Josh Short MD
Psychedelics and Evangelism
One of the big problems with psychedelic medicines is that they work. They frequently produce a state of mind that people describe as "spiritual" or "transcendent". The issue of whether or not a reproducible spiritual experience is still a valid spiritual experience is not going to be solved in the comment section of a blog post, so I'll leave that for the theologians and trolls to argue about elsewhere. But many people do have what they describe as a meaningful spiritual experience when taking psychedelic medicines. And while this experience is a valuable component of the therapeutic use of psychedelics, there is also a common trend to evangelize these psychedelic experiences.
Similar to other profound experiences, regardless of how they are achieved, the sense of interconnectedness and timelessness that we can experience through psychedelics, fasting, religion, meditation, dance, etc, are powerful experiences that are often missing from day to day life and from our interactions with others. However, in modern American culture there is no consistent or universal context for these experiences and we spend a great deal of time trying to convince one another that there is a wrong or right way to experience a glimpse of the divine. I think this is largely because we want others to see what we have seen and it is hard to imagine that there are such different ways of getting there.
Having grown up in a rural Baptist church, as well as having spent a great deal of time in a community of psychedelic practitioners, I see a similar trend of focusing more on how we arrive at transcendence than on what we should do with that experience. I really think the conversation we should be having with one another should be about what to do with our memory of transcendence once the experience has passed.
A controversial opinion that I hold is that psychedelics validate religion for many people who are not religious. Psychedelic medicines can make it possible to experience mysticism without being tied to a specific framework of belief. And, in the way that religious experiences shape and guide so many people's lives, a psychedelic experience can do the same. The danger with psychedelics lies in the lack of context. With religions, spiritual traditions, or any organized pathway to the divine, you are following a trail laid down by others and given a way to categorize and organize new experiences based on the wisdom and experiences of others. These traditions serve as a guidebook for the strange country of transcendence, whereas psychedelics without context can be more like falling off the back of a truck on a side street in the holy city. You might wander in the right direction or you might just lie there bruised and blinded.
So how do we incorporate psychedelics into the modern practice of psychiatry for people who do not have a framework of understanding guided by tradition or experience? Our practice is to connect clients to nature. Nature is, by definition, a common context for all of us but we often take it for granted or fail to acknowledge its mystery and complexity. When we take a moment to reflect on the interconnectedness of nature and self, we begin to build a context for the experience of that which is greater than ourselves. This experience of nature requires or denies no other faiths or traditions. There is no conflict in appreciating nature as a Christian, an Atheist, a Taoist, or Breakdancer. And certainly, in these times, any common ground we can find with one another is something to be celebrated.
So with respect to the title of this post, let's use the disagreements we have over how we achieve divinity as evidence that the divine exists and that its existence is important to many, and maybe all, of us. The view from the summit is inspiring no matter which side of the mountain you climbed to get there. Our time on the summit is always brief relative to the climb and the closer we pay attention to the view, the longer our memory can sustain us as we return home.