Psychedelic Drugs and Spirituality
The Traditional Perspective

Ask and Answer

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay explores the possible connection between psychedelic drugs and spiritual or mystic experiences according to the ethical practices of Hinduism and Buddhism.


Question: Some people claim that they had mystical experiences after taking drugs and turned to spirituality. Can you please confirm whether the use of psychedelic drugs or plant and chemical substances to have spiritual experiences is the right way to practice spirituality?


Let me begin with a confession. I have never taken any recreational or psychedelic drug in my whole life or used any plant or chemical substances to stimulate my mind. Not even once. I am often driven by curiosity to know things, but in this case, I decided to trust my self-preservation instinct rather than experiment with truth. Therefore, certainly I am not an authority on this subject. However, I am conversant with the subject and the issues and problems associated with it. I will speak from that perspective.

I personally believe that no one should try this method for heightened spiritual experience, unless one has a qualified guru and trained well under his or her guidance. Again, this is not a judgment against the use of such substances for medicinal purposes. The author is well aware of their importance and their role in alleviating the pain and suffering which some people undergo due to chronic and incurable conditions. This is purely an evaluative study on the efficacy of psychedelic drugs in inducing spiritual and mystical states in people who use them for experimental reasons or due to habit.

Use of psychedelic substances in Shamanic Traditions

The use of mind altering materials and psychedelic drugs in ritual and spiritual practices is not a recent phenomenon. It has been practiced in many cultures and in many parts of the world since ancient times, especially in the Shamanic traditions of the East and the West. It has also been practiced in some Tantric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. However, most of these practices remained confined to esoteric sects and outlier traditions.

Traditionally, plant or chemical substances are used in religious or spiritual practices for the following purposes.

  1. To foresee the future
  2. To communicate with gods, ancestors and spirits
  3. To heal the mind and body
  4. To find solutions to vexing problems
  5. To resolve past life issues or hidden problems
  6. To overcome mental barriers and inhibitions to experience higher states of consciousness

Traditional medicine men, oracles and shamans played an important role in many ancient cultures as healers, spiritual consultants, godmen and diviners. People consulted them and followed their advice. They acted as the middlemen between this world and the spirit world, and between humans and gods. To establish the communication and read signs from heaven or the world beyond, they used herbal preparations along with a complex set of rituals to stimulate their minds and bodies and enter heightened states of awareness.

Such methods are still popular in some cultures, where outside influence is minimum, and modern medicine is still not easily available or affordable. People who rely upon them trust them and vouch for them because they represent a long-established tradition and a long lineage of healers and oracles, which in some cases date back to prehistoric times. These people should not be mistaken for ordinary drug users. They practice their own kind of spirituality and are usually initiated and trained by their mentors before they enter the profession.

Mind altering experiences in Hindu spirituality

In Hinduism, the use of plant and chemical substances in ritual and spiritual practices forms part of the left-hand practices (vamachara). They are viewed rather negatively by common people and those who follow right-hand practices or conventional methods (vedachara). The use of plant substances such as Ganja and Bhang is common in some sects of Shaivism. They are also used on certain festive occasions by worshippers for exhilaration or enjoyment.

Vedic people believed in the efficacy of both magic and mantras and followed a tradition of their own. They seemed to have used a plant substance, the Soma juice to perform Soma rituals. They ritually extracted it from an unknown plant by the same name and offered it to gods three times in the day. Probably at the end of the day they also consumed it as the remains of the sacrifice to experience dream like states. They also believed in its healing power and its ability to transport the mind into the higher worlds of gods, celestial beings and ancestors.

Historians believe that the Soma plant was probably a native species to the Indian subcontinent, with intoxicating properties. Some believe that it was more likely a psychedelic mushroom such as the ones that are used in the Shamanic traditions. However, there is no proof for either of the assertions. The Vedic hymns point to the act of pressing the Soma leaves in a wooden press, to extract the juice, which indicate that it was probably a plant rather than a mushroom. Secondly, there is no clear proof that Soma juice was an intoxicant. It could have been a common beverage with some medicinal properties, more like coffee or herbal tea. It could have also been a simple, ritual offering, similar to the ones that are used in present day puja rituals such as coconut water, sweetened water or a curd preparation. It could also have been a traditional alcoholic drink.

Current trends and experiments with psychedelic drugs

We live in an age where our value system seems to be turning upside down. What seemed to be a taboo a few decades or a century ago now seems to be the norm. When the world has largely come to accept that tobacco smoking is injurious to health, there is a covert attempt to legalize the use of certain drugs both for recreation and medicinal use. Some vested groups who may benefit from drug trade seem to be funding the research to influence public opinion and create the general impression that their use is beneficial rather than harmful.

We are also witnessing a radical change in people’s perception about psychedelic drugs and their medicinal properties. In recent times, an idea is gaining acceptance that certain psychedelic drugs such as LSD, mescaline, marijuana, magic mushrooms (psilocybin), ayahuasca, peyote, etc., induce spiritual and mystic states and profoundly change human perception about self and the world. The information is also used to organize and promote recreational tourism to certain parts of the world.

We also hear about people traveling to remote places in India, Nepal, the Amazon, Andes, etc., to experience altered states of consciousness with the help of local Shamans, spiritual healers and medicine men. It is especially true in case of the elite sections of society who aspire to indulge in experimental mysticism without having to invest time and energy in the traditional methods of self-transformation. Some also do it to rationalize or legitimize the use of drugs, which are banned in many countries, or to popularize certain beliefs about their spiritual or psychological value.

An analysis of drug induced mystic states

A few studies in this regard do suggest that in experimental conditions psychedelic drugs may induce mystical states in people and make them feel deeply spiritual. People may experience expansive state of awareness or oneness with their surroundings, accompanied by positive feelings of unbound love, peace and joy. They may also experience a great rush of energy or overwhelming emotions. Depending upon their mental state, they may experience positive or negative emotions.

Some may experience a great sense of freedom and sensitivity and a flood of memories from their subconscious. Others may experience overwhelming depression and negativity, with intense feelings of sorrow, fear or anger as painful memories and experiences of the past begin to swell in their minds. This is especially true if there are hidden mental issues or health problems which may come to surface when the executive functions of the mind are temporarily shut down by the presence of drugs in the body.

The whole experience may last for a few minutes, hours or days, but in most cases, it leaves the person completely exhausted or consumed by its intensity. To some, this is a kind of self-cleansing or catharsis in itself. People may also experience expansive awareness or out of body states or oneness with their surroundings, as their minds become free from the usual conditioning and as the boundaries, inhibitions and limitations which restrain them in normal circumstances become weak or disappear.

Such experiences happen because the psychedelic drugs directly influence the normal functioning of the mind. Under their influence, the wakeful mind or the rational mind loses its control, while the primitive brain, which is the seat of raw emotions becomes active. It is the source of our instinctive emotions such as fear, anger, etc., which play an important role in our survival. Hence, in drug induced conscious states, with the rational mind sleeping or out of control, people feel unrestrained and extremely emotional.

Secondly, in drug induced states the left brain which controls the rational and logical functions of the mind become less active, while the right brain which controls the emotions and feelings become more active. Right brain is also responsible for feelings of love, empathy, unity, spirituality, heightened sensitivity, artistic appreciation, etc. Further while the left brain reinforces the separation of the Self or individuality from the external world, the right brain rather erases it. Hence, people under the influence of psychedelic drugs may temporarily experience spirituality, unified expansiveness, or dream like imagery as their minds transition from wakeful state into dream like states.

Studies also indicate that psychedelic drugs not only induce spiritual beliefs among users regarding death, afterlife, transcendence, etc., but also reinforce them and make them more inclined towards spirituality rather than towards materialism. They also seem to enhance human empathy and sensitivity towards others and openness to experiment and experience the unknown and unfamiliar. However, it is important to remember that most of these studies have not focused upon the long term effects of the use of such drugs upon the human mind and body, and whether people will remain healthy and spiritual after a prolonged use, or what happens to the initiate response as the time goes by.

Evaluation of drug induced mystic experiences

The use of psychedelic drugs or plant substances to stimulate the mind for spiritual experiences is fraught with many risks and harmful consequences if those who practice it are not mentally and physically pure and well prepared. Unless they have trained themselves in the virtues of equanimity, stability, sameness, righteous conduct and self-discipline, overuse of the substances may lead to habit formation and thereby defeat the very purpose.

Their use is encouraged in neither Hinduism nor Buddhism. The Hindu law books, or its ethical practice do not approve it. Same is true with the Dhamma Vinaya (code of conduct) of Buddhism. Both traditions emphasize the importance of physical and mental purity. They may show some lenience towards traditional healers and practitioners of Tantra, since there are some checks and balances in the systems that choose them and since such people are carefully chosen after due process by their mentors. Further, they are expected to undergo intense purification before they qualify to begin their practice.

Mind altering chemicals and plant medicines do seem to induce in people altered states of consciousness and certain mystical experiences as described above. However, one should be aware that they are not transcendental states or states of meditative absorption which arise when they mind is completely withdrawn and asleep. They are rather projections of the mind, which arise within its confines when it is fully active. From the traditional perspective, spiritual experiences happen when the mind is fully silent or absent, not when it is in a state of frenzy or going through a mental storm. In traditional spiritual practices, mystical experiences arise when the mind is fully stabilized after a prolonged practice of detachment, renunciation, equanimity, sameness and mindfulness.

One should also be aware of the side effects and unintended consequences that may arise when people use psychedelic drugs without necessary spiritual purity, discipline or preparation. For example, imagine what may happen if a person with sedentary lifestyle has suddenly been pushed into an arduous exercise program, without necessary conditioning. Similar problems may arise when one uses psychedelic drugs to experience forcefully altered states of consciousness without corresponding mental or physical purity and stability. It may even make some people sick and mentally exhausted, apart from exposing them to the risk of habit formation.

Artificially induced spiritual or mystic experiences are what they are, artificial. They do not last long and do not work the same way as traditional spiritual experiences such as enlightenment, discernment, one pointedness, self-absorption or self-realization. The chemical stimulants do not silence the mind, but rather excite it and put it into a state of frenzy. They fire up the neurons in the brain and create more noise, forcing the mind into a hyper state of intense chaos. Perhaps it is the chaos of the mind and the unsettling of its normal functioning with a rapid outburst of thoughts and images, which create the illusion of déjà vu or a deep spiritual or mystical experience.

It is similar to what happens when you throw a spanner on a group of high tension, live electric wires, or when you through a big stone into the placid waters of a lake. For a brief period, there will be utter chaos. In the first example, sparks will randomly fly in all directions and set the place on fire, or it will blow up a few fuses. In case of the lake, large waves will ripple through its surface and touch the shores of the lake. It will not only make the waters turbid but also disturb the life that thrives in it. Similar chaotic conditions manifest when an untrained and impure mind is forced into heightened awareness through stimulants or psychedelic or psychoactive drugs. The mind can neither grasp that experience nor adjust to its intensity, which in some cases can lead to harmful consequences. It is like driving a car without any prior experience or knowledge of the road. Truly speaking, in drug induced states, you are not in control, but the drug is in control.

The importance of spiritual purity

In this age, where people seek instant gratification, one may be tempted to follow short cut methods even in spiritual practice. The question is, should that be even considered? One may always find new methods and approaches to spiritual practice, but one should also weigh the consequences and the karma that arises from egoism and desire-ridden actions. The purpose of spiritual practice primarily is to undergo spiritual transformation through self-purification. The path of liberation is made up of purity only. Without purity, spirituality is just another delusion.

Transformative experiences may happen along the way as a part of that austere journey, but they should not be forced or artificially induced. Transcendence should happen by itself as a consequence of the transformation that happens in the mind and body. All the effort on the path should be aimed to free the mind from the shackles of the conditioning to which it is subject, so that one can discern truths about oneself and the world with greater clarity, without the intervention of the impurities such as egoism, attachments and delusion.

The purpose of spiritual practice is to silence the mind, not to excite it. One may accomplish it by withdrawing the mind and senses and practising concentration and meditation with detachment and sameness. Alternatively, one may drive the mind into a state of frenzy and allow it to exhaust itself so that it will remain subdued and silent. Both approaches are used in the spiritual traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, but they are practiced as part of a holistic approach in which the emphasis is upon self-purification and transformation so that one is free from unwholesome thoughts, tendencies and mental formations.

Both traditions emphasize the importance of ethical practice and right living to train the mind and body and prepare them for the higher or altered states of consciousness. Spiritual practice is an all-round effort in which both the mind and body are disciplined with the practice of Yamas and Niyamas (rules and restraints), which lead to the predominance of Sattva (purity). In Buddhism they form part of the Vinaya (monastic discipline) or Sila (righteous conduct).

Conclusion

It is true that all paths lead to the same goal of liberation or self-realization, which is considered the highest and the ultimate goal (parandhama). However, while the goal is the same, the paths are not the same. Some are circuitous and extremely perilous. Spiritual journey in itself is a journey of hardships and multiple sacrifices, in which you engage in the process unwinding and self-sacrifice. You sacrifice the unwholesome aspects of yourself to discover the truth about you or the real person who is hidden deep inside the mind, beneath layers of formations and accumulations. When you follow unconventional methods such as the use of mind altering psychoactive or psychedelic drugs, it becomes even harder. On the surface, it may seem a better option to circumvent or hasten an otherwise arduous process, but if you are ill prepared, you may end up paying a very high price.

Spiritual people may choose any path according to their essential nature, but they must practice self-purification and right living before they venture into advanced practices. In the initial stages, they should focus upon stilling the mind and suppressing the modifications, rather than exciting them. As the Yogasutras states, “Yoga means the suppression of the modifications of the mind.” When the mind is silenced through various practices and approaches, one experiences meditative absorption (Samadhi), in which the mind remains completely silent, and one loses all notions of duality and separation. In Buddhism also, the practice of right mindfulness and right concentration has to be done in conjunction with the other aspects of the Eightfold Path such as Right View, Right Effort, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, etc. Therefore, both the traditions encourage their followers to follow time tested traditional methods to practice self-purification and achieve liberation or Nirvana.

In conclusion, we may say that the common model of spiritual practice which is practiced in the religious and ascetic traditions India is based upon certain ethical principles. It points to a holistic effort, which requires an all-round development of the mind and body through a comprehensive transformative and purification process and which cannot be taken lightly. Such an effort may stretch over several lifetimes. One cannot become a Buddha or seer with self-induced delusions or by just experimenting with a few psychedelic drugs, which are known to produce harmful effects on continuous use. One may experiment with short-cut methods out of curiosity, but one should be well aware of the inherent risks associated with their long-term use. Most importantly, spiritual people cannot ignore the importance of prior preparation, purity and spiritual guidance in their practice.

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