I read Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry a couple of months ago. It persuaded me to take psychedelic drugs instead of meditate. I’m pretty confident that was not Kornfield’s intention in writing the book. So let me explain.
Here is the basic premise of the book:
Meditative practices (Kornfield is a Buddhist, but the book includes examples from several religions) can produce ecstatic and blissful states, grand unity experiences, ego extinction, samadhi, death and rebirth passages and other kinds of mystical experiences that are one of the goals of many spiritual pursuits. But these states are hard to maintain. The seeker may think his life has been eternally transformed. But then the meditation retreat is over and the seeker returns home from the mountains into the daily life of traffic, work, families and distractions. Not only does the bliss itself grow more remote, but even the realizations and intentions to live a transformed life start to dissipate. Even Asian masters who leave their monasteries to run workshops and teach classes in the west often become prey to sex, money, power and the endless distractions and worries of daily life.
Kornfield reminds us that the ecstasy was only a stage in much longer (and endless?) process of awakening. The next step is to learn to live in the moment, accept the life that you have and appreciate the small things. Learn to a life of community, daily rituals, charity, compassion, sharing, caring for the environment and hanging out with dharma friends. This is the most important wisdom that comes from meditative practices, more important than the ecstasies.
Here is why meditation is like taking psychedelic drugs:
1) The ecstatic experience is temporary, and hard to integrate into daily life. That has always been a big complaint about substance-induced psychedelic experiences.
2) Both can have positive effects on health. Proponents of mediation emphasize its utility in stress reduction, improving brain performance, treating addiction, improving sex and as an adjunct to therapy. The same claims are made for psychedelic substances. Shamanic traditions call the substance medicines, and claim an ability to cure an even wider variety of physical and mental problems. Even clinical studies in the West have had positive results in using psychedelics to treat anxiety, addiction, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cluster headaches and for general psychotherapy (See MAPS, and Heffter Institute).
3) There is a small possibility of negative health effects. Neither technique has any proven physical ill-effects. But a bad drug trip can severely disrupt emotional well-being, especially in people who are already mentally unstable. And excessive psychedelic use can contribute to long term mental deterioration. But some meditators also experience overwhelming upsurges of negative emotions, not to mention long-term frustration and self-criticism when meditation is difficult and not having the effects that are expected. The negative feelings surrounding mediation are usually not so overwhelming as a bad drug trip—but this perhaps has more to do with the fact that many drug trips are taken without adequate preparation, whereas meditators generally have a large amount of self-discipline and awareness of what they are doing. Indeed, some bad nights (accompanied by appropriate purging) can be an essential part of an ayahuasca treatment.
As to long-term chronic effects, moderation seems again to be key. Kornfield mentions several masters who developed serious illnesses. Twenty to thirty years of sitting on your ass without much exercise is not a route to good health. (But, as with frequent psychedelic use, it is also not necessarily a route to bad health).
4) Both claim to provide access to the divine (indeed, the increasingly popular word “entheogen” to describe psychedelic substances means ‘generating the divine within’). They point to states of enlightenment or self-realization. But neither method takes you there directly or leaves you with what Jeb McKenna calls “abiding non-dual awareness.” To reach that state, you have to do some different kind of work. But both can delude you into thinking you have attained or are approaching that state already.
This kind of delusion can be actively encouraged by the proponents of each technique. Drug culture, however, is so fragmented and laden with caveats that I think it is less of a problem. The institutional force and sophisticated tones of contemporary Buddhism and the other meditative establishments are much more misleading. Here is the source of my biggest skepticism of Kornfield.
In another essay that I read a long time ago, Kornfield described the ecstatic experiences as a ‘booby prize.’ The true prize, real enlightenment, was in the next stage of being able to live in this world with enlightened clarity. This is a fairly standard Buddhist and Advaita claim. But the kind of ‘wisdom’ described in After the Ecstasy does not seem to have anything to do with this. Indeed, contemporary American Buddhism as a whole is fairly notorious for having dropped enlightenment as a goal. Kornfield talks of the continued process of ‘awakening,’ ‘realization’, and wisdom, but not enlightenment. He describes the kinds of insights that can come to many people as they become older, not just people who have been meditating for 30 years. As far as I can tell, it does nothing to apply the experiences of ecstasy and mystical experiences into daily life. Instead, it just teaches us to accommodate to the social and material obligations of this world. It is stuff that he could well have learned while earning his psychology PhD. It is a wisdom that is already everywhere even without meditation or ecstasy. (For a more extended critique of ‘consensus Buddhism’ see David Chapman’s blog)
As the tantrika in Daniel Odier’s Tantric Quest says, if the yogi can not leave his cave and be comfortable spending time in town, then the yogi has not yet really awakened. This seems to be the case with most of of Kornfield’s examples. But then Kornfield reframes their falls from bliss and awakening as true wisdom.
I don’t know if abiding enlightenment or non-dual awareness is really a possibility. I won’t know until I somehow manage to awaken to the fact that I am already there (to use the lingo of the genre). Meditation, drugs and ecstatic experiences are, at best, only tools with limited functions in that awakening.
But if I am searching for ecstatic, mind-blowing, self-therapeutic or difficult introspective experiences, I’ll choose drugs over meditation. As far as I can tell, the only reason to undergo years of meditation, muscle cramps, ‘witnessing’ that endless inane chatter in my head, and trying to persuade myself that all those hours were well-spent, is because I have some kind of bizarre work ethic. And even then, there’s no guarantee I’ll get my ecstatic experience. Although the drug experience is definitely easier in terms of time and long-term effort, this does not mean it comes without costs. A powerful experience needs good preparation and follow-up (which could include meditative practices). And it will still be mentally and physically draining.
The illegitimate and semi-legitimate status of psychedelics and entheogens combines with the power of these substances to hit you unawares to produce a much more open interpretive context. If I want to my experiences to be sanctioned and to learn how to interpret them as some kind of progress towards wisdom and better integration into society, I’ll join a meditation group. If I want challenges, confusion, adventure, endless possibility, shifting reference frames, or to just stare into the abyss with awe, I’ll stick with the drugs.