One of Siddhartha Gautama’s insights was the First Noble Truth which was that “life is suffering.” He also left us the formula for how to deal with our suffering which we ironically have pretty much ignored. Other insightful and compassionate people throughout human history have discovered ways to relieve our pain and suffering. Sometimes we accept that help but more often we don’t. What’s with that?
For example, psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin were regarded by many in the mental health community as breakthroughs in their psychopharmacology treatment strategies. “Psychiatrists were using small doses of LSD to help their patients access repressed material (Cary Grant, after 60 such sessions, famously declared himself ‘born again’); other therapists administered bigger so-called psychedelic doses to treat alcoholism, depression, personality disorders and the fear and anxiety of patients with life-threatening illnesses confronting their mortality.” (p. 35) That was in the 1950s and 1960s! Then fear overwhelmed the American community, panic ensued, laws were passed and in effect the reaction was in effect “No thanks, we’d rather suffer!”
Fast forward a half-century to the 1990s. In trials at Hopkins and NYU 80 cancer patients received moderate doses of psilocybin in sessions guided by two therapists. “Patients described going into their body and confronting their cancer or their fear of death; many had mystical experiences that gave them a glimpse of an afterlife or made them feel connected to nature or the universe in a way they found comforting.” (p. 35) Manish Agrawal, a Maryland oncologist, observed that: “We don’t die well in this country. And we have pretty limited tools to help people deal with their fear. Prozac doesn’t work. The issue isn’t depression; it’s facing your mortality.” (p. 65)
Other smaller studies involving up to three guided sessions found that psilocybin can help alcoholics and smokers overcome their addictions. In a 2014 study at Hopkins involving 15 smokers 80 percent were no longer smoking after six months and 67 percent after a year. These results are far better than the best treatments currently available. “The psychedelic experience appears to give people a radical new perspective on their own lives, making possible a shift in worldview and priorities that allows them to let go of old habits.” (pp. 35-36) [italics added]
Tying these types of results to the principles of Simple Reality is indeed easy and “simple.” A person’s worldview determines their identity and that identity drives their behavior. Good mental and physical health, which are in fact one and the same thing, must then begin with a paradigm shift or a change in worldview. Then a shift to a new and less fearful identity will open up the possibility of letting go of old self-destructive habits.
Speaking of “old self-destructive habits” brings us to the distinction between response and reaction. Resisting our experience of life by self-medicating or denial is a reaction and reactions are the source of all human suffering. A response is accepting life as it is with equanimity. Speaking of meditation as a way to gain the insight needed to distinguish a response from a reaction, Mary, an underground facilitator for those seeking a psychedelic experience told columnist Michael Pollan: “Now you have had an experience of another way to react—or not react. That can be cultivated.” (p. 64)
Back to Siddhartha Gautama. Another of his Noble Truths is that there is no “I” or “me.” What we refer to as an ego or a false-self as our identity is an illusion, it is not our true identity. Vipassana or “insight” meditation taught by Siddhartha resulted in the practitioner becoming the “observer” of the false-self and transcending the causes of suffering inherent in such an identity. Michael Pollan described his experience with psilocybin; notice that it involves both a worldview or paradigm shift and a radical change in identity, namely the “dissolution” of the ego. “This was understood back in the 1950s and ‘60s, when psychiatrists sometimes described it as ‘therapy by self-transcendence.’” (p. 64)
“But who was this ‘I’ that was able to take in the scene of its own dissolution? Where that self had always been a subject encapsulated in this body, this one seemed unbounded by any body, even though I now had access to its perspective. That perspective [context or worldview] was supremely indifferent, unperturbed even in the face of what should have been an unmitigated disaster. The very category ‘personal,’ however, had been obliterated.” (p. 61)
The heart of a paradigm shift is the realization of our True self identity. I am not my body, my mind or my emotions. No talk therapy or conventional drugs address this transformation as directly as do psychedelics. Again, Michael Pollan: “The sovereign ego [false self], with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments [guilt, shame and regret] and forward-looking worries [existential anxiety], was simply no more, and there was no one left to mourn its passing. And yet something had succeeded it [True self]: this bare, disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the scene of the self’s dissolution with benign indifference. I was present to reality but as something other than my usual self. And although there was no self left to feel, exactly, there was a feeling tone, and that was calm, unburdened content. There was life after the death of the ego.” (p. 62)
Is the American community ready this time around to grasp a more profound approach to healing our traumatized psyche or will we once again react in fear? We are not alone in this challenge. In the Global Village depression has become the leading cause of disability (according to the W.H.O.), suicide rates are climbing and addictive behavior is skyrocketing. It’s not that we humans have had no coping strategy in our sojourn on this planet, it’s simply that it has not worked.
The energy centers of the false-self survival strategy are three-fold: we humans have long relied on the pursuits of plenty, pleasure and power to escape our suffering. Psychedelics, mindfully used, offer access to a context and a strategy to transcend what Buddhists call samsara, delusion and suffering. “What a remarkable gift: to learn that we can let go of so much—the desires, fears and defenses of a lifetime!—without suffering complete annihilation.” (p. 64)
Those who advocate the use of psychedelics can expect a good deal of opposition from “the creature that reasons.” There is much evidence, however, that perhaps we have come to rely too much on our intellects and too little on our intuition which is more assessable in states of awareness which altered states of consciousness made available with the use of psychedelics. Robin Carhart-Harris, a pioneering neuroscientist at Imperial College London, thinks we can benefit by reducing our reliance on our grey matter. “The ‘loosening of cognition’ that results, he says, is especially helpful to people suffering from varieties of mental stuckness, including depression, addiction, anxiety and obsession.” (p. 64)
When Siddhartha had his seminal insights 2500 years ago and arose from his meditation, people noticed there was something strikingly different about him. “What has happened to you?” they said. He replied: “I am awake.” Mary, Michael Pollan’s underground guide during his experience with psilocybin, expects federal approval of psychedelics. In the meantime she is realistic about the propensity of her fellow human beings to succumb to fear. “I need to protect myself, as I help people find their soul’s purpose in this lifetime, to help them awaken.” (p. 65) We might all be holding our breath in hopes of a breakthrough in consciousness this time around.
Insight # 36: LSD is a chemical able to produce profound changes in consciousness.
- For Love or Money in The Human Community, in print and on this blog, by Roy Charles Henry, 2016.
- Pollan, Michael. “Guided Explorations.” The New York Times Magazine. May 20, 2018.