The other day, Tuesday, May 19, I was on a panel at the Santa Fe bookstore, Collected Works, for the launch of a new edition of the book Zig Zag Zen. This is a multi-contributor book on Buddhism and psychedelics co-edited by Allan Badiner and Alex Grey. I contributed a piece to the first edition of the book in 2002 and it reappears in this edition.
The panel was great fun as it featured Allan, Alex, Allyson Grey–three long-standing and dear friends. At the same time, I would have liked to have seen the discussion and subsequent interactions with the audience focus more on the relationship between Buddhism and psychedelics than turned out to be the case. As it was, the emphasis was on the beneficial effects of taking psychedelic drugs, with some mention of set and setting issues determining the direction such drug experiences may take.
I spoke briefly about the influence of Buddhism on my DMT research protocol. These included: 1) spurring my initial interest in determining the presence of common biological processes mediating the psychedelic drug effect and responses to Buddhist meditation to the extent that they resembled each other; 2) the decades-long informal support provided by my Zen Buddhist community; 3) the semi-meditative state the research team attempted to maintain while actual DMT drug sessions took place; 4) mental techniques derived from abhidharma psychology that might provide assistance to volunteers in their negotiating through the DMT spaces; 5) abhidharma psychology’s influence on the development of our paper-and-pencil rating scale quantifying the DMT effect; 6) kensho, nirvana, or enlightenment as the ultimate expected goal of the high dose DMT session.
At a certain point theory and data began to diverge in several crucial ways. One was that Buddhism treated the visions and voices of the DMT experience as illusory, contrary to the conviction that DMT volunteers returned with that what they had just apprehended under the influence of the drug was as real or more real than everyday reality. In addition, the DMT world was highly interactive and relational in opposition to the content-free and ego-less enlightenment experience, what might be referred to as a unitive mystical state–the type of experience that both the volunteers and I expected.
When focusing on “emptiness” as the ultimate desired endpoint of the psychedelic drug state, one is much less constrained by rational/intellectual/verbal structures in understanding, interpreting, and applying the effects of that state. When a long-standing tradition of ethical and moral beliefs and behaviors surrounds the experience of emptiness as attained in a Buddhist kensho, the experience can be steered in an optimal manner. However, without such a tradition being part and parcel of the experience, any highly altered state is prone to fuel delusion as much as wisdom. This is one of the reasons behind my current project to let people know about the Western tradition of spirituality contained in the Hebrew Bible’s notion of prophecy and the prophetic experience. This is a highly verbal state, detailed and articulated, in which one’s personality remains intact and interaction, not fusion, is the operative relationship. And the message is built into the experience, rather than being extracted from it after the fact.
I believe that the Buddhist model of the unitive-mystical state has co-opted much of the discussion at both the lay and academic levels for a number of reasons. One of which is most likely that it is easier to avoid the information content of the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic message in lieu of the empty, unitive, nonverbal, white light goal that recreational, spiritual, and therapeutic psychedelic drug use now aims for.
Since my new book came out relating the DMT effect to that of the Hebrew Biblical prophetic stream, I have heard from a number of Christians and a smaller number of Muslims regarding the importance of psychedelic drugs in these individuals’ entering into that particular Abrahamitic religious stream, or strengthening their commitment to it—either as a result of a single exposure to a psychedelic drug or in the context of periodic use as an aid to study, ritual, or other experiential involvement with their tradition. This has led me to begin searching for potential contributors to a work, along the lines of Zig Zag Zen using Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the religious platforms for studying the interaction of psychedelic drugs with spirituality, in this case Western spirituality.
I think this will provide a valuable corrective in presenting another perspective regarding the relationship between the psychedelic drug state and spirituality as well as religion. If you are interested in participating in this project, know anyone else who might be, have any suggestions regarding a publisher, and anything else that comes to mind in response to reading this, please let me know.