History of Psychedelics & Meditation
“Sacred medicine is a part of spiritual paths on every continent. In spiritual communities, we need an honest exploration of this delicate and sometimes taboo topic. Let us approach the use of these drugs consciously. In my view, whatever leads to opening the heart and mind and letting go is beneficial.” –Jack Kornfield, Dharma Teacher, Spirit Rock
The use of psychedelics in meditation communities has a long and controversial history and much has already been written on the subject chronicling the co-arising of meditation, yoga and psychedelics during the wild and experimental hippy movement of the 60s and 70s. Of the first wave of traditional Asian teachers to come to the west, Trungpa Rinpoche, founder Shambala and Suzuki Roshi, founder of The San Francisco Zen Center were tolerant and even expressed that the psychedelic experience could have value. Others were not as open.
Regardless, there is no denying the significant impact that psychedelics had on many of the most well know first-generation western mindfulness teachers of today including, Lama Surya Das, Ram Dass, Deepak Chopra, Joan Halifax, Jack Kornfield and Stephen Batchelor. And whether it’s discussed openly or not, it seems the majority of mindfulness practitioners have at least sampled the medicine at some point along their path. According to a poll conducted by a major Buddhist magazine "Tricycle", 83% of the 1,454 respondents had some firsthand experience with psychedelics.
Recently major universities have started reopening their doors to researching the potential benefits of psychedelics for the first time since 1968. Studies are currently under way at N.Y.U, Johns Hopkins, the Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and the University of New Mexico, as well as at Imperial College, in London, and the University of Zurich, using “psychedelic therapy” to treat a host of conditions including: depression, addiction, PTSD, and “existential distress” in hospice patients.
The Science of Psychedelics & Meditation
Although the science of both psychedelics and meditation are still in their infancy, the new research seems to only validate what shamans have been practicing for centuries and many meditation teachers and students have been experiencing for decades.
Neuroscientists at N.Y.U have recently studied the effects of psilocybin from “magic mushrooms” on the brain activity of healthy, thoroughly screened participants. Through functional brain imaging, they found that psilocybin caused changes in activity across the entire cerebral cortex but were especially pronounced in areas of the cerebral cortex that make up the “default-mode network”. The default-mode network is a group of brain areas that are most active when we are not engaged in doing tasks. This region is thought to be important for aspects of cognition such as introspection, mind wandering, and self-referential thought. It’s said to be the brain’s “orchestra conductor” or “corporate executive”, charged with managing and “holding the entire system together.” It is also thought to be the physical counterpart of the autobiographical self, or ego.
What the studies found was that psilocybin significantly decreased activity in default-mode areas like the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The mPFC is an area that, when overactive, is linked with rumination, obsessive thinking and depression.
"This is your brain on drugs, any questions?" -Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 1987
As students of mPEAK and MBSR know, these default-mode areas are the same regions that become less active during meditation according to mindfulness meditation research by Jud Brewer of Yale. With less of their own ego stories, thoughts and fears in the way, participants of mPEAK are able to more easily access a state of presence, flow, creativity and focus. But performing better is really just a fraction of what is available when the default mode network really starts to quite down. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, begin to dissolve. These are the hallmarks of satori or the classic mystical experience.
In both studies of advanced meditators and those using psychedelics, participants use similar language to describe their experiences. These include a sense of depersonalization (less me, me, me), frequently verbalized in terms of “ego dissolution,” “boundlessness,” or that all things are intimately connected as “one”.
To test this further, Rolland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine did a study of thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken psychedelics. They each received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (Ritalin). When administered under supportive conditions, his paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences using the "Hood Mysticism Scale" as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.
A Question of Ethics
The recent scientific findings and shifting cultural perspective on psychedelics brings up important points of consideration for mindfulness practitioners. Should intentional use of psychedelics be used as an integrative part of a mindfulness practice? Or are these just “drugs” that are unethical, cheating or even dangerous? If one does choose to explore, what are the safest and best practices to bring forth the greatest benefits?
Although people now come to mindfulness practice from many different spiritual beliefs and backgrounds, including agnostics and atheists, most comfortably recognize that the original experts on this capacity of heart/mind are the Buddhists. Along with lengthy instructions on mindfulness meditation, the Buddha laid out a code of ethics, known as the five precepts. The last precept is to “refrain from using intoxicants to the point of heedlessness, loss of mindfulness, or loss of awareness”. It doesn’t say not to use them, which makes the wording of this precept interesting and open to broader interpretation. Ultimately it is left up to the individuals own moral compass, as are all of the precepts, to use as a guideline to become more genuinely conscious.
The main ethical questions to contemplate, according to Zen Priest Kokyo Henkel are: "Does psychedelic use lead to harming others? Does it lead to carelessness, heedlessness or loss of awareness? Do we start disrespecting others through having altered our mind in this way?" So really it all comes back to the first precept of non-harming. No harm, no foul. But are they beneficial?
When asked his perspective on using psychedelics as part of mindfulness practice, teacher Jack Kornfield answered, “So, yes, LSD, mushrooms, ecstasy, or ayahuasca can bring healing and can grant us access to visionary and mystical realms, realms of tremendous, transcendent understanding. They can bring a perception of unity, the reality of our connection with everything. Any methods that open the heart in this way and show us that we are not separate, that touch the realms of universal loving, kindness, and compassion, can be valuable.” The last sentence is worth re-reading.
An Inspiration for Mindfulness Practice
"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to it's old dimensions." - Oliver Wendell Holmes
Psychedelics have been the seed of insight, a right of passage and the initial inspiration to practice for many modern day meditation teachers. The spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra and the “mindfulness atheist”, Sam Harris come from very different spiritual ideations but both say their first “spiritual experience” was on psychedelics. Would we still have the many books, lectures and courses of these wise teachers if they hadn’t used psychedelics?
In a series of interviews by Roger Walsh M.D. people reported that their psychedelic experiences had resulted in “an increased interest in depth psychology, religion, spirituality, and consciousness, as well as related disciplines and practices such as meditation.” Kokyo Henkel a Zen Buddhist priest for 18 years in the tradition of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, said that psychedelic experiences created a significant condition for giving his whole life over to Buddhist practice.
Although the tour into these deeper states of being is temporary, psychedelics are able to demonstrate what is possible. However only long term, committed practice will show you the way back. Andrew Weil, medical doctor and founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine as well as the owner of True Foods Kitchen used a personal anecdote to highlight just this aspect of psychedelics. In an interview, he recounted a past frustration with an extremely difficulty yoga pose. Having worked on it for two months with little progress, he was close to giving up on his attempts altogether. Then one day after taking LSD with some friends, he noted feeling very happy and like his body was elastic. He decided to try the difficult pose and to his amazement, he was able to enter into the pose without any of the discomfort he had previously experienced.
The following day, he tried the same pose again, but was unable. The pain was back, but his mindset had changed. He had seen that his body had the potential to do it, and that gave him the motivation to continue practicing. The LSD had shown him what was possible, but had not given him easy access to get there again — that would require his own effort and discipline.
Even though many mindfulness professionals will be quick to point out that in a true practice, "there's no place to get", the psychedelic experience can inspire or strengthen a commitment to meditation. Taking up a meditative practice requires a certain trust in the existence of mind states one has not yet experienced, including the understanding that "there's no place to get". But a psychedelic session in which one experiences a state of one-pointed focus, equanimity, compassion or even the power of centering one’s attention on the breath can have the same effect that doing yoga on LSD did for Dr. Weil. It temporarily demonstrates what is possible, and can be motivating to continue doing the real work long after the the session.
No Free Rides
"There is no getting around the role of luck here. If you are lucky, and you take the right drug, you will know what it is to be enlightened (or to be close enough to persuade you that enlightenment is possible). If you are unlucky, you will know what it is to be clinically insane." –Sam Harris
The psychedelic experience is not always love and light and some of the deepest "opportunities" can actually come during what some might consider a “bad trip”. The Ayahuasca Ceremony is popularly compared to being like "seven years of therapy”. This traditional Peruvian Shamanic psychedelic intentionally causes many to purge and voluntarily face their “inner demons”.
This deeply uncomfortable, yet oh so rewarding shadow work can also be looked at through the lens of neuroscience. N.Y.U neuroscientist Carhart-Harris has found evidence in scans of brain waves that, when the default-mode network shuts down, other brain regions “are let off the leash.” Mental contents such as memories, repressed emotions along with subconscious hopes and fears that are normally hidden can come to the surface. Regions of the brain that don’t ordinarily communicate directly with one another strike up conversations or “crosstalk”, with often “bizarre results”.
It is during these moments of suffering that mindfulness practice can help make the psychedelic experience easier to navigate. As Zen Priest Vanja Palmers comments in an article for MAPS (Multi Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), “It is quite obvious that skills in meditation, the practice of being at peace within one’s body and mind, even in uncomfortable places, can be of great help in the course of a psychedelic session.” Learning to focus on one’s breath as an anchor to return to the present can also be of assistance. In a psychedelic session, having these skills in your toolkit can be the difference between losing your ground when challenging material arises, and being able to remain present and receive the experience in its full intensity and richness.
N.Y.U’s Psychedelic Therapists are trained to point participants deeper into their experience with curiosity and kindness. “If you feel like you’re dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc.—go ahead, embrace it.” And if you confront anything frightening, “look the monster in the eye and move towards it... Dig in your heels; ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’ Look for the darkest corner in the basement, and shine your light there.” This mindful facilitation may help explain why some of the dark and scary experiences that sometimes accompany the recreational use of psychedelics have not surfaced after nearly five hundred guided sessions at N.Y.U.
It is this practice of meeting difficult experience with openness and acceptance that also helps explain why so many cancer patients in the trials reported that their fear of death had lifted or at least abated. They had looked death in the eye and come to know something about it, in a kind of dry run. “A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice,” Katherine MacLean, the former Hopkins psychologist, said. “You’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process can feel like dying.” And yet you don’t die; in fact, some volunteers become convinced by the experience that consciousness may somehow survive the death of their bodies.
Mindful Use of Psychedelics
When Zen Master Soeng Sahn was asked what he thought about using drugs to help in the quest for self knowledge he said: "Yes, there are special medicines, which, if taken with the proper attitude, can facilitate self-realization." Then he added: "But if you have the proper attitude, you can take anything - take a walk, or a bath."
Psychedelics are not for everyone. Some will find there way through living an ethical life, practicing meditation and yoga and won't feel the need. Most will flat out never consider the experience an option. But there are others who may just be wired for a certain kind of adventure. For those curious, eccentric, edge-pushing psychonauts, here are a few specific ways to stay safe and benefit the most from your journeys:
Work With a Guide
All of the reported therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psychedelics come from studies combining a substance with guidance from a specially trained therapist. Besides the rare exceptions of those who are chosen for a research study, travel to South America, or happen to know a local modern day shaman, millions of people each year will go outside the context of supervision and explore these unfamiliar terrains on their own. For these poeople, MAPS offers free training manuals on psychedelic harm reduction for how to be a guide or “sitter” for a friend as well as how to hold space for them through difficult experiences.
Subjects in all psychedelic studies are extensively screened and prepare with their therapists often for months before their session. When preparations are being made for any personal journey of this sort, the importance of “set and setting” should be strongly taken into account. “Set” refers to ones “mindset” where “setting” refers to the physical environment. Both will significantly impact the experience. Anchoring into a mindset of trust, acceptance and letting go will be of greatest benefit throughout the journey. To trust that you’re safe and you’re going to be OK, no matter what you experience. To accept and say, “yes” to whatever arises in your experience and to let go of the need to resist or control the experience. Setting a specific intention ahead of time can also help to focus your mindset during the psychedelic experience.
Many recreational users take psychedelics at concerts, festivals and parties. These environments will not likely create conducive conditions for a deep experience of healing and transformation. The setting should ideally feel ceremonial, perhaps in a comfortable room of one’s home or even out in nature. Incense, flowers, pre-selected music and the use of eyeshades can all help support a rich inner journey.
When taken mindfully, psychedelics are not a party drug to get high, but rather a medicine or sacrament taken to explore and expand consciousness. There are many different types of psychedelics with varying degrees intensity. Do your homework first and choose the medicine wisely. Also, start off with a small dose. You can always choose to take more… but once you’ve started, you can’t go back and choose to take less.
Religious scholar, Huston Smith points out, “A spiritual experience does not by itself make a spiritual life.” There is an important distinction between a temporary “state of consciousness” (waking, dreaming, deep sleep, as well as peak states such as flow, insight, creativity etc.) and the more stable “stage of consciousness”. The stage refers to ones level of development, which slowly progresses through a lifetime. Psychedelics cause a guaranteed and automatic “state” of consciousness shift, but it takes real work over months and years to integrate insights or lessons before evolving to the next “stage”. Journal writing, meditation or working with a professional therapist, coach or shaman can help extract the gems from your experience and assimilate them into your life…which is the entire point.
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