Rien T. Havens 7/6/2010
Buddhist experience has long been characterized by practices that facilitate contemplative insight. In the modern era, westerners have access to many tools, like psychedelics, that when combined with the right setting and mindset can further spiritual growth. The Dzogchen systems of meditation can lend an especially interesting approach to psychedelic experience because of its advanced methods of working with visionary experience. Other western psychological approaches like Harm Reduction Therapy could also inform spiritual practitioners interested in using substances as supporting conditions for personal growth.
There is a long history of an advanced visionary style of meditation dating back thousands of years. The lineage is said to have originated in Pakistan and northern India and became aligned with the Buddhist sects of Bon and Nyingma, and was established in Tibet during the eighth century. It is now regarded as the most advanced and esoteric style of meditation by most Tibetan Buddhists. Within the greater Buddhist sphere, it is contested that these later teachings of Northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet are part of Buddhism at all. One way to examine the authenticity of the teachings is to look and see if the intention and result is aligned with the historical Buddha. In looking at Dzogchen teachings in particular, they involve practitioners with a very advanced level of meditative stabilization. These teachings are for practitioners that are already able to rest in “emptiness” or non-conceptuality, and have compassion and openness functioning as a central part of their personality. From here, they are able to learn how to develop the innate creativity of the mind, as seen in part as visionary experience, to its fullest. As this is what is fundamentally understood within Buddhism as ‘insight meditation,’ I have titled this short paper “Developing Insight.”
From the traditional perspective, there are two styles of meditation taught by the Buddha: Shamatha is the first form, also known as calm abiding, in which one directs attention towards an object of focus. This settles the mind and allows a peaceful and serene state. The other is called Vipassana, or insight meditation. Here, people rest naturally and observe thoughts, feelings, and sensations without attachment, aggression, or unawareness. Generally, all of the types of meditation in which you reflect on things like compassion, or visualize celestial deities as they do in Buddhist Tantra, or simply concentrate on your breath or a rock is all considered Shamatha.
We now have great scientists like Richard Davidson and others who are pioneering research on meditation, using expensive machines like fMRI’s to image the brain, and have found significant differences in neural activation between the two types of meditation. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, one of the most prominent scholars in Tibetan Buddhism, mentions that through Shamatha, one can have a pure mind free from passion and aggression. Through Vipassana, relative (content based) and ultimate (being based) wisdom can arise. Now that we have established a clear difference between Shamatha and Vipassana, and established that Vipassana is indeed an essential practice expounded by the Buddha, let’s take a closer look at the more advanced methods of working with visionary experience.
The method of meditation utilized in Dzogchen is of the Vipassana type, which does not of itself need to use concentrative practices as any basis. However, extensive training in Shamatha is needed before being able to successfully practice Vipassana. This is because a coherent persona and a stable mind are needed to integrate the sometimes intense experience. The reason that the experiences can be so intense is because it is about developing inner vision, much like the visions that are induced through psychedelics, and these can go awry. Dzogchen is a very advanced system that is unique in that is helps practitioners distinguish between visions that have to do ego history, hopes, or fears, and helps to point out the vision that develops and allows for the qualities of Buddhahood to manifest, and dwelling on the past, or projecting about the future is what Buddhism works so diligently to overcome. As many know, and some have experienced, psychedelics when misused can go horribly wrong, as can these extensive periods of dark retreat and sensory deprivation because of exactly the same reason: the subconscious upheaval that occurs through psychedelic or sensory deprived practice can be hugely overwhelming. Geshe Tenzin Wangyal mentions about using meditation to relate with visionary experience, “If we do not follow after them, the visions are under control and don’t cause any problems.” (Wangyal, 2000 p. 140) By “following after,” he means to either be happy at the beauty or horrified at the ugliness, not following after is the primary understanding utilized in mindfulness to relate with mental contents during meditation.
Personally, my experience with psychedelics have often been profound, and sometimes been harmful. It was harmful when I was younger and experimenting and didn’t have an ability to work with what came up in my mind and took too much substance. When it was the most helpful, it significantly enhanced the arising of an integrated experiential understanding of Buddhist teachings. I was keenly aware of the delicacy of human life, of the interconnectedness of all things, of the ability of mind to project illusions onto reality, and even into reality being illusion like, multi-dimensional, and non-dual itself.
I do not think that any psychedelic, in any way, ever can cause or cure any major malady that humans might have. I do see this problematic way of thinking in the more medical types of experiments with things like DMT or Psilocybin. It is the person who is doing the healing, they comprise all of the causes for insight and transformation to arise, and the psychedelics are just a supporting condition. Thinking about psychedelics this way is a subtle, but major shift in relating to mood altering substances, or medications in general, integrates in the scientifically staggering 50 – 75% placebo effect, and brings a more open, pragmatic approach to the table: much like that of one of my mentors, a Buddhist psychotherapist, scholar, and professor out of the University of Washington, Allan Marlatt. This perspective views substances differently than the dualistic A.A. type model of alcoholism and sobriety; it looks at substance use as a method, a tool to get somewhere. From there, one naturally looks at ways to reduce the harm given by the substances while maintaining the perceived effect.
From this perspective, one might be able to enhance the action and stability of the experiences of insight that come from these psychedelics. In my experience, coming from training in classical psychopharmacology, one would naturally want to look at layering the medicine to get maximal effect, (one thing the Ahayuascero’s are brilliant at) here we would be looking at both the arising, stability, and integration of insight as the central effect being supported. This is one reason I would be so excited to have a conversation about herbs with one of these Curandero’s, because of their special brilliance with layering, but not just substances, environments and practices as well. What would happen if you took some mushrooms on the forty ninth day of dark retreat? What about the first day? How about combining periods of Shamatha with substances that enhance mental stability, with substances that enhance insight and practicing them concurrently? Second, you would look at some of the adverse effects and find ways to minimize or reduce them as much as possible. This could be a sticky area, potentially – because some people see the vomiting and diarrhea that occurs with some psychedelic use detoxifying and healing. Personally, I take a more gentle approach with the body and think that dosage can be better regulated so that sickness is less likely or avoided altogether.
The discussion between Buddhism and Psychedelic use has the potential to be highly productive, and could yield some very advanced methods of spiritual growth and development for our modern times. I do strongly caution against misinformed or untrained use, as the harm could far outweigh the good. Having close mentor or spiritual guide is often a wonderful way to go, but by no means the only way to develop spiritually using psychedelic substances. I look forward to having and sharing more interviews with Buddhist teachers, revealing some recipes for Buddhist exploration, delving into the ocean of experience, and discussing and debating doctrine and method as the class progresses onward.