Archive for Reason and Magic

Your inner guru ran off with his secretary

When I was in the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement back in the Seventies, I heard Maharishi describe what it’s like to start meditating. He compared it to looking at a mountain range through a zoom lens.

Before you learn to meditate, your lens is zoomed in all the way and you see the peak of a single mountain. Then you start meditating and the effect is like zooming out to see all the mountains at once. When you get the wide-angle view, you realize how much you were missing.

That’s exactly what it felt like for me. On the day I learned to meditate, I began to notice clouds, textures, bird songs, decorations—all the things that used to be invisible.

I’ve had similar experiences with psychedelics. That’s just how it works—once the inner noise shuts off, you start to notice things. That can be a great opportunity, but it can also be a set-up.

For example, one night in my wayward youth, I dropped a tab of acid and went for a walk in the park. I became mesmerized by a streetlamp that buzzed and flickered whenever I walked by. For one evening, I believed I had the power to short-circuit streetlamps.

Our minds are programmed to detect patterns of cause and effect. We crank out patterns and connections nonstop and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we’re dead wrong. Right and wrong are secondary, however, as long as we keep making connections.

We’re also programmed for certainty. Our brains can generate a sense of hard, cold reality and attach that certainty to the plainest truth or the flimsiest delusion.

Most of the time, we get by. So what if Aunt Doris blames her kidney stones on the full moon? We can mistake correlation for causality a good chunk of the time and still do okay.

Of course, there’s a big risk once you add charismatic leaders. They’ll happily tell you that the world hangs on your own personal sins or virtues. Maharishi got a lot of mileage from that sort of thing. To this day, there are still people in his movement who believe that their meditation is the only thing preventing World War III.

If you’re wary of charisma, you can run when you see a white robe, but you can’t hide. Your own mind will come after you. It’s fueled by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and it’s eager to lead you down the garden path of total bullshit.

Would you even pause to question your own experiences? You’re way more charismatic and authoritative than any guru, at least to yourself.

I can’t say for sure whether people who practice meditation or use psychedelics are any more prone to magical thinking than others. However, I’ve spent a lot of time in both communities, and I have to tell you that the ground is pretty soggy with peculiar ideas.

Here’s my pet theory. I think that the heightened awareness produced by meditation and psychedelics can make us vulnerable to cognitive errors. When the noise in your head shuts down, you become more and more aware of the world around you. The objects and events you notice become fodder for the brain’s pattern matching machine. Your mind starts cranking out coincidences, synchronicities, and grand theories that explain everything. In your heightened state, your new discoveries seem charged with meaning, perhaps to the point of revelation.

In effect, you put on a white robe, adopt yourself as a disciple, and lead yourself off on a merry chase to nowhere.

Fortunately, this result isn’t inevitable. We can be aware of the traps built into the human mind and do our best to avoid them. That’s true for all human minds, not just those under the influence of meditation or psychedelics.

Evolution makes fools out of all of us.

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Follow your inner guru?

At their best, meditation and psychedelics help you discover the universe by washing out the guff from your mind and senses. Once the barriers come down, you can see and appreciate what’s been there all along.

Forty years ago, I assumed that this experience was an end in itself. Now I understand that everything depends on what you do with it.

For example, when I was a student at Maharishi University, I spent years meditating my buns off. So did hundreds of others, many of whom had vivid experiences of enlightenment. But what did they do with it? Mainly what Maharishi told them to do, which boiled down to fundraising and real estate speculation.

That’s one of the hazards of the path. Gurus like Maharishi and L. Ron Hubbard know that their followers are in a delicate stage of transition. They’re happy to step in and fill the void with their own agendas.

I recently had a conversation on this subject with a friend who is familiar with the worlds of meditation, gurus, and psychedelics. It went like this:

Me: “The advantage of psychedelics is that there isn’t any guru.”

My friend: “No, the advantage of psychedelics is that you are your own guru.”

At the end of this conversation, I felt like we’d scored a decisive victory for psychedelics. Follow your inner guru!

Now I’m not so sure if that’s a good idea. I think we missed the elephant in the room:

Your inner guru may not be any more trustworthy than L. Ron Hubbard.

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Meditation and psychedelics

A lot of people who practice meditation have also taken psychedelics. The overlap is striking because the two are so different.

You’re always in control with meditation—you sit down and close your eyes and open them whenever you wish. With psychedelics, you get on the bus and take the ride and hope for the best.

In spite of the differences, both methods offer a door to the inner life. Here’s where the similarities emerge.

We know that both reduce activity in the brain’s “default mode network.” This may account for the experience of inner peace that occurs when the background noise in your head shuts off. Whatever is happening in the nervous system, the effect is huge. It’s like stepping out of chaos into a clean, quiet, and empty space.

The space that appears is like a commons, a park or nature sanctuary in the middle of a busy city, set aside for use by one and all. People who meditate or take psychedelics discover this commons and hang out there together.

It’s not just for us, though. It’s always there, always available to every human. It’s our neurological birthright.

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The work continues

It’s been three weeks since my visit to the Santo Daime church in Ashland. I’ve learned a few things.

From my single experience, the Daime tea is very powerful but fairly gentle. I never had the sensation of being blasted out of a cannon that I’ve had with certain other psychoactive substances I might name. That may have something to do with the context.

Although the tea contains well-known chemical ingredients, it’s difficult to compare it to other substances. The tea is one of many parts in a complex whole. The results you get depend on all the elements in a unique ceremony shared with fellow voyagers.

The ritual context gives the Daime tea its unique power, but it may also limit its appeal. Some people who might benefit from the experience won’t be interested because of the religious elements. We need secular alternatives for those folks.

The day may come when you can take a psychedelic in a supportive environment under the care of a doctor or therapist. There’s a lot of scientific and legal work that has to be done before that day comes. Full speed ahead.

I started this journey with a question: why are psychedelics helpful for people who suffer from serious conditions like addiction and depression? My time in Oregon gave me the start of an answer.

When people ask me about the Daime tea, I tell them that it’s like pressing the reset button on a computer. Everything shuts down and starts over with a clean slate. In my case, two cups of the tea broke through a wall of mental noise and swept away decades of useless anger and resentments.

I hadn’t paid much attention to all that junk until it was gone, but afterwards I saw what a mess I’d created for myself. Those thought patterns kept looping over and over until they hardened into the bars of a prison. The Daime tea helped me break free.

People who suffer from addiction and depression have their own feelings of mental and emotional imprisonment. Some of them might welcome the sense of liberation that came to me in Oregon. Everyone’s different, of course, and it’s important to be cautious as we embark for new territory. Still, I think there’s hope.

In the weeks since I hit my inner reset button, it’s been interesting to watch my mental and emotional systems come back online. Some of the old dysfunctional patterns have returned, but they stick out like a sore thumb now. I see them for what they are and I dismiss them.

Whatever happened to me seems like it’s going to last. That’s another reason for hope.

I’ll say it again: I’m very grateful.

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There were thirty or so people at the Santo Daime service I attended, all of us in pure white. At the beginning, after everyone had consumed the tea, we filed into the circular room and took our places on the floor and settled in for the journey. The church founder, Jonathan Goldman, spoke and said something that I carried with me like a talisman on my voyage.

He said, “You are safe here. This is a well-kept space.”

That promise made me comfortable from the beginning because I knew it was true. For one thing, I liked and trusted the people in the room with me.

What’s more, every Santo Daime service has “guardians,” church members who don’t drink the tea. They’re trained to handle unexpected situations and offer help if someone has a difficult time. There were four guardians at the service I attended—two men and two women.

The bottom line for safety, however, is that we were acting legally. If you try something similar on your own or with friends, you’re risking a visit from the cops. That might not happen, but the possibility would always be there, and that’s not the sort of thing you want floating around in your mind after you take a psychedelic.

With a safe platform, I was able to get down to business. Occasionally, during the periods of silent meditation, I closed my eyes and drifted off into the beckoning fractal vistas. That’s nice, but it’s a sideshow, and there was always a hymn or a prayer to bring me back and remind me that I had work to do.

The tea, the music, and the communion of sincere people form a single experience. A Santo Daime service is a finely tuned engine for propelling you towards a goal. Some people come for healing, others with unresolved life issues, others for spiritual growth. You choose the purpose and set the trajectory, then you drink the tea and set sail.

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The default mode network

I come from a family of chemists. My mother and father were chemists as were my grandfather and great-grandfather. I’m not a scientist myself, but I was brought up with that worldview and I still see things that way.

So there I was, sitting on the floor an hour or so after drinking the second serving of the Daime tea, looking down at the wreckage of my ego and marveling at how quickly it all fell apart. When rational thought eventually returned, my first question was:

“Did the concentration of the chemical in my bloodstream cross a threshold level?”

That explanation made sense because, whatever happened, it felt like somebody flipped a switch. One moment I was my familiar, cranky self, and then… BLAM! The walls came tumbling down and I was suspended in an empty space, surprised by total peace and freedom.

The only similar experience I can recall is from the early days of my meditation practice. Indeed, there are research studies that show similarities in the way that meditation and psychedelic drugs act on the nervous system. Both reduce activity in the default mode network, the parts of the brain that kick into gear when we’re not focused on external tasks.

I’m way out of my depth with this issue, and experts disagree, but it appears that the default mode network is the engine that creates our inner life, our sense of identity in relation to other humans and the world around us.

The default network may generate models of reality and drive the inner monologue. It may also create illusions and habits and other traps that keep us locked in our egos. Whatever it does, for good or ill, requires a ton of mental processing. Psychedelics and meditation pull the plug.

In my case, the shutdown was a big relief. It felt like a huge burden falling off my shoulders. All the accumulated noise of a lifetime fell away, leaving a sense of clarity and liberation. It happened in a flash, just like you’d expect if a chemical in your bloodstream reached a threshold level and shut down one of the major systems in your brain.

Of course, it also felt like a gift of God’s loving grace. Perhaps those are just two ways of describing the same experience.

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After drinking the second serving of the Daime tea, I walked back into the yurt and took my place. I was sitting on the floor propped up against a back jack with my grandfather’s old World War I Army blanket folded into a pillow under my legs.

The second part of the service was devoted to healing. As I understand it, many people come to Santo Daime for help with addiction, chronic depression, and other serious conditions. We sang a hymn to Mãe Oxum (Mother Oshun), the divine spirit of love.

Oh take me home
Oh take me home
Oh Mãe Oxum
I ask you for my healing

The words of the hymn—Oh take me home… I’m here to love… I want to live—rose and fell within me like waves.

Jonathan Goldman—the Padrinho or spiritual leader of the group—spoke about healing and freedom. He said that real freedom comes through forgiveness and the acceptance of the love of God. He said, “If you run away, you’re just making it worse.”

That’s when the system crashed.

It looked like a hammer smashing a plate glass window. It happened again right away, this time as the claws of a huge animal ripping through a thick barrier. Then a cloud of black smoke dissolving in the wind.

My inner monologue stopped. The barrage of words that had been chattering out of my brain on and on for sixty years came to a dead halt.

I looked down at the wreckage of my world, the remains of a towering wall I’d built to keep myself separate and alone. I saw the fragments of fear, anger, delusion, and every one of those endless words. It was all a trick and I was the trickster, the devil lying to myself.

Jonathan said, “The Daime creates a space, an empty, neutral space where things can happen.”

So it does. I prayed to God to fill the space with divine love. So it is.

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