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Religion Is Not The Only Way – Psychedelics and Transcendence

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in this article
  • A Journey into the Infinite
  • The Roots of Mysticism and Psychedelic Exploration
  • Mystical Experiences and Psychedelic Journeys
  • Psychedelics and the Therapeutic Potential of Mysticism
  • Quantifying the Mystical
  • The Integral Role of Spiritual Practices
  • Science, Spirituality, and Healing
  • A New Frontier

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Chemical Collective or any associated parties.

A Journey into the Infinite

For untold ages, the concepts of ego dissolution, oneness with the universe, and transcendence of the self, have been the elusive domains of mystics and spiritual seekers. Yet, an unexpected bridge between the sacred and the scientific is now emerging from what may have been seen (even in the last ten years) as the most improbable of sources: psychedelic compounds like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and ayahuasca.

As these mind-altering substances inch closer to receiving widespread legality across the world psychiatric professionals and scientific establishments find themselves in uncharted territory – one that demands a deeper understanding of the mystical experiences long confined to the fringes of the “New Age” movement.

In this unprecedented convergence of science and spirituality, a new frontier is unfolding, one that challenges our preconceptions and invites us to embrace the profound mysteries which lie within the depths of the human psyche.

The Roots of Mysticism and Psychedelic Exploration

The study of mysticism in psychedelics dates back to the 1960s, when researchers like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) at Harvard began exploring the ability of substances like psilocybin to facilitate religious experiences. In a pioneering study, PhD student Walter Pahnke administered psilocybin to seminary students, analysing how the drug induced states akin to spiritual awakenings.

Even earlier, the legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a link between psychological health and the “peak experiences” produced by religious practice, recognising a fundamental human need for spiritual sustenance. 

As Dr. Charles L. Raison, Director of Research on Spiritual Health at Emory University, explains,

Humans are wired a certain way, and it has very clear health implications. Spirituality is a universal human hunger to find purpose, to find meaning, to find a way that things interconnect in the world around us that makes us feel that our lives are something worth living.

This primal drive to uncover a deeper significance has historically given rise to practices designed to induce states academics call “mystical-type experiences” – experiences wherein individuals have an embodied conviction of interacting with something larger than themselves, a sense of interconnectedness and purpose beyond the confines of individual consciousness.

Mystical Experiences and Psychedelic Journeys

While these transcendent states have long been sought through religious and meditative practices, psychedelics have demonstrated a remarkable ability to reliably and profoundly induce mystical-type experiences, often with life-altering consequences.

Chris Bache, a retired professor of religious studies who documented his own 20-year odyssey through high-dose LSD sessions in his book “LSD and the Mind of the Universe,” described the psychedelic experience as nothing short of: 

A philosopher’s dream come true.

Bache vividly recounts his encounters with a vast, organising intelligence that guided him through the deepest mysteries of existence:

I always experienced myself in dialogue with, or engaging, a massive intelligence that was clearly responsible for organising the sessions, which I wouldn’t always understand while I was having it. But over a period of months and years, I could see there was a clear plan in this process.

This intelligence, however, remained elusive, never taking a definitive form but rather manifesting as an infinite ocean of potential, a boundless expanse of consciousness that encompassed all that is, was, and ever will be.

In his journeys, Bache transcended the boundaries of individual consciousness, merging with the very fabric of reality:

When I would be spun into ecstasy, I was taken into this deep experience of cosmology. I was taken back to the beginning of creation. I experienced what creation feels like from a spiritual perspective. I was given a series of teachings, was taken into oneness.

These profound encounters with the divine, however, came at a cost. As Bache’s experiences intensified, the return to ordinary life became increasingly bittersweet, filled with a profound sadness that he found difficult to bear:

After going in and out of those experiences multiple times, it got just so hard to come back into time and space. The way you write about this is you realised in the end you had too much transcendence.

Bache’s narrative highlights both the awe-inspiring potential and risks of extreme psychedelic exploration. While offering glimpses into the very fabric of existence itself, his odyssey also cautions about the delicate balance required between cosmic transcendence and grounded integration in everyday life.

Psychedelics and the Therapeutic Potential of Mysticism

While Bache’s harrowing journey serves as a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of extreme transcendence, the mystical experiences induced by psychedelics are now being explored for their therapeutic potential in treating a range of mental health conditions. 

Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor and member of the university’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, notes that:

The mystical-type effects produced by psychedelics have been linked across the board to benefits in a number of different populations, including people with depression, cancer patients, and people with different types of substance use disorders like alcohol dependence and tobacco addiction.

For researchers like Garcia-Romeu, measuring and quantifying the relationship between mystical states and mental health improvement extends beyond mere academic curiosity. It is the ability of psychedelics to reliably induce these experiences that is giving psychiatrists immense new hope:

It’s one of the things that psychedelics do to people, that seems to then produce a long-term antidepressant response

Amanda Feilding, Founder & Director of the Beckley Foundation, whose institute has been studying psychedelics and their therapeutic applications for over 23 years, echoes this sentiment – asserting that in psychedelic-assisted therapy, patients who have a mystical experience are much more likely to showcase positive outcomes, especially for those with treatment-resistant depression:

What our research was the first to show was that at the root of the healing experience in psychedelic-assisted therapy is the mystical experience.

Quantifying the Mystical

Quantifying the mystical experience itself is an inherent challenge, as the nature of the psychedelic “trip” is shrouded in mystery. To analyse the complex emotions brought on by these substances, researchers have developed instruments like the “Mystical Experience Questionnaire” and the “Awe Experience Scale.” 

Patients are asked if they experienced, among other things:

  • A sense of being outside of time, beyond past and future.
  • Certainty of an encounter with an ultimate reality.
  • The insight that “all is One.”
  • Awareness of the life or living presence in all things.
  • Feeling that they experienced something profoundly sacred and holy.
  • The fusion of their personal self into a larger whole.

While the task of quantifying the ineffable is inherently challenging, these measures provide a window into the subjective experiences of patients, shedding light on the internal processes that may underlie the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

The Integral Role of Spiritual Practices

Interestingly, the mystical qualities of the psychedelic experience share striking similarities with the states achieved through spiritual practices like meditation, breathwork, prayer, and ritual across myriad religious and wisdom traditions. For millennia, mystics and sages have employed these practices to induce transcendent states of consciousness, oneness, ego dissolution, and sacred interconnectedness.

As Dr. Raison reflects:

Sometimes it’s God’s, sometimes it’s the universe, but at the core of spirituality is this feeling of and longing for a meaningful, purposeful interconnection with the larger world. And that through that connection, your life has a purpose and a meaning that goes beyond, you know, just the little prison walls of your own individual consciousness.

While psychedelics can catalyse these unitive mystical states more directly and reliably than spiritual practices alone, their integration and long-term benefits may be enhanced when combined with such practices. The spiritual technologies of meditation, breathwork, prayer, and ritual can provide crucial frameworks for making sense of the profound psychedelic experience, as well as tools for sustained psychological and emotional integration.

By honouring the wisdom of ancient spiritual traditions while harnessing the unique properties of psychedelics, a holistic approach to mental health emerges – one that harmonises the mystical insights of the psyche with embodied spiritual practices.

Science, Spirituality, and Healing

As psychedelic research progresses, an unprecedented convergence of science and spirituality is unfolding, one that demands a deeper understanding of mysticism beyond mere academic curiosity. The ability of these substances to reliably induce mystical-type experiences is not only reshaping our understanding of the human psyche but also offering a potent tool for mental health interventions.

From the work of institutions like Johns Hopkins and Emory University to the underground networks of psychedelic therapists, a new paradigm is emerging – one that recognises the intrinsic link between mental well-being and the human yearning for purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness. 

As Michael Pollan, author of “How to Change Your Mind,” recounts, his own psychedelic experiences facilitated a profound shift in perspective, allowing him to transcend the confines of his ego:

I saw myself get scattered to the wind, but I was all right with it. I didn’t have any urge to stack the papers back up together. Then I looked out; I saw myself spread over the landscape as a coat of paint. And I was fine with it.

This profound experience allowed Pollan to recognise his ego as merely “one of a couple of characters in my mind, and not always the best,” further underscoring the potential of psychedelics to catalyse profound personal transformations.

Yet, as Chris Bache’s journey vividly illustrates, pursuing transcendence is not without its risks. Achieving a delicate balance between the divine and the human, between the cosmic and the earthly, is crucial for integrating these experiences healthily and sustainably.

Pollan’s research aligns perfectly with Dr Raison’s conclusions – the combination of the seemingly inherent mystical qualities of psychedelics with the embodied practices of spiritual traditions appears to be the best route towards harnessing this technology to the best of our ability.

A New Frontier

At the intersection of science and spirituality, a new frontier awaits, one that challenges our preconceptions and invites us to embrace the profound mysteries that lie within the depths of the psyche. As researchers continue to unravel the therapeutic potential of psychedelics,

A deeper understanding of the mystical experience becomes not just an academic pursuit but a key to unlocking the boundless potential of the human mind.

For those willing to embark on this journey with reverence, moderation, and a commitment to integration, the rewards could be nothing short of life-altering – a chance to transcend the confines of the ego, confront existential fears, and cultivate a deeper connection with the very fabric of existence. 

As the veil between the sacred and the scientific grows ever thinner, a new era of psychedelic-assisted therapies inches closer to reality, offering a chance to alleviate suffering and unlock the boundless potential of the human spirit. 

In the words of Michael Pollan, reflecting on his own transformative experiences:

I kind of feel like I went back to baseline. My wife thinks it’s changed me in some ways. Not in a profound way, but I think she would say that I’m more open and more patient, that I deal with emotional situations with a little more availability. 

It is this promise of personal growth, coupled with the potential to revolutionise mental healthcare, that fuels the renaissance of psychedelic research – a journey into the uncharted realms of consciousness that could reshape our understanding of the human experience itself.

David Blackbourn | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective

David is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to David via email at blog@chemical-collective.com

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