When I was initially asked to write a piece about meditation for people interested in psychedelics, my immediate response was “I don’t know anything about meditation!” This was both unexpected and fairly amusing, as I have had a more or less daily meditation practice for the past eight years, at times practicing up to three hours a day, as well as both short and long retreats, and sitting with a number of contemporary teachers. I began meditating following an extremely difficult and destabilizing psychedelic experience in my early 20s, and 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, and I hope to retain this ‘beginner’s mind’ for as long as I am able. Accordingly, please take this article as some thoughts from an enthusiastic practitioner, take what resonates with you into the laboratory of your own experience, and forget about the rest.
There are literally thousands of techniques of meditation, from every conceivable spiritual tradition—far too many to discuss even a few in detail. Instead, I would like to 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,’ and a sense of the larger context or framework in which practice occurs. I think 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. Accordingly, 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 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,’ ‘God,’ ‘Mind,’ ‘Self,’ ‘True Nature,’ and a multitude of other names. All these names point to the part of us that is most truly real, and unmoved by thought, emotion, sensation, or perception. By contacting what is most fundamental and real in us, we are cultivating a capacity to remain as our center, able to see, feel, and respond to our outer and inner circumstances from a place of equanimity, fearlessness, and compassion. Dale Pendell, in his excellent Pharmako/poeia 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 had best be very sure of the nature of the ground under our feet. If we are not clear about who and what we fundamentally are, it is very easy to be thrown this way and that by the various states and experiences we may find in a psychedelic journey. This is just as true when our experience is positive and blissful as when it is difficult.
This kind of work may begin with simple mindfulness— mindfulness of breath, of body, of our sensory environment, but will eventually lead us to the part of us that is always present, 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, and 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), atma vichara or ‘self-inquiry’ in the Advaita Vedanta tradition, and some contemporary approaches such as Loch Kelly’s Shift Into Freedom materials, Adyashanti’s True Meditation, and Judith Blackstone’s Realization Process.
‘Integration’ is certainly the term currently in vogue in much of the psychedelic community, and rightly so. Coming out of a powerful psychedelic experience, ‘how do I integrate this into my life?’ is perhaps the most commonly-asked question. There are many excellent tools for tackling this question—art, journaling, and psychotherapy with an open-minded therapist are excellent options, and meditation is another useful tool to have available.
It is important to understand, however, that integration is something that happens when we provide space, openness, and availability for it to happen; it’s not really a process that we can force or even necessarily guide. Contemporary spiritual teacher Adyashanti, in answering a question about integration, asks the questioner ‘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, and if meditation is a tool we wish to employ, we will have to let go of any ideas we might have about what is ‘supposed’ to happen or what direction our integration should take.
An attitude of openness, warmth, and attentiveness toward the process is probably optimal—it’s as if we are watching a plant sprout from a seedling, watering it with our attention without attempting to tell it how to grow. There aren’t many traditional approaches to meditation that address this specific intention that I am aware of, but simply making some time to sit quietly each day, with an attitude of curiosity and gentleness is probably a good place to start.
Typically, meditation and devotional practices are discussed as basically different approaches to spiritual development, but 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, albeit with an emphasis on the heart and emotions rather than the mind.
Meditation itself can be an act of devotion: a turning toward and affirmation of what we feel to be most important, an offering of our time and attention on the altar of our awareness. Integration is doubtless an important part of working with psychedelics, but if we wish to really embody the insights or visions we’ve been given in our everyday lives, devotion is a necessary ingredient. Without it, 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, if we are not 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!”), 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.
Learning to trust this force is the work of devotion. Some approaches that I have found helpful in this regard have been kirtan and zikr, both ecstatic chanting practices in Hinduism and Sufism, respectively, contact with the prayer services of traditional religions, and Centering Prayer, a modern development of Christian contemplative practice.
Finally, a note of caution. A piece of folk psychology that I have heard many times in the psychedelic community says that ‘meditation and psychedelics do the same thing, but meditation is the slower, gentler way to get there.’ It is intended as a compliment to meditation practice, but I think there are ways in which psychedelics and meditation are aligned with each other, and ways in which they are not. In the sense that both can lead to an increased sense of openness, wonder, and peace with oneself and the universe, they are certainly on the same page. But if we approach meditation practice expecting to have fantastical experiences, visions, or even anything other than the simple fact of sitting and breathing, we are going to be aimed in the wrong direction.
Any pursuit of a particular state, even elevated, expanded, or ‘spiritual’ states of consciousness, is still on some level an attempt at escaping what’s present in this moment. These experiences can be healing, transcendent, and powerful, but they don’t last, and 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, and in this sense, psychedelic experiences are no different than everyday life—more intense, to be sure, but still composed of the same ups and downs, pleasure and pain, as a day at the office or a day at the beach.
Meditation, at its core, 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 experiences, psychedelic or mundane, 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 can make that kind of acceptance our guiding star, no matter what kind of experience we are having, we won’t go far off course.
References and further reading:
- Adyashanti. The Impact of Awakening. San Jose: Open Gate Sangha, 2013.
- Adyashanti. True Meditation. Boulder: Sounds True, 2006.
- Blackstone, Judith. Belonging Here: A Guide for the Spiritually Sensitive Person. Boulder: Sounds True, 2012.
- Chodron, Pema. How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind. Boulder: Sounds True, 2013.
- Goldstein, Joseph. The Experience of Insight: A Simple & Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation.Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1976.
- Kelly, Loch. Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness. Boulder: Sounds True, 2015.
- Pendell, Dale. Pharmako/poeia: Power Plants, Poisons, and Herbcraft. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2010.
- Ramana, Maharshi. The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1972.