Thursday, 10 May 2018

Dhamma and Psychedelics

It was in Goa, in January 1975, that I had a major insight into using psychedelic drugs, one that was to change my life. I was living on the beach then, among many end-of-an-era hippies, spiritual seekers looking for a guru, and wanderers of no particular inclination other than to ‘drop out’ of conventional society with its nine-to-five job, marriage, two kids and a semi-detached house. Such a niche seemed like a living death to me at that time. And a new way beckoned: in the late 60s Peace and Love had wafted in on a breeze; the Beatles were popularising Transcendental Meditation; and Tim Leary was encouraging us to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’. The expansion of consciousness through ingesting a small dose of a drug seemed to offer a groove that was more vibrant than the tedious ruts of the mainstream. I’d also read of the use of LSD in psychotherapy as an aid to unlocking the mysteries of the psyche ... then there was Aldous Huxley, John Lily M.D., and a host of tie-dyed rock bands indicating that life could be mystical, free from violence, loving, cooperative and joyful.  Consequently I had availed myself of psychedelics – principally LSD, but also mescaline, DMT and a few organic others – as and when they became available. It turned into quite a flow.
But by the mid-seventies, the joy was evaporating. The potential for an alternative culture had been hi-jacked by moneyed interests: youthful energy got sidetracked into music and fashion. Psychedelics were becoming a commodity rather than a freely distributed sacrament, and dealers were taking over. They’d also push a number of other drugs, so the border between using drugs for spiritual awakening and just getting stoned melted. Meanwhile very little had been established as a basis for an engaged social life. A few communes had been set up, but by and large the interest in an alternative, more mystically-inspired way of life hadn’t produced any workable structures. In our mid-twenties now, the would-be mystics of my generation were drifting around, getting high and producing children (whose needs brought them back to the mainstream). A few moved on to hard drugs – and they didn’t all survive.
India seemed to offer a refuge from all that, a place to tap into authentic spirituality. This is where the acid-guru Richard Alpert had met his teacher, ‘Maharaji’ (Neem Karoli Baba) and had progressed towards a Way that entailed self-discipline and service. ‘Ram Das’ –‘Servant of God’– was his new name, and he taught meditation and wisdom, in fact set up the Hanuman Foundation specifically to help the needy. Not that there was access to that in Goa in 1975. Nor were there gurus sitting under trees – India was mostly made up of people getting by, many of whom would probably have jumped at the chance to have a steady nine-to-five job, a marriage, a few kids and a semi-detached. Or even one room. The people sitting under trees in Goa were like me. And I was getting disenchanted with the whole thing. The highs were there, but there was also an unspoken sense of ‘Well so what?’ You go up, the senses merge into a flow of synesthetic effects, (for example one would see music), there is a sense of vastness, wonder and euphoria (along with whatever you do or conceive on based on such a mind-state) ... and then you come down. It was a lot better than using alcohol, and mostly harmless. People on acid would often just sit around goggling at Nature (or even at blank walls across which vivid hallucinations were unfurling); it was normal to spend the hours of the trip enthralled by music, and deriving deep meaning from the ragged lyrics. Occasionally someone would see, or even be, God; and on relatively few occasions, someone would have a bad trip and get shaken by paranoia. I don’t recall that taking LSD encouraged sexual licence: often trippers would get entranced by the beauty unfolding from a small detail and just sit there ‘digging’ it. So one was just as likely to engrossed in the pattern on someone’s clothing, or euphoric about the lines of their (or one’s own) palms, as to proceed on to more engaged sexual behaviour. Particularly as perceptions of the body and even of being in one, kept changing throughout the session.
Of course, sex was available, but for me that was producing the same ‘So what?’ – as I hadn’t a clue as to how to engage in the psychologies of a fruitful relationship. That, like mystical revelation, was supposed to come naturally. No effort, just tune in and go with the flow. But although the psychedelic sessions were warm and easeful, because the drug ramped up one’s own psyche, turned up its volume so to speak, mutuality and the negotiations it requires got drowned out. Other people were features in the psychic landscape; the relationships tended towards genial bemusement spangled with semi-coherent revelations and non-sequiturs.
Not that I found the psychedelic experience toxic or useless. It made it clear that the reality that we perceive through the senses is a constructed and biased representation. Not so much a view seen through a glass darkly but an activity of programmed consciousness. That insight supported a disengaged perspective, whereby many of the snap judgements and fixed attitudes around identity, meaning and purpose were suspended. When what presents itself in consciousness is something like the reflection on a lake when the sky is full of passing clouds and the fish and waterfowl are rippling the surface, it’s hard to get a fixed attitude about any of it. ‘May all be well’ just about sums it up.
That’s not a bad place to start from – but as for the ensuing and necessary details ... So this may be why my big insight in Goa was something like: ‘This isn’t taking me where I need to go.’ Or ‘I’ve got to the end of this one. What now?’
Well, ‘What now’ for me turned out to be entering a monastery in Thailand, taking up a disciplined meditation technique and training in the customary behaviour of a Theravada Buddhist monk, Thai-style. Quite an about-turn: to a practice of teasing apart the weave of thought, memory, and mental proliferation. My disengagement got engaged with a deconstruction of that woven reality.
In the contemporary Western Dhamma environment, a deconstruction of the apparent reality can be interpreted as indifference or even disapproval. ( And following on from that, a lack of meaningful engagement with the world that it presents.) And as we are still following on from the Romantic tendency to give supreme validity to what is subjectively felt – especially if it seems uniquely one’s own, or esoteric – disapproval is not allowed. That was one of the unspoken tenets of the hippies, and the Beats before them. But disapproval itself is a construction, and a view that lacks depth; it generally produces a counter-effect. Hence youthful rebellion. Instead, Dhamma-practice encourages a penetration of the world rather than a rejection of it. And for that we have to engage with the basis of the world as we experience it. That begins with handling the emotional craving, happiness, despair and anxiety that go along with the world. 

In essence this entails exercising wisdom with regard to the emotions and views that arise from agreeable and disagreeable impressions, most of them mentally based. That is, for example a taste isn’t delicious, my psyche finds it so.  What makes a shape 'beautiful'? On the other hand, blue could well be the ‘wrong’ colour for you to dress in. And: ‘That so-called music of yours is a raucous din!’ And then the big issues: other people.  Our emotions are interpretations, and they press our buttons with ‘like-dislike’; and our interpretations surge up: 'power-mad', 'ineffective', 'untrustworthy'.  In Buddhist parlance this escalating activity is called ‘the arising of the world.’
In Dhamma-practice, the entry point is certainly subjective feeling: ‘All dhammas(= qualia of experience) converge on feeling... are mastered with mindfulness ... supervised with wisdom ...culminate in the Deathless‘ (A.10:58) But note the mastery: that’s the vital hinge whereby the world subsides and the doors of the Deathless swing open. That takes an authentic, fully conscious, and cool activity with regard to the arising and continuation of one’s world.  So maybe, maybe... it may be the case that with a skilled guide, one can steer through the unravelling that psychedelics offer – but even given a disciplined approach, I personally remain sceptical about blending psychedelics with Dhamma practice. For a few reasons.
Firstly psychedelics don’t get the mind to bring forth its strengths, virtues, warmth or discernment to rightly engage with the world. Instead, the mind’s response is rendered passive in the face of transrational energies. As is reasoned analysis – the aspect of Dhamma that serves to question and to integrate what has been revealed into a new way of being. Having understood unsatisfactoriness, and not-self, and having cultivated restraint, goodwill and patience: what is your livelihood, how do you serve? The ‘translation’ of the mystic or insightful experience into the mundane, an integration into the relative world – that’s what the eightfold Path is about. Certainly the Buddha modeled this path as selfless service. And with that the accept Dhamma as an authority and guide, rather than the operate according to personal inclination or view. This authority is a precious pearl that should not, and cannot, be handed over to another person, let alone to a drug that can only absorb you into perceptions and feelings.
This is where another stumbling block occurs with psychedelics: they tend to highlight what the mind ‘sees’, its perceptions and consciousness, rather than what it ‘does’ – its hanging on to and fondling of these aggregates. Buddha-Dhamma is about letting go of these, through realising their constructed, fallible and changeable nature. To this end, it presents a developmental line of ‘disengagement, dispassion, ceasing and relinquishment’ with reference to consciousness and perception (and the rest of the aggregates). Does this seem abstract or nihilistic? Well, you practise it through entering and abiding in your own embodied presence – and within that you find a centred energy that stands back from mental creations, not because it disapproves, but because it already is of another domain. And yet it can sense, receive and moderate the mind and its world by its  steady presence and innate empathy. The results are earthed and affirmative. Hence one gets to realise that there is a ‘place’ of letting go, or of non-belonging to the sense-world. 
And this is where another dissonance with psychedelics crops up: the expansion of consciousness expands the world; it magnifies all that consciousness brings with it – which includes perception/impression, feeling and impulse to act. The most striking shift that pyschedelics bring around is in the case of perception (Hence Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception’): colours sing and vibrate; sounds issue forth flowing patterns – and all this is emotionally moving. The effect is mostly delightful, although waves of terror or grief are possible. This emotional effect, as in the above case of blue being the ‘wrong’ colour, intensifies the mind’s hold on that perception. Or it equates the perceptual conjuring trick with a revelation of the true nature of reality. But a cooler realization will tell you that perception changes, is subjectively biased, and is emotionally and psychologically captivating. It inspires belief – and is not a true reality. Waves of euphoria on the other hand, and the fixation of attention associated with the psychedelic experience, lean against that very realization. In which case there is no release from the conjuring trick, nor even the understanding that such a release is needed or valid. 
In this fathom-long body with its perceptions and mind is the world, the origin of the world and the way leading to the ceasing of the world’(S.2:26) is another lead on the rationale of awakening. If what we perceive is an experience that is dependent on our unconscious activities, holding onto it is equivalent to engaging with a multi-dimensional mirage. An engagement that is based on truth has to come from dispassion towards that mirage. But you relinquish the mirage from being coolly right here with it. In this body, where consciousness and perception (and the rest of the aggregates) naturally arise. Here the mind’s innate strengths and virtues lie, along with its shadowy tangles and conjuring tricks. So rather than changing the balls, we learn how to juggle and dissolve them, in the workshop of our birthed form. That’s in it’s own right is quite a trip! Better keep the place clean and clear.