Drug Use and Brain Chemistry
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on the Morality of Personal Drug Use. Read other perspectives here.
Many Pagan traditions use, have used, or could use mind-altering substances. Shamanic traditions are the most obvious, but we have archaeological evidence to suggest that Celtic herbal brews might also have messed with your head. From the oracles at Delphi getting high on cave fumes, to the teaching plants of South America, Pagans have used nature to change consciousness. Why should this be an ethical issue?
For me, the important point is that we're talking about nature. Everything we have is made from the planet, and even our most synthetic, human-made drugs come ultimately from the natural world. Furthermore, drugs only work because they are able to trigger a bodily reaction. It's not wholly accurate to think of a drug as something that comes in from outside and does something to you. Drugs are only able to change your perceptions because they interact with your brain chemistry. You are part of a process.
Anything that can be achieved by taking a substance can also be achieved by other means. Thus if you look at shamanic cultures, you'll find all manner of other approaches in the mix, too. Sweat lodges, dancing, drumming, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, fasting -- they will all impact your brain chemistry and therefore your consciousness. Meditation and prayer also impact your consciousness. They are slower routes to a changed perspective, and it takes time to really learn how to use them, but the control gained is different from the more random effects of imbibing a substance.
What is a drug, then? Most of our attitude to drugs is shaped by modern law. Although we don't always think of them as "drugs," alcohol and tobacco should fall into that category. Were they discovered today, they would probably be illegal. Go back to medieval times, and it was perfectly normal for children to drink weak beer. Where we draw the line between a "drug" and a "food" or a "medicine" is not absolute, in any sense.
If you normally drink tea or coffee, try totally quitting for a few days, and find out what happens to your body and mind. Try cutting refined sugars out of your diet for a while and see what changes. Try having a huge sugar hit (not too often or you court diabetes!) and see how you change and your perceptions change. If you are an omnivore, try doing without meat for a couple of weeks and see what is different. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you can mess with other aspects of your diet (meat may make you ill!). Eat a lot of spicy chili and watch for the endorphin high that follows. You can get that high from a workout, too.
We are in relationship with everything we experience. Our brain chemistry is affected by everything we eat, how we use our bodies, and the thoughts we think. I find it a bit of a nonsense to designate a select few substances as illegal and dangerous and to ignore the consequences of how we interact with everything else.
Nimue Brown is a Druid, comics creator, and author whose recent publications include Druidry and Meditation and a poetry collection entitled Lost Bards and Dreamers. Her further writings on Druidry can be found at her blog Druid Life and her webcomic (illustrated by her husband Tom) is hosted at Hopeless Maine.com. Nimue also writes the Patheos premium blog Pagan Leadership, providing group leaders and facilitators with practical leadership resources.