Archive for Reason and Magic

Resuming the journey

After a few bottles of champagne, the office Christmas party got pretty loud. The room was hot and the conversations rose and blurred together into a random hum. I was ready to make a graceful exit when a single word cut through the noise.


I traced the sound to the most interesting guy in the room. He was perched on a stool wearing a big grin, illuminated by champagne, and surrounded by cheerful Christmas faces. I joined them and listened.

“There’s new medical research on psychedelic drugs,” he said. “Magic mushrooms. Ecstasy. There’s a study where they gave psilocybin to people who were dying of cancer. They found out that psychedelics help people deal with the fear of death.”

The realization came as quickly and clearly as the word itself.

“Of course!” I thought. It’s all there in the name. Entheogens are drugs that produce an intense spiritual experience.

My own time with LSD, psilocybin, and other entheogens happened 40 years ago, but I remember what it felt like as clear as day. The overwhelming awe. The joyful revelations. The sense of perspective, of understanding that your life is a very small part of the universe. Of course that’s going to have an effect on people who are afraid of dying.

The morning after the Christmas party, I woke up, ate breakfast, sat down at the computer, and typed “entheogens” into Google.

Holy cow. I thought that scientific research on psychedelic drugs came to a halt in the 1960s with the government crackdown. While I wasn’t paying attention, however, psychedelics came back and opened a huge frontier in neuroscience and medicine. The new psychedelic science offers insights into consciousness and help for patients suffering from grave medical conditions, especially those who don’t respond to conventional therapy.

I had no idea. After a few hours on Google, though, I had a very uncomfortable twinge in my gut that I knew could only be satisfied by further research.

That was a year ago. Since then, I’ve talked with psychologists, psychonauts, neurochemists, shamans in business suits, and little old ladies who love their LSD. They kept the faith during the dark years of the drug wars and are, at last, getting serious attention from mainstream science and medicine.

I’m pleased that they’ve confirmed my intuition. “Of course” psychedelic drugs can help people who are seriously ill. How does that work, though? I can understand how a drug that absorbs stomach acids could help with indigestion, but how does a drug that blows your mind help with post-traumatic stress disorder?

There are lots of other questions, but I figured that this was a good time to pause and check in with you all. As I continue my research, I’ll let you know about the answers I discover. I’m also planning to share the delights and oddities that a person encounters every day on the psychedelic path.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

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Skeptics and believers

God may or may not exist, but the experience of God is undoubtedly real. The human nervous system can produce all the necessary mystical effects—the rays of light, the shining face, the booming voice. At the same time, the brain can generate a sense of reality and total certainty, like pounding drums accompanying a guitar.

The result is a complete and compelling experience of the divine. Nothing supernatural required. No questions asked.

What’s more, a mystical experience can produce real-world results. Suppose that a wicked person hears the voice of God say “Clean up your act!” The wicked person might find hope and be less fearful and more loving. Does it matter whether God’s voice originated in heaven or in the electrical activity of the brain? What more would a real God have to do?

Since we all have the same nervous system, anybody can have this kind of spiritual experience—atheist, believer, whatever. There’s no reason why an atheist couldn’t have a lifelong relationship with the divine and go on being an atheist.

In fact, skeptics might be better equipped for mysticism. They can’t deny the reality of the experience, but they’re always on the lookout for bullshit. The voice of God may say “You are loved” in one breath and “Beware of men who wear red pants” with the next. Regardless of what God says, your brain cranks up the pounding drums of reality and certainty. Without skepticism, you’re screwed.

Fortunately, we’re all natural skeptics just like we’re all natural mystics. Perhaps both are necessary for a full human life.

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