Clinical and Indigenous Culture Use of Psychedelics

Someone apparently asked the following as a comment on a recent video on my YouTube channel called “My Druggy Daze,” but it didn’t show up in the comments section (I get them as emails). I don’t know if the commenter deleted it themselves or if something went wrong. I did not delete it. In fact, I thought it was interesting. In case the commenter deleted it themselves, I won’t use their name.

The comment was: “Can you be a ‘real Buddhist’ and use psychedelics in a clinically tested psychotherapeutic setting? Can you be a ‘real Buddhist’ if you are a psychologist and you administer psychedelics in a clinically tested psychotherapeutic setting? Who gets to decide if you’re following the precepts? Asking for a friend…”

I strongly believe that the precepts are a personal matter. So only you get to decide if you are following the precepts. Nobody else knows your life well enough to judge that. Sometimes I like to remind people that certain precepts exist, since they seem not to know about them. But once you know them, you’re the one who has to judge if you’re breaking them.

This requires total honesty, though. One of the most frightening things I ever discovered through Zen practice is that I can justify absolutely anything to myself. There is not a single action, no matter how heinous, that I cannot come up with some rationale for, even knowing full well it is a terrible thing.

I was aware that other people could do this — strange people, bad people, Nazis, serial killers, people like Jeffery Dahmer, Charles Manson, Josef Mengele…

But then I realized I could do it too. And very effectively. That scared the crap out of me. It was literally a life-changing revelation. All from just sitting in a temple for hours upon hours one hot, sticky Japanese summer.

I think all of us have this ability. This ability lies in the realm of thought. That’s why thinking things through is so often a poor way to judge yourself. Right and wrong exist in the realm of action, not in the realm of thought.

In any case, I’m actually happy that there is more clinical research being done with psychedelic drugs these days. I think that is a good thing. I’ve never spoken out against it.

The problem is that this kind of clinical usage tends to get brought up as a debate point by people who have no actual experience of such usage and no real intention to use the drugs this way. Rather, they may have vague ideas of “set and setting” that might include some minimal safety precautions (generally half-assed from what I’ve seen and heard about) and, like, making sure they’re, like, totally mellow maaaan, before they take the drugs, y’know…

These folks then take a marginal case (clinical usage under the direction of a trained therapist), which is something that happens very rarely, in order to try to get me to agree to a more general usage. What they really want is my approval. I’ll get to that part in a bit.

Anyhow, these sorts of folks do the same with usage of these kinds of substances in the distant past, or by cultures living far from the influence of western civilization. Again, this is something the questioners are completely inexperienced with themselves.

In my neighborhood (Silver Lake in Los Angeles, the hipster part), you can throw a rock in any direction and be sure to hit at least three people who claim to be “shamans” of some sort or another. I was sitting next to one of these guys at a Vietnamese restaurant just up the street from me on Sunset Blvd. last week. He was holding court with a friend — or perhaps a potential client? — about the various aspects of using what he called entheogens (drugs, basically) for spiritual awakening.

I looked over and saw that this “shaman” was a white dude, somewhere between 27 and 35 years old, wearing the usual beads and vintage t-shirt these guys tend to prefer. Where did he get his knowledge of the “sacred practices of indigenous cultures?” Wikipedia, perhaps? Or maybe the Carlos Castaneda books I heard him referencing, apparently unaware that Castaneda made most of that stuff up. 

Look. Maybe 1000 years ago some people in the Andes used this stuff and had visions. Maybe some folks way off in the jungles of the Amazon still do. But those people aren’t you. Your world is very different from theirs. Their usage of these substances comes steeped in a culture that you have no connection with at all. The visions they have in sacred ceremonies that often last for weeks on end are not at all like the cartoons running through your head when you’re tripped out on the floor of some “shaman’s” pad listening to a Phish playlist on Spotify. (Check out this article for more on the subject of whether or not it’s possible for any of us these days to have anything like an “authentic shamanic experience” with these substances)

One aspect of this little debacle that I find it extremely interesting that my approval means so much to so many people. Judging from the 500+ comments on one of my recent Facebook posts, it seems to be almost inconceivably important to some people to get me to approve their use of psychedelics. Why is that? Why do they care what I think of this stuff? Why does Brad Warner’s opinion matter so much?

My guess is it’s because I do have some basis from which to speak about these matters. I’m not bragging, by the way. It all happened by accident while I was trying to live my life. In any case, the folks arguing with me often seem heavily invested in denying this. One commenter obliquely referred to “far more qualified Zen teachers” who had approved her drug usage and said that she’d heard that Japanese Zen teachers send their worst students to the US, as a way of negating my knowledge of Zen practice. Which is fine. I’ve heard far worse. I just wonder why that was so very important.

Why not just ignore me? After all, there are a whole lot more “shamans” out there who’ll endorse psychedelics than there are people who caution against them. Why not just look to them for sanction instead?

I wonder if it could be because what I say hits a nerve. I wonder if it awakens part of themselves that knows the truth of what they’re doing, the way I saw the truth of my own ability to justify absolutely anything to myself no matter how wrong or harmful I knew it to be.

That’s hard to acknowledge. Believe me, I know! I tried to run from it when I saw it. But, lucky for me, there was nowhere to go. If there was, I would have gone there for sure!

So, like we often do when that kind of thing happens, we project this disquieting stuff outward and then attack the outward manifestation rather than dealing with the little Jiminy Cricket voice inside of ourselves.

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September 7-10, 2017 Retreat in Finland

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September 22, 2017 Talk in Munich, Germany

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