A lot of people come to meditation through drugs. Usually in one of two very different ways. Either they find meditation as a respite and palliative from alcohol and drug addiction and toxic patterns of behavior, or, like the recently deceased Ram Dass, they touch another, entirely different world through drugs – psychedelic drugs – and seek a spiritual life as a way to hold onto, or expand upon, or share that world.
Why psychedelics? I’m certainly no expert, but in reading Ram Dass, and Michael Pollan’s latest, and watching countless YouTube videos (both biographical and scientific), psychedelics offer your brain a method of functioning that stretches above and beyond our typical patterns – in fact, it can help break patterns that bury people in rumination and anxiety, as well as offering a view of reality that is entirely different from what we’ve come to accept as acceptable. Psychedelics have helped dying people lose their fear of death. They have broken depressive cycles for some people for years on end. For some lucky few, these experiences may be enough to change the way they live, completely, for years. But most of us need help.
While a psilocybin or ayahuasca trip can show someone a different view of the world, it doesn’t show them how to live in that world. Everyday living takes practice, and unlearning the way you’ve learned to live through a lifetime in a competitive society is even harder. So now that you have seen that love is all that matters (for example), how do you bring that to work, to a traffic jam, to your abusive parent? There is a huge gap between knowing and doing, as anyone with any philosophical leanings will surely recognize.
It seems to me that the role of meditation is more or less the same whether you’ve experienced a transcendent moment or not: it’s practice for better living in the world. You practice, second by second, guiding the mind instead of letting it take you for a ride; you practice not automatically scratching that itch, not adjusting your body to relieve that pain, not clinging to that feeling of joy that just came out of nowhere. You practice being in the moment so that you can love without expectation or fantasies; you practice nonattachment so you can give when someone needs help and can accept generosity without pride. Enlightenment is a glimpse of something better than what we currently live in, but it doesn’t change our living. I imagine it’s great to know that there is a real, true universal love underneath it all, but we live on the surface. And letting go of the ego? Sign me up, but I still (have to) live in this person, in this place, with these abilities and failings as best I can, and good god that takes a lot of practice. In the words of Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.
The idea that drugs are cheating (as some meditators have proposed) is pretty ridiculous, and pretty Protestant-Work-Ethicky. If it were a shortcut to nirvana, wouldn’t we all benefit from more enlightened people in the world? More realistically, if shrooms or LSD or ayahuasca can motivate people to live more lovingly, with less fear and less ego, if it can motivate them to find meaning in compassion and connection, who cares how they get there?
And if you’re wondering why the government has been so resistant to exploring the benefits of these drugs, imagine what a monumental increase in compassion and egolessness and acceptance, and reduction in competitiveness and ambition and greed would do to the economy. It’s not just the “dropouts,” those few who choose to detach themselves entirely from the mundane, who can disrupt the enforced order. There are so many ways to live, and many of them do not revolve around money, careers, or the nuclear family; some of them don’t even see the self as the most essential unit, or self-preservation as the highest goal. Imagine that.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Sigh.