Bumping into the sacred

Michael Pollan (source:YouTube)

I’m reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, which describes the wave of new research into psychedelic drugs. It’s in the same vein as Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, drawing parallels between what users experience and what mystics from various religious traditions said about their own encounters with transcendence. I’ve never experimented with these substances, despite pressure to do it from the other members of my garage band in high school, in which I played guitar. (They all had a habit of dropping mescaline before practice sessions.) I have no interest in trying them now. What’s compelling about Pollan’s book is that he had little interest in religion and spirituality when he began his research and was surprised by what he discovered as he got deeper into the subject. What interests me in all this is how it relates to the way in which the process of painting is a much quieter, and less dramatic, path toward a similar sort of ego-effacing state of awareness–though that phrase would hardly describe much of the higher profile art being produced now. (Critics, of course, can make the discipline even more ego-effacing . . . )

“The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably “occasion” a mystical experience—typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe. This might not come as news to people who take psychedelic drugs or to the researchers who first studied them back in the 1950s and 1960s. But it wasn’t at all obvious to modern science, or to me, in 2006, when the paper was published. What was most remarkable about the results reported in the article is that participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable “to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.”

“AS SOMEONE not at all sure he has ever had a single “spiritually significant” experience, much less enough of them to make a ranking, I found that the 2006 paper piqued my curiosity but also my skepticism. Many of the volunteers described being given access to an alternative reality, a “beyond” where the usual physical laws don’t apply and various manifestations of cosmic consciousness or divinity present themselves as unmistakably real. All this I found both a little hard to take (couldn’t this be just a drug-induced hallucination?) and yet at the same time intriguing; part of me wanted it to be true, whatever exactly “it” was. This surprised me, because I have never thought of myself as a particularly spiritual, much less mystical, person. This is partly a function of worldview, I suppose, and partly of neglect: I’ve never devoted much time to exploring spiritual paths and did not have a religious upbringing.”

“The story of how this paper came to be sheds an interesting light on the fraught relationship between science and that other realm of human inquiry that science has historically disdained and generally wants nothing to do with: spirituality. For in designing this, the first modern study of psilocybin, Griffiths had decided to focus not on a potential therapeutic application of the drug—the path taken by other researchers hoping to rehabilitate other banned substances, like MDMA—but rather on the spiritual effects of the experience on so-called healthy normals. What good was that? In an editorial accompanying Griffiths’s paper, the University of Chicago psychiatrist and drug abuse expert Harriet de Wit tried to address this tension, pointing out that the quest for experiences that “free oneself of the bounds of everyday perception and thought in a search for universal truths and enlightenment” is an abiding element of our humanity that has nevertheless “enjoyed little credibility in the mainstream scientific world.” The time had come, she suggested, for science “to recognize these extraordinary subjective experiences . . . even if they sometimes involve claims about ultimate realities that lie outside the purview of science.”

By the time Griffiths turned fifty, in 1994, he was a scientist at the top of his game and his field. But that year Griffiths’s career took an unexpected turn, the result of two serendipitous introductions. The first came when a friend introduced him to Siddha Yoga. Despite his behaviorist orientation as a scientist, Griffiths had always been interested in what philosophers call phenomenology—the subjective experience of consciousness. He had tried meditation as a graduate student but found that “he couldn’t sit still without going stark-raving mad. Three minutes felt like three hours.” But when he tried it again in 1994, “something opened up for me.” He started meditating regularly, going on retreats, and working his way through a variety of Eastern spiritual traditions. He found himself drawn “deeper and deeper into this mystery.” Somewhere along the way, Griffiths had what he modestly describes as “a funny kind of awakening”—a mystical experience. I was surprised when Griffiths mentioned this during our first meeting in his office, so I hadn’t followed up, but even after I had gotten to know him a little better, Griffiths was still reluctant to say much more about exactly what happened and, as someone who had never had such an experience, I had trouble gaining any traction with the idea whatsoever. All he would tell me is that the experience, which took place in his meditation practice, acquainted him with “something way, way beyond a material worldview that I can’t really talk to my colleagues about, because it involves metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.” In time, what he was learning about “the mystery of consciousness and existence” in his meditation practice came to seem more compelling to him than his science. He began to feel somewhat alienated: “None of the people I was close to had any interest in entertaining those questions, which fell into the general category of the spiritual, and religious people I just didn’t get.”

Later, he quotes another researcher:

“You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness, you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered. And this reliably happens to nonbelievers as well as believers.” Whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis of religion.

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