Derivative 13: Abstain from Intoxicating the Mind (The Sober Derivative)
As explained in the the Now Derivative, being here and now is not easy. It takes a mental effort of will to focus our attention on what is actually happening. Intoxicating the mind interferes with this in two ways.
First, it saps our will power. We all know how hard it is to resist temptation when we’re buzzed, it’s often the reason we get buzzed in the first place.
Second, it obscures reality. Even if you are not taking hallucinogens, drugs and alcohol dull your sense of reality. Again, this is often the reason we take drugs. We are not satisfied with reality and so we drug ourselves to try and avoid it. Ironically, trying to avoid it is the problem, and pay attention to it and accepting it is the solution.
Therefore, if we want to avoid suffering, we should abstain from intoxicating the mind.
Unfortunately there is a segment of Buddhism that thinks taking drugs, specifically hallucinogens, is the way to achieve enlightenment. This despite the explicit denial of this by the Buddha himself, not to mention many Buddhist teachers in respected lineages. I am not a Buddhist teacher in a respected lineage, but I do have a lot of experience with hallucinogens, so I am going to add my two lotus petals to the debate.
And no, I’m not going to get into details on my experience with hallucinogens. First of all, it comes off as bragging about how many drugs I’ve used, which is just a stupid thing to do. Second of all, it never answers. When you start explaining your experience with drugs to proponents of enlightenment through drugs, they keep questioning it, getting into detail after detail until they find some reason to reject your experience as invalid. I’ve had a lot of experience with hallucinogens. If that’s not good enough for you, nothing will be, and that’s not my problem.
I remember in high school when my friend Yellow Thunder told me that he had read that LSD didn’t cause any brain damage, it just rearranged the neural connections. I laughed in his face. Okay, maybe I just snorted loudly. I knew LSD caused brain damage, because I could feel it damaging my brain when I used it. Besides, who is to say whether rearranging the neural connections isn’t damage. I’m sure that my neural connections got rearranged as a consequence of getting the spit beat out of me as a child, and I think those changes were pretty gorram damaging.
But my friends willingness to believe in the article he read (and to be fair, my willingness to believe a whole host of equally silly things) represents an important part of being a drug addict. Deep down inside, whether you are willing to admit it or not, you know that your addictions are hurting you and the people who care about you. Drug addicts are willing to come up with all sorts of rationalizations to avoid facing the reality of their own addictions. This is in no way a behavior unique to drug addicts, but I have noticed that they are better at it than most people.
Another telling incident with LSD happened to me in college, after I quit using hallucinogens. I was wandering around campus depressed about something, I don’t even remember what. Probably some girl. I ran into some friends outside the student union, and after talking to them for a few minutes I deduced that they were on acid. They admitted to this, and said they were going to a nearby park to hang out on a tree that over hanged the river that ran along the campus.
I didn’t really want to go hang on a tree in the cold, so they eventually turned to go without me. I made some offhand comment and they came back. We talked some more, but they turned to leave again. Again I made some offhand comment and they came back, but this time I realized what I had done. I also realized that I was enjoying their company, and I didn’t want to be alone that night. So the next time they turned to leave, I made another offhand comment, this time on purpose, and again they came back. But I could sense a tension: they wanted to leave. So I redirected them to the sundial on the academic quad. All night long I manipulated them into staying with me and eventually going indoors where it was warm.
See, it’s not enough for LSD to give you hallucinations. You would never believe the stuff you see on LSD if you were in your right state of mind. LSD also makes you suggestible, so that you will believe what you see. Why do you think the CIA was interested in it? They weren’t interested in trippy lights, they were interested in mind control.
So put it all together. You’re perceiving things that aren’t true, you’re suggestible enough to believe them, and you want to believe them. I could take you out in the woods, give you acid and convince you you’d had some enlightenment experience. Not only would the drug induce you to believe it at the time, but your own pain would make you want to believe it afterwards.
It doesn’t even have to be malicious. Intense feelings of deep understanding are common while using hallucinogens. Of course if you write down that understanding and look at it when you’re sober it turns out to be “the fish is green.” But I could easily see someone experiencing that feeling of understanding, believing it because of the drug, and continually believing it because it works as a rationalization. Then he takes some other guy out in the woods and convinces him of the same thing.
But the bottom line is that LSD is the ultimate escape from reality. Zen Buddhism is the ultimate acceptance of reality. They are two paths going in opposite directions.