My ears were ringing and I was rushing away from my body; I was losing control of myself; I was shouting the word “Surrender! Surrender! Surrender!” in my mind — but my mind was being shattered and flung into a nameless void that was infinitely dark and infinitely bright at the same time.
This was the onset of me smoking the crystalized venom of the Bufo Alvarius toad on the floor of a chic apartment on the Upper West side of NYC. Also known as the Sonoran Desert Toad, this little sucker secretes a venom containing 5-MeO-DMT (four–six times more potent then synthesized DMT). This chemical is the most powerful psychedelic known to man (it should be noted the toads are not harmed in the milking of the venom, and the venom is physically harmless to humans so long as it is vaporized). I had elected to blow my mind apart at the well-furnished home of a healer I’d met on my recent Ayahuasca experience. I wanted to see what was on the other side of my ego.
I began the ceremony by reading out loud a prayer selected by the healer — one that spoke of forgiving past mistakes, releasing future worries, and opening myself to love. I set a specific intention of finding out what was “beyond my need to always be doing.” The healer lit the crystals containing the 5-MeO-DMT in a glass tube connected to a vaporizer. He told me the most important thing was to get enough of the smoke in my lungs and hold it in long enough so that I would break through my ego. Anything less could be uncomfortable — right in between the point of ego dissolution and the ego’s panic at being dissolved. The metaphor the healer offered was to imagine I was going under general anesthesia and just allow my mind to turn off. Don’t try to resist the pull of the medicine.
I exhaled three times. At the bottom of the third exhale, the healer put the vaporizer to my lips and told me to pull in slowly for 15 seconds and hold my breath as long as I could. The smoke tasted acrid but not entirely unpleasant. I felt my body begin to tremble at seven seconds. I felt my heart banging against my chest at ten seconds. I felt a roaring sound in my ears at 12 seconds. I felt my body collapse backwards at 15 seconds and laid gently down by the healer’s assistant on the pillowed floor while my senses blasted upwards, leaving ‘Philip Markle’ behind.
I felt terror — and enthrallment — at this prospect of losing myself, losing track of all the ways I measure my life. My senses, my worries, my hopes, my fears — all obliterated in the face of the Infinite. It was like riding a roller coaster, without a safety harness, where the only way to enjoy the ride was to let go and fly.
I wanted to release my fear of this ego-death. I wanted to trust in the endless void as I rushed toward it. I wanted to believe there was a higher, universal consciousness that would weave me into the seamless fabric of life. I raced headlong into the screen that separates duality from oneness with the universe.
What scared me the most was: I didn’t know if I trusted the universe.
At this point, I ceased to exist. I don’t know if I breached through the vale. I may have merged with the cosmos, but I sure as hell can’t tell you, because I — Philip Markle, pyschonaut and chronicler of outrageous adventures — wasn’t there anymore! She was gone! I just remember the blast-off and the trepidation as I roared toward the void and then: an endless amount of blazing white nothing.
It was like dying.
Minutes or eons later, I came back down into some fragmented version of myself and felt my battered ego thrashing about, enraged at having been turned off. “How dare you get rid of me?” it said. “I’m the only thing that keeps you safe. You can’t trust anything else!”
And that’s when I discovered, by the wording of my ego’s outrage, exactly what I was most afraid of: trusting in things outside my control. Especially when it comes to trusting I am loved.
I saw flashes, projected like snapshots in a 1990’s Kodak Carousel, of all the ways I micromanage every moment of my life, control my relationships, and shape my appearance out of a fear that if I let go my grip, I will be rejected and fail.
I understood why I am slow — so slow to trust people — because the child inside me feels he will be betrayed. I could see the ways he was betrayed in the past: by the Catholic church after he came out as gay, by his mother rejecting him for the same reason, by close friends and mentors who grew to dislike him when they got to know Philip’s less personable sides. Ironically, all the micromanagement of my self-image only fueled these relationships falling apart because I didn’t show myself whole (warts and all) from the start. These relationships weren’t built on a foundation of: “Let me show you all of me —take it or leave it.” They were built on a foundation of posing for the camera: “Oh, you like me! You really like me!”
I could see how I’ve substituted love in so many ways for small sips of “approval” from others — whether it be via performing as the showman, acting the fool, being the uninhibited life of the party, getting liked on social media. While these are obvious signs my ego can point to that people ‘like me,’ these morsels of attention are not satisfying, and the game to curry approval is exhausting.
I could feel how my fear of rejection has kept me closed off from connecting with a life partner. It’s kept intimacy at a distance, while craving it more and more every day I age — even beginning to fear I will never fall in love. The ego both desires and fears what it can’t have. And it doesn’t believe I will be loved if I’m not acting like a superstar. It doesn’t believe people will love Philip Markle; they will only love Philip Sparkle. I don’t trust that I am enough, just as I am, without needing to prove I am special. This is why I’ve kept myself manically busy and pre-occupied every day to avoid just being still with myself — sans accomplishing anything.
Next, I realized that the motive behind any action is more important than the action itself. How you treat people is the most important thing — more important than what you accomplish or how successful you are. I could see the ways I push or rush to get what I want instead of operating from a place of care and respect for the process and the feelings of others. I resolved to slow down and take more time with my life, to listen and ask more questions and stop obsessing over how things affect me. The means justify the ends.
These revelations were flying by a mile-a-minute. My heart felt trembling and raw. I felt a need to retch, to emotionally vomit out my fear. I remember at this point gasping for air and making noises like I was purging something from my belly. The healer instructed me to relax and surrender. I did so…only then to panic that I had to remember everything that was happening! Once again, I wasn’t trusting that I could let go of chronicling the experience and would remember what I needed to remember. A poem I wrote once upon a time etched itself across the screen of my mind:
I am a Do-er.
I Do all the time
I’d rather Be.
But Beings beyond
What I can do.
So I Do
When I’m done,
Till I do some more.
I wish I didn’t.
I won’t do anymore
I mean it.
But I don’t
I wish for
I’m gonna Do
Myself to death.
I opened my eyes — I was back in tactile reality. I felt surprisingly sober, as if I hadn’t just blown up my entire sense of self. Quiet music was playing — a man and a woman singing the words “Samadhi” over and over in beautiful harmony. The whole trip had only lasted about 25 minutes.
My first admission to the healer was that I felt a disappointed that I hadn’t broken through and escaped my ego. This was when the healer assured me that he had witnessed me having a full ego-death, and that perhaps the story of “not quite breaking through” was another yarn my ego was spinning to convince me the trip had been a failure. He asked me if I remembered when he played drums above my head — I had no recollection. He asked me if I remembered unbuttoning the top button of my pants because they were too tight for the energy streaming through my body — I did not (side note: don’t wear skinny jeans to a sacred toad ceremony). He told me that for minutes I was rolling on the floor and smiling and laughing and crying. And, I kept trying to pull something out of my back, like Neo pulling that bug out from inside his spine in The Matrix. Who knows what that signified? But it happened when my conscious mind was not there.
Regardless of what I could recall, the healer suggested it would take weeks to integrate and process it all anyway — what had happened inside my brain was like a reboot, a defrag, a restart. My default control network, as Michael Pollan describes in his book HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND, had been completely shut down for a couple of minutes, and a lot of new pathways had opened up. It would take some time for my mental hard drive to process the upgrade.
I thanked the healer and his assistant and left his apartment after leaving a donation behind in a ceramic toad figurine. I rushed to the nearest shop that served spicy miso ramen. I gulped it down ravenously and then bought a pint of Haagen-Dazs Strawberry ice cream from my local bodega and ate the entire thing in one sitting in my apartment. It was the most glorious taste in the world. In between shoveling broth and cream into my mouth, I thought about how I would describe this experience to others and began to write this story.
The whole experience was terrifying and awe-inspiring, and if you are ready to go there, I think it’s a one-way trip to accepting your life by facing your deepest fears. You must be prepared to hit headfirst anything that gets in the way of loving yourself — you will have to confront it. Depending on how stubborn your ego is (mine is very) will determine how pleasant that ride is. Thankfully, this drug is more powerful than your ego, so it just works — whether you like it or not. That isn’t to say it’s for everyone; I believe it should be taken only with the utmost care and respect for the intensity of this experience. I’m glad I was able to stomach the red pill and go down the rabbit hole into the very core of myself. I felt like I tasted what death might one day feel like and am less scared and more grateful to be alive and make the most of my life.
The question I am grappling at the end of it all: did I really break through? And if I did — is it meaningful if I don’t remember it? I know there is more to my life than the small filter through which my ego strains reality. I believe there are subconscious parts of me that experienced transcendent learning while I was on the other side. When I was drifting off to sleep the night after the trip, I could remember a feeling in my gut of surrendering to universal love. I could faintly hear unearthly music — like chimes harmonizing in the wind. The whole thing was like a dream; I can’t remember the story of it — only the leftover feeling of having sensed something ultimate…
I’ll just have to have faith and trust that I really did break through. Maybe that’s the whole point.
Coda: In my dream the night after the trip, I was The Little Mermaid. The Prince and I were in love, but I felt tremendous guilt over not telling him the truth of how I had become human. I took him to the clearest tide pool I could find and threw myself into the salty water. When I resurfaced, I had transformed back into the Little Mermaid. I reached up to hold his hand, heaving sobs that we could no longer be together, but free of any lie that lay between our love. Then, I dissolved into sea foam (like in the original ending of the tale by Hans Christian Anderson), and the Prince shook his head. He could not remember if I had been real or a dream.
I woke up with tears in my eyes — feeling bone-tired but like a newborn — like I could live my life any way I wanted. I was aware of the behavioral patterns tugging on my consciousness, wanting to control the course of my day. I could see they were neither bad or good, just the things I’ve chosen to practice over many years, which has made them seem indelible and unchangeable. But everything now felt very possible to change, with practice. I sat down to meditate.
When I opened my eyes, I saw the light in my apartment. It was beautiful — I can’t believe how rarely I notice it.