Spiritual Teachers, Stop Enabling Addicts!

I recently put up a video strongly criticizing the folks over at a website called Buddhist Geeks for promoting the use of psychedelic drugs as a “spiritual practice.” I’ve written and made videos about this subject before. People who use these drugs for “spiritual purposes” often take my criticism of their form of drug use as a personal attack. I find that fascinating.

Every time I’ve raised this subject, there are people who react as if I have attacked their spouse or a family member. It’s as if they have to defend the honor of their drugs of choice. They get quite personal in their responses. My Twitter feed was full recently of things like, “Brad has been a joke for a long time” and insinuations that my book sales are down (actually Don’t Be a Jerk is doing quite well, thank you!), or folks calling me “fake awakened,” and so forth.

I opened this aspect of the issue up to discussion on Facebook yesterday. A few people who’ve had a history of substance abuse problems chimed in. My friend Steve (former drummer for my band Dimentia 13) said, “They’re already guilt ridden, so the criticism reinforces their behavior. Speaking from experience.”

And it occurred to me for the very first time that many of the folks who claim to be using psychedelic drugs as a “spiritual practice” may actually be addicts who have come up with a very clever way of justifying their addiction. I wondered if spiritual teachers who give credence to the idea that drugs are one of the many ways in to spirituality might be unintentionally enabling addiction.*

I think those of us who have a public platform as spiritual teachers should be very careful about this. I think the best course of action for any popular spiritual teacher is to take a very hard anti-drug stance whenever speaking or writing publicly on the subject. You never know who is listening.

In my years of doing this spiritual teacher business, I have had countless private talks with people who’ve used these sorts of drugs. In private, my responses don’t always precisely match the way I talk about these substances in public. My basic stance is the same, that drugs are a very dangerous path and should be avoided. But, in private, I can (at least to some extent) judge whether the person I’m talking to might be someone with an addiction searching for an authority figure to give their habit validity. If they’re not, I can afford to be a bit more nuanced. When speaking or writing publicly I cannot.

This is why I think people like Buddhist Geeks, Kokyo Henkel, Vanja Palmers and many others who, in their capacity as spiritual teachers, talk publicly about the supposed “positive spiritual effects” of these drugs may be doing grave harm without meaning to. I really think they ought to stop it.

Buddhism contains a very strong anti-drug stance as one of its core principles. You absolutely cannot justify the use of psychedelic drugs as Buddhist practice. No amount of word twisting will ever make it work out. I think there’s a very good reason for that.

I think that, as the group of people surrounding him grew ever larger, the Buddha must have come to understand that he needed to take some strong public stances. When you’re dealing with just a handful of people, you can afford to be nuanced about things. But once you find yourself addressing crowds of strangers, it is important to be very black-and-white about certain issues.

In our society, with its ready availability of a wide variety of dangerous mind-altering chemicals, it is extremely important that spiritual teachers avoid being used as justification for destructive behaviors like drug addiction.

It used to be said that psychedelic drugs were non-addictive. And it is true that they do not have the sort of habit-forming chemical properties found in opiates and other such substances. But we now clearly understand that even things that are not physically addictive can nonetheless be psychologically addictive. We also know that these psychological addictions can be just as powerful as physical ones. Sometimes more powerful.

Part of what’s necessary for a psychological addiction is an intellectual justification for that addiction. Endorsement of these drugs as “divine sacraments” (or whatever) by a well-known spiritual authority figure can be very potent.

It’s true that psychedelic drugs can often mimic the effects of long-term meditation. And it’s also true that plenty of people first get into meditation only after encountering these kinds of mimicking effects while using mind-altering substances.

But everyone who has ever dedicated themselves to meditation knows very clearly that the effects of psychedelics that mimic meditation are vastly different from meditation itself. Anyone who cannot make such a differentiation needs a lot more meditation practice.

Some people try psychedelics early in their spiritual search for sincere reasons. I did. But we usually very quickly figure out the differences as well as the drawbacks of using drugs. One of the folks who commented back to me on Facebook put it like this, “I also noticed that this (the seemingly spiritual aspects of psychedelics) came at a price, which included a long hangover and diminishment in the nervous system. So I didn’t see the value in doing it very much, and a definite risk in any overuse.”

And, as I always say to anyone who claims that so-called “mind expanding drugs” actually enhance one’s mental abilities rather than limit them; “If LSD (and other such substances) ‘cultivate and encourage clarity’ (as one person claimed in a recent exchange with me), then would you allow a loved one to ride in a car driven by someone who was currently under the influence? If not, then why not?”

I don’t know of anyone who would categorically refuse to let a loved one ride in a car with someone who meditates a lot. Clearly and obviously, then, there is a major difference, and that difference is vitally important (literally!).

I know that this blog is read by a number of spiritual teachers from various lineages. If any of you are in the habit of encouraging drug use or even taking a soft and nuanced stance when speaking publicly about psychedelics, I urge you to reconsider your position. As I said, you really never know who is listening or how they are using the words they hear from you.

*Aside: I also wonder if some of the teachers who talk positively about drug use are actually trying to justify their own addictions and looking for positive feedback from listeners as a support for these addictions.

“Any culture which is based around sitting around taking drugs I would say was pretty close to being nihilistic. Especially ones as confusing and vapid as marijuana and 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 in the room, it’s a bit of a drag to have to talk to them and think about them.” – Robyn Hitchcock

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