Before launching into my reflections on this experience, I want to acknowledge two important points.
First, I did lose a few subscribers who, going by their email open stats, were avid fans. I knew that was a risk, and that writing about this kind of thing might go too far afield for folks who just wanted to hear about my work in progress and check out some promos. If you have been put out by this series of posts for any reason, you have my apologies. I never set out to offend anyone, and I’m sure a few people were.
But I was trying to be authentically me — as I am in my books — and that means I won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I’m cool with that. My goal was to share a unique experience in as human, humble, and entertaining a way as possible.
The second point is the flip side of this equation, which is to acknowledge and thank the much greater share of readers who have hung in there. Many of you, no doubt, have already learned some of the lessons I’m about to share and can relate. Others may simply find it an interesting perspective. Though I personally know vanishingly few of you, you’re not really strangers, either. I’m grateful for all of you.
Lesson 1: Surrender
I was taught to be vigilant and self-reliant. To always maintain control over my situation. Good, solid, quintessentially American traits. But for me, they’ve come at a cost. I’ve found it hard to give myself over to experiences, for example, or to trust that people know what they’re doing.
But to receive the full benefits of something like San Pedro, you have to surrender. If you clung to control, I’d think it could be scary. For that reason, I made a conscious choice to just lean into it. I was in a safe place with people I felt I could trust, and that freed me to let go.
The second day in the medicine reinforced this. With a little experience under my belt, the first thing I tried to do was steer my thoughts toward my intention. It didn’t work. Only when I stopped trying to control my thoughts did they flow as they should. This is a key aspect to meditation — observing thoughts without judgment or without attaching any particular importance to them. Surrender lets you be fully present.
Lesson 2: Stillness
Blaise Pascal famously claimed, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
I don’t know about all that, but I take his point. The world we live in has been purpose-built to direct our attention toward, for lack of a better word, bullshit. Social media. Sports. Politics. Ads. Cat videos. It’s not a rabbit hole — it’s a gravity well.
To escape it for any length of time is borderline impossible. Our brains steer us toward more, not less stimulation. But San Pedro made it a no-brainer. Being with silence uncovered layer upon layer of sounds. Within blunt, shapeless thoughts I found fascinating nuance. I turned a poet’s eye to mundane things and realized there was much to say.
Lesson 3: Intention
I’m a very good golfer. At one point, I carried a +2.4 handicap, which meant 2-3 strokes got added to my gross score. I’ve been playing at a fairly high level for 35 years, which means I’ve hit thousands and thousands of shots very close to the hole.
But in all that time, I’ve never gotten a single hole-in-one.
Years ago, I was sharing this fact with someone on the golf course and had a weird realization. I was almost never trying to hole out my tee shot.
To be clear, most holes-in-one are just happy accidents. A well-struck shot that would’ve wound up two feet away happens to find the hole instead. Sometimes, it careens off a bunker rake, slams into the flagstick at 40 mph and drops in.
But the mind and body, I think, have ways of delivering on a clear intention. Some people call it manifestation. San Pedro ceremonies require intention, which I think gives shape to your mental activity. It’s softer than a goal, which, at least in my case, invites shame to the party if you don’t reach it.
Goals are great, but ultimately optional. I think setting a clear intention, especially at the start of the day, creates some subtle alignment between thoughts and deeds.
Lesson 4: Don’t Zoom Out Too Far
Many years ago, during a stressful time at work, I encountered a helpful way to measure an issue’s importance: Will it matter in a year? If the answer was no, then it probably wasn’t worth stressing over.
Looking back, that advice was almost too helpful. Soon, I was applying it to almost everything, and precious few things passed the test. If you spend any time at all thinking about the universe or geological time, you realize how infinitesimal your problems actually are in “the grand scheme.” Viewed through a long enough lens, it appears that nothing matters.
While that has offered some solace at times, all that can follow is toxic cynicism and nihilism. Not exactly healthy postures for someone who struggles with depression.
I wish I could tell you I’ve undergone a sea change in this regard. I’ve had some success viewing my life as its own little universe over which I exert a tiny mote of control. Things outside my personal universe may be important or matter greatly to others, but they don’t have to matter to me.
San Pedro really helped me zoom back in and realize how tiny my universe actually is and how little control I have over anything (see lesson 1).
Lesson 5: You Have To Evolve Because We All Have To Evolve
There’s an ideal I think we all strive for: To know who we are, to know who we want to be, and to accept both with self-compassion and grace.
The key to this equation, in my view, is the part about who you want to be. If you don’t have that version of yourself firmly in mind, then you can’t evolve. People who can’t or won’t engage in introspection and evolution, generally speaking, never progress beyond the “childish asshole” phase of development. As you may have noticed, those people are legion.
It’s good and healthy to believe you’re a good person. Going into this experience, I did. After years of giving myself zero grace or compassion, I made up my mind to be fine with who I was, warts and all. But I gave little thought to who I wanted to become, and so I basically stopped evolving.
I’ve opined that we aren’t evolving any more as a species — an opinion robustly supported over the past several years — but I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t exactly doing my part. Maybe because it didn’t seem like being a good person mattered anymore (see lesson 4).
This experience, along with many others over the past year, taught me that self-compassion is only possible when you can see and accept your shortcomings, not just who you are now. What I wrote in my San Pedro journal was, “You can’t become a better person until you come to terms with the idea that you might not be that good of a one yet.”
Lesson 6: Question Your Answers
Years ago, I was the communications director at a small liberal-arts college. The commencement speaker one year exhorted the graduates to “Seek answers to your questions and question your answers.”
Can you imagine a more liberal-artsy sentiment? It really resonated with me. It means the process of inquiry never really stops because each answer begets another question. Little kids know this.
My San Pedro exploration unfolded in much this way. For example, “How did being bullied as a kid shape who I am now?” is a challenging question, and you could spend all day answering it. But say you land on something like, “It made me fear conflict.”
That kind of understanding leads to self-compassion. Gosh, no wonder I’m like that. But you’re not done yet. You have to keep going. Why was I bullied? What was that kid’s deal? Go far enough, and you might get to something like, “Why does this thing that happened 35 years ago still have power over me?”
Isn’t that the more important question in the here and now? But unless you’re some sort of guru, you can’t skip the questions that lead you there. San Pedro helped create the stillness and focus I needed to explore a good question long enough to arrive at a great one.
One of the iconic moments in The Matrix is when Neo is offered the choice of the blue pill or the red pill. The blue pill lets him stay in the Matrix, a computer-generated world indistinguishable from our own. The red pill will reveal the real world, in which human energy is harvested by sentient robots while their brains are occupied by the Matrix.
If Neo doesn’t take the red pill, obviously, then there isn’t a story. But later on, a character called Cipher is revealed as a traitor. He’s made a deal with the machines to be reborn into the Matrix and have an awesome life there, oblivious to reality just like everyone else.
This goes straight to the thematic core of the story. If the world you live in was nice but fake, and the real world was a hellscape, what would you choose?
We [probably] aren’t in this situation, but we are surrounded by artifice. Our attention is more seized than given freely. Experiences are carefully engineered. Opinion > fact. On and on. Frankly, I don’t think we can put the toothpaste back in the tube, and that it’s only going to get worse. I don’t know that we’re necessarily on a downward trendline, but at a minimum, we’re in a trough, and for all we know, it could last a century. (Bear in mind I write dystopian, too.)
And yet, our fundamental humanity is still inside somewhere. It’s drowning in bullshit, and it’s scared as hell, but it’s still there. For me, San Pedro was a way to peel back the layers and remind myself that I am both fragile and resilient. Understanding yet ignorant. Malleable but rigid.
My point is, I think we need to give ourselves and each other a lot more grace. We’re all hypocrites on some level. We all feel trapped in some way. We’re all scared of something. We all lie to ourselves. We all react to internal narratives.
In the end, all San Pedro really did was expand my awareness of the present moment. It’s a shortcut to that end. If you’re really good at meditating or can get super deep into yoga, then you got there the harder, healthier, and more rewarding way. If you’re like me and can’t make it even one minute without having a thought that you follow or react to, something like San Pedro might be helpful.
As my wife discovered, going from awareness to AWARENESS can be a bit much. For me, it was just the ticket, and I hope I can learn to get there without San Pedro at my side.
But I still can’t say for certain which pill I’d take.