Ep. 97: Psychedelics and Spiritual Practice

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To a lot of people, the words psychedelic and spiritual are paradoxical. But the use of psychoactive substances in shamanic, religious, and spiritual practices is found throughout history, with evidence from thousands of years ago. In this episiode, we will be talking about psychedelics and spiritual practice and if there is a helpful role for them…or the potential harm. 


Let’s start with some definitions: 


Psychedelics are a class of psychoactive substances that produce changes in perception, mood and cognitive processes. They affect all the senses, altering a person’s thinking, sense of time and emotions. 


There are also entheogens, which are typically of plant origin, that are ingested to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes. 


Some examples of both are psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, ketamine, 5-MeO-DMT, cannabis,, LSD, MDMA… and many more. 


I’ve used psychedelics in clinical settings and have found them to have a unique place in the treatment of mental health disorders. But I’m personally very interested in their use for spiritual purposes. Especially because, in my own clinical experience, many mental health issues have a strong root in spiritual and existential challenges. 


So when we really look at the intention for spiritual practice or use of psychedelics, Buddhism and psychedelics share something in common: finding that which frees the mind. There are probably a good amount of Buddhists who would say it’s a gateway to a spiritual path, which I certainly agree with (and there’s also many who would disagree). 


At my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, there has been decades of research in the use of psychedelics for a variety of purposes, showing promising results in many areas. They’ve done studies with long-time meditators as well as those who didn’t have a previous spiritual practice.  


One study by Rolland Griffit’s et al. in 2018 wanted to see if the changes noted after receiving psilocybin in personality and other traits were enduring for people without a previous spiritual practice…and not just the short-term result of a great trip. 


The results were impressive. I got into more details about the study in the pod, but after 6 months, the groups who received high-dose psilocybin and support for spiritual practice showed large significant positive changes longterm when compared to a placebo group (low dose psilocybin) that also received spiritual practice support. The areas of improvement include interpersonal closeness, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, daily spiritual experiences, and community observer ratings (how others rated them, not just how they saw themselves…to make sure the changes weren’t just perceived by the participant but that others could tell there was a shift as well). 


So this – and other studies – show that psilocybin can influence long-lasting /enduring increases in positive spcial attitudes/behaviors and in healthy psychological functioning. 


Isn’t that so fascinating? 


I want to mention here that there’s a big difference between recreational use of psychedelics and intentional use of psychedelics. 


I had my own first experience with LSD when I was 15 years old and experimented with it a lot over the course of a few years. That first experience forever changed the way I saw the world – it helped me see that my beliefs and the way I perceived the world was through many filters and that the ideas I had about separation of myself and others were false, and there was a mystical unity to our existence. 


I also had – at a later experience – a mystical near-death experience that changed the way I perceived death (and was a lot less fearful of it).  


And my difficult experiences (aka “bad trips”) gave me insight into the way my brain could loop and perseverate on things…and how important my mindset was in how I experienced the world. 


I had done so many psychedelics by my late teens that I went another 20 years before using them again (I spent that time integrating my insights with many life-changing experiences). When I decided to bring them back into my life again, it was with much more intention, and for entheogenic purposes. 


So, while there were some enduring effects for me with recreational use, in my own experience and in my subsequent guiding of altered states experiences, intentional use is a very different experience. 


There are several factors we take into account and implement when we intentionally use psychedelics. The mindset of the participant and the guide, the setting, which substance to use and the dosing, the skillset of the guide itself.. and post-experience situation/support as well. 


When we skillfully put these things together, I do believe there can be a great benefit. 


It’s not just about having a great experience, but also support in integrating what arose during the experience and integrating that into our day-to-day lives. 


There’s a high risk of using psychedelics as a way to escape the challenges of life. We can see this with almost anything that helps us feel better than sitting with a difficult emotion or experience – it happens with meditation, too. I like to remind myself and others to not chase after that meditative bliss experience, because it will be elusive, and that it’s a good practice to let go of the attachment and craving. 


So…what are psychedelics and spiritual practice (particularly Buddhist practices) contradictory? What often comes up in this discussion are the Buddhist precepts. 


These precepts are 5 ethical guidelines are considered the foundation for successful practice because they help to calm the mind and have it be in the est state for meditation and spiritual practice (not lying, not stealing, not killing, no harm from sexual misconduct). The fifth precept is often discussed here: I undertake the precept to abstain from liquor that causes intoxication and indolence. 


So here it specifically says alcohol and not other substances. And some people take it literally and others say well, it’s more complicated in modern times and we probably was meant to include all miind-altering substances. 


Is this…wise? Compassionate? 


Some people take precepts very literally, especially in early Buddhism and in many Theravedan schools. Like literally not lying under any circumstance. But in other traditions – like Mahayana or Vajrayana – look at it slightly differently, with prioritizing  the concept of skillful means and compassion for others as the primary intention. 


A common example is with not lying. If you’re hiding an innocent person in your house, and someone comes to kill them and asks if they’re in there, is it OK to lie? The Bodhisattva vow would say you break the precept to help the person.  


Thinking this way, when we are asking this question about psychedelics and spiritual practice, we can consider is it beneficial – ultimately – to our compassion and ability to help others? At this point, do we have the wisdom to inform this? How does a perspective impact our ability to show up in the world and make it a better place as we walk in it? 


What is our intention? 


This is why I feel strongly about the intention of spiritual growth. 


And of course, we have to have wisdom along with the compassionate intention, because us silly humans can fool ourselves. We can convince ourselves something is beneficial when we don’t have the wisdom to make that call yet…but we really want it to be beneficial;) So we have to tread with integrity over these waters. 


You know, I used to wonder if after a psychedelic experience, people would later feel, “Oh it was just the medicine, the drug”… but what I’ve found – at least with guided journeys – is that it’s more an affirmation of truth, and experience of truth. The veil has been lifted. 


And my hope is that it does encourage more spiritual practice and more dedication to the practice. The science is supporting this. 


It’s like taking a helicopter ride up to summit instead of a slow climb –  to see the view to see if it’s worth it, what’s possible. To help one commit to the slow climb that is to come. 


After the glimpse or the affirmation, we then continue with the traditional practices instead of trying to grasp at that initial insight again – striving for the meditative bliss experience or having another psychedelic journey. 


So do I think there’s a role for psychedelics in spiritual practice? Absolutely. AND psychedelics are not for everyone 


I believe in appropriate screening and assessment because there are medical and psychiatric contraindications and situations where they just won’t be as beneficial. 


AND I strongly believe in the importance of integration – with a coach or therapist who is trained specifically in psychedelic integration (there are also communities that have this support built in, like the Burner community or the Santo Daime church. 


It’s not just about the journey if you want a higher chance of success at enduring benefit for you and those you come into contact with. 


Lastly – and this is important – you don’t “need” psychedelics for spiritual growth. What you need is 100% within you. Right now. But they can be a safe, helpful tool along the way in the right context. 


Until next week, rebels…Free your mind! 


In this episode you’ll learn:

// Are psychedelics and entheogens the same thing?  

// The difference between recreational and intentional use 

// How science support that intentional use of psychedelics can create long-term positive changes in mindset, personality, social behavior, and spiritual practice 

// How psychedelics can be used to benefit spiritual practice 

// How to avoid using psychedelics as an escape or a temporary high 

// Whether Buddhism and psychedelics are actually contradictory in nature 

// Why integration is key in seeing positive long-term effects of psychedelic use 



// Buddhism and Psychedelics 3-part YouTube Series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 


// Zig, Zag, Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics edited by Alex Grey & Allan Badiner 


// The Secret Drugs of Buddhism by Michael Crowley 


// If you’re new to the squad, grab the Rebel Buddhist Toolkit I created at RebelBuddhist.com. It has all you need to start creating a life of more freedom, adventure, and purpose. You’ll also get access to the Rebel Buddhist FB group, and tune in every Wednesday at 11:30am PST as I go live.  


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