As an extension to some of what I discussed in my previous essay, and in light of some recent developments in popular culture, I’ve been thinking about our culture’s trending use of psychedelic substances. Part of what prompted this was listening to Michael Pollan’s interview on Fresh Air to commemorate the release of his book A Whole New Mind in paperback.
After hearing the interview, I’m sure I’ll pick the book up at some point, as Pollan is a rational voice on a topic that is often clouded with distortion and speculation. I also think that this kind of research does have some important implications for how we understand meditation and the brain, as described in the New York Times review of A Whole New Mind:
Many LSD or psilocybin trips — even good trips — begin with an ordeal that can feel scarily similar to dissolving, or even dying. What appears to be happening, in a neurological sense, is that the part of the brain that governs the ego and most values coherence — the default mode network, it’s called — drops away. An older, more primitive part of the brain emerges, one that’s analogous to a child’s mind, in which feelings of individuality are fuzzier and a capacity for awe and wonder is stronger.
However, I still have misgivings about the possibility of widespread psychedelic use, especially in the context of meditation. I’m fully in support of individual experimentation with these substances as long as the risks are clear and understood by the participants. However, I feel that psychedelics are all too often beside the point and can divert us down some less useful paths. I want to elaborate on this in order to clarify it further.
The starting point for many psychedelic users is as an experiment with a kind of spiritual technology. Some psychedelics, such as psilocybin, offer the chance of a spiritual experience in convenient packaging. Alan Watts is one of my intellectual heroes and has been a huge influence on both my meditative practice and on my creative life. He has written a psychedelic exploration in this vein which is incredibly lucid and firmly in keeping with the gregarious spirit of his work. The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness, is Watts’ personal account of using these substances as a meditative exercise. Watts is an example of someone who never shied away from philosophizing on intense emotions and perceptions, and these substances were part of a larger and restless enterprise. He weaves the psychedelic accounts with many of his most important themes and, in the process, wrests something profound from them.
Is it possible, then, that Western science could provide a medicine which would at least give the human organism a start in releasing itself from its chronic self-contradiction? The medicine might indeed have to be supported by other procedures – psychotherapy, ‘spiritual’ disciplines, and basic changes in one’s pattern of life – but every diseased person seems to need some kind of initial lift to set him on the way to health. The question is by no means absurd if it is true that what afflicts us is a sickness not just of the mind but of the organism, of the very functioning of the nervous system and the brain. Is there, in short, a medicine which can give us temporarily the sensation of being integrated, of being fully one ourselves and with nature as the biologist knows us, theoretically, to be? If so, the experience might offer clues to whatever else must be done to bring about full and continuous integration. It might be at least the tip of an Ariadne’s thread to lead us out of the maze in which all of us are lost from our infancy. (The Joyous Cosmology, 10-11)
In this kind of approach, psychedelics are used to try to understand reality on a deeper level. The focus here often seems to be on using psychedelics in controlled bursts, process the implications of the trip as thoroughly as possible, and then using this to catalyze one’s spiritual understanding. My own experiences with psychedelics were not spiritually motivated and were the antithesis of this approach. Although some of the experiences I would classify as spiritual, the drugs also ratcheted up the chaos of my perception, and I quickly become lost in webs of bizarre sensation. I found the experiences confusing – provoking a level of intensity and unpredictability to my thinking and feeling that was difficult to manage.
Using psychedelics can therefore still be an unpredictable gamble. Without adequate time to assimilate what they find, some users have experienced precipitous psychotic breaks. The current scientific enterprise, as described in the Fresh Air interview, has attempted to mitigate this unpredictability by a focus on the classic “set and setting,” where trained professionals dispense these drugs and provide support during trips. This doesn’t change the fact that psychedelics are organic substances, and we can’t always count on their repeatability. The issue I find here is of a larger cultural narrative that condones these substances or is unwilling to discuss their potential dangers. We should question these kinds of narratives and wrestle with that unpredictability ourselves. Even though psychedelic use may be accepted, this shouldn’t stop us from examining the causes, sensations, and consequences of using consciousness-altering substances.
Regardless of how psychedelics are framed, we have to decide for ourselves their impact on our personal growth. A long term, engaged meditative practice helps point to the beauty, profundity, and preciousness of the things we classify as ordinary, including our minds. Even when we factor in psychedelic use as part of meditative desire to question our own boundaries and institutions, this desire can still be warped into mere pleasure seeking. In this way, psychedelics can be yet another materialist dead end. Based on my own experience, it’s all too easy to create another set of rationalizations to ensnare ourselves, even with spiritual ambition. This is something that consciousness-altering substances don’t always help us see with clarity, and I don’t think long term psychedelic use is conducive to.
The development of larger cultural acceptance of psychedelics is still unfolding, along with many other types of practices as we engage in our relentless questioning and overturning of the past. I’m sure that psychedelics will continue to help treat many cases of anxiety, depression, and trauma. I’m grateful for those opportunities existing. I still have – and will likely always have – concerns on both the long-term impact and ultimate utility of psychedelics for meditative practice.