Psychedelic and ‘spiritual experiences’ are an intensely interesting topic and one deserving of a great deal more scientific study. It’s not that there has been a lack of interest in the scientific community regarding the nature and potential of these experiences. Draconian drug laws have made it difficult for scientists to have access to the ‘tools’ and the permission from governments that are necessary to delve as deep into the subject as it deserves.
As I touched on in my article regarding a place for spiritual discourse within atheism, being an atheist, or to put it quite simply, not accepting any claims of a deity or deities, should not close one’s mind off to investigating the numinous or transcendent experiences that are associated with meditation, psychedelics or any number of other circumstances. It’s how we interpret these experiences and what claims we make about the Universe, and assert them as certainties, that creates intellectual pitfalls.
Before we step into the rabbit hole; and this article won’t plunge too deep, not more than an arm’s reach within, it’s important to define ‘spiritual experience’ in this context not as something supernatural or in anyway religious. This has more to do with stimulating the wonder and reverence we should have for nature, and its ability to interact with our psyche in such profound ways.
Those who are initiated in this topic will understand why these experiences can be profoundly life altering and eye opening. For me it lead to an interest in meditation, an increased interest in science, and oddly enough, a ‘spiritual path’ which lead me to atheism, and yet an enhanced appreciation of just how awesome and strange our Universe is, not to mention a realization of just how much I didn’t know.
Do Plants And Fungi Communicate With The Human Consciousness?
Why is it that some plants and fungi, when ingested or in some cases inhaled, can so profoundly alter or heighten our consciousness? This is not a solely the domain of ‘hippie discourse’ that can be so flippantly dismissed, but it is also within the realm of science to explore. Plants and animals have had a relationship that hearkens back billions of years, though when primates first began to ingest psychedelic plant materials for shamanic, or even hunting purposes, probably ranges in a time period closer to tens, or hundreds of thousands of years. The sheer fact something that grows from the Earth can be consumed and induce visionary states warrants investigation and wonder. It cannot be pawned off as sheer coincidence; our biology and neurochemistry are far too complex for that. There must be natural explanations, no doubt fascinating, that can give us further insight into these experiences.
While cannabis and opiates are not prime candidates for an intense psychedelic experience, it is worth pointing out we have cannabinoid and opiate receptors throughout our bodies. This, as with all things to do with our physiology and psychology, is a product of evolution. Primates have had an ancient relationship with these substances and have adapted receptors to respond to these plants. This does not lend itself as evidence that these plants interact with our chemistry with a conscious intent to ‘teach us’, but on the scale of what we’re about to delve into, they just scratch the surface of the potential experiences that can arise through the interaction of Man and Nature.
Published Insights Into The Psychedelic Realm
Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and former dabbler in the realm of psychedelic experiences wrote an interesting blog on this subject entitled Drugs and the Meaning of Life.
The psychedelics include chemicals like psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and mescaline—all of which powerfully alter cognition, perception, and mood. Most seem to exert their influence through the serotonin system in the brain, primarily by binding to 5-HT2A receptors (though several have affinity for other receptors as well), leading to increased neuronal activity in prefrontal cortex (PFC). While the PFC in turn modulates subcortical dopamine production, the effect of psychedelics appears to take place largely outside dopamine pathways (which might explain why these drugs are not habit forming).
The mere existence of psychedelics would seem to establish the material basis of mental and spiritual life beyond any doubt—for the introduction of these substances into the brain is the obvious cause of any numinous apocalypse that follows. It is possible, however, if not actually plausible, to seize this datum from the other end and argue, and Aldous Huxley did in his classic essay, The Doors of Perception, that the primary function of the brain could be eliminative: its purpose could be to prevent some vast, transpersonal dimension of mind from flooding consciousness, thereby allowing apes like ourselves to make their way in the world without being dazzled at every step by visionary phenomena irrelevant to their survival. Huxley thought that if the brain were a kind of “reducing valve” for “Mind at Large,” this would explain the efficacy of psychedelics: They could simply be a material means of opening the tap.
Next up is Terrence McKenna, author of Food of the Gods, as well as many other writings on this subject. I should preface, to give context to the start of this quote, that there are mushroom spores that have been shown to be able to survive in the vacuum of space. There are extremophiles such as tardigrades that too are able to endure this seemingly impossible environment. While it’s mere speculation, it would be beautiful indeed to imagine that through panspermia such spores could be spread throughout the Cosmos.
Whether the mushrooms came from outer space or not, the presence of psychedelic substances in the diet of early human beings created a number of changes in our evolutionary situation. When a person takes small amounts of psilocybin visual acuity improves. They can actually see slightly better, and this means that animals allowing psilocybin into their food chain would have increased hunting success, which means increased food supply, which means increased reproductive success, which is the name of the game in evolution. It is the organism that manages to propagate itself numerically that is successful. The presence of psilocybin in the diet of early pack- hunting primates caused the individuals that were ingesting the psilocybin to have increased visual acuity. At slightly higher doses of psilocybin there is sexual arousal, erection, and everything that goes under the term arousal of the central nervous system. Again, a factor which would increase reproductive success is reinforced. [ policymic.com ]
Psychedelics As A Transformative Experience Throughout History
For thousands of years psychedelics, from psilocybin mushrooms, to Ayahuasca , and countless other plants, have been used to induce visionary states of mind that users have emerged from reporting on experiences that share profound similarities, ranging from feeling a oneness with the Earth or the Cosmos, to introspective and healing experiences and beyond. To dismiss these testimonies out of hand would be a great shame. There’s no dogma attached to these plants. To the contrary, preconceived notions of one’s self and the world around them are often shattered, and ingrained belief systems toppled left in the wake of these experiences.
It is important, or at least helpful and perhaps safer, to have some meditative training before leaping into some of the more profoundly powerful plant and fungi induced experiences. Not everyone emerges from them for the better; often one learns something about themselves that they may not be comfortable with, and may find difficult to accept. It’s important to do your research and be responsible and not to take these substances lightly. They are powerful, as any who have much experience with them will surely attest to.
Do Mind Altering Substances Have Any Medicinal Potential?
Why yes, yes they do. There are chemicals, such as MDMA invented by Alexander Shulgin, and LSD, by Albert Hoffman, that are famous, or perhaps infamous, for their impact on the human experience. MDMA was used successfully as a tool by psychologists to use during marriage counselling before it was made illegal, and LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and other substances too had great promise as medicines of the mind before they became shunned as scheduled drugs that could land those that partake in them in prison.
An article at the guardian.co.uk, delves into the subject of scientists studying the health benefits of LSD and MDMA – also referred to as ecstasy.
A growing number of people are taking LSD and other psychedelic drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy to help them cope with a variety of conditions including anorexia nervosa, cluster headaches and chronic anxiety attacks.
The emergence of a community that passes the drugs between users on the basis of friendship, support and need – with money rarely involved – comes amid a resurgence of research into the possible therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. This is leading to a growing optimism among those using the drugs that soon they may be able to obtain medicines based on psychedelics from their doctor, rather than risk jail for taking illicit drugs.
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An article at newscientist entitled Magic mushrooms really cause ‘spiritual’ experiences gives further credence into scentific endeavors on this front.
“Magic” mushrooms really do have a spiritual effect on people, according to the most rigorous look yet at this aspect of the fungus’s active ingredient.
About one-third of volunteers in the carefully controlled new study had a “complete” mystical experience after taking psilocybin, with half of them describing their encounter as the single most spiritually significant experience in their lifetimes.
This is a subject that can fill a book, or a library of books, and those books are out there for you to peruse if you’re interested. To put it succinctly, I find it to be a travesty that alcohol and tobacco are acceptable in society, but adults choosing to experiment, or to have access to professionals administering the substances in controlled settings, is demonized by much of society and certainly governments.
The below video is from the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, where he interviews Sam Harris about psychedelics and, well, a whole lot of other stuff. It’s almost three hours long, but what the hell, why not.
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