Technical Contemplation and Relational Contemplation

I’m reading an interesting essay, called “Psychedelic Contemplation.” It’s in a book called Resistance and Contemplation: The Way of Liberation by James W. Douglass. Douglass is a peace activist who first came to prominence protesting the Vietnam War (he’s still at it, nowadays living in a Catholic Worker House in Birmingham and still writing about nonviolence and Catholic theology). Resistance and Contemplation first was published in 1972, so it has an immediacy to the events and zeitgeist of the 1960s that is interesting to revisit, now almost half a century later. And nowhere is that zeitgeist more fully explored than in the chapter on “Psychedelic Contemplation.”

Douglass considers the prevalence of psychedelic drugs — and the prominent “evangelists” of psychedelics, like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), who proclaimed that LSD and other mind-expanding drugs represented a technological shortcut to contemplation, and indeed to mystical ecstasy. Since Terence McKenna died, I’m not sure if any major figure on the cultural landscape is still beating that particular drum, but certainly back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, folks believed it. Mysticism could be reduced to brain chemistry and, therefore, could literally be prescribed by your doctor and supplied by your pharmacist.

Douglass ponders whether mystical experience and the LSD experience are phenomenologically identical. I personally don’t think so, but even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that they are, it makes no difference with the punchline of Douglass’s argument. He argues that any kind of pharmacological mysticism essentially consists of a technical approach to contemplation — contemplation as a tool, a means to an end (whether that end by enlightenment, happiness, personal empowerment, or whatever). But this is not the same thing as the Christian understanding of contemplation (and mysticism), which is at its core relational — Christian mysticism is not about achieving, but about relating. We contemplate and we enter the mysteries not to master something or attain a goal, but simply for the sheer joy, in the moment, of relating intimately with God, the Divine Mystery. For Douglass as a peace activist, he felt that the authentic contemplation of relating-with-God fostered the peace process, no such social or political consequence necessarily followed psychedelic exploration.

This, for me, sums up neatly the problem with any kind of drug-induced ecstasy. It can be a blast, but do we have any reason to believe that it will in any way transform the person, or make him holy? As Julian of Norwich so clearly states, mysticism exists to foster greater love for God, and the person who more fully loves God without ever having a mystical experience is far ahead of the contemplative who knows ecstacy, but doesn’t know God.

As I said, the “drugs will save the world” message doesn’t seem to be getting much airplay nowadays, and that is, I am confident, a good thing. But perhaps we need to consider if there are other ways we indulge in “technical” forms of contemplation: contemplation aimed at a goal other than intimacy with God. I know that I am guilty of lusting after higher consciousness. Hopefully, if I am ever granted such a transformation, I will prove to be worthy of what I have been given and will order my life and my ethical choices accordingly. But in the meantime, perhaps it will serve my soul (and the cosmos) better if I worry less about higher consciousness and more about receiving the love of God and finding ways to give that love back (or to pass it on to my neighbors). After all, what’s the point of becoming a technical master (of anything), if I have no one to share it with?

Pentecost and Ecstasy
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Is Mysticism Genetic?
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Bill Randall

    Well said. I’d add that the trend for this kind of “spiritual technology” has shifted, with different ends. For instance, there’s Michael Persinger at Laurentian University in Ontario, who uses a “God Helmet” to induce mystical-seeming experiences. The new point’s not that drugs will set you free, or even fun, but that God’s just neurons firing.

  • Magnus Itland

    Good point. I’m using brainwave entrainment regularly, and I can recognize the approximate frequency at which my brain synchronizes during spontaneous meditation with the Divine Presence (around 8Hz in my case). But attuning the brain to that frequency using binaural and isochronic soundscapes is completely different. It is like the room is the same but you are alone in it. (Well, obviously we are never alone, but emotionally speaking that is a decent metaphor.)

  • nemo235

    Psycadelic drugs can aid in the mystical experience, but doesn’t create it. The only people who have spiritual experiences on LSD, are spiritual people.

  • Carl McColman

    And that begs the question: why would a truly spiritual person bother? As Alan Watts said, “Once you’ve received the message, you hang up the phone.”

  • nemo235

    because some of us were young and stupid at the time

  • Carl McColman

    Far be it from me to throw any stones.

  • Frank DeMarco

    > And that begs the question: why would a truly spiritual person bother?

    Back when I was 24, in 1970, I had my only experience of Mescaline. That experience jolted me awake. I suddenly realized that what I had been taking for reality was merely a shell. My college-induced or anyway college-assisted casual atheism was in one afternoon shown to be not only shallow, but silly.

    But I knew that drugs were not the path, if only because you’d never be able to know what part of a given experience was an experience of a greater reality and what part was merely drug weirdness. At the same time, I was unable to return to the Catholicism of my youth. It took many years before I did find a path that seems right for me. But I still see, or seem to see, that it took that one mescaline experience to wake me up from what in retrospect looks like profound unconsciousness as a way of life.

    So my answer would be, if the person already knew he was a spiritual being, he *wouldn’t* bother. But if his unconscious self (or his higher self, his Upstairs self, call it what you wish) knew that he was a spiritual being and his ordinary self did not, a drug experience might be a very effective wake-up call, as it was in my case. The problem of course is that it might just as easily lead to commitment to “drugs as the way,” which looks to me like a terrible wrong road. On the other hand, who knows what someone else might need? I recognize that my judgment about the use of drugs might be more about me than about the experience or path itself.

  • nemo235

    well said frank, I think that pretty much was my experience. I dint have enough sense to know that the drug wasn’t the path. It did awaken me to a whole new way of precieving things. If I could go back in time and find a non drug induced way to change my perception, I would gladly do it.

  • Frank DeMarco

    In 1992 I was fortunate enough to discover The Monroe Institute, whose Gateway Voyage finally provided me the drug-free means of accessing greater mental and spiritual resources. I had known that they must exist, but until I found TMI I didn’t know where.

  • John Musick

    There is a radio program on Minnesota Public Radio called “The Story.” A recent edition featured Paul Stamets, a mycologist who studies mushrooms.

    Stamets tells the story of when he was a teenager, that he was very shy, socially awkward and stuttered terribly. Even as a teen, Stamets was into mushrooms. So one day, he decided to try some psychedelic mushrooms. Taking twice as much as he should he had an incredible experience. Outside, sitting in a tree in the middle of a thunderstorm, he contemplated his life. He decided he was tired of being afraid of people and of stuttering. So he began to say, “stop stuttering” over and over and over. There in the tree in the middle of the storm, Stamets repeated his mantra several thousand times.

    The next day, after he had come down from his trip. A girl he liked was walking toward him. Empowered by his experience, Stamets walked up to her and said something like, “Hi, how’s it going?” without stuttering. Something he never would have done or could have done before. Since his time in the tree, in the storm on the shrooms, Stamets has never stuttered since. {}

    The mind is an amazing mystery. As is the spirit and the soul. All three are intertwined in ways that we’ve only begun to understand.