Bored of Travel Restrictions? Become a Psychonaut
Explore the inner space of your own mind.
Posted May 15, 2020
An astronaut undertakes exploration and travel into outer space, which reflects the physical universe beyond the earth’s atmosphere. While I suspect exploring outer space would be high on many people’s wish list, for the time being, it’s unlikely to be a realistic or affordable prospect for most of us. But this doesn’t have to be the end of our aspirations to explore unchartered territory, as there exists another vast expanse of space that is free and easy to access.
I’m referring here to the notion of becoming a “psychonaut,” which involves journeying through and exploring the inner space of our own minds. There’s a huge benefit to be gained from reading texts and listening to talks about psychology and the workings of the mind, but nothing can replace experiencing the mind on a firsthand basis.
Most psychologists would probably agree that each mind is completely different, forming a unique perspective and experience of its world. Yet at the same time, in terms of the core components and functions of the mind, there isn’t a great deal of difference from person to person. We know from both scientific study as well as common human experience that typical features of the mind include, for example, thoughts, feelings, memories, beliefs, and impulses. There is likely to be a huge difference in the content, frequency, and intensity of these psychological processes from person to person. But at the end of the day, such processes occur in all of us and comprise the same underlying “psychological fabric.” This means that if we gain insight into how these processes function in one person, we should start to understand something about how they function in other people.
However, even for highly trained psychologists or researchers, it’s difficult to come to a perfect understanding of everything that’s happening in another person’s mind. This is because any such judgment is typically based on either third-person observation, data from a laboratory instrument or neuroimaging device, or the individual’s first-person account, which is often highly subjective. Although each of these methods provides valid and useful information, the intangible nature of many psychological processes means that being certain about another individual’s inner world is never easy.
One way to mitigate against some of this subjectivity and uncertainty, however, is to become a psychonaut and explore our own mind. Given that we can observe and experience our own mind in a direct manner, we’re in a good position to draw meaningful conclusions, particularly if we do so as an “objective observer.” Insights from this process can then be used to inform—with wisdom, compassion, and a certain degree of caution—our understanding of what might be unfolding in other people’s inner world.
The basic principle of being a psychonaut is to step back and intentionally observe or contemplate what’s happening inside our mind. It’s important to distinguish this deliberate form of self-observation and directing attention inwardly from routine forms of, for example, thinking, thought rumination, reminiscing, or remembering. In other words, to be an effective psychonaut, a degree of conscious awareness that one is engaging in a form of inner investigation is required. There are many techniques that can be used to facilitate this process, ranging from meditation, mindfulness, and yoga to reflection and introspection.
Being a psychonaut is essentially about learning to “experience ourselves.” Without such a firsthand objective experience of the mind, I believe it is difficult to form a harmonious relationship with our feelings, thoughts, and other mental processes. For example, without truly having experienced the “psychological fabric” of our thoughts and be capable of taking a perceptual step back from them, our thoughts are more likely to lead us around in circles, resulting in conflict within our minds.
It is for this reason that I have often said a good psychologist is somebody who understands it’s just as important to study their own mind and behavior as it is to study that of others’. However, it should be stressed that being a psychonaut isn’t something that only trained psychologists can do, it’s something that everybody can do. Being a good psychonaut simply requires an interest in exploring our own mind, as well as a reasonable amount of perseverance, patience, and courage.
The idea of exploring the inner space of the mind is understandably daunting for some people. But a wealth of modern scientific findings as well as advice from ancient contemplative traditions, including Greek philosophy, indicate that this type of intentional inner investigation is beneficial for wellbeing and personal growth. Nevertheless, guidance and support from a teacher or individual with experience in the process of exploring one’s own mind is a good idea, as is connecting with other people making a similar, albeit unique, journey.
It’s probably fair to say that I’ve been a full-time psychonaut for most of my adult life, during which time my understanding and experience of the mind has significantly increased. However, the more I explore the inner space of my mind, the more I realize just how vast the mind is and just how much psychological space there remains yet to explore.
I hope you choose to embark on a journey to explore your mind, or continue it if you have already started. And I hope that like me, exploring your mind introduces you to a life-enriching and fascinating world that you never knew existed.