The Blessed Ganja and Entheogenic Euphoria
Article ID: 13853
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Fire Lyte
Posted: July 4th. 2010
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Controversy has never been a subject that I’ve shied away from, and today’s topic is up there with some of the big ones. Drug use and abuse is a worldwide epidemic affecting whole economies, sociological structures, and is responsible for some of the worst and most pervasive crimes humanity commits. People spend their entire lives attempting to understand the complexities behind the psychological concept of addiction, the criminological concept of drug sales and the status it brings, and the economical impact of drugs. Many countries either import or export more drugs than any other resource – and some countries do both.
Before we discuss the notion of drug use in religious practice, it should most definitely stressed that any hallucinogenic or psychoactive drug is illegal and the extensive use of which is considered dangerous by medical authorities and the American government. The information provided in this article is merely meant to inform you, and it is not my wish that the details of this article be an impetus for your own recreational drug usage. I take no responsibility for your actions. That said, let’s talk about drugs!
The technical term is Entheogenic drug. An entheogen is typically a plant-based substance that is used to achieve a non-ordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes. These substances are largely hallucinogenic or psychotropic in nature – meaning they affect the brain in such a way as to alter your perception. Technically speaking, a psychedelic drug reduces the filters your brain uses to separate the subconscious mind from the conscious. This effect is known as consciousness expanding, among other names.
However, debate abounds about whether using a drug substance produces a genuine mystical experience. An excellent study by Roger Walsh for the University of California at Irvine delves into this idea. Before looking at Mr. Walsh’s findings, however, it is imperative that we look at one of the originators of the western research into drug use and religious ritual, Huston Smith, in his article for the Journal of Philosophy in which he discusses the 5 arguments against the validity – or truth – behind drug-induced mystical experiences. The 5 arguments Smith presents are:
•First, drug experiences are clearly anything but mystical and beneficial.
•Second, the experiences induced by drugs are actually different from those of genuine mystics.
•Third, a mystical experience is a gift from the Gods that can never be brought under human control.
•Fourth, the drug-induced experiences are too quick and easy, and could therefore hardly be identical to those hard-won by years of contemplative discipline.
•Lastly, the after-effects of drug-induced experiences are different, less beneficial, and less long-lasting than those of contemplatives – or those that religiously practice mediation their entire lives.
Walsh addresses each of these points in his study.
•The issue with the first argument addresses the very nature of what a drug is. Typically a drug used for religious ritual is hallucinogenic in nature, and this can cause all sorts of reactions to occur, one of which may be an ecstatic or religious experience, but it may not be. As Huston Smith puts it, “This of course proves that not all drug experiences are religious; it does not prove that no drug experiences are religious.”
•The second issue looks at whether the experiences under the influence of the entheogenic drug are the same as those had by religious mystics throughout the ages who were not under the influence of those drugs. In a separate study, called the Harvard Good Friday study, respondents were either given psilocybin (a psychedelic drug derived from mushrooms) or an inactive placebo. It was found that those using the drug had experiences indistinguishable from mystics throughout the centuries. So someone that sees God after days of deep meditation in order to finally have a glimpse of the divine experiences the same thing that someone using mushrooms has.
•The third argument is that this kind of experience is a gift from the divine and cannot be controlled by humans. However, this kind of logic only applies to those that believe in a creator deity that rewards individuals with this kind of experience. Buddhists, for example, do not believe in a creator deity, however they still do not use entheogenic drugs as they believe it impairs the ability to be mindful – and these masters of meditation can achieve religious experiences without such drugs due to their years of practice.
•The fourth argument is whether or not the experience had by one using an entheogenic drug is too quick and easy. It does not require that the individual spend years learning the art of meditation or spiritual practice. However, since the experiences are technically identical, there is a hole in this logic. Despite this, we will be discussing this point later in more detail.
•The final argument is that the effects of these drug-induced experiences are not as long-lasting as those earned through years of contemplation, introspection, and meditation. Smith eloquently details the logic of this argument by stating, “Drugs appear to induce religious experiences: it is less evident that they can produce religious lives.” Meaning that someone using a drug to have an ecstatic or religious experience does not get the same sort of life-altering, positive, affirming addition to his or her beliefs as does a mystic.
The problem, research suggests, is that using a drug to attain a state in which one seems to experience the divine is both quick and, most of the time, whimsical. One entheogenic experience does not provide the same spiritual breakthroughs that years of meditation and spiritual introspective investigation do. Years of bad habits or mental conditioning are not typically overcome through one, or even a few, drugged experiences. However, a contemplative, one that spends years training themselves in the art of meditative practice – without the use of drugs, deliberately retrains habits along more spiritual lines.
Thus, when a breakthrough finally does happen – such as with the psychotropic drug user – the mystic has a basis to understand the experience and already has a belief system in place that allows them to cultivate, stabilize, and integrate the experience into their life. They have traditions and social groups to support them after the experience and, most importantly, they have ethics governing their expression of the experience. The contemplative’s mind will be prepared for an experience, should it come, but there is no guarantee that a drug user’s mind would ever be fully prepared for what might happen.
Most research points to the idea that entheogenic or psychotropic drug usage, in a religious setting, might indeed give one a seemingly spiritual experience. But, it is more likely to occur in someone that is mentally prepared for it, and it is in the prepared mind that the most enduring and long-lasting positive effects could possibly occur, though only after incorporating the experience into a long-term practice of transformative discipline.
The two can be compared to gym goers. The user of psychoactive substances is like a steroid user who doesn’t couple his weight lifting with a proper diet, sleep regimen, or stretching practice. Since this person is focused only on the immediate effects, they fail to do the work it takes to properly assimilate their new gym body and how to care for it into their daily lives. For many, this leads to increased fat production and chronic pain problems later in life – the long-term effects. However, a contemplative is one who gets regular sleep, stretches before and after every workout, gets in a good amount of cardio, eats a healthy mixture of vegetables, fruits, grains, and meat, as well all the grunting and moaning that accompanies weight lifting. The weight lifter who lives this way has incorporated one aspect of gym going into his whole life and will be able to maintain that healthy, well-toned body for the rest of his life. It will change him permanently.
Getting high because you want to see the Goddess or the future or whatever it is you’re wanting to experience is not the same thing as the contemplative shaman, who has spent years training his mind and body in the belief systems of his people, using a substance to enhance his ability to commune with the Great Spirit. The two are different experiences, and it is much more likely that the shaman would have a positive, long-lasting experience than the casual user of cannabis smoking a quick joint to get a better tarot reading. And, it should be noted, many religions believe in the idea of the body as a sacred temple to the divine. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and the Bahai Faith are some of the largest examples of religions that believe the body belongs to God and, therefore, should be kept pure. And don’t snub your nose at this just because I said Christianity. It should be reminded that many spiritual mystics of all faiths choose to seek God without the use of chemical substances – whether they be natural or unnatural.
Boiled down to its core, the main difference lies somewhere in how often the drug is used. For example, the cactus-derived drug peyote is used specifically for religious rituals by American indigenous peoples. They don’t use it to chill out at the end of the day, nor do they use it to quickly open their third eye and allow them a glimpse of the divine. This drug has a place steeped in ancient lore and society within their people. It is reserved for shamans and holy men and treated as a tool of their craft. Any recreational use of this drug would be like using your athame as a letter opener. It takes away the sacredness of the object, and, I believe, takes away from any religious experience you may have with it.
All sources cited in-text.
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