Here are a few brief thoughts on the interface of spirituality and psychoactive chemicals (a huge topic with many other aspects that could be discussed):
I have heard that there is a Hindu teaching that the “masculine” side of Divinity is pure spacious conscious open awareness, free of all boundaries and tangles, and that the “feminine” side of Divinity is pure friendly warm love. The idea is that the two sides working together are the Divine presence, and developing our expression and experience of both is something for all of us to aspire to.
I imagine that many people on a spiritual path may however feel that that ideal sounds good, but personally experiencing it is a different story. We may not know how those two actually tangibly feel, and in which direction to work to develop them.
I have often said to friends that I feel grateful that LSD has given me an immediate personal experience of the pure open consciousness side of Divinity, and MDMA has given me a direct experience of the warm-hearted love side. It has felt to me that my practice as a meditator and monk has been blessed by having experienced some approximation of how the end goal feels.
My friend Brian Maniscalco explained it this way in a Facebook post, paraphrasing a metaphor that the spiritual teacher and psychedelic pioneer Ram Dass used to use:
The spiritual path is like the slow, ardous ascent of a huge mountain. The right kind of psychoactive used in the right kinds of circumstances can be like a helicopter ride up to see some of the higher reaches of the mountain. Once we’ve been flown up, we can temporarily enjoy a breathtakingly beautiful, inspiring vista, and get a map of the terrain below with which to use a guide once we return down.
Ultimately, the integration of spirituality in a human life is all about the slow ascent up, building our skills and doing our work day by day and moment by moment, a lifelong negotiation with the solid earth of that path. But the ascent of the mountain can be assisted by the helicopter ride– it gives a firsthand, personal, experiential sense of the direction one is going, and the profundity of the potentials that one cannot get from other kinds of life experiences at the base of the mountain, or just from tales of the higher reaches of the mountain told in words by those who have gone before. This temporary glimpse can in turn be helpful in motivating and directing one’s ascent up the mountain.
One saying about the path that I think is powerful is “the first step depends on the last, and the last step depends on the first.” Appropriate use of psychoactives can give one a sneak peek of, if not the last step, then at least a step much further down the line.
I think this is particularly so for people who are early in a spiritual path, or perhaps have not yet been motivated to be on one to begin with.
When talking with a Christian friend who had never ingested any mind altering chemicals besides alcohol and green tea, I explained to him my experience there I feel there are chemically altered experiences that take us farther away from and build barriers against God, and there are chemically altered experiences that open up doors to connect with God.
From what I have seen, some psychoactive substances, namely cocaine and methamphetamine, work by taking some of a person’s happiness from the future and giving it to them now. These substances are the ones that often create some of the worst negative impacts for people. Opioids and barbiturates are similarly generally unhealthy, but in a different way – I guess because they dull one’s relationship with “reality”.
All of those substances may at times, if used in a perfectly wise way, provide some spiritual benefit, by showing us directly how different the world looks to us in a different mindstate, revealing how much of our experience of life is conditioned by how our mind sees it. Mostly though, with those drugs, any positives like that are usually mixed in with so much addictiveness that their use is usually much more anti-spiritual than spiritual. A central thesis of twelve step programs and of Buddhist meditation too is that addictions are the polar opposite of spirituality/Divinity.
And there are some substances that loosen inhibitions so that one can have a good time, like alcohol (and GHB). I rarely think of these as “spiritual” and, as we all have, have seen them also dull a person and otherwise do anti-spiritual damage. I do enjoy them however and have at times had some experiences using them that seem freeing, insight-creating, and spiritual.
And there there are some substances that more reliably make porous the barriers between our day-to-day conscious mind and things outside of it – our subconscious, our soul, the universal meta-consciousness, etc. – and are more useful for spiritual expansion. Those substances are of course LSD, psilocybin, peyote, ayahuasca, DMT, the 2C* family, etc. By doing just a little, one can open the door to the cosmic mystery just a little, to make life feel a little more sparkly and alive, to enjoy the music and one’s friends a bit more. Or one can do deep work or expansion by opening the door wide, and being willing to encounter whatever unknown (and sometimes long avoided) mysteries are waiting on the other side.
MDMA seems to me to be part “take some of your happiness from the future and give it to you now”, and part “open up the barriers between you and Divine truth”.
I don’t have enough experience with marijuana/cannabis/THC to have an opinion about where it fits in with this way of looking at things. I suppose if I had to say, I would say that I have seen it be like alcohol: mostly simply recreational, dulling and addictive for some people and at some times, but opening and “spiritual” for other people for other people and at other times, with maybe on average a little more expansive insight creating than alcohol.
Brian Maniscalco wrote on Facebook some more words that I think are wise:
With the prohibition on scientific research into psychoactives being relaxed in recent years, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that, used in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts, psychoactives can have psychological, emotional, and spiritual benefits. This includes things like alleviating PTSD (MDMA assisted psychotherapy), giving access to mystical experiences that have long term effects on the personality factor of openness (guided psilocybin experiences), and relieving anxiety about impending death for terminal patients (guided psilocybin experiences).
I find it useful to think of psychoactives by analogy to fire. Fire is powerful but ethically neutral. If it is used wisely and responsibly, it is an incredible, in fact indispensable, positive for human kind. If used foolishly and irresponsibly, it has the potential for damage. Even when proper safeguards are in place, there are no guarantees that negative outcomes will never occur. Houses burn down, people die in fires. But the responsible use of fire is on the whole so safe and so beneficial that it is obvious to us that the proper response to the dangers of fire are not to legally prohibit and socially cast aspersions on any and all use of fire, but rather to do our best to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs through proper social and technological structures, education, law enforcement against *irresponsible* and *deliberately harmful* use, and emergency resources (fire fighters) in the rare but unavoidable cases where something goes wrong.
The current prevailing social and legal attitude towards psychoactives is as if we punished all use of fire indiscriminately, emphasizing its destructive power, while meanwhile people are freezing to death and eating raw, uncooked food. Think of the thousands of sufferers of PTSD who were denied effective treatment, and the thousands of terminal patients who never came to a spiritual and emotional resolution over their impending death, because of our indiscriminate and heavy handed prohibitions. Of course, that is really just the tip of the iceberg– there are undoubtedly many other benefits of properly used psychoactives that are yet to be scientifically demonstrated.
Decades ago, I was studying at a famous personal growth center. I began to feel that I wanted to go on a journey, so I started asking around for supplies. No one knew anything about anything, they all claimed. After a while, though, once they realized I was cool (not a narc), it turned out that pretty much all the senior and other long time members of the community had the hook up.
Anyway, I was making my deal at the palatial gorgeous house of the former president of the center, and she said to me, “Remember, Adam, there are NO bad trips”.
Given some challenging previous experiences that I had had, her claim surprised me. I replied, “Ummmmmmm …. well, beg to differ.”
She said, “There are no bad trips! There are just parts of yourself that you are not ready to open to yet. If you encounter something difficult, unfamiliar, or otherwise intense while on a journey – an intimidating dragon or demonic looks in everyone’s faces – it as just a part of you that you have split off and banished, and now you have opened a door and it is coming to you asking to be seen, accepted, and integrated. Same goes for angelic choirs and The Tree of Life. If you can remember and practice with that – anything strange that pops up is just a part of you coming and asking to be loved – a trip is the safest place you can be.”
I have found that context to be helpful. And I think it’s good advice for a meditation practice, too.
(some fascinating counterpoints, which suggest being wary of entities that are claimed to be actually external, can be found here and here).
A common saying about psychedelic tripping is that one’s experience is conditioned by the “set and setting” – the mindstate and the environment – that one goes into it with.
With that in mind, some general tips I recommend for safe and happy tripping:
* It of course helps to have pleasant music, snacks in the fridge and water to hydrate with, a comfortable temperature, comfortable clothes, a bed couch or pile of pillows, and soft plushy things to cuddle – a pleasant setting. (An exception is that some people intentionally want to do meditative “fully facing challenge and opening to discomfort” practice when tripping.)
* When letting go of and seeing through usual psychological structures, coping strategies, and defenses, it is helpful to be far far away and safe from dangerous and threatening people like predatory criminals, cops who might notice you acting funny, or people who might be judgmental.
* Many people would advise against tripping when one has something emotionally difficult in one’s mind and heart – for example, a recent death, being fired from one’s job, or a breakup – but I think that it can actually be helpful in processing one’s emotions. It is however helpful in such situations to go into the experience knowing that one will probably have to do some spiritual work, and be called to sit with pain that one may have been stuffing down or avoiding.
* Tripping is easier when one has had enough sleep; in my experience, bad things can happen when one is exhausted.
* Many people find that their stomach is upset when tripping. It can be helpful to have fizzy water, ginger tea, and such things on hand for such eventualities.
* The authenticity and amusement that comes from tripping can of course make doing so with others be relationship-enhancing and fun, whether it is at recreational fun amounts or at intentional open-the-doors-of-the-psyche psychospiritual-growth-work amounts. If one is going to trip and meditate by oneself, though, it is good to have someone who is aware of the plan and can send check in texts and who you can reach out to if scared or confused. One thing some people also do, increasingly so recently, is to work with a “sitter”, which is either a paid professional or a friend, and who stays sober and provides care, guidance, and midwifeing to person going on an intentionally intense journey of inner exploration.
* LSD journeys can sometimes go on for a long time (sometimes more than a day, if not interrupted), so a classic tripper trick for people who plan to start their acid adventure late in the day is to have xanex or valium on hand so that, past a certain point, they can knock themselves out and get to sleep. Similarly, although some people might consider it a lazy shortcut and spiritual avoidance, I also consider it sometimes useful if a person is having an unusually difficult experience during a trip with anxiety, raciness, overwhelm, and too much energy that seems to be creating damaging distress, and if the person is not able to fully open themselves to the experience and others’ attentive care doesn’t help, to have them drink some alcohol to bring their wavelength back down to a manageable level. It’s kind of like seeing a dish towel pinned to a clothes line and flapping crazily in the wind, and spraying it with water until it is soaked and settles down. (The usual strongly preferred method of dealing with such situations, where possible, is however to have the person meditatively deeply feel, open to, and allow the anxiety, and thereby integrate into the main psyche the previously-repressed now-overwhelming energy that has been loosed from the subconscious).
* I find that psychedelic journeys are great times to meditate, go for a walk in nature, cuddle, or dance, but also often a great opportunity to study deep books. What works best I think is a book with an immediate, speaks-to-your-soul feeling to it (Ram Dass’ “Be Here Now“, David Deida’s “Naked Buddhism“, Nisargadatta’s “I Am That“), more than say abstract spiritual philosophy (Ken Wilber, Wittgenstein, Aurobindo, or whatever).
[art by Pablo Amaringo]
Some helpful references to explore more about the spirituality of psychedelic exploration:
A book so many people have been reading and talking about lately is Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence“.
Another popular book is professor of transpersonal psychology James Fadiman’s “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys“.
These videos are a three part dialogue on the subject of “Buddhism and Psychedelics” between Fadiman and my friend Kokyo Henkle, Zen priest, head teacher at the Santa Cruz Zen Center, and former Deadhead: link one, link two, and link three.