With us, there is no place for the fantasy of the angels. How much less is there a place for the fantasies of the devil!

Shamsi Tabriz

Mandelbrot fractal imageVeterans of the Psychedelic Revolution of the 1960’s might recall with pathos the battles waged against the conventional consciousness of the day. The enemy, as they saw it, was the self-righteous state of mind which believed it had a monopoly on reality and which at the same time had a shadow side of cruelty and insanity. Tens of millions of volunteers opened up their synapses, let the uncensored truth into consciousness, and saw for themselves that most of modern life looked patently insane when seen against the backdrop of nature and eternity. For all its misguided power, they saw conventional consciousness as naively ridiculous. And they considered altering one’s state of consciousness as a way of cleansing the unrealities of social conditioning. Such an approach was not only revolutionary, it may have been an evolutionary necessity. Perhaps it allowed enough people to see the disastrous fate society was hurtling toward and to begin to change that direction.

Those who used certain substances to expand or deepened consciousness were usually not deluded by other equally illegal substances that merely offered sedation (like heroin and barbiturates) or illusory well-being (like cocaine and amphetamines). But many believed that certain relatively benign substances could enhance spiritual awareness.

Just as some human beings are compelled to explore the physical world as scientists, geographers, naturalists, others are compelled to explore states of consciousness. These explorers of the mind work primarily with the equipment that nature has provided: the human nervous system. Among these explorers there are those who work with the nervous system alone, and those who rely on substances that modify the functioning of that system.

Given these facts, are drugs useful today in attaining our full humanity, our spiritual completion, or are they more likely to reduce our possibilities of such attainment? For, more than anything else, we need a spirituality that can preserve and develop our humanity in the face of the challenges that our environment offers.

We exist as if we are imprisoned in a small part of the mind, the conscious mind, which is veiled or partitioned from the relatively infinite subconscious mind that is the source of meaning and value. We feel as if we are condemned to function in this small room, occasionally receiving hints, intimations of a vast world beyond.

There is more than one way to leave this room. One day someone discovers that by taking a certain pill, he finds himself miraculously outside, in an extraordinary world, but he also finds that outside the room he has a greatly reduced capacity for reasoning, intention and memory. Because whole parts of his being are shut down in the meantime, he cannot participate wholly in those worlds. He is much like a tourist on a chartered bus who can view the country he passes through, but is rather limited in his interaction with the landscape and its inhabitants. During his occasional tours, this psychic tourist glimpses the beauty of the world outside the bus, while the rest of his time is spent inside this small room which doesn’t change. The world outside his room begins to be his place of temporary escape. He begins to live in two worlds, but the experiences of one world seem to preclude those of the other. Is there an alternative?

One day the prisoner receives a book through a small window in his prison cell. The book could be summarized thus: Your state of imprisonment is not a natural or necessary condition at all. In fact you have a home beyond the walls of your prison, and you are meant to be free. You may regain your home and your freedom by developing your own nervous system so that you can prepare yourself for the journey and the conditions of the outside world. You must be willing to leave behind your former life of imprisonment and find a way to undo the unique lock on your cell. The most likely chance for this is to be in contact with someone on the outside who can help you — and there are people willing to help those with a real wish to be free.

The prison is nothing but a habit of mind reinforced by the conditioning of the nervous system. let us say that the mind has its surface and its depth. The surface of the mind has the very useful functions of attention, decision, intention, recollection, forethought, and judgment, which collectively we might call “higher reason.” But the surface of the mind can be cluttered by acquired attitudes, beliefs and opinions, as well as mechanical thoughts, associations, and reactions.

The depth of the mind, on the other hand, is the source of meaning and significance. Infinite resources and qualities are stored there in potentiality, along with the means for creative action and problem-solving of all kinds. The subconscious also has the subtle faculties or senses which are directly connected with the divine Will. These correspond to the physical senses, but they are the means of perception of the spiritual world. The subconscious also has its clutter, which are inculcated beliefs, compulsions, obsessions, and buried memories of emotional traumas. In the imprisoned state of mind, our contact with the subconscious is very indirect and vague, because the surface of the mind is totally in control.

Certain substances disable the surface of the mind, that it, our higher reason, allowing the more or less random contents of the subconscious mind to flood in. What fun! — for a while. A price is paid for the disabling of will, which is our essential humanness: we suffer a reduction in the holistic functioning of our human capacities. Meanwhile the subconscious has not necessarily been purified, so it may yield up bizarre and subjective as well as holy and objective impressions.

Intoxication could be viewed as psychic masturbation. Masturbation could be defined as trying to do something when you don’t have everything needed to do it. Contacting the subconscious realms of significance without our full equipment is like making love without a partner. Not only is it less physically satisfying, it bypasses the emotional and spiritual dimensions of relationship. One can understand the many reasons why people do it: loneliness, impatience, narcissism. Like intoxicants, masturbation creates a tension between the fantasy and the actuality. It leaves people askew and ultimately crippled.

Can psychoactive substances ever yield psychological or spiritual benefit? A qualities “yes” suggests itself here. An experience produced by external substances may give enough of a taste of higher being to motivate someone toward awakening that state on a more permanent and stable basis, especially if the person has not already been exposed to the mature spiritual guidance that certain traditions could offer.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the shift of perspective offered by certain drugs can also be accomplished through various other means, one of which is contact with someone who has attained higher being. While such an experience may be a bit less dramatic than a drug experience, it is less likely to cause psychological imbalance. On the other hand, such imbalances can also be caused by teachers with limited knowledge who induce certain states in their students that may, if indulged in, make them less fit for ordinary life and less capable of reaching completion.

A mature spiritual distinguishes between temporary states on the one hand, and station, or level of being, on the other. Less mature approaches may tend to rely on ecstatogenic techniques, narcotics of the path for the spiritually addicted. Certainly many people from the drug culture have been attracted to spiritual paths because they seems to offer these altered states of consciousness. But mature traditions speak of a sobriety which encompasses and surpasses the ecstasy of intoxication.

Shamsi Tabriz, the teacher of the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic Rumi, said:

Some of our friends find their joy in cannabis. This is the fantasy of the devil. With us, there is no place for the fantasy of the angels. How much less is there a place for the fantasies of the devil! We don’t even accept the illusions of the angels, so what can the illusions of the devil be? Why don’t our friends take pleasure in that clean and infinite universe of ours? This universe embraces them and makes them drunk without ever making them aware of it. Everyone is in unanimous agreement that this universe is not an illicit substance.

The questions might be asked, “In working with the nervous system alone, isn’t one in fact producing the same neurological substances through breathing and meditation exercises that are stimulated through certain drugs? And if this is so, couldn’t one say that the person who uses a pill or brain machine in a disciplined way might not also produce the same results but in much less time?”

This question is a little bit like asking, “If it’s possible to stimulate certain states in a laboratory monkey that are similar to the states that the monkey will meet in the jungle, can the monkey of the laboratory achieve the same development and maturity as the monkey who develops in the jungle?” Both may experience “all that a monkey can experience.” What is the difference?

According to Sufi understanding, one can experience Truth, Reality, God, in essence or through its attributes. The monkey who matures in the jungle is developing through an experience of the attributes. Because of its relationship with its own natural milieu, the milieu in which its species developed, we may suppose that the jungle monkey, though theoretically experiencing the same states as the laboratory animal, will have more richness of experience, more maturity and understanding.

Let’s imagine now that we could raise a human being in a spiritual hothouse, a programmed setting from birth, and give that person all the “meditation” experience it is possible to give, but withhold all the complexity, suffering, and disappointment that ordinary human beings face. This too would be a kind of laboratory enlightenment. how much compassion and understanding would such a person have for the struggles of an ordinary human being? Many attributes of our own essence seem to develop only when we are faced with certain kinds of challenges and difficulties. Sometimes the remedy lies in the poison.

One could also ask whether psychoactive substances have been helpful to certain native peoples using shamanistic practices over the centuries in isolation from other societies. Do we have something to learn from them? Definitely. Should we try to live like them? I don’t see how it would be either possible or desirable to apply their solutions to our ecosystem, which is, after, all, the contemporary multicultural technological world.

This is a complex subject. We can consider some principles without getting caught in absolutes. The strongest argument in my own mind against any artificial means of spiritual exploration is that it seems to exact a price. The price is the weakening or disabling of important functions of the mind that could integrate the experience of the expanded states. For this reason, I would rather trust a tradition that offers a gradual approach integrating expanded consciousness with practical, social, and intellectual skills.

A second consideration is that seeking “states,” through whatever means, is at best an entertainment, and very likely a form of aggrandizing the ego. Can we see the trap involved in looking for some shortcut or high that will do it for us? Does the Beloved, as it were, want a conscious lover or an inebriated one?

A third consideration is an issue of faith, and by faith I mean a certainty in the existence and support of a beneficent Reality. Can we accept that this equipment we have been furnished with and this life that we face are the best possible conditions for consciously knowing this Reality? Perhaps, if we can surrender to what is, that is where we meet Truth face to face and never separate from ourselves from.

Maybe we are meant to walk out of our prison with all our faculties intact and functioning. Maybe we are given exactly the equipment we need to know the universe. If we do not know how to use the equipment, that is another matter. We can learn. Through conscious work on the nervous system, including purification from chemical and psychological toxins, understanding the finer energy system and the science of breath, we can prepare this physical vehicle for contact with all levels of reality.

Most importantly, we can open to Reality through our most human qualities: humility, gratitude, and love. These are not so much emotional states as cognitive capacities. We can live and function within the infinite ecology that lies outside the prison of conventional “reality” and, paradoxically, right in front of us. “Wheresoever you look is the face of God.”

It’s late and it’s raining, my friends,
let’s go home. Let’s leave these ruins
we’ve haunted like owls.
Even though these beautiful images beckon,
let’s go home. And all the reasons offered
by the sensible, dull, and sorrowful
can’t darken our hearts now,
nor can all this phantom loveplay,
this imaginary paradise hold us back.
Some see the grain, but not the harvest.
Don’t ask too many hows or whys. Let beasts graze.
Come home to the real celebration and music.
The Friend has built a house for the naked and the pure.

— adapted from Rumi

This article first appeared in Gnosis #26 (Winter 1993).
A copy of the issue is available for $9 postpaid from Gnosis, P.O. Box 14217, San Francisco, CA 94114.