THE ENTHEOGENIC EXPERIENCE
Through the process of consuming entheogenic sacraments people can “wake up” to their “True Nature”, gaining liberation and freedom from the limitations of ordinary life. Through these processes we become introduced to the mysteries of Ultimate Reality (Wilber 2018). These events occur in a non-ordinarily state of awareness distinct from our orientations in mundane everyday life. Here I briefly elaborate on the nature of that state.
While non-entheogenic consuming mystics often have involuntary experiences in which similar states of consciousness simply happen to them without warning, shamans purposefully enter these mystical-like states through particular techniques, including entheogenic consumption, drumming, fasting, sleep deprivation, etc. Obviously modern entheogenic-consuming people hoping for a mystical experience also purposefully enter these states.
Chris Letheby (2017) argues that while psychedelics are chemically and neuropharmacologically diverse they are united in their phenomenology. Virtually all psychedelics encounters alter our experience of sensory experiences, affective experiences, spatial and temporal experiences, somatic experiences, thinking or reasoning and our sense of self. Whether mild or intense, these changes can distort, intensify or diminish our thoughts. Some of the thoughts, moods and perceptual changes include: seeing static objects move or warp, emotional extremes of euphoria and terror, sense of insightfulness and understanding, new perspectives on one’s life or the world and metaphysical illusions.
These deep and profound spiritual states of consciousness reveal aspects of our psyches by dissolving the barrier normally restricting access to deeper levels of unconscious material. These visionary experiences invoke a direct experience of Ultimate Reality. Direct experiences of Ultimate Reality are profoundly spiritual events which have the potential to radically transform the individuals who experience them. Ultimate Reality is beyond our cognitive grasp and experiencing it can lead to cognitive breakdown. Ultimate Reality is ineffable and we often cannot describe what we have experienced. As the subjective mind is dissolved and ego is deflated, unconscious material, often archetypal in character, becomes available. This glimpse of the deeper, more accurate view of the mind, of the cosmos and of reality allows individuals to become released from ruling mythologies and ideological perspectives.
Entheogenic experiences are often the most powerful religious experience an individual might have in a lifetime. This is key to them being transformative; The old self dies and a potential new self is beginning to emerge. Many people have striking identification with the “spirit” or their “soul”. The essence of the person emerges and they think about their mission or purpose in life. Ruling mythologies are shattered and those dense and obtuse mystical writings make complete sense without much effort. The old perspectives on the world seem tired and trite. And one may wonder how one had previously unquestionably accepted this conceptual framework.
It is an occasion for the re-thinking of existential questions. These experiences can open up radically transformative possibilities by prompting a re-evaluation of values and a reconsideration of our life course. Our understandings of ourselves, our world and the relationship between the two can change drastically. Many entheogenic enthusiasts argue that to discover our true self we must embark on such a journey of transformation, arguing that when multitudes wake up to their authentic selves, there is a multiplier effect which facilitates the transformation of society. For many these experiences are also a supreme affirmation of life.
As a religious experience the episode is often dream-like in that images predominate with often bizarre juxtapositions, absurd sequences of incongruous themes, and vivid visualizations with intense colors. Of course the nature of the experience is determined by the chemical nature of the substance, the physiology and psychology of the consumer and the cultural context of the consumption. It may seem like a schizophrenic collage of traces of long-forgotten memories, visual hallucinations projected from the deepest recesses of our psyches, phantasmagoric images of otherworldly entities, streams and swirls of color and light, along with those sights the eye might ordinarily perceive but intensified in unexpected ways.
It is an ecstatic encounter with the sacred. The phenomenological features that psychedelics possess that are characteristic of mystical states include: dissolution of the sense of self; a feeling of unity with the cosmos; ineffability, and profound joy. Such mystical experiences can bring forth positive changes such as relieving the existential anxiety and disenchantment so prevalent in contemporary society due to the mass psychology of misery.
Throughout human history these types of experiences have been at the heart of religious life. They comprise the outcome of the sacred technology of shamanism, whether through the consumption of psychotropic plants, or through alternative means of entering an altered state of consciousness. Most of the world’s great religions had founders who had powerful contact with the divine and subsequently became empowered with a message to share with their communities. It seems that all religions have a mystical component, whether the contemplative practices of the Desert Fathers of early Christianity or the ecstatic dancing of Sufis. Other noetic experiences brought forth by entheogenic consumption include: moments of profound insight, glimpses of transcendental realities and epiphanic senses of revelation. The entire event can be a peak experience.
Because we have a mass psychology of misery, in which trauma is epidemic and many have become “lost souls”, entheogenic sacraments often help the person to “find their soul” and change the direction of their life course; With a new-found senses of purpose those who had these types of numinous experiences often find them positive and beneficial.
ENTHEOGENIC TRANSFORMATION AND THE ANTHROPOCENE
We need the transformative potential of entheogenic spirituality right now to help bring about the transition to a sustainable society. The spiritual revolution which must accompany our transition to a new non-carbon-based way of life involves our coming to fully respect all forms of life and our living planet. We need to stop our human-centered thinking and become aware that we are just one aspect of nature.
The human ego often distorts our perceptions and leads us to be blind to things outside our immediate situation. This self-bound thinking is so prevalent that it amounts to a spiritual disease in the modern era. This particularly modern form of egotism –a self-bound and self-centered type of thinking—dominates the populations of western industrial civilization, as well as the ruling classes of most of the world. And it is the root cause of many of our current social ills. This mindset allows people to focus so exclusively on their own needs and situations that they fail to take into account the perspectives of others—both human and other living beings.
To re-kindle their awareness of their spiritual connections to other humans and to other living beings, many modern humans may require a program designed to eradicate their egotism and anthropocentrism. Here I propose the consumption of entheogenic sacraments as a spiritual practice well-suited for the Anthropocene that might help us through the Sustainability Revolution.
The environmental crisis we face demands that we acquire a vastly different worldview. Our current worldview in much of modern industrial civilization is egocentric, anthropocentric (“human centered”), hierarchical, individualistic and materialist. Entheogenic substances often cultivate the very attitudes needed to address this ecological crisis—they deflate the human ego and increase our awareness of our environment. They hold enormous spiritual potential to expand human consciousness.
David Jay Brown, a respected author of books on psychedelics, has called psychedelic use “the biosphere’s decisive response to human patterns of ecological destruction” and has called the DMT-rich, Amazonian brew ayahuasca “the greatest hope for raising ecological awareness on our wayward planet (Brown 2015, p. 4-5). Brown states:
“The very perspective that we need and that we seem to lack as a species—compassion, ecological awareness, empathy, cultural boundary dissolution, creative thought and spiritual connection—appear to be fostered by the use of psychedelic drugs and plants (Brown 2015, p. 3).
IMPORT FOR ADDICTION SCIENCE AND OUR “DRUG PROBLEM”
These discoveries about the spiritual potential of psychedelic drugs when consumed with sacred intention and in controlled ways have major implications for our understandings of drug use, “addiction science” and our policies surrounding our drug problem. Modernity largely rejects entheogenic spirituality and instead instills prohibitionist propaganda which criminalizes drug use, demonizes drug users, and even denies the possibility of controlled substance use. To whip up fear and moral panic around substance use as well as to rationalize the harsh sentencing and mistreatment of substance users, establishment elites regularly promote the image of the crazed, violent and amoral substance user so desperate for their next fix that they endlessly engage in heinous and amoral behavior. To advance a spiritual approach to the consumption of psychotropic substances we must eliminate these pervasive ‘“dope fiend mythologies” (Lindesmith 1940) that circulate as common sense in American society.
The extent to which these ugly stereotypes of substance use and substance users have become common sense is so great that even supporters of legislation to legalize marijuana want to distinguish themselves from users of “hard drugs”. Likewise, entheogenic enthusiasts often contrast themselves from people using heroin or methamphetamines. We must remember that it is not the substances or their chemical composition that are the problems but how we humans use them. Recent developments in addiction science suggest that virtually any process can become problematic—consuming a substance, exercise, using the internet, gambling, having sex, falling in love. Likewise, let us recall my definition of entheogen from the beginning of this essay: any substance that when used with sacred intention brings about a spiritual experience. While I use the terms psychedelic, hallucinogen and entheogen interchangeably throughout this essay, entheogens are not just the sacred plants commonly referred to as “hallucinogens”.
By referring to our current understandings of drug use as filled with “propaganda” or labeling it as “drug war ideology” I am not saying that there is no such thing as the problematic use of illegal substances. As we’ve seen, contemporary society has lost the shamanic wisdom of controlled use which enabled our ancestors to use without risk of addiction most of the same substances that today are massive killers. Our innate human dispositions, our “Will to Party”, continue to elicit urges to alter consciousness, but without that wisdom of how to use safely the results have been deadly, with hardcore dysfunctional addiction killing many. across the globe.
Most of what is accepted as fact about substance use, even in academia, is based on “Drug War Ideologies” and has little basis in science. Sensational and hyperbolic myths that circulate as common sense often only talk about the negative aspects of drug use and are based solely on the experiences of that 15% of the population who have problems with drugs. The positive aspects of drug use and the experiences of the other 85% of the population that do not have drug problems get ignored.
We need to carefully re-examine everything we think we know about drug use and drug users and evaluate if it is backed by empirical evidence. We must challenge our own commonsensical assumptions bearing in mind that powerful elites have promoted lies and half truths to taint our understandings of drugs. Most young people have been brainwashed since birth with slogans like “Just say no!”. The famous DARE program, which never worked, often used “facts sheets” that we know now were utter “bullshit”. Yes, the drug warriors have lied to us for over a century and sadly most people believe the hype.
Sociologists have documented the discursive strategies and narrative themes found in media constructions of “drug scares” (Reinarman and Levine 2004) These cultural myths, promoted by moral entrepreneurs. exaggerate the criminality of the participants so as to scapegoat the “evil drug users” for pre-existing social ills. “Dope fiend mythologies” exaggerate the problems of drug use and ignore the facts about how most people achieve non -problematic substance use. These myths suggest that a single use could take the unsuspecting victim on a journey leading to addiction. This mythology informs prohibitionist cultural discourses that depict all substance use as bad—as a “stage” in the inevitable progression from non-use to addiction. Addiction is portrayed as a “disease” brought on by a lack of self-control. The Addiction Recovery Industry circulates only stories and images of the the most hard core addicts. Rhetorically the worst case scenarios have become the norm and the episodic has become epidemic.
The concept of “tolerance” is the magical theoretical linchpin which buttresses this addiction pseudo-science. The governing assumption, repeated in every textbook on drugs and addiction, is that the addict-to-be must incrementally consume more and more of the substance because subsequent dosages do not have the same desired effect. Humans have two options, according to this prohibitionist propaganda, either remain 100 % abstinent or become a hardcore, dysfunctional addict.. If that were true 100% of drug users would be hard-core dysfunctional users. In fact, only 15% of substance users become dysfunctional.
With their focus on dysfunction addiction researchers have paid little attention to non-problematic consumers and the strategies they used to stay moderate. The research literature on substance use rarely discusses non-problematic, successful, recreational use. Rarely do addiction scientists mention that people who seek altered consciousness tend to be spiritual seekers. Never do we hear of the potential benefits of drugs, such as lowering anxiety, increasing sexual arousal, focusing attention, renewing energy, stimulating conversation, lowering pain, elevating mood. One would assume from the stories told that using drugs is a miserable activity, without the chance of pleasure or joy. You would never learn that some people, at least according to my informants, are having the time of their lives!
And while many consumers get lost in cycles of unhealthy consumption, it is never mentioned that many drug users are in some way “self-medicating” to relieve the suffering brought on by the alienation of modernity, including unsatisfying lifestyles and trauma brought on by poor parenting skills. The number of people, overwhelmed by the circumstances of life, who only make it through their days with the help of anti-depressants, tranquilizers, cannabis, or alcohol is staggering. Gabor Mate (2010) found childhood traumas ubiquitous among the alcoholics he interviewed on Vancouver’s skid row.
Modernity exhibits a “mass psychology of misery” (Zerzan) in which a deep emotional malaise has become routine. Apathy, cynicism, alienation, disconnection and depression pervade everyday life. Disenchantment and existential anxiety also mark this spiritual disease. People feel fragmented and have “soul loss”. Overwhelmed by these negative emotional states, drug users are often countercultural resisters who seek to maintain some semblance of authenticity in this consumerist culture. There is a whole social movement and multiple countercultures attempting to live life, get high and not simply conform to the “just say no” regime of social control. Entheogenic researchers’s discovery of the ”controlled use” of drugs in shamanic cultures and the careful crafting of “set and setting” to achieve beneficial outcomes suggests aspects of the educational programs needed to cultivate practices leading to successful substance use. We must end the “war on drugs”. I favor legalizing all substances, greatly increasing drug education and increasing access to high quality medical care.
 For a long time I did not use the term “soul” because of its supernatural implications. James Hillman and other Archetypal Psychologists have re-conceived “soul”. For them soul is not a material entity existing in the physical world, nor a metaphysical entity like a ghost, supposedly floating between realms. For Hillman, “soul” is a “perspective” —that is a way of looking at things; it is a metaphor. Soul is that spark of divinity which resides in all things. It is the essence of our identity, a biological blueprint of who we are, why we are here and how we relate to the world. The journey of the soul is the individual’s movements towards becoming whole and complete.
 See my essay on “Nature Religions and Revolutionary Social Change” for more on this topic.
 .15 In some cultural discourses “tolerance” is treated as a biological criterion for addiction. While tolerance appears to be a real phenomenon, how it explains addiction is unclear. As Robin Room states “Needing a larger dose to get the effect sought from using the drug does not explain much at all about why the drug use would be continued despite adverse consequences or apparently against the will of the user. “ (Room 2003).
About the Author
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.