There is an image that is conjured up when the subject of mindfulness is broached: a solitary, cross-legged person on a mountain top, or maybe on a mat in a meditation hall, hands clasped in loving awareness. There is yet another image, almost entirely different, of the psychedelic experience: a group of seekers sitting in an ayahuasca circle guided by a shaman, or perhaps a group of corduroy-clad friends out in the forest, drinking mushroom tea.
For some time now, the discourse around each subject has been fairly self-contained: mindfulness in its place, psychedelics in theirs. Certainly, many people who delve into psychedelics when they’re younger later find the path of mindfulness and no longer feel the need to ingest outside substances. There are also many people who enjoy having varied psychedelic experiences, recognizing the abounding spiritual and therapeutic benefits, but have no interest in becoming daily meditators. Then there are those who dedicate their lives to a spiritual path that includes both; one complementing the other, to varying degrees. This non-binary approach—combining a dedicated mindfulness practice that includes meditation, conscious eating, and chanting or prayer, in addition to the occasional psychedelic experience—may simply be a natural outcome of the similarities between the two.
“Spirituality comes from the word spirit, which the dualist philosophers after Plato constructed as an antithesis of everything connected to the physical and emotional realms of our lives,” says Dr. Mira Neshama Niculescu, a mindfulness teacher. “Since then, most of Western intellectual, religious, spiritual and philosophical life has tended to draw us further from the body. Even the term mindfulness, translating a Buddhist meditation concept really meaning deep presence to what is, focuses on the mind.”
“So being mindful is all about the mind. However, spiritual practice happens in the body.”
Only through mindfulness practices that invited her to simply pay attention, Niculescu describes, did she learn to return, over and over, to the body and to the emotions—and only then did she notice a change in the way her mind related to life.
For example, she says, eating mindfully in particular has played a pivotal role in helping her heal and balance the way she relates to food. Having suffered from an alternating cycle of overeating and self-restricting, Niculescu’s relationship to food was emotionally charged—but when she learned to bring compassion to the body by treating it kindly and not over- or under-eating, she was able to reshape the way she related to food and her body on a long-term basis.
Relating to ourselves with compassion is a thread that runs through all of mindful practices. “Just like in meditation practice, the repeated act of paying attention [to what I’m eating] was helping me see patterns, and therefore helping me disentangle myself from them,” Niculescu says, pointing out that methods like making a blessing before and after eating helped her bring awareness to the act, not take food for granted, and feel “interconnected to the universe” by making nature become part of her body. And over time, through these repeated practices, she adds, such as conscious eating (looking intently at the food; discovering it with new eyes; contemplating the journey through sun, rain, earth, and market to get to her plate; chewing slowly one bite at a time and savoring the sensation of the flavor and texture), the way her body-mind related to food starting transforming itself.”
In conjunction with mindfulness, ecstatic practice also offers a glimpse into the fundamental truth of unity consciousness, or the underlying truth that everything is one, writes spiritual leader Rabbi Shefa Gold—who has a devoted mindfulness practice and relationship with psychedelics—in her book The Magic of Hebrew Chant. But she adds that we need to engage in such ecstatic practice responsibly, purposefully, methodically, and with a heightened awareness, which is achieved through the practice of loving intention, and sustained focus; an inner muscle that strengthens over time.
The experience of that truth can strengthen our basic trust, sense of security, and ultimate safety, all of which enable us to move through the world knowing fundamentally that we belong. This makes us more connected to everything around us, more compassionate, and more free to respond rather than react to situations. Gold goes on to say that
what differentiates her own ecstatic practice—which she achieves through deep, devotional chanting—from ‘getting high’ is that through awareness, the impact of her practice is integrated into the fabric of her everyday life.
This awareness is cultivated through discipline, keeping a meta-awareness of the practice’s effects. Gold says she sees it as different from the psychedelic experience in that it is integrated into her way of being, rather than it being a passing state of mind that comes and goes. She infused her practice with the question, “How do I live in the light of this truth that I have glimpsed?”
The subject of integration is an important one. Many people experience some kind of spiritual enlightenment when in a psychedelic state, but are then subsequently dropped back down into their daily lives and find themselves at a loss for how to unite the two. “Mushrooms seem to shut down the commentaries of the mind and give us a taste of direct unmediated experience of a wider reality that is beyond our conceptions,” says Gold, who trips about once a year as to, as she describes, inoculate herself against materialism. “Getting a taste of that unmediated experience shows me what I may be missing when I am in ‘normal’ mode, which prioritizes my thoughts about the experience. Mushrooms show me the richness of direct experience, giving me a compass for my practice.”
The similarities between a mindfulness practice and psychedelics boil down to two elements: engaging the brain’s parasympathetic state and experiencing a sense of self-loss. According to psychiatrist and author Julie Holland, when we are in the parasympathetic state—as opposed to the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic state—we can rest, digest, and repair. We can tend to our social connections and fix any ruptures that may have occurred when we were more stressed. “It is also the only time when the body runs its self-repair protocols, and it’s also the only time that we are in a neuroplastic state where we can learn, grow, and change our behavior,” Holland explains. “Not only the classical psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin, but also DMT, MDMA, and cannabis all enable a highly neuroplastic state, which, combined with integration psychotherapy, can be transformative.”
Thus, a clear and positive analogy between psychedelic substances and mindfulness practice is that both are capable of disrupting self-consciousness in ways that can have lasting and profound healing effects. That is to say, when we are able to view the world and ourselves differently due to an expanded state, and with increased presence, we open to the possibility of receiving profound insights. This shared property of shifting perspectives from the normative was the basis for an interdisciplinary research paper, published in 2018 by Frontiers in Psychology, titled “Psychedelics, Meditation, and Self-Consciousness.” This revolutionary work in neurophysiology and phenomenology was co-written by Dr. Aviva Berkovich-Ohana, a scientist at the University of Haifa. Berkovich-Ohana’s work at the university’s research lab is at the forefront of the scientific study of meditation and psychedelic drugs, and has seen remarkable developments in these two fields, which are both experiencing a resurgence since the Sixties.
“My deepest and most transformative experiences have been through meditation,” Berkovich-Ohana says. “But people have their own spiritual paths, and I think at this stage, everyone knows that there are multiple ways. I don’t think that someone reading this will say afterwards, okay I don’t need to ingest anything else, I’ll just go on a 10-day meditation retreat. It’s a much heavier choice. With the spirit of the times, people often want an easier path.”
Berkovich-Ohana studies both the psychedelic and meditative paths. Her lab currently has projects with control groups taking ayahuasca and psilocybin (both micro and full doses), as well as a group of veteran meditators. The shift that they’re seeing across the board is reduced rigidity of the self, increased flexibility, and de-centering of the self. Meaning that in both groups, there is an ability to have more compassion because the self is not the nucleus of experience; and to adapt to changing circumstances with more ease and less resistance. While these studies are still very much in-process, Berkovich-Ohana says she has noticed that long-term meditation practitioners (who are not necessarily psychedelic users) are able to volitionally switch into a mode that reduces their self boundaries.
“Personally, I’m a meditation practitioner. This is not yet statistical, but it is interesting that something I’ve found with people who are long-term meditation practitioners, is that not much happens to them when they ingest psychedelics, as compared to others,” she adds. “Something transforms in the meditative mind over time—in the way that we perceive reality, in terms of expectations and flexibility.”
One could conclude that a long-term meditator is in a much better position to engage in psychedelics than someone who has never meditated before, and yet they also may not have the desire to even do so, because they are able to enter into similar states on their own. In other words, it may be a moot point.
The University of Haifa’s lab hosted a talk about the predictive mind and what the difference in brain functionality would be between someone who is a long-term meditator and someone who has taken psychedelics. It may have very well been the first time that someone with a scientific theory proposed that a person with a consistent and dedicated meditation practice would not easily get into deep psychedelic states because something happens to the predictive machine of the brain, also referred to as the “what’s wrong mind.” Through consistent meditation practice, the mind learns to settle, and although it is still producing thoughts, the individual has learned to identify less with those thoughts and more with the underlying awareness that is always there, and which is far grander than they are. Anxious or fear-based thoughts, grasping thoughts, fantasies, planning thoughts; the whole “greatest hits list” of the mind can pass like ships in the night. The individual does not have to become entangled or enraptured by them. In essence, there is more choice and more calm.
“I think serious meditative practice that is willing to include, contain, and stay with difficult experiences such as boredom or fatigue, is crucial,” Berkovich-Ohana says. “You first have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”
Both psychedelics and mindfulness can lead to this “nobody” state, termed “ego death”—the state when an individual’s sense of self, and all of the self-referential experiences which help us classify and qualify reality, fall away. What is left is an unfiltered experience of the moment—an arguably more real reality, since the ego is not busy trying to defend against every perceived danger. The ego creates boundaries which are necessary to walk through the world, but can also cause us to feel separated from those around us. Ego death will allow us to feel an unmitigated connection to everyone and everything. What we do with that experience, is entirely based on the personality of the individual.Someone who is drawn to psychedelics may have a higher preponderance for sensation-seeking as a personality type. While certain people might try skydiving or mountain climbing, others seek expanded states within. Regardless, if the drive comes from seeking spirituality and higher consciousness, then that’s one thing; if it stems from wanting to party, or escape difficult emotions, then that’s something else, and could lead to a challenging psychedelic experience.
Both psychedelics and meditation pull the rug out from under the regular sense of self, and if there is trauma in someone’s past, which most of us have to varying extents, then it will show up. This is also true of multi-day meditation retreats. On retreat, a person goes beyond obstacles such as aversion or grasping, and at some point, what arises is unprocessed content. Most of the time, it’s within the window of tolerance and is something the person can cope with, but sometimes it may take them beyond that. With both meditation and psychedelics, embodied trauma can appear as unpleasant sensations in the body (indeed all trauma is stored in the body to varying degrees). But the nature of a long meditation retreat offers the space and support to deal with it. With psychedelics, one can also have that space and support depending on the setting, and whether there is guidance from a trusted trip sitter or spiritual leader.
“Everyone has trauma in their past,” Berkovich-Ohana says. “It’s not just being raped; it can be living with a family that does not allow you to be authentic. Trauma can be so many things and whatever it is, it will come up in both meditation retreats and psychedelic experiences.”
If the benefits of psychedelic experience and mindfulness practice are similar, then it makes sense that some of the pitfalls are as well. As with everything in life, the possible sorrow is equal and opposite to the possible joy. Both psychedelics and mindfulness encourage us to pay more attention, feel more connected, let go of our stiff boundaries and boxes, and to use a phrase, go with the flow. There is a current that flows through every moment; according to mindfulness teacher Adya Shanti, when we reach a state where we are truly in tune with ourselves—not riding each thought train, but rooted in our bodies, willing to feel whatever comes our way—then life becomes less about making decisions and more about swimming with the current of each day. Whether that flow leads you to psychedelic experiences, on a path of mindfulness practice, or both, it’s important to be informed about what you are doing, and with that comes being open to learning more about who you really are, with an open heart.
There is a classic meditation pose that has the individual sitting cross-legged with palms up. This is so the hands remain open to let go, and to receive. Whatever we receive is part of our journey of growth and remembering. But it just may be that the meditators among us will be the ones most able to integrate it.