In Search of Natural Highs
Though it was only started five years ago as a UK charity campaign, the Dry January challenge is rapidly becoming a worldwide phenomenon. With a reported 3.1 million Britons and countless others around the globe now in their third week of teetotaling, I worried that the monotony of clean living might be starting to frustrate the participants.
I based this worry primarily on the mood of my own roommate, who’s giving the challenge a go, and cited Dry January as the source of his recent irritability. It seems that it’s in our very nature as humans to seek out consciousness-modifying experiences, and too much time facing the bleakness of existence head on can be a lot to deal with. So, to help my roomie and all other Dry January folk present and future, I decided to explore alternative, all-natural, and substance-free ways of getting fucked up that might provide them some mental escapism in this trying month.
As luck would have it, I’d just been given an updated copy of The Book of Highs: 255 Ways to Alter Your Consciousness Without Drugs. First published in 1973, the compendium lists every conceivable means, positive or negative, of soberly blowing one’s mind. While some of the examples included were a bit of reach (e.g. sleep, movies, golf) or just plain unobtainable (space travel), there were enough promising entries in the tome to keep me busy for a few days while on my quest to aid the sober.
Unfortunately, the book doesn't always add much scientific or cultural information to explain or support why a particular activity is included. For instance, one of the entries suggests writing and reading haikus but never actually delves into what makes them mind-altering or differentiates them from poetry, which is included in the book as its own separate entry. With so little instructional assistance, it seemed that, if I wanted to know for sure what does and doesn't make for an all-natural high, I would have to choose a sampling to test and analyze myself.
Zen Morning Laugh/Zen Power Yell
I began with some moves cribbed from Japanese Zen masters. With hands on the back of my hips, palms up, I stood straight up and forced a roar of laughter out of my throat. It felt both stupid and disrespectful to my neighbors, but, as per the instructions of the book, I kept this forced laugh going for a good five minutes like I was watching a close friend at an open mic.
Doubling down on fishing for a noise complaint, I next attempted the "Zen power yell," which involved me sitting cross-legged and doing a countdown before jumping up and roaring like a lion. I felt more foolish than anything.
Long Time in the Desert
With dunes and cacti a mere two-hour drive away from LA, I had no excuse to not try one of the biome-based suggestions from the book. Still self-conscious about that Zen stuff from earlier, I hoped that the relative isolation of the desert would also provide me the perfect opportunity to attempt some of the other loud and antisocial entries that might get the cops called on me back in the city.
While the book doesn’t specify what constitutes a “long time,” I did find myself spacing out here and there over the course of the afternoon I spent aimlessly hiking through the brush just outside of Palm Springs.
"The wearing of masks is a definitive device for the altering of consciousness," the book boldly asserts, before suggesting I might "gather the strength of" the creature represented on my face.
With that in mind, about halfway into my desert time, I put on a polar bear mask and strained to let it imbue me with powers as I wore it for the remainder of my hike. The only ability I seemed to pick up from this transformation was a higher likelihood of tripping over rocks, courtesy of my newly reduced field of vision.
Speaking of rocks, the book suggests that simply throwing some around could be enough to fuck me up. Dubious but open-minded, I rocketed some small stones off into the distant tumbleweeds and heaved some boulders a few feet away. Despite my attempts at variation, I felt more winded than high when all was said and done.
The prayers drilled into me from my Catholic upbringing were still tucked away in some brain folds so, while still isolated, I repeated Hail Marys until the words became alien to my ears.
Repetition of both “Om” and my name produced similar outcomes where, eventually, I was only hearing hypnotic sounds.
While on this vocal bender, I also tried out the book’s suggestion of holding an “aaaaa” like I was opening up for the dentist and continuously modifying the pitch to produce an atonal song.
Though all these auditory illusions felt a bit parlor tricky, they were successful in fucking with my head a bit, so I'm willing to give them the "W."
I like to point to the fact that little kids from every corner or the globe like to spin around until they fall over as proof of mankind’s propensity for mind-altering experiences so this entry seemed like a slam dunk. After watching a few Whirling Dervish YouTube videos for inspirations, I found a soft looking patch of sand and began my spins, making sure not to disrespectfully mirror the Dervishes religiously motivated rotations too closely. As anticipated, I indeed became dizzy.
Not willing to risk this one outside the confines of my apartment, I drove back to LA and rinsed off the day’s grit, remaining nude after drying off. For the next 18 hours, I stayed in the buff. Mercifully, my roommate was gone the entire time, so I wasn’t confined to my bedroom for the entire experience.
While it was nice to temporarily shed some of the hang ups I, like so many others, have about nudity, I retained my usual mental faculties.
Though I hadn’t engaged in a marathon wank session since my early teens, I figured muscle memory would carry me through the process and decided to take a stab at it. Being compelled by journalistic obligation rather than insatiable teenage hormones made the session a rather joyless affair. As you might have guessed by now, rather than laying out an optimal number of orgasms or minutes to strive for, the book only offered "drive on and find glory" as motivation so I tapped out early on, rather than needlessly chafing myself
Still naked, I whipped myself on the back with a belt. It sucked and didn't get me high. Pain is more sobering than anything for me.
I didn’t have a metronome to hand but, as you might expect, there’s an app for that. I watched the pendulum tick at a speed I imagined a hypnotist would use and tried to fall into a trance. I made it about five minutes before the boredom and lack of change in mental state was too excruciating to continue.
Is it possible
to get high with a haiku?
All signs point to no.
Who knew that something as simple as playing extremely close frequencies at the same time could have such a dramatic effect? This shit put me in another dimension maybe just 20 seconds in, and I legitimately feared for my sanity were I to be subjected myself to this for a longer stretch of time.
Thankfully, this was one of the rare entries of the book that got into the scientific weeds about what was happening. Basically, our brains have a hard time processing tones where the frequencies are less than 40 Hz apart and split the difference by conjuring up a phantom third tone.
Electronic Dance Music
“The melody and rhythm build and build, until breaking in an orgasmic release” is how the book lovingly describes the genre of music currently being represented by a man who wears a marshmallow helmet on stage.
Still, I’ve been to enough festivals and shows to know this suggestion has some merit so I put on a ten-hour cut of “Sandstorm” and let Darude's seminal beat work its magic. I didn't make it through the entire length before switching to an EDM mix with more variety, but the overall experience from the tunes could be rounded up to mesmerizing. They call it "trance" for a reason, after all.
The book entry for this began as hopeful prognostication about AR's potential before taking a sharp turn into caution about the other side of the coin where AR contributes to the "shrinking world of personal privacy." We get it. You watch Black Mirror.
The mobile “game” I downloaded to test out this entry resulted in dinosaurs stomping around my workspace and doing not much else. As I watched the PS1-era graphics lurch around my phone screen, my belief that we’ve got a ways to go before AR earns the label of “mind-altering” was reaffirmed.
I put on some clothes and made my way to a float tank spa where I immediately disrobed again so that I could lay out in a shallow tub of salt water with the lights off. Of all the things I’d tried, this proved to be the natural high most comparable to an actual illicit substance experience.
Once my body found buoyancy and my eyes had fully adjusted to the pitch black void in front of me, I started to lose my sense of space and time. My internal motion sensors told me I was spinning and drifting, though my lack of contact with the tub walls proved I was not. Before long, I started visually hallucinating. Off-white flickers popped in front of me before a blob of faint light appeared, swelling and shrinking in harmony with my breath. I pulled myself out of the tub after what felt like four hours but, in fact, was only 40 minutes.
Hot and Cold Baths
The final stop of my journey was to my neighborhood Korean spa where, after reacquainting myself with the joys of unabashed nudity, I took a few dips in the building’s searing hot and icy cold tubs. Both were a shock to my system, the cold one even bringing me dangerously close to a full mental shutdown. That said, as refreshing as they were, I’d feel dishonest calling these soaks “consciousness-altering.”
Having stayed awake for entirety of this challenge—at this point, more than 40 hours—I was starting to see in tunnel vision with spots blipping in and out of my periphery. Rather than take another dip in the tubs and risk drowning, I took this as a sign to pack it in and go home and sleep, hopefully with some immersive dreams in store to perfectly round out the project.
Though my dreams that night were either nonexistent or not very memorable, I woke up the next day rested and clear-headed, ready to report my findings to my roommate. I didn’t have much to offer him by way of natural high suggestions, but I made it clear that I was proud of his dedication to a booze-free month. And if the stresses of sobriety ever became too heavy for him to handle alone in the remaining days of this challenge, there are some EDM playlists queued up to help push him to the finish line.