For many UFC fans, a Dan Hardy fight always had the makings of good entertainment. It wasn’t just his strong looks (mohawk & tattoos), his high level Muay Thai striking skills backed up his attention grabbing appearance. Every fight he brought it, and win or lose, he left it all in the octagon – and fans were entertained.
This led him to being a fan favourite, right up until a diagnosis in 2013 which ended his career for now. He was diagnosed an abnormal heart beat issue. Specifically an extra electrical pathway which causes irregular heartbeats. There is a treatment for this, the cauterising of the extra signalling pathway in heart. However Dan (I think rightfully so), decided against this procedure, given that the issue has never caused him issues whilst competing at the highest level of MMA competition. That old adage; “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”! Fortunately Dan is still involved in MMA, as a fight analyst for the UFC.
Dan recently released a book called Part Reptile: UFC, MMA & Me where he describes his evolution as an MMA athlete and human being. Drawing on content he has previously mentioned in his interview on the London Real podcast, Dan discusses his use of plant medicines, such as psilocybin, that helped him evolve and grow as a human being.
Below is that excerpt of the book for those interested:
Now I was in a new location, it was time to change the nuts and bolts of what constitutes daily living. One element I knew I needed to revise was my interests outside of MMA. For a few years I had been getting bogged down in some really heavy and depressing issues. I’ve always enjoyed reading, but I found myself drawn to subjects like animal rights and political corruption. I was researching factory farming and the US dog-fighting subculture one week and then lost in books like Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins the next. As subject matter I knew it was all too dark to be immersing myself in while preparing to fight in the UFC, but I still struggled to walk away from it. I started becoming more outspoken on certain issues and this in turn led to a lot of people bringing more of humanity’s woes to my attention. After a while I couldn’t separate myself from the cruel, selfish and often ignorant actions of people all around the world, and it burdened me with negative thoughts that weighed heavily on my shoulders. So the move to Vegas was like drawing a line in the desert sand and I took the opportunity to put some distance between myself and massive, global issues I could do little to influence at this point in my life.
I found the likes of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky relatively light relief after years of unadulterated doom and gloom glaring out from every page. Chomsky is so intelligent and to the point with his ideas, but he’s amusing along with it. He reminded me of my grandad in many ways. Reading his thoughts actually made me quite positive about the human race again. I began appreciating how resilient we are as a species and saw that if we could just open our eyes a little wider and band together, we could stop a lot of the awful shit going on in the world. I felt like there were millions of people out there from different walks of life and distinct schools of thought who were all moving in the same direction. In a weird way it took a load off me as I realised that the stuff I thought I had been carrying on my shoulders alone was shared across the globe.
My old friend and training partner in LA, Mac Danzig, then recommended the work of Terence McKenna. I immediately connected with his outlook and really began to open my mind to new ways of viewing the world and my own consciousness within it. That led me on to other revolutionary thinkers such as Timothy Leary, Albert Hoffman and, later, Dr Rick Strassman and Graham Hancock, who have all contributed immensely to my current operating system. I wouldn’t say they necessarily changed my thinking in any dramatic way, but they certainly enthused me about life at a time when I was in danger of losing interest. They also gave me back that feeling that there is something more to life, much like kung fu and the other traditional arts did for me back in my college days, and faith in religion does for millions of people around the world today. In terms of traditional religions, I’ve always been a little too questioning and cynical about the intangible and therefore find it hard to be satisfied without some evidence or a source that I can go to and see for myself, as I did with China and kung fu, for example. But as well as something that I was able to reach through meditation and natural substances, gaining a better understanding of consciousness involved a lot of scientific research. I was excited by the idea of going on a journey of self-discovery and, although I’d been pursuing it for a number of years with the martial arts, this seemed to be all-encompassing and far more powerful on a personal basis.
That excitement carried over into my training camp, and I used that positive energy to drive me through my fight preparations. Often when I got back from training in the evening I was just too tired to keep my eyes open and read a book, so I started listening to McKenna’s audio recordings. He has such a gentle voice and a comedic way of putting things that it’s perfect for relaxing and absorbing simultaneously. I would fall asleep listening to him talk about the benefits of psychedelic plants and his theories on their impact on our evolutionary journey. Those lectures lifted me out of a hole: here was something I could really explore, I thought.
One of the more depressing thoughts that would drag me down in those days was the realisation that man has totally taken over the Earth and there is nowhere you can go to be free. I have always had a real struggle with not feeling free. It partly explains my love of pirates dating back to when I was a kid. I was always very jealous of that lifestyle, not the raping and plundering and pillaging, but the anarchy and absolute freedom of a group of outlaws banding together and living under no monarchic or governmental rule. There were captains, of course, but they tended to be elected and agreed upon by the crew and would never stay in control for very long if they weren’t fair and just in their leadership role. Freedom today is an illusion. There is nowhere you can make money legally and not be required by law to hand over a portion of what you have earned to someone else. And there is nowhere you can go where you won’t be standing on land owned and controlled by someone else. That inescapable fact, that there are no frontiers for man left on Earth, is a real killer to me. Bar the depths of the ocean or launching into outer space, there is nowhere on my planet to explore, nowhere undiscovered and unmapped. I really identified with Kevin Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves when he arrives at the last outpost and tells the general he wants to go to the abandoned frontier outpost and rebuild it. ‘Why?’ the general asks. ‘Because I want to see the frontier while it still exists.’ It also explains why I’ve always been fascinated by famous explorers like Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cook and Sir Ernest Shackleton. Imagine setting off in a ship and believing there is every chance you’ll sail off the edge of the world. What a perspective on life they must have had. Or imagine taking a pack of dogs and going to the South Pole, in an attempt to reach a destination or make a crossing that had never been done before. I loved reading about Alexander the Great marching his armies into Asia and describing tribes of little men living in trees. He meant monkeys, of course, but they had no concept whatsoever of what a monkey was until they saw it. It was depressing to admit that, visits from alien life forms aside, there is nothing left like that for me to discover. Even if I saw a T-Rex crossing Shepherd’s Bush Green in London tomorrow, although I’d be equally amazed and terrified, I’d instantly recognise it for what it is.
Listening to McKenna speak, however, I realised that he had found something that worked for him and I was eager to know if I could reap similar benefits. Psilocybin could offer me the means to be an explorer. Psilocybin could take me to places and show me things that my mind was as yet unable to imagine or fathom. It would provide access to my own subconscious which, like everyone else’s, is unique and personal to me and would help me find ways to better myself and improve my human experience. It wasn’t long before I grew convinced that psychedelic experiences were what I needed to emerge from the pit I had been languishing in, and get back to a state of constant evolution. I also heeded McKenna’s words on the importance of ‘set and setting’, and was determined to follow the respectful method he employs when working with psilocybin. It is crucial to appreciate that this is an organic substance that grows in nature and can be somewhat unpredictable. This means that even the most seasoned veteran of the psychedelic realm can find these experiences difficult or challenging and should approach each ceremony with great care.
In my new home on the fringes of Vegas close to Red Rock Canyon, I created the MushRoom. This was my own personal and private space, a room in which I could stretch, meditate, smoke joints and, most weekends, have a dose of psilocybin in a ceremonial setting, in the hope of having a powerful psychedelic experience. With friends growing the raw material in California and Colorado and topping up my supply every time they passed through Nevada, I was able to consume as much as I liked, but as the body builds up a resistance to the toxins that cause the psychedelic experience, more than once a week is pretty pointless. On a very basic level, the ceremonies became my escape from the pressure I was under in my career. Where others turn to alcohol or prescription painkillers or gambling or another vice, I had mushrooms to break the monotony of training camp. But unlike the vast majority of consciousness-altering substances, they were massively more beneficial to me than simple escapism for a couple of hours. The common misconception that so-called magic mushrooms are for a crazy party experience has always seemed a little ridiculous to me, especially in the amounts that I work with. The correct dose for a deep psychedelic experience will not make you act a fool and dance to music that you would usually hate, but will take your pineal gland and fire it off into the stratosphere with your consciousness still attached. It is not always an easy or enjoyable process, but it is always a helpful one, allowing me to explore problem areas in my behaviour and issues in daily life and find the clarity I need to move past them.
My relationship with marijuana, something I introduced into my lifestyle a couple of fights before I signed with the UFC, can be thought of in similar terms. It began when I was having trouble sleeping and maintaining an appetite throughout training camps, mainly due to being uncomfortable, sore or injured after a day in the gym. Other than myself, a chiropractor friend in LA was the only person regularly monitoring my health and physical condition at that time and, aware that it had been a long time since I had used any pharmaceutically produced medicine, he suggested I try marijuana.
I always prefer to stay connected to my body, even when it is in pain, and I quickly found that marijuana and what I refer to as medicines help me not only connect with myself but also communicate with others. Fortunately, good-quality weed isn’t hard to find in the City of Angels, especially with all of the 10th Planet friends I had in the area. I discovered that a couple of hits in a small glass pipe not only helped me relax, deal with pain and increase my appetite, but it also sparked my creativity, which had been largely absent since putting university on hold for a prize-fighting career. These renewed creative impulses brought about balance and gave me another way to relax when I had to stop smoking in the build-up to a fight.
I usually worked on the eight-weeks-before-a-fight rule, but after a couple of fights in the UFC that shifted to four weeks. That change came about because I found training camp to be so much more enjoyable and, contrary to popular stoner law, my motivation to train considerably more pronounced when I was consuming marijuana. It also provided some much-needed relief from the battering we take during fight preparations. Over the course of more than a decade within professional sports, I have met many athletes messed up or struggling with pharmaceutical painkillers and opiates, and not one for whom marijuana was not beneficial in some way or another. Sure, a few of them will get a little fat between fights, but we all deserve a break from the grind, especially when the grind involves kicking and punching every day. In recent years the limit for marijuana metabolites has been increased and I think in time the athletic commissions will realise that it is a far healthier and safer way to manage a lot of common problems that athletes experience. It certainly helped me over the years and kept me from needing anything stronger and potentially more damaging. If it were up to me I would take marijuana off the banned list altogether, particularly in light of the clear shift in opinion towards the plant that is taking place all around the world. Not everyone is so educated, however, and I find it disappointing that there are still many who subscribe to the archaic opinion that a plant should be regulated and maintain outdated laws enforcing that point of view on the general population. It echoes what I was saying about the apparent lack of true freedom in the world today. As the popular saying goes, if nature is illegal, freedom doesn’t exist.
I always follow a routine when I eat mushrooms, and the ceremonial aspect of the experience is very important to me. In Vegas I would wake up on a Saturday morning and go to the gym to work up a thorough sweat. I then wanted to get out into nature and, living where I did, I was in complete wilderness a twenty-minute cycle from my front door. Out there hiking alone in the canyons I’d ground myself by walking across the rocks and streams barefoot to connect with the Earth. Then I returned home to clean the house and prepare my space. I laid out bananas, Brazil nuts and bottles of water in the kitchen, and in the MushRoom I organised my crystals and prayer beads and had a large mirror in place in case I wanted to interact and converse with myself during the ceremony. I normally had a sketchbook and notepad with pens and pencils at hand too. Finally, I set up whatever music I wanted to listen to later on, rolled a couple of joints, and walked around the house with burning white sage to seal the space for protection, much like the ceremony at the beginning of a Muay Thai fight. When everything was ready I would then meditate in order to set my intentions for the ceremony, another recommendation of Terence McKenna’s. The idea is to focus on the things that you want to explore or need to confront so they are in the forefront of your mind when the mushrooms take hold. This could be anything from issues in personal relationships, uncertainty in plans for the future, or psychological preparations for a fight, all the way to questions on the very nature of our existence. The important thing was to go into the ceremony with clearly-defined questions and a specific aim in mind.
As the sun began to set, it was then time to take, using McKenna’s terminology, a heroic dose. That means five grams of dried mushrooms and upwards, basically enough to pin you to the floor and take you to another dimension. I found that pushing past seven grams would make me feel a little overwhelmed, losing total awareness of my physical self and experiencing nothing but intense love and light. Although beautiful to experience the complete separation of body and consciousness, I found that it wasn’t as productive to work with. Once I had discovered my ceiling I was able to play with amounts until I could manage the experience better and get the most out of it. Although it’s an organic substance and can still be powerful in small doses, the price of my ticket was usually about five grams dried. With three grams I could be quite functional and have a conversation with someone or go out hiking, but a heroic dose is designed to push the boundaries and take you as deep as possible. That meant it was important to feel secure in my environment: hence the routine to make everything as safe and comfortable as possible. It is hard to say I am in complete control of what is happening, but certainly it always feels manageable and safe, and I always came out the other side feeling like a new, improved version of myself. It re-established my connection to the Earth, allowing me to identify with it as a living entity of which I am a part instead of an inanimate rock where we live very separate, disconnected lives. I guess it is a controlled chaos and I have the option whether to step in or out and can choose whether to turn the volume up or down on the experience. Five grams is just about perfect for what I needed. It rockets me out of my physical being for a few hours but there is a sense of familiarity with where I find myself almost every time I enter a psychedelic space. The effects are similar to those caused by dimethyltryptamine; I once heard the state of being that DMT induces being described as the waiting room between death and rebirth. To this day I haven’t heard a verbal articulation of the experience that makes as much sense. Even from the first journey into that space, it felt like I had been there many times before and I always felt very nurtured and safe. So safe that I was usually a little disappointed when I could feel the medicine delivering me back into my body and the MushRoom.
With the mushrooms digested, I keep meditating until I feel it coming on and then I lie down and will be gone for four or five hours. When the psilocybin begins to wear off, I eat my snacks and drink my water and grab my sketchbook and notepad. There’d be times in Vegas when I would wake up the next day to find the house covered in notes and drawings scattered on the floor and taped to walls. In Nevada I’d also go into my backyard and stare at the sky. It is much easier to connect with the natural environment around you in Vegas, it is inescapable really. In the UK I still enjoy spending time in nature but it is generally overcast and feels sort of enclosed. That serves to shrink our perspective on the universe and can make us a little ignorant of the vastness of everything. But on the edge of Vegas where I lived, I could see all the way across the valley to the distant mountains defining the horizon and the invariably clear sky ensured the stars shone spectacularly. Everywhere in the UK is cultivated and controlled in some way, but much of Nevada is still untouched and fairly barren wilderness. In an environment like that it is easier to build a relationship with the Earth. I know that sounds a little hippyish, but it’s true. It granted me much-needed perspective on my life and my place in the world.
Around that time I developed a regular meditation that I turned to during times when I felt consumed by the negatives I was facing. I used to zoom out and visualise myself from above. Then I’d zoom out again and see the house and backyard. Then Las Vegas and the valley, then the North American continent, until eventually I was looking down on planet Earth. I could then appreciate how insignificant I was, and how unimportant the stress and drama I was dealing with were in the bigger picture; that felt very reassuring. All I needed was to feel connected to the bigger picture and that was easily achieved by standing barefoot on the Earth and acknowledging that this is what I have come from and this is what I’ll return to. Anything I experience between those two moments in time is temporary and inconsequential. It simply doesn’t matter. I learnt similar lessons from reading Albert Hoffman’s LSD and the Divine Scientist. As well as discovering LSD, Hoffman cured his own depression with logic after having a conversation with a tree in his garden. He told himself that on a molecular level there was little difference between himself and a tree, so why is he struggling and the tree was doing so well?
After snacking and taking on some water, I would then return to the MushRoom, turn on my music and meditate. This would often allow me to step back into the psychedelic experience. It was now a bit more manageable and I could direct it somewhat. I found that there were doorways in my mind that I could access using psychedelics. Music played a huge role in the process, often guiding me through a particular psychedelic journey. Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album and Subconscious by Phutureprimitive were influential, but The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd was made for the psychedelic experience and I turned to it a lot. It spoke to me personally because it is very British in a lot of ways and I could easily relate to the subject matter David Gilmore and Roger Waters sang about. It is as if the language used is very familiar to me and when they talked about time passing you by and life moving too quickly, it resonated with where I was at that time. I was approaching thirty and my career was not panning out as I had expected. There were issues in my personal life too and I had a real sense that I needed to grow up and take responsibility for everything. The Dark Side of the Moon captured a lot of those feelings, with its lyrics about not being told to run, and missing the starting gun. Pink Floyd also tended to take me back to my childhood and to memories stored in my subconscious that I had never revisited. During one ceremony I saw my own birth from the point of view of my family members waiting in the hospital for news of my arrival. I remember that it was specifically through the eyes of my auntie, my mum’s eldest sister, that I watched the drama unfold. I was old enough to recollect my sister and cousins being born, but I was still a child too through those arrivals. To witness the birth of a baby into the family from an adult’s perspective, and then be there to see that baby grow and develop into an adult themselves, was something totally different. I saw it all through my auntie’s eyes and understood what I must mean to her and the love she has for me.
Sometimes I would let the music play out and then sit in front of the mirror and have long internal conversations with myself. I discovered during these dialogues that there was a definite disconnect between me and my physical self. The first time I looked in the mirror during a ceremony I didn’t recognise my body. It was as if my skin and flesh and bones were just a suit I was wearing. That what I saw wasn’t really me but just a form and a space I am currently occupying. It was a truly weird sensation. I wondered then whether my pupils were dilated and so I leaned in close and looked deep into the black of my eyes. Oh, there I am, I remember thinking. Only in the blackness of my eyes did I recognise myself.
An experience with salvia, a psychoactive plant from Mexico, reaffirmed this disconnect between my physical and real self. In the parts of Latin America where it grows, locals just grab ten or fifteen leaves from a bush, stuff them up into the roof of their mouths and use their tongue to squeeze the juices out for the full experience. Unfortunately I had to make do with a dried version of the leaf in Vegas, and that meant smoking a hell of a lot more to achieve a similar result. But I’d been reading all about it and wanted to go as deep as possible, so one day I stuffed as much as I could into a bong and took three or four huge rips until I felt something happening. To be honest, it was a bit of a creepy and uncomfortable feeling for me. I lay down on the sofa and had the sensation of expanding until I filled the whole room. Then I saw images of all my cells, looking like miniature versions of me, linking arms and marching along together as I felt my skin crawl all across my body. About ten minutes later I opened my eyes and sat up. I stayed seated for a while until I was sure I felt normal again and then stood up and walked to kitchen to get a drink. I got as far as the corner of the sofa before I collapsed. Sometime later, I have no idea how long, I woke up with incense oil, which I must have somehow taken from the back of a shelf, stinging my eyes and burning the inside of my nose and mouth. The taste and sensation were absolutely foul. But as I was lying there on the carpet looking across the room, I became aware of one question in my mind. Which one am I? Not who am I? But which one am I? It was like I was in the scene from The Matrix when they are sitting in the chairs plugged in through the back of their heads. I felt like I was in a room of eight bodies with one plug. The plug was my consciousness and could be inserted into any of the eight physical forms and I wasn’t sure which vehicle for the human experience I was in. It was as if my consciousness can occupy other bodies and have entirely separate human experiences from the one that I have been living since my birth. A few minutes later, as I was leaning over the kitchen sink trying to wash the oil from my eyes, nose and mouth, I began feeling like myself again. It was a strange and revealing experience, but I will wait until I have the actual plant before engaging with salvia again.
Staring at my Self via my pupils in a psychedelic state was a mesmerising experience. I was reading Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden around this time, learning about the triune brain and Paul D. MacLean’s theory that our forebrains added two additional structures, a limbic system and a neocortex, to the initial reptilian complex as our species evolved. Suddenly it was clear that the various driving forces within me had their own distinct agendas and the ceremonies helped me understand these different influences. What interested me most was the reptilian part of my brain whose job it was to keep me alive. It is from this R-complex that our propensity for aggression, territoriality and social hierarchy arises. It was very much applicable to Las Vegas life where so many of the population are hardwired into their reptilian complex. Vegas does strange things to the people that live there for any length of time. It is as if the energy of the city affects their operating system and forces many of them to rely on reptile to get through their days. I guess it is down to the surrounding natural environment being so bleak. It is such a harsh way of living, things aren’t meant to survive in the desert. You can build a city, populate it with humans and provide everything they need to survive, but the mentality of desert life is still in operation. It’s an every-man-for-himself-type vibe. If there was a water shortage I wouldn’t be surprised to see people shooting each other in Walmart carpark within hours. Around 4,000 people move to Vegas each month so there is a constant feeling that everyone is out to get each other, to take what you have. The ceremonies helped me connect with the people around me and helped me understand the lives they were living and the internal influences that were guiding their decision-making. This in turn allowed me to let go of any frustration I felt towards them, and forgive them for the poor decisions they made. They also helped me understand a little better my need to fight. When I looked into the blackness of my eyes, it was like I was looking directly at the reptilian part of my brain. Or rather, like I was entering through my pupils and stepping right inside my brain. I started communicating with it directly, reassuring it, strengthening it, feeding it, talking to it, getting to know it better. If there was something I was struggling with technically or from a motivational point of view I was able to assess it and pull it apart and put it back together in a way that made more sense and helped me get over the bump in the road. I was communicating with my true self in a way that had been impossible without a psychedelic experience. And I sensed my reptilian brain was now coming to the fore because my career appeared to be dying and it had to help save it. I knew I needed to make some changes to rescue myself, but I felt confident knowing the reptile in me had my back. The practice felt almost like I was cultivating a relationship with a powerful animal that would step up and defend me if I was ever threatened.
Then, when the sun was starting to rise and I was feeling the effects of having the equivalent of about a gram or a gram and a half in my system, I’d go out into the canyons for a trail run. I can function perfectly at this point, but I am still in an altered enough state that connecting with the space around me comes naturally. I would just hare down these trails in my Vibram Fivefingers, and occasionally I’d wipe out and end up bloody and bruised, but that rush was part of the attraction for me now I had no fight in the immediate future to train for. At that time of the day there was no one else around so I could just blaze down as fast as my legs could carry me. What I realised was that with this gram or so I could read my environment so much quicker and more clearly due to the psilocybin compound enhancing my edge and depth perception. Despite the velocity of my descents, I could see exactly where my feet were going to go and read whether it was solid rock or gravel. I could sense what might cause me problems and I felt more balanced and agile in order to deal with it. Basically, I just felt more switched on. It was like having adrenalin coursing through my veins at the absolute height of that sensation, but without the tremors or fear or anxiety that accompany that experience. It was like the mushrooms allowed me to log into my R-complex and function at my physical and mental peak. It is an incredible feeling, one that provides supreme confidence. McKenna talks about it in his book, Food of the Gods. He describes our ancestors clambering down from the trees as the rainforests depleted in Africa, becoming foragers on the plains, consuming psilocybin as they came across it in mushrooms, and benefiting from the enhancement in their visual acuity to increase chances of avoiding predators and catching prey. They also became more sexually active and so, effectively, better survivors all round. He goes on to hypothesise that the psilocybin also triggered neuroleptic seizures that would eventually lead to speech and imagination and intelligence and everything that is human. In essence, McKenna concludes, our higher consciousness was reached via eating mushrooms. But it was the first point, the avoiding predators and catching prey that immediately attracted my attention. Imagine if I could get into that state inside the Octagon. Imagine if I could grant my reptilian brain total control over my movements and actions in an MMA fight. The possibility fascinated and re-energised me.
Psychedelics undoubtedly got me back on track with my life. They provide me with a greater sense of balance and perspective. I always use them with purpose. For me, it is not about taking a handful of mushrooms and going to a party. I use them to learn about myself and understand my life better. Who I was and why I had become that person. It is very difficult to explain the psychedelic experience with words. As a race we have become so estranged from it and our languages fail us. No one has yet developed the vocabulary to fully articulate what happens in a psychedelic state. But what I can say is that those ceremonies in Las Vegas reopened my eyes to how much I love martial arts and how privileged I was to be doing my passion as a job and making a living from it. They showed me how lucky I was to be able to dedicate my time and energy to something I loved, when going into the Lytle fight I had forgotten all of that. They reminded me that life as a mixed martial artist is supposed to be challenging, but it is very rewarding too. I saw that I always have options to move forward and it is up to me to choose the correct ones. I was ready to fight again.