Psychedelics and Mysticism

"Dr. W. T. Stace, Professor Emeritus at Princeton and a leading philosophical authority on mysticism, said, when asked about the resemblance of artificially induced mystical experience (via the psychedelics) to the natural one, "It is not a matter of its being similar to mystical experience; it is mystical experience."

People take hallucinogens and suddenly they’re born again. They claim to have seen God, or heard the eternal sound of the universe and all kinds of things that sound like someone with illusions of grandeur. It seems that these people are looked at with a highly critical eye. These people are not believed. It’s all chalked up to the drugs. It’s as if that kind of experience is somehow less real because it happened while or even because the person was on drugs, particularly in regards to hallucinogens because their main mechanism is hallucination. It makes you see things that aren’t there, supposedly.

That seems like a cop out. Just because one might experience something subjectively, that isn’t really happening for everyone else, doesn’t intrinsically lower the value of the experience. However, one might argue that something that is unnaturally imported into human experience is not supposed to happen and can only hurt and not help, solely on the basis of it not occurring naturally.

It is to this person that this argument is addressed. Psychedelic states and mystical states are often very similar if not sometimes identical.

Now to explore the nature of mystical experiences. Some of the characteristics of common reports of mystical experiences are union with God, feelings of timelessness, out of body experiences, spontaneous dancing, singing, laughing, crying, and experiencing hallucinations among other things. St. Bonaventure’s mystical experience also includes omniscience.

“In its first activity, the actual retention of all things in time--past, present, and future--the memory is an image of eternity whose indivisible present extends itself to all times...we hold that the memory as present in itself a changeless light in which it recalls changeless truths...”

Lao Tzu writes of endlessness in the Tao Te Ching

“Yet Heaven and Earth And all the space between them Are like a bellows: Empty but inexhaustible Always producing more.”

A feeling of an infinite void is evoked here. The Tao Te Ching is probably the best at delineating the feeling of these mystical experiences because it doesn’t try to say exactly what is being experienced. Lao Tzu seems to dance around the topic and never really get right to the point. This is not helpful to those who’d like to discuss the experiences in an academic setting, but it is good for those who are experiencing these things. It avoids naming that which cannot be named. This is appropriate because paired with these mystical experiences is often the inability to explain, or put into words what one experienced (except maybe in the case of such great writers as Alan Watts, who we’ll look at in a moment).

Psychedelic experiences can sound very similar to those mystical states described above. In fact, some psychonauts do not distinguish between a psychedelic state and a mystical state. The former implies that latter, not as a rule, but very often. Here, Aldous Huxley describes his experience, and others’ of a mescaline induced ‘trip’:

“Other persons discover a world of visionary beauty. To others again is revealed the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence, of the given, unconceptualized event. In the final stage of egolessness there is an ‘obscure knowledge’ that All is in all—that All is actually each. This is as near, I take it, as a finite mind can ever come to ‘perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.’”

Huxley says that the glory and infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence is revealed. Hard is it to believe that gaining this knowledge could be detrimental to your spiritual growth. How could a drug that causes revelations such as these be seen as useless?

Alan Watts takes a good look at the concept of LSD used as a sacrament, and grace giving gift that aids your spiritual experiences, but does not necessarily constitute the entirety of them:

“The experience corresponds almost exactly to the theological concept of a sacrament or means of grace—an unmerited gift of spiritual power whose lasting effects depend upon the use made of it in subsequent action.”

An interesting figure is Bhagavan Das, who straddles the fence on this issue. Not that he is for or against psychedelics, but he has attained mystical states with and without their aid. Here is an experience that came spontaneously: “It was completely light, the brightest light. It was like waking up with the sun rising right in your face. The bliss was incredible like a sexual orgasm that kept going from my head down to my toes and back up again. Every cell in my body came to attention. God was making love to me. I knew it was God, and I just wanted more. This was why I was here. This was it. I felt and saw God." Bhagavan Das attained states like this one not uncommonly throughout his “career” as a sadhu. He practiced Hatha-yoga, pujas and chanting extensively, sometimes up to 16 hours a day. He was devoted, and obviously his effort paid off in highly climatic spiritual states. However, while he was on LSD, these states would come almost immediately with far less disciplined effort, as here:

“I stared into the sun, both eyes wide open, from ten that morning until the sun set in the early evening. I traveled with the sun all the way across the sky. I heard this extremely powerful ‘Ommmmmmmmmmm!’ coming out of the sun and I plunged deeper into the sound. I slipped through the sun into a huge black hole and realized suddenly and completely that God lives behind the sun. The sun is his door.”

How is this possible? How is it that two so very extreme practices can bring about nearly the same results. Saints and devotees to their spiritual path renounce everything and often through themselves into selfless devotional worship to attain these states, and some never do. By that method these mystical revelations are not guaranteed.

But by taking LSD or other hallucinogens these results are almost definitely going to happen. Neither are these results guaranteed, but you’re definitely giving yourself much greater chances to achieve them. You can try it as many times as you want, at any time that you want. If a little didn’t work, you can play with your dosage. And if it doesn’t work, you didn’t waste half your life sitting in a cave pondering your existence. You know in a few hours and you’re on your way. It makes sense for today’s fast food culture for hallucinogens to be a spiritual option, as opposed to renouncing the world and ruining the economy. Terence McKenna brings up the psychedelics in the context of Buddhist spiritual practice:

“The puzzle to me is how Buddhism achieves all of this without psychedelics: not only how but why, since these dimensions of experience seem fairly easily accessed, given hallucinogenic substances and plants, and are excruciatingly rare and unusual by any other means.”

When considering the validity of using psychedelics for mystical experience, one thing to consider is their chemical action on the brain. Although little is known for sure in terms of the action of psychedelics, much is postulated, and since most psychedelics are similar in molecular structure, a quick run down will be given of the probable mode of action of LSD-25.

LSD-25 is structurally similar to serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which fires back and forth between its receptors, carrying information. Since LSD is so alike serotonin, it mocks our brains natural chemical, but then gets stuck in the receptor site, kind of like an ill fitting key. When the LSD is out, the receptor has been tickled, if you will, and is now agitated and highly sensitive when the regular serotonin comes back. All the information it receives henceforth (until the receptor goes back to normal) is magnified.

The action of this drug is very interesting. It’s not as if the LSD is hanging around up there in your cortex waving its arms and screaming. It knocks on the door, tries its key, and leaves. In fact, the LSD is out of your brain before the peak of the experience even begins, within a short period of time, some say as few as 20 minutes. The only thing left in your brain is super sensitive receptors and your same old info-carrying serotonin.

“The argument is that what LSD or other psychedelic drugs do is simple, what the mind does complex, and if the event of ingesting a psychedelic substance is followed by some amazing mental events, it must be the case that the mind is capable of such events all on its own, or under a variety of diverse influences. The drug is in no sense analogous to a computer program, causing the brain and mind to submit to its instructions; if it were, the effects of the drug would be far more reproducible and typical.”
The effects of hallucinogens are far from typical and not even in the most controlled environment could they be called reproducible.

“It is meaningless to talk specifically about the ‘effect of the drug.’ Set and setting, expectation, and atmosphere account for all specificity of reaction. There is no ‘drug reaction’ but always setting-plus-drug.”

This sounds eerily like normal, sober life to me. Your state of mind is usually a product of your thoughts and your environment. But now your receptors are getting fired at twice as fast, or twice as hard and it may be a little more difficult to assimilate all that you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, etc.

Does this information make the psychedelic mystical experience any more or any less valid? The brain is only a conglomeration of chemicals and neurons in the first place. Is any state of mind unnatural that is only made up of what you have already? In the example the LSD was imported first off, so that could still be called unnatural, although all the processes during the psychedelic experience are none other than a priori chemicals. They just needed a little jump start.

Next to be investigated is the pineal gland. This is a mysterious gland located in the center of the brain about the size of a grain of rice. For a long time what it’s function is was unknown, and in fact it’s still a bit unclear. It is known that it makes serotonin and converts it to melatonin and that in some animals (West Fence Lizard, and the Pacific Tree Frog) it is actually manifested on top of the head as a third eye.

Dr. Rick Straussman was a practicing Buddhist and was studying psychedelic drugs in his research. He had already made the connection between mystical states and the psychedelic ‘trip.’ His reasoning went a step further, however, to suggest that their might be a naturally occurring psychedelic in the brain that a person could trigger intentionally (through meditation) to bring about these mystical states. The pineal gland came to mind.

Other states were included with meditation for those that would incite hallucinations such as near-death, birth, high fever, starvation and sensory deprivation. Also, the pineal gland has a few interesting coincidences related to it. It corresponds to the 6th chakra, or the Ajna chakra. The pineal gland is third eye that mystic yogis want to open to see the true light. The pineal gland is first visible in the human fetus at 49 days after conception. Coincidentally, 49 days is how long it takes the life force of one who has died to enter into its next incarnation, according to Buddhist texts.

This has striking implications. The soul or “life-force” of a person could enter the body at 49 days through the pineal, maybe marked by the release of a ‘homegrown’ psychedelic. The fact that yogis knew about this sacred organ, if you will, long ago strikes one as very indicative of the knowledge one can gain through mystical practices and how it measures up to our modern methods. Only recently do we even think this gland exists, much less what it does, or how we could use it to our advantage. But long ago, the yogis knew that meditation on this third eye would lead to liberation.

Does this information change our view toward the psychedelic mystical state? It certainly puts a new spin on it. Straussman suggests that the drug DMT is the one that the pineal gland produces. DMT is a strong, fast acting psychedelic that lasts anywhere from 5-15 minutes and completely transports the user to another dimension of reality. DMT has been found in normal and schizophrenic patients, but reports conversely say that there is no evidence that it is produced in humans.

For the sake of argument, let us assume for a moment that the brain does produce DMT, and that the pineal gland is in fact the infamous third eye. What does this imply? Does this imply that psychedelics are a valid means to reach enlightenment? This means that almost anyone (with minimal instruction and practice compared to eastern traditions, which suppose that enlightenment can take lifetimes) could become enlightened without putting forth much effort. Is this moral or ethical?

Is it natural? In this way, you’ll be able to plan your enlightenment to the moment. You can schedule it in between brunch and the meeting at the office and be home in time for TV dinners. It’s like planning to fall in love. Devotion of the heart is supposed to be emanating from you, not implanted in you.

Is it fair? It is to everyone who’s already enlightened, but everyone else may not understand. This way, no matter what you’re background is, junkie, murderer, thief, you take the magic pill and you too can be transported to that place where the masters are from. Grace is grace, and should be free by its own nature, but explain that to people who aren’t there yet.

What about the people who get a direct transmission of the Dharma just by being in the presence of a master? This may not seem fair either. He may have just been in the right place at the right time. Yet he gains knowledge without having to do anything. It could be argued that those who use psychedelics, as opposed to the example just given, have to deal with a lot of fear, depending on how far along they are already. With this kind of availability of enlightenment, it could even be marketed as a product.

On the contrary, if it is not moral to use drugs to attain these states, the next question that follows is how valid is the ‘common’ practice to reach enlightenment? A meditator is meditating on God and his love for him. Does his brain chemistry change or does it stay the same? He may begin to see hallucinations or manifestations of his deities. Is this more moral than ingesting the same thing he has in his brain right now?

The practice is a big part of reaching the goal. If it were possible to swallow a pill and gain the consciousness of an enlightened person, one might be very frightened, scared, and confused. Of course it all depends on one’s mindset when one decides to partake in such an adventure. And is enlightenment inevitable, even if you had the exact same chemicals as someone who had reached liberation?

A key question here arises. Is mind a product of chemicals, or are chemicals a product of mind? A person can go to a biofeedback therapist and learn how to control his brain waves to induce certain states of mind or she can tolerate her present, uncontrolled states of mind. A person can be given a shot of adrenaline in order to keep her awake, or she can be scared by a wild dog and get the same chemical effect in her body. In the first case the chemical adrenaline keeps her awake, but in the latter case her body sees the need for adrenaline and produces it herself.

What about addiction? If enlightenment comes through a drug, if the drug is taken away, will the enlightenment also go? One of the concepts understood to be integral to becoming enlightened is non-attachment. This includes attachment to worldly things, worldly desires, and even states of mind. A state of mind arises, and whether it be happy or sad, a yogi should watch it with calm indifference, knowing it is temporary and passing. Therefore if someone claimed to be enlightened only while tripping, then their concept of enlightenment is probably very different from mosts.

Is a psychedelic experience a valid mystical experience? What is a valid mystical experience in the first place? Does it have strict limitations and quotas? A mystical experience should be an experience had by a person which changed his thinking drastically, and led to a transcendence of his old space to a higher space which more fully integrated his life in with the nature of reality. Whether this experience is had while on drugs, sober, on Mars, or sitting watching TV shouldn’t matter. What should matter about the experience is the feeling the person gets and the subjective importance placed on it. Whether or not a person wants to use psychedelics is highly personal, and if someone thinks they can do well with them, best of luck.


Stafford, P.G and Golightly, B.H. LSD — The Problem-Solving Psychedelic, Chapter VI. Religion, Mysticism and ESP copywright 1967 by Peter Stafford and Bonnie Golighty Published by Award Books, New York--copy transcribed on the internet at

St. Bonaventure. The Journey of the Mind to God, pg19 (c)1956

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching, , #5, (c) 1993, Hacket Publishing, Indianapolis

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception, The Doors of Perception was first published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus Ltd 1954. (c)Mrs. Laura Huxley 1954--copy transcribed on the internet at--

Watts, Alan. The Joyous Cosmology, (c)1962 by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House.--copy transcribed on the internet at--

Bhagavan Das. It’s Here Now (Are You?), 1997, Broadway Books, NY pg 38

McKenna, Terence “"Sacred Antidotes",” Tricycle, Fall, 1996

Moxley, William S. The Center of the Universe 3. Effects of Psychedelic Drugs (c) 1996--copy transcribed on the internet at--

Leary, Timothy. Tricycle Fall, 1996, pg 97

McClay, Russ. “The Pineal Gland, LSD and Serotonin” March 19, 1976.

Shulgin, Alexander T. DMT January 1977