I have a secret guilty pleasure when it comes to TV shows: I’m a fan of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I’ve been watching all of this season on abc.com. Needless to say, it is completely unrealistic and bastardizes the idea of love and marriage, although it certainly is fun to fantasize about having my pick of 30 eligible bachelors with dates in exotic locales. It occurred to me recently that the show is an apt analogy for entheogens.
Entheogens are psychotropic drugs used for spiritual purposes. Besides anecdotal use of drugs for spiritual enhancement, there are long traditions of entheogens in several religions, including peyote in the Native American Church and ayahuasca in indigenous Amazonian shamanic ritual. Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, a seminal book on the psychology of religion, gives an account of the author’s own experience with ayahuasca. There’s also this interesting (if quasi-ridiculous) account of ayahuasca use from National Geographic.
The first instance of entheogen use I read about was the Good Friday Experiment, conducted by Walter Pahnke, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School under Timothy Leary. On Good Friday in 1962, a group of graduate divinity students attended a chapel service. Half of them were given psilocybin, the active ingredient of psychedelic mushrooms, and the others received a placebo. Those in the control group remembered a boring sermon. Those under the influence of the hallucinogenic reported that it was a significant spiritual experience which had lasting effect on their spiritual life and ministry, even decades after the experiment.
When I first read about the Good Friday Experiment, it made a huge impression on me. I was still a Christian and at Wheaton College. At that time, a lot of people I knew were praying for a revival at Wheaton (there is a long and hallowed history of campus revivals there, an interesting phenomena for another discussion). When I read about the spirituality-enhancing drug experiment, I recoiled against the idea of such an “easy” spiritual high. I considered revival to be a similarly easy, and therefore less authentic, spiritual experience. I didn’t want spirituality to come easily, just dropped down from on high or stimulated effortlessly by a hallucinogenic substance. I believed that true spirituality, the kind upon which one could build a lifetime of faith, was a discipline. It had to be worked for. I began to pray against a revival, and to persuade my friends to do the same. (I completely take the credit for there being no revival at Wheaton during my time there.)
My religious beliefs have changed completely, but my attitude towards spirituality hasn’t. I still view spirituality as primarily a discipline, a way of looking, rather than a feeling. Transcendental experiences are a dime a dozen, but living in a way that takes into account the full life of the spirit is a daily discipline. These lines from the poem “For Memory” by Adrienne Rich capture the essence of what I mean:
Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out
under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers
of light, the fields of dark—
freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.
Surveys of the Good Friday group show that their entheogenic experience did influence a sustained spirituality, in many cases directly informing the subjects’ ministry. I think that’s probably due in large part to the subjects themselves; graduate divinity students probably already have a strong scaffolding of spiritual discipline with which to inform artificially provoked transcendental experiences. Some of them have even become advocates of the controlled use of entheogens.
Still, I think entheogens are the cheap way to spirituality. They create a neurobiological environment favorable to transcendental experiences, without an implicit discipline of sustainable spiritual practice. In the same way, The Bachelorette creates an environment favorable to romance in which any breathing person would fall in love, without any indication of how to proceed to build a sustainable relationship. It’s rare for such a relationship to last past its TV gestation.