Psychedelics, entheogens and hallucinogens
Definition: The word 'psychedelic' is formed from the Greek roots psyche - 'mind' and delos - 'clear, manifest'. Psychedelic therefore literally means 'manifesting clear mind'. It is also sometimes defined as 'mind expanding'. Psychedelic agents are usually derived from natural products (technically known as 'secondary metabolites') of plants and fungi. They have been used since time immemorial by Shaman religious practitioners.
The word 'psychedelia' is sometimes used to refer to psychedelic agents, but more commonly means art and music created under the influence of psychedelic agents. A related term to 'psychedelic agent' is 'entheogen', which means invoking the divine nature within oneself.
Contrasting terms are 'hallucinogenic' and 'hallucinogen', which mean causing hallucinations. The words 'psychedelic', 'entheogenic' and 'hallucinogenic' are often used to describe the same agents, such as mescalin, LSD, psilocybin and so on. However their use has different connotations. The terms 'psychedelic' and 'entheogen' suggest a genuine experience, whereas 'hallucinogen' suggests confusion and derangement.
From the Buddhist point of view the use of all intoxicants is frowned upon, nevertheless the effects of psychedelic agents need to be examined in two respects:
1. The materialistic versus spiritual explanation for their effects.
2. The large number of Western Buddhists who have started on their spiritual path from the use of entheogens.
Materialistic versus spiritual explanations of the effects of hallucinogens/entheogens
From the materialist's viewpoint, transcendental and religious experiences are the result of the disordered functioning of the brain. The fact that people get spiritual experiences under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs clearly demonstrates that all these transpersonal experiences are simply delusions caused by disruption of the normal electrochemical activity of the neurones.
From the spiritual viewpoint the mind is not the same thing as the brain. The brain is an organ which has evolved to present a particular interpretation of reality to the non-physical mind. There's no dispute that the brain operates abnormally under the influence of entheogens - but you've got to ask yourself - what is the purpose of the normal functioning of the brain?
The brain hasn't evolved to represent ultimate reality to the mind. The brain has evolved by selection of the fittest (not the most truthful) to project the delusion of the inherently-existing self onto the mind. This delusion of a permanent, unchanging self is 'imputed' over the ever-changing transitory collection of biochemical building blocks that makes up the physical aspects of a sentient being.
These biochemical building blocks are brought together by a loose temporary alliance of selfish genes. This alliance comes into existence at conception and ends at death. When the brain is functioning *correctly*, it is acting in the best interests of the alliance.
The brain is the alliance's propaganda machine, and it is constantly exhorting the mind to:
" Preserve ME ! Reproduce ME ! "
The correct functioning of the propaganda machine is obviously necessary for the preservation and procreation of the species. Nevertheless, to perform its function the brain needs to project a distorted view of the self onto the mind.
Disruption of this ceaseless barrage of ME-ME propaganda by psychedelic agents enables the mind to temporarily push the doors of perception ajar and peek beyond mundane biologically-determined appearances.
Entheogens and the spiritual path
It's no secret that many Westerners have come to Buddhism via use of psychoactive substances (in fact the Buddhist magazine Tricycle once devoted an entire issue to this subject). This was especially true for the 'baby boomer' generation who reached adulthood in the sixties. Like the Beatles, they realised that mind-altering chemicals could demonstrate that there was a spiritual dimension to existence, but the only way for a westerner to follow it in any controlled manner was by meditation.
This isn't to disparage shamanism, but shamans typically undergo a prolonged period of meditative training before using these substances. The shaman will also use pure legal natural preparations of known potency, rather than illegally popping pills of dubious origin, or munching magic mushrooms which may or may not be the correct species.
Historically Buddhism has probably been helped in its spread to the West by prior familiarity with expanded mental states during the psychedelic era. But these factors would seem to be of declining influence nowadays. Present day use of psychedelic agents should be discouraged on the following grounds:
* They are mostly illegal.
* They are often adulterated and may cause physical and psychological problems.
* They may contain or lead on to use of addictive substances.
* There are the dangers of a bad trip - if your meditation gets a little freaky you can just stop. But if you've dropped acid you have no choice but to go where it takes you.
* The dangers of a one-way trip. It takes a professional mycologist to identify mushroom species correctly. Get the wrong type of Amanita, and - Bye bye, its Bardo time!
* Safe techniques of manifesting clear mind are now readily available in the form of meditation classes. Why use a sledgehammer to break down the doors of perception when you could simply unlock them by turning the key?
Update 28-Jan-2012 from Integral options
This week, researchers from Imperial College London publish two separate studies of the effects of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient of magic mushrooms. The first appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, and I've written a news story about it for Nature. It's one of a small number of studies using brain scanning to examine the neurological effects of the drug. The second, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, examines the effects of the drug on the quality of recalled memories.
The past decade has seen a resurgence in psychedelic research, not least because psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs have potential therapeutic value for various psychiatric conditions. Here, I'd like to focus on another aspect of the new studies. Robin Carhart-Harris, lead author on both of the papers, interprets the findings within the framework of neuropsychoanalysis. I briefly describe this emerging movement, and how it might be used to explain the psychological effects of psilocybin.... Read the rest
- Sean Robsville
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