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?