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Musings for the Modern Mystic

Is LSD a "back door to zen"? Many experienced meditators, including Eckhart Tolle & Sam Harris have spoken of their experiences with enlightenment & LSD.

The Enlightenment / LSD Connection

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There are a number of well-known figures at the forefront of the modern spirituality movement who have spoken openly about their experiences with psychedelics. There is a famous story about Ram Dass giving his guru, Maharaji (Neem Karoli Baba), exceptionally high doses of LSD in the 1970’s — not once, but twice — to which the saint apparently had no reaction.

Eckhart Tolle, one of the most influential spiritual teachers in the western world since the turn of the millennium, spoke openly and unprovoked during a live webcast with Oprah about his experience taking LSD, years after his ‘awakening’ took place.

And, while I am not a fan of his, Sam Harris, author of Waking Up and one of the leading voices in the atheist spirituality movement has also spoken openly about his experiences with mind-altering drugs, LSD not the least among them. The list goes on.

“What I experienced was the amplification – everything was vibrating – there was an intensity of smell, hearing, the visual, tasting – everything was amplified. Nothing special that I can say otherwise, but some people say “Woah, the world can be so alive” – It always is! You just don’t know it because of the screen of your thinking.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

So what is it about psychedelics that ties them so closely to the spiritual? For the most part, both remain conundrums, in theory as well as in practice. Just as sleep remains, in many ways, a riddle science is only beginning to crack, so too are the experiences had by long-time meditators, practitioners of mindfulness, and yes, psychedelic drug users. Nobody really knows what’s going on. The best way to get an idea is just to…

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride? Errrr…

Now in the case of meditation and mindfulness, this is one thing, but when it comes to psychedelics, it is quite another. While possessing nowhere near the destructive effects of most other drugs — alcohol and tobacco chief among them — it is still ill-advised to simply “buy the ticket, take the ride” (as the drug-and-gun-crazy journalist Hunter S. Thompson was prone to saying). The chances of having a very bad time are exceptionally high.

Yet this is something that ties in with one of the core teachings of nearly all spiritual disciplines: that suffering, though unnecessary to attain enlightenment, has the potential to serve as a significant catalyst to self-knowledge. This is why psychedelics are widely accepted as being non-addictive — because there is no guarantee of having a good time. Unlike the majority of the harder drugs, there’s a 50/50 chance you could end up rocking in the corner for six hours or longer, locked in the depths of the most intimate hell imaginable. After an experience like that, there’s a chance you may never go back.

And while there’s just as many reasons for these ‘bad trips’ as there are thoughts in one’s head, a theme that continuously crops up among experienced users is that the hell they experienced was… themselves. It was the “inward looking” at their shadow sides — those parts of us that we can’t acknowledge in day-to-day life and often–honestly–deny even exist — that so tortured them. It is a similar, yet far less pronounced, experience to what is often described by those people who have tried the entheogenic drugs ayahuasca and ibogaine in modern (and unfortunately increasingly commercial, inauthentic) attempts at the age old practice of vision-questing.

The ‘Game Genie’ of Spirituality?

[Yes, I know I am (practically carbon)dating myself with a reference to the Game Genie; for those of you who don’t know, it was basically a massive cheating device for the original Nintendo.] Of course, when one has had a pleasant experience on psychedelics it is often related that they resided in an Alice-In-Wonderlandish fantasy land of joy, bliss and sensory delights comparable to nothing but the most pleasant dreams imaginable — a type of nirvana that has often been referred to as a ‘back door to zen‘. However, the experiences rarely make any kind of linear sense, and, we always come down.

Regardless, it would appear that both sides of the psychedelic coin are quite akin to much of what we know about ‘spiritual experience’, almost as if, as earlier stated, it’s some kind of ‘Game Genie’ for spirituality. Yet the message remains the same–the same one it’s always been, always is, and always will be, over and over again, being transmitted in ALL WAYS possible: Heaven and hell both reside within.

“I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could have ever imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of Nature herself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and to be amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be—and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of these deeper possibilities.” ~ Sam Harris

Yet LSD, and many of the other recreational psychedelics, don’t have a good track record as far as being the sole catalyst for lifelong enlightenment. In fact, there appears to be no record at all of anyone attaining enlightenment through these means alone.

There’s reams of anecdotal evidence for their usefulness assisting psychological change in the user, both positive and negative (certain declassified experiments such as MK-Ultra being an example of the latter) and a growing body of (hopefully) genuine clinical data for many substances still finding their regulatory legs in a freshly burgeoning space in the mental health world… BUT in terms of being a single key to the so-called ‘higher realms’ of consciousness, they appear to be a bust.

Of the initial examples given in this article, only Neem Karoli Baba is said to have had no reaction. Both Tolle and Harris, experienced meditators each, had psychedelic trips. And while we’ll never truly know the subjective experience had by anyone but ourselves on such substances, the failure of a reaction on the part of Baba to such a high dose is intriguing, to say the least.

Does this mean that there are particular people that have genuinely reached a place of consciousness so ‘clean’, so otherworldly, that it may constantly mirror the experience of a pleasant psychedelic drug experience? Is that even possible?

A Permanent Home in the Rabbit Hole: Only For the Initiated?

In one way, Baba’s reaction may be deeply telling. Just as the Game Genie was renowned for endless glitches, quirks, and down-right bizarro results, so too, it seems, is the relationship of psychedelics to spirituality for the truly uninitiated — if they do in fact provide a ‘back door’ to zen, it seems to spell out, quite clearly, that there are no true ‘shortcuts’ leaving the legend of the fabled back door to reveal the same kind of thing we found behind the curtain in OZ: some kind of a distorted, revolving trap door instead.

In other words, while these substances undeniably deliver us to ‘higher’ (or ‘lower’) planes of existence — more endocrine activity, the ability to see more of the light spectrum, ‘lateral thinking’, etc — the experience is all too often far too much, blasting us wide open and leaving us reeling in the aftermath, unable to truly appreciate or understand what has happened, let alone make any real use of it. Because the slow, often painful everyday work of integration wasn’t done, step by step, to get us there, it’s simply beyond us. (Not to mention the health ramifications such substances have on our nervous systems and minds.)

Anyone who has ever had such an experience understands that psychedelics undoubtedly reveal other realities. Yet, until the science advances more, we are likely to remain in the dark regarding these issues, and even as it does move us forward, who’s to say it won’t simply reveal yet more mystery, even as our understanding continues to grow?

The world, the self, the experience of consciousness — all of it is a grand riddle to us at this point in history, with ‘enlightenment’ remaining an intriguing koan within the various folds that make all of us what we are. LSD and many of the other psychedelics appear to be interesting tools for tinkering with that mystery, but their overall usefulness and ultimate role, in the end, remains to be seen.

Kyle McMillan
Kyle McMillan


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