Drugs and the Quest for Transcendence

by Theo Poward

I want to talk here about how the concept of transcendence relates to drugs and drug use. I want to explore and challenge conceptions that dominate the discourse around drugs by bringing these two strands together. But I want to do so with a critical mindset. Undoubtedly this will lead to more questions than answers, I am very happy with that. Hopefully this will encourage people to engage with the thoughts here themselves, starting a conversation.

Transcendence

For the sake of this article, transcendence is an altered state of consciousness. One that allows us to rise above, transcend, all stress, suffering, pain. It allows us to see things from a viewpoint that puts everything in its right place, everything is seen as it is, and all negativity and suffering is seen as insignificant in the grand scheme of things. A peaceful mindset, free of ill.

Another way of thinking about this is a comfortable state of intimacy, feeling wholly accepted into something larger than yourself; losing yourself to the larger reality. We see this as sacred and might describe it “as a realm or state of being where the self is indistinguishable from the other and existence is whole, continuous, and immanent… like “water in water.””[1]

This is linked to divinity by almost all theological traditions. The word transcendence is often seen alongside enlightenment. In the Abrahamic tradition this is seen as a reunion with God. In Buddhism this is seen as a removal of the self from the cycle of suffering that defines humanity. In both traditions it is a realisation of the connectedness of reality and a rejection of our alienation from everything around us.

Drugs

Drugs fall into three main categories: depressants, stimulants and hallucinogens. Generally speaking depressants slow you down (Alcohol, Heroin, Opium). Stimulants speed you up (Caffeine, Cocaine). Hallucinogens make you see stuff (LSD, Magic Mushrooms). Marijuana is depressant but, especially in higher doses, can act as a hallucinogen as well.

The first thing to point out is obvious. In defining transcendence as an altered state of consciousness I have already opened a very strong connection to drug use. Drugs are taken by people to intentionally enact another state of consciousness, by definition this is what they do.

Our question is twofold. First, what is the overlap between the feeling of transcendence and drug use. Second, what can we say about it?

Common Uses

The first thing to say is that whilst, drugs are used to induce a feeling of transcendence, the connection is clearly not a necessary one. Drugs are not needed to get this feeling and drugs often don’t induce this feeling.

I want to borrow a metaphor from St Thomas Aquinas to illustrate the most common usage of drugs. Life is like a bow. The string being either tied tightly or loosely. In order to be effective the string needs to be tied tight, otherwise the bow couldn’t make any arrows fly. However the string also needs to be loosened from time to time, because if it is constantly tight, then it is more likely to snap. Whilst a good metaphor for stress and mental health, we can also see how drugs are used here as well. Depressants, like alcohol, are used to loosen the bowstring after a hard days work, and working while drunk, i.e with a loose string, is not very effective. Stimulants, like coffee, are used to tighten the string in the morning before work after it has been taken off the bow while sleeping.

Addiction

Addiction is a huge problem with drugs. But the common understanding of it is largely wrong. Instead of addiction being the drugs overpowering people or people being to weak willed to stop, it seems that it is the person’s situation without drugs that determines whether they become addicted or not. Put simply, drugs are a way of avoiding problems in life, and so the best defense against addiction is a full, happy life. (Follow those two links. Trust me.) To extend our previous metaphor of the bowstring, people either leave the string off the bow because the prospect of dealing with their problems in life is too much, and exacerbated the longer they leave the bowstring off, as in heroin addiction. Or they snap, because the stress of their lives induces them to wind the string too tight, as in cases of adderall or ritalin abuse.

Mental Health

In this way, drugs and mental health problems go hand in hand. We will return to this later. Now we return to thinking about transcendence and drug use.

Religious experience, Drug use and Transcendence

A lot has been written on religious experiences and drug use. There is even a theory that John, the writer of the book of revelation, did so high on magic mushrooms. I want to focus on two places where I see overlap: community and vision.

Community

The common uses of drugs, previously discussed, are usually individual acts. But drug use is also common in large gatherings of people, at festivals, concerts, clubs. And there has been a lot of work done on how these actions constitute some form of ritual for contemporary society. A time where the individual is lost in the crowd. People also describe these experiences with religious language. It doesn’t take much to think of the rave scene in Manchester in the 90’s, the feelings of transcendence that those people felt and the large role that drugs like Ecstasy played in making that possible. The sense of community there, of feeling at one with the whole, is a feeling of transcendence, aided along by the use of drugs.

Vision

So far we have not looked closely at hallucinogenic drugs. These come into the conversation of transcendence when we consider hallucination in the mystical and religious experience. The overlap between hallucinations is obvious. I want to illustrate it simply by including a quote from Aldous Huxley:

“If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant, and if this heavenly, world-transfiguring drug were of such a kind that we could wake up next morning with a clear head and an undamaged constitution-then, it seems to me, all our problems (and not merely the one small problem of discovering a novel pleasure) would be wholly solved and earth would become paradise.”

Huxley’s theory might have some weight to it. Recently “therapy sessions with psychedelic drugs are helping heal the psychological and spiritual woes of cancer patients, alcoholics, war veterans and the seriously depressed.” Not only that but during these sessions “some patients report everything from a greater “oneness” with the universe to visions of Jesus on the cross.”

Conclusion – “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”?

The above quote is from the novel that Huxley is most famous for: Brave New World. The fact is that Huxley was a convert to drugs, after having his own, carefully and professionally monitored experience with them. Huxley was originally staunchly against hallucinogenic drugs; in his dystopian work ‘Brave New World’ drugs are used by a totalitarian regime to control the general populace. People were compelled to “Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology.” For the regime “Stability was practically assured.” 

The fact that we return to is that whilst a feeling of transcendence is a healthy and desirable thing, and it is true that drugs can help us to experience it, drugs are perhaps not the most healthy and desirable way of achieving the experience. Drugs give us the feeling of transcendence, just as they can relax us or wake us up. But they are synthetic, and it must be said that it is both possible and preferable to have the self control to achieve these changes in ourselves without the drugs. It is less dangerous for our mental and physical health.

However, this is not the point that I wish to end on. Just as with addiction, I don’t think the main problem is drugs themselves, but our own desire for transcendence. We must say that the strong feeling of transcendence itself is not desirable in the long term. The value of feeling like we are in a community, or of seeing a vision, of transcending our sufferings and feeling at one with everything is that we learn something that we can then take back and use to improve our daily lives, so that we can then overcome those things which afflict us.

To feel transcendent is a blessing, but for it to turn into a desire for escapism is a curse.

This topic was suggested by one of our Patrons on Patreon. Their support, and the support of others like them, makes Understanding Theology possible.
If you want to join, check us out, and show your support.

Light Walk in October‘ by Hartwig HKD is licenced under CC by 2.0


Comments

comments