Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg), a neuroscientist, philosopher, and author of five New York Times bestsellers. His work covers a wide range of topics—neuroscience, moral philosophy, religion, meditation practice, human violence, rationality—but generally focuses on how a growing understanding of ourselves and the world is changing our sense of how we should live. His books include The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, Lying, Waking Up, and Islam and the Future of Tolerance (with Maajid Nawaz).
Sam hosts the popular Making Sense podcast and is also the creator of the Waking Up app, which offers a modern, rational approach to the practice of meditation. Sam has practiced meditation for over 30 years and has studied with many Tibetan, Indian, Burmese, and Western meditation teachers, both in the United States and abroad. He holds a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors.
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, this is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to perhaps the most impromptu tap-dancing version of the Tim Ferriss Show that you will hear. I have with me my friend, Sam Harris. I always enjoy speaking with Sam. We had originally planned to do a session at South by Southwest; that has been canceled and we have been put into circumstances that may require or encourage different topics.
The plan had been meditation, psychedelics, and dangerous ideas. I said to Sam before we hit record that I can probably use a fair dose of at least the first two in my life right now. But Sam, we were deliberating what to talk about and I’ll tell you an embarrassing fact, a secret of sorts. I have a deck of cards that I thought could be a lifeline if need be called three things, which has prompts of different questions that I could ask you that I’ve wanted to ask you anyway, but how should we even frame this conversation?
Sam Harris: Well, first let me say, that at this point, I’m committed to producing the worst episode of the Tim Ferriss Podcast ever aired. Let’s start there.
Tim Ferriss: I appreciate your hard-working Protestant ethic.
Sam Harris: Well, what’s amazing, as you know, I also have a podcast and I’m finding — I’m obviously speaking a lot about the coronavirus and our inept response to it and all of the attendant concerns, but there’s just this bewildering experience of having one’s core interests sidelined and even just seeming patently inappropriate to air.
I have podcasts on several topics that I just can’t drop in the current environment, actually not because they’re too frivolous and tone-deaf in that way, but because they’re on yet other emergencies or grim topics that I can’t imagine anyone wants to pay attention to now. Like nuclear war or the prospect of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. Who the hell wants to think about that right now?
To say nothing of things like psychedelics. I don’t know about you, but this does not seem like a moment to do a whopping dose of mushrooms or anything else with an invading virus looming in every corner of the world. Talk about set and setting, it’s the wrong of both.
Tim Ferriss: Yep, I agree. I feel like we should just have a conversation and I should remind you —
Sam Harris: I should remind you of your tweet about who was it? I don’t think you named the person, but someone in your circle said, we should take —
Tim Ferriss: I know what it is. He said, “I think it’s time to take some peyote and talk to the pangolin.”
Sam Harris: That elicited a trollish tweet from me. Did that come across your radar?
Tim Ferriss: Wait, I think it might have. What was your response?
Sam Harris: I said, “Just spoke to the pangolin; unfortunately, he’s working for the bat and the bat’s an asshole.”
Tim Ferriss: Yep. It is a tricky time to track down spirit animals in the psychedelic astral plane, for sure. You have to do contact tracing.
Sam Harris: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: I have these cards surrounding me; I am also committed to making the worst episode of the Tim Ferriss Show since its inception, which would match a lot of things that are hitting their worst since inception moments. But let me just throw a few out there or one to begin with, and we’ll see where that goes. You can completely veto and we can take it in a different direction.
Sam Harris: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: What are three things you have learned about fear? That is the question on the card.
Sam Harris: In general or based on recent events?
Tim Ferriss: In general in your life, or current events. Any way you want to take it.
Sam Harris: Well, a couple of things. One is that it is certainly necessary. You wouldn’t want to be without it. You wouldn’t want to have your amygdala removed and simply be insensitive to the fear-based initial response to stimuli or even ideas. It’s a necessary part of the toolkit for obvious evolutionary reasons, as well as personal ones.
Many people imagine that if you get deep into meditation or some other spiritual practice, the goal is to get rid of fear and other classically negative states of mind entirely. That’s really not the way I view it. You wouldn’t want to never feel it again, but you want to be able to stop feeling it whenever it’s no longer useful. It really is only useful for a very short period of time. It’s a signal of salience more than anything else. It’s negatively valenced salience, but —
Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by that?
Sam Harris: Actually, I should say that it’s often thought that the amygdala, really, is just the fear center and doesn’t do much of anything else. It’s just that, it really is more the salience center. It’s when you’re noticing information that really needs to be emotionally and behaviorally relevant in the moment. Your response to scary faces, that’d be a classic stimuli. You turn the corner and you see somebody staring at you and they look terrifying, that instantaneous visceral perception of threat, you want to be able to — you don’t want to lose that.
I can’t imagine being a social primate, however much I meditate, wanting to completely lose that, but what you want to then be able to do is let go of it the moment you’re no longer served by seeing the world through that lens. For so much of our fear that then grades into ordinary anxiety, it’s just not useful. It’s not useful to have stress of that sort become the mood music of your life, which is what happens to so many of us and it’s happening to millions and millions of us in this moment around this pandemic.
The first thing — I guess there are two things there. The first thing is that you still want this. This is a gift, this is not a curse, but it becomes a curse the moment you can’t actually let go of it, more or less on-demand, and you want to be able to do that. That’s certainly two things. I guess the third thing I would ask is that you actually can do that. Mindfulness is the method by which you would do that. There’s a path to being able to do that more and more quickly.
Tim Ferriss: Can you think of a moment for you or a situation in which you were experiencing acute anxiety or fear and used mindfulness as an intervention? Could you describe it, if so?
Sam Harris: Yeah. No, it happens a lot and it’s happening a lot in this circumstance. I guess the one I remember very clearly was the beginning of my taking the COVID problem seriously. I forget when this was, the end of February at some point. Somewhere like February 25th or so. I had ordered an iPad some weeks before when I was truly oblivious to what was going on. It finally came and I — again, at this point, I’m thinking thoughts, like, wait a minute, how long does the virus live on a surface? I see that this thing is freshly minted in Shanghai and sent to me after they’ve clamped down on the Wuhan problem.
I don’t know what the likelihood is that I’m now opening a box of virus, but I’ve decided to open it after letting it sit for some days. So I’m opening this box and I realize that I’m double-minded about it and in some ways just in bad faith with the whole project. On the one hand, I’m taking precautions, I’m wearing gloves, but I’m not wearing a mask. I’m opening it carefully. I’ve decided to just wipe this iPad down with alcohol wipes.
On some level, I’m treating it like medical waste. But on another level, I recognize, wait a minute, I’m not doing this even remotely the way I would do it if I knew there was coronavirus in this box. On some level I’m going through the motions and I’m assuming that this is fine, and that I’m actually being crazy and this is a pantomime of preparedness as opposed to the real thing.
It is the experience of almost being double-minded. The person who’s opening the box is not the whole person, and there’s another part of me looking on saying, “You’re not really doing this correctly.” As witnessed by the fact that I’m standing in the middle of my living room and my kids are 15 feet away and they’re just — in a flash, I recognized, okay, you’re doing all of this, you’ve got the alcohol wipes, you’ve got the gloves on, you’re acting like someone who thinks he’s overreacting. Again, in bad faith, you’re not actually unified as just a behavioral system.
At that moment, I just got flooded with anxiety over the scope of the whole crisis. How difficult it had been for me to convince myself that the problem was worth responding to, all the people I’m in dialogue with, in my family personally, and in my social circle, and then just in the public conversation that was starting around it.
I just realized how difficult it was going to be to change my own behavior and for everyone else around us to change our behavior in a way that was actually going to be effective. But at that moment, there was a very punctate experience of just cortisol, which was like, oh fuck, you do not have your shit together at all. You’re in the middle of your living room opening a box of virus, you think so, but you haven’t done — again, my kids are like 15 feet away from me at this point.
I just felt like a complete fuck up. But it was at that moment where I thought, okay, I am actually still pretty early. I took, I don’t know how to quantify the risk, but wake up and actually get your game together here. At that moment — from that moment onward, the anxiety is no longer useful, to be stressed out. Once I’ve —
Tim Ferriss: Right, the message has been delivered.
Sam Harris: It’s 100 percent delivered and the only time it’s useful as any kind of holding pattern for me is when there’s still significant uncertainty about what to do. When you’re at the border between what you know you’re doing and what you don’t understand, and you’re trying to figure out what you should do, you can’t figure out what your policy is, then anxiety is the thing that’s going to get you to keep focusing and figure it out. But once you’ve figured it out, once you realize, okay, you opened the boxes outside, you wear gloves, you let them sit for however many days you decide to let them sit, you wipe things down that can be wiped down, there’s no reason to be adrenalized at all doing any of that stuff as long as you know what you’re doing.
Again, mindfulness is really the method by which you can let go of it because you notice the thoughts, you notice this peripheral physiology of just the felt sense of being anxious and you notice the connection between those things. Once you just let the thoughts go and just become willing to just feel the raw sensations of anxiety, the sensations lose their psychological import.
Again, it just feels like indigestion or itching or a pain in the knee or anything else that has no real meaning, and it’s just sensation. It degrades over a half-life of really seconds. It does not stay around long. Anyway, that’s the experience I remember. Obviously, there have been many like that. It’s useful for a few seconds and it’s necessary for a few seconds, but then beyond that you’re just resurrecting it by what you’re doing with your mind in that moment.
Tim Ferriss: I find your app, and I’ve said this to you before, Waking Up app, very useful for training for this. In a number of the meditations, which are at least in the introductory course, sequenced in a logical progression as building progression, much like you might hope to learn a language starting with the basic building blocks and working your way up, there’s a phrase that you use in a number of them with the snap of fingers, which is just to “Drop it.” Not viewing that as a hill to climb, not viewing that as something that requires a tremendous amount of conscious effort, but something that can happen in an instant.
When you’re opening this box, I’m glad you said iPad. I was wondering if it was just a box of bats or something.
Sam Harris: Might as well have been.
Tim Ferriss: Got to cook those at a minimum of 400 degrees. Is there something you say to yourself in that moment to try to diffuse the no-longer-useful anxiety? Is there anything that you point your attention towards, or is it just a reflexive act of mindfulness, much like someone like Jocko can reassemble the God-knows-how-many weapons in the dark being woken up a half-hour early, at 4:00 a.m.
Sam Harris: How long does it take to clean and reassemble the gun of mindfulness?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Sam Harris: There are reflections and concepts, pieces of language that can be useful. I don’t, at this point, tend to carry many of those around. I might spontaneously think something that is useful, a bit of self-talk, but generally speaking it really is just watching the present thought unravel. The moment I notice I’m thinking without noticing a thought itself as an appearance in consciousness. The moment I know something identified with, in this case, an anxious thought, then I can see the thought itself unwind in this larger condition, which is just, open awareness.
It is a non-conceptual, immediate pivot to that or it’s just recognizing the circumstance from that point of view that happens — it happens whenever it happens. On some level it’s not even when I say, one can do this on-demand. On one level, that’s true, but the experience of actually doing it is not really the experience of control, is really just the experience of spontaneously recognizing what’s actually already true of your mind. You remember when you remember.
When do you — on some level, there’s no accounting for why that moment dawns then, and not a moment before, or a moment later, but it’s just the moment I notice, okay, that’s a thought, then the process starts without me having to really get behind myself and push in some way. It’s totally useful to think certain thoughts as a kind of antidote. There are people who have developed whole methods around that with a stylized reflection. Did you have Byron Katie on your podcast?
Tim Ferriss: I haven’t; I should. I’ve spent some time with her, but I haven’t had her on the podcast. I do find a lot of value in her framework, series of questions and prompts, and so on that she uses.
Sam Harris: I don’t know why I thought I’d heard you speak with her at some point. She hasn’t been on my podcast either, but I’ve met her and never spent much time with her Work, but I know she does work this way, where she’ll ask questions like, “How do you know that’s true?” Which just throws everything back on this basic fact that in most cases, the thing we’re worrying about hasn’t happened. It’s still hypothetical, and we’re worrying about it as though the hangman’s noose is already around our necks. This is a fait accompli and there’s nothing we can do about it.
If you actually focus on the present, there really is just whatever’s given there and your thoughts about the past and the future. It does expose an interesting fact, which is: either you can do something about the problem you’re worried about, or you can’t. In neither case is your stressing out about it really warranted. If you can do something about it, well then just do something about it. Solve the problem. If you can’t do anything about it, well then, why suffer twice? You’re suffering now before the thing arrives and then you’re going to suffer when it arrives.
On some level, you can decide to just be with — even if something really is a fait accompli, even if a bad thing is going to happen and there’s no way of avoiding it. One, we also know that we’re very bad prognosticators about our future states of happiness and misery. We tend to totally exaggerate how much we’re going to be shifted with respect to our moment to moment wellbeing. We overestimate how positive something’s going to be, we overestimate how negative something’s going to be.
As we know from now, a lot of psychology and behavioral economics, people return to baseline fairly quickly, even from extraordinarily bad and good things happening to them. Most of the time spent worrying about even objectively bad things is still fairly delusional. We’re just not actually mapping the future that will, in fact, arrive at some point.
Tim Ferriss: Sam, I’m just curious to know, seeing the last — it’s arbitrary — last few months, last year, what have you changed your mind on? What positions have you modified or reversed? What insights have you had that have rendered past beliefs, perhaps outdated? What have you changed your mind on in the last few months or year that come to mind that are, really, it could be anything, material or otherwise?
Sam Harris: Well, I feel like under the pressure of this pandemic, many things are shifting for me, and I think it’s probably happening for most people, but I’m not actually consciously scoring all the changes as they’re happening. But I’m noticing a shift in my orientation. And maybe I would shift back. But for instance, as you know, I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing what I perceived to be bad ideas and even criticizing the people who I perceive to be purveyors of bad ideas.
And so in political space I can get into some fairly heated arguments with people. And with the possible exception of President Trump, with the actual, with the noted exception of President Trump, I’ve pulled back from that a lot just because it strikes me as really counterproductive. So there are people who are saying some truly idiotic things about coronavirus, and so in so far as I’ve engaged them in public, I’ve tried to be a fairly light touch. And then I’ve attempted several private exorcisms because I haven’t wanted to go after these people in public and get them to just dig in based on their own egos or concerns about not being shown to be wrong or whatever it is.
And I must say, the results are impressively mixed. I’ve become less and less hopeful that even fairly smart people are open to rational argument even when it would serve their interests and everyone else’s interest. The communication failures around this are pretty spectacular. And one thing I’ve changed my mind about at least provisionally, I would love to be proven wrong here, but just as a matter of being able to achieve some kind of political consensus around large problems, I’ve become far less hopeful than I was.
When I think about the prospect of convincing people about climate change and then the need to respond to it, when I map on our failure to respond to coronavirus with the alacrity that was required, when I map that onto the problem of climate change, something that is so abstract, even with one hot year following another, even with one superstorm following the next, when you can’t really attribute any one change in the weather to this concern about climate and it’s in general just a slow-moving catastrophe about which there is still some significant difference of opinion even among scientists, not enough to discount the problem, but certainly more than around the epidemiology of coronavirus. And yet we can’t even get on the same page around this.
It makes me think that the solution for climate change has to be surreptitious at this point. There is no political solution. We actually simply have to design products and sources of energy that people find more desirable, like Tesla cars being the perfect example. At a certain point, people just need to want electric cars more than they want gasoline cars for reasons that have nothing to do with climate, just because they’re better cars and we have to innovate on dozens of fronts in that way and just do whatever we need to do to mitigate the problem, despite the fact that we can’t persuade anyone that it’s even a problem.
Because the persuasion problem now just strikes me as insuperable, and that’s kind of a very pessimistic epiphany I feel like I’ve had. But I just cannot believe how hard it is to talk to even very smart people about what’s happening with coronavirus.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah. It can be very disheartening and not to say that I am right or accurate in all things related to coronavirus, but certainly have faced a fair amount of flack for speaking publicly about it, which is totally fine, people have a right to disagree. And I suppose if I’m trying to look at the silver lining in our inability to communicate, that might be a strange way to put it, is that perhaps our inability to solve one problem like a pandemic, will in some ways, help us to address or at least slow down man’s contribution to climate change because it will just paralyze transportation and factories and many different large scale forms of carbon contribution to the atmosphere. So there’s that.
Sam Harris: Yes, it is definitely improving our air quality for the moment.
Tim Ferriss: Anything else that comes to mind that you’ve — and perhaps another way to frame it would be, anything that you’ve been particularly surprised to learn or excited to learn about in the last year?
Sam Harris: Well, this is something that you and I have talked about, I don’t think in public. This actually would have been the thing we would have spoken about at South by Southwest. But having psychedelics come back into my life after what was definitely more than a 25-year hiatus, it was at least 25 years, I think approaching 30 since I took a whopping dose of anything. It wasn’t really on my radar to do again. I forget what the proximate cause —
Certainly your own recent adventures in that area were part of it. Just again, it’s been in the air for many people in recent years. And I guess just the fact that it’s now a topic of very promising research, again, significantly inspired by your commitment to it.
Tim Ferriss: And you have an excellent podcast interview on your podcast with Roland Griffiths also from Johns Hopkins where he talked about crocodile rape, among other things, or rape by crocodile, I believe it was.
Sam Harris: Yes, the often unacknowledged threat of being raped by a crocodile. Happily I’ve escaped that, but I have not done DMT. That’s one thing I haven’t tried. I managed to convince myself to do mushrooms, a larger dose of mushrooms than I’ve ever done, in the last year. And again, it had been over 25 years since I had done anything significant.
I hadn’t done a lot of mushrooms when I was doing psychedelics. I’d done them several times, but never at a very significant dose and never blindfolded or in the dark, the way Terence McKenna always recommended it. I was a distant fan of Terrence’s while he was alive. I actually met him once very briefly. I didn’t actually know him, so I view that as a missed opportunity because he really had a beautiful mind and I’ve listened to a ton of his stuff and he’s just perhaps the most entertaining speaker we’ve ever had on any topic.
But I should say that probably half of what he said was fairly crazy. At least half of the views to which he was strongly committed, I consider to be fairly crazy and some disproven.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, he’s very entertaining. Yeah, absolutely. Continue.
Sam Harris: He’s a great example of it almost not even mattering whether someone’s right, because they’re such a good speaker. And again, I didn’t know him, I just met him once very briefly in 1992. He died in 2000, so I certainly could have hung out with him and just didn’t. But that was a period where I was getting really into meditation and also I was taking psychedelics, but usually LSD.
But then I just stopped because meditation became the center of the bullseye for me, and it still is, but after that many years, I just felt like there was something I wanted to experience in the psychedelic space. I recognized that I had never taken mushrooms in the way that Terrance and others had always recommended, and so I wanted to experience that.
So I was surprised to decide, it was suddenly relevant to do that and then kind of surprised to do it. And also very happy to have had the experience I had and find it to be as useful as I found it to be. So there was just a kind of reaming out of the pipes of my mind that seemed very useful. I think I will certainly do that periodically. I didn’t come away from that experience feeling like, okay, I never need to do that again, I’m done. It really did seem like a — by no means the same thing as meditation. It can be easily harmonized with it, but it’s a different project on some level.
Because in terms of transcending yourself or getting rid of this illusion of being the subject or being the vulnerable little man riding the horse of consciousness, you can do that without any of the pyrotechnics of the psychedelic experience. And conversely, I’m convinced you can have a fairly transcendently beautiful — or harrowing, depending — psychedelic experience without losing the sense of self. Or at least, the experience isn’t characterized much by a true transcendence of self, it’s just your perception is vastly altered and your conceptual framework has vastly altered, but you’re still a subject now either enjoying or suffering the consequences of having your nervous system driven from below by the pharmacology.
So it is different. And again, there’s no contradiction between them, but anyway, I came away feeling like this is part of the toolkit that seems very useful. It just renewed my interest and commitment to it. But it’s hard to imagine doing it in the current environment, I must say. It’s like there’s so much that is now being held in abeyance by this lack of normalcy. I find it very difficult to even articulate what seems to have happened here.
On some level, my day-to-day experience is changed very little. I count myself very lucky if someone who can basically do all the work I was doing precisely as I was doing it and be essentially quarantined. I was working from home anyway. My team is completely distributed, so there was nothing to change there. All my work with them has always been in Slack and on the phone and by email. And so it’s like nothing has changed and all I have to do is release podcasts and finish a book.
Nothing’s changed but yet, on some level, everything has changed, and I feel like I’m in a spaceship where at any moment, the leak or the breach in the wall can be catastrophic. It’s a very bizarre feeling, which I know everyone is sharing to one or another degree.
Tim Ferriss: So a question about your psychedelic experience, actually several. The first is related to a five minutes or so, maybe slightly longer, five to 10 minutes afterward that you appended to the Roland Griffiths conversation on your podcast, which was a description of your five gram, dried mushroom experience, which I thought was absolutely beautiful. Is that available or do you have any plans to make it available outside of the app?
Sam Harris: Yeah, I think actually, it’s either on YouTube now or it’s going to be released with some video backing to it. I think something like, great cloud photography or something, but there’s something, it was just an audio track, but we’ve illustrated it with some video and then that should be released very soon if it’s not already out.
Tim Ferriss: Great. What would people search to find that? What might they search?
Sam Harris: I’m sure it’ll be on my YouTube channel and I’m sure “Mushroom Trip” will be in the title.
Tim Ferriss: Sam’s Excellent Journey?
Sam Harris: Yeah, exactly. Not Sam Not Being Raped by a Crocodile.
Tim Ferriss: Sam and Not Sam. Sam and Sam’s Excellent Journey. If you guys want the crocodile rape details, you’re going to have to listen to the Roland Griffiths conversation.
The second question was related to carry-over effects, if any, that you have observed. After recording that description of your experience, did you see any persistent changes to your perception, behavior or anything else? Not necessarily permanent but persistent for a period of time, whether days or weeks? Did you observe anything like that?
Sam Harris: Yeah, and this has always been true of my experience with psychedelics and unfortunately, it has gone in both directions. So back in the day when I had some very unpleasant acid trips, which finally convinced me that taking acid was essentially just like a spin of the psychological roulette wheel that you just don’t know what number’s going to come up. And at that point, the negative side was coming up enough that I just thought, okay, this really just isn’t worth it.
And it was especially not worth it because I felt that the knock-on effects of having that experience for 10 or 12 hours lasted for weeks and even months. I just felt like, when I would have a good trip, which is to say a truly expansive, beautiful trip, the after-effects of that were in the same register, I felt more expanded and with a greater purchase on a heightened sense of beauty, and that would last for quite some time.
But conversely, the kind of contracted neurotic, shame-encumbered space would that I would experience in a bad trip would also leave some residue for some period of time. So I felt like a worse person for weeks or even months after some of those trips. And so that’s why I got out of the game, but this trip was almost entirely positive.
So yeah, as a kind of emotional and perceptual reference point, yeah, I felt better in many ways afterwards and I think I probably still do. Again, it’s not permanent in the sense that — it’s not that it has blocked every other state of consciousness from arising thereafter. After that trip, which now is several months old, I’ve experienced anxiety, I’ve experienced fear, I’ve experienced anger. Everything’s still on the menu. But as a reference point, it has stayed pretty vivid.
So it’s easier to convince yourself that when you’ve had an experience like that — and this really is the reason to take psychedelics, even if you are convinced that they’re unnecessary and that they’re neither necessary nor sufficient. Even if you’re convinced that meditation is the only way to really transform your mind in the way that you want to, the thing about psychedelics is that it can give you — and as you know, each in different ways, they can give you an experience of states of consciousness for which there is no possibility of skepticism.
As a meditator, for the longest time, really for forever, so that you can just torpedo the whole project, you can remain fundamentally uncertain as to whether or not there’s a “there” there. It’s like, is this really going to work? Is there really something to notice here? Does life ever really get any better than it’s been in the last five minutes? Is there anything to realize, or maybe I’m just fooling myself?
You can cycle in that space of doubt for years and years and get absolutely nowhere, but five grams of mushrooms, if nothing else, prove to you that it is possible to have just an unrecognizably different experience of consciousness and that’s available, given the requisite stimulus. The drug doesn’t get your brain to do something that your brain isn’t capable of doing. It’s not like you’ve been given a different brain.
The same serotonergic system that is being leveraged by psychedelics is always there working for you and it gets leveraged in every moment or not, based on how you use your attention and based on the collisions you have in the world, just everything else you’re doing neurophysiologically, and it’s just absolutely possible to have a very different moment to moment experience of the world. And most of us —
I consider myself among the untalented people who really probably just would not have seen the merits of meditation, but for the fact that I’d had a psychedelic experience, in that case with MDMA, which has proved to me that there had to be a “there” there that people in the various contemplative traditions who are talking about things like unconditional love, they weren’t making this up, they weren’t just epileptics or frauds. This is a real continuum of human consciousness that is there to be explored and you just have to figure out how to make your mind adequate to that project. And psychedelics definitely reveal that.
Tim Ferriss: It is just incredible how different the experiences can be on different compounds, even though they may fall or be thought of as falling into the same category of say, psychedelics. To take two, which are often thought of as close cousins and on some level, they are similar but you take say, LSD, which is from a receptor standpoint, quite promiscuous with the duration of effect that you mentioned, which can be really long, right? Eight to 12 hours, which on one hand it’s tempting to say, “Well, that’s Earth time. It doesn’t really matter,” just like when people say, “Oh, I’m going to do DMT because it lasts five to 15 minutes,” I don’t think that’s the proper way to frame the decision or think about it because that could feel like a thousand lifetimes strung together in terms of your subjective experience of those 15 minutes.
But nonetheless, say LSD just in terms of duration effect and then you look at say mushrooms, four to six hours generally. There are different species of course and all sorts of variables. What I find and what many people find difficult about LSD, there are a few things. Number one, it is so potent on a microgram level that it is easy to misdose and the difference between 100 micrograms and 200 micrograms is hard to overstate how different those two experiences can be and that is a drop, less than a drop depending on how it’s being administered.
And then I think what makes for many people, and I’d be curious to hear your perspective on this, but mushrooms somewhat easier to navigate is that the on-ramp and the off-ramp, the on-ramp is a little longer generally than LSD. So the full onset and peak of effects feeling at the pharmacokinetics. But off-ramp is generally for most people, going to be a lot faster than LSD in the sense that with LSD, you might have, and many people do have the experience of being fully journeying in some transcendent psychedelic experience, dissolution of the self, et cetera, for four to five hours.
And then there is this tail of an additional two to four hours, and there are a fair number of people who will have 24-hour-plus experiences. I don’t know who knows what the exact percentage of the population is. But having volunteered at Zendo, which is a psychedelic harm reduction volunteer outfit at places like Burning Man and so on, let’s call it one in 30 people would be my estimate, have a 24-hour-plus response. But let’s just go with the majority. You have this tail-end of two to six hours where you are not sober. You are absolutely not sober, you’re still very malleable and everything is intensified but you are not journeying.
And so I find that that in-between space can be quite challenging to navigate because for a lot of folks, they’ve taken the eye mask off, maybe the music’s playing or they’re trying to eat crackers with their friends and then they have this huge surge of shame or other intense emotion, but intellectually they think that they are in control, so to speak. And that can cause all sorts of difficulties that can persist, as you mentioned.
Sam Harris: When you’re eating a cracker with both hands, that’s a telltale sign that you’re not yet fully in control.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Yeah. If you’re holding your Triscuit with more than eight fingers, it’s probably a sign that you’re not fully sober.
Sam Harris: This gets to an issue of, on some level, a dose that’s too small runs a liability that that is on some level even greater than a dose that’s too large or at least, I mean, this is the way I’ve begun to think about it based on my experience. I mean, first we should say that for psychedelics like psilocybin, mushrooms, and LSD, you’re nowhere near a lethal dose of the compound at any dose you’re liable to take. Even the most aggressive and psychologically destabilizing dose physiologically is not likely to be toxic for you. So that’s not an argument for taking as much as you can get your hands on, it’s just that these are physically very safe drugs. And I would definitely not say that of MDMA. I mean, MDMA you can clearly overdose on, but —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, you can clearly die, hyperthermia. I’ve seen people in the same volunteer capacity at different events, 104, 105-degree temperatures, which is how you melt your brain and can die, certainly. Ibogaine or iboga also can have some severe cardiac complications and people do die of cardiac arrest using ibogaine and iboga. So you really have to know your compound.
Sam Harris: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: But psilocybin and LSD have effectively no known LD50, meaning a dose that would be expected to kill, say, 500 of 1000 people in a room if they were given that dose, which can be established for lots of things, including some common drugs like acetaminophen, which can be very dangerous.
Sam Harris: Right, right. So yeah, and again, I’m sure people have had heart attacks and strokes and other even fatal events on LSD or psilocybin and maybe as a consequence of what’s happening for them psychologically, being part of that. But it’s just that, we just know that the drugs themselves are physically very well tolerated, so that’s not the concern. But now I’ve forgotten why I got into that. The —
Tim Ferriss: Let’s see, I was talking about the duration of these two compounds —
Sam Harris: Oh right, okay. Yeah, so sorry. So —
Tim Ferriss: And then we’re talking about Triscuits, eating it with 10 fingers —
Sam Harris: Right, right. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: — indicative of not being sober. Yeah.
Sam Harris: So the reason to take more rather than less for me or the reason why, and just kind of imagining you’re just going to get your toe in the water, and leave aside microdosing as its own thing. I’m not talking about that. But the reason why maybe five grams of mushrooms could be better than two grams of mushrooms for somebody, you can do the arithmetic for LSD there, is that taking enough reliably launches you past all of your personal psychological content, right? The place I don’t like to be, and the place I don’t recommend people spending much time, is in the domain of one’s personal concerns, life concerns, the kinds of thoughts that besiege you when you sit down to meditate.
To stay on that strata of your mind with this turbocharged experience of psilocybin or LSD driving you there, that for the most part, I mean, you obviously can have personal insights and you can have breakthroughs with respect to your relationship to other people. I know that’s the case, but generally speaking, it is a recipe for a lot of seemingly very personal anguish which you can actually bypass if you go far enough out and have a truly transcendent experience, at least transcended in the sense that what you’re in contact with doesn’t have a reference point in your life, right? You’re not thinking about your mom or your wife. On the way out you might be and on the way back you might be, but where you land when you’re actually at the peak is a place that doesn’t have those kinds of reference points.
And again, it can be very, very beautiful or it can be very, very painful. I mean, it doesn’t guarantee a, quote, ‘good trip’ but I mean, for me, that’s the real opportunity of true psychedelics, unlike something like MDMA where to be working on your relationships and to be thinking about specific people in your life or even relating directly to them, that seems like a totally appropriate use of that tool.
Tim Ferriss: I agree. I think MDMA is better described as an empathogen than a psychedelic. I don’t think of it as a psychedelic at all. There’s some dispute over how to apply that term to different things. But I would add to what you said that the analogy I use, I guess metaphor, quite a lot when discussing this with people is that of airplane taxi and takeoff and the experience of popping through the clouds. So you have this taxiing period, you’re waiting, you’re waiting. You have this acceleration take off, a slight amount of turbulence, and then very often as you go through cloud cover, you have even more turbulence and then you pop through the clouds and you have, hopefully, a smooth ride or at least a ride from a very, very, very different vantage point.
And to your point about dosage, if we’re talking about, say, mushrooms, one of the psychological risks of underdosing, and which is quite common because people are understandably nervous, and very often this is done in settings where people do not have a sitter, which I always recommend against, meaning if someone doesn’t have a sitter, they’re likely to want to dose more conservatively and in doing so often take something, let’s just say, in the one to two-gram range, and end up stuck in the clouds in turbulence. And they never quite pop above the clouds into a transpersonal, or even if they still have the identification of “I,” the “What constitutes I?” changes quite a lot.
Sam Harris: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right? In the psychedelic experience, you can have complete ego dissolution. You can have complete what I would perhaps call disassembly at higher doses where your experience does not resemble your ordinary waking reality and in any sense whatsoever. Time, dimension, language all disappear, I disappear, et cetera. But ratcheting that down, you can have the experience of I, Tim, am experiencing these various things, but what constitutes I and the boundaries that normally exist in your waking life that separate you cleanly from the external world are very permeable, very different.
The related point with, say, LSD is that on the descent, instead of just going straight through the clouds, you sort of hang out in the clouds or can for a pretty extended period of time, and that is where you can come out of a beautiful, transcendent experience. This is not, by the way, a knock on LSD. I think it’s a tremendously interesting tool for the right people with the right supervision. But there is a tail-end where many people perceive their journey to be over where very messy personal material can come up with strong emotional charge. They’ve taken their seatbelt off and they’re going to get their luggage out of the overhead compartment, and they’re still in the clouds. They just don’t realize it.
Sam Harris: Yeah, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So these things are very, very strong. They can be very powerful. So I always advise caution with these things. And —
Sam Harris: Well, even in the best case when you’re talking about the comedown from, let’s say LSD, let’s say you’ve had a perfectly expansive, beautiful transcendent trip and then you’re coming down. What I remember from those experiences and probably the first 10 acid trips I took were, I literally had not a single moment where I could even understand what was meant by the concept of a bad trip. I remember being the guy who was thinking, “What are people talking about?” I couldn’t figure out, where would you point your finger? In which direction could you possibly go in that experience to wind up someplace bad? I mean, it just made no sense to me. And then on some subsequent trip, it made all too much sense.
Tim Ferriss: Famous last words, yeah.
Sam Harris: Exactly. Talk about hubris. But anyway, but even from these trips, I remember coming down, the experience was one of feeling my mind encumbered by the very artifices and structures and kind of diversions of attention, concerns, psychological concerns on some level, that block the expansive experience I had just had, right? So you come down from one moment you feel like Jesus, and the next moment you begin to notice the reasons and the kind of rapidly accruing reasons why you’re not quite qualified to be Jesus, right?
And if you’re in relationship to people, I mean, if you’re actually having a conversation with someone who you were just tripping with, say, all of that begins to fall into place in dialogue with others. So you notice your neurosis or at least your potential for neurosis to kind of get reconstructed in front of you and as you moment by moment. And I remember that being painful. I mean, just to witness kind of the capture of my attention in something that moments before would have been unthinkable, right? And —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, you go from Jesus to Woody Allen in your own head in about 60 seconds.
Sam Harris: Yes, exactly. Right, right. And we’ve got bad hair in either case.
Tim Ferriss: I just envy anyone with hair. So that’s where I am these days.
Sam Harris: That’s right. That’s right. There is no bad hair.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I hope at some point, I mean, this would be quite a distance in the future I would imagine, but that we will actually have scientific studies looking at the combination of these compounds, for instance using MDMA or other empathogens. There are quite a few that could be used as an on-ramp for, say, LSD therapy or psilocybin and combination therapy that I think could be very, very interesting. We don’t yet have the data we need and want for these compounds in isolation. So I think that’s a fair distance in the future. But I look forward to the day when more of that can be done.
Sam Harris: Right, right. Yeah. One thing I’m looking forward to, which I mentioned at the end of this addendum at the end of the podcast with Roland, there was that one study done combining a meditation retreat with a high-dose psilocybin experience. And that, for me, seems like a great marriage. I mean, just to prepare people over the course of a couple of days with mindfulness practice. And I’m sure there’s some way to optimize this protocol. It wouldn’t just be straight silence. I mean, there might be some reflection about what’s coming and then some integration period. But just actually kind of systematize a retreat-like approach to doing a high dose psychedelic experience, that seems very promising. The people who are doing it — what are you gassing about?
Tim Ferriss: Oh no, I’m laughing because I’m just imagining. I did a silent retreat at Spirit Rock and there were 200 people sitting in this meditation hall and I was just thinking, if you had 200 people doing a high-dose psychedelic journey in one room, it would be anything but a silent retreat.
Sam Harris: Right. That’s right. That’s a very crowded retreat.
Tim Ferriss: It might not have been 200, but I would say, I mean, at least 80. Somewhere between 80 and 100, yeah.
Sam Harris: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s about 100 up there, yeah. Yeah —
Tim Ferriss: At least that.
Sam Harris: — so physically, how you arrange the environment and how you keep people in their own space and give them adequate guidance and all of that, I don’t know how that’s brought off. I know there are places that are doing it. There’s one in Jamaica, there’s one in Holland. I mean, they have a bunch of these places. There’s one in Mexico. A bunch got in touch with me after this podcast. As far as I can tell, none are really as lockdown in their protocols as — I mean, they didn’t seem like places I could recommend based on what I could see of what they were doing.
Tim Ferriss: No. No Facebook ads with your face for psychedelic retreats any time soon.
Sam Harris: No. Yeah, someone may have produced some, but they’re not authorized. So if you see any, let me know.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. One comment I want to add as it relates to difficult psychedelic experiences or psychedelic experience overall is there is a common pattern among first time or relatively novice users of psychedelics to develop somewhat of a messiah complex after they’ve seen the Promised Land.
Sam Harris: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And they have one experience or two experiences, very often it’s after one. They have this profound transformative experience and they become a proselytizer for psychedelic use. And, “Grandma, you need to do ayahuasca. Little Johnny, nephew Johnny, you need to do ayahuasca,” et cetera, which is at best, irresponsible and also very, very dangerous. And so my recommendation to people who are experimenting with psychedelics or considering it, number one, the legal side effects can be just as great as any other side effects. So I’m not advising nor saying that you break the law.
Secondly, if nonetheless, you are going to experiment, I would ask that you put enough mileage under your belt to at least once be, as I sometimes say to my friends, tumbled and humbled before you are given your card-carrying capabilities of proselytizing psychedelics. It’s my strong feeling that you need to have, not what I would consider a bad trip, because I only distinguish between safe and unsafe trips, not good and bad. I think some of the most valuable experiences you can have are exceptionally difficult psychedelic experiences in exceptionally safe circumstances.
Sam Harris: Right.
Tim Ferriss: But if you’re simply getting the sort of unicorns pissing rainbows version of the psychedelic experience, and those are your first three or four innings, keep going possibly, safely obviously, until you have a harrowing “Holy fucking shit” experience that takes you a while to digest and process before you run around like the town crier telling everyone they should do psychedelics.
Sam Harris: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s good advice because there’s no way to appreciate how difficult a quote, ‘bad trip’ can be unless you’ve had one, right? And in fact, if you’ve only had good trips, really, you’re almost the worst judge of what is possible for somebody else and for yourself at some future time point. So, yeah, I was actually one of those people back in the day because I was taking psychedelics the first time around before — I was kind of in this weird cohort because in my peer group, I was kind of the only person doing what I was doing. When I would go on a meditation retreat when I was 20 or 21, there were no other 20 and 21-year-olds on these retreats. I mean, everyone had kind of been through the ’60s. And so I was surrounded by 40 and 50-year-olds who’d been doing this stuff for 20 years or so. And so it was with psychedelics.
So when I got my hands on MDMA, ecstasy, it had come out of the therapeutic community, it was a couple of years after it was made Schedule 1. But I didn’t know anyone. I mean, perhaps there were many people my age taking it, but I just wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t know anyone who had taken it. So when I got my hands on psychedelics and meditation and just the combination of all of these esoteric things and kind of rebooted the ’60s for myself, I was —
Tim Ferriss: Your private revival of the ’60s.
Sam Harris: Yeah, exactly. I was a one-man Grateful Dead tour without ever getting into the Dead. But just, there was no one in my world who knew anything about any of this stuff. So yeah, I was kind of proselytizing and I guided many people on psychedelic trips. I just branded myself somebody who was qualified to do this after, I don’t know, half a dozen acid trips.
And nothing especially bad happened. But obviously, I didn’t have the experience that one would want to have to actually be doing that. And yeah, it’s a little bit like what happened to me when I got into Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I mean, the moment I got into that it was like every conversation had to be about Brazilian jiu-jitsu. And that lasted until I got injured. Yeah. So now I know I have a slightly different conversation about Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Tim Ferriss: “You should really try it. Oh, wait. Oh, I didn’t tell you — “
Sam Harris: “Wait, I’m walking with a cane now.”
Tim Ferriss: “Last week I had both of my Achilles’ tendons torn.” Yeah, asterisk. Yay. Yeah. Psychedelics are still endlessly fascinating to me. They have not, in any way, lost their fascination for me. So —
Sam Harris: Yeah. But what about in the current environment? I mean, can you imagine tripping now or does it just seem like the wrong setting?
Tim Ferriss: Well, at the risk of being really negligent or irresponsible, I will say that I’m going to word this like a lawyer would, I cannot be 100 percent confident that there would be no value in safe and responsible use of psychedelics during these times. In part because these times are not going to be — this is not a —
Sam Harris: It’s not two weeks.
Tim Ferriss: This is not a 90-minute movie that we’re watching. This is going to be an extended period of time. And I think there could be applications for people who have a lot of experience. I don’t think this is necessarily the time to decide you’re going to find some homebrew instructions for ayahuasca plus ingredients on the Dark Web and do a solo journey into the dark night of the soul. I don’t think that’s a good idea by any stretch of the imagination.
But for people with a lot of experience, I do think there could be applications. There are probably more applications for something like MDMA, which allows you to process a lot while not deactivating but downregulating fear response, if that makes sense. Part of the reason, and I’m not giving a neurochemical or a pharmacological explanation here, but MDMA can be incredibly effective for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. I mean, some of the results are unbelievable. I mean, if you look at the studies MAPS has been designing, and funding, and implementing in some cases, you have patients with 17 years, median 17 years or 17 and a half years, I think this is from their phase two trials, persistent PTSD, severe symptoms, who after one or two sessions with MDMA, granted plus lots of integration and prep and post-work with very highly trained, generally highly trained therapists, who go from severe to asymptomatic after one or two sessions.
Now, that raises many questions and one is, how the hell can that possibly work? And I’m going to, I’m sure, bastardize this and I should probably have Rick Doblin on the podcast at some point to actually fact check and correct me on things, but I feel like I know what they’re doing pretty well. And subjectively I would say also from my experience that MDMA and certain compounds like it, allow you to revisit trauma or examine trauma, whether lowercase t or capital T, from a somewhat detached observer perspective as an adult, so you can recontextualize and process that trauma without re-traumatizing yourself. That’s not always the case.
I should also say that MDMA perhaps more so than psychedelics is thought to be a love drug where it’s always running through fields and handing each other flowers, and that is not the case. People can have tremendously difficult experiences that require a lot of triage afterwards. I’ve seen a lot of video footage of actual sessions within the context of training and people can have a very tough time. This can also open up Pandora’s Box where afterwards people have said things, for instance, they feel tremendous shame about, et cetera.
So it’s not without risk. There are risks. But for people who have experience, I think that MDMA could possibly be a tool that helps them to downregulate fear and anxiety response and process some of what is happening to them in a way that allows them to be more sort of proactive instead of reactive afterwards. That doesn’t mean I’m recommending people do MDMA right now, but I do think that if I had to choose between MDMA and psychedelics, I would probably choose MDMA.
Sam Harris: Right. Well, I recommend that you wipe down the box that the MDMA comes in with a Clorox wipe.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, difficult. The question of procurement is a whole separate topic that is probably best not discussed on podcast.
Sam Harris: Right. Stay six feet away from your MDMA dealer. Just lob the MDMA over the fence.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right. Right. So I suppose those are a few of my thoughts. But people are struggling right now. People are struggling and I think in many respects millions of people are having a psychedelic experience right now in so much as this set of crises and this pandemic has acted much like LSD, as a nonspecific amplifier of everything that’s underneath the surface. And if you have mild anxiety disorders or tendencies to anxiety that can be managed under normal circumstances, there’s a good chance that that is magnified right now. If you have a path —
Sam Harris: Well, just think about it, forget about the health concerns aside. I mean, I think you and I are on the same page in having worried up until this moment that people aren’t taking the health implications seriously enough. That really, it hasn’t been that we’ve been too panicked by this. It’s just that we actually haven’t been worried enough early enough to take the steps that we need to take to actually get off these exponential curves and mitigate the spread of this contagion.
But forget about the virus. If there were just some invisible force that were having the economic effects that we’re now witnessing, that would be a civilization-rattling form of stress for almost everyone. I mean, you and I are in uniquely fortunate circumstances in that we’re both well off and able to more or less work almost as we were before. I mean, apart from not doing live events or anything else of that sort. We can more or less just continue going, but most people are not in that situation.
And so even if there was just no concern about the possibility that you or anyone you love is going to wind up in an ICU on a ventilator, which is happening and is going to increasingly happen to many, many people, leaving all that aside, people are understandably terrified about the economic volatility we’re seeing. But it’s not just up and down and up and down. It’s in certain sectors just down, and down, and down, and down with no end in sight. If you look at the service sector, if you look at restaurants, I mean all of that is very scary, especially given the way in which, I mean, it interacts with everything. I mean, just the way in which our society is so lacking in resilience-based on there not being a great safety net even though we’re trying to provide one on the fly here with trillions of dollars. And there’s a level of wealth inequality that is just magnifying this problem.
Then there’s a political layer to it that is increasingly toxic where one side of the aisle is fairly delusional in the degree to which they’re denying the nature of the problem and the other side is, in the worst case, just willing to make politics out of a pandemic. And it’s like, we can’t even talk to each other about how to solve the most basic human problems. So it’s incredibly stressful, leaving aside the actual reality of the pandemic.
Tim Ferriss: It is.
Sam Harris: — the pandemic.
Tim Ferriss: It is, it is. I’ve — and you’re absolutely right, we’re in very fortunate positions. I have family members, friends who’ve been laid off from all types of jobs, not just service industry jobs. I think the service industry is the canary in the coal mine. And — I’ve struggled with what to do to maximally help. Also, I think I’ve been, I don’t think, I know I’ve been sort of beating myself up a lot about not doing enough or perhaps not doing the right things, etc. And there’s a lot of —
Sam Harris: Do you have people in your life, like has this been happening one to one where you have friends and family members who you’ve had to burn a lot of fuel trying to convince to take this seriously, or are you talking just about your public messaging about it?
Tim Ferriss: It’s both. It’s both. I mean I think that because I discussed this publicly quite early, I want to say the first blog post I put up about it was the second or third week of February, which I caught a lot of hell for. And then the campaigning for cancellation of South by, which I caught a lot of hell for.
So that was actually quite easy because I had a high degree of conviction that this was inevitable on some level given the mathematics involved and the fine details of the metrics could be off and the case fatality rates and this, that and the other thing could be off. But even if they were off by 50 percent in either direction, nonetheless, I mean the picture emerging was very clear to me. So I felt good about that. I think what’s been difficult is having many of the people who initially didn’t take it seriously, getting caught on their heels in really bad positions with family members to account for and so on in different locations. Who then came to me for help with everything and I just, I couldn’t handle it.
And by not handle it, I don’t mean emotionally. I mean it was logistically impossible. Hundreds of text messages and it’s just like I can’t take six hours with each of these people to get them up to speed. It’s not physically possible. So it’s been challenging and I don’t mean to make it a — it’s not a sob story because there are many millions of people who are going to be having a much harder time. And I guess the question that comes to mind for me to you and is what would you recommend to people who are scared or suffering right now, recognizing there are real external factors to consider, but also recognizing that we often suffer twice or suffer when we need not suffer, at least in our minds by imagining the worst-case scenarios and perseverating on worst-case scenarios and being consumed by fear. Are there any recommendations that you would make to people who are fearful or confused in these times? I know that’s very broad and may be asking a lot, but how would you respond to that?
Sam Harris: Well, I guess the place from which I can be fairly prescriptive is toward all the people who are in situations similar to our own. I mean in the sense that, I mean there are people who are in totally non-analogous situations to our own for whom the choice to stay home is not possible.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Sam Harris: In fact, that would be an abdication of their own ethical responsibilities if they were to stay home. I mean, there are people who need to work in our ICUs and there are people who need to deliver food and keep the supply chain running. So all of these people are heroes for just doing their jobs. And so I view the ethical imperative to get out of circulation and not increase the disease burden and the burden on our healthcare system, that falls to everyone else who can do their work from home, who for whom being out in the world is not actually helpful to anyone. And so those are two very different sets of people.
And so the people who are out there doing the necessary work of keeping everything running, I consider all of them heroes whose way I want to get out of, right? I want us all to get out of their way and not make it any more likely that they are going to get sick or that they are going to be unable to, if they’re in health care, care for the people who are already sick or soon to be sick or sick now and don’t know it.
But for the people who can reinvent themselves or step away from their careers and jobs and especially for the people who are in fortunate enough positions to not actually have to sweat the financial implications of this in the near term, I just think there’s a different set of ethical considerations that come online. I mean it’s just, I think we should just be looking for opportunities to help the people who are more vulnerable than we are. I mean, so, if — so all of us have people in our lives who we employ, however peripherally, you know what I mean? Just like if you take the person who cuts your hair, if you have hair, I leave you out of this, Tim.
But I still have some of my hair and so it’s just like, I know how often I get a haircut. Well I know I’m not getting a haircut for — I don’t know when the next haircut is going to happen, but why not buy some imaginary haircuts here and help keep the person who cuts my hair afloat during this period? So anything like that that you can think of doing to support people who you know are taking in many cases, 100 percent hit to their economic well-being, it just seems if you’re in a position to be able to do that, you should. Right? And that’s — and so I would just advocate that we recognize that we’re all part of a system here.
We’re all connected and in the most basic, material ways. And we’re all reliant on everyone else not breaking down and failing here. And so our effort to keep our world together can’t be solitary. And it can’t be solitary at the national level. And it can’t be solitary at the individual family level. I mean, it’s just, it can’t be merely about making sure you have enough food in your house because you can’t possibly have enough food in your house so that you are no longer reliant on the supply chain and on the service worker who would deliver the food from the market that you now are scared to go to. I mean that person still has to have a viable source of funds. And so anyway, it’s just to view our connection — to keep our connectedness to the people we know, certainly, and even the people we don’t more in mind here as we hunker down as we should.
I mean, again, I really do think it is an imperative for us to understand collectively. I mean not speaking as for the — with country in mind. I mean this can’t even be a state-by-state effort. We can’t — all of us who are out of circulation now are more or less just waiting for everyone else to get the message. Because this is going to go on for a very, very long time if we can’t extinguish it and slow the contagion over the next couple of months. And it’s only by doing that and then all the subsequent testing and contact tracing that we’re actually going to return the world and the economy to something like normal.
I mean there is no rebooting of this economy with a contagion like this raging and people falling sick and the numbers that they will. I mean we’re just — what we’re going to do is just pendulum-swing back and forth from trying to restart the economy and then realizing, oh, my God, this is just too scary. I just saw a crazy documentary about what’s really happening in the hospitals and okay and now I’m going back into hiding. And we’re going to have that experience on a collective level over the course of months and it’s just going to be needlessly costly in terms of lives and our economic well-being. Whereas the truth is we could resolve this in something like a month if we had our act together. I mean literally we could lock down for a month and this would burn itself out.
Tim Ferriss: If they did it correctly.
Sam Harris: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: If they did, that would require isolating in fever clinics or elsewhere, family members who are positive from their families. Sadly, but yes.
Sam Harris: Or a family member — so even in a worse case than that just everyone isolating in their homes and then maybe the rest of the family would get it and then whoever would have to go to the hospital would go to the hospital. But as long as we’re six feet away from everyone other than our family members and out of circulation, this thing could self-extinguish. It’s just we’re not showing any kind of aptitude for doing that because of just the nature of our political conversation, mainly.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, and to echo what you said a little bit earlier, my impression looking at the confusion and hopelessness and frustration among many of my friends, and this is not limited to people who are as fortunate as we are, this is even lots of folks I know, say, are gardeners or house cleaners who also want to help in some fashion. The question that I get very often from top to bottom is which nonprofit should I give money to? And I think that will become clear as things progress. But right now there are a thousand chickens with their heads cut off running around trying to help and really confusing things. There are a few signals in the noise. I think Flexport, flexport.org/donate is doing excellent work, operationmasks.org I find interesting, although I don’t understand all of it. But there’s a lot of confusion and in the meantime, there are things as you said, that you can do to help just by focusing on the people you know.
If you look back at your — just say a typical week from six months ago, what did it look like Monday to Sunday? And you can identify the coffee shop, you can identify the restaurants, you can identify people you may have paid for God-knows-what on a weekly basis, a monthly basis. Doesn’t mean you have to feel obligated by yourself to subsidize all of those folks. But what you could do is ask the question that I was told was the most important at the beginning actually of a rafting trip. My first ever rafting trip and Kelly Starrett, who’s an incredible guy, The Ready State, incredible PT, incredible athletic performance coach, all-around good guy. And he used to be an Olympic-level kayaker and he said to everybody who was on the trip, because he was co-organizing it, he said, “the most important — I think it’s, let’s see– four words that you can utter are, ‘How can I help?’ ‘How can I help?’ If people are doing stuff and your hands are empty, ‘How can I help?'” And what I’ve noticed at least in having conversations with people I’ve offered to help that oftentimes it’s just asking, “How can I help? Can I help you?” That is in and of itself helpful. Does that make sense? It doesn’t have to translate to them accepting your help or asking for help, but just reaching out and making the offer and indicating that it’s a standing offer, even if they don’t accept it now, I think is tremendously psychologically helpful. So you don’t have to wait for the perfect nonprofit to present itself. You can talk to those people who you already know.
Sam Harris: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s also just worth remembering how disruptive this emergency is and how unique it is. I mean, this is by its very nature, this is dividing us from ourselves. I mean this is separating people. I mean, just think of what it’s like to have someone die now and the decision about whether to have a funeral or not. I mean in most cases it’s a straightforward decision of just not to do that. And just think of the implications of that. The rest of life is going on and all the bad parts of life are still going on. People are getting sick and dying from causes that have nothing to do with coronavirus. And all of that’s being made more difficult. And just deciding whether you have to see a doctor for some other reason now is incredibly stressful.
And so there’s just so much going on now that people are under a ton of stress. And again it’s almost perfectly designed to be hard to solve. It’s not like — initially the analogy to September 11th came to everyone’s mind it’s like, okay, this is yet another intrusion of history. This is another moment where we need to wake up and realize, okay, the society-destabilizing events are still on the menu, right? This is the kind of thing you’re living through now that people will be talking about long after you’re gone, but on another level, this is totally nonanalogous to September 11th. I mean, it just, it’s a much bigger deal and it’s much harder to respond to intelligently. And it’s not to say we responded to September 11th with much intelligence, but this is big and no one alive has really gone through something quite like this. I mean, it’s been outside of everyone’s lived experience, how to deal with this.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And what I would add to that is that, I don’t know if this will be helpful, but speak from a personal perspective. I’ve been beating myself up for not having clear frameworks for making decisions, not feeling clarity around many things and not knowing how to help optimally or being able to figure it out. And the fact of the matter is, it makes very little sense for me to beat myself up about that because it is not, at least not always reflective of a personal flaw. It’s a collective experience that millions of people are having right now. This is very different from anything anyone living has ever faced. And that’s not to say that the world as we know it is going to Hell in a handbasket. I’m not saying that, but the circumstances and the problems and the challenges that had been created are very different from 9/11 or anything else that we associate with national or global crisis. Very, very different.
So it’s, I think, helpful to try to remember that. And I’m saying this as much for my own benefit as anyone else, to be gentle with oneself and compassionate if you can be, because it’s not difficulties — the difficulties that most people are facing are not reflective of any individual flaw. They are reflective of a terrifying and unique situation and the response of millions of people collectively.
Sam Harris: Yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, there’s so many cases where it’s not reflective of a flaw at all. It’s just you’re in a sector of the economy where obviously you’re getting zeroed out, right. Just because of the nature of the problem it’s like, just imagine owning the best restaurant in New York City, right. You may not survive this interruption in your activity through no fault of your own. It’s just, this really is like a stray bullet on that level that just hits you. So that’s why we need — I mean there are silver linings here. I mean we need to notice all the ways in which our assumptions and our ideologies and our cherished notions about how the world should be are not serving us well here.
I mean, they need to take some of the fashionable ideas in the tech community. A lot of people in tech who are either avowed libertarians or quasi-libertarians are just fans of Ayn Rand, but they have this basic idea that the government is useless and the less we have of it the better. We are really suffering under a lack of effective governance now. And there are certain lessons here that should be indelible. And one is, you can’t rely on a piecemeal, private response to pandemic. Right? And it’s not to say that the — we’re learning a lot about what’s wrong with the government and the bureaucracy and the level of red tape to cut through to actually do something as simple as order masks and other protective equipment. I mean, it’s just some of the things that we’re witnessing now are absolutely bewildering. The fact that there’s still a role to be played by private parties in acquiring PPE, protective equipment for hospitals and first responders.
I mean, it’s crazy. It’s like why on earth does Elon Musk need to buy ventilators and deliver them to the state of California? Why isn’t the state of California in a position to buy those Chinese ventilators, or individual hospitals? It makes no sense. And yet, and it’s actually in this case, it’s not for lack of money, it’s just there’s just a lack of agility on the part of government here. But whatever systems we need to put in place for the next pandemic, we really need to figure this out. I mean this is as bad as this will be. And again, I think you and I agree here that we’re still at the beginning of this thing. […] But this is still a dress rehearsal for something that could be much, much worse — that on some level is guaranteed to eventually happen. Whether it’s in our lifetime or not. I mean it’s just sheer good luck that we’re facing a pandemic that has the lethality of this one and not one that’s 10 or 30x this one. So we have to keep an inventory of all of the lessons being learned here and do better next time. And so that’s — I mean, there are several silver linings here and there’s a lot we are learning or at least potentially learning and collectively in response to the need to have institutions that actually work rather than just populist demagoguery, that appeals to half of a society. And the need to have systems in place and supply chains and not to be utterly reliant on other countries to produce necessary equipment and medicine.
And I mean to have to stockpile things that we know we will eventually need or could need and in massive quantities. I mean, we’re the — to speak of America in particular, I mean, we’re the richest society that’s ever existed and we’re scrambling to produce the most basic tools at the moment. It makes absolutely no sense. I mean, it’s — we should absorb on some level, the humiliation of this. I mean, you’ve got doctors in the finest hospitals in the country covering themselves with bandanas. It’s just, it’s madness. And so we can learn these lessons. I mean on some level, these are very simple lessons and personally many of us are having our priorities jiggered around by this such that we’re connecting with deeper values in this experience and experiencing a silver lining to it in just the way in which we’re prioritizing our time with our family and you just kind of resetting our career priorities. And I mean there are many good things happening for people which are not going unrecognized. I mean, it’s just a question of figuring out how to maintain these epiphanies once life starts back up again.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, Sam, I love our conversations. It’s always nice to hear your voice.
Sam Harris: Likewise.
Tim Ferriss: And we will have many, many, many, many, many, many conversations over the forthcoming days and weeks and months, no doubt. And I appreciate you and I appreciate your thinking. So thanks for taking time in your day.
Sam Harris: Yeah. Well back at you, brother. Keep it up. You’ve been, I think you single-handedly got South by Southwest canceled, and it was the right thing to do. And you were — I mean we sort of pulled the ripcord together. I mean maybe you had pulled it earlier in your life, but when you and I made the decision, when we were checking back and forth with each other about what was going to happen with South by Southwest, that was the moment where I was understanding the situation we’re in, and you were definitely the first person in my life who was echoing back to me the wisdom of that change in outlook. And so thank you for being early on this and thank you for all that you’re doing, because you have been a great source of information for a very large audience and you just need to keep it up.
Tim Ferriss: Thanks so much, Sam. I’ll do my best. And it seems so weird to end this way, but I will. How can people find you? Where can people find you? What would you like to share before we close up?
Sam Harris: Well, there are really only two places where I’m consistently making noise. I used to blog a lot and I don’t do that anymore. I mean, it’s been years since I was writing regularly on my blog, but —
Tim Ferriss: You do have an excellent blog post on psychedelic or related to psychedelics though also.
Sam Harris: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Oldie but goodie.
Sam Harris: Yeah, Drugs and the Meaning of Life, which is in audio form on both of our podcasts, I think.
Tim Ferriss: It is.
Sam Harris: But it’s on my blog, but yeah, so my podcast is Making Sense and the app where I talk about all things related to meditation and the nature of consciousness and to some degree psychedelics is Waking Up and that’s wakingup.com
Tim Ferriss: Highly recommended. I use it myself. And Sam, to be continued.
Sam Harris: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Thanks again for taking the time and I’m not sure what we mentioned that might end up in show notes, but if we have show notes, dear listeners, they will be at tim.blog/podcast. Just search Sam Harris or Harris or Sam and they will probably pop right up and thanks for tuning in. Sam, always a pleasure and I’ll talk to you soon.
Sam Harris: Yeah, take care, brother.
Tim Ferriss: All right, you too. Take care.
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