Thursday, March 18, 2021

Psychedelics, Meditation, Mystic Experience Again

 I wrote about the topic last month with specific reference to religious experience, as the closing to my short series on newer therapies for anxiety, trauma, and depression.  Recently a friend who is pursuing all this more deeply offered a summary of my idea back to me.  I liked it because it is in some ways better than my own. 

 A physical intervention, whether a massage or ketamine assisted therapy, engages the body in an important way that opens up a person to a way of reinterpreting the world. However, the physical experience is beneficial but not sufficient. There needs to be a schema through which these experiences are presented and interpreted that will allow for sustained change. The physical intervention just creates a privileged moment where these pieces can all connect.

The following is based largely on my reply to him. It's not a new idea so much as a further development or expression.

I think that's quite a good summary, providing a bit of clarity I had not reached myself. 
To repeat some of that, but also build on what you said, I would say that the experiences, powerful in themselves, pretend to be standalone deep experiences.  I think this would include such experiences as had by Christians.  But the experience will be interpreted by other parts of our brains, whether we realise it or not.  If we think we aren't interpreting, that only means we have resorted to our defaults, our priors, unawares.  In that sense the experience is morally neutral, however much it claims to be morally enlightened and advanced.  It is not different in kind from the feeling from a good hike or a beautiful piece of music, but only different in degree, being more intense, and broader.  Broader in the sense of "including more parts of the brain," not "broad-minded."
The interpretation is what is examinable in moral terms, then.
My solution to everything is to read more CS Lewis, so this was reminiscent of his cautioning that we can never be operating from no philosophical assumptions.  If we do not apply ourselves to good philosophy we will have bad.  All societies, and even all subgroups have music.  If we do not have good music we will have bad. (He would fully allow that there might be competing meanings for the word "good" in those and other instances, and is mostly talking about not trying, not being intentional, not thinking very hard as "bad.")
It is similar also to that version of New Atheist that says "I am starting from no assumptions.  I start from a neutral point, I am agnostic about all gods and philosophies." That is simply silly, but it is fervently believed by some who think they are objective.  BTW, Siskind, who was a major player in the online Rationalist/New atheist/humanist/agnostic communities, had a very interesting essay about the disappearance of that online community The New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed


james said...

Direct experience of the supernatural could -- if it is an experience of God should -- create its own categories of thought. If you try to communicate it you may fail: "This is like fear, but not like fear."

So how does one distinguish between a kind of mental short-circuit and an experience of the numinous in someone else? Or maybe even yourself, when you have to rely on the filing system of your memory? Maybe that's why Christianity hasn't been enthusiastic about mystic visions.

Eric said...

One should also be aware that there are more beings in the mystic realm than Christ, and quite a few of them do not have the good of humanity in mind.

That being said - as someone who has had a mystical experience, it's very hard to talk about things that go beyond language.

It does add an appreciation for Wittgenstein - "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Indeed.

Grim said...

I think this post is generally excellent; however, I will repeat what I said on the last occasion, which is that psychedelics vs. mystical experiences (at least those which can be reliably invoked, as e.g. by Zen or Hindu meditation) have been studied semi-scientifically. They don't end up looking very similar in terms of brain states, at least.

@Eric: It does add an appreciation for Wittgenstein - "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Indeed.

Yes, but beware: Wittgenstein meant that conclusion to apply much more generally than you do.