The spiritual community at-large accepts that meditation for the psychedelic explorer is a useful and healthy thing to do. What is less commonly talked about are specifics. For example, how exactly can meditation practice be helpful to people who use psychedelics? What approaches to meditation are likely to be most fruitful? And in what ways do psychedelic use and meditation practice not align with each other? I would like to discuss these questions in this article.
When I was asked to write this piece about meditation for the psychedelic explorer, I had an immediate response. “I don’t know anything about meditation!”
This was both unexpected and fairly amusing. Why? Because I have had a more or less daily meditation practice for the past eight years. This includes practicing up to three hours a day at times. I have also participated in short and long retreats, and sat with a number of contemporary teachers. Following an extremely difficult and destabilizing psychedelic experience in my early 20s I began to meditate. I have found it to be a nearly constant companion and grounding practice ever since.
Nevertheless, I feel that I have barely scratched the surface of meditation as a practice. I hope to retain this ‘beginner’s mind’ for as long as I am able. I ask you to please take this article as some thoughts from an enthusiastic practitioner. Feel free to take what resonates with you into the laboratory of your own experience, and forget about the rest.
An Approach for Everyone
There are literally thousands of techniques of meditation for the psychedelic explorer, from every conceivable spiritual tradition. They number far too many to discuss even a few in detail. Instead, I will present a few possible orientations to meditation practice.
By ‘orientation’ I mean both intention, in the personal sense of ‘what is my goal or purpose in engaging with this practice.’ This includes a sense of the larger context or framework in which practice occurs. By and large orientation is more important than the specific practices we may engage with. Sincerity and clarity of purpose or aspiration will take us further than searching constantly for the ‘right’ technique or set of practices. Below are a few orienting ideas that may be useful when beginning, or reflecting on a meditation practice.
Ground State Training
The first and perhaps simplest orientation to take is to simply approach meditation for the psychedelic explorer within its original context. In the language of the world’s spiritual traditions, this means seeing meditation as a means of realizing what is variously called ‘Consciousness.’ Others may refer to this as ‘God,’ ‘Mind,’ ‘Self,’ ‘True Nature,’ among many other names. All these names point to the part of us that is most truly real, and unmoved by thought, emotion, sensation, or perception.
We cultivate a capacity to remain as our center by contacting what is most fundamental and real in us. Thus we become able to see, feel, and respond to our outer and inner circumstances from a place of equanimity, fearlessness, and compassion. In his excellent book Pharmako/poeia, Dale Pendell terms this approach, ‘Ground State Training.’
If we are going to play in the realms of consciousness that psychedelics afford us easy access to, we must be sure of 1 thing. We must be very sure of the nature of the ground under our feet. The various states and experiences we may find in a psychedelic journey can throw us every which way. So it is crucial to be fundamentally clear about who and what we are. This is just as true when our experience is positive and blissful as when it is difficult.
Mindfulness Meditation for the Psychedelic Explorer
This kind of work may begin with simple mindfulness— mindfulness of breath, of body, of our sensory environment. Eventually mindfulness leads us to the part of us that is always present. The same part of us that is always unmoving, always uncluttered, simple, and content in spite of whatever else may be going on in our experience. By attuning to this part of ourselves, we develop a strong ability to discriminate between the parts of our experience that are useful and meaningful. We also are able to separate the parts that may simply be phantasmagoria or delusion. We also develop the capacity to remain present through mood or feeling states that we would otherwise find overwhelming, unacceptable, or aversive.
Within the context of a psychedelic experience, we develop the sense of rootedness and confidence that allow us to open to whatever material we may be presented with, be it heavenly or demonic. Practices or techniques that support this orientation include most traditional Buddhist practices (vipassana, zazen, Dzogchen), and atma vichara or ‘self-inquiry’ in the Advaita Vedanta tradition. Some contemporary approaches include Loch Kelly’s Shift Into Freedom materials, Adyashanti’s True Meditation, and Judith Blackstone’s Realization Process.
‘Integration’ is currently in vogue in much of the psychedelic community, and rightly so. Perhaps the most commonly asked question coming out of a powerful psychedelic experience is, ‘how do I integrate this into my life?’ There are many excellent tools for tackling this question. For example, meditation, art and journaling work well. In addition, psychotherapy with an open-minded therapist is an excellent option.
It’s important to understand 1 thing for mediation for the psychedelic explorer. Realize that integration is something that happens when we provide space, openness, and availability for it to happen. Integration is not really a process that we can force or even necessarily guide.
When asked a question about integration once, contemporary spiritual teacher Adyashanti replied, ‘Who is the one who integrates?’
In other words, the part of us that feels the need to direct and ‘do’ the process of integration doesn’t actually have any idea how to accomplish integration at all. It’s a mystery. If we choose to meditate, we have to let go of any ideas we might have about what is ‘supposed’ to happen. We also have to let go of what direction our integration should take.
An attitude of openness, warmth, and attentiveness toward the process is optimal. Imagine watching a plant sprout from a seedling, and watering it with our attention without attempting to tell it how to grow. I’m not aware of many traditional approaches to meditation that address this specific intention. Simply making some time to sit quietly each day, with an attitude of curiosity and gentleness is a good place to start.
Typically, meditation and devotional practices are discussed as different approaches to spiritual development. However, I am increasingly of the opinion that this is something of a false dichotomy. Ecstatic chanting, prayer, and movement practices seem to develop concentration and awareness just as much as meditation. Although these practices come with an emphasis on the heart and emotions rather than the mind.
Meditation itself can be an act of devotion. Meditation becomes a turning toward and affirmation of what we feel to be most important. A practice also acts as an offering of our time and attention on the altar of our awareness.
Integration is doubtless an important part of working with psychedelics. Devotion is a necessary ingredient if we wish to really embody the insights or visions we’ve been given in our everyday lives. Without devotion to integrate, we will find it easy to fall back into old habits and ways of living that are not in alignment with our new understanding.
In a devotional orientation, we turn toward the source of transformation, which we may not even be able to see or feel, and offer ourselves up to it. It’s as if we are saying ‘Here I am, do what you will with me.’ This may sound unappealing to some. But at the end of the day we must be willing to do 1 of 2 things. We must be willing to surrender either our sense of control over the process of transformation, or our tendency to appropriate our experiences for the gratification of our self-image (“Let me tell you about my amazing ayahuasca journey!”). If we do neither, we are still engaged in an ego game. In order to stop playing this game, at some point we have to be willing to let a force bigger than our own self-will take charge.
Devotion is the work of learning to trust this force. Some approaches that I have found helpful in this regard have been kirtan and zikr. These are both ecstatic chanting practices in Hinduism and Sufism, respectively. Other helpful approaches include contact with the prayer services of traditional religions, and Centering Prayer, a modern development of Christian contemplative practice.
Finally, a note of caution. I have heard a piece of folk psychology many times in the psychedelic community. This folk psychology says that ‘meditation and psychedelics do the same thing, but meditation is the slower, gentler way to get there.’ Psychedelics are intended to be a compliment to meditation practice. but I think there are ways in which psychedelics and meditation are aligned with each other, and ways they are not.
Be Wary of Expectations
Meditation and psychedelics are similar in the sense that both can lead to an increased sense of openness, wonder, and peace with oneself and the universe. However, we will be aimed in the wrong direction if we have expectations. Expecting to have fantastical experiences, visions, or anything other than the simple fact of sitting and breathing is the wrong way to approach a practice.
Any pursuit of a particular state, even elevated, expanded, or ‘spiritual’ states of consciousness, is still an attempt to escape what’s present in this moment. These experiences can be healing, transcendent, and powerful, but they don’t last. At some point we will have to give up the idea that we can arrive at some final bliss point, where all of our worldly sorrows will never return.
I’m not just picking on psychedelic users here. Experienced meditators and spiritual practitioners of all stripes have to contend with this tendency as well. Whatever is showing up in this moment is what we have to work with. In this sense, psychedelic experiences are no different than everyday life. They can be more intense and still be composed of the same ups and downs, pleasure and pain, as a day at the office or the beach.
At its core, meditation for the psychedelic explorer is about accepting what is, as it is, without argument or interpretation. When we do this deeply, we can contact a vast and limitless space in which all of our psychedelic or mundane experiences, arise and disappear. At some point, even the concept of meditation may disappear, leaving us in the simple flow of our own lives, unobstructed by grasping or resistance. If we make our guiding star that kind of acceptance, no matter what kind of experience we are having, we won’t go far off course.
References and further reading:
- Adyashanti. (2013). The Impact of Awakening. Open Gate Sangha.
- Adyashanti. (2006). True Meditation. Sounds True.
- Blackstone, Judith. (2012). Belonging Here: A Guide for the Spiritually Sensitive Person. Sounds True.
- Chodron, Pema. (2013). How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind. Sounds True.
- Goldstein, Joseph. (1976). The Experience of Insight: A Simple & Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation. Shambhala Publications.
- Kelly, Loch. (2015). Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness. Sounds True.
- Pendell, Dale. (2010). Pharmako/poeia: Power Plants, Poisons, and Herbcraft. North Atlantic Books.
- Ramana, Maharshi. (1972) The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi. Shambhala Publications.