Drugs and spirituality

A few weeks ago, I finally watched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — one of those modern classics that I somehow had not seen up until now. I thought it was great, but there was a definite tinge of unpleasantness that came from the film’s “honest look” at the use of psychoactive drugs. The viewer is subjected to the characters’ riotous highs but also to their terrifying lows. I had to wonder if the ecstasy and understanding achieved could be worth the havoc wrought on Raoul’s and Dr. Gonzo’s lives.

Around the same time, I encountered this article by Sam Harris, discussing the possible virtues of using drugs to alter consciousness. Drug use is a personal choice, and I don’t condemn it; however, I feel a need to raise some objections to Harris’ argument.

Harris compares psychedelic drugs to other consciousness-altering activities in terms of their potency: “If a person learns to meditate, pray, chant, do yoga, etc., there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending on his aptitude, interest, etc., boredom could be the only reward for his efforts.” This comparison to more natural (less chemical) means of altering consciousness led me to a certain self-righteousness on behalf of those spiritual activities: if these are available to us, why use drugs — which, despite their expedited effects, carry risks of physical and psychological harm? I felt the vague conviction that yoga and prayer are more valuable, less self-absorbed activities than drugs. However, these are often practiced in solitude. I guess I would say that these activities are more social because they are engaging with something larger than oneself. But Harris would probably say the same thing about drugs! Are we both right? I’m at an impasse on this one. To try to “prove” my spiritual convictions in logical terms would be a futile exercise.

But I think the point at which my spiritual beliefs really come into play is when Harris writes about the mental potential that we can “unlock” with drugs. He writes: “The power of psychedelics… is that they often reveal, in the span of a few hours, depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.” It’s true that part of the joy of being human is to explore our minds and strive to reach new levels of understanding. But when we employ our advanced knowledge about the way our bodies work in the construction of an express track to transcendence, I think we may have gone too far. At some point, I wonder: who are we to reap the full benefits of the incredible and mysterious minds that we’ve been endowed with?

Harris makes the valid point that ethical transcendence is the relinquishing of egoity — letting go of “our thoughts, moods, desires, etc.” In this act, he writes, “we make progress.” The latent kernel of Puritanism within me would argue that this is true — but that it’s a reason to avoid drugs. Maybe we’re meant to be shackled by our individual conscious selves, overwhelmed with the weight of ego. And yes, life should be about struggling to let go of that weight, to make progress toward a selfless existence. But to use substances to achieve such a state effortlessly is itself an egotistical choice and thoroughly contradicts the ethical argument Harris puts forward.

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