Over the crackle of the intercom I heard a familiar voice gently commanding my actions, "Christopher, are you ready? Inhale...20, 19, 18...". I was filled with an equal amount of fear, trepidation and excitement as I was about to become the 3rd person in the world to experience the effects of Salvia Divinorum while in an fMRI machine. "...3..2..1...Exhale." I knew there was no going back - all I could do was surrender to what I knew was about to be one of the wildest and craziest rides of my life. Now, how and why on earth did I happen to find myself in an fMRI machine inhaling a very high dose of pure - FDA approved - crystalline Salvinorin-A? All in the name of science, my friends, all in the name of science.
A few months prior to finding myself laying in a small metal tunnel, inhaling one of the most potent naturally occurring psychedelics known to man, it came to my attention that Johns Hopkins University was looking for brave and willing volunteers. The goal of their study was to investigate the effects of Salvinorin-A on human brain activity and connectivity. Johns Hopkins' Department of Behavioral Biology has been on the leading edge of psychedelic research, primarily with psilocybin, since obtaining regulatory approval in 2000 to perform research with psychedelics in healthy individuals.
Considering my affinity for both Salvia and the research being conducted at JH, I jumped at the opportunity to be their psychedelic guinea pig. My time at JH consisted of 3 visits over the course of a weekend. The first visit was to introduce me to the research team: Roland Griffiths, Frederick Barrett, Mary Cosimano, Darrick May and John Clifton. Everyone on the team was a truly fantastic individual; they took genuine care and interest in my well-being. I knew I was in good hands. In addition to meeting the team, the other purpose of the first day was to do a psychological assessment, perform blood work, and generally determine whether I was a suitable candidate to move on to the next step in the process.
The following day consisted of a 'trial run' where they administered a high dose of Salvinorin-A to me in a living-room type setting while making sure I didn't move or speak during the experience. The reason they were looking for stillness is because an accurate MRI result can not be obtained if the person is moving while in the machine, and they couldn't allow speaking because a talking brain looks different than a brain that isn't talking. Talking would have distorted the results as well. Salvia can cause involuntary movement and verbalization in a fair amount of people. If I were one of those people, I wouldn't have been able to proceed to the next stage.
I should mention that they were not administering plain Salvia Divinorum leaf, nor were they giving me the commonly smoked Salvia extract (i.e. 20x) that you can buy at many smoke shops. Given that their objective was to study the effects of Salvinorin-A on the brain, for their results to be scientifically valid, they had to use pure crystalline Salvinorin-A. Plain Salvia Divinorum has a lot of terpenes and other compounds aside from Salvinorin-A, which would have made it impossible for them to objectively discern which effects were caused by the Salvinorin-A, and which effects might have been caused by the other non-Salvinorin-A compounds.
Much to everyone's delight, I remained completely still and didn't utter even a peep during the trial run, even though I really wanted to talk and describe what was happening in real time. The team confirmed that I had successfully "passed" and could move on to the next stage in the experiment.
The next morning was The Big Day. I was curious and nervous. MRI's are creepy enough to begin with, inciting in me all sorts of fear, claustrophobia, and discomfort - even without the addition of a strange dissociative psychedelic-like substance. My main concern was that I'd freak out, move around, or otherwise disrupt the results for the researchers. I was also concerned about the emotional repercussions of having a potentially terrifying experience. Luckily, I had built a large amount of trust and rapport with the researchers over the previous two days and my trial run the day before had been very manageable. I felt grounded enough and I knew I had the resources to set my fears aside and instead focus on the curiosity and excitement that lay ahead.
I lay down on the cold, hard bed of the MRI machine and soon found myself being guided into a metal cylinder with nothing but a few inches of space all around me. It felt as if the MRI were a spaceship and I was in the process of being loaded into my cockpit prior to blast off. Perhaps that was my imagination kicking in, comforting me with ideas of excitement and adventure.
In my right hand I had an emergency button that, if push came to shove, I could press and they'd pull me out of the MRI. The MRI is so noisy that they wouldn't be able to hear me screaming, "Get me outta here!" The emergency button provided some reassurance; It was calming to know that I had a life-line to the outside world. In my left hand was a long vinyl tube though which I was to inhale the vaporized Salvia. Since the researchers couldn't be in the room while the MRI was on and I couldn't vaporize the Salvia myself, the Salvia had to be vaporized by the researchers in the adjacent room. I'd have to breathe in the vapor all the way from the next room, through the tube, into the MRI. Considering the long distance the vapor had to travel I would have to inhale for a count of 20 seconds.
First they did a base scan of my brain, which was just a regular 'ol brain scan to see what my brain was like sans Salvia. The next round was another brain scan while I inhaled either a placebo or the pure Salvinorin A. I inhaled when they instructed but nothing happened - clearly it was a placebo. It's interesting to note that, due to Salvia's unique experience profile, there really isn't a placebo that can be given. When doing experiments with psilocybin, a placebo of niacin is used. Niacin causes flushing, which could potentially be confused with the effects of an oncoming mushroom trip. With the Salvia placebo, I essentially just inhaled air. Now that the base brain scan, and placebo were out of the way, I knew that the next inhalation was definitely going to be Salvia. The moment had arrived.
"Cristopher, are you ready? Inhale...20, 19, 18...3,2,1...Exhale"
As soon as I started exhaling I instantly felt that familiar Salvia feeling. All I could do was remain still and surrender to whatever might arise.
Considering the challenging nature of describing a Salvia experience (or any highly altered state of consciousness) with the use of words, I've created some graphics that can hopefully convey my experience a bit more clearly.
The image below Illustrates me laying in the MRI, before inhaling the vaporized Salvinorin-A. Not much going on, just hanging out and awaiting my ride to another dimension.
As soon as I exhaled I began feeling the familiar "Salvia gravity" feeling: forces were pulling and pushing and spinning through me. If you've ever stood in the ocean and felt the undercurrent pull you out to sea while the water washed past your body toward the shore, that's what Salvia gravity feels like. There was a particularly distinct quality to the feeling of forces on my body. The shape, directionality, and movement of the forces was like that of curved magnetic lines expanding radially from the midline of my body out towards the MRI tunnel.
A strange, tactile synesthesia started taking place. I physically felt the MRI scanning my body. Even though the MRI was only scanning my brain I felt my body being scanned up and down, inside and out. It was as if I could sense the magnetic lines being produced by the MRI.
I began feeling as if I was not alone in the MRI.
A presence - Salvia - was there with me. Closely inspecting every inch of me.
I remember thinking, at the time, that it wasn't the MRI scanning me. It was Salvia doing the scan. The MRI was merely assisting and helping Salvia scan me in more detail. Salvia was the actual data collector. Salvia was the intelligent being with far superior methods of comprehending and analyzing the current condition of my existence. The MRI felt like crude, Stone Age technology compared to the inherent intelligence of Salvia. Whatever data the MRI could record was only scratching the surface of what was actually happening.
I continued feeling the Salvia gravity and magnetic lines expanding radially from my midline out towards the MRI.
It was then that the first phase-shift in my physicality occurred.
When it felt like the magnetic lines were the same size as the MRI tube, I became the MRI. I was no longer "Christopher in an MRI" but rather I was the MRI.
(Side Note: Morphing into an inanimate object is quite a common experience on Salvia. Very often, one transmutes into the object the body is in contact with or surrounded by. This makes set and setting especially unique for Salvia when compared to other psychedelics. I have found that doing Salvia in a curved symmetrical environment (like a tent or geodesic dome) greatly aids the journey. Things just feel more right, and the pulling-pushing forces feel equally distributed and more comfortable.)
At this moment things started speeding up exponentially.
The feeling of the magnetic lines continued expanding past the MRI very rapidly. I started transforming into whatever was encompassed within the bounds of the expanding energy. I became the room the MRI was in, then I became Johns Hopkins University, then the blocks surrounding the university, then the entire city of Baltimore, the Earth, the Solar System etc...
Not only was I experiencing a physical transformation, but as I was expanding through space I was also expanding through time; backwards and forwards. Then, another type of synesthesia occurred. Since I was wearing eye shades in the MRI, all I could see was darkness. Nevertheless, visual perception turned into tactile sensations and as the moving energetic lines expanded into the darkness I became as big as the darkness surrounding me.
I was aware that my soul, the essence of my being, was at the center of an infinitely large, dark sphere. My entire being was all-encompassing of the dark sphere. I was the darkness.
So, there I was - a dark being - everything that ever was. But I was only everything there ever was in my sphere of existence - my universe. I was merely one universe inside a much bigger universe. This larger universe also contained other dark spheres like myself.
It felt as if I were inside another larger sphere. The sphere was very colorful, and I could sense there were other spheres-of-being inside the larger colorful sphere. The interesting thing is that I didn't actually 'see' the outer sphere - it was a felt sense. And even though I didn't see it, I was very well aware of what colors the outer universe was.
I felt as if I had full autonomy in this new universe and I could have broken through the black sphere. I felt the act of breaking through the sphere would have initiated the rebirth of my soul into a new being. It was as if me and all the other spheres-of-being were currently gestating in cocoons, waiting for the right time to emerge. I sensed that the right time would be indicated by the realization that we were autonomous beings. A moment of self realization. This new being of mine would inhabit the larger colorful Salvia-reality, and have complete freedom to create a world of my choosing. The lessons I'd learned during my time on Earth would be my guiding tools of creation. The degree to which I'd developed my compassion, empathy, and creativity on Earth would be the assets I could carry into this new life.
I was about to take decisive action and birth myself into this new reality when, suddenly, I remembered I had smoked Salvia and was a mere mortal inside of an MRI.
The 'come-down' was very comfortable and the effects of the Salvia wore off rapidly. I felt exhilarated and in a state of grounded awe after the journey. The researchers pulled me out of the MRI and I could tell by their expression they were pleased with a successful data collection. All I could do was exclaim "Holy fuck - I just transcended space and time and became a multiverse!" One of the MRI technicians (he wasn't part of the research team and unsure of the details of the experiment) looked at me wide-eyed and said "...dang..." Dang, indeed.
As I continue reflecting on the experience I often find myself going back to the felt sense of wholeness, autonomy, power and limitless creativity I experienced. I work on embodying that feeling in my day-to-day life. I am grateful for the knowledge that what I felt as one of the multiverses in Salvia space can be felt within the universe of my own living body. A benefit of being alive on Earth is the rare opportunity of sharing our universe with others. This plane of existence - our consciousness on Earth - might be the only chance we get at creating a rich internal world full of interesting stories and adventures, while fostering healthy, meaningful relationships with those around us.
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