When I started blogging, I made a vow not to talk about sex, drugs or politics. I am about to break it.
Somebody recently mentioned that taking psychoactive drugs is a short cut to enlightenment. I’d like to explain why I don’t agree. Before that, I want to say that there are serious risks involved with buying and taking illegal drugs. I would not advocate it under any circumstances.Are you experienced?
It has been argued that on these subjects, knowledge is not as valuable as experience. On the other hand, experience can be overrated and overstated. For the scope of this post, I think my knowledge is sufficient. I’ve never lived in an apartheid system, for instance, but I trust my opinion of it to be valid, based on what I’ve read and what I’ve seen. Sofar, for me, the only subjects where non-experiential knowledge proved to be absolutely insufficient are meditation and sex. Let’s look at what Schrödinger wrote in What is life:
“…and in spite of those true lovers who, as they look into each others eyes, become aware that their thought and their joy are numerically one – not merely similar or identical.”
He goes on to reflect that lovers are, as a rule, emotionally too busy to indulge in clear thinking, but the experience can be compared to mystics stating: “Deus factus sum.” (I have become God.) From descriptions of his private life, he seems quite experienced. It looks as if religion, meditation and drugs are not the only roads to enlightenment.
The power of expectation
“Did you make a space cake?” Joe asked. “You said you would?”
He seemed overeager. We were all peacefully smoking our after-dinner cigarettes. So Aleesha said: “I didn’t,” and seeing his disappointed face, she added: “I put it in the soup instead.” He proceeded to eat another two bowlfuls of cold, congealing mushroom soup. And then we watched him for the rest of the evening. He went on a trip. Feeling things he never felt before, stammering about colours, ideas, god. Taking an hour to get down the stairs and once outside becoming completely enchanted with the grass, the moon and the stars…
Turns out all he did was perform according to his imagination and the powers of suggestion. The telltale green specks in the soup were just basil.
Psychotropic drugs however, do exist. And they can be used as entheogens. My point is that it cannot be known whether they bring about an enlightenment experience, because what happens to people taking drugs depends on their expectations and suggestibility. In that sense, I think LSD can be compared to the God helmet.
Doors of perception
Aldous Huxley famously described his experiences with mescaline. Before he experimented, he’d meditated and he knew quite a lot about Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism. His trips were heavily orchestrated. We can never know how much of his experience was influenced by his expectations. From that perspective, this quote of an experience after the ones described in the Doors of Perception is very relevant:
“And the things which had entirely filled my attention on that first occasion, I now perceived to be temptations – temptations to escape from the central reality into a false, or at least imperfect and partial Nirvanas of beauty and mere knowledge.”
I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if this was ‘even better than the real thing’.Therapeutic use of LSD
LSD has widely been used in therapy since the 1950’s. From this, we can learn that the nature of the experience depends on the person (set) and the environment (setting).
For his LSD treatment of concentration camp survivors, the Dutch psychiatrist Bastiaans used recordings of Nazi propaganda to get people to relive their war experiences. One of his patients made up his colourful memories of being in the resistance and was later found out. Bastiaans could not explain this. He’d tried LSD himself, in a different context, but all he found was that he talked more easily. Enlightenment is never mentioned here.
Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof commented:
“The major obstacle to their systematic utilisation for therapeutic purposes was the fact that they tended to occur in an elemental fashion, without a recognisable pattern, and frequently to the surprise of both the patient and the therapist.”
This is quite far removed from Timothy Leary’s observation:
“The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of spacetime dimensions and of the ego or identity.”
One reason why I think the experiences on drugs are different is, that they are all about you. Interesting things might be going on in your mind, but communicating them is supremely difficult. I don’t really see how that constitutes a new awareness of reality.
Surreptitious administering of LSD was part of the CIA’s MKUltra programs. Here, the goal was either to bring out deep confessions or to wipe a subject’s mind clean for reprogramming. Mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts, prostitutes, military personnel and employees were subjected to this without informed consent. At one point
“…surprise acid trips became something of an occupational hazard among CIA operatives”
Many adverse reactions were reported; amongst them long-term debilitation and death. Eventually the drug was dismissed because it was too unpredictable in its results.
Experiences can last up to 12 hours and vary widely. Dilated pupils, increased blood pressure and high body temperature are common. So are dizziness, sweating, blurred vision and tingling sensations. Visual effects include stronger colours and brighter lights. Synesthesia is reported; time distortion is common. People report happiness, euphoria and, when taking large doses, spiritual or religious experiences and ‘new understanding’.These are taken from a description of a good trip. A bad trip can lead to fear and paranoia, accompanied by a feeling that this will never end. Some people are hospitalised, but most of them recover with no lasting side effects. However, flashbacks are reported: a person who has taken LSD in the past has another trip experience that can last anywhere from seconds to hours. This can be upsetting.
“The real physical damage associated with LSD comes from what can happen when someone loses inhibitions and has poor judgment, skewed perceptions or a sense of immortality when tripping.” website: science.howstuffworks.com
LSD users have accidentally killed themselves by walking in front of a car, getting into a car accident while tripping or falling from windows or buildings.
I have high hopes that David Yerle will be proved right and TMS will be a short cut to enlightenment in the near future. Even then, I will be curious to see what people perceive enlightenment to be and whether it has lasting effects on the way we see ourselves and the world around us.
Please feel free to comment. Personal experiences of all kinds are welcomed!