On Awakening: The Relationship With Psychedelic Drug Experiences

This is such a great question, and I don't know that anyone has the answers yet. I read Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (and a bunch of Zen stuff) several years ago, practiced seriously for about 6 months, started to have difficult experiences, read Chapman's post on The Making of Buddhist Modernism, got fed up, and stopped practicing until a lucky encounter with a street kid in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park resulted in a tab and a half of LSD blowing my mind wide open. Further experimentation with psychedelics, and trying to integrate those experiences eventually led me back to dedicated insight-oriented meditation practice, and here. 1

It's hard for me to overstate how enthusiastic I am about the potential of these drugs. When close friends ask me about them, I tell them I think dying without trying them is like dying a virgin, tragically missing out on a deep, mysterious, and wonderful part of the human experience.

But, okay, with that out of the way, let's talk about the intersection between the places you can go with meditation, and the places where you can go with psychedelic drugs.

I tend to think of psychedelic experiences as occuring along a spectrum of intensity, where more intense experiences tend to be further away from default consciousness. If you imagine psychedelic experience as a journey, the first stop of the journey is what I'll call the museum-state. In the museum-state, it feels as if you're looking at the world for the first time. It's like the saturation on everything has been turned up, colors are brighter, and everything looks more real. You might stand looking at your toilet for 5 minutes, as if it were art in a museum, feeling like "I'm actually seeing it, man" instead of the conceptual mind just categorizing it and dismissing it. It's a state of child-like wonder and novelty enhancement.

A low recreational dose of just about any psychedelic drug will take you to the museum-state. A couple of puffs of cannabis is probably how the majority of people first experience this, at least in a drug induced way. You're hanging out at the park with your friends, passing around a joint, and suddenly you find yourself staring at the grass or your hands, just reflecting on how cool they look. There is not very much potential for freaking out here.

You can also get here with meditation without too much trouble. It's a state characterized by a decrease in mental chatter and an increase in awareness. For me, if I sit for, say, 30 minutes, counting breaths and disengaging with thought, then go for a walk with a focus on bare awareness of physical sensations like the feeling of the wind on my skin, I find it pretty similar to walking around on a low dose of a psychedelic.

The second stop on the psychedelic journey is the appearance of external geometry. You begin to hallucinate patterns overlaid on your visual sense door but, unlike with deliriants, you are fully aware that you're under the influence of drugs and that these patterns, though beautiful and fascinating, are not actually there. My model of psychedelics is that they do three things: they disrupt default consciousness, they inject randomness ("noise") into conscious experience, and they lower the threshold for pattern-matching.

This is the primary insight experience that people walk away with after trying a beginner appropriate recreational dose of a classic psychedelic (LSD, mescaline, magic mushrooms, DMT) for the first time: your experience of the external world is just another mental construct. It has been seen in such a way that it's no longer a conceptual understanding, but bona-fide insight, and something your model of reality has to integrate. When people talk about being changed forever as a result of taking psychedelic drugs once, this is what they're talking about. 2

Now, this is clearly something that meditators eventually come to understand, but I've not yet managed to induce a state without drugs that as clearly and overwhelmingly demonstrated that sensory perception is empty. I sometimes experience the external world as a series of frames, like a reel of film, or occasionally I'll notice visual warping or shaking, but that's about the extent of it, personally.

I should note here that there is generally a dose-response relationship to the stops I'm describing, especially for someone new to experimenting with consciousness. In the beginning, default consciousness is more sticky — e.g. it's hard to ease out of it and into an altered state if you've never left before. A light dose of LSD, a single tab, will take the average person through the museum-state and probably produce visual hallucinations.

You might need a bit more to take you to the next stop, number 3. As more noise is injected into consciousness, your thoughts start to become looser and less in contact with the external world. At the same time, your sense of self starts to become unanchored and malleable. For reasons I don't yet understand, this can present in different ways.

The classic way experience of this with LSD is that the external world begins to contract and expand along with the breath. When you breathe, the walls or sky breathe with you. The self-sense shifts with this, and you feel as if you are everything that you're perceiving. This expansion of the self is common in descriptions of enlightenment experiences. For instance, Shinzen Young recounts in Realizing Awakened Consciousness:

I put down the zafu and sat down, and the instant I sat down, the koan was there: “Who am I?” Then suddenly there was no boundary to me at all. I was so shocked I actually got up. And there was still no boundary to me. I was walking around, looking at things, and there was no border between me and anything else…. There was a kind of intimacy between inside and outside…. There is just no boundary separating me and what is around me.

I've also heard, I believe it was Shinzen but I'm not certain, describe his initial awakening experience with something like, "When I smiled, the walls smiled with me," which struck me as a reminiscent of this experience.

Alternatively, instead of an all-self experience, you can have the experience where the external world is self-tagged, but not the internal one. This one is trickier to describe, but it's like you're the external world, and it is somehow also peering into the body, but the body is not self, more like a puppet to causes and conditions. Self-reflection is somehow suppressed in this state. I believe this experience is what the Zen people are on about when they talk about the gateless gate—that is, the gate is the eyes, and the sense of self must pass through it.

I have only experienced this with n,n-DMT, as has a close friend who doesn't meditate regularily. In his BATGAP interview, Kenneth Folk describes experiencing something like this on 4 hits of LSD as the start of his journey along the path. I also suspect this experience is why people who ingest a great deal of psychedelic drugs get caught up in theories of universal consciousness. (You can see this in action over on /r/psychonaut). There is also an interesting thread on DharmaOverground where someone seems to have fallen into this state persistently after ingesting an unknown psychedelic on a blotter and wants out:

Now I am just completely naked, as I am. I would also be driving for example, with the skyline of the city in front of me, and would go into my imagination of how the world has become, how we as a humanity have developed so far, and compare it to historical times, then to renaissance times, all inside my head using my imagination. Now it is as if that inner space is gone, and there is just the world.

I have not yet been able to recreate either of these states sober via meditation, but I believe it's possible.

If you take quite a lot of LSD, psilocybin, or a similar tryptamine like 4-AcO-DMT, consciousness becomes so warped that accessing long-term memory is entirely suppressed. Thought is impossible. You forget who and what you are, and there is only bare awareness and a sense that you have never seen so clearly. The descent into this space is terrifying, as "you" feel subjectively as if you're dying, as aspects of conscious experience malfunction and, then, cease entirely. Eventually, as the drug is metabolized, these processes come back online, and the sense of "you" is reborn, a piece at a time.

This is, in my experimentation thus far, the crown jewel of the psychedelic experience. I have experienced it once, more than a year ago, and am unable to bring myself to repeat it. I would place it as more than 10 times as intense as my most intense sober experience, skydiving.

It has been difficult to integrate. Behavior-wise, I'm less afraid of losing my mind, and things like Alzheimer's seem less terrible. I no longer believe thought or memory is necessary, and my intuitive sense of self seems less real. Queries like "What am I?" spit out something like, "I don't know, man. Go meditate." (This subjective experience of death without, y'know, dying has been used to ease end-of-life anxiety in terminal cancer patients.)

As far as I can tell, meditators do not experience ego death in this manner, though aspects of the state Gary Weber is in are reminiscent of it, such as increased clarity and suppression of thought. The closest meditative description I've found, thus far, would be the way that Rob Burbea describes the progression through the jhanas as one of less clinging and less subsequent manifestation of conscious experience, "proliferation". However, I do not believe I have experienced the formless jhanas, via either drugs or meditation.

After I wrote this, I was delighted to find out that Vince Horn had his own, similar ego death experience:

Vince says that the visual experience of psychedelics was very different to that of meditation. Psychedelics allowed him to feel connected to his human ancestry, and gave him an ego death experience that shook him more fundamentally than any ego death he'd experienced with meditation.

Which brings me to the final stop on the psychedelic journey, 5-MeO-DMT. I have not tried this stuff and, frankly, from the descriptions I have read of it, it scares the shit out of me. PsychonautWiki warns, "The majority of anecdotal reports on the effects produced by this substance indicate that it is likely overly intense for those who are not already extensively experienced with hallucinogens, specifically powerful psychedelic tryptamines like DMT, ayahuasca and DPT." A DharmaOverground poster also cautions that, "a breakthrough is really on a different order of experience than one can have with classical psychedelics at any dose." Many of the erowid trip reports echo this same sentiment and are unsettling to read.

On the other hand, in that same thread, multiple DhO posters report experiencing the formless jhanas under the substance (plus, a similar account on Reddit), easier access to these layers of mind afterwards, and one user even recounts an awakening experience:

One of my friends from the experience that I described earlier (the one that experienced the most hellish fear experience imaginable and then passed out), actually seems to have had an awakening experience. The panic attacks that occured in the months after the experience, that forced her to stop working, actually were reactions to seeing emptiness and having a mind clear of thoughts. This is very scary if you don't know what it is. She actually thought she was simply going crazy.

This girl had zero spiritual experience or inclination, but a few weeks ago happened upon Eckart Tolle and texted me "I think I'm enlightened". I've met up with her twice since and she most almost definitely is. Ninety percent free from thoughts, experiencing a constant state of flow, sense of self gone, the ego only intermittently and very recognizably showing up, etc. Actually, talking to her she seems to have a much stronger in-your-face awakening experience than the description of most 4th pathers here.

So maybe it's worth it.

Empirical stuff

When Carhart-Harris et al. (2012) published the first human fMRI studies of serotonergic psychedelics their results caused quite a stir. Not only did they find that intravenous psilocybin caused an overall reduction in neural activity (measured by BOLD signal), apparently contradicting earlier PET studies showing metabolic hyperactivity on psilocybin (Vollenweider et al. 1997). The decreases were concentrated mainly in the DMN. Psilocybin decreased activity in DMN regions but also the integrity of the network as measured by functional connectivity analyses. The normal functional coupling between key DMN hubs diminished—in particular, between the MPFC and the PCC.

Palhano-Fontes et al. (2015) reported decreased BOLD signal in DMN nodes including the MPFC and PCC during ayahuasca intoxication. Meanwhile, thinning of the PCC has been observed in long-term ayahuasca users, with the degree of thinning correlated with both psychometric scores for trait 'self-transcendence' and the extent of prior ayahuasca use (Bouso et al. 2015). Interestingly, these ayahuasca users equalled or outperformed matched controls on tests of neuropsychological function, suggesting that this PCC thinning is not linked to cognitive impairment. The connection with findings about PCC deactivation in 'effortless awareness' meditation is obvious, and bolstered by the finding that acute ayahuasca intoxication increases mindfulness-related capacities (Soler et al. 2016).

What about stimulants and concentration practice?

I have less experience with concentrative meditation and with stimulants, but:

Frankly, the stimulants I have tried do not seem particularly promising meditative aids, especially regarding concentration practices. They produce too much restlessness and narrow the mind such that awareness is collapsing all of the time. (Nicotine gum might be an exception, plus can be used to accelerate habit formation.) However, if you want to do something repetitive, like note all day long, Adderall works.

What about benzodiazapines and the development of equanimity?

This is a subtle one.

Let's say that you're an idealized meditator and you have a single Valium, and you want to use it to reduce as much of your future suffering as possible. To such a person, I'd say: go get really stressed out. Get to that point where a positive future seems impossible and your problems insurmountable. Really soak in the hopelessness of things. Get worked up. Think the catastrophe thoughts. Then, take the Valium. In about 30 minutes, reflect again on your troubles. Notice how much smaller they seem. Think about your progress. You'll feel that you're doing just fine. Then turn your attention to your previous mental state. Notice how absurd and exaggerated your perception was.

The point here is to notice how powerfully stress warps perception and that, ultimately, the stressed out perspective is arbitrary, empty, one of many, and not the truth about things.

Benzos can also give you a experiential target of equanimity to aim for in meditation, but they won't show you how to get there.

Taking a lot of benzos probably does more harm than good, and their addiction potential may be understated in the public imagination.

What about drugs and metta?
Who shouldn't take psychedelics?

Drugs are almost uniformly less dangerous, less addictive, and more beneficial than the American public imagines, thanks to an unhinged, state-funded information campaign and bad laws. Usually truth outcompetes nonsense, and this is slowly happening here, but its progress is retarded because those in-the-know are unwilling to speak out due to reputational damage and fear of legal reprisal.

If you find this hard to swallow (heh), try ranking all the drugs you can think of in order of badness. Then, compare that to actual, quantitative estimates of drug harmfulness. How'd you do? 3

Still, drugs are not for everyone. The primary risk of the psychedelic experience, since these drugs have little potential for physical harm or addiction, is that you will end up believing nonsense.4 Do not ingest them if you are prone to magical thinking. Do not ingest if you are unwilling to closely examine the experience while sober. Psychedelic experiences can seem real-er than anything you have experienced before. This is a side-effect. Don't end up as one of the many people who believe that they talk to extradimensional aliens after ingesting n,n-DMT.

That said, it's unfortunate that the sort of people who try psychedelics are already very open-minded, given that the drugs increase openness to experience, long-term. It's probably safe to assume that, like everything else, openness has diminishing marginal returns, meaning that those least inclined to experiment with psychedelics are the most likely to benefit.

Practical Advice

This is what I wrote to one individual looking to have a more meaningful experience on LSD:

What role ought psychedelics play?

I've spent a lot of words discussing the experiences that you can have on psychedelic drugs and how they may relate to the insight experiences of meditators. However, while potential insight is what first drew me to psychedelic experimentation, for the meditator, I suspect these drugs are most useful as a salve for doubt. Sort of want to meditate but plagued by thoughts that some dude on the internet is just bullshitting himself? Or: going through a dry period of practice and the reasons you began are seeming less and less compelling (who is this better person I'm becoming)? Or: suffering a lot and just looking for a mental reset button? Drop a tab of acid.

It's not a coincidence that so many meditators describe a psychedelic experience as being integral to or even the beginning of their interest in meditation. Shinzen Young, Kenneth Folk, and Sam Harris come to mind here, but the effect size must be enormous. You can pick up on it just by listening to BATGAP interviews or hanging around dharma communities.

Diderot famously quipped, "If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him." and this was my evidential gold standard for a long time but, with psychedelics, you can touch enlightenment (or at least something adjacent to it.)

Gary Weber echoes this sentiment:

IMHO, this is why psychedelics appear, anecdotally, to facilitate faster, and further awakening. Folk have seen what the brain can produce, so they are less afraid when fears manifest in their awakening processes.

Advantages & Disadvantages
Counter evidence

The above is my best good-faith representation of the relationship between meditation, especially enlightement tipping-point style big experiences, and psychedelic experiences. However, given that I haven't had one of these experiences personally without the aid of drugs, it's possible I'm overestimating the amount of overlap.

It's with 3) that I think that this otherwise impressive and excellent section of his book mis-steps. I'll grant that his experience of Zen has been more transformative than most psychedelic experiences, but he fails to consider the dose-response relationship here. He practiced for 8 years before his first kenshō experience. I'd be very willing to wager that a single dose of LSD and the subsequent 12 hour experience will be more transformative than 12 hours of zazen.

Further Reading

  1. I have elsewhere described the path thus far in more detail.

  2. You can also get here by eating a heroic dose of cannabis, but it's much less "clean" of an experience and, if you don't have experience with altered states, you will freak out.

  3. "In conclusion, we found no evidence of psychological maladjustment, mental health deterioration or cognitive impairment in the ayahuasca-using group."

  4. Whereas most drugs tend to incline someone toward taking that substance again, psychedelics push in the opposite direction. I have often had the experience of intending to self-experiment and dose several times in a month-long span, dosing once, and then being unable to bring myself to trip again for 6 months or more. You hear so often of people who trip once or twice a year not because psychonauts are especially conscientious but because dosing more often feels wrong. All that said, cannabis is a notable exception here. It is easy to end up consuming it every day.

  5. I'm reminded here of Charles Darwin, who supposedly kept a journal record of any piece of evidence that disagreed with his theories and worldview, as he would otherwise forget it.

If you have questions, perspective, doubt, or a simple longing for general camraderie, you can communicate with me directly by emailing robert at 99theses dot com. Don't hesitate. Your correspondence is personally enriching.