The Late Night Buddhist: Go ask Alice

By Scott Taylor
Reader Columnist

When I go back to small-town Illinois to see my youngest daughter, I stay with her and her husband in their tiny house. It’s not a “tiny house” in the modern definition of being a glorified trailer camper with a pitched roof and wood siding, but rather a tiny house in the sense that if someone passes gas in the kitchen you’re going to smell it in the bedroom. I’m very thankful that they’re willing to put up with me for as long as I want to stay. 

One thing I look forward to while staying with them is the wide range of entertainment available on their TV — something I don’t get much of, and don’t care about, in Sandpoint, but who needs it when you live here? I usually end up searching Netflix for documentaries and off-the-beaten-path shows; of course, when you never watch TV, I guess Game of Thrones would be off-the-beaten-path. One docu-series I found and really enjoyed is The Mind, Explained. Neuroscience and brain chemistry are especially interesting to me.

One episode explores mindfulness and uses scientifically controlled experiments to test and explain the capabilities of Buddhist monks (spoiler: the brains of those who meditate regularly, i.e. the monks, develop differently from and have better neural connections than those who don’t). 

Being a Late Night Buddhist, one might think that episode would be the one I turned to first, but one would be wrong. My first choice was… psychedelics.

The episode explained how various psychedelics were “discovered” (“Good afternoon Mr. Hoffman! Your eyes seem different today!”); how early scientific experimentation produced some promising results in treating anxiety, addiction, etc.; and how ignorance and political ambition led to their prohibition. (I’ll bet Mad About Science columnist Brendan Bobby could enlighten us with lots of great factoids about them — if he hasn’t already.)

One 30-ish man related how he had been diagnosed with cancer and became so terrified of dying that he couldn’t live what was left of his life. He went through a course of controlled psilocybin trips — legal in Europe, where he lived, psilocybin mushrooms were only recently decriminalized in Denver and Oakland — and during one of them said he “experienced dying, and it wasn’t scary.” After that point he was no longer afraid of death and was able to live his life.

The question for a follower of Buddhist philosophy — even a Late Night Buddhist — is whether it’s “proper” to consume such substances. Strict Buddhist teachings prohibit ingesting intoxicants. It has been said, “Intoxicants take you away from reality; meditation leads you to it,” and, “Psychedelics are a shortcut to higher states of mind, but it’s better to get there on your own.”

I read in Be Here Now, I believe, about Ram Dass giving his Indian guru very high doses of LSD — six or eight times a normal dose. According to the guru, and Ram Dass, it had no effect, presumably because the guru’s normal state of mind was beyond the effects of the drug. 

Years ago, in my pre-“Wake TF Up” life, I was prescribed, and made good use of, an antidepressant. (Oh Cymbalta, you’re my hero!) It gave me a lifeline to pull myself up out of the deep, dark hole I’d dug and let me see the sunshine again. But I knew relying on it wasn’t something I wanted to do. So I chose a new path and learned, in varying degrees of success, to take control of my state of mind. If you’re in the same boat, so can you.

We can consciously choose where we allow our mind to roam, or at least to shoo it back onto the right path when it strays. If we choose to send it off on a little psychedelic side trip, so be it. But we should always keep the goal in sight, and that goal of Zen Buddhist teaching is, very simply, be happy!

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