Can psychedelics make you a better person?
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Back in the 1960s, many people thought psychedelics would save the world. Professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now called Ram Dass) of Harvard University had a graph on their office wall, showing how long they thought it would take the entire human race to take LSD and become enlightened.
Psychedelics, it was believed, would save humanity - particularly Western civilization - from its spiritual emptiness, its ignorance of the inner life, its ego-grasping, and its relentless consumerism, conflict and environmental devastation.Terrence McKenna declared, in the 1990s: 'suppression of shamanic gnosis, with its reliance and insistence on ecstatic dissolution of the ego, has robbed us of life's meaning and made us enemies of the planet, of ourselves, and of our grandchildren. We are killing the planet in order to keep intact the wrong-headed assumptions of the ego-dominator cultural style'.
There is a strong claim here that has never been tested: can psychedelics make you a better person? Can they raise humanity's consciousness and improve society?
There have been studies suggesting psychedelics make people more open-minded, which is 'good' in some circumstances, less so in others. Several studies have shown psychedelics can help people overcome addiction. Other studies suggest psychedelics help people heal from depression, by releasing them from rumination and opening their attention up to the world and relationships with others. Some studies suggest psychedelics give us a deeper sense of connection to one another and to nature. And psychedelics seem to reliably trigger mystical-type experiences in Westerners, where they feel connected to God, Universal Consciousness or something, and this makes them less anxious and more open.
All of these could arguably be presented as moral improvements - depending on your moral philosophy. You could argue that if a change in one's personality is caused by a chemical interacting with your subconscious, that's not really a moral improvement, because it's beyond your conscious will or choice (one could say the same of God's grace). But with both types of mystical experience, they are usually not enough on their own. As Ram Dass says, we probably have to put in some hard work after the vision to turn the altered state into altered traits.
Still, no study, as far as I'm aware, has tried to ascertain if psychedelics can help make someone a better person. It's difficult to define and measure such a broad, holistic concept. Research into mindfulness faces the same problem. As philosopher Owen Flanagan explored in his book, The Bodhisattva's Brain, there's a lot of confusion about what exactly contemplative science has 'proved'. Research suggests that certain meditative practices may improve mood and alter the brain in some ways. But that's a long way from proving what the Buddha claimed - that following the dharma would make you a better person and ultimately liberate you from the illusion of the self.
How could one scientifically test whether someone has morally improved?The Dalai Lama said: ‘To know what’s in a person’s heart you need clairvoyance. Or you need to spy on them closely for, say, a year, to see how they behave.' That's doable in a monastery, harder in an academic research lab. You can at least ask participants whether they feel meditation (or psychedelics) has improved their moral behaviour, and then ask their friends if they agree. But of course, they and their friends might have a different definition of 'moral' to you.
What I'm going to do in this brief essay is examine this question from the perspective of cultural history, and look at whether cultures which used psychedelic rituals believed they improved moral character. I will look at the Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greece, and at contemporary Amazon shamanic cultures.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
The most sacred festival in ancient Greece was the Eleusinian Mysteries, which took place at Eleusis outside Athens every September. They were celebrated for around 2000 years, until 392 AD, when the Christian emperor Theodosius closed them down, thereby depriving the west of psychedelic therapy for 1600 years. As Carl Jung lamented: 'what a lack of psychic hygiene characterizes our culture, which no longer knows the kind of wholesome experience afforded by the Eleusinian Mysteries'.
The Mysteries were extremely secret, so we don't know precisely what occurred. But we do know the Mysteries worshipped Demeter, goddess of corn, and told the story of the abduction of her daughter Prosperpine by Hades. This abduction made Demeter withdraw in grief and anger, and the world withered into a wasteland. The Mysteries were thought of as a way of placating Demeter and reconnecting humans to nature, and to each other. They also gave initiates the 'hope of a blessed afterlife', long before Jesus freed us from death.
What do we know of the initiation process? First, there was a moral preparation - initiates underwent a fast (no beans or birds), and a pilgrimage to Eleusis. They washed themselves and put on white robes. In contemporary terms, they set their intention. This moral preparation was absolutely key, according to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:
The benefit of the Mysteries depends on proper place and time: one must approach with sacrifice and prayer, with body purified and mind ready and disposed to approach holy rites and ancient sanctities. Only so do the Mysteries bring benefit, only so do we arrive at the belief that all these things were established by those of old for our education and the amendment of our life.
When they arrived at Eleusis, the initiates drank a potion called a kykeon. Some academics (Albert Hoffman and Gordon Wasson) have speculated this potion contained ergot, a fungus that grows on corn and which contains a form of LSD. Then the initiates embarked on a terrifying descent to the underworld, where they suffered various ordeals, and finally emerged into light. They witnessed some sort of sacred marriage, and the birth of a divine child. And they came away with faith that they would return to this divine realm when they died.
This is the account of Plutarch, who besides being a philosopher and historian was also a priest at Eleusis:
At first there are wanderings, and toilsome running about in circles and journeys through the dark over uncertain roads and culs de sac; then, just before the end, there are all kinds of terrors, with shivering, trembling, sweating, and utter amazement. After this, a strange and wonderful light meets the wanderer; he is admitted into clean and verdant meadows, where he discerns gentle voices, and dances, and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions. Here the now fully initiated is free, and walks at liberty…he is the companion of pure and holy men, and looks down upon the uninitiated and unpurified crowd below in the mud and fog, trampling itself down and crowded together, still sunk in the evils of death, unable to believe in the blessings that lie beyond.
It's worth briefly comparing this to the account of a participant in a 2014 trial that gave LSD to people with life-threatening cancer:
It was just really black…I was afraid, shaking…It was total exhaustion…like an endless marathon…Suddenly a phase of relaxation came…It became bright. Everything was light…It was really gorgeous…The key experience is when you get from dark to light.
The initiates' near-death experience may have influenced Greek philosophy, particularly Plato's description of the soul's journey through multiple lives in order to learn moral lessons. But their psychedelic faith in the afterlife could just be delusion. And does this faith actually make one a better person here on Earth, or just a smug git?
There are some classical accounts that suggest the Mysteries were thought to improve moral behaviour. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century BC, wrote:
The claim is also made that men who have taken part in the Mysteries become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before. And this is the reason, we are told, why the most famous of the ancient heroes and the demi-gods were eagerly desirous of taking part in the initiatory rite; and in fact Jason and the Dioscuri, and Heracles and Orpheus as well, after their initiation attained success in all the campaigns they undertook, because these gods appeared to them.
So the Mysteries supposedly made one more pious and better fighters - you believe the Gods are on your side and immortality awaits. Well, you could say the same of Jihadis or Viking Berserkers.
We should point out that many of the great moral philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome were initiates at Eleusis - including Socrates, Plato, Plutarch, Cicero and the emperor Marcus Aurelius - and seemed to think highly of the experience. Cicero wrote:
Among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth…none is better than the Mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called 'initiations', so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.
Praise indeed - the Mysteries helped civilize humanity and give us the power to live happily and die with a better hope. Do psychedelics make us better people? Cicero clearly thought the Mysteries did.
Aristotle writes rather little about the Mysteries, but he does say that he thought ecstatic cults have an important role to play in a healthy society because, like theatre, they offer people a form of catharsis, which can be translated as 'purgation'. Ecstatic cults help people in civilized societies purge themselves of their inner angst, restlessness, fear and grief. In Jungian terms, you could say that ecstatic cults like the Mysteries help civilized people take off their masks and confront their shadow - all the wild and painful emotions they repress in the name of civility.Aristotle seems to see the Mysteries as a form of physical-emotional therapy - a fragment suggests he said that initiates did not so much learn as suffer. The Mysteries were not a rational lecture, but a full-bodied immersive emotional experience. Others emphasize the emotional journey of the initiation - Aristeides writes: 'the mystics were made to experience the most blood-curdling sensations of horror and the most enthusiastic ecstasy of joy'.
So you could say that the Mysteries, like some contemporary psychedelic experiences, guided people on an emotional journey, which taught them certain moral-emotional attitudes: courage, steadfastness, acceptance and surrender, and above all, humility, wonder and piety. The individual ego is dissolved and one's awareness stands in awe before the divine. This is Plutarch again:
persons who are being initiated into the Mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting, and jostle one another, but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence.
Initiates then emerge feeling joyfully re-connected to nature, to the gods, and to one another. They call each other brother and sister, and are filled with eunoia, good will, the opposite of paranoia. I think this joyful and direct experience of interconnectedness may have informed Greek philosophy, particularly the Stoic idea of the Logos, the divine intelligence which connects all things in the universe together.Certain passages of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations seem to me psychedelic insights - some academics suggest they may have been opium dreams, but they sound a lot more psychedelic to me. He writes:
Frequently consider the connection of all things in the Universe. ... all things that come to pass, exist simultaneously in the one and entire unity, which we call the Universe. ... We should not say ‘I am an Athenian’ or ‘I am a Roman’ but ‘I am a Citizen of the Universe'.
The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. How everything is absorbed into this one consciousness, how a single impulse governs all its actions, and how everything helps produce everything else – spun and woven together .
Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. None of its parts are disconnected. They are arranged in their proper place. There is one orderly, graceful disposition of the whole. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth. There is a sort of perfection to all beings, who are of the same nature, who share the same logos
Such passages will strike a chord with anyone who has undergone a mystical experience on magic mushrooms, LSD or ayahuasca. Is it so far-fetched to suggest this transcendent vision of cosmic interconnectedness was the result of Marcus' own psychedelic initiations?
And these visions weren't just a 'trip' - they deeply informed Stoic ethics, and the idea of accepting the will of the Logos, serving the spark of the Logos within one with right thought and action, and honouring the Logos in everyone else by treating them with dignity. A psychedelic vision of interconnectedness is joined to a practical ethics. Indeed, in Plutarch and Pythagoras' case, the ethics of interconnectedness extends as far as being vegetarian and treating animals with care, which was very unusual in the classical world.
We can conclude, then, that several Greek and Roman moral philosophers had a high opinion of the Mysteries, which I believe centred around a psychedelic experience. They seemed to think the Mysteries helped people become more moral, by guiding them on an immersive emotional journey which taught them piety, steadfastness, courage, wonder, reverence, eunoia or friendliness, and a sense of the interconnectedness of all things. What we don't know is, firstly, if the Mysteries really did reliably do this, and secondly, whether this was the result of the psychedelic drug by itself, or the cultural conditions around the drug.
Ayahuasca cults in the Upper Amazon
I'm now going to discuss the taking of ayahuasca among mestizo tribes in the Upper Amazon, and whether ayahuasca is thought to make one a better person. I will keep it brief, as I don't yet know much about this.
The first thing I want to say is there is a big difference in the cultural and moral expectations that Westerners bring to ayahuasca, and the cultural and moral expectations that mestizo Indians apparently bring (according to my reading). We really live in completely different moral and cosmological worlds, and its naive to think that ayahuasca somehow takes us to their world, teaches us their moral wisdom, or connects us to some transcendent realm beyond our culture. Rather, ayahuasca reflects your own expectations, intentions and values back to you.
The centres where westerners go to take ayahuasca tend to sell them a western-friendly version of what ayahuasca does. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby writes that Amazonian shamans 'are psychologically perceptive and many have adapted intelligently to their new customers. Mimicry is second nature to them. Just as Amazonian hunters learn to sing the melodies of the birds they hunt, Amazonian shamans learn to speak the language that their Western clients understand and want to hear'.
In October, I went to The Temple of the Way of Light in Peru, which is owned by Westerners and employs Shipibo Indian shamans. It sells ayahuasca in very Western terms. In a preparation document which all participants were sent before the ceremony, one reads:
Ayahuasca is a powerful cleansing and purifying medicine that can rid the body of physical impurities, the mind and body of emotional blockages and self-limiting fear-filled patterns that have accumulated over a lifetime, as well as retrieve fragmented aspects of one’s soul due to past traumatic events. The medicine is also a teacher who initiates or accelerates us into a lifelong journey of continual self-discovery, deep personal transformation and remembrance of the divine within us all.
This is clearly presented as a moral journey - we will learn the values of Western New Age spirituality:
The Temple’s ayahuasca retreats are an opportunity to rebalance, cleanse and learn about your true self. You will need personal integrity and courage as you will face the whole of your self, including ‘shadow aspects’…We are deeply committed to providing a safe and caring environment to support you in anything that might arise. During and after the process, perseverance, courage, a strong will, and patience all significantly facilitate the healing journey. The results are highly beneficial with the end goal to come back into alignment with our true nature, find balance between our heart and mind, balance between our sub-conscious, conscious and super-conscious selves, and to reawaken self-respect, self-worth and ultimately, self-love.
Like the initiates of Eleusis, we were told to prepare our moral intention by fasting for at least two weeks before the retreat - no pork, booze, sex, drugs, TV and so on. We were encouraged to meditate as much as possible, to practice the mindfulness, steadfastness, self-acceptance and compassion we'd need on the psychedelic journey. And we were told to prepare ourselves to purge out our emotional problems through vomiting and so forth - it's very similar to Aristotelian catharsis, in that respect.
Now, even though the Temple employs Shipibo shamans, even though they are revered as the main guides and sources of wisdom, we were told very little about how they understand ayahuasca. We had one talk from a Shibipo shaman on the first day, who kept it very vague, telling us the medicine is a poet, who speaks in metaphors, and who works on our head and our heart. That was it. Everything else they communicated to us was through the beautiful songs they sang during the ceremonies.
The Western participants made sense of our experiences ourselves, somewhat guided by the Western facilitators (although they never imposed a particular dogma). We had discussions about what exactly we were encountering - plant spirits, aliens, ancestors, God, our higher self? The general vibe was this was a journey of love, light and healing.
I had very much the sort of experience one would expect a Western, educated, spiritual seeker to have. I encountered my shadow, faced my fears, gained insights into my identity and interpersonal relationships. The medicine fitted well with my existing spiritual practice - the trips taught me the value of Buddhist spiritual tools like staying in the moment, staying conscious of one's body, practicing compassion, and reminding oneself that all things pass. The medicine reflected back to me the intention and values I brought, and helped me to embody them. It's only been two months, but I hope it's helped change me in the way I wanted to change.
When I returned to the UK, I was naturally curious to know how the tribes of the Upper Amazon themselves understood ayahuasca. I read, for example, The Ayahuasca Experience: A Sourcebook on the Sacred Vine of Spirits, edited by Ralph Metzner. But this book focuses almost entirely on Westerners' experience of ayahuasca. And again, it's obvious that the medicine brings people what they expect - a Buddhist has a very Buddhist trip, a Jewish man feels re-connected to his Jewish heritage. I wanted to know how mestizo tribes understood ayahuasca. They've been taking it for centuries, after all. Do they think it makes us better people? If so, how?
I finally came across a book which I've been reading this week, called Singing to Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, by Stephan Beyer, a scholar who lived among mestizo Indian tribes and was initiated by two shamans. Religious studies scholar Erik Davis calls it 'the best book on ayahuasca', and it's certainly the best I've read on how mestizo Amazons make sense of it.
The main thing I learned is this: the mestizos of the Upper Amazon think almost all illnesses, accidents and deaths are caused by sorcery. Ayahuasca is a medicine to cure people from magical attacks, and a weapon to assist attacks (including love-spells). These are the two main things ayahuasca is used for, according to mestizo Indians.
This is so different to the Western understanding of 'Mama Ayahuasca' as this cosmic universal healer showing us our 'true self', guiding us like a loving Jungian therapist to the blockages in our subconscious, helping us realize we're actually a super-talented artist or botanist or what-have-you. No. For mestizo Indians, ayahuasca helps you realize which of your neighbours has cursed you, and it helps you get revenge.
The culture of Upper Amazon mestizos, Beyer tells us, is riddled with envidia, or envy. People don't have much money or resources, they live very closely to one another, they gossip a lot, and they are quick to envy those who have more or do better than them. The principle motive for magical attacks is envidia. When something bad happens to you, you go to a shaman to find out who is behind the attack, to cure yourself, and perhaps to get revenge. Shamans are also constantly attacking each other, out of envy. Sorcery is a form of redress for the powerless, in a culture which prefers to avoid direct confrontation.
Does ayahuasca make you a better person? It can do, according to mestizo Indians. Shamans call it a teacher, a guide, which can show them where someone is hurt, where they have been attacked, what they need to get better. But the spirit of ayahuasca is not necessarily and essentially 'good'. It depends what intention you bring to it. There are curanderas (healers)who study with the plant to help cure people. But there are also brujos (sorcerers), who study to learn how to seduce, get rich, dominate, harm and kill. The path to becoming a sorcerer is apparently quicker and easier than the path to become a healer.
Jeremy Narby notes:
Westerners often approach drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon knowing little about its cultural context. If we take seriously what indigenous Amazonians say, it has a dark side, which they call sorcery or witchcraft. Much of the work that shamans do in their communities involves countering bewitchment. It is striking that when ayahuasca is imported into Western countries, there is no mention of witchcraft and everything seems to be about light and healing.
Indeed, the Temple of the Way of Light mentions nothing about ayahuasca sorcery in its preparatory literature (the tourists would run a mile!) Beyer's book is noticeably absent from its list of recommended reading. In a discussion before our first ceremony, I asked the western facilitators about the possibility of attack by bad spirits - after all, 50% of ayahuasca-takers in the global ayahuasca survey said that at some point they felt under spiritual attack. I was told, don't worry, that's all taken care of by the shamans, they will protect you.
One facilitator did say to me at lunch one day: 'The medicine can feed your ego. It gives you what you want. You can see which maestros are full of ego. Some shamans want power, sex, status, control, glory. You can get into black magic that way.' I felt that one of the members in our group was there to acquire power, and was in danger of going down that black road. Should there be a health warning for ayahuasca - beware the dark path?
The shamanic path in Beyer's description sounds rather like the path of the ring-bearer in Lord of the Rings - the bearer of power is beset by an ever-stronger temptation to use that power to dominate and harm others. Beyer writes:
There is a theme woven through the shamanisms of the Upper Amazon - that human beings in general, and shamans in particular, have powerful urges to harm other humans. The difference between a healer and a sorcerer is that the former is able to bring these urges under control, while the latter either cannot or does not want to…The spirits of the plants may offer the apprentice great powers and gifts that can cause harm. If the apprentice is weak and accepts them, he will become a sorcerer.
Apparently the 'magic darts' a shaman acquires can possess a will of their own, a desire to harm and kill.
Do mestizo Indians of the Upper Amazon think ayahuasca makes you more moral? No. They think it makes you more powerful. The shaman is not considered a more moral figure - they're a morally ambiguous, suspicious, dangerous figure, who can heal from magical attacks, but who can also kill. They play a role in a culture that, judging by Beyer's book, sounds quite unhealthy to me, at least in so far as almost all illnesses and deaths are interpreted as magical attacks by secret envious enemies. This interpretation leads to an endless cycle of attacks and reprisals, and constant paranoia. No wonder Pablo Amaringo, the famous ayahuasca artist-shaman, got sick of this culture (after being attacked by an envious shaman) and abandoned shamanism. No wonder some tribes say 'we have no trouble here, so we don't need a shaman'.
Now I'm not saying ayahuasca can't be a powerful healer or teacher. It seems particularly good at what Beyer calls 'emplotment' - helping people construct a story or myth of their illness and return to health: 'I was depressed, then I went to the jungle and took ayahuasca, now I'm re-born'. 'The medicine is a poet', as one of our shaman said, helping us find symbols, metaphors and a narrative arc.
What I am saying is that ayahuasca reflects back to you the intentions, values and culture that you bring to it. If you bring New Age Jungian spirituality to it, that's what you'll find. If you bring a culture of envidia and sorcery, that's what you'll find. Ayahuasca is a consciousness-amplifier.
To conclude, I don't think we can say that psychedelics make you a better person. Better according to what philosophy? But they can be a tool that helps you reach your cultural goals. If your goal is to become a powerful sorcerer, they can help you. If you want to become a cult leader and serial killer, like Charles Manson, they can help you. If your goal is to unlock toxic emotional patterns to discover the 'real you', they can help you. If your goal is to become a better Buddhist meditator or a kinder person,they can help you.
That's why it's very important to think about the intention we bring and the cultural context in which we take psychedelics. As they become more widely used, there is a danger of individuals or groups getting lost in dark power trips, and causing harm to themselves and other people. I actually think there is something to be said for taking ayahuasca in contexts that fuse shamanic practices with Buddhist or Christian beliefs, and with the firm intention to practice for the good of all beings, to focus on love, forgiveness and healing, not power, status, money, and revenge.
The occasional use of psychedelics can, I think, help us on the path of light and love, by teaching us concentration, self-acceptance, compassion, courage, self-awareness, humility, surrender, awe and love. But there is nothing essential in psychedelics that necessarily leads to these things. And for God's sake, research your shaman before you place your soul in their hands.
For more on this topic, check out Brian Earp's article on psychedelics as moral enhancement; as well as the anthology of essays on psychedelics and meditation, Zig Zag Zen. Also follow the work of Lindsay Jordan, a philosopher at UAL researching this topic in her upcoming PhD: here she is talking at Breaking Convention about how psychedelics could transform academia.