How We Approach Psychedelics:
From Neuroplasticity to NeuroPLAYsticity
“Neuroplasticity” is the word lots of mental health professionals are now using to describe the positive effect of psychedelics; a process in which the brain sort of loosens up to grow again, becoming flexible and open to learning. (Children’s brains are highly “plastic.”) Plasticity is why researchers believe psychedelics show promise in helping individuals who are suffering from the more ruminative end of psychological suffering, what professionals neatly diagnose as “depression,” “anxiety,” “PTSD” and “addiction.” And it’s one reason why psychedelics help people in general, moving them from a sense of repetitiveness in their lives to a more expansive, awakened encounter with the world. In other words, aliveness.
At Cardea, we believe that this idea of “neuroplasticity” has things partly right. But we also think that this notion of “plasticity” is limited. Focused mostly on thinking, neuroplasticity misses the human element in psychedelic care: what we experience when our minds are more open and flexible. Psychedelics can help us feel life coursing through us, accelerate our awakening to the lives of other humans and living things, and also attune us to something a little harder to describe: our sense of our encounter between us and the world around us.
Play As A Means To Aliveness
To understand the relationship between playing and aliveness, we ask that you imagine a piece of clay in your hand. It’s earth, so it has been here for a long time before you. In one form or another, it will also remain here long after you’re gone. You begin to mold the clay and make it your own. That’s the first thing to understand about play: it’s the act of taking something into your hands or mind, that otherwise exists whether you do or not, and experiencing it as pliable.
With this clay feeling like something you can change, you begin to mold the clay and make it your own. Now it is held in two places: in your hand and in your imagination. Is that clay destined to become a mug? A toy elephant? A full-bellied moon? How about a moon/elephant mug with a cratered trunk to form the handle? Whatever the end result will be, it will be a creation; something that didn’t exist before you came onto the scene that now exists in a world that will go on with or without you in it. That’s the other part of play: this blending of your internal life with the outer world.
And from this comes the amazing part.
As you shape the wet earth, you feel a sense of life coursing through you; your soul stirs a little. The clay feels more alive in your hand than before you began to mold it, and as you encounter the life inherent in clay, the world around you feels a little more alive, too. Something miraculous has thus occurred: You’ve brought life to life.
Our experience teaches us that this sense of aliveness can free individuals from the painful suffering of deep psychological ruminations and habits as well as help people who are seeking a more awakened and expansive existence.
As we see it, psychedelics offer a “key to a key,” giving us access to play which opens the door to aliveness. You don’t need psychedelics to play, obviously, but they can help by bringing you to it. And when they do, something very important happens that always occurs when we are in a state of aliveness: we experience ourselves in relationship to the world outside and inside of us – to ourselves. When people speak of their psychedelic experiences as causing them to “feel connected to everything,” they are describing this place of relatedness.
Just as you don’t always feel aliveness, you don’t always experience yourself in relationship to the outer world and your inner life. In fact, you often feel just the opposite, a stark sense of isolation and emptiness, an experience of your emotions and thoughts like outside forces beyond you. And, again like aliveness, this is because, for whatever reason, you are unable to enter into a playful mindset. Play is always about being in relationship, since play is always an act of playing with something else, whether that be other people and beings, toys, ideas, imagination, words, tools, etc.
You can read more about the (yes!) relationship between play, aliveness and relatedness in our short book, called “Sacred Originality.” But for now, we know you know what it is to be related, just like we know you know what it’s like to feel alive. And we bet you can see how feeling alive and being related are really sort of the same thing: that you only feel alive in relationship to something else, and you only feel related in moments of aliveness.
The state of relatedness conjured in play isn’t just about a connection to the outside world: it’s also about having a relationship with ourselves through contemplation.
Contemplation and building a relationship with yourself
More science: Whether it be moving on from psychological suffering or heading toward greater expansion and meaning, people move forward when they are able to enter a state of contemplation, a–yes!–space in which they are able to look at themselves without too much judgment, holding their own experiences like clay in their hand. And space, indeed: the word contemplate meaning to be with temple: a somewhat quiet space in which one’s thoughts are allowed to roam freely, entering our imagination so we can look at all the sides of the beautifully infinitely-sided persons we are. In many ways, a contemplative mindset is the ultimate goal of good space-holding, a way in which one person provides the right environment for another to think more flexibly and curiously about themselves.