What is the relationship between psychedelics and meditation? Experientially, they seem to cover similar ground and have significant overlap, suggesting they may be two different vehicles to get to the same place. At the same time, there are important ways in which these techniques can complement and support each other.
Meditation and psychedelics are united in the mystical experience. This is a state of consciousness that involves the transcendence of time and space, a sense of sacredness, and unity — often, this includes the collapse of previously established dualities, such as between self-other, inner-outer, and sacred-profane. These experiences, which can come about spontaneously or as the result of a contemplative discipline such as meditation, have been described by mystics and experienced meditators for millennia.
In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley reported having such an experience after ingesting mescaline. As soon as he published this influential report, religious scholars began debating whether this could be considered a true mystical experience. Illumination could come as a gift of grace or as the result of years of discipline, but to some the idea that such an experience could be induced by ingesting a minute amount of a compound seemed to cheapen and detract from the experience.
Alan Watts is an excellent case study for the question of drug-induced mysticism. A passionate student of the psychology of religion, he became deeply immersed in the study of Zen Buddhism for a significant part of his life and, through lectures and writing, made Eastern spiritual philosophies accessible to the Western mind. He underwent more than one mystical experience prior to trying psychedelics, giving him a unique vantage point for the experimentation that was to come.
Following his first psychedelic experience, he remarked that it had been quite interesting and largely aesthetic, though certainly not a spiritual experience. Shortly after, he was convinced by a psychiatrist that his experience may not have shown him all there was to see, and that a certain degree of skill in the use of these substances was needed to reach the states described by Huxley and others.
Taking this into consideration, he opted for a second session, about which he later said: “And lo and behold, I had what I simply could not deny being an experience of cosmic consciousness, the sense of complete, fundamental, total unity, forever and ever with the whole universe. And not only that, but […] that the energy behind the world was ecstatic bliss and love. Well, I was very embarrassed by this, because I thought, ‘Gee, you can’t get mysticism out of a bottle. That’s degrading it!’ But yet I couldn’t deny the fact that it had happened.”
The mystical experience is not the only experience one can have on a psychedelic, but it does happen. A 2008 article in the Journal of Psychopharmacology reported that nearly 60% of participants given a high dose of psilocybin during a study had a “complete mystical experience.”
To be sure, the preparation and setting afforded to participants in these studies undeniably contributes to the prevalence of these transformative experiences. They take place in a clinical setting with the assistance of a highly trained psychotherapist. Nonetheless, one thing does seem certain: the experience of mystical consciousness reported by these participants is the same as that reported by the mystics of our past and present. As philosophical authority on mysticism, W. T. Stace said about the drug-induced experience, “It’s not a matter of its being similar to mystical experience; it is mystical experience.”
Having established this, in what ways can a meditation practice complement psychedelic exploration?
As Zen Priest Vanja Palmers notes in an article called “Psychedelics and Meditation” in the Fall 2001 MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) Bulletin:
“It is quite obvious that skills in meditation, the practice of being at peace within one’s body and mind, even in uncomfortable places, can be of great help in the course of a psychedelic session.”
Learning to focus on one’s breath as an anchor to return to the present can also be of assistance. In a psychedelic session, having these skills in your toolkit can be the difference between losing your ground when challenging material arises, and being able to remain present and receive the experience in its full intensity and richness.
The usefulness of this sort of deep mental training is described in academic literature. In 1982 in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, psychiatrist Roger Walsh interviewed five people about their psychedelic experiences. Most of them were teachers of psychology or a consciousness discipline, with strong national or international reputations in their given field. All of them met criteria for exceptional psychological well-being and were advanced meditators.
These individuals agreed that psychedelics, used skillfully, can facilitate psychological growth — in particular, they emphasized the importance of “a deep involvement in an ongoing psychological or consciousness discipline aimed at deep mental training,” as described in the journal. Such a discipline not only provides useful skills for navigating the experience, but also a framework within which to comprehend and integrate these experiences.
If a meditative practice can facilitate psychedelic exploration, it makes sense that the converse is also true. All of Walsh’s interviewees felt that their psychedelic experiences had resulted in “an increased interest in depth psychology, religion, spirituality, and consciousness, as well as related disciplines and practices such as meditation,” in addition to an enhanced ability to understand these areas. Three of them felt that psychedelics had been instrumental in commencing some type of mental discipline such as meditation.
They also reported that psychedelics had had the effect of continuously revealing further realms of experience and exploration. It was common for them to have “experiences that some months or years later would recur in the context of their mental training discipline, and sometimes after that would arise into awareness spontaneously during daily life,” as the journal article notes. This is a particularly salient point which demonstrates that the mind states achieved on psychedelics are not unique to these substances, but innate to the mind itself.
In this sense, psychedelics are able to demonstrate what is possible without showing us the way there. Andrew Weil, medical doctor and founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, used a personal anecdote to highlight just this aspect of psychedelics. In this interview, he recounted a time during which he had encountered significant difficulty in achieving a challenging yoga pose. Having worked on it for two months with little progress, he was close to giving up on his attempts altogether, resigning that his weary twenty-eight-year-old body just couldn’t do it.
Then one day after taking LSD with some friends, he noted feeling very happy and like his body was very elastic, so he decided to try this difficult pose. To his amazement, he was able to enter into the pose without any of the pain or discomfort he had previously experienced.
The following day, he tried the same pose again, to no avail. The pain and discomfort were back, but his mindset had changed. He had seen that his body could in fact do it, and that gave him the motivation to continue trying and working at it. The LSD had shown him what was possible, but had not given him easy access to get there again — that would require his own effort and perseverance.
For many people, this is what happens with meditation as well. Taking up a meditative practice requires a certain faith in the existence of mind states one has not yet experienced. But a psychedelic session in which one experiences a state of one-pointed focus or present-mindedness or the power of centering one’s attention on the breath can have the same effect that doing yoga on LSD did for Dr. Weil: it demonstrates what is possible, and helps to point our compass for the work to come outside of the session, without the aid of the psychedelics.
Gonzo Nieto has a B.Sc. in Psychology & Neuroscience. He is a Montreal-based writer, psychonaut, and board member of the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy. He writes a column on drugs and the mind called Turning Inward for The Link newspaper, and has contributed pieces on psychedelics for Reset and AskMen. Find him on Twitter @gonzebo or check out his Facebook page.