Can Psychedelics Help You Understand the Meaning of Life?
Indigenous tribes have been using them for centuries to get in touch with their divinity. Now science is catching on.
An experience with the divine. It sounds fantastical, doesn't it? Both sublime and surreal, possibly a tad flimsy. But does such a thing exist, and if so, how do you experience it?
We live in a rapidly changing world. As Ferris Bueller famously said, "Life is fast, blink and you might miss it." How, then, can we cheat our way to the front of the line of self-discovery for what is likely humanity's greatest question: what is the meaning of life? There is no Cliffs Notes version for this journey, but there is indeed a shortcut as much as I dislike the term.
The psychedelic experience
What do I mean by an experience with the divine? For every person, the definition varies, but for the sake of clarity, let's describe this experience as the dissolution of ego with a heightened sense of connectivity—connectivity based on one's relationship with nature and/or God. When we apply this definition of a divine experience to scientifically-researched psychedelic experiences, the user experience is remarkably similar.
A study comparing psychedelics users and non-users found that "psychedelic drug users endorsed more mystical beliefs (such as in a universal soul, no fear of death, unity of all things, the existence of a transcendent reality, and oneness with God, nature and the universe)," writes Scott McGreal in The Spirituality of Psychedelic Drug Users. "Psychedelic drug users also said they placed greater value on spirituality and concern for others, and less value on financial prosperity."
Again, it sounds fantastical. It's no surprise then that psychedelics are becoming more mainstream, and microdosing has become a trend from those looking for a creative edge in Silicon Valley to parents hoping to better engage with their children. Not everyone is searching for the divine, so how does a mystical experience come into play for everyday life?
For that, let's take a look at our ancestors' knowledge of psychedelic experiences and the divine.
Used for centuries
For centuries, Indigenous tribes worldwide have relied on plants and fungi for healing, "enhancing community harmony and attuning with Earth's seasons," as Françoise Bourzat writes in Sacred Mushrooms of the Mazatec Tradition: Transforming the Inner Landscape of the Human Psyche. Much of what we know of natural plant medicines originates from Indigenous entheogenic wisdom. According to Bourzat, "Entheogens, which have been considered medicines in indigenous traditions, are still an immensely potent resource for our planet and our human existence, which is in dire need of help, both socially and ecologically."
While there are few exceptions (peyote use in the Native American Church, for example), today's laws are still undecided on psychedelic substance use for religious ceremonies. As the FDA moves forward with clearance for therapeutic use in cases like PTSD, anxiety, and depression, we're left to ponder how and when used in search of the divine will get clearance—if ever. Once upon a time, health and spirituality were intrinsically connected. Local shamans were healers and connectors with the divine.
The psychedelic DMT has been used in South America since pre-Columbian times, while Indigenous tribes in Mexico have used psilocybin for ceremonial purposes since the 15th century. The very word for mushrooms in Aztec and Mayan cultures, teonanáctl, translates to "flesh of the gods," as its primary use was for connecting with God. Similarly, the word "entheogens" derives from the ancient Greek term "becoming God within."
There's no question: Indigenous peoples set the stage for the quest that continues today, that of understanding our place in the universe. American author and CIA-funded botanist, R. Gordon Wasson described a mystical-type experience from his first exposure to psilocybin during a ceremony led by shaman, Maria Sabina: "Your soul is free, loses all sense of time … you know what the ineffable is, and what ecstasy means … the flight of the soul from the body."
How psychedelics work
There may be no fairer question than to ask how in the hell psychedelics lead one to a divine experience.
In his Ted Talk, leading psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths said, "Most people assume science and spirituality don't play well together. But it's not true. Einstein said the most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical; he said it's the source of all true science."
After the Nixon administration shut down research on psychedelic drugs, Griffiths was one of the pioneers who insisted on giving it new life and does so today as the lead investigator of the Psilocybin Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins. His research includes studies on the efficacy of psilocybin in both healthy patients and those with cancer.
In a 2006 Johns Hopkins University study, he found psychedelics induced a mystical experience in about 80 percent of cases. And in his study involving 80 cancer patients, more than three quarters reported significant reprieve from their illness-related depression.
Doctors now use psilocybin to help terminal patients find peace in their final days, and not only for research—in August of 2020, Canada provided exemption rights to four terminal patients to use psilocybin.
For those battling anxiety, depression, or in search of a mystical experience, Griffiths found psilocybin's effects are not short-lived, either. "Vivid memories endure," he said in the same Ted Talk. "In one study, we had volunteers return a month later after one or two high doses of psilocybin and found eighty percent of volunteers in that study reported the experience was among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives. In fact, about 50 percent said it was the single most spiritually significant experience of their lives." Long-term follow-up showed the effects were sustained. In other words, these experiences became life-changing events.
Talking about his psychedelic experiences, author and journalist Michael Pollan told Time Magazine, "New connections are made that could produce new insights, new perspectives, new ways of looking at the world. It's the same effect that ten years of psychoanalysis probably would have, although it didn't take me nearly that long."
So, there it is, the elusive and desired shortcut. Again, I'm not too fond of this term as it implies cheating one's way to a mystical experience. Let's employ what is both mystical and yet backed by science and state that what psychedelics do is provide a wormhole to the divine. And maybe that's the usage intention we need most right now. "The core mystical experience is one of the interconnectedness of all people and things, the awareness that we are all in this together," says Griffiths.
We're offered hacks and shortcuts at every turn. We want to tap into our creativity for work, to better engage with our children, to find relief from depression—to accept death. Psychedelics are not a shortcut panacea, yet they are proven over and again to improve lives, and that in itself is—divine.