one of the brain on LSD, fired up and glowing as it forms new connections, unshackled by the DMN. The other shows a diminutive centre of activity – the DMN’s closed fist. It was a watershed moment in the literature.
It’s sunny outside, so Feilding and I take a walk. Her dogs follow us along the cobbled paths through the clipped box gardens and evergreen topiary. The surrounding trees are massive and ancient, as high as the red brick house with its three gabled towers. A huge kite hunts overhead. It’s poetic here. I ask Feilding about language because I’m struck by how beautifully she uses it and yet how absent it is from the psychedelic therapy she champions.
In CBT you’re encouraged to use words actively. You rationalise. You change musts to shoulds. You correct false beliefs. As if beliefs were just pieces of language that could be erased if you rubbed hard enough, rather than a complex interplay of emotions and neurobiology. I’m in the business of talk. I idolise words. And yet they’ve never managed to fully explain or render my most profound and painful experiences. Why?
“Words mean we do all the incredibly brilliant things we do, and also why we’re kind of blind, myopic and dangerous,” Feilding says. “When a baby is born, their worlds are very fluid. Words haven’t got into it yet. It’s primal consciousness.” She theorises that as a baby develops, words like “no” and “stop” become enmeshed with the inhibitory conditioning which keeps us from harm (i.e. “stop: don’t touch the stove”) that they’re part of a blocking off rather than an opening up, which makes them poor tools for people like me trying to explore the mind.
“So when we started this conversation and I said that something in me felt beyond words, maybe it’s physically beyond words?” I ask.
“Yes, that’s my theory: prohibitive brain structures become so solid and fixed as they try to protect us. If trauma is very deep, I don’t think words can get down to where it’s set. Maybe the ways have been blocked off, because it’s too dangerous for the psyche to go there.”
For a writer this is a sobering yet liberating thought. Maybe I’ve been using the wrong tools all this time. The hours of words I’ve spoken to therapists. Those jotted in scrapbooks. The thousands more I’ve written as memoirs. Perhaps they could only ever pick at the lock of the door.
“I think it was Plato who described everyday consciousness as just seeing shadows on a wall,” Feilding adds. “Words form the veils between you and real consciousness.”
Lunch is nearly ready. We sit on the lawn drinking pomegranate juice and start talking the law. LSD, MDMA and magic mushrooms are all Schedule 1 substances. If you’re caught supplying them, you could get up to life in prison. On par with rapists and murderers. Feilding is the most animated I’ve seen her. “This devastating barricade of prohibition has caused more suffering to society than almost any other,” she says. “We have the right of cognitive liberty, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. The right to do what we like with our own consciousness.”
In 2009, Feilding’s colleague Professor Nutt was fired from his position as chief drugs advisor to the UK government for saying that horse-riding was more dangerous than MDMA. However true, this could not be admitted publicly. “It’s so arbitrary,” I say.
“Yes, the ruling government is just a projection of the ego in the brain. A person’s ego is trying to keep everything under control, and the grip of the government is a projection of that. It doesn’t like revolt.”
“The government is our default mode network,” I reply.
“A projection of it, yes.”
Emboldened by the neatness of Feilding’s metaphor, I share one I’ve been toying with all morning: “I was thinking: psychedelics destabilise deep-rooted unhelpful systems in the brain. And that’s what you’ve done in your career. It takes a unique and special molecule to disrupt the brain and you’re obviously a unique and special person. Your work has been entropic and disruptive, just like psychedelics.”
“Yes, I’ve been very lucky,” she says. “I think you’re a projection of what’s inside. As within, so without, and all that.” Lunch arrives. Trout with Hollandaise. “The tide changed in the 1960s and psychedelics research was shut down,” I say. “Could it happen again?”
“I don’t think so. I think our force has won through.”
We’re on the cheesecake by the time we reach the hinge of my quest and the quests of millions like me: access. How do we access therapists who can guide us through psychedelic experiences safely? To even ask the question feels transgressive and the conversation falters. We are gagged. That’s the subtle attack on dignity that authoritarianism achieves – self-censorship. “I can’t get a name, Amanda”.
“I know,” she says.
In the beats of silence that follow, I feel a wash of hopelessness. To think that long before my brain finished growing, it was trying to protect the child in its care from events beyond my control. It laid tripwires to sound the alarm at emotions that could hurt me, and in doing so sealed off forever a pain that 20 years later still wakes me up at night. The access is blocked. As within, so without.
Yet change is coming. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy will be part of our near future, Feilding believes, and she’s actively working 15 hours a day towards that vision. “When I was a kid I wanted to water the desert. As I got older I realised the desert was the human brain. That’s what we need to water.” She gestures behind us, towards the ancient redbrick building. “When I tripped here, I saw this house as a red boat in which I could sail the world and hopefully spread happiness. So in a way this has all been the fulfilment of a dream.”
Dreams don’t change the law but science does, and it’s just as beautiful. Beckley’s imaging studies show the birth of new neurons – neurogenesis. Under altered states of consciousness new dendrons spread out in our brains. New synapses are created. So even the deepest trenches of the “unconscious” – a word which, in light of recent neuroscience, we clinical sceptics might now use without embarrassment – are not immutable. What emerges from this conversation is a picture of consciousness that is not fixed and determined, but fluid and buzzing with possibility.
I was raised to think about my suffering as pathology. I was given a semantic field of diseases and cures and pills. Definitions with hard edges. Maybe I bought into that way of seeing because it gave me discrete linguistic containers – an established framework within which to write and talk. But that framework could not contain my experiences for long.
In the couple of years since the “sober trip”, I’ve started to see my mind not as having been faulty but as having tried its best to keep me safe – a shift away from the self-hatred that the West’s illness paradigm had instilled in me. By stopping for the first time in my life to pay attention to consciousness, I’d tripped on an insight: maybe a mind capable of reaching powerfully towards darkness can reach with just as much power in another direction towards something bright. Meditation gave me that intuition. Maybe one day psychedelics can help me know it more fully.
For me, the research at Beckley Park points less to the wonder of psychedelic molecules and more to the wonder of humans. Psychedelics do not work through external alien forces, they harness powerful endogenous mechanisms that have always been inside us; mechanisms we can spring in other ways, like through the neurochemical firestorm of falling in love, Feilding suggests. As I leave Beckley Park, crossing the moat and walking through the old deer grounds towards the road, I’m reminded of Stephen King’s advice to aspiring writers, which is surely scrawled in scrapbooks everywhere, as it is in mine: “Remember Dumbo didn’t need the feather, the magic was in him.”