How I Attained Persistent Self-Love, or, I Demand Deep Okayness For Everyone
it is possible to feel better than you think
In my life, there have been roughly two important psychological changes. The first was from being a suicidal bipolar person to being a reasonably functional person. The second, which happened over the last year, was finding something that you might call persistent self-love, or self-assurance, or, as I like to call it, Deep Okayness.
Deep Okayness is not the feeling that I am awesome all the time. Instead, it is the total banishment of self-loathing. It is the deactivation of the part of my mind that used to attack itself. It’s the closure of the self as an attack surface. It’s the intuitive understanding that I am merely one of the apertures through which the universe expresses itself, so why would I hate that? It’s the sense that, while I might fuck up, my basic worth is beyond question—I have no essential damage, I am not polluted, I am fine.
I have never felt better. And it’s only now that I’m aware of how much time I wasted despising myself, even when I was most functional. It was a lot of time.
The way I attained Deep Okayness has nothing to do with what normally happens in a therapist’s office. And that is of concern to me. Deep Okayness should be commonplace. We ought to make this possible for as many people as possible. I stumbled upon the possibility accidentally and pursued it haphazardly, and that’s very nice for me, but that simply will not do. If everyone had this, it would be a major advancement of the human project. It would be the mental health equivalent of the wide availability of penicillin.
Our current thinking around mental health is broken. The dominant paradigm, as far as I can tell, is that you’re basically either unwell or you’re okay, and our job is triage. You’re fucked up and depressed, so you do some therapy, and/or take an SSRI, and then you don’t kill yourself. The goal, the thing to expect, is homeostasis. You’re fine, life sucks but you know whatever. Maybe, at peak, you’re #blessed, things are going well right now. Occasionally, you have things like panic disorder or clinical depression that can’t be healed, and you’re in maintenance for the rest of your life.
I would like to replace it with the following paradigm. There is a spectrum of background mental states, from “suicidal/dissociated/freaked out” to “abiding peace, happiness, and energy.” Nearly everyone can get pretty far up that spectrum. Nearly everyone can experience profound healing and become thoroughly Okay. It is your birthright.
Getting up that spectrum, and staying there, can be accomplished with a number of different psychotechnologies. A psychotechnology is anything that can alter your relationship with self, from mainstream talk therapy, to all kinds of meditation, to well-applied hallucinogens, to newfangled forms of therapy like IFS, etcetera. Different psychotechnologies will be more or less appropriate to a given individual. Some will be powerful in combination. There is no one “path,” although some traditions have clusters of practices that will make most sense taken together, just like each kind of cuisine contains an internal coherence of flavor and texture. Seekers of happiness will achieve best results by curiously approaching the mass of psychotechnologies, and experimenting, with supervision/teaching as needed.
A better world of mental health, then, might start with a lot of good, well-written qualitative research into how different individuals have attained Deep Okayness, such that there is a thorough anecdotal understanding of the different monsters people tend to encounter in their own self-loathing dungeons, and how they can be slain. In this world, this research is then assembled into a sort of Monstrous Manual that can be learned and flexibly used by anyone who wants to be Okay or wants to help others become Okay.
Maybe this approach is not the right one. But we need something, we need to try something. The current state of mental health knowledge is absolutely unacceptable. It’s difficult to discern, based on large-scale experimental evidence, whether Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is more effective than psychoanalysis, which means that they aren’t impressive in their standard presentation—certainly much better than nothing, fine as a first step, but not transformative. For some disorders, they might be counterproductive. And yet these are the mainstays of standard clinical psychology. That’s where therapy ends, for most people, maybe with a little bit of casual mindfulness if you’re lucky, or a gratitude journal.
Meanwhile, mystics from many traditions have been reporting beautiful examples of emotional metamorphosis for thousands of years. Certain therapists/healers/teachers/priests/coaches seem to induce real, life-changing healing. What are they doing differently? What is going on? We can’t just give up and say that we do this thing called “mental health” which is less effective than religions that are thousands of years old. Surely we can synthesize the best knowledge and come up with new levels of understanding.
This document is an attempt to further that effort, by relating my own progress, and some conclusions I’ve made about certain psychotechnologies I’ve used. Don’t take it as a strict recommendation that you should do everything I did. Or even any one thing in particular. (Specifically, I don’t think hallucinogens are required, and they’re not always safe, though they were helpful, in my case.) Take it as a more general exemplar, a demonstration of what’s possible even in a totally unsystematic, lurching search for inner peace.
I do have one general piece of advice though. One thing I think is probably almost never incorrect if you’re interested in being Deeply Okay. It might make more sense after you read this whole thing, but:
Find ways to bring more and more of yourself into loving awareness. Every detail of your being. The ones you like, and the ones you don’t. Especially the ones you don’t, especially the parts that most repulse you. You know, loving awareness—even if you haven’t heard the phrase before, you know what it is. Those moments of spacious, calm, thorough, tranquil connection with whatever portion of existence you’re currently exposed to, where nothing is being challenged or conceptualized, but rather is just allowed to appear, in radiant suchness, without resistance or fear. That variety of existential condition.
See if you can look at yourself that way. See how other people do that. Try that stuff out. Not forcefully. Gently, but intently. Start to include everything in this perception, the total enfolding of you and not you. Understand that this can be complex. (If it’s destabilizing, back off, find a teacher, or a better teacher, or find others who are dedicated to this and see if they can help.) Let yourself be surprised, and love, as completely as possible, the surprising thing. See where that gets you.
This is, more than anything, that story. It is long.
(So long, in fact, that Gmail will truncate the email form of this post; if you’re reading this in your Gmail inbox, browse to the Substack for the full version.)
To get there, I’ll have to relate some weird experiences, because psychological transformation sometimes involves weird experiences. I owe you the truth, so if that involves sounding weird, I am content with this.
Before we get into it, let me tell you more about what Deep Okayness is like, and what it is not like.
What it is like
-Greater feelings of immersion in the world, sense of the sublime beauty of existence
-Greater affection for other people, directly connected to less worrying about what they think of me
-Less worrying about what type of shithead I am for not getting things done, more getting things done
-Less guilt, more skillful action to repair things done wrong in the past
-Easier time reaching deep meditative states, due to massive decrease in inner conflict
-Everything more pleasant
What it is not like
-Mania—I am sleeping and eating and acting more or less normally, it’s just smoother and better
-Lobotomization on a mood level, I am still aware of suffering in the world, and still feel sadness, it just seems less ‘personal,’ less like a threat
-Lobotomization on a tactical level, being less critical of self doesn’t mean I can’t figure out what is in my self-interest
-Self-absorption, I am more concerned than ever before with the well-being of others, both immediate and distant
-Passivity, I feel more assertive than ever, just in different ways
Step One: I made the rejected elements of myself legible through shadow integration, May 2021
Shadow work is something that a fair number of people reading this will be familiar with. But for those who aren’t, cool, welcome, here’s a recap.
Shadow work isn’t one methodology. Instead, it’s a general mode of approaching the self, and thus therapy. It has two precepts, basically.
There are parts of you that you reject, shove away, detest, try to disown. Maybe your secret pile of loathing, or the desires you resent yourself for having, or the shameful moments of pleasure you get from that little addiction you can’t get over. We can call this mass of rejected self the shadow.
A good chunk of the pain in your life, and a bunch of your maladaptive behavior, comes from conflict with the shadow, and your instinctual response—to engage more fiercely in this conflict—is exactly the opposite of what you need. If you want to move on with your life, you need to connect with and integrate your shadow or you will live in impotent inner struggle.
So there are lots of ways to do that, right? You could do it through art, talk therapy, journaling, lots of long walks in the woods, etcetera. I did it through a book called Existential Kink, which I was exposed to by accident. It was given to my wife by a creative coach she was working with. My wife basically never recommends books to me, so when she does, I drop everything else immediately. That’s how I accidentally got going.
I was at a funny point when I began. Superficially, I was getting by extremely well—mentally stable, solid income, marriage, house, friends. Internally, I had a lot of conflict, but I’d accepted a certain level of pervading background pain as normal. I didn’t understand the possibility of the alternative. I’d experimented through the years with meditation techniques and hallucinogens, which showed me that interesting altered states of mind were out there, but I didn’t feel like upgrading my mind was a possible/desirable/reasonable thing.
Existential Kink is a tremendously powerful book. I also find it off-putting. It’s written in a vernacular that I’d describe as funky feminine spiritual, which is fine but not personally my thing, and it contains lots of odd postulates I’d disagree with. However, the author, Carolyn Elliott, is clearly brilliant, and she came up with an idiosyncratic style of shadow integration that really worked for me, even though the presentation made me feel skeptical. (I only say these things about the presentation because I know a couple of people who have started reading it, found the aesthetic annoying, and stopped before absorbing the book’s insights, which I feel is a mistake.)
The best way to explain it would be to unpack the title, Existential Kink, a little bit. By “kink,” she means, like, BDSM. Let’s think about masochists for a second. Do masochists like pain? Apparently—they make others hurt them in all sorts of intricate ways, at great expense. But it’s probably not that getting whipped is exactly the same as getting a nice massage. Instead, it’s probably more that masochists relish pain. The drama and intensity of the pain is gratifying, and the accompanying endorphins are thrilling, and there is a comforting abandonment you can feel when you’re lost in an absorbing sensation. They treasure certain qualities of being hurt, even if it does really, actually, hurt.
Just like you, right? Admit it! You love your shitty life, your inner pain! You love the little dramas you put yourself through! You love failing in the same ways over and over again! Not superficially, not straightforwardly—but the ways that you self-sabotage serve desires that you’re too afraid to admit to, like maybe the desire for control. If you hurt yourself thoroughly enough, nobody else can do it as bad, right?
This is Carolyn Elliott’s prognosis for a lot of humanity. And, she says, the way you get out of it is simple: acceptance. Stop trying to trick yourself. Understand that the maladaptive things you do satisfy your dark desires. “Having,” goes the book’s central saying, “is evidence of wanting.” Just understand why you have engineered your own despair, and admire the engineering. And then, as if by magic, you will change.
If this seems confusing or unlikely or silly, that is fine. If this seems objectionable, that is also fine. It’s just a narrative framework. However, as narrative frameworks go, it has power. To demonstrate this, I’ll share the specifics of my Existential Kink experience.
EK centers around a meditation exercise, and that’s the best part of the book. If you want to do the exercise, I’d recommend reading the whole thing, because there’s a lot of helpful background. You might hate it, but you certainly won’t find it boring. However, I’ll tell you the basics.
First, EK asks you to look at a situation in your life that happens, over and over again, that you don’t like. In my case, that was: every fucking five minutes, I’d advance boldly into the world, and then, immediately afterwards, run away in shame. Like, I’d go through these jags where I’d write a lot, tweet a lot, make new friends, generally exist thoroughly in the world, and then, at the slightest sign of being misunderstood/unappreciated/unseen, I’d stop, retreat, lambaste myself for ever having been so foolish as to disturb the world with my presence, and feel bad about myself.
Once your personal drama is in your mind, EK asks you to recall the sensations associated with this situation, and then try to enjoy and appreciate them. So, I did that. I called to mind how crestfallen and alone I felt, how dirty and terrible, during the moment when I went from thinking I was unspeakably brilliant to thinking I wasn’t worthy of oxygen. I felt my nausea, aloneness, confusion. And I thought, man, that’s so fun.
Like, it was so cool that I’d arranged a way to both slake my lust for affirmation and never be seen by anyone, thus remaining in safety. So ingenious how I’d permanently arranged the role of misunderstood artist for myself. It was fantastic how I could thus remain forever unknowable, unredeemable, distant, separate, but still special, praised, remarkable.
The results were pretty dramatic. I wrote a post about it at the time:
At first, the exercise felt nice and non-threatening. But a few minutes in, I started feeling funny. I started tingling all over. Not a little bit—a lot. It was like I was bathing in static electricity. Then, a sort of inner glow crept across my body, and I felt both extreme bliss and extreme tranquility, simultaneously. I’ve done an opiate before, and this was in that neighborhood of pleasantness, but without the druggy feeling. It was clean and clear and beautiful.
And then the weirdest thing of all happened: I felt some ugly parts of my self-conception fall off. Like, it was as if my habitual thoughts were links in a chain, and then some invisible force grabbed a pair of heavenly bolt cutters and started chopping the chain to bits. I felt lighter, clearer, more lucid. Finally, I was adrift in an endless space, unsure of my spatial coordinates, for some moments. And then, slowly, I came back to earth.
The next day, I found myself in a changed world. I felt happier, more relaxed, more present. Also, the world looked better; like, my surroundings felt more aesthetic, brighter, clearer. And, as promised by the shadow work worldview, once I embraced my shadow, it was less consuming. Day-to-day, I felt less need for constant affirmation, and, also, less terror at being seen. The whole misunderstood artist thing dominated my life less. It’s not like those drives were totally dissolved, they were just de-emphasized, and that was good. And, when I felt those drives roaring back, I’d repeat the exercise, and thus they were gently disarmed, to some extent.
This was both wonderful and thoroughly confusing—how had doing one meditation exercise from a book upgraded my consciousness? I settled on an explanation, at the time, that I still basically endorse:
It’s not controversial that narrative and self-concept can affect properties of your sensory experience, large and small. Depressed people experience a slower, more monochrome world. When you’re in love, the world is more vivid. People you respect seem to possess physical magnetism and largeness. And so on, and so on.
If you have a big chunk of non-integrated shadow, what you have is a brittle self-conception. There are lots of parts of yourself that you’re constantly avoiding, and all sorts of things that happen to you that aren't supposed to. This requires vigilance. You’ve got to filter, erase, elide, and generally Photoshop your consciousness on an ongoing basis to make everything acceptable to your judgment.
That filtration might have some effects on experience generally. Maybe if your mind is enforcing a heavy-handed narrative frame, some of the aesthetic properties of life go unnoticed. And maybe the complexities of other human beings are harder to perceive behind the wall of concepts you’re placing in front of them. If you could take that filter off, perhaps the world would look different, and your existence would feel smoother, more intuitive, less fragmented.
If this were the end of my psychological journey, I wouldn’t have been unsatisfied. This was pretty cool already. But, also, I couldn’t just stop there, right? Existential Kink showed me that I didn’t understand what my mind was capable of. There was no reason to think that this was the very last mental upgrade possible.
I don’t think most people will have results with shadow work that are as dramatic and instantaneous as mine were. I had an unusual relationship with my self-image. A few years before this, I‘d published a memoir, largely about some of my shortcomings, the fulfillment of a book deal that was given to me based on lyrical essays about my shortcomings. So, notionally, I was very self-aware. However, in truth I’d never really looked into the things I was really ashamed of—I’d just spent time mining the sort of foibles I could use as fuel for entertaining self-deprecation. In this way, I’d unintentionally been creating a semi-accurate ‘understanding of self’ that was, partially, a coping mechanism. I built up an insane level of self-mythology, and then shattered a bunch of it right away. Maybe everyone does this though. Your results will probably vary.
Step Two: I learned introspective techniques that helped me interact with formerly rejected elements of self, May-June 2021
A few days later, I had dinner with Mark Estefanos, a Twitter friend who happened to be passing through LA. I jokingly call Mark Estefanos a Mind Wizard. He has a huge idiosyncratic tool-belt of self-therapy techniques that, together, he simply refers to as “introspection.” His work involves improving his clients’ mental agency by giving them access to some of these tools. (I would like there to be more professionals of this type in the world.)
When I got pizza with him, though, I didn’t know that this was his job. I knew he did something psychology-related, but nothing much more precise than that. But when I told him about my experiences with shadow integration, he told me something that really surprised me. He said that, in his work, this sort of integration experience wasn’t unusual—the resolution of inner conflict frequently had surprising effects. He genuinely wasn’t selling me anything, but I came away from our conversation thinking that I should work with him.
A couple of weeks later, we met up at my place, and Mark did a session with me. What he taught me isn’t too different than what you’d learn from other sub-mind therapies, like Internal Family Systems, or Core Transformation. And this is another thing that I should explain to people who aren’t in my weird corner of Twitter where everyone knows about this.
Okay so there isn’t just one you, right? We all intuitively grasp that we’re made up of different parts. Think of statements like, “a part of me feels like I should forgive him, but I also think he’s a piece of shit.” Some of you wants a healthy body, another part wants a bunch of cheeseburgers. And so on.
So why don’t you take this mentality into therapy? There is a part of you that feels like you will always be inadequate. You’ll never be as smart as the smart kids, or as pretty as the pretty kids, so basically you’re worth nothing, you’ll be alone forever. And so on. You’ve been trying to fight these thoughts for years. But it never works; in fact, fighting these thoughts often strengthens them. Instead, you could take an alternative approach: treat this part of you as a sub-mind, a character in your theatre of self, and communicate with it. Replace the inner conflict with inner discussion that might eventually become inner cooperation.
For me, this has been a powerful shift. I don’t know that it’s literally true that my mind is composed of little characters with different agendas. But I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of adopting this as a lens. Instead of identifying with my unpleasant thoughts/feelings (this is me and I hate it, I suck) or fighting them (this isn’t me and I reject it), I now try to understand them as emanations of parts of me, which I then engage with in a spirit of open-hearted curiosity.
Here’s what happened in my first session with Mark. He asked me to pick some situation in my life that was troublesome, big or small. For some reason, my mind went to a small thing. My office looked terrible, after four months of living in our new house. My wife had offered to take me shopping to get me a few nice things to make my office into a more pleasant space. She’d even offered to get me an antique I admired as a gift, so I could hang it in view of my desk. These extremely kind offers made me feel weird. Something about the idea of spending time making my workspace pleasant was vaguely gross and sad to me.
He had me close my eyes, think about my insane office neuroses, and report to him what sort of sensations came up. And when I closed my eyes and thought about the idea of making my workspace nice, there was a weird feeling in my stomach, like there was this clenched oily little mass wiggling around in there. It was subtle, but it was real. Mark asked me to open a channel of communication to the part of me that was emanating this feeling, just like, extend the message that I was listening wholeheartedly to whatever it had to say. (This instruction felt strange to me, but I went along with it.) Once I did, after a few moments of quiet contemplation, it started speaking, which is to say, it started expelling memories.
I remembered how I was a child with poor hygiene, who hated his body and hated looking at himself. I remembered feeling ugly and dirty. I remembered being criticized for my poor hygiene, and, moreover, how almost every time attention was brought to my physical form, it meant that something bad was about to happen. And then I did the most cliched therapy thing of all: I gave that dirty little kid a hug and told him that it was okay.
In practice, this felt like releasing tension. A healthy inner space was created between me and the dirty kid in my mind. That person wasn’t identical to me, I was not my history. Simultaneously, though, I didn’t need to reject that person, either. This act of acceptance triggered a whole-body relaxation. It was like opening up a lens: unclenching let more light into the machine.
Again. Is it literally true that my weird neurosis was based on some maladaptive emotional learning from my childhood? I have no idea. But what I know is that I did have some hesitation around treating myself nicely, and that revisiting my history of body shame dissolved that hesitation, for whatever reason. After we finished the exercise, I felt lighter and better. Mark told me more about how I could bring introspection into my unsupervised daily life, and then he left, and I arranged my office pleasantly, amazed that I had been so weird about it.
And thus I went about my life. Every time I’d have some sort of weird inner tension—which was often—I would try to introspect, talk to different parts of myself, try to bring myself into deeper and deeper harmony, accept whatever discordant bits of consciousness I would normally reject. Nightly, before sleep, I’d sit up in bed and do a little mental inventory of the day’s emotional activities, and perform relevant introspection.
Maybe, for example, I’d think about how I got irrationally annoyed by someone on the internet that day, notice that they reminded me of my own worst qualities, dig into that little quadrant of my self-suspicion, and try to give it some gentleness and understanding. None of these moments of introspection led to anything like the quantum leap provided by my initial EK session, but I felt like, slowly, I was coming to lovingly understand myself. It felt like I was running on a cleaner fuel source.
Step three: I confronted my ego on LSD, July 2021
This one was totally unintentional. Or was it? There is a certain weird feeling of inevitability that obtains when I look back at what’s happened. It’s almost as if, after I started unraveling a certain part of my mind, I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know what I was doing or plan it really, but I certainly acted as if my overriding priority was getting to the bottom of my self-hatred. Shinzen Young talks about a “Taste of Purification”—the way that people in contemplative practice start to sense that deep shit is getting worked out, and that this sense is an inner compass that can lead you towards profound change. This is perhaps the unconscious organizing principle that kept me going. So, while my intention on this day wasn’t to confront my psyche, that’s where my psyche took me.
I do not recommend going about things the way I did this. It worked out because I married well.
Anyway so I decided to live-tweet an LSD trip in July. My motivation was pretty simple. It was the middle of summer. I felt a little bored. Seven years prior, I’d live-tweeted an LSD trip in Toronto, and it was really fun—it had been a perfectly luminescent July evening, a local curator assembled a playlist for people who were following along, the trip was good and fairly mild, and the tweets were entertaining. (They’ve since been deleted, but I remember my favorite one, which was “yelp review of the universe: 3/5, sparkle sparkle.”) So why not just do it again? And maybe I’d get some more Twitter followers, and some more clients, and everyone would love me forever.
The LSD hit differently this time. By the time my wife and I had made it to a local park, our first destination, I started feeling deeply self-critical. Why the fuck was I doing this? Why is a 33-year-old man doing a bunch of LSD in the middle of the workweek? Why was I so insistent on reliving my youth? I closed my eyes and tried to hide from existence.
Then we went to the Glendale Americana mall. My wife had to get her computer repaired, so in the middle of the trip, we were going to stop at the Apple Store. (I’d suggested this beforehand, this was my idea; going to the mall on acid is what I like to do, on occasion.) I was mostly introverted the whole time she drove us there, sad and distant, just coping with everything. When we got to the mall, I sat down on the lawn—the Americana is one of those outdoor LA malls—and started to stew in my revulsion.
One thing about my wife is that she’s a shaman. When she sees other people in distress, she’s uncannily good at figuring out whatever frequency they’re on, and helping them surf it. This is doubly true when people are on psychedelics; she could be a legitimate psychedelic healer if she wanted that life path.
So, as I spiraled out near the Lululemon, she comforted me, and asked me, gently, but firmly, “what made you want to do this today?” And I was like, I don’t know, I don’t know, I thought it would be fun. She did not buy this, and, after some more comforting, said, “Did you think that the affirmation would make you happy? Like having a lot of eyeballs on you would make you worthy of love?” I begrudgingly agreed with this line of questioning. And then she said, “what part of you needs that—can you find it for me?”
The answer was yes. I totally could find it, after a moment of engaging in the kind of introspection Mark taught me. On LSD, it was vivid. I looked inside and detected the presence of a bleeding wound at my center, which was, at the same time, like a living creature. It was like a tiny mewling flea-bitten puppy that I found both pitiable and ugly, a thing that just needed endless validation, endless affection, but would never be satisfied with anything, would never respond with gratitude to any gift. It hurt to look at, so I opened my eyes and tried to distract myself.
“Don’t look away,” she said. “What you’re seeing is something that some spiritual traditions call the ego.” “It’s painful,” I said, “it feels like I’m being stabbed.” At this point, I was sobbing. “I know,” she said. “it wants to convince you that you need it. That you can’t survive without it, that you need to be in pain forever. It’s always playing this trick. But there’s only one way to stop fighting it. Do you want to?” “Yes,” I said. “Okay,” she said, “then all you need to do is accept it. Shine a flashlight on it. Don’t look away. See it for what it is.”
I looked upon the howling hole in the middle of me. I allowed it to exist, which is to say, I felt the bright, loud pain of permitting it to be known. I let it melt through the ice I’d tried to surround it with. There was a moment when I was sure my life was ending. And then, instantly, the hole closed. And some force came out of it; it expelled an iridescent wave that washed over me, composed of raw clarity, simplicity, relief. I felt myself becoming untangled, purified by this force.
This is the weirdest point of this whole saga. I just say this because I still look back at it with disbelief. At that point, the effects of LSD, as I generally know them, abruptly disappeared. As the wound closed, all the weird sensory stuff stopped completely. The trip ended, about seven hours before it’s supposed to when you take LSD. What replaced it was something completely different.
Suddenly, everything around me was clear, beautiful, and completely normal. I felt, intuitively, that there were no real borders between me and the universe, that I was an intrinsic part of the cosmic becoming, and that this was Fine. Possessing this knowledge seemed easier and more normal than not possessing it. Without any special effort, I could perceive my place in the endless chain of causality, understand that I was just another part of the mall, and enjoy that vibe.
Whereas before, the LSD’s effects had made it difficult to walk, I suddenly returned to a normal level of motor function. I sat in the Apple Store like a normal person, and admired the beauty of the Apple employees. Then, afterward, when my wife’s laptop was returned to her, she caught up on some work, while I strolled around the mall, thinking about how hilarious my ‘thoughts’ about ‘myself’ had always been, how silly it had been to judge myself, how all that was a trick. I felt like a child facing the rest of my life as if it were a paradisiacal eternity.
I sampled some perfume at Nordstrom, and we got dinner and walked around Atwater Village. It was an exceptionally pretty evening, and the food tasted exquisite.
Step Four: More Contemplation, then MDMA, August-December 2021
Generally, fantastical glimpses of the interconnectedness of being don’t last. Mine was no different. The next day, I felt somewhat similar, but with some important differences. For my whole adult life, I’d struggled with a painful yearning for validation. Now, that yearning was pretty much gone. It’s not like I hated validation after the LSD experience. I still wanted people to, like, follow me on Twitter, because it was good for my business, and I could make friends. But the emotional craving beneath it was basically dispersed.
So what. The fuck was I. Supposed to do with my life now? Without that organizing principle? That had been my whole organizing principle. If I didn’t need to be a famous writer, what else should I get up to? Expand my coaching business? Start a perfume company? Get involved in Progress Studies? Throughout the fall, I toyed with various potential futures and enjoyed a new level of equanimity.
And, as before, I would’ve been perfectly happy if this was the end. During this time, I was more psychologically stable than ever before, and, overall, by December, my general level of contentment was high. I kept adjusting to my newly updated mind with introspective methods. But it was not the end!
Throughout the fall and winter, I spent a lot of time picking up on transmissions put out by Tasshin Fogleman and Nick Cammarata, two guys who talk a lot about the power of loving-kindness, and the potential of loving yourself deeply. And, at separate times, both advertised the power of doing solo MDMA trips combined with loving-kindness meditation, a traditional variety of contemplation where you cultivate a sense of goodwill and then bounce it around in your mind between yourself, people you know, and the rest of the universe, to the extent you feel appropriate.
This piqued my interest. At this point, I definitely disliked myself less than ever before. I felt unusually sure of myself. But there was still, like, stuff. Maybe twice a week I’d still think about some embarrassing moment from my past and grunt in pain. Occasionally I still caught myself frantically speculating about what I could do to ensure that I remained a lovable/interesting/worthy person. Small setbacks could still trigger waves of self-doubt.
My LSD experience was like blowing up the Death Star. My main psychological trap—the feeling that I needed to earn the right to be alive by being admirable—had exploded. But now there were still pieces of the Death Star everywhere. There was some cleaning up to do.
Over the course of two weeks, I did two solo MDMA trips, combined with loving-kindness meditation interlaced with introspection. Both times, the procedure was the same. During the come-up period, I sat in a hot tub and looked at the stars, which is a nice luxury you have access to if you live in Joshua Tree. I tried to mentally dilate as much as possible, to relax into a feeling of tranquility, openness, and self-generosity. I was looking at the Milky Way and thinking thoughts like, “you are an infinitesimal component of this grand cosmos, it’s probably not worth despising yourself, probably nothing about you is such a big deal.”
Then, when I started feeling high, I retreated to the bedroom, laid down, and started an inner dialogue with bits of myself I was still ashamed of. I’d open up a part of my mind in the way I’d been taught by Mark, bombard it with loving-kindness (instructions here), and then move on. This process felt hilariously powerful. Each individual source of shame just blipped right out of existence. And, after a few minutes, a feedback loop began, where this progressive release created a swell of positive feeling, which made the next thing dissolve more easily, which released more positive feelings, etcetera—specters from the past started conjuring themselves and then evaporating without intervention. My whole body was warm. The pleasure was immeasurable. I was entirely awash in what Rob Burbea calls “the lovely frequencies of the heart.”
I could’ve probably eliminated all of my remaining self-loathing during my first trip, but I screwed it up; partway through, I decided that I needed to start messaging my friends—always a hazard on MDMA—and I got lost in my devices just as the experience was really getting going.
The second time, I didn’t touch any devices, I just succumbed to the emotional riptide. And, at a certain moment, I realized that I was done, in some important way. Like, at some point, 90% of my self-image had been repaired, and, at that point, my mind’s basic disposition changed from default self-suspicion to default self-acceptance. I felt that click on.
Simultaneously, I realized that perhaps the main effect of my self-loathing, in my life, had been to get in the way of how much love I could show other people. Before me, in my consciousness, in what felt like 50-foot-tall neon letters, blinked the question: DO YOU HAVE THE COURAGE TO BE AS LOVING AS YOU CAN POSSIBLY BE
I am going to try to answer that question for the foreseeable future.
Since that evening, a month ago, there have been some stressful/sad/confusing times in my life. But not once have I had even a moment of real self-contempt. That machine is off. It has been disassembled. Occasionally, for fun, I go through memories that used to cause me pain. They seem like idle curiosities now.
So, back to loving awareness. A couple of days ago, I was discussing this with my friend Jake Orthwein. He pointed out to me that loving awareness is the obvious common element in this process.
Like, through shadow work, I stopped denying large parts of myself and brought them into loving awareness. Then, I continued that work in finer detail with introspective techniques, bringing more little bits of my mind into loving awareness. Then, I attacked one of my psychological monsters with loving awareness on LSD. Then, I cleaned everything up with loving awareness on MDMA.
Is this maybe the central ingredient? The main organizing principle? That almost seems too easy.
But that easy answer is also really hard. I can easily remember parts of my life when I hated myself so much that even a moment of open self-awareness was a threatening prospect. Like, I needed to be lost in thought to get through my bowl of cereal, because if I were centered, I would’ve been thinking, “wow, look at you eating cereal, you pathetic piece of shit asshole, fuck you, you might as well go die.” There are many people alive for whom even non-loving awareness is a delicate matter.
And, as you get further along, although the overall process becomes less scary, it also becomes subtler. Repression isn’t some fanciful concept, it’s a simple consequence of psychological reward and reinforcement. Things you don’t like to think about, you think about less, and slowly they become distanced from your habitual thought patterns, until they almost never enter into your mind. Therefore, you can quite easily end up in a state where you say, “I love myself,” and what you mean is, “I love all the parts of myself that I routinely think about, but I might have some icky feelings about all that stuff that I’m not quite capable of looking at right now.” This is where, I think, a lot of people are stuck. It’s not so bad, but it can get better. When we ask for Deep Okayness, we are asking for you to accept everything, wholeheartedly. It is a high bar to clear.
This also explains why MDMA is so helpful in the last stages, assuming that you’re having a good MDMA trip. (Rarely, it causes anxiety.) When MDMA is working, your capacity for shame and insecurity is zero, and so that whole aversive sorting mechanism doesn’t exist anymore. You can get at everything easily, and forgive more easily, while you’re at it. During my last MDMA trip, stuff came up that I had totally forgotten about, that was totally unconnected to my day-to-day life. It was stuff like “that one faint negative self-impression that wafts from an incredibly vague memory of a conversation in fifth grade.”
I think lots of people can and do find Deep Okayness without drugs, though. Occasionally, I hear that a well-timed, well-chosen God can help with this. Some, maybe many, do it without even knowing that this is what they’re doing. As they age, psychologically stable people tend to accomplish gradual self-acceptance. If you incline towards a more gentle relationship with yourself, your embarrassment tends to melt away over time. It doesn’t have to be a radical process.
On the other hand, I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to find Deep Okayness without taking the steps above. It might have taken decades to stop hating myself if I’d stuck to standard, official methods. This thought is unpleasant. My current existence is eminently preferable. In some ways, not much has changed. I think from the outside I maybe just seem a little calmer, more patient, quicker to laugh, more connected. From the inside, though, there was a thick membrane between me and the fullness of existence, and now it’s gone.
There’s absolutely a lot more that I can do with my mind. I’m definitely not “enlightened” or whatever. Seasoned meditators report all sorts of exciting updates to consciousness that are foreign to me, and this is stuff I will play around with. But what I’ve experienced so far is nothing short of a transformation.
If this is something you don’t have, and you want it, you can have it. It is possible. More than anything else written here, I want you to know this.
Thank you to Slime Mold Time Mold, Tasshin, Nick, Jake, Evelyn, Milan, Marie, Anne-Lorraine, Ishita, and Victoria for helping me with this document. Thank you to everyone who helped me with myself, period.
We already have some of this, in the form of therapy books, dharma talks, the musings of mystics, etcetera, but a lot of it is quite inaccessible, and there’s not enough cross-disciplinary work.
If you’re wondering whether Existential Kink says that literally everyone is bringing their pain upon themselves, like, including abused children, people dying of malaria, etcetera, Elliott is quite careful to specify that this is not the case.
One fun way to learn to dilate awareness is through Alexander Technique, which you can learn about here.
If you want to get deep into loving awareness, this is interesting.
Thank you for writing this. There were points at which I was physically moved, almost to tears. It's fucking big to know that someone wrote this with the purpose of someone else reading it, to tell them that these intense journeys are a part of so many people's lives, and that healing is (eventually) possible and how it looks and feels is wonderful.
I really benefited from reading this, as I feel I am on some sort of precipice / breaking point with regard to "unlikable" loops that keep repeating themselves. Between the more notable events that you write about here, did you keep a consistent practice of loving-kindness meditation? I feel like this could be a good starting point for me. Thanks so much for putting this out there.