A Salvia Breakthrough: My First Trip
A Glimpse at the World Behind the World
It was a warm sunny day, the summer before my friends and I would leave for college. We borrowed my parent’s van, drove down to a head shop in Toronto and bought a gram of 20x salvia extract, a bong and a jet lighter.
The bong was short and red with black swirls ascending. The jet lighter was a crucial component, as we knew the optimal temperature for smoking salvia is higher than what a normal lighter can achieve.
As teenagers, a private indoor place for tripping was a scarce luxury, so we instead took to a local park in our suburban neighborhood where we would often hang out, smoke pot and play hacky sack. In addition to a playground, swing set and a baseball diamond, this park also had several small wooded sections around the perimeter, which I would generously call micro-pseudoforests. The setting for my travels was one such area, which provided minimal privacy and cover from the neighbours in adjacent houses.
Accompanied by two of my closest friends, we walked into these tiny woods and found ourselves a large log that comfortably seated three. After settling in, we packed the bowl to the rim with the salvia extract and loaded the bong with cold, raspberry-flavoured sparkling water—the cold would counteract salvia’s higher burning temperature, and the flavour was in case the smoke tasted gross.
At this point, I should note that I knew very little about salvia at the time. When compared to cannabis, I knew that salvia burns hotter and needs to be held in longer for optimal effects, but I knew very little about the subjective effects. I certainly didn’t know one could have as intense an experience as I was about to. I brought my lips to the bong and the lighter to the bowl.
The smoke was smooth and tasted like a bitter aromatic tea. After taking the hit, I passed the bong to my friend and stood up, taking a few steps toward a small clearing behind our log. Aided by the chilled bong water, a sizable lung capacity from six years of musical training, and adolescent naïveté, I held the smoke in for a bit over half a minute.
As it turns out, I consumed an immense amount of salvia in that one hit, especially for an unknowing first-timer. Standing several feet from the log, I held in the smoke and noticed my vision becoming slightly blurry in the periphery. The tricky thing about salvia is that it comes on astonishingly fast—you often find yourself at the peak before you’ve taken a breath. As I exhaled, I was pulled out of my identity and—in fact—my body, rather violently. This wasn’t something I felt sad or upset about, and there was no struggle.
The overwhelming and dysphoric nature of the experience provided no room for an emotional response, and the sudden force with which it pulled could not be resisted. I was undergoing my own death. The feeling was like being completely engrossed in a narrative and then having the book slammed shut in front of your face, dissolving the storyline and leaving you dazed and perplexed.
I was undergoing my own death. The feeling was like being completely engrossed in a narrative and then having the book slammed shut in front of your face, dissolving the storyline and leaving you dazed and perplexed.
Only in this case, the narrative was my life, and the reader was the pre-identity soul, or point of consciousness, which had been incarnated as my identity. As I wrapped my head around the sudden termination of my existence, the yellow and brown leaves that covered the ground were imperceptibly converted into an infinite ocean of what seemed to be brown cells, each containing a blue nucleus. I was immediately filled with the understanding that I was also one of these cells, observing the ocean from within. It wasn’t just my existence that had ended, but all of it.
It struck me that each cell in this ocean was another soul, and the blue nucleus represented what that soul had been looking at through its incarnate eyes in its final moment. The notion that the eyes are the windows to the soul seemed particularly apt. From there, it felt like the machinery that lies behind reality as we experience it was being revealed. It was as though everything that surrounds you is a sort of wallpaper, and it was all being pulled back, leaving exposed a very mechanical and inorganic scene set against a backdrop of what felt like interstellar space.
There was a somewhat sinister feeling. The abrupt end of existence, the revelation of this underlying alien machinery—it felt like it had all been a prank of cosmic proportions pulled on me for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. I saw the entities that were doing this to me. Each was a standing oval of a solid colour. They lacked limbs or distinguishable sensory organs, but their presence was felt. They were neither friendly nor malevolent; it felt like they operated on a scale far greater than I, and were frankly disinterested.
My memory of the remainder of the experience is choppy. I recall several pieces but no continuity between them. At one point, I was a point of consciousness inside a perfectly cubical room with thick vertical coloured stripes, smaller cubes protruding from the walls, and no door. Some moments after that, I was hovering about 50 feet from where my body was, looking down on a row of houses and the trees where my friends and I were.
Several other disjointed scenes followed which I now have difficulty recalling. Throughout this time, I was completely out of my body and entirely unaware of my surroundings. The next memory I have is feeling as though the wallpaper that had been violently torn away was being put back in place. There was a distinctly different set of entities that were doing this. While they never came into view, they felt more benevolent and their presence was felt.
As this was happening, the first perception of my surroundings entered my consciousness: in the top right corner of my field of view, I could see my two friends sitting on the log, looking at me. Instinctually, I crawled towards them, as they grew larger and larger in my vision. Soon, I found myself sitting back on the log with my friends. I was now back in my body and aware of my surroundings, although the visions were still present as soon as I closed my eyes. For a while, it felt like I was inhabiting both worlds at once.
This was not only my first psychedelic experience, but it is also the most intense experience that I have had to date. In large part, I think youthful innocence enabled this. I simply did not know what I was up against, and this made it easy to take far more than I could handle with little to no anxiety.
While utterly terrifying, I don’t consider this experience to be negative. It left me with a profound respect for the power of these substances and further catalyzed an interest in altered states of consciousness that had been first set in place by cannabis and remains to this day. I can say with certainty that I am grateful for having had this experience.
At the same time, I reflect on how this could’ve been different. For many people my age, our initiation into profoundly altered states of mind happens in unstructured settings with no guidance from an elder or respected figure of any sort. Many of these experiences do turn out positively, though some do not. Either way, we are repeatedly missing the opportunity to introduce people to these substances in a way that shows them what responsible use looks like so they can model it in the future. Most of us have to figure that out on our own.