The use of mind-altering drugs has been associated with various mystical, magical, and shamanic rites. This is very appealing to the modern mind which is impressed by technological and materialistic explanations. Entheogens, or drug use for allegedly spiritual purposes, began to be widespread in the 1960s following the discovery of the psychedelic drug LSD and the ensuing publicity. The early adopters can be easily found, but we will focus on Timothy Leary, an erstwhile professor of psychology at Harvard University. He initially ran experiments with the drug as a form of therapy, but eventually began experimenting on himself and the group of acolytes who assembled around him.
Leary believed that psychedelics could open up the mind to greater spiritual experiences and encourage their use for explorers of the mind. The stars were aligned: the books of Carlos Castaneda came out shortly thereafter. Filled with wild tales of a Mexican shaman whose knowledge of plant-based drugs led to amazing powers, the books became the spiritual nourishment for many. The Beats became users as well as high profile entertainers. Even Alan Watts, after allegedly years of Eastern practices, eventually resorted to LSD experiments to learn about the “mystical experience”. For anyone who has spent hours at a Zen center walking in circles while chanting Buddhist texts, or sitting still in Zazen, the idea of an instant pill could sound truly appealing.
At any given moment we are bombarded with external sensations, a “blooming buzzing confusion” (William James), from which we choose a world. Simultaneously, although few pay attention to it, we are the receivers of thoughts of all types from various sources, or levels of reality. Normally, they dissipate or recede into the memory. Sometimes, the thoughts are powerful enough to come into our attention, then related thoughts latch onto each other, often producing a strong sensation. This may be as simple as reviewing plans for the day.
But the most powerful arise from the internal forces of eros and thymos, which, at the most primeval, are experienced as sex and violence. Hence, a sexual fantasy will totally engage our minds for an extended period, even to the point of affecting the body as if an actual sexual encounter were taking place. Fantasies arising from thymos usually take the form of domination, anger, revenge, and the like. Hence, we envision ourselves as wildly successful in some realm. Or we may recall a past slight, which even agitates the body. We will envision the cutting phrase we should have used against someone, but didn’t. It goes on and on.
Most people, unfortunately, cannot shut these thought threads down. They may cause continuing anxiety and self-doubt. The neutralizing force, the nous, whose task is to dominate and channel the forces of eros and thymos, is too weak, or, in truth, is not even known. The nous must transcend these forces, fantasies, and thoughts, regarding them as arbitrary, contingent, and external to one’s true self. Instead, people regard these emotions, fantasies, and thoughts as their “own”, even though they are totally unaware of their true source.
Psychedelics work by slowing down the awareness of these impinging thoughts. Thus, a particular thought–that may be pushed aside by a stronger thought in the ordinary state of consciousness–instead can take hold in consciousness. Then, related thoughts can follow along in sequence producing an extended vision. This is called a “rush”, and is the pleasurable sensation associated with psychedelics. For artist and mystic types, these are regards as deep insights or creative inspirations. However, I have also seen those on a “bad trip”, during which the user experiences inconsolable anxiety, requiring an antidote such as thorazine.
It should be clear that the theory behind the use of enthogens for spiritual “enlightenment” is deeply flawed. It assumes that such enlightenment involves a particular experience, or set of experiences, that are somehow to be distinguished from all other experiences. This idea comes from the confusion of the psychic and the spiritual (Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity).
An intellectual conversion, the only thing that enlightenment can mean, involves the nous. The nous transcends the psychic, it transcends every experience whatsoever, whether a brilliant insight or a bad trip. Instead of moving from rush to rush, the mind becomes clear, thoughts separate from each other, are rarer, and seem heavier, or else are wispier, evaporating as soon as they appear. Such a man is free; by definition, then, it cannot depend on some biochemical agent.