A reader writes:
I've struggled a great deal to make sense of some of my psychedelic experiences, being all too aware of how they can be reduced to mere "chemicals acting on the brain." That's certainly not what they felt like, but I can't convey that sense of profundity to someone who hasn't had those experiences.
I credit my conversion to Christianity to a couple of experiences I had with LSD in my early 20s. During those experiences, I felt the Holy Spirit come upon me, and felt the salvific grace of Jesus Christ flowing through me, and it was the most beautiful feeling I've ever had.
The thing is, I've had other trips where seemingly profound insights seemed like nonsense upon later reflection. So why did this experience stick with me in a way that others didn't? I certainly can't say that psychedelics reveal some kind of ultimate truth, or else all trips would be as insightful and life-changing as the one I mention. But to simply reduce it to mere "hallucination" just doesn't seem to do it justice either. The word "psychedelic" means "mind-manifesting," and I've always felt there was something profound in that. There are so many aspects of our mind which we shut down during our normal routine. I feel like psychedelics can bring forth the subconscious in a way that, if done appropriately, can help you sort out your thoughts and beliefs in a way that can be both therapeutic and insightful. I also find that these substances tend to override our normal habit and conditioning in such a way as to open us up to the creativity and novelty which is a constant feature of the cosmos.
I think the real spiritual value of psychedelic experiences is the kinds of life changes they can provoke in us. After the initial glow of my conversion experience wore off, I sought to understand it, and began reading as much as I could on philosophy and theology, particularly metaphysics. I found authors like Ken Wilber and Alfred North Whitehead and Teilhard de Chardin who helped me make sense of this phenomenon I'd experienced. I studied meditation and centering prayer, and sought out mystical experiences without the help of chemicals.
I'm well aware that my experience of psychedelics is not the experience of them. I know a guy whose experiences with psychedelics led him to leave the Mormon church and become an atheist. But I think what my experience has in common with his is that we both were led towards a more authentic place in our lives, by some creative beacon of truth which I prefer to call God.
The Dish's pro-psilocybin contributors generally consider the similarities between hallucinogenic and religious experience as an argument in favor of shrooms/LSD. It's odd that this line of reasoning isn't more often turned on its head. Whatever else they may do, hallucinogens demonstrate that most minds have a latent capability for experiencing a mystical sense of oneness with the universe/deep insight into ultimate reality.
It seems likely to me that many of the great religious mystics, so far from being divinely inspired, merely suffered from (or were blessed with) a freak of brain chemistry which enabled them to experience these states without pharmacological
prompting. If the hallucinogenic mind-state descended upon you without apparent cause, what grounds would you have for resisting the instinct that its "insights" are true? Perhaps most of history's famous martyrs sacrificed themselves for a belief in the transcendental preciousness of chemical adjustments which can now be bought for a few twenties.
A recent commenter wrote, "It forces the tripper to acknowledge and understand that there are many - perhaps an infinite number - of perspectives that can be brought to bear on the same objective reality, and makes us realize that objective reality is one which we can never really know." From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, this "objective reality" simply doesn't exist, and they label it as "Emptiness" because reality is "empty" of any inherent quality. The human mind revolts at this possibility, because perceptual reality seems so, well, real. But at its most base level, it's all energy, interpreted by our senses. Psychedelics clue you in to this fact, when for a brief moment you realize that everything you experience is 100% God.
Loving this thread. As usual in your blog, consciousness and religion overlap.
(Photo by Noah Kalina)