Herald Magazine

In pursuit of altered states of consciousness

In pursuit of altered states of consciousness

By Momina Manzoor Khan and Manal Khan

THE HIGHS

A 50-year-old villager, Wajid, took a tikli, a small tablet, in 2017. He did not know what it was.

He was smoking hashish along with 20 other people inside an autak, a drawing room of sorts, at a village in Sindh’s Dadu district. Someone gave him a tiny piece of some substance — white as paper, hard as cardboard. The person warned him that he needed to be careful with it. “I have lived a wild life. I am a village animal. What can this tikli do to me?” Wajid responded.

After he had the tablet, he says in a recent interview, his “mind started working faster” and went back in time. “I started becoming aware of things which I had probably done or seen in my childhood.”

Calling it the best experience of his life, Wajid says he cannot even begin to explain what world he got into. “All my past life suddenly came back to me. I could recall everything that I had long forgotten.”

A few hours after consuming the tablet, Wajid gathered about 40 people, men and women, and started making a speech in front of them about how they could make life in the village better. “I was enjoying giving the speech a lot,” he recalls. “I wanted to tell the villagers what the future held in store for them.”

A villager who heard the speech remembers seeing Wajid laugh a lot and talk about how we should stop wasting time and make use of the resources we have. “He talked about moving forward and maintaining unity,” says another member of his audience.

Wajid is otherwise known to be a quiet person and is not in the upper tiers of the social hierarchy in his village. His speech left the villagers bewildered. What was it that he took and became so fearless as to give a sermon to everyone and that too in the dead of the night, they wondered the next morning.

What Wajid ate that night was 80 microgrammes of a psychedelic substance called lysergic acid diethylamide – or LSD – also known as acid.

Akmal Shah was four years old in 1994 when a civil war broke out in Yemen. The country was divided into two states at the time — one in the north and the other in the south. That year, the north invaded the south with the self-declared objective to unify the country.

Shah was living with his family in the coastal city of Aden in South Yemen. He remembers cruise missiles blowing up a bridge that connected the city with the rest of the country. His family had to escape in a dinghy to be able to board a ship carrying arms to Pakistan. The ship could not come to the port because of the war. For 30 nautical miles, he reminisces, they travelled in the boat, “watching dolphins”.

Shah moved back to Yemen with his family in 2001 and started living in Sana’a, the country’s capital. In 2008, he moved to the United States for his undergraduate studies. Halfway through his freshman year, one of his college friends offered him LSD.

He had no idea what it could do to him but, as he says late this summer, he was also not “afraid or wary”. Early experiences of war and displacement and living in a foreign country as an expatriate Pakistani, Shah says, had hardened him against many worries. “I don’t think I have ever been worried much probably because of how I grew up.”

Illustration by Samiya Arif
Illustration by Samiya Arif

He had LSD that night with four other people. “It was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life,” he now says. “It was mind-blowing and very exciting.” The substance made him “really introspective”. It showed him who he was and who he wanted to be, he says.

Shah was studying pre-medical at the time but LSD made him decide that this was not his field.

When he went back to Yemen in 2012, another war broke out there. Electricity and water became rarities and blasts and loud bangs became common. “We were some of the last foreigners to leave in December that year,” he says. “The Houthi rebels were about to invade Sana’a. We got out just in time.”

When he left Sana’a, he also left behind a huge part of his life. His family lost almost everything they had –– home, stable income, luxuries of life. “We saved what we could and we left behind what we could not save,” he says, “because we did not have a lot of time to leave.” He also had to breakup with his girlfriend before his departure.

When Shah moved back to Pakistan (where he now lives and works as a content writer for a multinational company), he had to deal with “a lot of loss in a really short amount of time”. In the first two-and-a-half years after his arrival in Pakistan, he says, he was extremely depressed. “What really started helping me was a revival of basic social interactions and positive thinking.”

And both of these, according to his own claim, were made possible by LSD. “I have been consuming it after almost every three months.”

Shah acknowledges the side effects of using LSD. If you continue using it, he says, “it is obviously going to take a toll on your body”. Here is how he recounts the negative effects he has experienced: “You will have this internal shiver that goes through your body. You will be very stiff. Your muscles will not be very relaxed.”

LSD has also “killed” his “ego for the most part” which he counts as a positive development.

Shah calls this “state of ego death” as an out-of-body experience: “You forget who you are. You just feel very insignificant. The entire human race seems to be no more than a speck of dust.” What is the point of having an ego, he remarks, when your life is but a tiny fraction of the universe?

Dr Ben Sessa, a Britain-based consultant psychiatrist on adult addictions, explains why people like Shah have such out-of-body experiences on LSD. “Normally our brain consists of independent networks that perform separate specialised functions, such as vision, movement and hearing –– as well as more complex things like attention,” he says, quoting Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, who is heading psychedelic research at the Imperial College London and is the first scientist in 40 years to test LSD on a patient. Under LSD, Sessa says, “the separateness of these networks breaks down and instead you see a more integrated or unified brain.”

This unified brain on occasions leads to what people call “ego-dissolution”, he says. It means that the normal sense of self is broken down and replaced by a sense of reconnecting with oneself, others and the natural world, he adds. “This experience is sometimes [also] framed in a religious or spiritual way.”

A video clip prepared by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an American non-profit research and educational organisation, provides an etymological explanation for this “state of ego death”. The clip shows that LSD and a range of other similar substances are known as psychedelics, a word that has its origin in the Greek language and means “mind-revealing”. A psychedelic substance, thus, is one that allows the human mind to reveal itself in unexpected ways.

When psychedelic users report altered states of mind – such as the one described by Shah – they are only stating how their own mind revealed to themselves in a way they had not anticipated.

In Shah’s case, LSD seems to have led him through a series of changed states of mind, consequently bringing him rather full circle in life: from knowing who he wants to be, to forgetting who he is.

Does such a 360-degree transformation contribute to a healthy life? The answer may depend on how much psychedelic substance one consumes — what for and in what kind of company and circumstances.

Zaed was studying in the United States in the 1990s when he first took LSD. His face gleams as he talks about how the substance took him into the haze of a transcendent energy that the Chinese call qi — or life force.

Now a media person and in his forties, he recalls how he took “two small tabs” and went to attend a music festival. The drug made him see rays of light that no one else was seeing. “Those rays piled over each other to form a tunnel. The walls of the tunnel appeared to be decorated with various symbols associated with different religions,” he says. “Maybe that was [a manifestation of] my internal conflict at the time, one that I was not aware of,” he surmises. “[But] the idea that I was alone in that moment of divinity made me highly upset and I cried cathartically for hours.”

Zaed owns a book, The Anarchist Cookbook. written by an American author, William Powell. It was published in 1971 and contains methods for making sabotage devices, manufacturing weapons and producing LSD — all at home. One of its formulae to produce LSD involves the use of wood ether, ethanol and morning glory seeds — ingredients which, Zaed says, “are all easily available”. He, however, has never tried making LSD himself “because who will try it first?” He won’t.

Zaed gets philosophical as he talks about the impact LSD has made on him. It has made him realise, he claims, that “darkness is not really a physical thing” but just “the absence of light”. So, he says enigmatically, “the only thing that really exists is light — and the light loves you.”

According to him, control is the worst trait to have if one wants to have a meaningful LSD experience. After you have had LSD, “you just need to let it guide you, fearlessly” because, as he says it, there is nothing to be afraid of “except the monsters in your own head”.

While this state may sound easy to achieve, it does not always produce – at least, not for everyone – the same level of self-awareness that Zaed claims to have. The way to attaining that level, ironically, lies in regaining control after having lost it, he says, making it all sound extremely esoteric. “Some people can control or direct energies on psychedelics. If I am not boasting, I am one of them,” he then claims.

He describes how, while on a trip (a term used widely for a psychedelic experience), he made his friends imagine things that were not there. “I was surprised that it worked,” he recalls, but warns: “There are natural diversions [of that power] and there are unnatural diversions [of it].” Just to cite one example of an unnatural diversion, he says, “using it selfishly, say, to seduce someone”.

Zaed also cautions that this is exactly the kind of power that can be misused into forming cults and propagating ideologies that might be harmful to humanity.

Dr James Fadiman, one of the leading experts on psychedelics, dismisses the notion that psychedelics can help anyone exert psychological or emotional power over others. “It is a terrible idea,” he says in an email interview. He agrees that psychedelics may result in out-of-body experiences where their users could feel either disconnected or confused about the real world around them. Users, however, need “a guide to help them understand” such experiences, he explains.

Sessa, who has written two books on psychedelics – The Psychedelic Renaissance and To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic – is also not sure if there is any connection between psychedelics and some kind of a higher knowledge and understanding of the world and life. When people report such experiences, he says in an email interview, it forces psychiatrists to ask some interesting questions about how the brain works. “Can exploring these mental states be useful for understanding the nature of consciousness and, crucially, can they have therapeutic value in psychiatry?”

Tania Ahsan during a ayahuasca retreat in France | Courtesy Tania Ahsan
Tania Ahsan during a ayahuasca retreat in France | Courtesy Tania Ahsan

Hamraz Ahsan is a poet, writer and columnist based in London. He was born in Pakistan but has been living in England for more than three decades. His Urdu columns appear frequently in a Lahore-based Urdu newspaper.

Ahsan has written a novel, Kabuko The Djinn, that “talks about psychotropic plants and draws on actual ceremonies that Sufis undertake in the Subcontinent,” his daughter Tania Ahsan says in an email.

Being her father’s daughter, she has been interested in shamanism and Sufism since an early age. The magazine she went on to work for also covered all types of spiritualities. One of her favourite contributors to the magazine was Ross Heaven, a Britain-born shamanic healer who died earlier this year.

Heaven conducted mystic retreats in Peru, South Africa and France. These retreats replicate traditional shamanic practices of indigenous Amazonians living in various parts of South America and, more often than not, involve a concoction called ayahuasca. It is brewed from various vines and plants found in the Amazon forests and contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT) as one of its most active ingredients. DMT is a highly powerful psychedelic substance extracted from both plants and animals.

Tania was at a bit of a crossroads in her life in April 2006 when she embarked on a journey to Le Tourne town in south-west France to have ayahuasca and experience its attendant psychospiritual states. “The retreats often take place in remote locations so you do need to think long and hard before deciding” if you really want to take part in them.

Around 15 other people joined her in Le Tourne. “Most people were in their twenties and thirties. The youngest was perhaps 22 and the eldest perhaps 50,” she says.

Two shamans were there to guide participants through the experience. They had brought the brew all the way from South America where it was prepared by Heaven and another healer who had blessed it by singing traditional South American chants, called icaros, as it brewed.

The retreat was to last three days but ayahuasca was to be administered only on two of those nights. It started with the shamans explaining how it would proceed. The participants had to follow a special dietary regime before and during the retreat: their food would have no spices and no salt.

They would eat nothing, apart from herbal tea, after lunch on the first day they were to consume ayahuasca. “[We] were expected to stay as relaxed as possible during the day and not do anything too stimulating — such as a gym session or even have long or loud conversations.”

As night set in, the shamans sang some icaros and did some drumming. “Then they blessed the brew and asked participants to come up one by one to consume it,” she says. “I believe one could drink again if one wanted to but that night I did not.”

All the participants then lay down in a large hall. The shamans blew tobacco smoke over them to bless the room and did some more singing and gentle drumming. “One of the shamans each night took a little bit of the brew in order to be there with us and understand the energy of the room,” Tania says.

After the first night, the participants could decide if they wanted to stay and consume the brew for another night. Some chose not to, perhaps fearing that the strong brew may harm them physically or psychologically even though, Tania says, “nobody needed a doctor’s assistance”.

Her own experience varied on each of those nights. She felt okay with everything on the first night and did not throw up – as some others had – but the second night was like a “dark” descent into her own soul. “I felt bereft, lonely and freaked out,” she says. Her feelings were not bearable for her. “It just wasn’t comfortable.”

Tania says she avoids confrontations and conflicts. If she had known that she would have to contend with her internal demons after consuming ayahuasca on the second night, she “would never have done it”.

Once she was through with the experience, though, it became “completely bearable and healing for me”.

Ayela is an underground psychotherapist in Karachi. She has been practising for nine years. She also has a deep affection for LSD and strongly believes in its healing powers.

For the past two years, she has been trip-sitting some of her clients. She gives them an LSD dose – ranging between 50 microgrammes and 250 microgrammes – and then pairs it with therapy. The pairing, she says, provides much better chances of healing.

Ayela, though, claims that she also takes all the required cautions before putting people on LSD for therapy. “Risk assessment is absolutely necessary in therapy,” she says. “I can never put a patient on a trip without making them go through a screening process to determine their history of mental illness.”

Any traces of schizophrenia in a client’s family mean that they could be prone to it too. “I will not recommend LSD to them.” Similarly, she says, those who have been using antidepressants must be off them for at least three months – or more if the level of their mental illness is high – before they trip.

Each client needs to set aside at least 24 hours of their life for each guided trip. Approximately twelve of these hours will be consumed by the trip itself and the remaining for resting afterwards. She also meets the client for lunch or breakfast immediately after every trip for a debriefing session.

Ayela says she has treated three patients with LSD so far and none of those cases have gone wrong. “One of the patients was dealing with cocaine addiction and the fear of isolation; the other had accidentally unlocked some past trauma that they were not ready to deal with; and the third person I would rather not talk about.”

A Karachi-based psychotherapist who works with psychedelics | Manal Khan
A Karachi-based psychotherapist who works with psychedelics | Manal Khan

Fadiman has authored many books on psychedelics including, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys. In an email interview, he says psychedelics help people “realise something about themselves and the world they live in”. This, he says, “is called learning” and it “lasts longer than any biochemical effect” of a drug.

He himself was introduced to psychedelics in 1961 when he was living in Paris and was visited by his former undergraduate advisor, Richard Alpert (who later converted to Hinduism and came to be known as Ram Dass). Alpert was on his way to Copenhagen with American psychologist and writer Timothy Leary and British writer Aldous Huxley. There, at an international conference, he was to make a major presentation on the positive potential of psychedelics. This was to be the first-ever academic presentation on the subject on a global scale.

Huxley, who has written many books including a fictional dystopia, Brave New World, had already converted to the cause of psychedelics by then. He has narrated his experiences with psychedelics in his book The Doors of Perception and famously wrote in it: “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”

In Huxley’s point of view, psychedelics open those doors and help their users move from known realms to the unknown one. His writings have been extremely influential in creating a romantic mystique around psychedelics.

A few years later, in the spring of 1965, some members of a British rock band, The Beatles, would consume LSD unknowingly. Their dentist John Riley mixed it in their coffee at a dinner party. After the party, John Lennon, the co-founder of the band, drove around London in a Mini Cooper car along with his wife Cynthia and another band member George Harrison and his wife Pattie Boyd, believing that the whole city was on fire. This brush with The Beatles further solidified the romantic aura of psychedelics, making them the choice drug for many an artist and escapist — including The Beatles themselves.

LSD, according to Sessa, was soon dubbed as “the love drug” and “became for the hippie generation a validation of a peaceful way of life”.

When its use spread to the general population in the United States, “Young Americans realised they didn’t want to fight any more [in the Vietnam War],” wrote Professor David Nutt, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit at the Imperial College London, in an August 2014 article published in the Independent newspaper. This led to a ban on LSD in the United States.

Recently, microdosing on psychedelics has resurfaced as a fad among highly-paid techies and executives in California’s Silicon Valley. An August 2018 opinion piece in the New York Times explained under an obvious headline – How and Why Silicon Valley Gets High – as to how a large number of programmers and computer engineers were trying psychedelics to boost their energy and creativity.

In Pakistan, psychedelics are being used for different purposes in different places. According to one insider who does not want to be named: “In Karachi and Lahore, people want to incorporate psychedelic experiences into their daily lives. Peshawar has more of a ‘burner culture’ — revolving around ecstasy and meth. Islamabad is different. People there want to trip all the time.”

“But psychedelics are not for everyone,” says another source who has been selling psychedelics for many years, mostly to clients from among the middle class, the upper-middle class and the rich in Karachi. As a quote taken from a Facebook group puts it: “One person’s therapy is another person’s spiritual journey is another person’s party is another person’s nightmare.”

THE 'NEW' NORMAL

Let us call her Mira.

She ingests about 10 microgrammes – one microgramme being equal to one millionth of a gramme – of LSD every fourth day. For her, it is like taking a cup of coffee. It gives her the energy to do things she otherwise would only lazily dream about, she says.

Mira is 31 and works for a non-governmental organisation in Karachi that works mainly with drug addicts. Her first experience with LSD was in Goa, India. She wanted to try it after reading the microdosing theories of Fadiman.

Fadiman has explained in his works how microdosing on psychedelics, under the supervision of psychiatrists, who are also knowledgeable about the chemical and psychological properties of psychedelics, can be curative rather than being hallucinogenic. Microdoses have different effects from those of higher doses, he says. They are “less exciting” and, therefore, “it is seldom that people on microdoses report any unusual experiences”.

Fadiman claim the users of psychedelics in microdoses “report better eating habits [and] better sleep.” They also become “nice to others and more productive”, use “less coffee or tea or cannabis” and often exercise more. Microdosing, according to him, has only a few negative effects, if any at all. “If a person does not like the effect, they can stop taking the psychedelics.” They are not addictive.

But he warns that the amount of microdoses, and the duration for which they can be taken, vary from person to person and should only be prescribed by experts. He also likens the use of psychedelics to driving a car. The more you know about driving and cars, the better driver you become. “You need to know a lot [before starting to use psychedelics] but if you do know a lot, it is safe and wonderful to be able to drive.”

Mira – and thousands of other users of psychedelics in Pakistan – seem to have neither the guidance nor the understanding that he talks about. She has been microdosing on her own for two years.

She started by using 0.2 grammes of magic mushrooms or shrooms — natural fungi that have psilocybin, a psychedelic substance, as their most active ingredient. There are more than 180 species of mushrooms that contain psilocybin or its derivative psilocin.

After two months, she switched to LSD. This was her way of curing herself of alcoholism. And it worked, she says. “From drinking every day, it slowly went down to drinking three nights a week and then to drinking only on weekends,” she says. “Now, I don’t feel like drinking at all.”

Mira has a set LSD routine. “If I have it on Monday, Tuesday is a good day and Wednesday a decent day but then I will need to dose again on Thursday,” she says.

Mira’s 60-year-old aunt, Mrs Lotia, is also microdosing on psychedelics to cure her post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. She now feels less agitated and lucid at night than before. She was on antidepressant pills for a long time but has stopped consuming those now. The pills do not work 70 per cent of the times and even if they do, people end up getting addicted to them, Mira says.

Does Mira also feel more cerebral and productive after she has taken psychedelics? “Yes,” she says. Is this feeling entirely because of psychedelics? “Hard to say.”

She has also been eating healthy, exercising, undergoing psychological therapy and also doing meditation. Microdosing alone, she concedes, could not have helped her quit drinking.

She and Mrs Lotia are among a small but growing group of middle-to-upper-middle class people in Karachi who are mixing psychedelics with a changed lifestyle in order to feel and live better. Mrs Lotia explains it eloquently: “Let us put it this way. Mira has become a vegetarian.”

Faiz is a young choreographer and a dance teacher in Lahore. He has been microdosing on LSD for two years. “I don’t have any dependency,” he says.

He was also using psychedelics when he was studying critical pedagogy during his masters and credits microdosing for giving him the idea of teaching math through dance. “It has been pretty successful,” he says. “I incorporate various angles, measurements, probabilities in dance moves to explain them to the students. I give them various steps to work around. They have to figure out what moves to make at what angle and in what combination to make them work. It is like an algorithm that they have to create.”

This explanation may not make any sense to someone uninitiated in either math or psychedelics. To Faiz, it is all about being creative — and, going by his own claim, psychedelics have helped him immensely. If he were to explain what psychedelics do for him, he would say “they make the music speak” to him.

Faiz believes microdosing has allowed him to innovate in all his artistic endeavours. “The kind of choreography and artwork I do is very interpretive. It is not commercial. It works a lot better for me if I can see things from different lenses [to do this kind of work],” he explains.

Faiz usually takes LSD during the day, and not as the first thing in the morning. He has also used methamphetamine, or meth, but found it not even partially as helpful as psychedelics. And, he felt as if he would get addicted to meth even while he was using it for the first time. “I could feel the craving for it and that is why I do not do it now,” he says.

Psychedelics, Faiz says, are not addictive though he concedes that they can have negative effects. “I have been diagnosed with anxiety. I feel there are times where it gets triggered when I am on LSD,” he says.

To avoid that, he sometimes consumes shrooms which, according to him, have only had salutary impacts on him as far as his anxiety is concerned.

Sarah, a 28-year-old business trainer in Pakistan, also swears by shrooms. She was studying in the United States some years ago when she suffered from anxiety and panic attacks so severe that they rendered her dysfunctional. It was then that she tried microdoses of shrooms to get back on her feet. It worked and since then has become an essential part of her life.

Every day as she gets ready for work, Sarah makes herself a smoothie and dissolves a quarter to half gramme of shrooms in it. “The results have been pretty substantial,” she writes in an email, “and include improved mood and increased energy.” These changes, she claims, have allowed her to “connect the dots” while addressing problems and have also increased her “overall sense of well-being”.

Sarah is very cautious about the amount she takes and warns that even microdosing can be harmful if not gotten right. “Dosing is a problem with shrooms,” she says, “because their contents are so inconsistent”.

It is obviously not easy to get the dose right with a plant whose chemical properties can vary widely, depending on where it is grown and how it is tended and harvested. To address the problem, Sarah, at one stage, was growing her own shrooms in her apartment while studying in Chicago.

Natasha grew up in Lahore in the 1970s and 1980s. “I had only a few experiences outside the parameters of my house,” she says. “The boys around me could gallivant outside but girls were kept indoors in silk chains.”

She had no exposure to or experience of such intoxicants as hashish and alcohol. These were taboo words in her conservative household. “I grew up seeing my parents occasionally taking valium or diazepam pills to sleep at night.”

Natasha got married at the age of 20 and was introduced to Lahore’s party crowd, with people drinking around her routinely. “That set me even more against drugs,” she says.

She vaguely remembers how her children first suggested that she used some natural relaxants. “My son told me how important it was for my own sake to not be a control freak.” For years, she thought about it but was never fully convinced to try any substance.

In 2015, her son offered her 0.9 grammes of shrooms. Before anything could make her change her mind, she consumed them all in one go. “Within 20 minutes, I was on my trip,” she says.

The trip “opened the door to consciousness — a whole new realm” for her. Now, three years later, she finds it rather strange why she did not try shrooms earlier.

Her trip was nothing like the wooziness often shown in movies after characters have consumed some drug. It was a quiet and relaxed state of mind, she recalls. Half an hour into her trip, she says, she started having an internal dialogue with her mother whose long illness and death she had been carrying as an emotional baggage for more than 20 years. “I felt a weight had been lifted off my chest. I felt much lighter after my trip.”

Natasha says drugs that induce psychedelic experiences “help people deal with issues rather than block them”. If she could she would give some psychedelic substance to her 70-year-old sister “who is a widow and is suffering from psychosis in New York”.

Natasha likes to plan her trips and describes them as “a slow, smooth transition and a slow, smooth descent”. She also enjoys writing down the thoughts that occur to her during her trip and which, according to her, are not evident in everyday life. “In normal life, we are always running from one thought to the other, from one distraction to the next.”

She recently tripped along with her children (who are now in their twenties) and her husband near Murree. Around sunset, they found a spot in a pine forest in Bhurban and consumed some shrooms. Natasha remembers how she could see waves in a nearby stream creating beautiful shadows on the banks — as if animals were slowly walking by. As the sun set, their conversations became funny. They saw spy satellites in the sky and joked if they were observing them. “We all laughed together, waving at the satellites,” she says, still laughing at the thought.

They played games and chased each other as if they were small children. “At the end of the trip, we got into a group hug and said a prayer of gratitude for our togetherness,” she says. A family that trips together stays together, is how she sums up the whole experience.

Such experiences happen on LSD or shrooms because, as one expert puts it, psychedelic substances are “non-specific amplifiers”. They accentuate every feeling, every sensation, every thought but it is difficult to specify whether this accentuation would be for the better or for the worse. They work in such a way that “any emotion, good or bad, benign or destructive, can be magnified to dramatic proportions”.

Naseem is a 57-year-old single mother. She works in Lahore as a research consultant in various fields such as healthcare and gender, and has never had alcohol or even smoked a cigarette. “My system is very sensitive to these things,” she says.

Yet, she has been “intrigued” by psychedelics.

Naseem says this intrigue started after reading a book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences. Published in 2000 and written by Rick Strassman, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine, it recorded the findings of a research project approved and funded by the United States government. Running between 1990 and 1995, the project involved 60 volunteers who were using DMT.

Mushrooms grown in the United States | Courtesy Sarah
Mushrooms grown in the United States | Courtesy Sarah

The book and other similar literature made Naseem scared of psychedelics but, ironically, they also pulled her towards them. She only wanted to try a microdose in the beginning but did not know how small an amount would suit her. Even nine microgrammes of LSD – generally considered a safe microdose – turned out to be too much for her. “I could not leave my house even on such a little amount.”

Two weeks later, she tried another, smaller, dose. “I felt growth, productivity and clarity after that,” she says of her experience.

Naseem has microdosed on both LSD and shrooms but prefers the latter. “They are milder and suit someone my age.” LSD would leave her mouth dry for 24 hours and also caused her blood pressure to drop. “It made me feel slightly cold. I would ask someone to cover me with a blanket every time I consumed LSD,” she says.

She now takes a small teaspoon full of crushed mushroom powder every week. She keeps it in her freezer just like many other spices and condiments. “Mushrooms give me depth and understanding. They make me productive.”

She has also made her younger sister a regular user of psychedelics but her own son is not convinced if his mother is doing right by herself.

He has studied medicine at the Imperial College London and does not approve of the use of psychedelics for the same reason that many doctors oppose it for: there is not enough research on psychedelics yet to know whether they help or harm the human mind and body.

The question that most doctors and psychiatrists ask – and do not yet have a definite answer for – is this: while microdosing certainly changes the mood, does it also reset the human body’s internal clock?

Dr Tania Nadeem, a psychiatrist at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, has seven years of experience in adolescent psychology and she categorically states: “There is no medical research to prove that microdosing has zero side effects.” A frantic person in need of an instant way to make their day better may not think that it can be detrimental to their mind, she says.

Many people who come to her for treatment have tried other ways, including psychedelics, of healing themselves. “We have to realise that there is a problem and that is why they are coming to me.”

Even the most ardent advocates of microdosing admit that its benefits remain unproven. There is scepticism, both in the psychedelic space and outside it, in terms of the benefits of microdosing, Paul Austin, the American author of a popular book, Microdosing Psychedelics: A Practical Guide to Upgrade Your Life, is known to have said: “There’s no scientific research there yet.”

Sessa, who these days works as a senior research fellow at various universities for a PhD in psychotherapy and has worked on several Britain-based human trials in which test doses of LSD and psilocybin are administered and received, is also not entirely convinced about the positive impacts of microdosing. “I know it is popular,” he says. “[So] it might be real … but there is no placebo-controlled data to verify this as a real effect,” he says. “Until we get that data, microdosing remains merely an anecdotal, subjective report. We shall have to wait and see.”

THE LOWS

The gate of a house located in one of the most upscale parts of Islamabad opens to a barking Labrador. Next to the dog is her owner — a young man in his early thirties who does not want to reveal his identity. He walks to his bedroom where two other people – of the same age as he is – are sitting. They all went to school together and have a lot of common experiences, including those of consuming psychedelics.

The Beatles popularised LSD among the youth in the 1960s | Shutterstock
The Beatles popularised LSD among the youth in the 1960s | Shutterstock

One of them, Nadir Furqan, initially trained as an architect but is now studying anthropology. He studies in Lahore but has his home in Islamabad. Dressed in a multi-pocketed button down shirt and sporting a thick moustache, he is seated next to a huge red, wooden bed.

Furqan has been experimenting with drugs since the age of 13 and had his first trip on LSD in the fall of 2006. “I have been hooked since then,” he says. He also made his close friends try it. “Soon the word got out. I became famous as the guy who has acid,” he says.

In the summer of 2009, Furqan got together with a few friends at his home in Chhattar valley, north-east of Islamabad. They wanted to see if LSD would change their experience of listening to music. “The music was curated by a friend who is obsessed with Jimi Hendrix,” Furqan says.

That night, he adds, he was able to see sound and hear smell – a phenomenon known as synaesthesia – for the first time ever. “It was baffling. Acid shows you the beauty of the smallest things in a larger than life way.”

Furqan walked out of that experience as a changed man. He wanted everyone to see the world through the “acid eye”. He also used his music soiree on psychedelics for his final project of architecture studies at a private university in Lahore. With shards of glass, he made what he called the Temple of Hendrix.

A girl reads tarot cards at a party where psychedleics are being consumed | Manal Khan
A girl reads tarot cards at a party where psychedleics are being consumed | Manal Khan

“It led to a great bonding with my professor who had tried LSD in Ottawa,” Furqan says. But then people started considering him a junkie and teachers began refusing to grade him well. “It affected my overall progress in life so much that I stopped having LSD for almost three years.”

He also stopped feeling any affinity with architecture and quit studying it. The users of psychedelics perhaps should be ready for such changes in their lives.

Another thing they must be ready for is getting the set and the setting, or S&S, right before consuming psychedelics. “Aspiring users should not be suffering from any psychological or emotional trauma. They should be comfortable with their surroundings and fine with ingesting something that may not suit their sense of taste. They should also have enough free time to have a 12-14-hour trip,” he explains.

A “sitter” is also an integral part of a psychedelic S&S, Furqan says. “The sitter does not consume any substance. He essentially oversees a trip and stays around those who are tripping so that he can take care of them in case of an emergency or a bad trip.”

Also known as a psychedelic crisis, a bad trip happens when the drug triggers an extremely negative psychological and neurological response in the brain.

Sessa is also a proponent of S&S. “When one hears horror stories of ‘bad trips’, it is invariably because of a lack of attention paid to the set and the setting,” he says.

One must, according to him, pay attention to the set and the setting in order to minimise the negative – and maximise the positive – effects of psychedelics. The set, according to him, includes a whole range of cultural attitudes, beliefs and expectations about what will happen after one uses psychedelics. “This includes whether the users [have] religious expectations, their prior experience of a particular drug, what they have heard from others, what the media tells them and what they know of the drug’s physiological effects.”

A user’s preconceived mindset, he says, will also influence and be influenced by his or her “fears and fantasies about what might happen and what [he or she] wishes to gain by taking the drug”.

The setting, Sessa says, includes the physical environment in which the drug is taken, including who the users are with at the time, what music is played (if any), whether they know the place, how hot or cold they are, how physically active they are during the session and whether they have things to do the next day. Even broader issues, such as “the social climate and attitude towards drugs” are also included in the setting.

The users must also ensure that the substances they are using are not adulterated or contaminated. “If exposed to light and heat, LSD can evaporate and lose its potency. Mushrooms get fungus if they are not kept in a dry place,” Furqan says.

After S&S are in place, the users, referred to as psychonauts, embark on a psychedelic-induced journey to explore various states of consciousness. Things can still go wrong and if they do during a trip, the consequences can be serious.

Two years ago when Furqan first tried mushrooms in Karachi, all his S&S did not prepare him for the experience. “They hit me like a wall. I could not even stay conscious,” he says. “I was passed out on the floor.”

At another occasion, Furqan’s father walked into his room at their Chhattar home while he and his friends were tripping there. It was a Friday and just about time for Friday prayer. Furqan’s father told them to accompany him to a mosque and join the prayer there. It was impossible to say no. “So we got up and headed for the masjid,” says Nihaal Khan, the third man in the room along with the Labrador’s owner and Furqan.

He is playing Imagine, a song by John Lennon, on his ukulele before he starts speaking.

“We positioned ourselves somewhere towards the back of the rows forming for the congregation, trying not to attract attention,” he says. What happened next was not just embarrassing but also potentially dangerous. “There was an empty spot in the row in front of us and one of us stepped ahead to take it. Another person was meanwhile also moving to take the same spot and managed to do so before our friend could,” Nihaal recounts. “He got stuck in the middle of the two rows. By then the prayer started so he had to do all the moves in a cramped space between two rows.” Nihaal looked at his friend and burst out laughing.

He says he started experimenting with smoking at the age of 14. Since then, he says, he has experimented a lot with drugs — every experiment being the outcome of an innate curiosity. “If I am to [explain] my relationship with drugs, it all happened because everyday life was mundane,” he says. “I was looking for altered perspectives and exploring the different states of consciousness on each drug.”

A young man sharing his psychedelic experiences in Islamabad  | Manal Khan
A young man sharing his psychedelic experiences in Islamabad | Manal Khan

Before he started using LSD, he says, he would consume a hallucinatory stimulant called dextromethorphan (DXM) that is found in a cough syrup available over the counter. “It is in the morphine class of medications with sedative, dissociative, and stimulant properties,” says Nihaal, adding that he will never recommend it to anyone. “It is a dark drug. It plays with shadows and murky spaces.”

When he once had DXM, he says, he felt like his vision had all gone wrong.

“I felt the faces on posters in my room had become angry — all their eyes on me.” He saw some faces melting in anger. “I immediately felt rejected by them.”

Nihaal has a theory about why people feel things differently when they are on psychedelics: if generally you are imagining 10 thoughts per second, you will have 30 thoughts per second while on LSD. “Your mind is still taking time to process all those 30 thoughts in a very limited time which makes you believe that you have been at it for hours when, in reality, you started only five minutes earlier,” he says.

“This realisation of being stuck in the moment might freak one out, leading to a bad trip.”

Naveed Mushtaq walks into the room while Nihaal is winding up his experiences. Mushtaq is dressed in a white t-shirt and cotton trousers and is introduced as a passionate rock climber.

He studied in the United States and, like others in the room, has consumed many drugs including hallucinogens. “I have had magic mushrooms, DMT and many other medicinal drugs,” he says.

He has also had the experience of using amphetamine in the form of Adderall tablets during his university days. “It can keep you awake for almost 30 hours,” he says.

Mushtaq has also had methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). Commonly known as ecstasy, molly or XTC, it was first synthesised by Dr Alexander Shulgin, an American medicinal chemist. He tested it on himself in 1978 and, thus, earned the title of the “Godfather of Ecstasy”.

In the 1980s, MDMA started to be used in psychotherapy and was said to increase the patients’ self-esteem and facilitate therapeutic communication. Since then it has been primarily used as a recreational drug that causes euphoric feelings, increased empathy with others and enhanced sensations.

Ecstasy is most commonly taken orally in tablet form and comes in a variety of shapes and colours. It can also be snorted or smoked. It can be deadly when combined with other drugs. At high doses, it can be deadly on its own.

MAPS, that works on what it calls “the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana”, claims that marijuana and MDMA are psychedelics in the same way any other mind-altering substance or activity is. “Dreams are psychedelic, meditation can be psychedelic. Non-drug techniques like Holotropic Breathwork, hyperventilation, ecstatic dancing — all sorts of things are psychedelics,” says Rick Doblin, the MAPS founder, in a video clip.

Fadiman does not agree. He insists that MDMA is not a psychedelic. “It is not even a borderline psychedelic,” he says, “[but] is often confused or classed with psychedelics because most of the work done with it, therapeutically, is done by MAPS that also works with psychedelics.”

The host in that Islamabad house has also taken the drug many times.

When he was in college in the winter of 2011, he says, everyone would pop ecstasy during birthdays. When its effects started to fade – a state known as a ‘downer’ – people would jack them up with ketamine, an anaesthetic. “One bottle of ketamine would be good to make half-a-dozen people go into deep sleep,” says Furqan.

The host has also had Ritalin. Scientifically called methylphenidate hydrochloride, it is used for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and belongs to a class of drugs known as stimulants. He took it every other day for a month while working on his masters thesis. “I could not eat or sleep till my 15,000 word thesis was all written.”

He once also had LSD to evaluate where he “was standing” in his love relationship. “After the trip ended, I called the girl and told her that this was probably not working out,” he says. “It is shocking how I became so sure of my own feelings all of a sudden but this is exactly the kind of clarity that LSD leaves you with.”

Hamad Naqvi and Asif Ali, too, have experimented with drugs.

Belonging to Rawalpindi, they are both in their thirties and look entirely different from each other. Naqvi is dressed in formal pants and a tucked-in dress shirt. His brown leather shoes pair perfectly with his navy and sky blue attire. Ali is in jeans and has a wild beard and moustache. His curly hair are tied in a loose ponytail.

Naqvi has been suicidal since his early years. He has also been diagnosed with other borderline personality disorders. In the last 10 years, he has tried three different therapists and several types of medication but nothing seems to be working for him.

Using various intoxicants, including psychedelics, has been an “escape” for him. He sees it “as a way of dissecting my brain, soul and ego out on an operating table and examining it under a microscope”.

Among many other substances, he has also tried a pill called dimenhydrinate and a liquid known as diphenhydramine. These are delirium-inducing hallucinogens which are quite different from psychedelics. They produce vivid and generally highly unpleasant hallucinations in addition to potentially dangerous side effects. Using them was “not an enjoyable experience”, he says. “They leave you constantly scared.”

He experimented with these drugs for around six months but they interrupted his studies and made things really bad for him, he says.

At the age of 18, he took a cough syrup that contains DXM, a dissociative psychedelic. “It turned out to be a satisfying experience,” Naqvi says.

In one of his DXM trips, he says, he left his “body on Earth and travelled to the inside of the moon”. He claims seeing a huge ball of light. “The light was God,” he says, “and God told me that I was not living my life right and that I need to sober up and quit drugs.”

Ali has not tried as many substances as Naqvi has. But even his limited experiences have not been always pleasant.

An ecstasy pill | Shutterstock
An ecstasy pill | Shutterstock

In his first brush with psychedelics, he consumed 3.8 grammes of magic mushrooms, quite a heavy dose for a beginner. He was with Naqvi at the time in a park in Islamabad. Almost two hours into the trip, Ali says, the trauma of his mother’s death came gushing to him like a cyclone of emotions. “I remember crying my guts out till I found peace.”

Osho, a self-proclaimed namesake of the Indian guru Rajneesh, has had a similar experience. A short man nearing 30 years of age, with curly hair and black-rimmed glasses, he went to Hunza in the summer of 2015 to experience, aided by LSD, the beauty of the area’s mountainous landscape. He, instead, had a nightmare.

Three hours down his trip, Osho felt he was experiencing all the sadness in the world. “I started crying inconsolably,” he says on a late summer evening at a chai stall in Karachi’s Defence area. “I felt like I was responsible for all the sorrows in the world, for the rich corrupting the poor, for the powerful abusing the labour and for men annihilating female wisdom.”

All these experiences narrated by different people sound more or less the same even when they do not always accrue from the same class or type of drugs. Experts like to point out that they are not.

Fadiman, for one, argues that the effects of “designer drugs” and “cognitive enhancers” such as Adderall and Ritalin differ from those of psychedelics, especially when psychedelics are taken in microdoses. “These other drugs stimulate parts of the mind and body but “they do nothing related to healing mental or physical conditions as microdoses of psychedelics do”.

As far as ecstasy/MDMA is concerned, he still concedes, it shares at least one major characteristic with psychedelics. The two, he says, can be broadly put together in the same category of “mind-changing drugs”.

Ahmad, 21, is three years older than his brother, Zubair. They were both in school in Peshawar when they first started DJ-ing for private events. Their father, a leading member of a religious political party, is opposed to any musical activity but they have kept their passion for music hidden from him. As they also have their predilection for psychedelics.

In a basement inside their friend’s house on Warsak Road, they have set up a sound system and depleted red LED lights that release only as much light as keeps the darkness away. In a meeting this late summer, they smoke Spice, a synthetic marijuana, as they talk about their frequent mixing of psychedelics with music.

Their bodies seem to be in perfect poise as they lean against the wall, blowing smoke out of the window right above their heads. “Our friends at school used to pop ecstasy pills daily. Imagine, daily,” says Ahmad. “I did not understand why would one want to take a party drug every single day,” particularly when “half the stuff available in Peshawar is fake”.

Here, he says, manufacturers and dealers make copies of ecstasy at a large scale.

Aizad, a Peshawar-based drug dealer who has named himself Apocalypse, readily agrees. He claims a large number of ecstasy pills being sold in Islamabad and Peshawar are made in underground facilities in Khyber Agency along the Pak-Afghan border.

On a late summer evening, Apocalypse displays an LSD tablet – a tiny square with 250 microgrammes potency – inside a parked car in Khyber Agency. The tablet is sufficient for a long trip. He cuts it into about 10 pieces and is out to sell those.

Another man suddenly opens the back door of the car and hurriedly gets inside. He seems nervous. His large blue eyes, wavy golden hair reaching his shoulders and pink face make him look like a 15-year-old though, in reality, he is about five years older. His name is Bahadur Khan.

Bahadur supplies ecstasy to the whole of Peshawar, claims Apocalypse. “The whole of Peshawar knows him.”

Bahadur himself is addicted to ecstasy. “After I consume a pill, I am not scared of anyone or anything anymore,” he says. “When I am sober two days later, then I feel scared for myself.”

He first heard about ecstasy from friends of his friends when he was 15 years old. He started buying it from a dealer to use it himself and also to sell it to his friends. “Slowly, I started my own small ecstasy business.”

Bahadur speaks in a soft, almost purring, voice — as if he is perpetually trying to calm someone down. He, however, is the one most in need of calming. Due to his past experiences with drug lords and law-enforcement agencies, says Apocalypse, Bahadur is prone to obsessive fretting.

Personnel of the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF), a federal entity, kept him in detention for a month some time ago, he tells Apocalypse in Pashto. “They beat me up, asking me where I get ecstasy from,” Apocalypse translates him as saying. They also asked him what LSD was, where it came from and who sold it in Peshawar.

Bahadur chuckles as he recalled how the ANF personnel did not have any clue about LSD. “I have heard when people consume it,” he quotes one of them as saying, “they end up in hell”.

Bahadur denies that the ecstasy he sells is made in facilities around Peshawar. He claims he either smuggles his pills from Afghanistan by hiding them in car engines or orders them online, through the dark web, from Netherlands, receiving them through couriers.

Bahadur, though, concedes that the pills he sells sometimes lead to medical emergencies. “Some consumers have had attacks of paralysis. Their hands and feet have become stiff and their faces have become contorted.”

A packet of ice in Peshawar | Manal Khan
A packet of ice in Peshawar | Manal Khan

This, he believes, happens because consumers either overdose or mix substances without knowing their chemical properties. Sometimes the problems occur because of the way MDMA is pressed to turn it into ecstasy. Cocaine, meth and heroine are often used in the pressing process, he says.

Bahadur recounts how one of his regular customers started losing weight rapidly. “So, his father became concerned and took him to a hospital where they did some blood tests on him.” The tests revealed that he was using heroin.

Bahadur says his customer claims that he had never touched any drug other than ecstasy. The pills he was using must have been mixed with other substances.

Faisal Nabi Malik was doing well for himself. He worked as a banker initially and then started his own business. By 2013, he was already eight years into his marriage, living with his wife and three-year-old daughter in an apartment in Karachi’s Clifton area.

Malik also had a large circle of friends including a young film-maker Mansoor Mujahid, an amateur painter Anab Zehra Hameed and a former radio host Masooma Zainab Abidi. They all belonged to the same age group: between late twenties and early thirties.

On June 19, 2013, Malik picked up Masooma at 9 pm from her parents’ house in Defence area and, together, they went to the apartment of a cousin of Malik’s. Two other friends joined them there but left about three hours later. A little after 2 am, Malik and Masooma also left. They got into a car again and drove to an apartment in Zamzama area where Mujahid and Anab were living together. Once there, they all sat and talked in an air-conditioned bedroom.

At around 4 am, Mujahid suddenly took out a pistol and fired at Malik. Then he fired a second bullet at Malik. While Malik lay dying, Masooma ran into a bathroom where she hid herself and Anab helped Mujahid cut Malik’s throat and nose with a kitchen knife.

Mujahid then ordered three burgers from a fast food joint that the three of them ate. Masooma then went to sleep under the influence of sleeping pills administered to her forcibly by Mujahid and Anab.

When Masooma got up at 4 pm, she saw Mujahid and Anab getting ready to go out. Mujahid told her that they would drop her at her parents’ house. He also threatened her that he will not let her stay alive if she ever told anyone about the murder. All this while, Malik’s body was still lying around in the same apartment.

A day later, on June 21, Mujahid and Anab wrapped the body in bed sheets, put it in a car, dumped it outside an apartment building in Clifton and threw acid on the face to make it unrecognisable. The same night the two were arrested along with a lot of incriminating evidence — including the weapon with which the murder was committed.

Mujahid confessed to the killing in an initial statement he gave to investigation officers. As did Anab. Their accounts were corroborated by Masooma and some other witnesses including Malik’s driver who was waiting in a car outside the apartment when the murder took place.

Mujahid told investigators he killed Malik because he had assaulted Anab whom Mujahid was planning to marry. He later also said the whole incident was an accident, that he was drunk and that the pistol went off accidentally as he held it in his hand.

A court is hearing the case and is yet to determine whether the murder was deliberate or mere happenstance. “There are different versions of the incident and the motive for the murder is still not clear,” says the head of a police station in Clifton where the murder case was registered.

Mujahid and Anab, meanwhile, have been released on bail.

On an October evening this year, they are joined inside Anab’s bedroom at the house of her parents by two others friends — a man and a woman. The room is small but cozy and is lit with a single white light bulb. A diverse mix of artworks is on display on one wall. Anab says she created those under the influence of LSD. A puddle of dried candle wax on a coffee table and the floor, a large bookshelf and a pink chest of drawers add to the room’s arty ambience.

Anab rummages through a pile of things and pulls out a small, pink blow dryer. Drying her pink-dyed hair, she talks about her plans for this coming Saturday night. She does not talk about the murder.

Mujahid looks a little weaker and paler in person than he does in pictures flashed in the media after the murder. While others in the room smoke joints and consume meth, he speaks in a hurried but confident tone.

Refuting one of his earlier statements, he denies being intoxicated on the night of Malik’s murder. “I was the only sober person that night. The rest were fully intoxicated,” he says.

“What drugs were being consumed?” Mujahid does not respond; Anab does: “Cocaine, crushed Ritalin and ecstasy.”

Names have been changed in this story to protect identities except while quoting experts and mentioning incidents that are already in the public domain.


A previous version of this story published a photo stating that the woman shown in it was consuming acid while reading tarot cards. This is factually incorrect. The woman was not consuming acid. We have made the correction and we apologise for the error.


Opening image: A screenshot of ecstasy pills | Manal Khan


The writers are staffers at the Herald.


The article was originally published in the December 2018 issue under the headline 'Mind over matter'. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.