Buddhism and psychedelics have a long and mixed history in the West. Overall, the question of how psychedelics and Buddhism mix—and how, when, and whether these experiences benefit the practitioner’s Buddhist and spiritual path—remains a lively one.
I am a lifelong Buddhist practitioner, and beginning in my early thirties, I have had several experiences with psychedelic substances (also called entheogens), specifically psilocybin and ayahuasca.
I have personally found psychedelics extremely helpful on my Buddhist and spiritual path. My experiences are, of course, unique to me, but I hope that sharing and reflecting on them can illuminate some ways in which Buddhist practice and psychedelic experiences might support one another.
Psychedelics and Buddhism: General Background and Caution
To ground the discussion, this section offers general information (not from my personal experience) on psychedelics and their intersection with spirituality, including a caution about the dangers of psychedelics.
General Intersections of Psychedelics and Spirituality
After a history of confusion and boycott in the 20th century, psychedelic use is now experiencing a cultural resurgence in North America, including renewed and rigorous scientific study.
As a mini-summary of some recent results in this field, psychedelics are known to alter people’s beliefs “away from ‘physicalist’ or ‘materialist’ views,” and to directly induce spiritual or mystical experiences. For example, in a study published in 2006, psilocybin delivered in a controlled setting led to the following results:
Twenty-two of the 36 volunteers reported having a “complete” mystical experience, compared to four of those getting methylphenidate.
That experience included such things as a sense of pure awareness and a merging with ultimate reality, a transcendence of time and space, a feeling of sacredness or awe, and deeply felt positive mood like joy, peace and love. People say “they can’t possibly put it into words,” Griffiths said.
Two months later, 24 of the participants filled out a questionnaire. Two-thirds called their reaction to psilocybin one of the five top most meaningful experiences of their lives. On another measure, one-third called it the most spiritually significant experience of their lives, with another 40% ranking it in the top five.
About 80 per cent said that because of the psilocybin experience, they still had a sense of well-being or life satisfaction that was raised either “moderately” or “very much.”
For a detailed, book-length exploration of the current intertwining of Western Buddhism and psychedelic use, read Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America.
Caution on the Danger of Psychedelics
Psychedelics, and mind-altering substances in general, are extremely dangerous.
Psychedelics, and mind-altering substances in general, are extremely dangerous. They can lead to permanent psychotic symptoms, and can take people into terrifying experiences that depress or destabilize us for years. (Less than two weeks ago, I spoke to someone who experienced that life is a hell realm upon taking ayahuasca, and who lived in this experience for several years.)
Psychedelics can cause us to kill ourselves and others. In the week before I was writing this, there were news articles, exactly timed together, about Oregon decriminalizing magic mushrooms, and then about an Oregonian airline pilot who attempted to kill himself and 82 other people two days after consuming psilocybin while badly depressed. The pilot’s statements (which include “I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up”) are extremely chilling and could not speak more loudly to the need for caution around these substances.
As well, mind-altering substances can of course be addictive. Even substances which are not physically addictive could still be abused or overused if we grow attached or fascinated, which can ruin our health, our sanity, and our lives.
In my encounters with mind-altering substances, I have felt I was taking a risk: offering my sanity to these experiences, and hoping to receive it back enhanced—but please, at least, unharmed.
In my own, relatively few, encounters with mind-altering substances, I have always felt I was taking a risk: offering my cherished sanity to these experiences, and hoping to receive it back enhanced—but please, at the very least, unharmed. This has been my personal experience with psychedelics and Buddhism, but that is absolutely not true for everyone—including even for everyone I know personally—and I urge caution.
Some Specific Cautions Around Psychedelics
First, psychedelics are simply never safe for some people, including people with personal or family histories of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Psychedelics are known to exacerbate these disorders when present, and they are also known to cause the onset of latent psychotic disorders.
Psychedelics are never safe for some people, especially people with personal or family histories of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Psychedelics can also interact with our life experiences—such as grief or depression—in awful ways, especially when taken in excessive doses in an uncontrolled setting. The pilot’s story mentioned above is an example, and demonstrates that the results can be not merely disturbing but deadly.
If you are considering taking mind-altering substances, please carefully consult reputable sources on how to do so safely and responsibly. If you’d like a place to start, here is a good overview article from The New York Times.
If you are considering taking mind-altering substances, please carefully consult reputable sources on doing so safely and responsibly.
Psychedelics and Buddhism: Personal Experiences
In this section, I’ll talk about my personal experiences combining psychedelic substances and lifelong active Buddhist practice, broken down by the two substances I’ve tried.
I first took psilocybin in 2019, when a friend from my young meditator’s group gifted me enough for two moderate to large adult doses.
First Psilocybin Experience
The main experience of the first dose was that I entered into conversation with two entities, one male and one female. When I asked the female entity her name, she expressed (not in words but in a feeling) a feeling of exasperation at the question, an eye-rolling quality. We had a fountain in our front yard, and she directed my attention to the sound of trickling water, which was suddenly quite beautiful, and expressed the feeling, Call me that. She also encouraged me to pursue sexual satisfaction, even outside my marriage. I didn’t like that, and I said “What about my marriage vows?” She shrugged, like I was bringing up something trivial. I continued to not like the implied dishonesty, and I felt our value systems were different.
The male entity had a very firm, military quality. At the time, I was making mistakes in parenting my newborn daughter. The male entity told me to look in the bathroom mirror, which caused me to laugh in embarrassment. He told me to do it again, and this repeated until my laughter subsided. I found myself standing at attention, looking at myself quite seriously in the mirror, and I felt that the male presence approved, with the sense that “I had the makings of a good soldier”: not in any violent sense, but in showing up as a good father and husband and family member.
Ongoing Effects of This Experience
This experience helped me become a better parent at a crucial time, but it didn’t lead to lasting changes in my Buddhist practice. However, I do believe the entities I spoke to may have been specific deities from Tibetan Buddhism—I’m not sure, as the male deity I suspect (Chakrasamvara) is a practice I don’t currently have.
Second Psilocybin Experience
My second experience with psilocybin, about six months after the first one, was extremely powerful, and has had an enduringly positive effect on my Buddhist practice.
Throughout the experience, which lasted all night, I felt a very strong bodily joy, which rolled through my body in waves. I found myself physically doing body rolls (the dance move) through much of the night—which, oddly, my wife had commented previously that I was unable to do.
The joy was not only physical or emotional, but entered or pervaded other domains of my experience. In particular, I found that doing math brought an immediate and very strong experience of joy that was both bodily and emotional, like scoring a touchdown might feel in normal life. This satisfaction was inseparable from the truth of it: the truth was inherently satisfying, like how cherries taste inherently sweet. The overall sense was that math feels good to the universe itself—a teeming, all-pervasive joy—and that I got to experience that joy for a time.
Ongoing Effects of This Experience
This experience has had two powerful long-term effects on my Buddhist practice. The most important is that it opened my subtle body. The increased physical sensitivity that I experienced as joy has continued since this experience, and the way energy rises through my body (and what causes it to become blocked, often fear in my upper stomach or heavy concept in my forehead) now forms a very vibrant and helpful part of my spiritual practice. Without knowing much about the topic, I suspect that this experience may have been similar to a kundalini awakening.
Second, the experience that existence might feel good to itself has given me a much more direct sense of the possibilities of primordial goodness—as distinct from the more tentative sense that “life has lots of positives in it, if you don’t get overwhelmed by the negatives.” I’m not sure whether the universe actually feels good to itself or not, but the glimpse of “the-universe-to-itself” has opened my experience of existence significantly, like briefly glimpsing a third dimension within an otherwise flat life.
At the beginning of this month (October 2023), I attended an ayahuasca retreat in Colombia. The four-day retreat included two ayahuasca experiences, called ceremonies, which lasted from 6 PM until midnight on two consecutive days.
The first ceremony was challenging, and overall felt like pressing both a car’s gas and brakes. I gradually became aware that I was bringing an eager, curious, scientific, expecting, comparing, assessing mind to the experience, and that this quality of mind was an impediment. Toward the end of the experience, I got a clear statement from a no-nonsense female energy (more a feeling, with my own words following the feeling), like: “Your ability to think and conceptualize things is fine—it’s a good thing to have—but it can sometimes get in the way. This is one of those times, and you need to both know how to disengage it and be willing to do so.”
I believe this energy was ayahuasca itself (often called Madre Ayahuasca). This energy struck me, in both this and the following ceremony, as a feminine, somewhat brusque healing energy that has no use for and no interest in our concepts—the way an emergency room nurse might ignore your small talk while stabilizing you.
In keeping with this bodily focus, the main enduring effect of this ceremony was an enforced reduction of concept, in the form of a bad headache that lasted throughout the following day. My forehead (the central region an inch or so above my eyebrows) felt like crushed crystal. It was partly a feeling of cognitive burnout; if I took the SATs five times in one day, I might get a similar headache. Throughout the following day, if I tried to think about complex things—to speculate about possibilities, argue a point, or any of the kind of thinking that might “furrow one’s brow”—I immediately felt pain.
Ongoing Effects of This Experience
As I had a second ayahuasca ceremony the following day, I’m unsure what persistent effects this experience had. I can name, however, more ability and willingness to disengage my thinking, assessing, cognizing mind when needed, and a sense of being informed (or even chastened) that this is often needed.
I was worried headed into this ceremony, as I still had the headache, but fortunately it lifted within the first hour or so. This ceremony was extremely powerful and helpful for me.
An initial experience was the sense that I might be able to connect to occurrences from the past or future, if there was something I wished to explore. I wished to travel to the past to directly hear teachings from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who died when I was one year old. I assumed that this would lead to some kind of out-of-body experience, but actually what happened is that the light rain that had begun a few minutes prior turned into a downpour with a full thunderstorm. I have a very acute sense of hearing, and I found that the panoramic sound of the heavy rain, along with the intermittent thunder, was extremely beautiful. I got the sense that this sound was the teaching, and when I listened in this way, I found that each individual sound had the sacred quality of dharma. My bodhisattva name is Chödra Thaye, “Limitless Dharma Sound,” and I felt that I experienced directly how wonderful “limitless dharma sound” actually is—which also felt partly like a statement of affection or encouragement for me on my own path. I also felt clear that this was an experience of connection with Trungpa Rinpoche, especially because of the dense, thundering, wildly magical quality of the storm.
Later, I began to experience a strong psychological light, which manifested in four ways. The first, and I believe primary, was as a field of light, white and with no distinct borders, basically an unbordered field of white light within the space of mind. The other manifestations seemed to bring out elements of this light.
The second manifestation I recognized as the Tibetan Buddhist deity Vajrasattva (Sanskrit “Indestructible Being,” Tibetan Dorje Sempa, “Indestructible Mind”). In practices I’ve done involving Vajrasattva, he symbolizes purity, and I’ve always experienced him as having a cool moonlit quality. In this case, though, he was blazing with white light too brightly to make out the individual features of his face or body (although looking at him was not painful), and was also within a comet-shaped field of the same blazing light.
The images above are Vajrasattva somewhat as he appeared (but all colors would have been white and too bright to see features distinctly, and he wasn’t specifically giving off “spiky” rays of light).
The third and fourth manifestations were a disclike yellow-white sun “standing” immediately behind my back, which then also rolled itself into a tube of light (the size of a post office mailing tube) that ran from the base of my body through the top of my head. Overall, the light was psychological—in the “mind’s eye,” like if you imagine a landscape—but I did notice an odd experience where, when I positioned my body so that the tube of light passed through my eyes (like a flashlight), the effect became physically visual.
As I experienced the field of light, I also began to connect with a variety of confused and potentially harmful energies, which I experienced as being relatively small, usually about the size of badgers, and covered with something like heavy coal dust. I found that I could redirect these energies—almost physically, like judo, but more gently and with smaller creatures—such that they opened up or liberated into the field of light. This was part of a longer set of experiences that were quite wrathful, including times where I found myself making faces that I recognized from Māori haka.
Ongoing Effects of This Experience
The first enduring effect of this experience, so far, is that I feel a strong connection to light, to luminosity, and to Vajrasattva. In retrospect, Vajrasattva has always symbolized not merely purity but more broadly the luminosity aspect of enlightened mind, and this aspect and its many associations across Kagyu and Nyingma Buddhism and the Shambhala teachings are much clearer to me now.
Following the wrathful experiences in this ceremony, I have also found myself much more comfortable with the fourth karma (form of enlightened action in Tibetan Buddhism), “destroying.” This form of action puts an end to things that aren’t working; an example would be taking a drink out of the hand of an inebriated family member. Previously, I knew this action was needed, but to me it always felt violent—like killing something, extinguishing it into oblivion. My experiences helping bring confused energies into light made me feel that destroying, as enlightened action, isn’t extinguishing at all; instead, it’s liberating both oneself and others from painfully confusing situations and into peace and openness, which are among the innate qualities of the light itself.
Psychedelics and Buddhism: Overall Personal Reflections
In my experiences with psychedelics, I’ve developed a few tentative conclusions, which I hope are helpful.
1. Psychedelics Can Support Consistent Buddhist Practice
Each of my experiences with psychedelics is like being shown a subset of spiritual experiences—this or that energy, presence, or quality of mind. However, without an ongoing spiritual practices, I feel that those experiences will not remain, and there won’t be context for them. (Psychedelic users do speak, sometimes piercingly, about this problem.)
To me, psychedelic experiences feel like being shown different parts of the spiritual path, which are a helpful ally to walking the spiritual path in a daily, consistent spiritual practice.
So to me, psychedelic experiences feels like being shown different parts of the spiritual path—this grove of trees, that rest area, this steep hill. Seeing these unglimpsed parts is extremely helpful, and should be an ally to the process of walking the spiritual path, which is not a job for mind-altering substances but for daily, consistent spiritual practice.
2. Grounding in Nonattachment Can Help with Psychedelic Experiences
I find that psychedelic experiences (and drug experiences more broadly) tend very much to show me something: voices, connections, inspirations, and so on. They are very “content-ful” experiences.
What I feel is so helpful about Buddhism is that it doesn’t view content as being the whole story. There is also the quality of space: freedom, nonconcept, emptiness (Sanskrit shunyata), the open, unfixed nature of mind. This balance of form and emptiness—of “content” and its environment and nature—really feels helpful in not getting attached to vivid psychedelic experiences.
In other words, I’ve found it very helpful not to have the impulse to do things like:
- Worship the presences or energies I encountered.
- Try to encounter those energies again, or feel bereft without them.
- Feel uniquely “chosen” or special based on experiences I’ve had.
I feel that the Buddhist training in nonattachment to the occurrences of mind can help furnish a stable base for psychedelic experiences.
Overall, I feel that the Buddhist training in nonattachment to the occurrences of mind can help furnish a wonderfully stable base for psychedelic experiences.
3. Psychedelic Experiences Can Unlock Elements of Spirituality
At times, I’ve found that psychedelic experiences reveal something helpful and true on my Buddhist path, and strongly supported by the Buddhist teachings themselves—and which I fear I never would have seen otherwise. I don’t know, for example, when my body would have unlocked energetically the way it did during my second psilocybin experience, and my spiritual path is hugely richer for it.
Psychedelic experiences have at times revealed something helpful and true on my Buddhist path, and that I fear I never would have seen otherwise.
This ties into a topic that I am fascinated by, which is trauma. I feel that what stops our spiritual paths is rarely a lack of effort—or that we don’t know the right words or concepts—but rather that we are often blocked by our trauma. An example is the hesitation I always had around the karma of “destroying,” which feel traceable to a number of overwhelming experiences I had as a child.
In my experience, long meditation retreats and other spiritual practices can unlock and reintegrate trauma, but they do not do so as quickly as psychedelics can—if everything goes right. Trauma therapy, which I’ve also tried, is definitely safer than psychedelics and is very effective for trauma, but is also comparatively slow and can be quite expensive.
I feel that Buddhism, as I’ve practiced it, does not have enough means for healing our existing trauma. For me, psychedelics are definitely a support in this area.
I feel that a major challenge in Buddhism is that it does not do enough to address our trauma—and the spiritually limiting effects of carrying it. For me, psychedelics have been one major support in this area.
Buddhism and Psychedelics: Summing Up My Experiences
I can say confidently that my Buddhist practice and spiritual path would not be where it is if I had not experimented with psychedelics. For this reason, I hope to continue to explore psychedelics—again, with the hope and the intention of doing so safely.
More Resources on Psychedelics and Buddhism
For a broader look than these personal experiences, I strongly recommend Shambhala teacher Sara Lewis’s exploration of the topic, Buddhism, Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy and the Spiritual Path.
Thank you for reading!