“A word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it.”
Carl Jung, Man and his Symbols, 1968
Beyond the smiley acid faces and sickly trance album art, psychedelics can be part of a conscious journey into spiritual, ancient realms. Aldous Huxley said plants and fungi with psychoactive powers (entheogens) “cleanse the doors of perception”. But what exactly do people see once that portal opens?
Many share visions of sacred geometry and mystical symbolism. Skin cells fly off fingers and morph into dragons. Neurons fire out infinite fractals, honeycombs, cobwebs, tunnels, funnels and lattices. The actual universe plays its music, like a secret EP release no one’s yet to hear.
Bizarrely, the same specific patterns seen during trips have also been reported during near-death experiences, or reaching non-drug-induced altered states of consciousness like deep meditation or fasting. Here they are:
The cover of The 13th Floor Elevators’ 1966 debut album The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators - with its single eye swimming in a green and red kaleidoscope - is the unofficial poster boy of the entheogenic eyeball cult.
While most psychedelic visuals are seen with the eyes closed, a state of higher consciousness opens the so-called third eye. It’s a complex symbol, but can symbolise enlightenment and eternity.
On a good conscious journey, opening the third eye allows people to sift through intuitions and make sense of their potential. Staring into the pupil of Mother Nature herself.
On a darker journey, when state-of-mind and expectations are far from conductive to psychedelic experiences, you can end up having a Real Bad Time. Like this Reddit user:
“I closed my eyes and there were eyes everywhere with vertical slit pupils, looking at me. They moved around and as I felt more and more uncomfortable one large red eye formed looking directly into me, as if it was looking into my soul. I felt like it was pure evil and had to stop there and go and watch a movie and wait to stop tripping.”
The Om symbol
“I rushed through time and space and came to a stop at the OM symbol. Then my vision twisted up and popped and I was back in reality,” one Reddit user describes.
Om is the sound from which the universe was created. Visually, the symbol represents different states: unconconscious, waking, dream, illusion and then, absolute (the highest state of consciousness, signified by the dot). In many Indian religions, it represents the creation, duration, and the dissolution of everything that exists.
Entheogens respect a conscious thought-state. That’s the difference between yelling about lizards for six hours in a paranoid psychosis… or synchronising with the universe itself.
Serpents, dragons and the ouroboros
“There’s a big… machine in the sky,... some kind of electric snake… coming straight at us.”
“Shoot it,” said my attorney.
“Not yet,” I said. “I want to study its habits.”
Hunter S. Thompson had his share of chemically enhanced confrontations with serpents. And he’s not the only one.
Reddit users report: Carlos Santana’s guitar neck turning into a snake at Woodstock and three-headed snakes rotating round fractals. Others report dragons dragging them onto dancefloors by the head at Shankra Festival.
In ancient mythology, serpents are symbols of rebirth, renewal, fertility, transformation and immortality. The latter’s represented by the ouroboros - a snake or dragon eating its own tail and forming a circle. It’s the oldest allegorical symbol in alchemy, symbolising the eternal cycle of time.
Fractals and geometry
“Bottomless wonders spring from simple rules which are repeated without end.”
Ever pressed on your eyelids and seen shapes and colours? Fractals. We exist as a fractal - geometric patterns hiding in plain sight all around us. Blood vessels, crystals, DNA, lightning bolts, mountain goat horns, fern leaves, snowflakes, galaxies, acid trips...
Scientists are forever trying to figure out just wtf brains are up to on psychedelics. Mathematicians and neurobiologists from The Royal Society nailed these patterns down to four types of geometric visual hallucinations:
1. Gratings, lattices, fretworks, filigrees, honeycombs and chequer-boards,
2. Tunnels, funnels, alleys, cones and vessels,
4. Cobwebs (for spiderwebs spun while high, may we direct you right here).
We’ll never do the study justice in a few words - nor will we ever understand its algebra without our own eyes melting out their sockets like nacho cheese - but you can read the whole paper here if you wish.
Researchers found that circuits “normally involved in the detection of oriented edges and the formation and processing of contours, are also responsible for the generation of the hallucinatory form constants.”
Basically, the brain mechanisms which generate geometric hallucinations live in your visual cortex. Psychedelics give your brain the capability to sense (and sometimes see) longer stretches of these repeating patterns.
So, those diving through bottomless honeycombs and climbing lattices the size of mountains, are - again - sifting their way through the eternal blueprint of creation and speaking the language of everything that exists.
Have a nice trip!
Words by Nina Cresswell