Natalie Alvarado

Drugs & Leisure

Ecstasy, Two Ways: The Euphoric Link Between Drugs and Spirituality

It’s a strange time in my life. I’ve become like one of those memes, half of my friends are taking one-off trips to the Amazon to try Ayahuasca, and the other half are ringing church bells and getting married. I’m not quite sure what this says about my choice in friends, but it has made me realize something about myself: I’m willingly naive to extremes. While I'm fascinated by them, I haven’t had the urge to try psychedelics, and I can’t remember the last time I thought about stepping foot into a holy house.

I hear them talk about the spiritual, out-of-body effects of psychedelic stints, and I listen to the holier-than-thou explain similar experiences—so what is the difference? If psychedelics and religion can act the same, then how are they sometimes met with judgment from either opposing side?  

In my journey to discover enlightenment, I started with the basics; understanding psychedelics outside of the trippy stories my friends have shared with me. I spoke to Melissa Howey, a California psychotherapist focusing on psychedelic-assisted therapy and transpersonal psychology, for some insight into how one trips: “In an attempt to put it simply, it takes the three major layers of our brain (neomammalian, paleo mammalian, and reptilian) and creates synchronized slow wave (theta) discharges between them." Happy chemicals send messages from the brain to nerve cells—known as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin—get a significant boost, increasing "transcendent feelings like unity, enlightenment and connection to others.”

Not unlike organized religion, achieving a new consciousness via drugs can often includes a shaman guide—especially when it comes to Ayahuasca and KAMBO. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, a shaman quite literally translates to "one who knows." A true shaman leads anyone who enlists their help to have "direct intercourse with the transcendent world that permits him to act as healer, diviner, and the like." 
Why do we choose Apple or Samsung? It’s because one speaks more to who we are, not because they are all that different.
Those who take Ayahuasca with a shaman's expertise, for example, will be guided to (hopefully) achieve experiences such as traveling to other realms, connecting with spirits and self-healing. Not unlike other, more mainstream, religious leaders, shamans use non-chemical means such as meditation, yoga and rituals, to music and visual stimulants. Howey shares that these rituals can “also affect the most important system in the body, the immune system. Community rituals have served as an evolutionary survival tactic of regulating the immune system and creating social cohesion.”

By definition, religious ecstasy is a type of “altered state of consciousness characterized by greatly reduced external awareness and expanded interior mental and spiritual awareness, frequently accompanied by visions and emotional (and sometimes physical) euphoria.” It outlines the same goal as shamanism of achieving oneness with a higher conscience and expanding the mind as psychedelic experiences, but relegated to exclusively religious contexts. Essentially: same purpose, just add God. 

Usually, these experiences within religious practices take place when an individual comes in contact with something or somebody perceived as holy. Depending on the religion, an individual will use different techniques to achieve said ecstatic state. Alexandra Roxo, Transformational Coach and Healer, shared some of her knowledge on the subject: “People have been seeking ecstatic states throughout time. If you have a look at any religious text, you can usually find a very clear search for ecstasy. My favorite place to look is to the Greeks and their rituals that involved mind altering substances, the Sufis and their dance into ecstatic bliss, and the Tantrikas and the journey into oceans of “Samadhi” or ecstatic union with God.”

The most typical path to religious ecstasy, however, consists of four common stages: the first being purgation or getting rid of bodily desires; the second being purification of one’s will; the third, illumination of the mind; and lastly, unification of one’s being or with the divine. As I sifted through examples of religion upon religion, I noticed one simple dividing factor: Some religions freely associate their practice with psychedelics like peyote and the Native American Church, and others do not. Instead of drugs, many religions take a stance that religious ecstasy can only be given to them as a "gift" by the god or holy figure to which they follow, while other religions may promote using psychedelics to enhance or create a shared experience.
Actively anti-drug religions, like Islam and Mormonism, only use the non-chemical means practiced in many psychedelic experiences to achieve said oneness—anything from prayer, fasting, breathing exercises, physical exercise, sex or dancing. Really, the one simple difference between drugs and religion—at least when it comes to the end goal of each encounter—is marketing. “Religious would point to a system and structure of hierarchy and history in place that informs and colors the experience," Roxo explains. "Psychedelic states of ecstasy do not require a framework, a hierarchy, a language of deities or rules or structures.” Why do we choose Apple or Samsung? It’s because one speaks more to who we are, not because they are all that different. Whether someone chooses to go the religious or psychedelic route, might just merely be a factor of their marketable differentiators.

Howey, as she does, shared some further wisdom on the matter: “I truly believe that similar states of transcendence are achieved. Psychedelics give the ability to peak past the veil into the realm of what’s possible. If you read Be Love Now by Ram Dass, he recalls that, while researching psychedelics at Harvard, these peak states of enlightenment can be sustained through spirituality—and so he goes to India and finds this guru. At one point he gives the guru a strong dose of LSD, and it has zero impact on the guru because he lives on that plane of awareness already. He was totally unfazed by it.”

Dass and the guru, as is the human condition, have an innate curiosity to expand the mind beyond what's conventionally known. We speculate about the meaning of life—if there’s more out there than what we live in our day to day. Still, it's up to you to decide if and how you'll get there.

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