A mystical experience through the use of drugs? Is that possible? The idea that psychedelics offer a highway to heaven is applauded by some and sharply criticised by others. Why is this topic so controversial?
The fire in the tipi is heated up well. Inside it’s warm and cosy, while outside a summer thunderstorm approaches. An hour ago, shortly after sunset, we drank our first cup of ayahuasca. A young, Dutch shaman invoked the four directions and blessed the brown, murky ‘tea’ with a prayer and a generous plume of tobacco smoke.
I’m not often blown off my feet by the Amazonian brew. Usually I take an active role during the ritual, for instance by singing or supporting the other participants. But this time it’s different! The ayahuasca is quite strong and with the impact of the first thunder strike I feel like I’m pressed against the ground. I decide to lay down on my mattress, where I will stay for the coming hours. Every time I have the urge to stand up to see or do something, I feel like I’m pressed against the ground again. As if the plant literally tells me: “Just lie down there.”
That night I travel deep within myself. I see the path I’ve walked over the past few years: my struggle with tiredness and burn-out. I think of all the moments that I remained flat in my bed. I remember my frustration. But now I also understand that I did exactly what was right for me. I feel grateful for allowing myself to rest. And for learning to listen to my body.
I also see past relationships and I mainly remember a feeling of love. I experience it again, deep inside my heart. I cry, because of the pain of letting go, but also because of the beauty of it. I see how those experiences shaped me into who I am right now. I see how I’ve grown and I realise how beautiful everything is.
And suddenly my heart overflows with love. It’s a scorching, all-encompassing stream in which I dissolve. The only thing I can do is say thanks to god, the divine, the flow of love of which I’m a part. It seems like an endless prayer: a continuous state of euphoria.
Once in a while I realise what is happening and I laugh about it. “Everything changes all the time, didn’t it?”, I think: “How is it possible this feeling stays?” And I realise it will pass once. “But not right now.” And I laugh again. Only when the sun rises and the shaman wants to close the ceremony together, I am able to stand up. That morning the world shines like never before. I see countless details in every green leave on the trees. The whole of nature seems to radiate with a luminous glow. Only after days this sensation ebbs away.
Personally, I would call this a ‘mystical experience’. And it wasn’t the first or only time I experienced something like this under influence of plant medicines. Still I feel reluctant to use this word. Why is ‘mysticism’ such a controversial term in the context of the psychedelic experience? And can you actually become ‘enlightened’ from such an experience?
At least I’m not the only one with such an account. The famous author Aldous Huxley gained worldwide attention when he declared to have had a mystical experience under the influence of mescaline. In his previous anthology The Perennial Philosophy he gathered insights from saints and wise people from religious traditions all over the world. Now he experienced it by himself:
“The Beatific Vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss – for the first time I understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to.”
Huxley’s report of his experience, captured in The Doors of Perception (1954), is still a classic in the psychedelic subculture. And he was not the only one who saw the light through ‘drugs’: during the psychedelic revolution of the 60s many searched for similar experiences. They found support from a series of psychonaut spokespersons, like Gordon Wasson, Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna. All of them agreed that certain sacred plants and other psychedelic substances gave access to deep wisdom.
Start your own religion
Timothy Leary might be the most remarkable character in this movement. He claimed that consciousness expanding substances are ‘sacraments’ which should be used in a ceremonial way. “Start your own religion”, was one of his beloved phrases. This is not just the ideal form of organisation to prevent juridical sanctions (LSD became illegal in 1966), but it’s the most obvious form, as according to him the psychedelic experience is deeply religious.
The heroes of the psychedelic subculture also received criticism, from both scientific and spiritual sides. R.C. Zaehner, an Oxford professor specialised in Eastern Religion, didn’t believe the psychedelic experience to be authentic. In a response to Huxley’s story, he wrote that “to artificially influence consciousness doesn’t have to do anything with the ‘Beatific Vision’ known in Christianity.” He tried mescaline himself and “wandered around in a world of absurd meaninglessness.” According to him the experience was interesting and funny, but not religious at all.
For many members of the flower power generation the psychedelic experience did lead to a spiritual path, though. And not seldom they felt themselves at home with Buddhism. The book Zig Zag Zen, edited by Allan Badiner, gives a voice to those western Buddhists. Most of them acknowledge the extraordinary role psychedelics played in their spiritual explorations. Others believe psychedelics don’t contribute anything tangible and even bring extra confusion. They point at the pitfall of psychonauts attaching too much value to the ‘high’ of a trip, while Buddhism is about detachment – from both positive and negative experiences.
Another often pronounced argument is that psychedelic states of consciousness are too easy to access and therefore not authentic. The idea: real Enlightenment can only be reached by a spiritual practice of years. Bruno Borchert, who wrote a leading book on mysticism for the Dutch language area, says the same: “Experiences under influence of drugs may seem mystical, but in fact they are not real.”
Magic, grace and the material basis of spiritual experiences
They echo a broadly shared conviction, namely that it’s impossible to have a spiritual experience through drugs. Wouter Hanegraaff, a historian specialised in Western esoteric traditions, explains that this has to do with some prejudices that are deeply ingrained in Western culture. At first, he says, there is the idea that we are dependent on God’s grace for a religious experience. It’s a traditional Protestant view that a humans are incapable of evoking such an experience by themselves, ánd that they should abstain from trying. Searching for such an experience is considered ‘magic’ and makes you suspicious.
Secondly, Hanegraaff argues, we have the wrong assumption that spiritual experiences aren’t grounded in the material reality. An experience after ingesting entheogens is often reasoned away by referring to the chemical reactions that take place in the brain. Thereby we forget that all our experiences have a chemical basis in the brain, spiritual experiences are no exception.
According to anthropologist Erika Bourguignon 90% of all cultures contain institutionalised ways to expand consciousness. Western culture is an exception. The use of plant medicines is just one of the many methods to travel into other dimensions. Other possibilities are drumming, dancing, chanting, as well as yoga, meditation, asceticism, and flagellation. In non-western societies those expanded states of consciousness are almost always considered ‘sacred’.
So, the idea that psychedelic plants can evoke a religious or mystical experiences is actually not that strange. Whether you are immediately ‘enlightened’ when you have such an experience is another question. I prefer to say that for a moment you’ve ‘touched upon the mystery of enlightenment’.
Not a highway
Such an experience can leave a deep impression that you may remember for the rest of your life. Suddenly you look at the world with new eyes, which can bring about an enormous transformation. But it doesn’t mean you have become a saint or Buddha overnight. Or that you understand immediately how to integrate those insights. To the contrary: that is often a long process of trial and error in which you even might get lost.
Like many mystics before you’ll discover that after the blissful heights of ecstasy, you’ll return to the ordinary world that seems divided and full of pain and sorrow. As Borchert argues about the mystical experience: it gives no guarantee for a joyful, peaceful life. The experience can have a profound impact and you have to relate yourself to it.
In this regard the idea of a ‘highway to heaven’ is a misconception. As is the view that one ceremony would be the equivalent of ten years of therapy. The psychedelic experience can definitely give you a push in the right direction, but if you want to change your life or develop real wisdom, you’ll have to do that by yourself. Personally I experienced that a (daily) spiritual practice and a network of like-minded people around you can be very helpful. Thought, there are many roads to Rome: integration also means discovering which road suits you.
Want to read more?
After my first deeply transforming psychedelic experiences I found a lot of inspiration and possibilities for integration in both Buddhism and shamanism. For Bodhi I described how I combine those spiritual traditions (in Dutch).
The other texts I’m referring to in this article are:
- Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, 1954
- Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, 1945.
- Allan Badiner (ed.), Zig Zag Zen, 2002.
- Bruno Borchert, Mystiek, 1989 (1994).
- Erika Bourguignon, Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change, 1973.
- R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism, Sacred and Profane, 1957.
- Timothy Leary, Turn on Tune in Drop out, 1965 (1999) .
- Wouter Hanegraaff, Entheogenic Esotericism, 2012.
Credits images: Header: Highway to heaven by Mark. K, via Flickr. Tipi: from Earth Mother The Beatific Vision: public domain picture from Gustave Doré: Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari look into the Empyrean Light (1867), adapted by Kalki. Wikimedia Commons. Timothy Leary: cover art for the album Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out (album), copyright is believed to belong to the record label or the graphic artist(s). Zig Zag Zen book cover Derwish dance by Schorle, Wikimedia Commons