A Real Spiritual High: In Defense of Psychedelic Mysticism
As someone who was first introduced to psychedelics through ketamine assisted psychotherapy for depression while an active Latter-day Saint, the nexus of psychedelics and religion is near and dear to my heart. This intersection has also been a source of profound emotional turmoil for me. The mystical revelations I underwent, which I believed brought me closer to the divine, were met with skepticism at best and outright condemnation as the "work of evil" at worst, exacerbating my inner conflicts.
Responding from the vantage point of these personal encounters, I engage with the article “A Real Spiritual High: A Defense of Natural Mysticism” which seeks to assert that psychedelics fall short of constituting genuine mysticism and should be discredited as fraudulent. Such an argument not only injures individuals within and beyond the Latter-day Saint tradition but reverberates throughout broader Christian contexts..
Unfortunately, the apologetic stance taken by articles like this, summarily dismissing psychedelic-induced mystical experiences without earnestly delving into the narratives of those who have undergone them—and it is imperative to acknowledge that these experiences are unquestionably genuine—perpetuates harm rather than fostering understanding. This stance assumes the role of a gatekeeper, arbitrator of what qualifies as a bona fide encounter with the Divine, simultaneously marginalizing individuals who adhere to identical religious tenets.
Religions, Christianity in particular, need to deal with these experiences head-on. And perhaps that looks like what the author of this article implicitly suggests—drawing the boundaries of religion to exclude anyone who has had a psychedelic-mystical experience. But given that religions are already hemorrhaging members, the LDS church included, perhaps they should rethink these positions and have a more authentic, open engagement instead of resorting to polemical boundary drawing. To be clear, my assertion isn't that psychedelics represent the sole avenue to attain mystical experiences, but rather that they are among a spectrum of paths, all equally genuine and authentic.
The article states that “Religious people have long recognized a clear difference between scriptural understandings of mysticism versus hallucination or psychotic episodes.” It is essential to note the implicit association of "religious" with "Christianity" in this statement, mirroring the prevalent trend among apologetic Christian literature. At the outset this proves to be incredibly problematic. Why? Because it immediately assumes the authority of the dominant Christian narrative and subjugates all other religions as “lesser” or primitive in the same way that 19th and early 20th–century anthropologists, such as James Frazer and Edward Tylor, treated the indigenous people and their beliefs.
The subsequent sentence presents another issue: “This distinction has also applied to drugs; there has long been a clear delineation between mystic and stoner, cemented by countless horror stories of “bad trips” and terrible things people have done while under the influence.” It's crucial to acknowledge that the notion of a "stoner" or "drug user" is a modern construct. The idea of what constituted intoxication or “being stoned” was vastly different prior to the 20th century. The purported "clear delineation between the mystic and stoner" possesses a far more intricate and extensive history within the realm of Christian tradition. Moreover, this division is predominantly a Christian construct. There was no difference between a mystic and a shaman using drugs for their religious, ritual, and healing work in many indigenous cultures—in fact, they were one and the same.1
This idea, that “drugs” and religion or mysticism is incompatible is a recurring theme among Christians who want to “defend” their religion from the influences of Satan and psychedelic drugs. This perspective often covertly or overtly carries an ethnocentric undertone, diminishing the value of other cultures by categorizing them as inferior, ensnared in superstition and erroneous understandings of the world. Analogously, this echoes the sentiments of early 20th-century anthropologists who relegated indigenous beliefs to the realms of "magical" and "primitive."
These are claims that I get the most frustrated with. The arrogance and certainty required to make such claims is a direct result of a lack of exposure to other ways of being in the world and experiencing the divine.
However, I am sympathetic to the list of questions that the author then raises regarding headlines about “Magic Mushroom Churches”. Before addressing those questions, this “Magic Mushroom Church” cited to is called The Divine Assembly (TDA). It is a church headquartered in Utah that uses psilocybin mushrooms as its sacrament. The one tenet of the church is “Each individual can commune directly with the Divine and receive guidance.” TDA isn’t a place for hippies to go do mushrooms with religious protections willy–nilly. This is a serious organization dedicated to helping people understand the risks involved with these substances and in teaching people how to use them safely and integrate their experiences in a healthy manner. Every week there is an integration circle held for people to come and work through their experiences in a safe, supportive environment. This is a serious, thoughtful organization working to mitigate harms and misunderstandings. (The article the author cites can be found here. More information about TDA can be found on their website.)
Troubling Psychedelic Mysticism Questions
The first question the author poses is “Are the mystical experiences in scripture and other sacred history simply the product of chemical processes in the brain?” The answer to this obviously is yes. Within the framework of Christian theology, and more specifically within the context of Latter-day Saint beliefs (which is where the author is writing from), the human experience is profoundly intertwined with our corporeal existence. Additionally, LDS theology has a rich theology of the relationship between matter and spirit found in the Doctrine and Covenants. Consequently, the suggestion that mystical encounters outlined in scriptures and sacred texts arise from chemical reactions within the brain doesn't pose a challenge within this theological paradigm.
The second question the author poses is “are the users of psychedelics having authentic experiences of God without the intensive demands of living a life of faith?” This is unfortunately a common criticism of psychedelics. Primarily, these inquiries bear the hallmarks of the Protestant work ethic and a capitalistic mentality that places supreme value on relentless effort as the sole avenue to meaningful experiences. Implicit in these assumptions is the notion that individuals, even as "Children of God," must merit expressions of divine love or presence through toil. The implication that one must earn affection and love from the Divine is inherently problematic. Everyone is worthy of experiencing the Divine’s love and affection, whatever that might be.
The second problematic assumption of this question that is frequently allayed against psychedelics is that they are a “shortcut”. This is absolutely false and the only individuals who would ever consider claiming psychedelics are a shortcut are those who have zero experience with them. As any psychedelic user knows, the experiences themselves can be extremely taxing and difficult. It is not a matter of eating a mushroom and half an hour later you are gently brought into the bosom of the Divine. Nope. You have to work to get there. There’s a reason that therapeutic protocols are being developed around them. There’s a reason that for thousands of years these substances have been taken within the context of serious and extended ritual practice.
The assumption that psychedelics are a shortcut presupposes that the experience of the Divine is the end goal—that once it occurs your work is complete. Anyone who has had a mystical experience understands that once you have the experience that’s when the real work begins. If psychedelics are a shortcut, then they are a shortcut to when the journey really begins to get difficult.
Notwithstanding those facts, just because one has an experience of the Divine under the influence of psychedelics doesn’t mean they don’t have to live the demands of the faith to maintain that goodwill of the Divine. Work is required. Within the Latter-day Saint tradition, the story of Alma the Younger in The Book of Mormon is apropos. For those unfamiliar, Alma, son of the prophet Alma, was going around preaching against the church. He and his companions were visited by an angel who struck them down. Alma was unconscious for two days and during that time he reports being racked with eternal torment before calling out on the name of Jesus and being pulled from that. Alma presumably was not doing the work the faith intended and yet was still given visions.
A parallel instance involves Laman and Lemuel, who received angelic visions despite harboring disbelief. Such cases challenge the notion that visionary experiences are exclusively reserved for those ardently fulfilling the demands of faith.
Furthermore, this particular question seems to dismiss the profound experiences of indigenous cultures that incorporate psychedelics into their sacred rituals. These ceremonies necessitate participants to adhere to strict diets and lifestyles before and after engaging in the psychedelic experience. For countless individuals, this encounter stands as the culmination of years of meticulous preparation, often as part of their initiation into their societal roles—a parallel process observed in the sacred rites of the LDS temples. (which, by the way, were likely created as psychedelic ritual containers, but more on that in another article).
The Veridicality of Psychedelic Experiences
The final two questions posed are: “How do we evaluate claims that arise from the context of psychedelic usage versus chemical-free natural mysticism that we find in the church? And perhaps the most burning of questions: are my own mystical experiences real, or are they things that can be replicated by ingesting chemicals?”
The idea that there is “chemical-free natural mysticism” is just false to begin with. As mentioned above, we are embodied beings and something is happening physically when individuals are having spiritual or mystical experiences. Some chemical or hormone within the body is altered when an individual is having these experiences and recent research has been trying to understand what that is.
Additionally, there’s some evidence that the psychedelic DMT is endogenous to humans. If this in fact is true, human brains are already laced with a psychedelic substance negating any possibility that there is a “chemical free natural mysticism”. Even if DMT is endogenous it does not automatically dismiss the veridicality of the mystical experience. If an individual believes that God had a hand in creating human beings, then it stands to reason that God could have given humans a “spirit molecule” as Rick Strassman calls it, to facilitate a spiritual experience and tie spirit and matter together.
Just because someone sees God using psychedelics does not mean it did not happen. For example, I think the historical evidence shows that the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was utilizing psychedelic substances to facilitate visions for himself and other members of the early church. In my mind it does not matter if Joseph saw God during his first vision under the influence of a psychedelic substance like datura stramonium or amanita muscaria or if he had his first vision without the use of any natural aid. Either way he saw God. Full stop. The veridicality of the vision is the same either way.
An individual who has a mystical experience need not question their own experience just because someone else is “ingesting chemicals” and having a similar experience. Both are veridical. Both have value. Just because someone else is enjoying a delicious chocolate cake they got from a restaurant doesn’t mean the chocolate cake you are eating that you made from scratch after milling your own flour, taking care of chickens, etc. is not also good. There are many different ways to acquire and enjoy a chocolate cake.
A side note—the author frequently uses “chemicals” to describe psychedelics. This is clearly an attempt to convince the reader that these things can’t possibly provide “natural” mystical experiences. Yes, psilocybin is made up of chemicals. It’s also a mushroom. And it grows from the ground. Much of the food eaten at LDS cultural gatherings are closer to the terrifying “chemicals”—processed factory foods—than many of the psychedelic substances are. Psilocybin, Ayahuasca, DMT, Amanita Muscaria, Datura, are all-natural plants.
A second qualm, along those lines, literally everything we eat and drink alters our physiology in some way. Abstaining from eating, fasting, alters our physiology. By deciding to eat or not to eat we are engaged in altering our everyday experience. It’s well understood that what we eat shapes our conscious perception in some way or another. On fasting, the author suggests that we shouldn’t take seriously any “claims of mysticism among former Christians” who didn’t seriously apply themselves to the spiritual discipline of fasting. Perhaps we shouldn’t take the claims of anyone (Christian or not) who hasn’t seriously applied themselves to the spiritual discipline of eating all-natural foods and avoiding “chemicals.”
On the Specificity of Mysticism
Perhaps one of the most naïve sections of this article is where the author discusses “specificity in Latter-day Saint mysticism.” Here the author describes the supposed unique Latter-day Saint view of a veil between the spiritual dimensions of reality. First off, this is not unique. Many other cultures and religions believe in some sort of veil between the spiritual reality and this one.
The author cites to Scott Alexander’s post on psychedelics which I’ll reproduce here:
Before we entertain the idea of a chemically-induced “parting of the veil,” however, it might help to consider Scott Alexander’s 2015 essay on psychedelics, published on Slate Star Codex. It has the most interesting of openings:
“Universal love,” said the cactus person.
“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.
“Right,” I said. “I’m absolutely in favor of both those things. But before we go any further, could you tell me the two prime factors of 1,522,605,027, 922,533,360, 535,618,378, 132,637,429, 718,068,114, 961,380,688, 657,908,494, 580,122,963, 258,952,897, 654,000,350, 692,006,139?”
For people who claim to be encountering real entities in their chemically-induced psychedelic trips, Scott Alexander is humorously suggesting an interesting test: if those entities are, in fact, real, then insist that the mystical entities get specific.
Citing this is honestly a bit baffling to me. While the test is intended as a jest, its inclusion raises perplexing questions. Why include it unless its purpose is to undermine experiences by dismissing them for not asking "objective" questions to the beings? When was the last time a Latter-day Saint, while meeting with a dead ancestor or having their vision of God in the temple asked God what the two prime factors of a series of numbers was?
And why would God answer them? Does that help their eternal salvation? Does it teach them Truth? Does it teach them to be a better human being? Requiring this standard for another mystical experience while not performing the same test yourself is hypocritical.
The author then touts that “specificity is a key way that we, as Latter-day Saints, discern authentic experiences of God and God’s influence versus any number of biochemical and other counterfeits.”
He does mention that “Sometimes authentic mystical experiences are vague, but in many instances, they are the opposite.” But immediately proceeds to get into the specifics:
For Latter-day Saints, revelatory experiences are often specific and actionable: exact names and details and resources revealed in family history work; exact locations of temple sites; promptings of exact places to go at precise times, people to speak with, words to communicate, and more.
This is problematic for a number of reasons. I’m not saying these don’t happen—they do. But they aren’t unique. Nor are Mormon mystical experiences founded specifically on specificity. Some individuals have general feelings of love or good feelings when they experience the Divine—and there’s a whole litany of quotes from LDS apostles and prophets saying so. The Book of Mormon itself ends with a promise that is used to convert individuals to the church—to ask “if these things are not true”. “These things” are actually referring to the doctrines contained within the Book of Mormon but is used by missionaries to refer to The Book of Mormon as a whole. A simple yes or no answer. And that “yes” answer is described as being anything but specific. It can be a burning in the bosom, a warm feeling, a stupor of thought, no answer at all (suggesting they are not not true), etc. The Holy Ghost, or Spirit, within Mormonism, who is meant to guide you to truth, is given a very amorphous, unspecified feeling and cannot be adequately described. It is “ineffable”.
I’m not intending to malign these experiences—they are authentic experiences. But they are by no means specific in the way the author was touting LDS mystical experiences to be.
The criticism from Alexander cited by the author of making universal love sound absurd is a bit of a mystery to me. I’m not sure what problems a Christian would have with experiences that state that everything is love, experiences grounded in a sense of profound love, or any sort of drive towards everything being love. In the Bible, God is described in a very unspecified way: “God is Love.” The mystical experiences of Christian mystics are frequently founded in the sense that “God is Love.” Or “everything is God.” The two great commandments are characterized as loving God and loving your neighbor and everything else falls under these. Experiences that give one access to the never-ending fountain of divine love should be praised, rather than maligned.
The experiences described by the author as specifics (exact names, actionable promptings, etc.), hardly characterize the traditional mystical experience. But even if they do, the idea of specificity being unique to LDS mystical experiences is absurd and naïve.
Individuals under the influence of psychedelics also see specific mystical scenes resembling those the prophets in Latter-day Saint scripture saw. Just as Moses and Abraham saw the cosmos, the creation, and visions of heaven; just as Isaiah and Ezekiel saw the heavens and God’s throne; just as John saw visions of the end of days in Revelation so too do psychedelic users see all of these things. (I won’t even get into the evidence that the Biblical prophets were using psychoactive substances, but for the interested reader I will footnote them here.2) Benny Shannon elucidates the phenomenology of the Ayahuasca experiences noting the wide number of experiences who see Celestial and heavenly scenes, who witness Celestial bodies and go on voyages through the planets, who see the beginning and end of the human race and the creation of the universe. These visions are brimming with specific details, careful descriptions of the beings they encountered, of the buildings visited, art seen, the landscape surrounding them, etc. These aren’t aimless “mystical-type” experiences with vague feelings. They are as real, if not more real, than everyday experience.
If we want to stick with Scott Alexander’s math analogy, I’ve got a friend who literally learned how to do calculus while under the influence of ketamine. He’d never taken a math course beyond algebra in his life. He was a self-described “idiot” when it came to math. During one ketamine experience he was taught the principles of calculus and after the experience was able to complete equations from my calculus II textbook with ease.
Beyond my own personal anecdotes, specificity abounds in psychedelic rituals and experiences.
Maria Sabina, who introduced Gordon Wasson and the United States to psilocybin, is a stark example of specificity. In one of her experiences the mushrooms produced a large book—the Book of Wisdom—for her to read from. Despite her lack of education and literacy ability she could read every word of the book. She wrote that she “understood all that was written in the Book and . . . became as though richer, wiser, and that in one moment I learned millions of things.”3 From that book she learned to heal. She came away from that experience knowing exactly how to heal her sister, Maria Ana, and countless others who would come to her.
One only has to look to the tens of thousands of experiences contained in the Erowid Experience Vault to find cases of actionable specifics found within the psychedelic state.
One such example is from someone who was lamenting the path he was on in life. He
“took from my wallet the large green pill of Oxycodone, an object that I then assigned as a symbol of my apathy, escape, and impending misery, and dramatically flung it into the toilet bowl and flushed it away. Although immersed in the intoxication of the K, I felt at that moment more sober and clear-headed than at any moment in recent memory. . . I returned downstairs and rejoined the scene with a new optimism: a sense that I would return to be the switched-on and ambitious young man I once was.”
There’s also numerous examples from the clinical trials these substances have been a part of:
I had always had the sense of everything being connected. And [the psilocybin session] reinforced that, very strongly… [If I were to smoke] I would be a polluter…ashtrays and butts all over the place, and you’re causing harm to other people’s health as well. And so you were re-looking at your place in the universe and what you were doing to help or hinder it. The universe as such. And by smoking, you wouldn’t be helping.
One study reported the changes people underwent in these studies:
1) A change in health behaviors including diet. Participants also often gave up alcohol or cigarettes, (2) Enhanced clarity, recognition, and sensibility, (3) Increased physical well-being, (4) Energy, power, and strength, (5) Better coping with problems and ‘‘daily hassles,’’ (6) Confidence and tranquility, (7) A renewed sense of happiness, love, and joy, (8) A change of life orientation sometimes including a strive for non-materialistic values, (9) Improved social competences.
But what was unique in these cases is that participants were reporting to have actively “learned” all these things in the rituals.
Three participants stated that they had received help from other ‘‘entities’’ or ‘‘spirits.’’ For some people these ‘‘entities’’ emerged as ‘‘spiritual doctors’’ performing ‘‘spiritual operations’’ (as it is well known in Brazilian healing cultures) or alternatively as ‘‘spirits’’ providing people with helpful insights (for example not to eat particular food in order to avoid allergic reactions).”
Likewise, “Some interviewees have described quite dramatic interactions with the spirits that assist in their healing. One of them said that once the spirits performed open-heart surgery on him.” This was in order to heal a “shattered and traumatized heart” and had to be approved by him. These things are not merely solved by self-reflection. Healing trauma, abuse, even basic patterns of behavior require a shift and a reframing from someone outside yourself, hence the role of therapy, friendship, and relying on spiritual aid.
These are the fruits of a psychedelic experience.
The Fruits of a Psychedelic Experience
One claim against the use of psychedelics within the LDS or broader Christian tradition is that it opens one’s mind to be deceived by Satan and that nothing in the “hallucinations” (an unfortunate word with negative connotations used in place of visions when individuals are trying to discredit psychedelic experiences) could possibly be true. Some even further critique and suggest there is no way to know what is from God and what is from the devil in these states.
Beyond the fact that throughout scripture humans are told they have the ability to discern good from evil so clearly an individual should know whether their experience is good or evil, there is an outward–facing test to know whether these things are from God or from the devil—one used by the traditional Christian mystics as well.
In warning of false prophets Jesus taught the Nephites:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit
. . .
Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them (3 Nephi 14:15-20. See also Matthew 7:16-20).
A good tree brings forth good fruit. Later Moroni wrote “Everything which inviteth and enticeth to do good is inspired of God” (Moroni 7:13-16). And Ether: “whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me” (Ether 4:12). In Mormon scripture things that are good and have good results are from God, while things that are bad or lead to bad results are from the Devil. In modern scripture for example, D&C 11:12-13 offers instruction to what we should put our trust in: “put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit. . . which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy.” In determining the cause of a mystical experience, by their fruits we can know whether it was a false god, the devil, or God himself.
The tradition of knowing an experience by their fruits extended through the Christian mystics. One such mystic, St. John of the Cross, wrote of visions from God, that “The effects these visions produce in the soul are: quietude, illumination, gladness resembling that of glory, delight, purity, love, humility, and an elevation and inclination toward God.”4
Similarly, part of the case for mystical experiences being from God, was an argument elucidated by William James among others, looking at the lives of those who have the visions. The conclusion of said argument is that if a mystical experience produces positive results in the manner in which one lead’s their life then the experience is authentic.5
Let’s take a look at the fruits that have come from psychedelic experiences:
The candidates seemed to have a better grasp at life, they were more forgiving, kind, and empathetic. They were at peace and . . . reported to be happier than they were before the experiment.
From Roland Griffiths’ “Survey of subjective ‘God-encounter experiences’”: Over 85% of participants reported a desirable change in contemplative prayer and meditation practices, a persisting change in spiritual awareness in everyday life, and improved behavior over one year after the experience.
The journey on to a universe which is full of love and divine beauty began. . . I saw a Divine Being before me who had His hand out and stood alone and glowing with a radiance of love, beauty, faith, and trust. My mind left my body and my body was dead. As I touched His hands, I became Him or we became one. . .
I knew then that I had all these within me: beauty, faith, love, and trust. I had touched that Divine Being and became part of God. At that moment, I shouted: “Good God Almighty, what a beautiful day! Great God Almighty, I am a man at last!”. . . I have been cleansed of all my sins. I thought before this moment that I could see but I have been a blind man all my life.
Then I saw [my wife] and my kids and it seemed as if she and I went into each other’s arms as one. . . Then I could see all the wrong and unhappiness I had caused her and the children. . . I experienced all the wrong deeds I had done in life and I truly believe that I have been forgiven. . .
Through my experience, I know that I’ll never use drugs again or turn back to the slick way of life. Years later he reported these changes persisted. He was a changed man.6
If it’s by their fruits ye shall know them, then the fruits of psychedelics look promising, and this is just a small sampling. In fact, the more mystical and transcendent the experience—the more love felt—the more likely there were positive effects from it.7 These experiences are fundamentally sacred experiences.
Benefits of the Psychedelic Experience
Now, one could still claim, as the author does, that all of these benefits are achievable through non-psychedelic experiences. That is true. Those same benefits from meditation or thoughtful reflection can also be attained through psychedelic insights. It goes both ways. The author turns around and says that all of these benefits are mitigated by individuals who abuse psychedelics to escape from reality. This is true of any mechanism that produces change—be it exercise, meditation, therapy, or any other avenue, the potential for misuse exists. Anything can be a crutch, but that does not necessitate that the agent of change is unnecessary or the problem. Not everyone using psychedelics is doing so “as a numbing agent from the pains of nihilism.” Nor is it the common pattern as the author claims.
Now, as I mentioned before, the benefits can be achieved through other methods. There’s no single method to attain anything in life. That’s the beauty of it. Different things work for different people. And some things that work for some, such as the week-long meditation retreat the author mentions, might not be possible for others who can’t afford to take a week off of work and leave their family behind. There also are plenty of accounts of people who have gotten worse or committed suicide after meditation retreats. There is no panacea.
I’m also not sure the single “psychedelic user” the author refers to as the sole claim that the benefits can be gained without psychedelics is an unbiased authority on the matter. This figure, Scott Locklin opens the piece by saying “Psychedelic enthusiasts are an irritation of modernity.” While acknowledging diverse viewpoints is essential to constructive discourse, the credibility of a source that commences with overt bias and dismissive rhetoric should be critically assessed and balanced with other sources. Locklin claims:
I’ve used the things on and off from teenage years to my mid-30s, primarily for entertainment, but I also attempted various “man optimized” tricks with them that are presently popular. I’m a scientist, at least somewhat capable of reasoning and looking objectively at myself and others. I’m allergic to bullshit.
At the outset he acknowledges that he mainly used them for fun and then for optimization. Not for authentic healing or growth. Of course an individual who from the outset is skeptical of the bullshit isn’t going to have the same results as an individual who goes into the experience with an open mind and humbled before the awaiting visions. Just as someone who goes to church expecting it to be bullshit will not have the same experience as someone who is just looking for the Divine.
It’s worth mentioning Walter Pahnke’s Good Friday Experiment here. In a nutshell, Pahnke dosed a few individuals with psilocybin prior to attending a church service. One of the participants that received a dose of psilocybin was renowned comparative religions scholar Huston Smith, who later said of the Miracle at Marsh Chapel, “The experiment was powerful for me, and it left a permanent mark on my experienced worldview… For as long as I can remember I have believed in God, and I have experienced his presence both within the world and when the world was transcendentally eclipsed. But until the Good Friday Experiment, I had had no direct personal encounter with God of the sort that bhakti yogis, Pentecostals, and born-again Christians describe. The Good Friday Experiment changed that.”8
One other aspect of Locklin’s critique that the author cites needs to be addressed. Locklin claims that “I’ve yet to hear of any sort of improvement in creativity or even a single interesting idea anyone has ever brought back from psychedelics.” This is not an indictment of psychedelics. This is an indictment of Locklin’s own experience and his life under a rock. A significant portion of any of the good music today has its origins in the psychedelic experiences of its composer. If not directly, then the composer was influenced by someone who was influenced by their own experience.
The Beatles and everyone influenced by them grew out of psychedelic influences. The unparalleled band Tool’s works originate from psychedelic experiences. The artist Alex Grey has done some incredible paintings based on psychedelic experiences. Thomas Hatsis, a historian of LSD, has recounted the stories of many scientists during the 50s who would experiment with artists’ creativity under the influence of psychedelics. Steve Jobs cites an LSD experience as being central to his success. Dozens of scientists have made breakthroughs in their work after utilizing psychedelics. And these are just off the top of my head. Further digging can and does show psychedelics as the root of many creative outputs, original ideas, and some pretty damn interesting experiences.
Ego Death and Surrender
The author cites a single critical article of ego death which notes that sometimes people return from psychedelic states with a more intact ego who end up more obsessed with the self, not less. This is true. It does happen. But it is not the norm. Just because Julie Rowe, the infamous Mormon doomsayer, had a mystical experience that went awry and led to an overblown ego does that mean we should throw out any and all Mormon mystical experiences? Obviously not. The same can be said of psychedelic experiences. The set and setting of the experience matters. The individual matters. For many people, the experience of ego dissolution is a way station on a greater path to connection and care for others. I’ve written previously that ego dissolution isn’t the point of the psychedelic experience. Popular culture has taken the concept and overblown and distorted it.
The author makes a brief foray into Buddhism claiming that Buddhism says “the power of the ego can be diminished, but not through ingesting chemical substances” and that Buddhism offers mindfulness which allow for “a voluntary letting go of the ego instead of ingesting chemicals in an attempt to force its temporary suspension.” This view is a product of the Western appropriation and misunderstanding of traditional Buddhist thought and practices. Buddhism doesn’t tout a basic mindfulness practice as the way to let go of the ego. Within the many sects of Buddhism there are hundreds of intense forms of meditation and practice designed to take you through altered states of consciousness to aid in the dissolution of the ego. Buddhism also has little aversion to the use of psychedelic substances. Much work has been done to show how central psychedelics and occult practices were central to Buddhists throughout history.
One final point to address is that of surrender. The author acknowledges that authentic spirituality is about letting go and a significant portion of healing comes from releasing our need to control. This is all true! He even goes so far as to say that he suspects much of the healing from psychedelics come from their ability to “temporarily suspend our ability to impose any meaningful amount of control upon our experience.” But then he has to ruin it by claiming that “Psychedelics momentarily invite an important experience of surrender that Christian mystics have long sought through non-chemical means.” This claim is problematic on multiple accounts.
First, he’s wrongly assuming that psychedelics merely make you lose control for a while rather than giving you an opportunity to surrender yourself to the experience (more on this in a moment). Secondly, he assumes that the Christian mystics’ non-chemical surrender is enduring when in fact, it is not. It is an evolutionary process that they sometimes succeed at and sometimes fail at. The successes result in beautiful experiences and the failures result in the strengthening of the ego. This process is exactly the same in psychedelic experiences.
Psychedelics don’t just make an individual lose control, nor do they automatically give someone access to the divine. There’s a process. This process takes work—both prior to and within the experience itself. One of the most common themes in psychedelic experiences is the death and rebirth motif—of surrendering oneself to the will of the divine, to the experience of it. People resist it. Some people resist it for what feels like years within the psychedelic experience (one of the effects of psychedelics is time–dilation, the individual experiences the space of time differently. For example, I know of individuals who have experienced entire lifetimes within the space of a 12 hour LSD trip. Similarly, time seems to lose meaning and experiences of what feel to be literal eternity are had). The process of surrender is drawn out through that time and requires work on the part of the individual—the same as for the Christian mystic. I’ve got many, many more thoughts on this, but that is a post for another day.
“There is no such thing as psychedelic mysticism.”
Christian believers should not be unsettled over claims around psychedelic mysticism because there is no such thing. Mysticism is traditionally defined as a direct encounter with God, and psychedelics create a fundamentally different category of experience. Natural mysticism is really the only mysticism.
Unfortunately, this author, despite the clear fact that he has never had a psychedelic, feels comfortable dismissing hundreds of thousands of people’s experiences of the divine across every culture in the world for the past ten thousand years as fraudulent. While this may not be his intention, it is exactly what he is doing. This sentiment actively does harm to indigenous peoples and even people within his own faith who might’ve used these substances medically and had profound experiences they are struggling to integrate into their worldview. This sentiment just pushes them out the door and tells them they have no place in Christianity. And sure, perhaps they don’t have a place there (although I’m pretty sure Jesus hung out with outcasts or something…) but it’s a symptom of a larger problem—the inability to really grapple with hard questions and experiences without defaulting to gatekeeping, regurgitating the common refrains within the LDS church, and dismissal. The author, despite claiming in this concluding paragraph that conflating “psychedelic experiences and Christian mysticism only by shrinking the scope of Christian mysticism, pretending it to be impersonal, vague, and nonspecific” is actually doing just that with psychedelic experiences.
If the author sat down with myself, or anyone else who has had psychedelic experiences that were authentically mystical, they would understand that these experiences are life-changing, faith-building, and all-around beautiful things.
Dan, if you ever would like to understand what the experience is like, I’m more than happy to facilitate that for you. I’ve worked for a number of years as a psychedelic integration guide and trip sitter. I’ve got training. And I’ve worked with dozens of active, believing LDS individuals, many of whom have had visions akin to Joseph Smith and the early Latter-day Saints’ visions whose faith became stronger after their visions. My door is always open.
In my ideal world, there would be a healthy discourse within Mormon and broader Christian theology and culture regarding ways of improving individuals’ connection to God through altered states of consciousness, such as those elicited by psychedelics, meditation, fasting, and any other means. It can’t do any harm to have more ways of connecting to God, especially since everyone has different methods that work better for them, just like each person has different gifts of the spirit: some benefit from scripture study more than going to a meeting, others connect better to God when they are with others. Some might be going through a difficult time spiritually and/or emotionally and need to feel connected to the divine, as Joseph Smith called out from Liberty Jail “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (D&C 121:1). Do we deny them a means to connect with the sacred? Do we deny them what works well for them? Religions should be exploring every avenue of connecting to the Divine and psychedelics are one such avenue that deserve further attention.
It’s easy to dismiss a vague conception of psychedelic mysticism as understood by those hippies out there or whomever as not truly mysticism. It’s much more difficult to tell someone within your congregation or an authentic seeker that their psychedelic mystical experience clearly wasn’t from the Divine. The answer to this is more discourse. More engagement with individual experiences. Recognizing we don’t have all the answers.
I’ll end with perhaps the best definition of Mormonism, given by Joseph Smith himself in a letter to Isaac Galland:
“Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft…
Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth… The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.”
For recent work on amanita muscaria particularly see Kevin Freeney ed., Fly Agaric: A Compendium of History, Pharmacology, Mythology, & Exploration (Fly Agaric Press, 2020); Clark Heinrich, Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy (Paris, ME: Park Street Press, 2002) [a book Hales cites in his paper even]; Michael Winkelman, "Introduction: Evidence for entheogen use in prehistory and world religions," Journal of Psychedelic Studies 3 no. 2 (2019): 43-62; William A. Richards, Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences (Columbia University Press, 2018); Carl Ruck, Mushrooms, Myth and Mithras: The Drug Cult That Civilized Europe (City Lights Books, 2021); Carl Ruck, Sacred Mushrooms: Secrets of Eleusis (Ronan Publishing, 2006); Carl A. P. Ruck, Mark A. Hoffman, Entheogens, Myth & Human Consciousness (Ronin Publishing, 2013); Jeremy Narby with Rafael Chanchari Pizuri, Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca and the Pursuit of Knowledge (New World Library, 2021); Don Jose Campos, The Shaman and Ayahuasca (Divine Arts, 2011); Brian C. Muraresku, The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name (St. Martin’s Press, 2020); Hereward Tilton, The Path of the Serpent: Psychedelics and the Neuropsychology of Gnosis (Rubedo Press, 2020); or any of the other thousands of books, papers, and life stories that detail the use of psychedelics for religious and spiritual purposes.
See Dan Merkur, The Mystery of Manna: The Psychedelic Sacrament of the Bible (Park Street Press, 2000); Dan Merkur, The Psychedelic Sacrament: Manna, Meditation, and Mystical Experience (Park Street Press, 2001); Chris Bennett’s numerous articles on the topic; Benny Shannon, “Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis,” Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology Consciousness and Culture (2008): 51-74; Carl A. P. Ruck and Mark A. Hoffman, Entheogens, Myth and Human Consciousness (Ronin Publishing, 2013); Rick Strassman, DMT and the Soul of Prophecy: A New Science of Spiritual Revelation in the Hebrew Bible (Park Street Press, 2014); Rick Strassman, DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences (Park Street Press, 2001); Brian C. Muraresku, The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name (St. Martin’s Press, 2020).
As quoted in Thomas Hatsis, LSD The Wonder Child: The Golden Age of Psychedelic Research in the 1950s, 116–118.
St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Chapter 24, Sec. 6 in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Doubleday, 1964). See also Nelson Pike, “On Mystic Visions as Sources of Knowledge” in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis ed. Steven T. Katz (Oxford University Press, 1978), 214-234; Huili Stout, The Epistemology of Divine Love According to St. John of the Cross, (Dissertation, University of Dayton, 2018).
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experiences, (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1902), 326-378. See also William J. Wainwright, Mysticism: A Study of its Nature, Cognitive Value, and Moral Implications, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), 83-88; Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion trans. R. A. Audra and C. Berenton, (University of Notre Dame, 1977), 210.
William A. Richards, Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences (Columbia University Press, 2018), 116-117.
See for example Jessica Sophie Corneille and David Luke, “Phenomenology, Altered States, Individual Differences, and Well-Being,” Frontiers in Psychology 12 (2021); Roland Griffiths, Matthew Johnson, William Richards, et al., “Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors,” Journal of Psychopharmacology 32 no. 1 (2018): 46-69; Frederick Barrett and Roland Griffiths, “Classic Hallucinogens and Mystical Experiences: Phenomenology and Neural Correlates,” Current Topics in Behavioral Neuroscience 36 (2018): 393-430.
Huston, Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), 101.