Spiritual Highlights 2:
The Mind-Bending History Of Buddhism And Psychedelics
The history of Buddhism and of psychedelics in American culture follow a surprisingly similar trajectory from the 1950s through the present-day. But perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that they share a common aim: the liberation of the mind.
LSD, “prepares the mind for Buddhism”
Now, more than 60 years later, we’re seeing a resurgence of popular interest in Buddhism — with mindfulness meditation now firmly entrenched in the cultural mainstream — and also in psychedelics, which are being investigated as therapeutic agents for mental health issues including depression, anxiety and addiction.
The intersection of these practices raises a number of questions:
Are psychedelics an obstruction to a Dharma Practice? or a helpful accompaniment?
Are mind-altering substances a legitimate means of personal transformation?
“let us approach the use of these drugs consciously”
In a talk at the Rubin Museum, earlier this year, you said that Buddhism itself is psychedelic in its effect. What did you mean by that?
Buddhism has a quality that it shares with psychedelics, in the sense that it places great importance on the primacy of mind and on being in the present moment. The definition of psychedelic is mind-changing or mind-manifesting, and both buddhism and psychedelic substances share that in common.
How is Buddhism psychedelic? It’s really against the grain, in the sense that from a Buddhist perspective, things are often the opposite of what they seem.
Something may look very different in apparent reality than it does in ultimate reality. That dichotomy, to a point, is recognized in Buddhism… We look at our lives in terms of relative truth and ultimate truth. It isn’t easy to grasp Buddhist ideas and to understand how the mind creates things, rather than just responds to them.
For a lot of people, psychedelics are sort of a “gateway drug” that leads them to Buddhism. How do people describe these initial experiences that lead them to a Dharma Practice? What a lot of people will say is that they took a psychedelic journey, and…
they reached a place that was extremely beautiful and special and had a non-dual character; that the whole world made sense to them and was integrated; that they were integrated with the world; that everything was alive.
People describe these almost oceanic feelings of joy and connection. They don’t want to have a practice that involves a chemical dependency so they look for ways to kindle that feeling again in a more sustainable way.
I think where a lot of people are currently is they’ve had some experience with psychedelics and with a mystical wing of a religion or spiritual practice — it might even be yoga — and then have taken up psychedelics occasionally since then. So there’s an ongoing relationship with psychedelics while they explore a more everyday sustainable path of integration with a lot of the things that came up in their psychedelic journeys. I think there’s a middle path there.
One of the most burning reasons we need to wake up is in order to survive. Unless we wake up in both an individual and cultural sense, we’re not going to be able to make the kind of changes we need to in order to survive.
The real problem, I think most people agree, is a problem of consciousness. We need to chnge consciousness. When you look around, there aren’t that many strategies that can bring about a rapid change in consciousness, but psychedelics is one of them. So we need to have that conversation. Psychedelics are in the toolkit and we have to find the best way to use those tools in a way that is safe and respectful.
There’s anthropological evidence that the drive to alter consciousness is an innate and universal aspect of the human experience.
Hopefully we will have in place opportunities for people who need these medicines to get what they need, and to be in the hands of qualified professionals in safe settings. So not only because the earth is going to hell ecologically and we need to change consciousness quickly, but also to relieve suffering and to make it possible for people to get really profound and powerful help.