Drugs, Meditation, and Mountain Climbing

Yesterday I got into a rather idiotic discussion on Twitter with someone who thinks drugs are a great aid to meditation practice. Here’s what I wrote about that stuff back in 2011 and 2015. 

I recently got into a fairly ridiculous debate on Facebook with some people who think that psychedelic drugs can get you to the same place as meditation. I don’t really know why I bothered. Except that people who advocate this position are so passionate about it and it’s really easy to pull their chains. It makes them crazy when someone with meditation experience disagrees. It’s like when you bother a fire ant mound.

During the discussion, one of the supporters of drug abuse as a way to gain spiritual insight started in with the time worn cliché that drugs are like taking a helicopter to the top of a mountain rather than climbing it. You get the same breathtaking view as someone who has climbed the mountain. But you get there much quicker and more easily. “You can’t deny it’s exactly the same view,” one guy said. But, in fact, I would unequivocally deny that it’s the same view. It’s not. Not at all.

Let’s say you met a veteran mountaineer with over a quarter century of climbing experience, a person who has written books on mountain climbing and routinely personally instructs others in the art of climbing. And let’s imagine what would happen if you tried to convince this guy that people who take helicopters to the tops of mountains get everything that mountain climbers get and get it a whole lot easier.

The mountain climber would certainly tell you that the breathtaking view a guy who takes a helicopter to the top of a mountain gets is not in any way, shape or form the same view that a person who climbs the mountain herself gets.

To the mountain climber, the guy in the helicopter is just a hyperactive thrill seeker who wants nothing more than to experience a pretty view without putting any effort into it. The helicopter guy thinks the goal of mountain climbing is to be on top of the mountain and that climbing is an inefficient way to accomplish this goal. He just doesn’t get it. At all.

The helicopter guy misses out on the amazing sights there are to see on the way up. He doesn’t know the thrill of mastering the mountain through his own efforts. He doesn’t know the hardships and dangers involved in making the climb. And he’ll never know the awesome wonder of descending the mountain back into familiar territory. All he’s done is given some money to a person who owns a helicopter. He probably couldn’t even find the mountain himself, let alone make it to the top. When there are no helicopters around, the poor guy is helplessly grounded.

If the helicopter guy claims that he has reached the same place as the mountain climber, the mountain climber knows in ways the helicopter guy can’t even fathom that the helicopter guy is a fool.

To a mountain climber, the goal of mountain climbing is not the moment of sitting on top enjoying the view. That’s just one small part of the experience. It may not even be the best part. To a mountain climber, every view, from every point on the mountain is significant and wonderful.

People who think that the pinnacle of the experience is that moment of being right on the tippy-top, don’t understand the experience at all. The poor attention addled things probably never will.

What I am working on in meditation involves every single moment of life. So-called “peak experiences” can be fun. But they no more define what life is about that so-called “mundane experiences.” In fact mundane experiences are actually more what life is about than the thrilling ones. When you start thinking only your most thrilling experiences are important, you have already lost the most precious thing in life, the ability to fully immerse yourself in every experience.

No. Taking a helicopter to the top of a mountain is not at all the same thing as climbing it for yourself. To insist that it is proves that you don’t understand the first thing about mountains.

My attitude about drug use and its relationship to spiritual experience has been characterized as intolerant and fundamentalist. One clever-trousers on Twitter said, “Brad Warner’s shadows are bigger than Genpo Roshi’s. The guy is so blind he probably shouldn’t even have a driver’s license.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

But my attitude has no more to do with fundamentalism or conservatism than our fictional mountain climber’s attitude about rich, hasty pleasure junkies who take joy rides in helicopters. It is unambiguously clear that drugs and meditation cannot ever take you to the same place simply by the very nature of the experiences. They are not even in the same league of things. The comparison between the two is entirely spurious and unworthy of examination.

People who say these things about drugs and meditation may have tried drugs but most have never really attempted much meditation. Oh maybe they’ve gone to a handful of yoga classes and done shavasana. Or maybe they’ve been to a Vipassana retreat or even rented a cabin at Tassajara one summer. But they don’t have any real depth of experience with meditation to compare to their drug experiences.

As Robyn Hitchcock once said, “When you use drugs as confusing and vapid as marijuana or LSD you might think you’re having positive thoughts, but you’re just imagining them, really. You’re sitting there with your eyes closed thinking, ‘yeah, I love everybody.’ But when somebody actually walks into the room it’s a bit of a drag to have to talk to them and think about them.”

And here’s why I personally don’t do psychedelics. Not why you shouldn’t. Why I don’t.

Number One, they scare me. The last time I tripped was an epic nightmare. You can read all about it in my book Hardcore Zen. I spent most of that night in abject terror on a drug I desperately wanted out of my system with no choice but to wait until it wore off. I also lost my concept of time, so even though I understood that I’d be OK again in a few hours, I could not figure out what an hour was to save my life. The concept was still available to my brain, but I could not make any sense of it. So for all I knew I was going to stay high and terrified forever.

But that’s not the only reason I don’t do those drugs. I did a webinar once with Allan Badiner, a guy who is a big advocate of drugs as a spiritual tool (or whatever). He said I ought to do some MDMA, that it would change my mind about the subject. I spent a few minutes after the webinar was over just letting my mind roll over the possibility of getting ahold of some MDMA and trying it out for myself to see what actually happens. Then I realized a few things.

For one thing, I wouldn’t trust any so-called “MDMA” I might be able to get in Los Angeles no matter what the source claimed. At best, it would be something cooked up by some dodgy chemist in a basement mixing up stuff to sell to high school kids. I would not be able to fool myself into believing that the major market for this drug is responsible adults engaged in safe consciousness exploration in controlled environments.

Bull shit. If you’re making MDMA – or LSD, or growing ‘shrooms, etc. – your target market isn’t a handful of people using that suff as a sacrament for religious purposes. Your target market is kids who wanna party. I don’t want to support the people who supply that market or put anything they make into my body.

I also don’t want to incapacitate myself for an indeterminate length of time and require someone to babysit me. Because that’s what all the “set and setting” crap that people who are into drug-based consciousness exploration talk about really means. It means someone sober has got to be around to make sure I don’t hurt myself. Who am I to demand someone look after me like I’m a child?

And what about all this stuff where people say MDMA or other such substances made them more compassionate? Does this mean that now that the ravers of the 90s are adults we live in a kinder, gentler world where everybody’s nice because they all learned real compassion from listening to techno music while high on Molly? I don’t see it. Plus, I hung around a bunch of young MDMA fans on a few occasions recently. They were no more compassionate than anyone else I ever met, in fact they were kind of jerks to each other.

Real compassion is a skill. It’s not just a big warm fuzzy feeling in your “heart space.” It’s knowing what to do with that feeling. It’s knowing when it’s appropriate to get all huggy and when it’s not. Because sometimes a hug is the least compassionate response. And sometimes being all warm and cuddly is a way to run away from what really needs to be done.

Also, one of the best reasons not to do those drugs is staring every single user right in the face every single time they use it. After our conversation Allan Badiner very kindly and in the interest of being helpful sent me an email detailing how to use MDMA properly if I ever wanted to try it out. It involved taking a large dose of Vitamin C first, along with magnesium and amino acid supplements both before and after the MDMA. And, of course, the proper “set and setting” which includes the aforementioned babysitter.

And I thought, “Why not skip all that and just not do the MDMA in the first place?” The fact that I’d need to do so much preparation indicates to me that maybe I’d be doing something that’s kind of dangerous and probably not actually good for me.


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