CALM WATERS AND HIGH SEAS: THE SYNERGY OF MEDITATION AND PSYCHEDELICS

DIFFERENT ROADS BUT THE SAME DESTINATION?

These different access roads might not be as diverse as they might first seem. Several scientific studies have shown that oceanic, border-free states of consciousness, which are associated with deep feelings of connectedness with other humans and nature, can be achieved through ingesting certain psychedelics, as well as by certain non-pharmacological practices like a floating tank, prolonged dancing (e.g., as practiced by some Sufis), drumming (e.g., as practiced by some North American Indians) or meditation (e.g., sitting Zazen).

THE DEPENDENT CO-ARISING OF SPIRITUAL PRACTICES AND PSYCHEDELICS IN THE WEST

Yet another way is to look at their dependent co-arising (Pratītyasamutpāda) in our current time. It is well-documented that meditation (and yoga and other spiritual practices and concepts) became popular so quickly in the Western hemisphere because psychedelic experiences prepared the ground for it. It was mostly us hippies that went to India and other places to discover and pick up all of these exotic yet somehow intriguing practices and ideas, driven by youthful curiosity and an existential need to make some sense out of these life-changing experiences under the influence of powerful, mysterious (psychedelic) substances. Some of us stayed there, at least for a few years, but eventually, we brought back our newly gained skills, methods, and insights, together with the (primarily Asian) teachers we met on the way. Some continued with the initial means to alter consciousness, but probably most of us stopped taking psychedelics, at least for a while, sometimes (like in my case) for decades. Nowadays, quite a few seem to have come back to it, expressing renewed interest in this approach.

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH ON THE SYNERGY OF MEDITATION AND PSYCHEDELICS

This renewed interest has also sparked various scientific studies. In 2015, together with Franz Vollenweider and his team from the University of Zürich, we conducted a retreat at Felsentor, a remote meditation center high above lake Lucerne. On the 4th day of a more or less traditional Zen Sesshin (an intense silent meditation retreat), 40 participants got either a relatively high dose (0,315 mg/kg) of psilocybin or a placebo. These were people with a lot of meditation experience (minimum five years) and no (or very little) experience with psychedelics. During the retreat, they had to fill out (seemingly endless) questionnaires and get regular physical check-ups; right before and after the event, they got an MRI at the psychiatric university clinic in Zürich to measure their brain activity.

SET AND SETTING

These differences can be traced and bring us to the psychedelic journey’s three jewels: SSS, Substance (or Sacrament), Set, and Setting. The Sacrament was the same in both studies, but the (mind-)Set of an experienced, long-term meditator is different from someone with no experience in meditation, and the Setting was quite different too: single versus group experience, a (cozily decorated) hospital room versus a monastic setting in the remote mountains.

THE FUTURE: COMBINED PRACTICES, EXPERIMENTS, AND INDIVIDUAL AND SOCIETAL DEVELOPMENT

Concluding this little essay, one question is how meditation and psychedelics can be practically combined, intertwined. It looks like people who are seriously (and hopefully light-heartedly and playfully) into meditation can receive valuable pointers and gifts even from a one-time or occasional journey into the world of psychedelics. And it looks as if experience in meditation can be a precious asset in negotiating the sometimes high seas of such an adventure. Are these profound, often mind-shattering experiences ultimately helpful or harmful? A moment after his great awakening, a Zen master exclaimed, “…my life is completely shattered and ruined…”. As we get closer to the life force itself — not just our ideas about it — our categories and points of view are put into perspective, and their relative nature becomes obvious. It is from this perspective that we must judge the value of any given experience.

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The MIND Foundation

The MIND Foundation

Building a healthier, more connected world through psychedelic research and education.