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Conversation with a monk about psychedelics

As I relished some wifi, a beautiful view of Boudhanath Stupa, and freshly-brewed coffee at Himalayan Java, a monk in maroon robes sat down across from me. We began chatting; he had been living in Darjeeling for the past 22 years and had lived in Portland, Oregon prior.

cell phone panorama of Boudhanath

After seeing various orange-clad ash-covered sages in Rishikesh, India who sat roadside and smoked cannabis all day, I have been more curious about whether the alteration of consciousness from say, marijuana, psilocybin, or LSD actually mimics that of high-level meditation. Who better to ask than a monk who once stayed in Portland?

I sheepishly broached the topic. The monk brightly chortled at my hesitation.

“I was once in a meditation hall and the master asked who in the group had tried psychedelics.” He paused. “All but one person raised their hand.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“People who are beginning a spiritual journey often are the type to try this sort of thing,” he responded. “They just want know—“

“—experiment with consciousness?” I suggested.

“Yes, exactly,” he said. “I did psychedelics—so many—when I was younger,” the monk laughed again. “The generation before me did too. That was the hippie movement. I think especially people who are terminally ill or near the end of their lives benefit from it,” he added. "It gives them some sort of peace and connection to a greater force than they may have known during their lives." (Research confirms this claim).

monks at Himalayan Java coffee shop

“Do you feel like these substances achieve a heightened level of consciousness, or just an altered one?”

“Once I knew more about Buddhism and Zen, these experiences of loss of body consciousness and connectedness [through drugs] felt genuine. They were genuine experiences,” he replied.

“Have you since been able to have these experiences through meditating alone?”

“Not really. When I began, yes, I had some, but now it is different, more stable. Maybe as one becomes a very advanced meditator similar things will return, but it is more about cultivating compassion and love than to experience [cool visuals and special effects].”

“As for marijuana,” he continued, “in my day we rarely got the potent stuff, but if I did manage to get stoned, a dullness settled in after that counteracted the clarity I seek and meditation provides.”

He didn’t really have a clear cut answer for me. But as we continued the conversation, his main conclusion about mind-altering substances became evident.

“They may be a genuine experience, but ultimately they are not permanent. The levels you may reach will not stay with you, they may even cause damage, and rarely become a part of who you are as you meditate [without substances] or are reborn.”

This thesis is in line with a response given to one of my best friends, Zachary Schwartz, in a brief phone interview with Deepak Chopra. His full (awesome) article can be found here.

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