By Sandra Nomoto
The title of this book describes it quite accurately. Edited by Dr. Thomas B. Roberts, Psychedelics and Spirituality is a collection of essays, speeches, and stories that reveal how the psychedelics conversation inherently includes one about spirituality. This is the third book sponsored by the Council on Spiritual Practices, which published two similar compilations in 2011 and 2012.
In the book, the authors refer to psychoactive drugs primarily as entheogens, “the subgroup of religious-spiritual manifesting that occurs with the use of psychedelics” (Psychedelics & Spirituality, Apple Books, xiv).
This shift in terminology sets the tone away from conventional stereotypes one may have about psychedelics. While the book covered a range of plant-based and synthetic substances, I’ll focus my review on three themes that emerged for me.
Psychedelics as Sacramental
I have often thought that psychedelics may have been responsible for some of the miracle stories in the Judeo-Christian Bible; perhaps this book has validated more of my theory. Sacraments are significant, natural encounters with God, so spiritual practitioners could “bear witness that entheogens first helped them open their eyes” (David Steindl-Rast, Psychedelics & Spirituality, 3).
In his speech from 1995, Rev. Mike Young referenced Walter Pahnke’s 1962 “Good Friday Experiment.” He and 20 other divinity graduate students were subjects in a legal experiment with psilocybin mushrooms in a religious setting. According to most participants, it “was a religious experience.” (8) He went on to say that those “with expertise in creating positive and transformative liturgical experiences need to learn how to do so with these substances” (15).
Many of the authors talked about the sense of oneness with everything that is felt while on entheogens. Alexander T. Shulgin says that there “is a remarkable congruity between changes of states of consciousness, religious experiences, mystical experiences, and personal miracles” (138).
Rev. Aline M. Lucas went so far as to define the term entheology: “that branch of theology, which deals with the experience and/or knowledge of the divine, and of the revelation of that divine, through the agency of psychoactive substances (used as sacraments), be it a revelation of the divine within and/or without the individual.” (170)
If entheogens have a place in theology as sacramental substances, we must consider its ceremonial elements.
Rev. Lucas referenced the “Harvard Agape,” a liturgical event involving MDMA, and the four liturgical elements (as described by Evelyn Underhill) that were in place: A loose ritual, significant personal symbols, the sacrament (MDMA), and a sacrifice or oblation (173).
Myron J. Stolaroff describes more of a secular ceremony, involving a guide— “someone who has a great deal of personal experience in using entheogens”—a comfortable, quiet, and distraction-free setting, “access to natural beauty such as a view, a garden, or beautiful grounds,” music, and photos or “artifacts available for examination” (181-2).
Kathleen O’Shaughnessy reflected on using entheogens to mark “development and life transitions” like “puberty, onset of adulthood, marriage, mid-life,” and death, as well as during “planetary events such as the solstice and equinox” (215-6).
Rev. Karla A. Hansen cited traditional examples of guides, such as the “Peyote Chief or Road Man” in Native American culture. “In Mazatec Mexico the officiant is called curandera—healer—and is sometimes accompanied by apprentices.” (246)
Negative Perceptions of Entheogens
While the majority of the writers described their or their subjects’ experiences as eye-opening and spiritually connective, some did touch on the negative effects of entheogens.
Roger Walsh outlined four primary categories of disadvantages: uncontrollability, integration (or rather lack thereof), misuse, and limited capacity for stabilizing the gains (27).
A stubborn “control freak” whose “ neurotic and immature parts of [his] mind” expected “God to show up,” Charles T. Tart says he’s glad he never got what he was expecting (60-1). The experiences gave him a sense of mindfulness, though it “is usually quite disgusting when you see how your mind works” (67).
Exploring the myths that surround LSD usage, David E. Presti and Jerome Beck introduce the notion of the “bad trip,” or “acute adverse psychological reactions” (156). They say that the “Internet has assumed a central role in the diffusion of drug mythology” but “that the opposite may actually be occurring” as well (158).
The Importance of Integration with “Regular Life”
Lastly, the need to integrate entheogenic experiences into regular life was touched on.
Believing “that entheogenic experiences may facilitate transpersonal development,” Walsh mentioned the number of people who had profound experiences, and the fact that they were also spiritually “involved in deep contemplative practices” even though entheogens do not guarantee that someone will be religious (29).
Annelise Schinzinger said that when one drinks the “truth serum” Ayahuasca, “aspects of one’s psyche that are not in alignment are brought to one’s attention in a revelatory and often dramatic way” and “the next step depends upon the desire and will to follow the guidance and integrate the lesson into one’s life” (123). After drinking Ayahuasca over the course of 18 years, more important than the visions and insights she’s had is how she integrated what she learned “by embodying the lessons and valuable gifts from the spirit realm into daily life” (129).
At the end of the book, Roberts asks the questions that might remain: “what if entheogens are combined with meditation, contemplative prayer, ascetic practices, changing, or other mindbody practices?” (276).
I think that the answer lies with the reader, but one thing was clear to me after reading this book: the potential of psychedelics in helping users connect with others or themselves—in a religious or spiritual way, or otherwise—is present for those who seek it.