Meditation and Psychedelics

By Vanja Palmers

Both meditation and psychedelics are close to my heart. I’m grateful to both of them for
having shown me that true essence of the heart, which is the heart of everyone and
everything, our ultimate belonging and source of meaning.
For starters, psychedelics began disrupting my, up until then, fairly smooth and protected life
– enough to be able to ask, for the first time, a deep and urgent question. This kind of questioning
goes far beyond words and concepts and leaves nothing untouched. We think we know about
ourselves and the world. It is incredibly freeing and quite confusing. Next, meditation
harmonized it all again, so that I could live with a measure of integrity and ease. Then, after many
years of rigorous formal practice and complete abstinence, psychedelics have once again inspired
“Psychedelics can help us to clear our mind and make visible the nature of consciousness.”
my ‘beginner’s mind’, getting me out of the habits and ruts that seem to be part of the package deal
of life and which, though necessary and comforting, stand in the way of our fresh, direct
experience. Now, I haven’t traveled the psychedelic path much for about two years. It looks like
everything has its time, life comes in cycles.
This is how it was for me, and it does not seem to be so unusual. The dramatic rise of interest
in Yoga, meditation and eastern religion in the 60s and 70s was closely related to the psychedelic
movement. A poll conducted by the Buddhist magazine “Tricycle” shows that 83% of the 1,454
respondents had some firsthand experience with psychedelics.
During the 80s and 90s many of the spiritual, once young ex-hippie communities had
become middle-aged meditation centers with relatively few newcomers under the age of 30. The
next generation seemed less interested in meditation, alternative lifestyles – and also in
On my recent trip through the States, during which I visited a number of meditation centers
across the country, I noticed many young faces again. Being accompanied by my twenty-year-old
daughter, I had easy and quick access to them and I was not surprised to learn that most of them
have had some contact with mind-altering plants and chemicals.
So what is the relationship between psychedelics and meditation? One way to approach
such a question is to first look at the meaning of the words independently. “Meditation” has roots
in the Latin “meditari”, which in turn has roots in the indo-Germanic “med”, having something
to do with “measuring, walking, staking out”. We could define it as the act of exploring, walking
in, measuring, staking out the sphere of our consciousness. “Psychedelic” is based on the Greek
words “psyche” and “delos”, the first meaning “breath, the seat of consciousness”, the second
“clear, visible”. Psychedelics can help us to clear our mind and make visible the nature of
So from the etymological point of view, through very different lineages, they are pointing in
the same direction, the investigation of our inner being. This process is also known as ‘practice’
and the linguistic relationship of the two words mirrors the actual experience of many people:
Very different means to investigate a very similar subject: Ourselves, the meaning of existence, the
Viewed from yet another angle, the difference might not be as big as it seems: neurologists
have discovered that physical exhaustion, prolonged fasting and other austerities (such as the
Buddha underwent before his Great Enlightenment) as well as wound fever (such as Ignatius of
Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, as well as many other Christian Saints, suffered from at
the time of their spiritual awakening) produce changes in the brain that are virtually indistin guishable from the
changes produced by the intake of psychedelics.
At this point it might be useful to make a distinction between the virtue or goal of practice, the loving, benefi-
cent and constant awareness of this never-ending process of exploration, and the methods that aim at getting us
there. The former is universal, true and necessary for everyone. Dogen refers to this when he states that “Zazen
has nothing to do with sitting or standing or laying down” – and St. Paul when he admonishes us to “pray at
all times”. When it comes to the methods, we have a choice, and all of them
work sometimes and sometimes they don’t. Some work better for some people than for others, and all of
them have their relative strengths and weaknesses. Traditional mainstream Buddhist training
does not include the use of mind-altering substances.
With very few possible exceptions, they are simply not mentioned in the sutras and other texts. Some think
that they are dealt with in the precept that states “a disciple of the Buddha does not intoxicate mind or body of self or
Others think differently: the same poll mentioned above found that almost 60% of the responding Buddhist
practitioners felt that psychedelics and Buddhism do mix and that they would consider taking psychedelics in a
sacred context (in the “under 20” category this percentage was 90%). The traditional understanding of intoxi-
cants refers to all mental and physical phenomena that foster confusion through fanning our likes and dislikes.
And as the Buddha never fails to point out, ultimately everybody has to decide for themselves what is what.
While it is true that the setting and the techniques used at traditional Buddhist retreats are not geared to-
ward the use of psychedelics, it is quite obvious that skills in meditation, the practice of being at peace within one’s
body and mind, even in uncomfortable places, can be of great help in the course of a psychedelic session. Not only from
this point of view, one could say that the practice of meditation is available to more people than the practice of
psychedelics. Are there any dangers involved with the use of psychedelics? Yes, there are. They are very powerful
sacraments, or medicine, and they have to be approached with the utmost respect, preferably under the guidance of an
experienced friend. The fears most commonly voiced are damage to body and brain as well as dangerous
behavior and addiction. The classic psychedelics, unlike substances such as heroin, cocaine, and alcohol, have
virtually no organic toxicity in the quantities in which they are ingested. Their addictive risk is too small to be
measured when used in ceremonial settings. Psychedelic traditions from the Vedic dawn to Eleusis to the Native
American Church have succeeded in creating ritual contexts in which hazardous acting-out is virtually unknown.
But what of the dramatic changes which psychedelics can have on our psyche and spirit, our heart/mind, our
consciousness? Of course this effect is the very reason for taking them in the first place. Is it ultimately helpful
or harmful? A moment after his great awakening, a Zen master exclaimed “…my life is completely 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. And it is from this perspective that we must judge
the value of any given experience. Buddha recommends to view our life “as a dream, a flash in the darkness, a star
in the morning dawn, a bubble in a stream, an illusion of the senses”. The aim of practice is to wake up
from that dream. One question often asked after a deep experience is: Was it a genuine awakening, or was it just another
dream within a dream, another illusion within an illusion? Personally, I don’t worry too much about this. A primary religious
experience is the seed for a spiritual life, no more and no less. No matter how genuine the encounter with the
Ultimate might be, it does not guarantee a genuine spiritual life. The experience may be authentic, but what
counts is our daily life – and how authentic it is depends on how we live, its quality, what we do with it. Will we be
able to muster up the necessary determination and patience to let the light which we glimpsed for a moment, be
it through meditation or psychedelics, gradually penetrate our whole being? Will we allow the experience of
oneness and belonging – whether or not it wasn’t really real – to inspire and transform our lives? This is our
challenge and our hope, individually and as a species.
Vanja Palmers has practiced Zen for thirty years and has received Dharma transmission from his teacher Kobun
Chino Roshi. He lives with his family in Switzerland and is the head of a meditation and animal rights center

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