A Theological Reckoning With ‘Bad Trips’

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From Harvard Divinity Bulletin: “The collateral damage from mainstreaming mindfulness can serve as a cautionary tale for psychedelic medicalization: important wisdom is lost when technologies of transcendence are stripped from their spiritual and religious contexts and presented as psychological treatments. Meditation, once a practice of a very select group of virtuoso monks in Buddhist cultures, is now a wellness program offered by schools, prisons, hospitals, and corporate America. Psychedelics are no longer just visionary tools of shamans or sacraments guarded by complex rituals; they are on the way to becoming medical interventions. People will be harmed. How many, how, and why, we don’t yet know, in part because so few are given voice to share their stories, and little research exists.

Psychedelic science does an odd dance with the spiritual. On the one hand, studies (mostly out of Johns Hopkins University) have popularized the notion that a mystical-type experience leads to better therapeutic outcomes. This frame reduces transcendence to its therapeutic potential—a breathtakingly transactional posture to the divine that creates a sort of tautology whereby the mystical is therapeutic because the therapeutic is mystical. This is most evident in the narrow definition used in the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ): to qualify for a ‘complete mystical experience,’ one must report a concurrent ‘positive mood.’

No wonder a recent popular book about psychedelics posited that the divine is simply a cosmic surgeon who, through psychedelics, ‘cuts out anxiety and depression.’ This is like calling a knife a surgical instrument, without acknowledging it can also kill.11 Or, to use a different surgical metaphor, as one recent Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies MDMA trial participant put it during a podcast interview: ‘In the trial it’s like they did open heart surgery . . . they fixed what was wrong with my heart but they left my chest wide open.’12

William James insisted on keeping a value-neutral stance on mystical states, arguing that they include pleasure and pain, darkness and light. And the therapeutic instrumentalization of transcendence ignores volumes of wisdom from traditions that emphasize the dangers of nonordinary experience. The full archive of mystical experience demonstrates that seeking to know God, truth, reality—going beyond—can terrify, maim, even kill.

In my own tradition, Buddhist meditation has long been understood by practitioners as dangerous. Many are familiar with ‘Zen sickness,’ popularized by the eighteenth-century monk Hakuin Zenji who experienced extreme, persistent somatic and physiological distress from sitting zazen. But the understanding of the perils of meditation is much more wide reaching. Recent translations of early Chan texts reveal how the otherwise highly praised meditations on the impurity of the body can lead to suicide, and even introductory meditation can disturb the body’s ‘winds.’13 In short, meditation has been understood—especially in the history of Zen—as a high-risk, high-reward activity. All of the earliest Jewish hekhalot literature of traveling to the upper realms in Judaism is about avoiding danger. In the old Talmudic tale of Pardes, four rabbis encounter God. One becomes a heretic, one goes crazy, one drops dead, and the final—the only one!—returns home with his faith affirmed. In the famous chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna sees the universal form of Krishna, but he taps out. It’s just too much.

Some things threaten to overwhelm, tearing at the seams of our senses. They are not ours to safely know.”

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15 COMMENTS

  1. The writer should have briefed herself by reading Hoffer and Osmond’s book *The Hallucinogens*, particularly the section on psychedelic therapy in the LSD chapter, wherein screening individuals for psychedelic treatment is discussed, as are the contradictions for such treatments.

  2. I have to agree, with the concept that even the new age, or yoga teachers, or meditation teachers, or others, they really so often can’t help a person when they float into the place beyond linear time, which is actually natural, but so often listed as psychosis. The symbolism, the essence actually of why “fictions” or “mythologies” or “legends” exist, is then instead called “non-reality based” and the rest of such nonsense. Just because people would have to look deeper at what the mind expresses when it goes into the machinery that determines the play-out, the labyrinth, the momentum of time, itself, beyond the physical ability the senses have to determine what they can’t see but only feel or express with harmonics, imagery and symbolism.

    “Religion” and “psychiatry” seem to be in the same boat as indoctrination rather than simply listening, being curious, and SHUTTING UP with their attempts at programming rather than allowing and showing decent curiosity!

  3. Nijinsky says, “Religion and psychiatry seem to be in the same boat as indoctrination rather than simply listening, being curious, and SHUTTING UP with their attempts at programming rather than allowing and showing decent curiosity”.

    Very true. Religion and psychiatry aren’t about curiosity. They’re about conformity, how to think, talk and act like them.

    And psychedelics aren’t the answer anymore than psychiatric drugs.

    • I think we’re overgeneralizing a bit, though. Not ALL religious are about conformity. There are lots of brands of religions, and the same nominal religion can have sect with WILDLY different approaches! But I do agree that humans tend to turn any religious practice in the direction of conformity, and the more “organized” it is, the more authoritarian it seems to get. But that’s just my observation.

      • What do you mean “Not ALL religions are about conformity”
        when all religions require believing the supernatural?

        Being in a religion means conforming to some notion of spirituality. How is this generalization untrue?

        Trying to “believe” in anything more than my own intuition made me feel more disconnected, almost psychotic.

        Reality’s enough to deal with.

        • I would submit that Buddhism, for instance, does not require or teach conformity, except to the extent that certain practices are recommended to improve one’s understanding of one’s own spiritual nature. I’ve also been to Quaker meetings, where there is no preacher or designed program, but the attendees are encouraged to get in touch with their “intuition” and speak as they feel moved to speak. I don’t see much conformity there, except that you need to be quiet while others are speaking and not invalidate or criticize what they share.

          I definitely see that organized religion tends very strongly toward enforcing conformity of both belief and actions, and often uses fear to create compliance. I have never had any patience with such practices. I think we should all be in touch with our own inner sense of what is “right” and true, rather than following some outside interpretation of reality. That’s one of the reasons I love the Quaker approach. Nobody gets to tell you what God (or whatever spiritual reality a person might believe in) has to say to you. You get to seek those answers for yourself.

          • Steve says, “I think we should all be in touch with our own inner sense of what is “right” and true, rather than following some outside interpretation of reality.”

            I agree completely. And I forgot that Buddhists don’t believe in a deity, and that Quakers refer to God as Light Within, which to me means one’s own intuition.

    • Spirituality essentially means emotional growth, which means the broadening, deepening or “maturing” of a person’s soul, which means gaining an awareness and understanding of oneself and others and how this relates to the world around them.

      But this is a deeply personal, complex process that tragically gets hijacked by psychiatric diagnoses, drugs, and even “psycho-therapy”.

  4. And what is “soul growth”? It’s the “evolution of a person’s spirit on the journey from fear to love”.

    And what’s the purpose of “spiritual growth”? “To help you embody your soul or Higher Self, to shift from ego to Soul”.

    But psychiatry and psychology call people “sick”, which makes these both the Devil Incarnate.