Every time I make yet another attempt to explain the difference between the experiences available through the use of hallucinogenic drugs and the realities of long-term meditation practice, I vow that it will be the last time. And then a few months later I find myself doing it again.
My last article got re-posted a few places on Facebook, where it received some colorful responses. One commenter eloquently labeled me an “ignorant cunt” because I did not support his belief that drugs could get you enlightened quick and easy. On that same thread, a Facebook friend of mine posted this article that supposedly shows that magic mushrooms produce the same effects as meditation. Science has proven it. So it must be true.
To me, this is a bit like saying that if you do 150 push-ups, two hours on an eliptical machine, go on a treadmill for thirty minutes and then jack off, your pulse, your endorphin levels and the blood flow to the high-level association regions and connector hubs in the brain are exactly the same as they are if you have three and a half hours of vigorous sex with two Russian ballerinas, one of whom has dyed her hair chartreuse for the occasion because she knows you like anime characters. And then concluding that a combination of exercise and masturbation works like sex and is therefore the same thing, or at least an adequate substitute.
It doesn’t matter to me if science says it’s the same thing. It’s not. It’s not the same thing because the scientists doing this kind of research aren’t researching the right aspects of the question. They generally have little or no experience of meditation. The philosophers whose musings I have read on the subject have no idea what they’re talking about because they’ve only tried drugs, and have rarely (if ever) made the real effort needed for meditation.
Saying that the psilocybin in magic mushrooms produces the same effects as meditation is like saying that romance, marriage and family are an inefficient way to achieve an orgasm. Maybe they are if you put it like that. But this misses the point entirely. The physiological effects of an orgasm experienced with someone with whom you are deeply in love and those experienced after an hour on pornhub.com may be precisely the same. But those two orgasms are not the same thing at all.
That being said, a lot of people who do meditation make exactly the same mistake as these scientific researchers. These meditators think that the Big Moments that sometimes happen during the course of meditation are the point of meditation. If that’s what you think, it’s easy to conclude that drugs might be a more efficient way of producing the same results. There are entire schools of meditation, some quite old and respected, that have enshrined the view that the purpose of meditation is to have some great moment of awakening. So it’s no surprise to find people who have approached meditation in this mistaken way concluding that “either hallucinogenics or meditation can take you to very similar, if not the same, experiences,” as Gary Weber says at the end of his article referenced above.
The core of the mistaken belief that drugs and meditation are doing the same thing is this belief that meditation is about results. But in the real world there are no results. There is only this.
Let’s go back to my earlier example of exercise and masturbation vs. a night with two ballerinas. Exercise and masturbation are relatively cheap and easy. Join the YMCA and get an Internet connection and you’ve got all the equipment you need. There is no necessity for any kind of personal connection or commitment. But getting with those ballerinas is going to take some work. You have to meet them, which in itself is going to take a lot of sustained effort. You have to convince them you’re not a psycho. You have to form a relationship of trust and perhaps even love. This relationship will continue when the three of you wake up all disheveled and hungry in the Motel 6 the next day. Someone’s heart will probably get broken. Maybe yours. Maybe you’ll still be crying about it three years later. It’s a big investment. Can exercise and masturbation “take you to very similar, if not the same, experiences?” My feeling is that they cannot.
My decades of meditation have not been as cheap or easy as scoring a hit of E or a bag of ‘shrooms. They have taken me to some pretty crazy places, both in terms of location and in terms of interpersonal connection. I formed a strange bond with an elderly veteran of the Japanese Imperial Army. I sat for days on end in sweltering sweat boxes alongside people with whom the only common interest I thought I shared was an interest in figuring out what the fuck life was, and then I saw that there really was no difference at all between us. I have faced boredom so deep it felt like it might destroy me. And I’ve watched myself dissolve and come right back together again, then noticed that even that was not the point.
If you’re telling me I could’ve done the same thing in a couple of hours on a dose of some drug, I’m going to tell you that you’re completely mistaken. Over and over and over again apparently.
We live in a society that worships medicine. It’s a quick solution that allows you to sustain an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle with a degree of comfort. We get so stressed out that we get migraine headaches and instead of reducing our stress, we look for a pill that will get us through it. We’re seduced by offers of medicines that promise we can eat all the fast food and ice cream we want and still not gain weight. We want results and we want them now with the least amount of effort. We don’t like it when someone challenges our belief in quick solutions.
But what kind of results do we get when we don’t put in real effort, when we aren’t willing to change, when we aren’t willing to accept that maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we live our lives?
People get very angry when you tell them that quick solutions don’t work. People get very angry when you tell them that the cartoons they see in their heads while they’re on hallucinogenic drugs might not be signs of enlightenment. Just because you sometimes see cartoons in your head during meditation doesn’t mean that the point of meditation is seeing cartoons in your head.
Make a donation to Brad and maybe he’ll finally change the subject.