Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"Spiritual" experiences versus delusional thinking: Not the same thing!

While I've met quite a few people of atheistic and/or skeptic bent, who show enthusiasm toward transcendent experiences and even psychedelic drugs, most seem to show a casual interest if any at all.
` On the extreme other end of the spectrum, I've met those who seem to think themselves "above" subjecting themselves to such experiences for themselves.
Particularly the ones that promise a truly spectacular adventure.
One activist for skepticism and against quackery and religious dogma, outright told me that practicing meditation is a form of "brainwashing".
` I tried to tell him that it is actually an exercise that helps you to control your ability to focus and stop tripping out about so much stuff. It helps decrease stress levels, and thus seems to be good for your health.
` Though increased scientific study is beginning to scrape the surface of such altered states, he didn't want to hear about it.

The need to experience zen consciousness, egolessness, transcendence, or whatever you want to call it, is not in any way the same as the need to believe in a supernatural world. Unfortunately, I have noticed that it is common for those of skeptical leanings to confuse the two concepts.

Considering what I've been studying for the past few years, I'm convinced that so-called transcendental or 'spiritual' states are among the most important and life-impacting states of consciousness that one can achieve.
` As I hope to have shown in previous blog posts, a solid argument can be made that those who don't believe in supernatural or spiritual realms really do crave so-called "transcendence" when they say they don't; it's just that they don't understand what this term refers to.

What is this with the apparent conflation between the desire for transcendent consciousness and the desire to believe? In an email to a number of skeptical activists (none of them Geo), I included the following quotations and points of consideration:

Neuroscientist and major opponent to faith and superstition Sam Harris wrote a book about the importance of these experiences. It's called Waking Up, as is his podcast.
` One point he makes is that the self is just an illusion, and that transcendence (especially with the use of psychedelic drugs) allows you to perceive this clearly. Your self, and your social matrix, and meaning, are all made up by your brain.
 ` Because your consciousness is released from the usual human and individual biases, transcendent experiences are a more accurate way of seeing the world.

It is more desirable to see the world more accurately, is it not?

On his podcast, someone asks: "I'm wondering how your fellow atheists react when they discover you've embraced something called spirituality, do they think you've gone to the other side?" Harris responds:
"Well some of them probably do. It's inconvenient that atheism selects preferentially for people who haven't had these kind of experiences and haven't been interested in them. There's a disproportionate number of people who have never wanted to learn how to meditate, or never taken psychedelics, or never touched what they would call an altered state of consciousness, and see no good reason to try."
And why is that? Well, consider what Charles Tart said in his classic book Altered States of Consciousness:
“Within Western culture we have strong negative attitudes toward ASCs: there is the normal (good) state of consciousness and there are pathological changes in consciousness. Most people make no further distinctions. We have available a great deal of scientific and clinical material on ASCs associated with psychopathological states, such as schizophrenia: by comparison, our scientific knowledge about ASCs which could be considered “desirable” is extremely limited and generally unknown to scientists. One of the purposes of these articles is to begin to provide some balance; therefore almost all the ASCs treated here have positive qualities in that they are ASCs that many people will go to considerable trouble and effort to induce in themselves because they feel that experiencing a particular ASC is rewarding. Our understanding of mental processes has been greatly facilitated by focusing on psychopathology, but it cannot be complete without looking at the other side of the coin. Further, we need to drop the “good” or “bad” judgments about various ASCs and concentrate on the question: What are the characteristics of a given ASC and what consequences do these characteristics have on behavior in various settings?”
In his book, and in the essay online which corresponds to one of the chapters, Harris says:
“I have two daughters who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that they choose their drugs wisely, but a life lived entirely without drugs is neither foreseeable nor, I think, desirable. ... Needless to say, if I knew that either of my daughters would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if they don’t try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in their adult lives, I will wonder whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.”

“[I]t cannot be denied that psychedelics are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness. Teach a person to meditate, pray, chant, or do yoga, and there is no guarantee that anything will happen. … If, however, a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD, what happens next will depend on a variety of factors, but there is no question that something will happen. ... Within the hour, the significance of his existence will bear down upon him like an avalanche. As the late Terence McKenna[4] never tired of pointing out, this guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse, is what separates psychedelics from every other method of spiritual inquiry.”
Indeed, as Terence McKenna observed, you don't see anyone going into the ashram to meditate with heir knees knocking. To quote one of his talks:
“I speak about the power of the psychedelic experience because I think people should be informed of their birthright, and I feel very antsy around the notion that someone might go from birth to the grave without ever having a psychedelic experience. It makes me as antsy as the notion that somebody might go from birth to the grave without having a sexual experience.”
This is not controversial among those of reasonable psychonautic achievement. It's a useful analogy to understand how they must feel. Imagine being surrounded by people who have no real interest in sexual pleasure. Does this give you pause?
` Terence continues:
“It's a strange kind of protective denial, or a kind of expression of fear, this is our birthright. This is part of what it means to be human. … It is possible to build such barriers against overwhelm-ment that it never happens in your whole life, and I believe that if we psychologically analyze the effects of these psychedelics, what they do is they dissolve boundaries, that's all.

If you interview ten thousand people who have had a psychedelic trip, each one has their own heirophany, their own heiros gamos that unfolded for them, but the sum total of it is, boundaries dissolve. And then whatever's on the other side of your boundary floods in to claim you, and to reshape and to remake your psyche.

I see the entire illness of our civilization as an ego inflationary illness. We have gone so sick with ego that we are literally murdering the planet rather than confronting the consequences of our own [mental] imbalance. The psychedelics act to redress this, they are almost an inoculation against the ego.”
Finally, on this point, I am glad to see articles about psychedelic research in mainstream press, journalists making an effort to represent the limited amount of psychedelics science that is being permitted and funded. Here's a couple of excerpts from one such article from the New York Times.
“After transcendent experiences, people often have much less fear of death,” Griffiths says. Fourteen months after participating in a psilocybin study that was published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology last year, 94 percent of subjects said that it was one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives; 39 percent said that it was the most meaningful experience.
In a future still far off, Grob imagines retreat centers where the dying could have psilocybin administered to them by a staff trained for the task. Doblin asks: “Why confine this to just the dying? This powerful intervention could be used with young adults who could then reap the benefits of it much earlier.” The subjects who have undergone psilocybin treatment report an increased appreciation for the time they have left, a deeper awareness of their roles in the cycle of life and an increased motivation to invest their days with meaning. “Imagine allowing young adults, who have their whole lives in front of them, access to this kind of therapy,” Doblin says. “Imagine the kind of lives they could then create.”
These drugs are important tools, and a culture in which people harness their power is at a far greater advantage than a culture in which people are taught to fear them.
` There's no reason that we can't go back to having thinkers, artists, scientists, and the average person to use them for various reasons, openly and freely.

And yet, I've met those of the critical thinking sort who think these claims sound silly and see no real value in psychedelics, especially on a personal level. For this, they think themselves superior. Looking down upon atheistic thought or homosexuality would not likely enter their minds, but they roll their eyes at people's desire to use LSD.
` Psychedelic drugs allow one to slip out of one's "normal" identity and have an advantageous perspective in the computer modeling machinery of one's own brain.
` Though drugs cannot impart knowledge, they allow people to think and perceive in ways they could not have otherwise known was possible.

They also seem to explain where a lot of that “spirit world” stuff comes from, and anyone who did not know better would find this natural chemical technology indistinguishable from magic. Which is one reason that skeptics would likely find it interesting.
` Psychedelics are apparently the basis of the Hindu Vedas and lie at the root of many schools of thought and spiritual practices around the globe. They have been important to us for tens of thousands of years, and not without good reason, as is being rediscovered today.

They have certainly shaped cultural evolution in the past. I also think that these drugs have tremendous potential in helping humanity and culture continue to evolve in the far future.
` Which is why I am excited for the ayahuasca/mescaline church opening near where I live, the first in the U.S! Despite the religious trappings, I am quite glad to have a legal source of very powerful psychedelic drugs that is actually opening near where I live.

I'm glad to get something posted on my blog, which describes some of the rumblings of my life. Other rumblings include podcast-related activities. I'm getting a bit busier now that the dust levels in my office are finally starting to come under control.
` That's what mopping the floor practically every day can do for you. Eventually. The less mopping I have to do, the more other work I can get done.

More news soon.


  1. I'm enjoying your writing. I appreciate your ability to be frank. I wonder what you get from engaging/trying to convince folks to change their minds (the circumcision "discussion") when your valid points, excellent research and rational explanations speak for themselves. My projections! I don't like wasting my time with fundamentalists. Thanks for courageous modelling of intelligent discourse.

  2. The ability to rewire ones own brain or turn parts of it on and off is remarkable, real, useful, in some cases life saving and very much worth the study. The ability to observe the self and the world without judgment (conditioning, ego, etc) is helpful for anyone. It can be achieved through meditation, which requires training and practice and for many or some may do nothing at all. Drug induced ego-less states can replace this, or simply be used to demonstrate what one is trying to achieve with meditation.

    These studies are so important for people with severe depression, emotional trauma, and other maladies of the noodle. MDMA can likely cure or significantly mitigate even severe melancholic depression in a single dose. This is no small matter and I am super duper glad you are asking these questions.

    I am surprised to hear the skeptic club is so averse - egoless, objective observation is a handy tool for thinking clearly. Does the term "spiritual" cause an emotional reaction? Acid can help with that. ;)


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