I t’s a not-so-dirty little secret that most of today’s leading meditation teachers were interested in drugs. By “drugs,” of course, I don’t mean alcohol or Oxycontin, but rather that subset of chemicals which our society has deemed unfit for human consumption, including cannabis, psilocybin, MDMA, and others. Many of today’s leading Buddhist teachers, for example, credit their first taste of altered mind states not to samadhibut to LSD or mushrooms, and almost every spiritual teacher I know (and I know a bunch) smoked pot. Some still do.
So what’s the connection? Why do people who like drugs (I’ll stop scarequoting the word, even though I shouldn’t) like meditation? And what’s the relationship between them?
The first and simplest answer is that both drugs and meditation are pleasurable — and a specific kind of pleasure, namely pleasures of the mind. Of course, on the surface of things, meditation and psychedelics seem to be quite different: one is boring and calm, the other wild and crazy. Yet, as entheogen users and yogis know, neither image is accurate. While some chemicals do indeed lead to ecstasy and blurring of boundaries, others lead to their sharpening, and to quiet states of reflection. And while meditation does generally cause calm to arise in the mind, it also leads to ecstasy, delight, religious/spiritual feelings, and rapture — particularly when the faculties of concentration are heightened.
I remember, when I had just started meditating, it was like I had received the answer key to a hundred spiritual questions. “Aha! This is what they were talking about when they said that God is everywhere!” The attention brought to mundane objects renders them everyday miracles, and an opened heart makes davvening a cathartic, healing experience. Suddenly simple phrases that seemed like clichés — “Be Here Now” — became full not only of truth, but of invitation. They cease to sound like pop psychology (“Remember, bourgeois busy people, if you just become ‘present’ you can do all sorts of things and be a more successful businessman/lover/person.”) and instead sound like a call to home, to the One.
And, of course, meditation offers these benefits without the side effects of chemicals, and with longer duration. To be sure, the buzz of concentration is also temporary — but with practice, it can arise on and off for days, rather than for a few hours. It takes much more work, but the pleasure it brings is, after all, only a side-effect of an overall process which greatly increases mental acuity. That is, it’s really good for you. Perhaps this is why many (though not all) of us relinquish plant medicines and chemical entheogens once we take up meditation in earnest.
The type of pleasure is similar as well. When you’re stoned, or rolling, or tripping, certain sensual sensations get enhanced. You can see and feel music when you’re on ecstasy. The taste of some kinds of food on marijuana is, as a stoner would say, “intense.” Everybody knows this, and it’s why many people use drugs. (Of course, many people smoke pot just to get wasted, not to have heightened visual, tactile, or other sensual experiences. But they are not my subject here.) These substances are not an escape from reality, but a magnifying glass held up to it. Intimate details of how the mind works, of how fabric feels, of music. Drugs can make every potato chip a delicate, crispy, greasy delight.
Meditation is about the same process of ‘intensifying’ daily experience, not by pursuing ever-more visceral thrills, but by quieting the mind enough to — in the words of Warren Zevon — “appreciate every sandwich.” (Zevon coined that phrase when David Letterman asked him what effect his diagnosis of terminal illness had on his day-to-day life.) I used to see a contradiction between the ethos of “seizing the day,” living as fully as possible, and the contemplative life, which I associated with a withdrawal from much of human experience. Eventually, though, I came to understand that a contemplative path is the logical extension of living deliberately. There are, really, only two choices available to someone who wants to suck the marrow out of life: either continually seeking more extreme experiences, or making every experience ‘extreme.’ Some people can apparently do the former, but I find that tiring. Meditation allows me to “suck the marrow” out of each tree, table, soda, or breath. By eliminating signal noise and stopping thought, the true colors of the phenomenal universe become revealed, in ever-increasing brilliance. It’s not like being stoned all the time, because there is not the disorientation and tripping up of the rational mind that occurs on pot. But it’s like being stoned in the sense of tastes, touches, smells, sounds, and sights all becoming enhanced, kinesthetically interchanged, and — simply in their non-conceptual presence — enough reason to live.
Incidentally, I was surprised, when I started meditating, that so much pleasure would result. Of course, people who meditate often talk about rapturous union with Being, or dissolution in the Divine, and these do sound very pleasant indeed. But I still didn’t expect it, as if anything “spiritual” had to be austere, or subtle, or boring. Was I wrong! Apart from all the deeper benefits of meditation, the sheer volume of joy is astonishing. In my experience, it beats any other high.
2. Altered Mind States
A second point of similarity between drug use and meditation is that both lead to states of consciousness that are different from the ordinary. Enjoying these seems to be a matter of taste. A lot of people like to take vacations in foreign countries. Some like exotic foods. And many others like vacations from their ordinary modes of consciousness into a different ‘mind-space’ where new insights can occur and even ordinary stimuli (and even without the sensual enhancement above) can be experienced in a whole new way.
Many people deeply fear altered states of consciousness, I think because they are overly afraid of their own non-rational minds. Subscribing to a worldview in which ‘rational’ rules of decency, propriety, etc., govern every aspect of life means relying on our capacities of rational judgment for every important decision. And so, mind-states which relegate such faculties to a subordinate or even invisible role is scary. Now, of course, I’m all for rational judgment making most decisions in the world, and certainly all of those which seriously affect other people. But is it a rational judgment to dance? To let go of the self in orgasm? To fall in love? Some of our most transcendent moments come when the rational mind is quieted and something else takes its place. In some aspects of life, being in touch with the nonrational is essential to being human.
Purely for humanistic reasons, then, I think that altered mindstates are an essential condition of living a full life. Of course, one can do without them, just as one can do without art, dance, sex, and other Divine gifts. But I think it’s a shame to do so. I think something is missing, something impoverished, when they are lacking.
But, of course, many entheogen users and nearly all meditators want to make a further claim: that these particular altered mindstates lead to truth. This isn’t just about getting high and having fun, they say; this is about knowing deeply the truth of your own experience, or even of the fundamental nature of existence itself. Just sit and watch your breath, some Buddhists say, and eventually you’ll intuitively understand the four noble truths, the basic facts of life.
And indeed, this has been my experience. Fortunately, I have been able to set aside large swaths of time to practice, and I have come to such intuitive understandings along the Theravadan Buddhist path, in particular on a five-month silent retreat I completed in February, 2009. Ive then re-examined and re-evaluated those insights off-retreat — and theyve tended to hold. The distractions (I should start a publishing house!) have not passed the test of time, but the deep stuff, e.g. about suffering being an inevitable consequence of clinging — that stuff has stuck, and it seems true to me.
That said, when it comes to claims of truth, things do get tricky, because there is some information that entheogens reveal which meditation rarely reveals, and some information which meditation reveals that drugs and chemicals don’t. For example, it takes huge amounts of concentration over long periods of time to enter one of the meditative absorptions (jhanas) which resemble, in some ways, distinct “realms” apart from this one, and even the most intense which I have seen described (and, a fortiori, which I have experienced) do not compare to the experiences of journeys on ayahuasca or other plant medicines. Im not aware of a way to experience those phenomena without the medicine.
And, at the same time, while ayahuasca journeys yield a wealth of information about other realms and one’s own heart, they tend not to offer the level of analytical distinction that accompanies meditative insight. That arises in meditation (and in many other ways, of course).
To me, the resolution of this tension is obvious: plant medicines are good for some kinds of knowledge, and meditation for others. But, spiritual people being the way we are, there’s often a lot of heat (and only some light) on these points, with some people insisting this kind of knowledge is good but inferior, and others countering that, no, that kind of knowledge is the preliminary one and this is ultimate, and so on. This is particularly the case because we all carry baggage related to spiritual practice. Many meditators had early, naive, and unpleasant experiences with drugs, and so assume that even the most rarified of ibogaine journeys is nothing more than their lousy acid trip at a Dead concert in the 70s. Conversely, many users of plant medicines have never had the opportunity to meditate in a conducive setting — e.g., a silent retreat of five days or more — and so assume that either they can’t meditate, or meditation is all a dry slog.
Personally, however, I’ve found that the two paths enrich each other. Most of my work with medicines is, I think, behind me at this point in my life. Yet when I was more involved with them, I found that the ability to stabilize, to tease apart the strands of a mind-made story, and to be a little dubious of what seems to be true to the mind, all served me very well in my own shamanic work. And I have found that the intensity of entheogenic work has been able to push my cognitive reset button when more gradual practices such as mindfulness have been ineffective, or too difficult. At present, my vipassana side is winning out over my shamanic side, and I tend to prefer clear insight over mind-states and multi-realm experiences which seem susceptible to misinterpretation. But, you know, go tell that to Ayaruna.
All that said, I am not a spiritual supercessionist. There are many in the spiritual world who, having taken up yoga or meditation, regard drugs as a useful preliminary, a glimpse of the orchard perhaps, but ultimately something to be gotten beyond. My own path does reflect this somewhat, but I have also met responsible plant aficionados who continue to deepen their practice with medicines. To each their own.
I’m not entirely pluralistic, though. As Ive written before in these pages, I would say to my fellow Sandwichers that, in my humble opinion, a meditation practice is a necessary prerequisite for any work in shamanic realms, with energy, or with the supernatural in any form. I think having out-of-body experiences with possibly-alien intelligences without having a meditation practice is like flying an airplane without basic aviation training or navigational instruments. Just seeing, over and over again, that the illusions of consciousness do not constitute a “self” is worth the price of admission. So is just seeing, over and over again, that you can have a certain experience and still be wrong about its nature. But more than that, I think the mind-sharpening practices of meditation provide balance and focus in any entheogenic or other-worldly work. At the very least, it’s the warm-up exercise.
It’s a neat little twist: visions brought on by drugs and plant medicines invite people to meditation, and then meditation becomes the necessary preliminary for deeper practice with drugs or other modalities. One path shows you other realms, the other teaches you how to navigate them and this one as well. Ultimately, all of us learn, usually the hard way, that the exciting bells and whistles of spiritual experience all pass away, and indeed, that the more light one invites into ones life, the more shadow one invites as well. For this reason, more cool experiences — including powerfully transformative ones — tend to lose their appeal as aids to spiritual progress. Theyre still a great way to spend ones time, but they arent more than that. They arent it. Nothing, of course, is it; just the slipperiness with which one navigates the its and yous of life in this realm, hopefully making things a little happier for the rest of us along the way.
Image by oddsock, courtesy of Creative Commons license.