I am taken aback by the Christian readers who think that my speculations this week about Michael Pollan, psychedelic drugs, and what those drugs might be telling us about the nature of consciousness and reality, amount to me encouraging people to experiment with them.

I do not encourage that at all! I don’t encourage it because I have a strong sense that those drugs put one into a state of consciousness in which one’s psyche is more receptive and vulnerable to spiritual entities and forces that are actually there. I believe Michael Pollan’s interview subjects who said that good things happened to them on their psychedelic trips. I also take seriously this experienced guy, whose final acid trip went very badly:

These spirits looked much like the strange animals and creatures
depicted in occult books and dungeons and dragons monster manuals.

As intense as this was I was not afraid. Instead it was as much
a feeling of incredible power and evil and I could stand and it was exhilerating. It was then that Keely buried herself beneath a blanket and began screaming ‘I can see the demons around you!’ and I laughed. I was breathing them into the room and my friends were sharing this experience. With a tremendous intensity I summoned up a great figure who’s outline I could make out. This figure was standing in a circle and there was a gateway behind it. I could see a three headed dog and other smaller demonic creatures behind the great figure but it was forcing those creatures back through the gateway as they tried to escape into the house.

The figure itself was immensely beautiful. It was so evil yet so compellingly elegant and beautiful. It was wingless but it had horns and I could make out the facial features of its eyes and nose mouth and limbs although they were but an outline.

Pulsing within this great demon were all of the other spirits that combined collectively as a part of him. Where we would have veins and bone and muscle tissue, the angel of darkness had spirits that gleefully flowed throughout his frame. It was extremely intense. As he moved, the spirits that were making up his internals would constantly change form flicking from one shape to the next in an endless display of transformation.

More:

 As the monstorous form turned to me I was compelled to one knee. At this point my friends were watching intently. moments later though Keely had to watch off and on because she was so frightened she was trying to shut the site out by closing her eyes. Jon was nowhere to be found. Apparently he had left. The demon turned to me and outstretched his hand and flexed with great might as a display of power. His face flew off toward me and through me and this continued for a split second but it felt like hours. Gradually his form diminished as the ember from the incense stick burned out and the smoke was sucked out up the chimney of the fireplace. One by one each of the spirits traveled their way from where the demon form was standing and flew up the chimney. This was the last time I ever did acid.

It was incredible. It was intense. It has led me to the belief that acid is a gateway drug which can allow you to see into other planes of existance that run in parallel as our own, just at a different speed. I don’t know whether this was a mass visualization (3 people saw it including myself) or just a very intense hallucination from a mega dose of LSD and hash but it doesn’t matter to me. If my mind is capable of being that creative to be able to visualize something that intense (no artist could ever paint this.) I doubt it. I believe it was real. I believe and I will never see things the same way again.

Misspellings in the original. That appeared on the pro-psychedelic site Erowid.org.

Here’s an account from the Sydney Morning Herald about a teenager who had an experience with LSD that caused him nearly to kill himself. Excerpt:

At the fund-raising dinner which his parents are attending, Karl is perplexed when his phone begins to vibrate during a speech. Jasmine also grabs her phone, which is lighting up with messages from five different neighbours asking her to call them immediately. The couple hurriedly excuse themselves before Jasmine calls a trusted friend. “Tom’s all right,” she’s told. “But you need to go straight to the hospital.” On arrival around midnight, they’re greeted by a sight that haunts all parents: their teenage son unconscious in a hospital bed, covered in dried blood, with plastic tubes snaking out of his mouth and nose.

The outlines of this troubling story were sketched by Jasmine, who emailed me after reading a Good Weekend story of mine from June 3, in which I described my own (largely positive) experience with LSD. “LSD is like a monster in our house, sucking all the potential and opportunity out of my beautiful son… as well as creating massive stress for the entire family,” Jasmine wrote. “Let me tell you from my experience (and by the way, I am no LSD virgin), that for our precious kids, LSD is plain playing with fire. They can’t evaluate the high levels of risk versus the perceived mind ‘expanding’ benefits, and they are basically ending up, for want of a better word, completely f…ed.”

I believe that psychedelics ought to be studied for their possible therapeutic use. Pollan, whose book is now #1 on the New York Times list, discusses in depth the promise this class of drugs shows for depressed people, addicts, and others. I also believe that we should seriously consider what these drugs tell us about consciousness. But I also believe it’s playing with fire, and not a risk worth taking in most cases.

I have been reading other philosophical articles about psychedelics and the occult, written not by Christians, but by people who encourage the drugs’ use as a gateway to occult knowledge. I’m not going to post links. One I’ve just read is especially fascinating, because it’s about an academic who studies this stuff, and whose group of writers and academics sees the new interest in psychedelics as heralding a final smash-up of the Enlightenment. Their general model metaphysics and consciousness is surprisingly close to pre-modern Christianity’s … but it is occult. Again, I don’t want to post a link, but the Christianity of a medieval like Dante Alighieri, or of a contemporary Orthodox monk on Mount Athos, has a lot more in common with this way of seeing the world than it does, at least superficially, with average suburban 21st century Christianity.

Except a Dante or a St. Paisios the Athonite would clearly see the demonic element in this philosophy. The piece I just read, with its description of existence as an organic whole, direct experience of God, and so forth — it’s all there in pre-modern Christianity. It’s easy for me to see why bored and restless Westerners who think Christianity is about nothing more than dry propositions and moralism, would turn to psychedelics as spiritual seekers. If that’s you, I strongly encourage you to read The Mountain of Silence, an account of a modern-day Athonite monk who explains Orthodox Christian spirituality to the author, American professor Kyriacos Markides.

Markides is a sociologist of religion. As he writes in the introduction (which you can read on the “Look Inside” feature of that Kindle link), he lost his belief in agnosticism and philosophical materialism through his academic study of shamanistic and esoteric religious figures. He says that he explored Eastern religious traditions for years. He assumed that Christianity was withering away because it ignored the spiritual, mystical aspect of human experience. Then a friend on his native Cyprus told him he should go meet and study the holy men of his native spiritual tradition, Eastern Orthodoxy. Many of the things he found appealing about non-Christian spiritual paths were there preserved in Orthodoxy, from the first millennium of the Christian faith.

It’s an absolutely fascinating book, very readable for the ordinary reader. The lesson I take from it is that the people who turn to psychedelics in search of mystical experience aren’t necessarily wrong to want a non-cerebral encounter with the divine, but they are risking far too much, spiritually and otherwise, to approach it pharmaceutically, and outside the bounds of established Christian tradition. You’ll find in Orthodoxy that the monks who are the most spiritually experienced are very strong in cautioning spiritual beginners not to seek too much, too fast.

I need to find a way to write a book about what Orthodox spirituality offers to seekers after mysticism, as a truthful and holy alternative to the spiritual and mental dangers of these alternative traditions. E-mail me with your ideas. I’ll be thinking hard about this all weekend.