On the Use of Psychedelics and Meditation

I am often asked about the usefulness of psychedelics and meditation. It seems like this question comes with greater frequency these days. And there is no blanket answer: I am very open-minded, to a point, and I have encouraged some few people that having a psychedelic experience could help with some particularly deep-rooted block with regard to addiction, to a trauma, or even to an aspect of their meditation practice.

Recently, at a gathering of friends, I was pulled aside by the college-age son of one of my followers (I’ll call him “Danny”). He said that he has been offered the opportunity by friends to experience psychedelic mushrooms, and what did I think about this? Now, if I do have some rules, one of them is to exert extreme care when advising the children of my students about anything that might not align with some of the most conservative norms of a meditating life. Nevertheless, I was placed at an unusual juncture where the pure-minded questioner had access only to the encouragement of some similarly-aged friends, with all of the blind peer pressure and testosterone-fuelled risk-taking bravado involved, and his own conservative parents. It seemed that the most compassionate thing to do would be to reply without regard to what his parents might think about my agency in the matter, were word of it ever to get back to them.

So, without hesitation, I gave Danny my strong, enthusiastic encouragement to try this experience at least once, but only if he did this with a very clear preparation of the proper “set and setting”: not in a throbbing dance club or crazed party, and not with people who he was meeting for the first time. I emphasised the need for “trust” in his environment, both human and situational. There should be a “guide” present who had previous experience with such substances, and optimal benefit if that “guide” were, themselves, not ingesting that night, so as to have the clearest possible view of the situation unfolding and be able to judge clearly any contingencies, were a difficult “trip” to emerge among any of the participants (especially among the first-time trippers like Danny). I told him that he must absolutely not combine this with any alcohol or cannabis or anything else. (I believe I also told him what I say to others: if one is not vegetarian/vegan, it is helpful for the trip if no meat is consumed for some days to a week beforehand — the subtle sexual and aggressive energies trapped in slaughtered animals can have an effect on the trip, bringing it to some darker places, for some people who are sensitive. I urged him strongly not to do this even in a city, but rather that he have such an awesome experience out in deep natural surroundings where Nature could speak to him, without the need to operate a car (never!) or have complex interactions with strong personalities who do not have a reasonable appreciation for and experience of the awesome power of this potentially life-altering voyage into the nature of reality.

Sam Harris wrote an essay which is an essential touchstone for anyone considering the role of psychedelics, and he even has personal admonitions for advising his own children:

I have a daughter who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that she chooses her drugs wisely, but a life without drugs is neither foreseeable, nor, I think, desirable. Someday, I hope she enjoys a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If my daughter drinks alcohol as an adult, as she probably will, I will encourage her to do it safely. If she chooses to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation. Tobacco should be shunned, of course, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer her away from it. Needless to say, if I knew my daughter would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if she does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience. [emphasis mine]

This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics. As I will make clear below, these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, there are people who cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug. It has been many years since I have taken psychedelics, in fact, and my abstinence is borne of a healthy respect for the risks involved. However, there was a period in my early 20’s when I found drugs like psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools of insight, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence. I think it quite possible that I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring without having first pressed this pharmacological advantage.

[https://samharris.org/subscriber-extras/drugs-and-the-meaning-of-life/]

It must be said, in this context, that I am somewhat aware of the arguments made against the use of psychedelics and meditation by the American Zen master Brad Warner. But I have a different view. While I have deep respect for him not only as a serious Zen practitioner (who also, somewhat uncharacteristically for his audience, insists on some familiarity with the texts of Dogen and others), I also believe that there is a space for the consideration of psychedelics in building the practice of meditation in one’s life — as long as there is not frequent usage, or dependency. So, while I do respect Warner very much as a recovering addict, who is quite right in warning folks away from reliance on any exogenous substances to mimic, initiate, substitute for, or expand the experience of meditation, I do feel that the experience of psychedelics is useful enough in the work of meditation to take the extra care not to assert any blanket prohibition

While the number of times I have used psychedelics is countable on two hands (well, maybe just a few fingers more), I have seen the benefit of this experience firsthand. And it is immediately useful for the work of waking up, which is the work of meditation.

One of the best, most instructive and edifying podcast conversations I have ever heard is this one, on the subject of psychedelics : This is a very very recent conversation between Tim Ferriss and the legendary Dr. Stan Grof. I think what makes this conversation so important for me is not just the catchy subject matter — “Lessons from ~4500 Sessions and Beyond” — but the encounter with such a great mind and bodhisattva soul as Stan Grof. His exploration of the nature of consciousness have truly inspired me.

As readers of this blog know so well, I am always happy to reference the thoughts of Sam Harris, because of the eerie resemblance they have to my own, in nearly every aspect and on nearly every single subject.

Many people wonder about the difference between meditation (and other contemplative practices) and psychedelics. Are these drugs a form of cheating, or are they the only means of authentic awakening? They are neither. All psychoactive drugs modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain—either by mimicking specific neurotransmitters or by causing the neurotransmitters themselves to be more or less active. Everything that one can experience on a drug is, at some level, an expression of the brain’s potential. Hence, whatever one has seen or felt after ingesting LSD is likely to have been seen or felt by someone, somewhere, without it.

However, it cannot be denied that psychedelics are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness. Teach a person to meditate, pray, chant, or do yoga, and there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending upon his aptitude or interest, the only reward for his efforts may be boredom and a sore back. If, however, a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD, what happens next will depend on a variety of factors, but there is no question that somethingwill happen. And boredom is simply not in the cards. Within the hour, the significance of his existence will bear down upon him like an avalanche. As the late Terence McKenna[4]  never tired of pointing out, this guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse, is what separates psychedelics from every other method of spiritual inquiry.