How to let go of the past: a lesson from psychedelics

Trying to relive an experience is the quickest road to disappointment; learning to appreciate the moments as they happen is the slow windy path to a happy and fulfilling life. That’s it; the art of letting go is the practice of appreciation. 

Practicing appreciation is much easier said than done. Sure, that piece of cake was good, but do you have any idea how good another piece of cake would be? The sad reality is: not as good as the first one – the best bite is always the first one. 

That first bite cake floods your brain with dopamine and instantly makes you crave more. This craving is the Fallacy of consumerism: the more you have, the more you want. But there are ways to avoid this fallacy and I will go through them later.

You can’t relive the past.

This is how I tried and failed to relieve a golden experience. I was in NYC with a British buddy of mine.

The night before we were meant to go, I got a notification from Airbnb that there would be a snowstorm. We could cancel the reservation without charge if we wanted; we didn’t.

We left on Friday at dawn and got there around noon before any snow had touched the ground. This gave us ample time to view the sights and find a pub to cap off the evening. I am not usually one for drinking, but that pub night was the highlight of our trip. 

Then the snow came – it came hard – by the end of the next day, more than 70 cm of snow would have blanketed the city, shutting it down entirely by mid-afternoon. We would never get another opportunity to explore the empty streets of NYC. We meandered our way through the major avenues, central park, and then back at our trusty pub. 

We wanted to relieve the glorious fun of the previous night, and we failed. The beer was stale, the conversation not as lively, and the snowmelt dripping in accentuated our failure, making the place feel cold and wet.

This pub that had been the epicentre of joy the night before now made us sad – I’m sure the hangover and wet feet didn’t help either. Accepting defeat – we left – we made our way back to our accommodation and, in the morning, left the city. 

This was my first real travelling experience, and it sparked a fire inside me that continues to burn today. I love traveling and exploring but am grateful for my trip to NYC teaching me such a fundamental lesson – you can’t relive the past.  

The role of psychedelics

So what do psychedelics have anything to do with this? How to change your mind by Michael Pollan is an excellent book on psychedelics’ effects on the mind.  A recent study has shown how these drugs can be effective in the treatment of depression. But for the purpose of this blog, I want to discuss what you can learn while on a drug-fueled spiritual journey: to let go.

Psychedelics can provide you with the best or worse experience of your life. For that reason, I don’t recommend taking them. If you choose to ignore this recommendation and take them, please do so safely and read Bill Richards’ flight instructions before your trip. Better yet, have someone familiar with the experience guide you along the way.

If you choose to go on a psychedelic adventure and have your mind blown into the twelfth dimension, here is something to remember: don’t hold on. One of Bill Richards’ flight instructions is simply:

“Let Go, Be Open, Trust”

When things end, you have two options: hold on, fall down the rabbit hole of darkness, or let go. Psychedelics amplify this by a thousand percent, making the lesson sink in a lot harder if you try to hold on. Still, you don’t need them to appreciate the benefits of letting go.

Letting go can be tricky – it’s natural – we want to hold on to what once brought us joy in the hope that it will again. Letting go is uncomfortable, but it is only after you get out of your comfort zone and start moving forward that you truly start living. 

Three ways to move forward:

  • Do something new
  • Make something old different
  • The other thing

Do something new.

There is a bungee jumping company in New Zealand called A.J. Hackett and their slogan are: 

”Live more. Fear less”

I listened – twice. Those two jumps are the most exciting things I have done so far. When you sign up, they ask you if you have ever jumped before or if you have been sky diving. If you answer yes to the latter, they respond with: “it’s a good warm-up for this.” 

Before you jump, you think that they are being cheeky; after you jump, you understand. It is easy to assume that sky diving would be the more difficult of the two activities, you are falling from much higher. 

Maybe it is when you are in control, but when choosing between a tandem skydive and a bungee jump, the bungee will be more thrilling. During a skydive, your tandem partner is in control, whereas during a bungee jump, you are in control. 

Making the choice to get out of your comfort zone and let go of the things weighing you down can free you to live a happier and more fulfilling life. If nothing you do scares you; you are not growing. 

While you might be content in your comfort zone, staying there is the fastest route to stagnation. You must explore new things or find a new way to do the things you like. Especially in relationships, if you feel that your relationship is starting to stagnate, think of something new you can do together. 

According to Helen Fischer’s Why We Love, human love lasts for about 18-months – basically long enough to have a baby. However, many people stay in love long after the 18-months marker, even without babies. They keep the spark alive by constantly seeking out new experiences to do together.

Harley Willard has an extensive list of things couples can enjoy together in his book His needs, her needs. You can also find lists online without too much effort. The best way to keep a relationship fresh is by doing new things with your partner, or you can do something old in a new way.

Do something old differently.

There are many things that you can be done in a new way. If you always walk the same route, try a new one or the same one in the opposite direction. You would be amazed how much you notice when you simply change the direction of your route.

An example of something old being done in a new way is my second Bungee Jumping experience. First, I jumped from a platform over a forest; Then, I fell off a bridge into a river. 

I wasn’t interested in another jump until I realized that I could get wet. We happened to be in the area and wanted to watch a couple of brave souls bungee jump from Kawarau bridge. Once I saw that “splash” was an option, I was convinced. 

I changed into some shorts, took off my shirt and before I knew it, I was tied at the ankles and looking down terrified. My last time had been a running jump; this was the complete opposite. To not get injured when hitting the water, I had to fold down off the platform and not look at the water.  

You may have never been in this type of position, but when someone is explaining to you the safety measures as you are about to jump off a bridge, you start to doubt yourself. The jump video perfectly illustrates my collapse in confidence as I half-heartedly wave at the camera.

My confidence may have dropped but the jump was so much better than the first. That extra level of fear from having to be carefully amplified the experience. I had to be attentive throughout the entire jump, to do it properly. This brings us to the other thing.

The other thing

The other thing is: meditation. Meditation is a monotonous task; you sit there and pay attention to your breath – that’s it. It is so simple that I have already written about why it’s important and how to get started. Spoiler alert, it’s not that simple.

While not simple, meditation is powerful. It teaches you to appreciate the dull moments so that you don’t need to always be moving. When you can spend a half-hour or more being entertained by your breath, you can be entertained by anything. 

It is hard to get to that point and it requires hours of regular practice, but the benefits are worth it. Learning to meditate allows you to appreciate the good times while their happening so instead of trying to relive them; you remember them.

You can use practices like the 5.4.3.2.1 technique introduced by Jay Shetty in his book Think Like a Monk. The method involves you actively encoding an event into your memory. To do this, either during or shortly after the event, you think of: 

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can touch
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

By engaging all your senses, you will be better able to recall the memory vividly later when you visualize those same 15 things. This is a doped-up version of the “cookies” David Goggins mentions in his book Can’t Hurt Me

These cookies are his happy memories. They are what enabled him to accomplish so many physical feats. When times were hard, he remembered a good time, making that hard time a little more bearable. 

Everything ends, and that’s okay. 

Remember this when things are going wrong. I have elaborated about trying to hold on too hard to the good but it is important to also remember the opposite. When times are tough, it is easy to think that they will go on forever, but they never do. 

Liberate yourself by learning to let go of the good and accepting the bad. This sounds counterintuitive, but it isn’t.  Mark Manson explains it like this in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***:  

“Problems in life never end; they merely get exchanged and/or upgraded into better problems.”

Basically, you will always have problems, but by dealing with the ones you have, you will get better problems, leading to a more fulfilling life. I hope that I have convinced you that the only way to go is forward, so keep going. You are almost there.

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