The origins of and spiritual practice are shrouded in mystery, belonging as they do to that period known as "prehistory" of which our knowledge knowledge is very limited. The roots of drug use also date back to that primordial era. Equally ancient and mysterious is the link between these two – the use of mind-altering substances as part of the search for truth.
Early accounts of the use of drugs in an attempt to induce spiritual visions or ecstatic trances are mostly connected with the practices collectively known as "Shamanism". The ancient Shaman used a variety of methods to achieve these altered states, including prolonged, repetitive, ritual dancing and / or drumming, sensory deprivation, fasting and the use of hallucinogens found in plants. These techniques were employed to either free the Shaman's
spirit from the body, allowing it to travel in the spiritual worlds, or to call down spiritual entities into the shaman. Shamanic practices of this kind are still to be found among indigenous and tribal peoples in Africa, Asia and South America. Echoes of these practices are found in many different religious cultures and in all parts of the world, with the longing for otherworldly experience driving individuals to explore all the techniques open to them as part of their quest – including the use of substances that fundamentally change the individual's perceptions and bring about altered states of consciousness.
In the late twentieth century, the discovery and popularity of synthetic drugs which appeared to induce visionary or trance states led to a resurgence of interest in the spiritual nature of these experiences. The writer Aldous Huxley, a spiritual man with an interest in Eastern philosophies such as Vedanta, detailed his experiences with psychotropic substances in his book "The Doors of Perception". Huxley felt that the human mind in its ordinary state acted to limit our awareness of higher or cosmic reality, and that drugs could be used to reduce this limiting effect, opening the individual to a new and higher state of being. Huxley's book became a must-read among hippies and counter-culturalists in the sixties, as did works by Dr Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson, both of whom saw drugs as an effective tool for opening people to higher spiritual realities within and around them. Later, in the nineteen nineties, the use of MDMA (ecstasy) as a recreational drug spread rapidly. After the powerful effects of the drug, and users reporting states in which they felt powerful emotions such as joy and unconditional love, the mystical elements of this experience were not trumpeted in the same way as with the LSD experiment of the sixties.
The fundamental question regarding these induced experiences of trance, vision and ecstasy is: are they real?
In comparing the effects of spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, devotional song, chanting etc.) with those of drugs, the key is to examine the effects on the individual not just at the time of the experience but in the days, months and years that follow. Spiritual practice is undertaken for its transformational power, expressed in the learning, change and personal growth of the individual. In different spiritual and religious traditions, this journey of transformation is seen in different ways. The Christian aspirations towards salvation from all sin, the Buddhist is traveling toward enlightenment, the Yogi seeks first liberation from attachment then the realization of his or her oneness with God.
Examine, if you will, two individuals. One has pursued for many years what Dr Timothy Leary called "the chemical route to enlightenment" while the other has engaged in the more challenging practices of spiritual discipline, including including daily prayer and meditation and the renunciation of a worldly life. What differences do you see? Are their attainments of the same order? Have their experiences transported them forward on their spiritual journey, answered their inner questions, bought them inside peace and insight? I leave it to you to make your own observations and decide for yourself.
Let us close with the words of Sri Chinmoy , an Indian spiritual teacher who came to America in the sixties and began teaching spirituality when the hippy movement was in full swing:
"I have spoken hundreds of times on drugs. Here is all I wish to say is that if you have a real coin and a counterfeit coin, but when you examine them, you know that one is real and the other one I have a few disciples who once upon a time were addicted to drugs. They had very high, lofty experiences according to their own understanding and realization at that time. But now these same disciples have been meditating with me for a couple of years and by the Grace of the Supreme they have had spiritual experiences.