Psychedelics And Meditation: A Surprising Connection
Meditation has long been used as a pathway to awareness. Scientific research is now also looking at another pathway – the use of psychedelics.
Two Ancient Methods
Buddhist meditation is an ancient method for consciousness alteration that came to widespread attention in the Western world in the 1960s. It is increasingly used outside of its traditional religious context for the promotion of mental health, and scientific research suggests it may reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and addiction. And it can cause profoundly meaningful experiences in which the ordinary sense of self is radically altered, or even altogether absent.
As the researcher Katherine MacLean has pointed out, there is another practice that fits this description precisely: the controlled, intentional ingestion of psychedelic drugs. Naturally-occurring psychedelics such as psilocybin (from “magic mushrooms”) and N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT, an ingredient of the South American shamanic brew ayahuasca) have been used as spiritual sacraments and medical treatments by indigenous cultures for centuries.
Since the 1990s, a new wave of scientific research has found that these controversial substances can, after all, be given safely at moderate or high doses – in carefully controlled conditions – and may have the potential to promote mental health and treat some psychiatric conditions… including anxiety, depression, and addiction.
Are Psychedelics Safe?
To forestall obvious concerns, it is important to note that scientific experts are virtually unanimous: “classic” psychedelics, a group of substances that includes psilocybin, DMT, and the infamous LSD, are not addictive, and there is essentially no risk of physiological harm at standard therapeutic doses. When it comes to potential psychological risks, these are real, but recent research shows they can be minimised if due care is taken. The modern clinical use of psychedelics is a far cry from “dropping acid” at a party or festival, and has more in common with the long-standing, culturally sanctioned uses of these substances in indigenous traditions. Prospective participants are screened carefully for potential risk factors, such as vulnerability to psychosis, and prepared extensively to handle the powerful effects of the drugs, which are administered in a calm environment under the supervision of two therapists.
Three decades of rigorous research now shows that following strict guidelines of this kind can prevent the occurrence of serious, lasting adverse effects, of the kind that have sometimes been seen in earlier research and recreational use. The worst that most clinical trial participants experience is transient anxiety during the psychedelic experience—which is managed with therapeutic support—and perhaps mild headaches in the subsequent days. The best they experience is, not infrequently, transcendent “mystical” states of unity and awe, and deep psychological or existential insights. No psychotic breaks or “acid flashbacks” have been documented in the recent wave of carefully controlled research.
Is There a Connection?
Returning to our central theme: the list of psychedelic-meditation parallels above is striking, but potentially superficial. Also, in the Buddhist tradition, an ethical injunction known as the Fifth Precept warns against the use of “intoxicants that cause heedlessness”. Naturally, this makes many practitioners sceptical that psychedelics and meditation could have anything interesting in common. But there are reasons to look more closely.
For one thing, many senior Western teachers of meditation were inspired to begin the practice by their own psychedelic experiences in the 1960s. Some have publicly acknowledged that such experiences were beneficial to their own spiritual development and can be to others’. We are not talking about fringe figures here, but people of the stature of Ram Dass, Lama Surya Das, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, and Stephen Batchelor.
The recent “renaissance” of psychedelic science permits us to go beyond such anecdotal evidence. Rigorous studies show that there are, indeed, interesting parallels between psychedelic and meditative experiences. For one thing, it seems that a single controlled psychedelic experience can increase “mindfulness-related capacities” for non-reactive awareness – in other words, being clearly aware of thoughts and feelings without being compelled to react to them – for weeks or months, without any mindfulness training. For another, psychedelics and meditation seem to affect similar brain networks, including the so-called Default Mode Network. This is a set of brain regions that is highly active in mind-wandering and “wakeful rest”, and may be involved in constructing autobiographical narratives and a sense of self.
Tripping on Retreat
Finally, a remarkable study was conducted in Switzerland on a group of experienced Zen practitioners. These meditators undertook a five-day silent group retreat (“sesshin”), and on the fourth day, some received psilocybin, and others a placebo pill. They then continued their normal meditation retreat routine—albeit with an extra rest period in the afternoon! (The study was “double-blind”: neither the meditators nor the supervising researchers knew who was getting what.)
Those who received psilocybin had deep experiences of “ego dissolution”, with lower levels of anxiety than are seen in other psychedelic studies. Unsurprisingly, all the meditators showed increases in mindfulness, well-being, and so forth after the retreat—but the increases were larger in the psilocybin group.
Also, after the retreat, the meditators practiced various styles of meditation while in a neuroimaging scanner. During Open Awareness (mindfulness/insight) practice, the meditators in the psilocybin group showed a greater capacity to “switch off” the Default Mode Network – the brain system, mentioned above, that is involved in mind-wandering and autobiographical self-awareness.
Many questions remain. But the interaction between authentic Buddhist meditation practice and sincere, spiritually-motivated psychedelic use is a remarkable, unique, 60-year-long chapter in the ever-evolving history of the meditation tradition. Whatever our views on the merits of this interaction, and whatever the future may hold, it seems clear that this chapter is not closed quite yet.
- For an accessible overview of psychedelic research, try Michael Pollan (2018) How to Change your Mind.
- To delve into the connections between psychedelics and meditation, check out Badiner and Grey (eds.) (2002) Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics. Stephen Batchelor’s introduction to the book is available online: https://www.watkinsmagazine.com/buddhism-and-psychedelics-by-stephen-batchelor.
- A more recent, scholarly exploration of the connections is Osto, D. (2016) Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America.
- Here is a blog post by the Zen teacher who was involved in the Swiss study of psilocybin on retreat: https://mind-foundation.org/synergy-meditation-psychedelics/
- The study itself is available to read for free (open access) here: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-50612-3
- Recent studies on psychedelics and meditation are reviewed here: https://philarchive.org/archive/LETPAM
Chris Letheby is a Lecturer in Philosophy at The University of Western Australia and a Postdoctoral Researcher at The University of Adelaide. He researches and writes about philosophical issues relating to psychedelics. His book Philosophy of Psychedelics (http://bit.ly/philpsych) was published by Oxford University Press in 2021. Chris has been a member of Lifeflow since 2014.
Images: RKTKN; Mulyadi and Wonderlane on Unsplash