Nearly ten years ago, in the middle of a monthlong meditation retreat, Spring Washam had a sobering experience. Far from entering one of the blissful states of concentration that often mark the jhanas, the progressive stages of meditative absorption outlined in Theravada Buddhism, she entered a state of trauma.
An experienced Buddhist practitioner and teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Washam insists that the Buddhist teachings were not at fault. It was the form of the practice—being silent, being still, being alone—that unraveled unconscious levels of pain to an unbearable degree.
“What I realized there,” she recalled, “was that the form of sitting in silence wasn’t alleviating the symptoms; it was making it worse.”
Washam later explored pairing her Buddhist practice with a different spiritual calling: the ceremonial drinking of ayahuasca, a plant-based hallucinogen brewed by Amazonian indigenous communities. Her story became a precursor to what has, over the last few years, become a widespread surge of interest in the psychological and spiritual effects of psychedelics, namely LSD (“acid”), psilocybin (think “magic mushrooms”), and DMT, the psychoactive chemical in ayahuasca.
Buddhist interest in psychedelics has been around for a long time. To emphasize their spiritual value, many seekers have referred to them since 1979 as “entheogens,” a word derived from the Greek adjective entheos, which translates roughly as “God-inspired” and is the root of the English word “enthusiasm.” Almost a quarter-century ago, Tricycle published a special section titled “Psychedelics: Help or Hindrance?” to address Western Buddhists’ somewhat behind-the-scenes fascination with these substances. But today, backed by widespread interest among accredited researchers, the willingness to explore them has gone more public.
In 2015, Synergetic Press published a new edition of Zig Zag Zen, a collection of essays and conversations on the combination of Buddhism and psychedelics first edited in 2002 by Tricycle contributing editor Allan Badiner. One year later, Columbia University Press released Douglas Osto’s Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America.
Mainstream interest in psychedelics got a boost in 2017 when Ayelet Waldman, a novelist and the author of a best-selling collection of essays on motherhood, offered a personal account of her experiences taking microdoses of LSD in A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. Microdosing—the consumption of minute amounts of psychedelics to enhance creativity and focus—has gained traction to such a degree, particularly among professionals in Silicon Valley, that New York Magazine published its own “Microdosing Guide and Explainer” this spring.
Following this wave was food journalist Michael Pollan’s May bestseller How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. This “new science” refers to a series of studies conducted over the last decade at major institutes, particularly the medical schools at Johns Hopkins University and New York University, that show startling success rates for treating major psychological maladies with LSD and psilocybin.“The psychedelic experience of ‘non-duality’ suggests that consciousness survives the disappearance of the self, that it is not so indispensable as we—and it—like to think.”
For people like Chris Kelley, a New School religious studies professor who is also a Buddhist practitioner and self-identified “consciousness hacker,” the release of Pollan’s book represents a major leap forward for those able to benefit from psychedelics—Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. The book, despite its once-taboo topic, is making its rounds: since its release, it has spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and Pollan has appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and other media outlets.
The respect accorded to Pollan’s name, Kelley told Tricycle, “legitimizes the topic and makes it safe for people who would otherwise be a little bit spooked to buy that book.”
A section of Pollan’s book about the brain’s “default mode network” may draw particular attention from Buddhist practitioners. Citing the work of Robin Carhart-Harris, a neuroscientist at the Imperial College in London, Pollan describes the network in the brain that forms a critical locus of neural activity. Because it filters the rest of the brain’s vast sensory and emotional overload into a cohesive lifestory, the default mode network is often referred to as the CEO of the brain. Many also attribute to it the functioning of the ego and the creation of a self-versus-other duality.
After treating subjects separately with psilocybin and LSD, Carhart-Harris found that the default mode network became “quieter,” meaning that its levels of oxygen consumption and blood flow were reduced. The more those levels went down, the more likely the volunteer was to express a loss of sense of self. “The psychedelic experience of ‘non-duality’ suggests that consciousness,” Pollan writes, “survives the disappearance of the self, that it is not so indispensable as we—and it—like to think.”
This proposal will likely sound familiar to Buddhists. According to Chris Kelley, the default mode network “makes perfect sense . . . and resetting it seems to be a good idea. What you do after that is a different project.”
That’s why Kelley, Washam, and other Buddhists argue that chemically induced states should be coupled with Buddhist methods for training the mind to witness its own selflessness. But some dharma teachers and practitioners, unswayed by this position, remain committed to Buddhism’s fifth precept: to abstain from intoxicants.
Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, the resident teacher at Vipassana Hawai’i, suggests that Buddhist practitioners become attached to “marvelous states of being” when they use psychedelics “under the guise of spiritual exploration.”
“It is the wanting of things to be other than they are that is the heart of our imprisonment,” Vega-Frey told Tricycle. “Changing the colors, textures, and flavors of the prison doesn’t lead us to freedom.”
A significant portion of early American Buddhist converts were first drawn to Buddhism through eye-opening experiences with entheogens. Roshi Joan Halifax, the founder and abbot of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was one of them. Many of her peers, she said, graduated from psychedelics because they were dedicated to cultivating a mental stability and insight through meditation alone.
Halifax agreed that there are dangers to using psychedelics. “But,” she said, “there are dangers to gardening. There are dangers to meditation.” Halifax will steer students away from experimenting with entheogens if she knows that the individual is unstable or won’t take the substance in an appropriate setting. “Frankly, I wouldn’t prescribe what I experienced for anybody. I was able to integrate my experience by having a strong Buddhist practice, by having a lot of grit and determination.”
Washam, too, admits that psychedelics are controversial in Buddhist circles. But she has found that entheogens like ayahuasca function as spiritual accelerants and can actually reduce addiction to intoxicants. Since her own traumatic episode in retreat, Washam has started facilitating two-week retreats in Peru (where ayahuasca’s preparation and consumption are legal)at which Buddhist mindfulness techniques are combined with indigenous shamanic ayahuasca ceremonies. She reports that the program, led by Lotus Vine Journeys, an organization that she founded, has attracted many people with backgrounds in all Buddhist traditions, and a recent effort to target her advocacy for plant-based medicine to a larger Buddhist audience through interviews and podcasts has met with increased interest.
“I’m still a Buddhist,” Washam said, describing ayahuasca ceremonies as a type of “ultimate meditation” that can enhance Buddhist practice and provide personal insights into global interconnectedness. “Through the lens of the dharma,” she added, people who try ayahuasca can “accelerate a type of spiritual growth that we need on the planet right now.”
Washam reported seeing a recurring pattern at American dharma centers: students expressing dissatisfaction with their practice. “Many people complain that they’ve plateaued,” Washam said. “They go to retreat after retreat after retreat, get more blessings by more rinpoches, and they’re like, ‘I’m not fundamentally feeling like I’m changing anymore.’” This problem is one of the reasons why Washam thinks more Buddhists may be willing to explore entheogens.
In the American culture at large, psychedelics seem to be transcending the stigma created by the “war on drugs” campaign, and Washam and Kelley both have high hopes for the future.
“I look over at my 11-year-old daughter,” Kelley said, “who’s reading the children’s version of The Omnivore’s Dilemma [a previous Michael Pollan bestseller], and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, my kid is being assigned homework in Michael Pollan’s book.’ It’s such a huge leap forward from where I was when I was growing up and what we were reading. I couldn’t help but think that the next generation is going to be reading How to Change Your Mind.”
Among Buddhists, for whom the ingestion of intoxicants, including psychedelics, carries the risk of violating deep personal commitments, the consensus on entheogens has yet to be written. In the meantime, Roshi Halifax offers a view of moderation.
“The point of Buddhism is not to get high,” she said. “The point of Buddhism is to see clearly into the nature of mind. The nature of mind, in its fundament, is not separate from this very moment as it is. If we get a peek into that through the use of entheogens, then wonderful.”