The Human Front revisits Buddhism. Dylan asks: ‘How do Buddhists get their kicks?’ (Tenzing Kalsang/Pexels)
Psychedelics have attained the endorsement of prominent figures, celebrities and even academics. Taking psychedelics, they claim, is associated with out-of-body experiences, bringing about new, deeper and clearer insights. These experiences can be tranquil, healing, and even life-changing (depending on what you take). Or maybe they just give you a good time.
I neither have the scientific knowledge to push back against these claims nor could I address the effects of certain drugs on our biology. I also don’t have the personal experience to empathise with the supposed powers of these magical gateways. Nonetheless, the descriptions that arise are remarkably similar to the descriptions of a practice I am more familiar with: meditation.
Out of body
There are innumerable accounts in which hallucinogens have given people out-of-body experiences. They are freed from seeing the self as separate and embodied; rather, they are connected with and part of the world. To quote Alan Watts:
The experiences Watts alludes to seem to reflect the insights of the Buddhist non-self: the denying of forms, perceptions, sensations, will, inclination and consciousness as the basis of persisting selves.
Here there is a reasonable line to draw to connect psychedelics to Buddhism. Psychedelics specifically manipulate our sensory experience as to render what we usually perceive to be ‘reality’ into merely appearances: they give us the insight that perception of the world is our mind’s best guess. Buddhists arrive at similar conclusions: they consider the nature of reality to be ‘empty’ and impermanent, without a substantiating core. Appearances can be compared to performances by magicians, an illusion of consensus.
Buddhist dhyāna, or meditative practice, is perhaps common knowledge to many people these days, just with a different name. Dhyāna is associated with yoga, Zen, and the trendy Transcendental Meditation. To others, dhyāna may just seem like sitting quietly in thought, not that remarkable a process compared to a student of philosophy or any other deep-thinking person. But it’s more than that.
Contrary to popular beliefs or even practices, Buddhist meditation does not simply stifle and resist thought, nor does it only involve the manifestation of particular concepts. More accurately, it is the training of the mind, a means of bringing it to concentration, then to peace, to calm and then finally to rest.
Meditation is a path to realisations. For example, suffering, as the Buddhists hold, arises from the consequences of our actions, which in turn is a result of our response to sensual stimuli, and these responses are formed by our desires. Therefore, to address suffering, we must address our desires.
Dhyāna, summarised for easy understanding, three subtle layers.
First, one practises conscious contemplation. That is what philosophers are familiar with: to take a notion and analyse or otherwise deconstruct it. An example within Buddhism is to consider the life cycle of a flower, and from it, the impermanence of conditional things. That is to say, we learn through contemplation of concepts alone.
Second, one practises conscious perception. Sometimes thinking deeply about something gets us nowhere, in which case one can instead study what is going on in their minds. A little like watching a play, they ‘observe’ notions in their minds arise, persist for a while and then cease to be. For instance, while meditating, a random memory may pop into our heads. We suddenly recall that someone has treated us cruelly; we get mad or upset. However, the emotion of anger arises within us. From this realisation we will see that, if we do not actively sustain emotions, they only persist for a little while before dissipating.
Third, one practises conscious awareness. In the other layers we see labelling to mental events born in conception or perception: ‘This image is a flower’; ‘This emotion is anger’. However, at the level of awareness the most subtle of meditation allows one just to be. One can just experience a noise; it is neither loud nor soft. We simply listen. Conscious awareness, therefore, is about detachment and rest: raw experience without attaching labels.
Dhyāna allows us to progress towards wisdom at the first level, peace at the second, and, at the third, cessation (or ‘nirvana’, considered to be liberation, the ultimate form of delight).
Why the ‘how’ is important
Bringing it back to psychedelics, it is not difficult to see similarities between experiences with certain drugs and dhyāna: new insights, peace of mind, joy. A logical next question, then, is: if this analogy holds, why don’t Buddhists take psychedelics to enhance their practices? For taking psychedelics appears to offer a faster, more-direct route to achieving the desired effects.
In the precepts of the Vinaya (Buddhist rules and regulations) the intake of alcohol and intoxicants is forbidden, and I think the answer lies in differences between how the goal is attained.
Buddhist meditative practice stresses, precisely, practice: that is, mental discipline by way of commitment to an approach to life, not just to a moment. With commitment to practice one achieves results that are sustained, substantial, and autonomous from substances and even desire. The skill is gradually developed over time and becomes ingrained.
As Aristotle points out, excellence is not an act but a habit. Insight, peace and joy lie not in the occasional undertaking, but in how we conduct ourselves as individuals. Likewise, Buddhist meditative practice is not just meant for when you find a quiet place to sit: it is meant to accumulate into constant and consistent awareness at all times.
To use a relevant analogy, consider social drinking. It’s true that a couple of drinks will get people to loosen up, be less guarded, more open and more pleasant to be around; alcohol is an enzyme that can enhance one’s chances of having a good time. But you ought not have those drinks when you wish to have an earnest and sincere conversation with somebody, say, a good friend, a partner or a therapist. When it comes down to it, really listening to each other, paying attention to somebody else, having trust, honesty, humility, being kind, trying to be empathetic—these qualities require effort and simply aren’t replaceable by taking a substance.
So, Buddhists don’t turn to psychedelics for their kicks because they know the crucial aspects of insight, peace and delight consist in the unending journeys they make, not the ends, journeys which require commitment to life’s subtleties.
Buddhists are taught to observe their minds for this reason. According to their teachings, every act, no matter how small, has its corresponding consequences. Every thought, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, should be considered slowly and quietly. Minds can be chaotic and overwhelming places, leading us from stimulation to stimulation, from desire to desire, but they don’t have to be.
Are Buddhists being too strict? Consider this saying, perhaps from Zheng Xie, a painter and calligrapher:
This attitude sits in stark contrast to the Buddhist ideal of consistency, opting rather for a more relaxed and flexible approach. Perhaps there is a similar argument that can be made for taking psychedelics. It does not substitute Buddhist practice but they offer a bit of a fun illuminating experience when life allows them to.
I think the Buddhists aren’t being especially strict. Rather, they are being minimalists. They dedicate their lives to what is strictly necessary in order to liberate themselves from suffering. This is an important point to make.
Buddhists see little point in engaging in fun, illuminating experiences if they ultimately bring no lasting cessation, or even weaken the Buddhists’ attempts to attain it.
Furthermore, Buddhist practice, taken from another perspective, is not about gaining anything at all, but rather it is about the ridding of unwholesome action, desire, suffering and ego. To cling onto something external, for a chemical to dictate, is to root oneself to eventual suffering. To paraphrase the Buddha, all which arises is only suffering; and all which ceases is only suffering. To address this properly one must take practice seriously.
There is nothing substantial to be gained, according to the Buddhist, from taking psychedelics and similar stimulating experiences: they merely arise, persist for a while, then cease to be.
Maybe psychedelics can change your life for the better. I am sceptical, however. If we want to change our lives, there is no miracle drug. I agree with the Buddhists that illumination and self-improvement don’t come from externally fuelled sensory experiences but with consistently applied effort: from discipline and self-awareness. I grant that psychedelics can be a starting point to all this, but what comes after comes not from any chemical influence: it comes from you.