Psychedelics and Meditation; Good practice, or a violation of Buddhist ethics?
It seems almost every week we are seeing more research showing the potential therapeutic and healing effects of psychedelic substances like psilocybin and MDMA. For example, in treating PTSD, addiction, and even traumatic brain injury.
For many, there is also a growing interest in how psychedelics may or may not complement meditation practices.
As someone who considers himself a Buddhist (an atheist and secular Buddhist— but Buddhist nonetheless), I must say that a part of me often stops and wonders whether using psychedelics, even in the context of meditation, goes against the ethical training precepts. In particular, whether it’s a violation of the 5th precept around not taking drugs or intoxicants.
Given the growing interest in psychedelics and the large number of Buddhist practitioners who are interested in these experiences, I thought it would be helpful to explore the topic of whether psychedelics and similar substances are considered breaking the 5th precept.
If you prefer your learning experience in video form, check out my recent video on this subject here:
Why is ethics so important in Buddhism?
In Buddhism, ethics is not just important, it’s an essential part in the path to awakening. In the 8-fold path, ethics accounts for 3 of the 8 path factors (right speech, action, and livelihood). Ethics (or sila in Pali) is also one of the three pillars of Buddhist training (the others being dana and bhavana, generosity and mental training).
More than simply a set of rules to follow in order to be a “good Buddhist,” the ethical precepts are seen as steps leading to enlightenment. The more you practice living ethically, the more freedom you will cultivate and experience.
There is a concept in Buddhism that I particularly love called “the bliss of blamelessness.” Meaning, when you live in deep alignment with your ethics, there is a kind of bliss you will experience. Knowing how much of my own suffering is caused from reflecting on past misdeeds, I definitely resonate with this concept!
So, what is the 5th precept?
In Buddhism, there are 5 ethical training precepts or practices. Briefly, the first 4 are to
- Refrain from killing
- Refrain from taking what has not been freely offered (i.e. don’t steal)
- Refrain from false or divisive speech (i.e. don’t lie or gossip)
- Refrain from sexual misconduct
And here’s the 5th precept, in the original Pali:
Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
Which, Access to Insight translates this way:
To refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
And The Insight Meditation Center translates it this way:
To refrain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause heedlessness
Determining what counts as intoxicant
For me, the main question when it comes to the 5th precept is this, “does this substance cloud my mind or lead to heedlessness?”
Whether we like it or not, this is not always an easy question to answer. There are many substances that are in a grey area and not easily classified.
For example, let’s take coffee. Does caffeine cloud the mind. Not really. Maybe a little. Can it lead to heedlessness? Possibly. It kind of depends on how you use it. Take a few too many caffeine pills and you might be a bit careless.
What about a glass of wine? For some people, it’s no problem. Having one glass of wine with dinner is totally fine and doesn’t cloud the mind. For others, just a single sip is too many and leads to a whole world of addiction and trouble.
What about taking anesthesia, or painkillers. Is that ok, even though it clouds the mind? I would argue yes, there are situations where it’s advisable to use anesthesia or pain killers (for example, when having surgery or a tooth pulled).
As with practically all of the other precepts, there are often grey areas, and it comes to a personal exploration around what is onward leading, and what is causing harm and suffering in the world.
What about psychedelics?
So now the question is, what about psychedelics? Are they “against the rules” so to speak?
Well, one argument about psychedelics is that rather than clouding the mind, they are actually allowing you to see life more clearly. That in some ways it’s lifting a veil from your eyes. Many proponents of the psychedelic movement would argue this. While I’m not entirely convinced, I think there’s some validity there.
But what about the question of whether it leads to heedlessness? I would say it really depends on how you use it.
For example, as I explained in my post about my own experience, I felt a deeper presence and awakened clarity while on mushrooms than I have at almost any other time in my life. Rather than leading to heedlessness, a psychedelic can lead to greater awareness and attention if you do it with care.
Furthermore, because I was using it in the context of a meditation retreat (which included periods of practicing metta meditation and reflecting on impermanence), I also felt deepened states of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Rather than hindering or preventing skillful mind-states, the drug was a great support for cultivating them.
The main argument against using psychedelics is that it can be seen as clouding the mind. For some people, this means it’s an automatic “no”, and that’s fine. I think we should respect each person’s decision around this issue. One of the beautiful aspects of the Buddha’s teaching is that we are all the owner’s of our own karma.
Furthermore, another great aspect of the Buddhist teaching is that we shouldn’t believe anything because it is written down in a sacred text, or because your teachers said so, but only if it is true in your own experience should you adopt the view. For this reason, any argument that psychedelics are not allowed “because my teacher said so” doesn’t cut it for me. Rather, I’m more interested in the question, is this action onward leading? Or does it lead to more suffering and ignorance?
When it comes down to it, my feeling is that it’s a personal decision you have to make. Ask yourself why you are taking the substance. I find that intention is incredibly important when using these substances, and will determine whether it’s skillful or unskillful. And make sure you are not taking so much that you do become heedless or careless.
The environment is also important. You can have the greatest intentions behind using a certain drug, but if you’re at a rave where everyone else is high and drunk and making a ruckus, it might be hard to connect with your intention for very long.
If you decide to use mushrooms in a meditation journey, FIRST understand the risks of going on these journeys. If it’s your first time, consider doing it with supervision, like with a friend who you trust, or with a professional guide or therapist who knows how to guide these journeys.
Helpful tips on your journey
IF you make the decision to use psychedelics, here’s a few helpful tips for bringing in into a meditative experience:
- Start small, perhaps micro-dose first, and increase how much you take as you feel more comfortable with the experiences
- Make your space quiet and free from distraction. Put your phone away, log out from social media, and create a meditative environment. Incense and images of the Buddha or inspiring teachers can be helpful
- Download a few dharma talks from teachers you enjoy from dharmaseed.org (One of my favorites is Michele McDonald)
- Also queue up some healing music, especially if you enter periods where you feel unstable or afraid. Here are some that really are truly amazing: Burgs, by Mt. Wolf, Faith’s Hymn, Breathe it in, and Eastern Sun.
And of course, when you’re on the journey, it’s almost always a good idea to let go and float downstream.
p.s. I don’t know if I need to make any disclaimer, but this feels like it might be important to say: I’m not a doctor, and none of this is advice. In fact, you probably shouldn’t do any drugs. Any drug (even coffee) has risks and could lead to serious and harmful consequences. Please take responsibility for any actions you choose to do and know that I am NOT recommending you to do anything. There.. now hopefully my ass is covered.
What do you think? Are psychedelics a big no-no for you? Do you feel they go against the 5th precept? Let me know in the comments down below!