The Spiritual Power Of Psilocybin, Ctd

Andrew Sabl adds his voice to these dissents:

Give mushrooms to a bunch of hippies and they’ll gain a new appreciation for yoga; give them to a heterodox Catholic and he’ll ponder the Incarnation. Give them to me and I might start to (wrongly) believe that I can understand complex mathematical proofs or conceive (wrongly) that I remember my once-adequate ancient Greek—which once gave me the very fulfilling experience of being able to read easy bits of Plato without a dictionary. But in none of these cases is there any reason to think that the drug-takers have come to know anything that’s actually true. And I would have thought that this would be relevant.

Drum introduces romance into the debate. I'm working on a follow-up post.

The Spiritual Power Of Psilocybin, Ctd

A reader writes:

ShroomsThat is an irrational conclusion, in fact. If I begin to imagine that the voices coming out of my cell phone originate in the cell phone, and dismiss the idea that there are other people in some distant unseen part of the universe talking to me through my cell phone as madness, it is I who am becoming mad. And scientific materialists who imagine that all God-experiences merely originate in the brain because they can be  associated with brain phenomena, are similarly mad, and missing the point.

They have no idea who they even are as conscious beings, but are confusing the player of the game with the machine the game is played on.

That is where the illogic in these matters begins, with that divide between the conscious experiencer and the brain-medium of our experiences. Faith is not illogical if one doesn’t fall for this fallacy, but instead fixes oneself in the primary position of the conscious experiencer. That’s the position from which we can love, and know God and reality directly.

Science takes an abstracted definition of the self, founded in an objective experience that is presumed to be the true subject. But no subject is ever identical to his objects, or even to the media of perception by which we observe those objects. As Jesus said, the Kingdom of Heaven is within, in the subjective dimension of our conscious being, not in the objective dimension of the “game”. We play the game of life in order to learn this lesson in the midst of the most challenging circumstances. Some get that lesson, and we loosely call them “saints”. Most take a very long time, requiring many lifetimes, many different brains and bodies, as we play the game over and over again until we get it right.

Scientists are only grasping one small part of the game, and misinterpreting what it means. They will cite a lack of “evidence” for my position, but they have no evidence for their own interpretation either. The evidence I will point to is the happiness and love that comes from living from the point of view of conscious being, rather than the materialist viewpoint. But they are of course free to make as many mistakes as they like. It’s a long game, after all. One often learns only by making mistakes. But our happiness is the criteria by which we ought to judge ourselves, not dissociated logic. Logic is not a thing in itself, it is a tool to increase our love for reality.

Beautifully, powerfully put.

The Spiritual Power Of Psilocybin, Ctd

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A reader writes:

This is why rationality is ultimately irreconcilable with faith. Scientists can now pinpoint the exact spots in your brain that light up during spiritual moments and you have found a mushroom that reproduces the effect. But instead of acknowledging this as an interesting yet completely natural sensation, you instead conclude that it’s a mushroom-shaped window into the divine. Your mind is playing tricks on you, much in the same way that your eyes play tricks on you when items move into your blind spot. (However, the effect sounds interesting; I might have to try it.)

Another elaborates on that view:

I find it fascinating how someone of faith (you) and someone who has no faith (me) can look at the exact same study and come to diametrically opposed conclusions.

Your ingestion of magic mushrooms led to a deep spiritual connection and a reaffirmation and deepening of your faith. Therefore, mushrooms are part of our connection to the divine and should not be regulated away from us. To some of us non-believers it suggests the opposite, namely that your brain is lying to you. A similar experiment showed that subjects would “feel the presence of the divine” when an electrode stimulated a specific portion of the brain. Meditation seems to trigger similar functionality by causing neurons to fire in a specific set of patterns, which have electrochemical affects on the same portions of the brain.

I don’t think you’d argue that direct electrical stimulation or a chemical message delivered to a similar spot is some sort of magic God retrieval switch. “Press here to summon God.” It seems that such a useful switch was rather oddly placed.

The brain, as an organ, likes certain types of stimulation and patterns, for the same reason that a song that you hate gets stuck in your head; “you” may not like it, but your brain certainly does. Certain kinds of messages or neuron firing patterns are highly enjoyable to the brain’s neurons – they make them feel good, at peace, interconnected. Your neurons are happy and that filters up into your consciousness to make “you” happy and connected.

If you can’t tell the difference between the presence of God and the presence of psilocybin, maybe there is no difference. No God required.

P.S.  The best counter-argument I can think of is that these various techniques somehow suppress “reality’s” overwhelming input and allow you to detect the undercurrent of divinity in the Universe. The best counter-counter-argument to that is Douglas Adam’s Babel Fish: God cannot exist without faith; the Babel Fish is so obviously God’s handiwork that you don’t require faith; therefore God doesn’t exist. Q.E.D. Why create a series of unrelated obtuse methods of hooking into the divine? Why not just make it as natural as breathing?

Ask God. That’s beyond my pay grade. But more seriously, by definition, any divine manifestation in the mortal world will have some physical manifestation. Psilocybin may be a kind of trick that triggers an awareness of God – something that can only be stably achieved by years of meditation, prayer and love. Of course that can be observed scientifically by studying our brains under both shrooms or meditation. But the ultimate source of that feeling of universal beneficence that seems calculated to make humans the happiest and kindest they can be remains a mystery. Perhaps it’s all neurons and chemicals – but if they are part of God too, that argument fails.

But why a mushroom? Beats me. A random part of the physical universe that acts like a key to a specifically human spiritual lock: it does seem bizarre. But humans discovered it aeons ago; and the notion of sacramental faith makes space for it, from a Catholic perspective. We eat and drink the divine – as so many faith traditions have for millennia. As long as we don’t mistake the thing for the Godhead, we are merely offered a chance to glimpse what godliness and mindfulness can be. And it remains with us months and years later – actually helping us to attain the calm and peace that true faith generates. Which makes it less a trick than a sacrament – as, by the way, peyote long has been on this continent.

I believe we are indeed all neurons and chemicals. But when all these fall away, God is still with us; and God is us. It is the falling away, the lifting of the veil, that is hard.

(Photo of Psilocybe Cubensis by Flickr user afgooey74)

The Spiritual Power Of Psilocybin

PyramidlakeNV

A study confirms that the chemical in magic mushrooms can unlock spiritual feelings:

Notably, 61% of volunteers considered the psilocybin experience during either or both the [highest dosage] sessions to have been the single most spiritually significant of their lives, with 83% rating it in their top five. Consistent with this, 94% and 89% of volunteers, respectively, indicated that the experiences on those same sessions increased their well-being or life satisfaction and positively changed their behavior at least moderately.

Similar studies have come to identical conclusions although this one very helpfully analyzes ideal dosage levels. The potential for use to help the depressed, those with PTSD, and those with many other ailments is huge. If only we could get past our puritanism. Kevin Drum says "you may thank the War on Drugs whenever you like" for banning this experience:

So there you have it: a genuine mystical experience with long-lasting positive effects, no reported negative effects, no known medical side effects in healthy people, and with virtually no chance of a bad experience. Does that sound like something you'd like to try? Well, you can't: no matter how safe and beneficial it might be, psilocybin is a Schedule 1 controlled substance and you can't have any.

I tried a serious dose of fresh mushrooms when last in Amsterdam a few years ago. Yes there's a reason they activate the brain in precisely the same areas as those activated without drugs in the brains of those in deep meditation. They deepened my faith, brought me closer to lifting the veil my ego places over the beauty of God's creation, gave me uncanny perspective on my life, and had me pondering the Incarnation and praying effortlessly as I gazed into the rippling water of Amsterdam's canals.

I understand these miraculous things can be abused – which is why careful dosing matters. But that they should be banned is a profound sign of our culture's lack of faith in itself and what lies beyond us. It's a direct impediment to humanity's spiritual evolution. In my view, it violates the spirit of the First Amendment. If shrooms are for so many a pathway to the divine, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The Reptile Brain’s Waking Dreams

Jeff Warren contemplates the science behind the powerful Amazonian hallucinogen, ayahuasca:

We began to discuss the origin of our visions. I suggested the most prudent explanation lay with the brain’s chemistry and the intersection of the drug’s two active agents. One plant boosts the amount of serotonin in the body, creating a hyper-alert ecstatic feeling, while the other boosts the amount of DMT, a naturally-occurring brain chemical thought to play a role in REM sleep. “Thus,” I said, “the serotonin circle overlaps with the DMT circle, and we sit in the middle, submerged in a waking dream.” … Michael, a well-known anthropologist and author, shared his own theory. Psychedelics, he explained, acted as “psycho-integrators,” linking up three evolutionary layers of the brain: the ancient reptilian brain stem, the middle-aged mammalian limbic system and the relatively modern frontal cortex. Ayahuasca, he told the group, rerouted habitual ways of thinking down through the primitive brain stem. “That’s why you can’t put so many of these experiences into words,” he said. “The reptile brain stem can’t make words. It’s pre-verbal.”

The Dish’s earlier psychedelic thread is here.

A Journey, Not An Escape, Ctd

Tunnel

A reader writes:

I have been following your blog for some time, and I have really enjoyed the occasional post on psychedelics.  I've read about psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca, but never about a plant that changed my life years ago: ibogaine.  It is native to West Africa, and people who experiment broadly with psychedelics consider it the most powerful drug in the world.

During my junior year of college, I found myself sinking into a depression.  On the surface, my life looked quite good, but something still felt wrong.  I had been raised to believe that happiness came from successfully achieving your goals.  I had achieved some fairly ambitious ones, and had acquired considerable respect from my peers, but happiness eluded me.  Even worse, I had no hope that life would get better.  I started drinking myself into blackness twice a week and watching a lot of TV, desperately hoping that one day I would feel better.  When I decided to try ibogaine, I was nearing the end of my rope.  Despite my antipathy towards drugs (aside from the occasional joint), I figured it could not hurt.

Ibogaine stays in your system for 48 hours, and the first 24 hours of my session were the most horrible 24 hours of my life.

Every single thought that I normally repressed came into my awareness – and I was forced to look at them without any filters.  I saw that I had no idea who I was, and so I desperately sought other people’s approval.  Everything I did, all my plans, were simply to make people give me positive feedback. 

I also saw that everyone else was in the same boat.  Society was one big lie – we all hide our suffering behind a façade of confidence and forced happiness, hoping that it will just go away.  I saw images of people’s faces: friends, parents, teachers, politicians; and I saw the desperation hiding just behind their eyes.  Finally, I saw how human beings are never truly happy.  We may have a few moments of happiness in a long lifetime, but mostly we jump from one distraction to the next until death takes us.  After 20 hours of visions like these, I drifted into sleep.

I woke up several hours later and sat down outside, staring into the trees behind my house.  Physically I was fine, but emotionally I felt horrible.  How could I possibly function in the world, knowing that life is a pointless joke?  I realized I could not go back to my old self, but who would I be?  I assumed my girlfriend would leave me, all my friends would grow tired of me, and my parents would stop loving me.  And forget about a career.  How could I possible compete with people who believed that success would bring them happiness?  So I just sat in my deck chair, mentally preparing myself for a life of loneliness and menial work.

And then the bottom dropped out.  Somewhere, deep down in my psyche, I accepted everything I had seen on ibogaine.  I accepted that I did not know who I was; I accepted that all my previous plans were based on getting people’s approval; and I accepted that happiness cannot be achieved.  And with this acceptance came an extraordinary bliss and that can only be described as religious.  I saw light everywhere, and felt an intense love coming into me and through me.  Over the next 24 hours, as the ibogaine left my system, this joy receded into the background and my normal mind slowly came back.

But I never returned to the person I had been before.  A sense of peace is always there in the background, and while it can get obscured by the mind, it never goes away.  I still don’t know who I am, but I don’t need to know.  I stopped chasing after happiness, because I know happiness is my natural state.  And my relationships did not fall apart; they were actually strengthened by an increase in love.  Even my career in mainstream international economics has gone well.  It turns out people really appreciate genuineness and authenticity.

This happened six years ago, and in this time I have come across many accounts of similar transitions; some with psychedelics, some with meditation or prayer, and some without any outside help.  In comparison, my experience was relatively easy.  Ibogaine was like a decade of psychotherapy and meditation rolled into one night, and while it was a horrible night, it saved me from years of suffering.

(Photo by Megan Scheminske)

A Journey, Not An Escape, Ctd

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A reader introduces a new drug to the discussion thread – which also happens to be the subject of a  fascinating little piece in the new Atlantic:

As a teenager I discovered the Grateful Dead and the psychedelic subculture.  During these early years I had many beautiful experiences with psychedelics, usually mushrooms, usually at shows, sometime out in nature.  During these experiences I gained tremendous insight into matters of the spirit, of politics, and swift satori-like bursts containing lessons about how the world works.  But clearly there were those around me who were overboard, just there for the party.  Indeed, the Dead scene seemed to have this dichotomous feature of the ’60s subculture embedded within in it: the deep flowering of insight, beauty and art and the ugly underbelly of excessive hedonism in all its forms.

For my part, after reading that Joseph Campbell had attended some Dead shows and likened the experience to the Elysian Mystery festivals, I declared myself a religion major and pursued a course of study focused on the intersection of mythology, Jungian depth psychology and Eastern philosophy.  During this time I was also exposed to the writings of Mircea Eliade and the concept of shamanism.  At the same time the late Terrance McKenna was near the pinnacle of his early ’90s  “the Leary of Mushrooms” fame.  His writings were thought-provoking and often completely off the wall, but through them I became aware that a shamanism that employed the use of psychoactive plants is an ancient and global phenomenon, practiced by nearly all indigenous cultures at one point.  I learned that shamans used these plants as technologies to travel between the various worlds for the benefit of their people.

In particular I learned about Ayahuasca – the Vine of the Souls.

It’s an Amazonian, DMT-containing, vision-inducing, shamanic brew that is still used across the Amazon area, and now in other parts of the world.  I soon found that not only were Westerners heading down to the jungle to drink Ayahuasca, but to my amazement, that shamans from the Amazon were bringing the brew to the U.S. to run ceremonies for groups here.

Somehow I ended up invited to one such ceremony in upstate New York.  Each participant was directed to follow a special cleansing diet for the week before the ceremony, and upon arrival, was issued his or her own personal barf bucket, as Ayahuasca is famous for the purge it causes.  What I learned that day, however, was the purge is not only physical, but psychic as well.

The Amazonian Indians speak of Ayahuasca as if it is an entity; they call it “Grandmother”.  Indeed, soon after the effects came on, I felt as if I was being probed by an ancient and perhaps alien intelligence.  My soul was being examined.  And over the course of the next several hours, as I vomited my guts out, I was forced to view many of my faults and the darkest corners of my being, view them, accept them and spit them out.

I pleaded for leniency during this trial.  I cried out, “I’m just a human! Have mercy!”  It was a true Day of Atonement. I felt as if my soul was standing on a twelve lane superhighway being run over by tractor trailers again and again.  I felt as if I might die.  Certainly a part of me did die that day.

All in all it was the most unpleasant experience of my life, but also the most profound.  By the end of the ceremony I understood fully that it was a sacred medicine.  I felt renewed, light, and bonded with my co-travelers. I knew that I learned many lessons in a language beyond words.

The positive feeling endures to this day, nearly 8 years later.  Until that day my proverbial glass was always half empty.  I wallowed in the negative.  After the ceremony I began to be a glass half-full kind of a guy.  I subsequently returned for several more ceremonies (these, mercifully, were less harsh and quite beautiful).  During each ceremony, the shaman and other facilitators the group made it very clear that participating in the ceremony was only one step in this “work” in which we were engaged.  The real trick is in integrating what you learn into your life.  This is something I’m still working on, and which I imagine will be my life’s work for the remainder of my time on Earth.

(Photo of “traditional shaman dress” by Gracy Obuchowicz, who writes: “Spirit Songs A Musical Taxonomy of the Amazon” is a documentary that my friends and I are making about healing songs—called icaros–and the shamans of the Peruvian Amazon who sing them. Until recently, these shamans have served for generations as the doctors, pharmacists, psychologists, and priests for the over three million indigenous people that live alongside the Amazon river in Peru.” Watch a teaser for the film here.  See many more of Gracy’s wonderful photos here.)

A Journey, Not An Escape, Ctd

Noah-kalina

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.

Another writes:

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.

Another:

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)

A Journey, Not An Escape, Ctd

Roseedge

A reader writes:

The previous contributor wrote:

There isn't any doubt that psychedelics seem to bestow insights on those who take them. Almost everyone who trips says that they got a lot out of it. What I'm questioning is how real that is. I'm saying that as a person who has tripped many many times, and who has done so in the company of a great many people.

I think the real benefit of psychedelic experience is not the actual content of any particular "insights" provided to the user, but rather the visceral realization that our existence is by definition subjective.

Through the distortion of inputs to our brain from our five senses and the intellectual and emotional filters through which we normally process the world around us, the psychedelic experience points out in a deeply profound and thorough way that our normal perception of the world is always colored by context, our history, and our corporeal nature.  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.

Of course, it only really takes one or two trips to come to that realization, which is why I think I found myself getting less and less from subsequent psychedelic experiences back in my college days.

Another writes:

I've taken acid exactly once and count it as one of three absolute highlights of my life (the other two are getting married and seeing the birth of my son). That experience ranks so highly because it did change my life. I took a small dose so my experience wasn't psychedelic (with hallucinations and all that), but it was truly powerful.

We were on a secluded beach on Baya. A gorgeous day. We dosed at around noon and from then until dusk, I experienced joy and *awe* of a kind that still, to this day, 20 years on, makes me shiver. I felt connection with and absolute astonishment at nature, people, the ineffable … in short, life. Like another reader, I have not taken acid again because I see that experience as (poseur alert watch!) a lamp on my path. No exaggeration.

Psychedelics are no substitute for prayer and meditation, which I, too, see as the true path to enlightenment. Yes, you "come down." Yes, reality hits you squarely in the jaw after an experience like that. I'm very sure I don't give off any special good vibe. But I had a glimpse of what living a fully, more joyfully can mean. That gift feeds me still, in all that I do.

Another:

Needless to say the only people who dismiss psilocybin have never tried it, and in many cases, for those people I do not recommend it anyway. Not because I'm a medicine man and I know better, but because the entire experience is about focusing on trust and comfort. Perhaps it's an overgeneralization to say that people who are scared, who do not trust others, do not fare well with mushrooms… but it's not far off.

It's a personal experience, that is not to say private. You take it with those you trust and love. Because your insight is extremely keyed in while tripping, it's unwise to do it without some form of ritual. But for all the caution, I can say that my mind has never, of its own accord, gone where it has on mushrooms.

The best experience was three years ago with my girlfriend, now my wife, on new year's eve. We stayed in, ate them around 9, and started to come down sometime after midnight. It doesn't get spoken about very often in the same way the high does, but the come-down is also extremely impacting. You've just spent hours opening every door your mind could choose, and during the come down you have the very sober realization of the real world, and you have to deal with it. What did I see, why can't I have it always, etc. Having my wife there was incredible, because during the come-down our fear was just as synchronized as our joy and amazement only a few hours earlier – but we had each other. We didn't need to say a word. Just pure, complete nonverbal understanding and trust, and it saw us through.

It takes a lot out of you, all the more reason to avoid abuse. But something just happens in your mind, it clicks on and slowly dissipates, allowing you to relive the very real emotion and connection. You come out of it with a repository of trust that can't be shaken, and allows you to locate yourself in a way quite nearly impossible given the amount of neuroses pumped into you in your daily social and professional life.

That's the best I can do to relate the spiritual quality of it. You are confirmed, allowed to exist without fear or doubt for a short time, and it doesn't leave you. That's why I haven't done it in three years; I still have that experience.

A Journey, Not An Escape, Ctd

A different take:

There seems little doubt to me that psilocybin is a very queer substance. Whether its effect on the brain merely simulates profound spirituality or whether it actually recreates it chemically is a philosophical conundrum we won’t solve very soon. But that we recognize it somehow as transcendent, that it can be measured in brain scans as indistinguishable from genuine meditative calm, and that it seems, more than any other chemical, to alert one to the divine: well, these seem to be part of the universe as we find it.

What frustrates me is the cultural baggage of the Leary era, the easy ways of dismissing it, the abuse rather than use, the social utopianism rather than the internal peace. It’s too interesting a subject for that kind of treatment. And too important.