enlightenment on acid

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.

Burning sugar cube, by Robin Müller [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Burning sugar cube, by Robin Müller [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

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’.

The butterfly hunter, Carl Spitzweg [Public domain]

The butterfly hunter, Carl Spitzweg [Public domain]

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.

Military use

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.

Trip experiences

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’.

By Rob Pongsajapan from Arlington, VA, USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

By Rob Pongsajapan from Arlington, VA, USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

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.

Fast enlightenment

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!

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About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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27 Responses to enlightenment on acid

  1. I wouldn’t write off Joe’s experience on the basis it was placebo-induced. We overlook the power of placebo (or nocebo) at our peril. Joe’s experience highlights the ability of our subconscious mind to alter our physiology in ways it shouldn’t be able to unless the body possessed its own intelligence. Ergo the body-mind.

    As one who has experimented with entheogens in the past, I’ve never particularly felt a need to defend psychoactive drug use or promote its benefits. I would say that a trip is an intensely personal experience, but the common thread among users seems to be an openness to new experiences. As for the enlightenment question, it seems to me there is more than one route and time (as in short-cut) is irrelevant.

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Howard.
      I’ve consulted some of my friends on this one and none of them would promote the use of psychoactive drugs based on their own extensive experience. I’ve also witnessed some bad cases of drug-induced paranoia.

      When it comes to enlightenment, I really like your stance that time is irrelevant! 🙂

      I am 100% with you on the power of placebo. Ever since seeing Joe I’ve had a real interest in the placebo effect. I wholly agree its power is often overlooked. Have you blogged on this, specifically?

      • Kinda, here’s the link: http://wp.me/p3a8sg-1M.

        One book you may enjoy and one that would introduce a fresh perspective so far missing from this page is The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition by Roger Walsh (I know, daft title, but you get the drift). In my humble experience psychoactive drug use is a tool, like meditation, to connect to the whole, whereas enlightenment, however fleeting, is the experience of connection through loss of self. Like meditation, psychoactive drug use brings about an alternative state of consciousness. Like meditation that alternative state is probably best described by what it isn’t, rather than what it is. Having said that, I’d approach the two tools quite differently, but equally without expectation. And if I’m honest, I’ve only experienced something that meets the above definition of enlightenment through meditation.

        • Thank you for your comment, Howard. I’ve read the article. I like how you mention epigenetics as a link between body and mind. When it comes to quantummechanics, I have to admit I’m not quite convinced. Stating that matter is energy and the mind is energy as well is not enough for me to solve the mind-body problem. Especially the mind problem, because I think the mind might not be related to one body at all. It’s not that I have a Cartesian view (who’d dare to admit that after reading tonguesandwich), it’s just that I’m not convinced. Yet. With my limited grasp of quantummechanics, I might never be.

          I’ve heard of Roger Walsh, I just can’t remember where. I’ll look into it, though.

          Thanks for sharing your experience with meditation. Even a description of what it isn’t is very relevant in this case 😉

          • I agree with you, I also think of mind as a collective consciousness. Take me to task if my thinking is flawed, but this need not imply separation of body from mind. I resolve the mind-body problem by choosing to recognize phenomena such as somatic metaphor, which cannot be explained any other way than through a unitary (i.e. non-physicalist or dualist) understanding of body-mind.

            • I agree, that does not imply separation of body and mind. I don’t know enough about somatic metaphor to view it as resolving the mind-body problem, I’m afraid. I think a unitary understanding of body-mind can be quite useful in medicine, though.

  2. My only experience is with morphine, given to me after after my broken leg was repaired with six screw and a plate. Being fully conscious, I remember the sensation of loss of all pain, including the slightest tension in a finger joint as well as psychological pain (stress). I was waiting for enlightenment with notebook and pen in hand. Alas, all I found was that the nurse was particularly beautiful and that over-boiled broccoli is one of the tastiest foods on earth!

    Drugs cannot show us what isn’t there, they can only show us suppressed memories and desires, good and/or bad, and probably it will be a mash-up, which may be an enlightening or a horrific experience/hallucination. I have no reason to doubt that our memories go back to our very source and who knows, even our evolutionary past may be retained in some form to be recalled and relived.

    Where I see a huge snag is that my limited experiences of enlightenment have never been from within. They have always come through the senses. It is the world we perceive that gets enlightened, not our selves. It is to that enlightened world that we awaken, not to our minds. Isn’t this the opposite from internally produced experience that these drugs seem to produce? Perhaps I’m wrong about this and these drugs do alter our perceptional perspective. I suspect however, that for all the reasons you raise, that drug induced altered perceptional perspective is mashed up with jumbled memories that have nothing to do with enlightenment.

    Personally, I don’t see the point of such drugs. They are no better than renting a DVD on a Friday evening, to be watched with a takeaway pizza. Real enlightenment is free and available to anyone, anywhere, anytime and even if it doesn’t necessarily last, at least there is not the negative experience associated with coming down from a drug high, or worse, an addiction.

    Excellent post Livelyskeptic, you put a lot of thought into this. Sorry for the lengthy comment 🙂

    • Thank you very much, genetic fractals! What you describe as a huge snag is exactly what I was driving at, but the way you present it sounds a lot better! 🙂
      “It is the world we perceive that gets enlightened, not ourselves.” To me, that is the real difference between any drug-induced state and the kind of enlightenment experiences that can be found by other means.

      Apart from that, I really liked your experiences with the nurse and the broccoli. You are a talented writer. 🙂

  3. David Yerle says:

    Well, I’ve never had any experiences of this kind so I’m the worst person to ask. I am, however, pretty curious. But the side-effects scare me. So I’m in a bit of a pickle. I haven’t done that much research into drugs and most of my information comes from drug-loving friends, so until I read your more balanced post I may have had a somewhat romanticized idea.

    • Thank you for your comment. I must say it made me feel a bit like an old aunt, writing about LSD. But there are two sides to this, and every other, story. The reason I really like TMS is that it is a way to experience things step-by-step and under controlled circumstances. If you take LSD or mushrooms, once you’ve ingested them, there’s no way back. Dosage of mushrooms is an added problem. Smoking marihuana is less hazardous, but the stuff they manage to produce these days is a far cry from what people used to smoke in the sixties and eighties. I hardly know anyone who smokes cigarettes today, except, perhaps, in China 🙂 Apart from that, there is mounting evidence associating heavy marihuana use with the onset of psychosis. As to the nature of the experience, I think genetic fractals makes an important statement on that…

  4. dimvisionary says:

    I don’t want to sound like a fascist, but I think a psychedelic experience should be mandatory. And no, it’s not a shortcut to enlightenment. By the way, could anyone define enlightenment? Someone once said, “A psychedelic experience shows you that your beliefs are just that: what you believe, and not reality.” But yes, once or maybe twice in their lives, everyone should take a trip.

    Something to consider: humans don’t perceive reality, not all of it. And the map is not the territory. If a chemical could be introduced into your system which may help you to perceive a bit more of the territory than you have previously, would that be helpful?

    Are there other ways? Sure. They’ve given LSD and DMT to Tibetan monks well-versed in transcendantal meditation and the monks recognized the experience. Not many modern folks have the time to meditate like a monk. Should they meditate? Oh sure. Would a bit of mescaline or LSD hurt them? Probably not. And it could help quite a bit.

    • Thank you for your comment, dimvisionary. I’d like to be the first to admit that I don’t have a working definition of enlightenment. So in that sense, I could not judge what it is, or is not.

      I’m not sure that everyone should take a trip. I know of other people who feel that way, but I’m not keen on stating any kind of experience to be mandatory. What’s the point? How would you describe the benefits?

      I do agree with your statement that humans don’t perceive reality. Not when you take into account the world of smells that is a source of constant joy to any dog or the way a bee perceives a flower.

      I think it’s a real pity if people feel they don’t have time to meditate. We don’t all have to be monks and twenty minutes of meditation a day makes a difference to many people I know.

      • dimvisionary says:

        Thanks for your post, livelysceptic. How would you describe the benefits of meditation? What’s the point?

        • I’ve found meditation useful. I cannot speak for others. Apart from that, there’s many different schools of meditation and they don’t have the same goals. I’ve practiced zen myself, quite intensively. Some of the benefits that I experience are lower blood pressure, finding it easier to relax when in pain, being more mindful of the body (I tend to ‘live in my head’) better concentration, not getting impatient or angry as easily as before. To me, this is enough to continue practicing.

  5. Tongue Sandwich™ says:

    To hypothesize about possible short cuts to enlightenment seems akin to discussing whether analog or digital photography would be better in the perennial search for evidence of the Loch Ness monster. Both are nothing but figments of hyperactive imagination.

  6. Tongue Sandwich™ says:

    Great. I bring the beer, you bring the snacks.

    • Will do. You’re an improvement on my previous experience already. I remember him standing up before the sun had disappeared, holding out his hand and saying: “Seen it? Happy? Get in the car.”

    • David Yerle says:

      Alright, so if I may chime in (and possibly spoil your virtual date), I gather from several comments you’ve made that you hold Buddhism in, well, I don’t know if “contempt” is the right word, but it’s close. I am really curious about what it is from that philosophy (setting aside the religion that arose from it) that makes you cringe. Would you mind elaborating a little bit? Feel free to be as brutal as you like. I am interested in Buddhism (I find some of the things it says make sense to me) but I don’t have Buddha statuettes spread around my house, if you get my drift. Also, if you write a post about it I’ll be the first to read it. Well, maybe no the first. But I’ll read it.
      Most people I’ve met while blogging see Buddhism in a positive light, so I don’t get a lot of contrast on this. And I’d like some. I’m still making up my mind about a lot of stuff and reading conflicting opinions helps.

  7. john zande says:

    I dropped a lot of mushrooms at Uni. The accompanying mind adventures were astounding, to say the least. I liked to explore where it would take me. I’d seek out the deeper fabric. There was a purpose to the madness. Despite efforts to record these adventures the problem was always the same: the next day none of it made the slightest bit of sense 😦

    • Thank you for your comment. I recognise this from other experiences. However mysterious, it always remains to be seen what part of it can face up to the cool, harsh light of the day after. Meditation’s often the same.

  8. Thought provoking.

    So it may be due to expectations.

    Even if it’s not, is it a replacement for the work? If not, why not? Maybe part of the enlightenment is overcoming one’s fears, hates and so on, something that a drug cannot do? Maybe people can live and work in a “low grade” enlightenment because of this?

    • Thank you for your comment, BR. You ask an important question I think, about overcoming one’s fears, hates and the like. That might be an important part of being a changed person. And I think it takes time to work towards those changes.

      When I was writing the post, I thought it made sense to include what you wrote on selfless service. In the end I didn’t, because I’d need to explain what selfless service is and the post was already the longest I’d ever written. Later I thought there might be different things going on: transcending the self on the one hand… (And I still think Schrödinger was on to something there, though I can imagine becoming self-less in other ways as well.) -And opening yourself to new experiences on the other. (Several people describe this.) Stimulants might be useful for that.

      I think I have an inkling when it comes to “low grade” enlightenment, but I’m not completely sure I know what you mean. 🙂

      • “Low Grade” Enlightenment… sounds like a fuel type, doesn’t it? 😀

        I think Nirvana/Enlightenment (don’t get me started on whether or not they’re the same thing!) is a continuum, not a state. One can be more or less Enlightened. The theoretical ideal is of course perfect Enlightenment (100% free of all negativity), however people can achieve say 20%, 50%, 80%, etc… and their happiness is improved accordingly.

        Now, does functioning in the midst of daily life reduce one’s Enlightenment? That is, if I’m on a cushion and I’m 90% free of negativity, does stepping out into the world reduce this? Maybe it’s because I’m confronted with new challenges, or maybe it’s because getting around (like driving) may require the construction of a self or other systems that interfere with Enlightenment. I recall reading some study that claimed meditation affected the region in the brain responsible for construction of self and navigation in 3D space, which seemed to indicate the same system was responsible for both and hence had ramifications on our getting around…

        So maybe I’m not as Enlightened (by necessity) when I’m functioning, but am still more Enlightened than I was. This is what I mean by “Low Grade” Enlightenment.

        Did this make sense?

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