Are Psychedelics useful in the practice of Buddhism?
by Myron J, Stolaroff
Journal of Humanistic Psychology
Vol. 39 No. 1 Winter 1999
Copyright by Journal of Humanistic Psychology
In the fall of 1996 issue of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, various
teachers of Buddhist meditation practice commented on the value of
psychedelic experiences, with opinions of them ranging from helpful to
harmful. Here, the author hopes to explain these conflicting viewpoints by
describing important aspects of employing psychedelics that must be taken
into account for effective results. These embrace proper methodology, which
includes set and setting, dose levels, appropriate substances, appropriate
intervals, and proper integration of each experience. The author has found
the informed use of psychedelics to be a valuable tool in accelerating
proficiency and deepening meditative practice and offers recommendations
for successful use. The adverse comments of several recognized teachers are
evaluated to shed further light on fruitful application of psychedelic
The Buddhist magazine Tricycle devoted its fall of 1996 issue to the topic
of psychedelics and Buddhism. The viewpoints of the authors regarding the
efficacy of psychedelics on Buddhist practice ranged from a high degree of
support to outright opposition. Those who are interested in the possible
application of psychedelics to meditative practice might well be puzzled by
such a diversity of viewpoints. Yet, the answer is simple. Psychedelics can
be used in a great variety of ways for an enormous array of purposes. The
results depend greatly on the experience, knowledge, skill, and level of
development of the practitioner. Thus, the person presenting his and/or her
own particular point of view may or may not be aware of numerous other
considerations involved. Widespread unfavorable public bias toward
psychedelics has been created by very selective reporting by the media, as
observed by Walsh (1982). As Walsh reports, this bias is so unfavorable
that a reputable journal refused to accept an article that indicated some
beneficial outcomes from the use of psychedelics unless the reference to
positive effects was removed. I hope to shed some light on the diversity of
viewpoints by first laying out what I consider to be important factors to
take into account in effectively employing psychedelics. From this
perspective, we can examine some of the more relevant comments that have
Psychedelic agents, when properly understood, are probably one of the most
valuable, useful, and powerful tools available to humanity. Yet, their use
is extremely complex, which means that they are widely misunderstood and
very olden abused.
Let me be clear: It is not psychedelics that are complex. In their most
useful application, they play a rather straightforward role. After 40 years
of careful study, it is my observation that one of the outstanding actions
of psychedelics is permitting the dissolving of mind sets. One of the most
powerful mind set humans employ is the hiding of undesirable material from
consciousness. Thus, a very important function of psychedelic substances is
to permit access to the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is
enormously complex and possesses an extremely wide range of attributes,
from repressed, painful material to the sublime realization of universal
love. We probably shall never cease to discover new aspects and dimensions
of the mind, as it appears endless, and I am convinced that continual
searching will reveal new discoveries. Probably every hypothesis that any
scientist, therapist, or mystic has conceived ultimately can be observed to
fit some set of conditions, from psychological dynamics to the ultimate
nature of the universe. One of the most remarkable things to the
experienced psychedelic user is discovering how the boundaries of
perception dissolve to permit viewing ever new images, perceptions,
concepts, and realizations. The biggest problem lies in incorporating
discoveries into meaningful, enhanced functioning in life.
Humans love structure, and at the same time, the ego loves certainty, so a
great variety of claims often are made about what psychedelics can or
cannot do. With integrity, commitment, and courage, vast aspects of the
mind can be explored. It is important to realize that what one experiences
depends a great deal on his/her value-belief system, motivation,
conditioning, and accumulated unconscious content, which includes the
rigidity with which the mind functions.
I am an early stage novice in my practice of Buddhism, so there is a great
deal about the subject of which I am ignorant. However, I have had
considerable experience with psychedelics, and my major concern is that
there will be attempts to categorize these potent aids and contain them
within the walls of narrow, judgmental decisions, thereby cutting off much
I personally have found that appropriately understood and used,
psychedelics can play a significant role in deepening and accelerating the
progress of one’s meditative practice. This is not true for everyone.
Psychedelics are of little use for advanced practitioners who have learned
to achieve results without the benefit of such aids or for those who can
free themselves from worldly obligations for extensive daily practice.
Also, encountering heavily defended areas in the psyche with psychedelics
may produce intense, uncomfortable feelings that many may prefer to work
through more gradually.
My concern is mostly for the large number of people who could benefit from
fruitful meditation practice but must still be occupied in the world by
earning a living and raising a family. Such persons lead busy lives and may
not have the time to devote to perfecting a practice that will lead to
significant freedom. For these, informed use of psychedelics can be quite
helpful in more rapidly reaching the level of accomplishment at which
practice becomes self-sustaining. The ultimate achievement of liberation
must occur through interior development that does not depend on the use of
a plant or a chemical, although these may help in discovering the way.
There are several key factors to consider in evaluating whether the use of
psychedelics can be personally fruitful.
1. Legal status. In a sense, this discussion is hypothetical because now
most psychedelics are illegal to possess in the United States. Westerners
for several centuries have focused primarily on the outer world, with the
resulting neglect of developing inner resources. This neglect, coupled with
a heavy emphasis on materialism and reductionism, has created a painful
schism between adopted conscious values and the deep interests of the Self.
For most people, it has become so painful to reveal this powerful conflict
that those substances that might accomplish this have been made illegal to
possess. This has not stopped many dedicated therapists and seekers who
find that the value of such substances exceeds the risk of incarceration.
The illegal status also creates the problem of finding pure substances in
reliably known dose levels. I am not advocating that anyone break the law,
but I am pointing out the importance of developing sound, rational policies
that will permit appropriate scientific evaluation of these substances and,
ultimately, the realization of their potential.
2. Methodology. It is important that those who wish to work with
psychedelics be fully informed of appropriate procedures. Unfortunately,
the illegal status of psychedelics has prevented the publication and
sharing of results and effective practices. However, there is available a
great deal of information to guide the serious seeker if one has the
diligence to seek it out. Some excellent examples of appropriate procedures
can be found in the following references.
Grofs (1980) book, LSD Psychotherapy, is a treasure house of good
information. See in particular the sections Psychedelic Therapy With LSD
(pp. 32-38), Personality of the Subject (pp. 52-64), Personality of the
Therapist or Guide (pp. 89-107), and Set and Setting of the Sessions (pp.
In Adamson and Metzner (1988), much attention is given to guidelines,
preparation, set and setting.
The pamphlet, Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides, was prepared by the
Council on Spiritual Practices, which can be contacted at the following
address: Box 460065, San Francisco, CA 94146-0065.
Finally, Stolaroff (1993) presents a brief summary of important factors to
take into account.
3. Low doses. Many who have experimented with psychedelics have used high
doses of substance to assure penetration into the very rewarding
transpersonal levels of experience. Such experiences can be awesome,
compelling, and extremely rewarding. Yet, it is often the case that these
experiences fade away in time unless there are diligent efforts to make the
changes indicated. In profound experiences, the layers of conditioning
that, in ordinary states, hold one away from liberation are transcended and
from the lofty view of the transcendental state, personal conditioning
seems unimportant and often unrecognized. Yet after the experience, old
habits and patterns reestablish themselves and often there is no alteration
in behavior. The use of low doses often can be much more effective in
dealing with our “psychic garbage.” Many do not care for low doses because
they can stir up uncomfortable feelings, and they prefer to transcend them
by pushing on into higher states, but it is precisely these uncomfortable
feelings that must be resolved to achieve true freedom. With low doses, by
focusing directly on the feelings and staying with them without aversion
and without grasping, they will in time dissipate. Resolving one’s
repressed feelings in this manner clears the inner being, permitting the
True Self to manifest more steadily. Such a result provides greater energy,
deeper peace, more perceptive awareness, greater clarity, keener intuition,
and greater compassion. It permits the deepening of one’s meditation
practice. The surfacing of buried feelings that this procedure permits
often can bring new understanding of one’s personality dynamics.
4. Different compounds. Some compounds may be more suitable for developing
meditation practice than are others. I personally have had substantial
experience with the phenethylamines, outstanding examples of which are
2C-T-2, 2C-T-7, and 2C-B (code names for 2,5-dimethoxy-4-(ethylthio)
phenethylamine, 2,5-dimethoxy-4-(n-propylthio) phenethylamine, and
4-bromo-2,5d-imethoxyphenethylamine, respectively). The synthetic
procedures and physical characteristics of all of these compounds are
published in Shulgin and Shulgin (1991). These compounds have the
characteristic of having some of the centering qualities of MDMA, yet being
more LSD-like than is MDMA without the powerful push of LSD. This lowers
the likelihood of the user being trapped in deep pools of repressed
material. Not being as pushy as LSD, these compounds require developing
volition to achieve similar levels of experience. This is the same kind of
volition that develops good meditation practice. Consequently, it is easier
to focus attention under their influence, which permits developing the
attributes for good meditation practice. As one develops proficiency in
entering the desired state, it is found that the advantage of one compound
over another diminishes. The appropriate dose (found by
experiment–generally equivalent to 25-50 micrograms of LSD) of most any
long-acting psychedelic is helpful.
5. Freeing deeply occluded areas. The practice of Buddhism in general, as I
understand it, is not necessarily therapeutically oriented. There is much
advice in older texts to resolve personal problems with focused attention
and application of intention to change behavior. The result is that much
unconscious material never gets resolved despite the ability of the mind to
achieve high levels of awareness. For a discussion of the difference
between meditative realization and the uncovering process achieved through
psychotherapy, see Wilber (1993, pp. 196-198). Psychedelics facilitate
reaching these deeper, often highly defended levels and clearing them out,
thus permitting greater liberation and dropping of undesirable personality
and behavior patterns. Some powerfully repressed areas, such as the very
painful birth experience I underwent in my first LSD session (Stolaroff,
1994), might never be resolved without the help of psychedelics.
6. Judicious spacing of psychedelic experiences. In my own practice, I
intentionally have limited my early morning formal meditation session to an
hour so as to leave ample time for worldly endeavors. Thus, whatever I
discover will be more applicable for the large numbers of persons
constrained by the need or desire to function in the world. Although I have
advanced sufficiently in my practice to fend off some of the typical aging
symptoms (I am 77 years old) such as loss of energy, stiff and sore
muscles, and increased arthritic symptoms, I do find that after a while, I
begin to acquire such symptoms. When this happens, an appropriate
psychedelic experience is a very effective rejuvenator. Aging symptoms
summarily are dissipated, I am in a much more enjoyable and effective state
of being, and I find it easier to remain in this state through my regular
meditation practice. Also, if there are deep, underlying, unconscious
dynamics that are a drag on life, as I have experienced much of my life, I
find it especially helpful to resolve such deep patterns with psychedelics.
The psychedelic experience provides extremely effective clearing and a
quantum jump improvement in well-being and meditative proficiency. At the
same time, it is important not simply to rely on another experience to
overcome difficulties. Numerous times I have discovered that mustering a
deeper degree of intent can resolve important restrictions through properly
focused meditation practice, with the advantage of a more permanent and
satisfying state of well-being. Such work also ensures that when an
additional experience is found to be appropriate, it will be considerably
7. Honoring the experience. A very important aspect of employing
psychedelics is to acknowledge fully the graces that have been received.
This is done through appreciation and gratitude, which are best expressed
by determinedly putting into effect in one’s life the changes that have
been indicated. In fact, failure to do so can contribute to subsequent
depression. Thoroughly honoring the experience and postponing further
psychedelic exploration until a real need is determined that cannot be
resolved in straightforward meditation practice ensures that the next
experience will be fruitful. One of the fairly widespread abuses of
psychedelics is to rely on repeated use of the drug to accomplish relief
from discomfort instead of exerting the effort to make changes in one’s
behavior that have already been indicated. This is the most frequent
objection to psychedelics raised by the contributors to Tricycle (1996).
8. Historical precedence. Psychedelics have had extensive use in spiritual
practices in numerous cultures around the world and encompassing some 2,000
years of history. Current legally sanctioned spiritual practices with
psychedelics include the Native American Indian church in North America,
based on the use of peyote, and the Santo Daime and Uniao do Vegetal
churches in Brazil employing ayahuasca. Robert Jesse (1996) briefly reviews
the history of such usage and describes a number of the substances most
widely employed–peyote, mushrooms, ayahuasca, soma, keykeon, iboga,
cannabis, LSD, and MDMA.
USING PSYCHEDELICS IN MEDITATION PRACTICE
Since the passage of the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of
1986, almost all psychedelic substances have been outlawed. As a
consequence, it has not been possible to conduct legally any research since
that time. The following suggestions are based on the limited amount of
experience that has been garnered, most of which is personal, and indicate
where future research can be gainfully directed.
1. Ethical framework. Committing oneself to a suitable ethical framework,
such as the Buddhist eight-fold path, is essential. This is an important
part of the mental set and also provides help in integrating psychedelic
2. Preparation. The participant should have a thorough understanding of
psychedelics including the types of experience that may be expected,
factors affecting experience, how to handle various kinds of experiences
and how to follow them up, and the importance of set and setting as
described above. It is important to have first undergone a high-dose
experience with a qualified guide that has resulted in reaching
transpersonal levels. This will put the entire process into perspective.
3. Employing a correct substance at the proper dose level. (Described
4. Developing mental stability. This application is probably the most
fruitful for employing psychedelic substances. A practice focusing on the
breath is particularly appropriate. With proper substance and dose, one
will note several possible developments. First, distractions may be more
intense than in ordinary practice because the action of the chemical
releases more material from the unconscious. At the same time, the enhanced
awareness resulting from the action of the psychedelic allows one to notice
in greater detail how various attitudes, thoughts, and actions affect the
ability to hold one’s focus steady. From this, one learns to hold the mind
in the position of maximum effectiveness for becoming free of distractions
and for holding mental focus stable. One then experiences the deepening of
the practice, more readily avoiding distractions and moving into areas of
peace, calm, and growing euphoria. With continuing practice, one finds it
easier to enter the numinous levels that one ultimately is seeking.
Furthermore, the volition gained in developing this practice under the
influence of a psychedelic carries on into day-to-day practice during which
the same level of achievement becomes accessible. The outcome that I
personally have found most satisfying is the ability to hold the mind
perfectly still, a state that makes access to previously unrevealed regions
of the mind available, including the direct contact with one’s essence or
5. Deepening the meditation practice. One’s daily practice may be
strengthened by using the discoveries made under the influence of
psychedelics. I recommend working to obtain maximum benefit from one
psychedelic experience before proceeding with another. When experiences are
spaced judiciously in this manner, one learns under the influence to go
deeper into the contact with the numinous. As the ability to hold the mind
steady grows, it becomes possible to focus more directly on the contact
with the inner teacher–our deepest Self, our Buddha nature, or however one
chooses to call the wise, guiding entity within us. Maintaining this focus
leads to what seems to me to be the most valuable, fulfilling experiences
possible. From such experiences, combined with daily practice, grows the
ability to achieve similar results in ordinary practice, until eventually
the use of the psychedelic substance is no longer required. At this point,
the faculty for achieving optimum results has been developed within us. I
like to call this “developing a God muscle.”
Many of the issues concerning the application of psychedelics in meditative
practice may be clarified further by examining some of the comments
reported in the Tricycle issue on Psychedelics (Tricycle, 1996). Jack
Kornfield (1996) presents a knowledgeable and well-balanced view of the use
of psychedelics as well as important factors required for a good meditative
practice and spiritual development. He points out the value that
psychedelics have in introducing persons to new areas of the mind and even
to glimpses of the goal of spiritual realization, experiences which
encouraged many to develop a more disciplined practice. He also clearly
points out a common failing among many psychedelic users: failure to
understand the depth of change required to transform oneself and to
understand that it takes more than repeated psychedelic experiences to
Next, I will present some responses to Michelle McDonald-Smith’s (1996)
firmly expressed views.
From my experience, no matter what kind of deep opening one might have on a
drug, it isn’t going to develop one’s ability to have those experiences
naturally. Other people might say that drugs are a doorway, but I don’t see
them developing anything. They don’t develop equanimity, they don’t develop
concentration, they don’t develop any factors of enlightenment. (p. 67)
In sharing my own perceptions on the same factors she has enumerated, I
wish it to be clear that I am discussing the results of informed used,
which has been delineated elsewhere in this article.
I agree that psychedelics alone will not necessarily develop the ability to
have transpersonal experiences naturally, despite the fact that many people
who have had such an outstanding initial experience are content to never
have another, feeling that they have been blessed for life. I maintain that
psychedelics are way showers, and we then must work with serious intent to
attain the states that are shown to be possible. Nevertheless, it is of
enormous benefit and inspiration if one can glimpse and experience
firsthand the territory to which we aspire. Norbert Wiener, the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist who suggested the binary
system on which the operation of computers is based, commented on the
successful development of the atomic bomb by the Russians. He stated that
their simply knowing that it is possible was at least 50% of the battle.
But psychedelics can do far more than simply show what is possible. They
permit the recognition and resolution of powerfully repressed material in
the unconscious that interferes with contacting our essence or Buddha
nature. They can reveal dramatically the errors in our behavior and
perceptions, which are generating uncomfortable feelings and inappropriate
responses, and can show how such errors can be corrected. When we have
fallen back so far so that we are losing energy and motivation, they can
refresh us, invigorate us, and renew our inspiration and determination.
In contrast to McDonald-Smith’s (1996) claim, “I don’t see them as
developing anything” (p. 67), I see them as developing wisdom, heightened
perception, self-understanding, energy, and freedom; releasing habitual
blocks that interfere with the total response of our senses; facilitating
the flow of ideas; releasing intuition and creativity as unconscious blocks
are removed and as we become in touch with our inherent faculties; and
deepening our meditation practice. My observations are based on some 40
years of research, including observing more than 100 individuals.
Regarding the comments about equanimity, concentration, and enlightenment,
I find that appropriate use of psychedelics helps develop all of these
qualities. I never realized what equanimity was until I began taking
psychedelics. One of the great gifts of psychedelics is permitting one to
learn real concentration. Of course, if there is much repressed material in
the unconscious and one takes a significant dose of a psychedelic, it is
neither possible nor desirable to try to concentrate. It is best to simply
surrender to the experience and to let the flow of imagery and feelings
proceed undisturbed. In this flow, unconscious material is released. The
meditation equivalent is focusing on the breath or on an object and simply
letting thoughts and feelings flow without getting involved. When the
high-pressure feelings in the unconscious demanding release begin to abate,
then it becomes possible to concentrate on the desired object. The practice
of holding one’s attention steadily on an image, concept, or object under
the influence of a good psychedelic permits many aspects of the object of
attention to unfold, so that one may learn a great deal of new information
about the object as well as discover unsuspected beauty and meaning and
experience appreciation. Eventually, one develops concentration sufficient
to hold the mind quite still, which permits other aspects of reality to
manifest. I often feel that this is creating the empty space to permit God
to enter, which I consider a major factor of enlightenment. In practicing
holding the mind steady under a low dose or a psychedelic, one becomes much
more aware of the subtle distractions and urges that affect concentration.
Some distractions are more intense, so one can practice maintaining
stability in spite of them. Such practice under the influence helps
strengthen the faculty that maintains steady attention. A great deal can be
accomplished in learning to effectively maintain stability, learning which
is immediately applicable in subsequent practice.
McDonald-Smith (1996) stated:
Drugs take a considerable toll on the body and the mind. They bring all
this energy into the system so that it catapults you into a different state
of consciousness at the same time that it taxes your body, mind, and heart.
You get a sort of beatific view, but actually you are further down the
mountain. (p. 67)
My associates and I, in psychedelic research, find ourselves very much at
odds with this statement. Yes, if a person is carrying heavy psychic
burdens and takes a large psychedelic dose, he or she can be very tired at
the end of the day and perhaps for a few days after. But often this is
followed by a gratifying sense of rejuvenation and appreciation for the
benefits realized. Important exceptions are the cases in which the
participant does not work all the way through important problem areas,
leaving them with a feeling of unfinished business and perhaps even greater
discomfort because he or she is now experiencing uncomfortable feelings
that formerly were locked safely away. Working through these feelings with
the help of a good counselor and following up with subsequent psychedelic
sessions can clear up this problem.
Rather than toll, there is healing and rejuvenation. One often feels that
he or she has dropped a heavy load off the body, and his or her spirits are
high. A heavier mind can come from the unresolved situation described
above; otherwise, there is lightness of feeling and clarity of mind. Other
than toll, there is renewal. I have friends who take many different kinds
of vitamins and nutriments to achieve healthy states of mind and body and
to have more energy. I try their various recommendations, but my experience
is that none of them work as well as a good, appropriate psychedelic
session. Rather than being brought further down, you are climbing the
mountain with considerable help. It is very true, however, that to maintain
the high states experienced, it takes committed effort to make the
necessary changes in day-to-day life. This point is frequently neglected.
My experience is that not expressing appropriate gratitude and appreciation
for the marvelous graces that have been granted can lead to self-hatred and
depression. A good meditation practice is an effective means of maintaining
awareness of the needed changes and furnishing the energy and motivation to
make them possible.
McDonald-Smith (1996) also stated:
I’ve had people come to retreats who’ve done a lot of drugs, and it seems
like they don’t have the energy to access subtle stages of insight. They’ve
blown it off with drugs. You pay a price for any drug experience. (p. 69)
It is true that many have abused psychedelics by frequent use, probably of
high doses, with insufficient effort to integrate the meaning of the
experience. Frequent repetition can dissolve ego strength, and such people
can develop rambling minds and have little ability to focus. However, it is
important to understand that this is the result of abuse, which is not the
case with informed use. You do not “pay a price for any drug experience.”
Appropriately used, psychedelic experiences not only have little or no
price, but also open the door to healing, rejuvenation, and many riches in
McDonald-Smith (1996) says: “On the deepest level of letting go, drugs get
in the way. This is especially true for those who are heavily armored” (p.
69). I say that appropriate use of psychedelics teaches you to let go and
discover the rewarding benefits of letting go. We are all afraid of the
unknown; psychedelics can help one develop trust, face fear, and enter
unknown and sublime arenas. Psychedelics are especially helpful for the
heavily armored, if they truly wish to resolve their difficulties, as they
can help dissolve the heavy walls of defensiveness and permit resolution
and profound insight.
A major emphasis in the remainder of McDonald-Smith’s (1996) article is
that “drugs promote attachment to peak experience… what you actually get
from drug experience is the desire to take the drugs again” (p. 70). Many
have fallen into this trap, but it is an overstatement to generalize that
this is always the case. With an honest approach, one realizes that there
is work to do before seeking another session. My own experience is that for
many of us, particularly with me for many years, our self-esteem is so low
that we feel that we do not deserve the full benefits of grace. I have
found that extensive help is waiting in many different forms and from many
different levels and is generously offered. We can always benefit from
taking advantage of help in whatever mode, be it teachers, nutriments,
reading, exercise, prayer, or simply thinking good thoughts. And they can
all work together and support each other. Appreciation and gratitude
multiply the benefits. And one certainly cannot argue with McDonald-Smith’s
advice to be completely aware in each moment.
Allan Hunt Badiner (1996) has written in Tricycle an impressive description
of an extremely powerful, remarkable, life-changing experience with yage.
His experience probably represents the far extremes of intensity, variety,
complexity, and meaning that psychedelics have to offer. Badiner is to be
highly congratulated for both his courage and his power of articulation in
encountering and describing this compelling experience. There are probably
not a great many persons prepared to make such an encounter, but the
outcome of Allan’s experience is testimony to the advice given by many
sages that the encountering of pain and suffering, and even of near death
itself, paves the way to becoming utterly alive.
Nina Wise (1996), in her article in Tricycle, tells a beautiful story of
personal growth and development with the aid of psychedelics, excellent
teachers, and dedicated practice. With her first psychedelic experience,
she encounters a trauma often encountered by inexperienced explorers. She
has a glorious, very opening experience, yet sinks into deep depression
because she does not know how to integrate the experience to maintain such
a state. She finds a meditation teacher and begins to grow in her practice.
A subsequent experience with ayahuasca provides another important opening
that has very meaningful consequences in her life. Later, with the help of
good meditation teachers, she reaches the peace and equanimity she has been
searching for and is no longer attracted to the aid offered by
psychedelics. She has reached the state of realization for which most of us
One hardly could hope for a better outcome than that which Nina Wise
presents to us. Yet, her story does provide the opportunity to include some
additional remarks about the use of psychedelics. Her first experience
points out the need, as almost all the knowledgeable writers in the
Tricycle (1996) issue have clearly stated, to have a framework and
discipline within which to have the experience and, particularly, to help
follow up the experience for optimum benefit. Her second experience with
ayahuasca illustrated that at an appropriate time, a further experience can
be quite helpful.
There were characteristics about her psychedelic journeys that she was
quite happy to leave behind her and not engage again. Wise’s (1996) words
are, “My psychedelic experiences, which had brought me to this place, were
now interfering with my vision” (p. 93). It is important to understand that
psychedelics, when properly employed, can lead to the same state she had
achieved of direct experience of reality. It is the state reached by what !
call the trained user. It helps to know that the creepy visions, the
hallucinations, and the constant flow of imagery are the results of
pressures in the unconscious where repressed material is demanding release.
By employing low psychedelic doses, it is possible to confront and deal
with these images and, particularly, the feelings behind them, until they
clear up. Then one reaches, while under the influence, the stage of
immediate perception (Sherwood, Stolaroff, & Harman, 1962). “In this stage,
the psychosomatic symptoms, the model psychoses, the multicolored
hallucinatory images tend to disappear. The individual develops an
awareness of other aspects of reality than those to which he is accustomed”
(p. 71). The fact that a psychedelic produces streams of imagery indicates
that the interior barriers to the center core of the self have not been
completely eliminated. For those who wish to be completely liberated,
psychedelic experiences, properly timed and integrated, can be very helpful
in resolving repressed material and defensive blocks, thus giving freer
access to the divine within.
Trudy Walter (1996) has given us a touching story of the difficulties of
addiction and the hardship of breaking it. For years, she took respite and
enjoyment in “getting stoned,” and it was only through dedicated commitment
to her meditation practice that she could free herself from her addiction.
No matter how enjoyable or helpful an aid can be, eventually, as stated so
clearly by Frances Vaughan (1995), these “golden chains” must be
transcended to develop the capabilities of our true inner self.
Robert Aitken (1996) states: “I don’t think drugs have particularly helped
anybody arrive where they are” (p. 105). This is most definitely not true
for me and many others whom I know. I very much agree with his observation
that many desperately are trying to achieve realization through the drug
experience when what is required is hard work in changing their attitudes,
values, and behavior–a process facilitated much more effectively through
deepened intention and improved behavior than through overuse of
Aitken (1996) offers evidence that being under the influence and then later
trying to practice does not work. This has been commented on by other
teachers, and I am sure that it is true for many. However, the situation is
quite complex, and care is required to evaluate such generalizations. A
great deal can be learned about how to use psychedelics appropriately to
enhance and deepen practice. It requires looking at a number of
considerations. What is the substance, the dose level, the frequency, the
intention, and the effort to make maximum use of the experience, regardless
of whether it was pleasant or uncomfortable, or the effort to deal with
indicated changes in values and actions? With agents as powerful as
psychedelics and the vast regions of the human mind made available, it
seems quite shortsighted to draw conclusions before thorough investigative
efforts have been pursued. And of course, with the current legal status,
one dare not publish or publicly share results, so that it is most likely
that there exists a great deal of valuable experience that remains hidden
from the public eye.
It is my experience that practice with an appropriate, moderate dose of a
psychedelic permits deepening of the meditation practice and learning much
more rapidly to avoid distractions and concentrate on the important aspects
of the practice. Because of our unfortunate drug laws, it has not been
possible to replicate my findings on a broad basis, although preliminary
trials with others support my own experience and the validity of my
hypothesis. I am sure that we must find ways to verify procedures that
offer such promising accomplishments.
Aitken (1996) observes that those who returned to a retreat from
psychedelic experiences demonstrated a deterioration in their ability to
meditate. I personally deem it unwise to muddle the opportunity to learn
what a retreat has to offer by interspersing drug experiences.
Aitken (1996) is certainly right to raise the question, what after the
experience? There is now almost universal consensus that being shown the
territory is not enough. It is extremely important to consummate the
experience by bringing it to full fruition in day-to-day life. Commitment
to an ethical way of life, supported by a good meditation practice that
enhances stability and clarity, is one of the best ways to ensure this
Aitken (1996) again says that you do not have to take drugs to wake up to
reality. This is certainly true, and a great many will choose the
meditative path. But for many others, the appropriate use of psychedelics
can rapidly hasten the discovery of reality and, furthermore, can help
reveal the inner blocks that hold one from reality and even temporarily
dissolve them, so that one develops a clear picture of how to stay in touch
with reality. Without psychedelics, it can take many, many months of hard
work to obtain the same vision, and after the vision is obtained, there may
still be repressed inner psychic loads that can inhibit freedom, suppress
the experience of one’s feelings and senses to the fullest, and preclude
living constantly out of one’s essence or Buddha nature.
There no doubt are many who have turned away from psychedelics because of
unsatisfactory experiences. Although psychedelics are not a path for
everyone, it is possible to cultivate more favorable outcomes with a better
understanding of the nature of the experience, the possible varieties of
dynamics that can arise, and how to deal with them. Those who confront and
resolve negative experiences can come out with a good deal more
understanding and relief from psychic burdens, which can result in greater
energy and well-being.
Aitken (1996) states “that there is a qualitative difference between the
ecstasy that some people report from their drug experiences and the
understanding, the realization, that comes with Zen practice” (p. 109). I
am not familiar with Zen practice, and so I may be in no position to
comment, as Aitken likewise may not be in a position to comment on the
ecstatic experience some achieve through psychedelics. But I do know from
firsthand experience that it is possible to experience ecstasy almost
beyond what the human frame can stand, and if Zen practitioners reach this
state, power to them.
Joan Halifax (1996) clearly understands a great deal about psychedelics and
what they can do and, at the same time, has developed her practice to a
point at which psychedelics are no longer necessary. In her description of
outgrowing the need for psychedelics, she states that the qualities of
stability, loving-kindness, clarity, and humbleness are the primary
qualities of the mind cultivated in meditation. She further states that
such qualities are not necessarily cultivated by psychedelics. This
statement is certainly true for some users who have been deceived and even
become burdensome know-it-alls through their psychedelic use. I personally
have found that psychedelics have been powerful influences in developing
all the qualities that Halifax mentions. I already have commented that the
appropriate mixture of meditation and psychedelics can influence strongly
the effectiveness of each practice.
I very much am encouraged by the positive results I have observed during
several decades of investigation. I find psychedelics to have significant
potential not only in aiding the development of meditation practice, but
also in many other important areas. Unfortunately, this perspective is not
generally shared, and the controversy over psychedelics continues to be one
of the major scientific disputes of recent history.
A number of excellent articles have been published examining this
controversy and/or providing additional information for better
understanding psychedelics. Clark (1975) presents an insightful article
based on 100 respondents to a questionnaire study to assess views on
promising areas of psychedelic research, the extent of the promise, and the
difficulties in conducting research. A strong recommendation is made for
opening up and funding psychedelic research. Villoldo (1977) describes the
work of Salvador Roquet, who developed very intense methods of conducting
group psychedelic sessions with powerful impact, perhaps the most intensely
focused procedure yet evolved. Many important aspects of successfully
employing psychedelics in therapy are discussed. Klavetter and Mogar (1967)
make a questionnaire analysis of participants completing the psychedelic
program at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park
and convert the data into peakers and nonpeakers following Maslow’s (1962)
definitions. Peakers consistently report significant therapeutic benefit
following the LSD session, a result confirmed by Hoffer (1965) and Pahnke
and Richards (1966). Stolaroff (1997) presents an in-depth interview with
one of the most accomplished psychedelic therapists of our time, now
deceased and unnamed because of our current drug laws. This book covers the
successful development of both individual and group experiences, selecting
the most effective of a variety of psychedelic substances, and the optimum
progression of their application.
Baumeister and Placidi (1983) present a fairly complete review of the LSD
controversy, citing interesting and insightful reasons for the positions
taken. Kurtz (1963) presents a cogent comparison of religious mystical
experience, nature mystical experiences, Maslow’s (1962) peak experiences,
and drug-induced experiences. His analysis provides conclusions that the
drug experiences of unity, when they occur, are the most inclusive and
comprehensive in including all aspects of reality and the totality of human
consciousness, combining intellectual, sensory, and mystical aspects
occurring simultaneously. Mogar (1965) provides an excellent review paper,
pointing out the growing trends in psychiatry and psychology and the
growing acceptance of a wider range of human capacities and functions as
revealed through altered states of consciousness produced by a variety of
means. An excellent summary of results obtained in psychedelic research is
Harman (1963) presents probably the most informed review of the psychedelic
drug controversy, recognizing the root of the controversy in basic
metaphysical assumptions, carefully describing the character of psychedelic
experiences and the factors that influence them, comparing the highest
potential of such experiences with natural mystical experiences, presenting
the data assuring safety in proper hands, analyzing the resistance to
accepting psychedelic research despite the publishing of positive results,
and recommending proceeding with important research. The most recent
information at this writing comes from Shulgin and Shulgin (1997), which
covers a wide variety of interesting topics. Pertinent to this discussion
are presentations on the nature and variety of psychedelic experiences and
the growing appropriation of power by government to prescribe medical
practice and scientific research (see, particularly, Part 2: Psychedelics
and Personal Transformation, and Part 5: Drugs and Politics).
Although the articles discussed above contribute much important
information, they still fall short in recognizing one of the most crucial
aspects of psychedelic use. Most observers still lean toward the allopathic
medical perception of drugs, in which the results are attributed to the
particular action of the drug in the body. In the case of psychedelics,
what transpires depends far more on the characteristics of the participant
ingesting the drug and the circumstances of its use. It does not seem to be
recognized generally that an individual can, with time and repetition,
learn increasingly how to make more effective use of the opportunities
psychedelics afford. It is possible to develop the characteristics of the
trained user as previously described, when the mind can be held perfectly
still so as to reveal other aspects of reality. With continued practice,
the aspiring seeker increasingly learns how to focus the experience, learn
trust, and develop motivation and courage for deeper exploration. This
practice will yield deeper and deeper penetration into unknown areas of
existence, with the possibility of bringing back ever new treasures.
I therefore hope that Buddhists and others will approach these substances
with an open mind and, as a minimum, not stand in the way of efforts to
learn more about them and the most appropriate ways of employing them.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The author wishes to express his appreciation to the
management and editors of Tricycle for their special issue on psychedelics
and to all the contributors for their willingness to present their views on
a controversial subject.
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Reprint requests: Myron J. Stolaroff, P. O. Box 742, Lone Pine, CA 93545;
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