For thousands of years, cultures around the world have been using inebriation/altered states, acheived through ritual starvation/dehydration, mental deprivation, or chemical substances usually, as a means to “enlightenment” or to “attain spiritual harmony” or whatever the buzzword at the time is for having a “religious experience”.  While you and I know that talking to God because you just ate an ounce of mushrooms is no more valid then talking to him on your knees in a church, it’s a fascinating subject for me personally because of some of my own experiences.

Over the years (and especially as a teen), I’ve had my fair share of these ‘spiritual experiences’ through the use of drugs such as LSD, mushrooms, peyote, and other hallucinogenics, as well as through the use of simple euphorics like ghanja.  I’ve felt, seen, heard, experienced things that almost defy my ability to describe them (and been more terrified to the core as well, particularly in the case of LSD — olly and acid just don’t mix folks!).  And while I have never really been religious, and so have never had much drive to attribute these experiences to God, I’ve certainly felt connections with people and nature that I’ve never achieved sober.

When I was about 20, I was invited to a harvest party held by an Afghani professor at my college.  He was a very interesting guy, an engineering professor (which is not my field at all), charismatic as they come, and passionate about everything he did. As an example, after 9/11 when tensions were running high, I was at a public forum at the college — after listening to the ‘reasoned’ arguments on either side debate back and forth, the merits of war, blah blah blah, Tosh finally stood up, shaking with fury, and said “I’m Afghani, and I live everyday with the knowledge that troops from America, my adopted home, are in my old homeland making war, wondering about family and friends, and if they are surviving, and you are debating merit like it’s some dry political topic?  These are PEOPLE!!”, to which one of the panelists of academia responded, apparently just as outraged, “those were people that died in the twin towers and on the flights as well!”, to which Tosh responded (I’ll never, ever in my life forget the lump in my throat) “yes, you are right — one of them was my best friend.”  His best friend, one of his colleagues, was on one of the flights that hit the towers that day.

Anyway, I’m digressing.  Back to the harvest party.  So I’d been invited to the party sort of indirectly.  A good friend of mine was one of Tosh’s best students, and my mom also worked for the college and knew Tosh well — so when the party came up, and my buddy asked Tosh if he could bring me, Tosh said yes, no problem.  This party is perhaps one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been to as an American — so different from our usual cultural gatherings.  For starters, Tosh was slow roasting a lamb on a spit for 10 hours, from noon until 10:00 when we ate dinner.  All the guests were expected to help out in some way or another, so that by the time dinner came, everyone had contributed something (I spent a couple hours working a HUGE cider press — it took 4 or 5 of us big guys to turn this thing, as others cut up apples and tossed them in).  If you played even a lick of any musical instrument, and Tosh knew it, he’d hand you an instrument as the evening went on and you’d be playing right along in the huge ongoing jam session.  Sort of a cross between a gathering of ex-hippy academia (which it was), and a traditional Agfhani feast (which it was).

So that night, around the largest bon fire that I’d ever seen (which we spent all day gathering wood for), I was handed a pipe full of a mix of hand cured tabac, ghanj, and opium (apparently a fairly traditional mix).  Not being a stranger to any of the three, I happily partook, and as it kicked in wandered a bit off from the party to sit on this grassy hill and stare at the moon.

I can’t describe to you well enough the feeling I had.  The air was cool, but not freezing — a sort of warmer than normal air, but still October.  It had that moist, cling to your skin feeling that I’ve never felt anywhere outside the Pacific Northwest, the kind that can chill you if it’s too cold, but at the right temperature just seems to emphasize the fact that you are outside without actually making you cold.  I was sitting on damp grass, about 20 yards away from the fire and the festivities, staring out at a series of valleys running all the way from just below me to the horizon line.  These valleys, which looked like a green blanket that’s been tossed out (with raised folds), were shrouded in mist, while the tops of the hills were above the fog.  With trees lining either side, the way in front of me was clear, looking nothing so much as like someone had mowed a wide swath through the trees, all the way to Mt. Rainier on the horizon.

And right above all of it, just to the left of Mt. Rainier was the moon.  It was already an amazing full moon, bright and clear as only a fall/winter night can make it.  And filtered through my wide eyed gaze (thanks to the opium in my system), it was perhaps the single most beautiful natural sight I’ve ever seen.

I remember sitting there, for perhaps an hour, and feeling what I can only describe as a “spiritual” awakening within me.  I don’t mean spiritual as in some connection to some sky-fairy God, or any supernaturalism at all.  Spiritual in the sense that something inside me, in one emotional rush that seemed to last for hours, knew my place in the world.  I knew where I fit in among nature, and I felt an absolute awe that just floored me, and to this day gives me chills just to write about it.  My experience that night, filtered through the substances in my system, showed me something more profound then anything I’ve ever heard a religious person describe.  There was no one else involved in it, no supernatural entity, and I knew that it was just mine, just internal.

So here’s the question at hand: what do we, as atheists, make of these pseudo-spiritual experiences?  We know their origins.  Psychologists have studied how drugs interact with certain centers of our brains (even proposing that we have a “religion center” as it were, or so I’ve read).  But that’s not my question.  What is it that we do with these experiences, where a religious person might attribute them to a deity?  I personally cherish mine, and many others that I’ve had, but what do you all think?  Experiences like this are a willing subversion of the rational mind for something “deeper”.  I put “deeper” in quotes, because for many of you it probably isn’t anything more than a silly hallucination, something easy to write off as your rational mind works around it.  But are we missing out on some fundamentals by doing so?

I will be honest and say that for me, there is still something that human experiences like this can teach us that science and rationality cannot.  It’s not religious, it’s not supernatural, and it’s not a denial of evidence (such as faith).  It’s just something that Science cannot describe (in the same way that music cannot describe physics).  And even take the drugs out of the experience, what are we missing when we spend so too much energy focused on the ‘why’ without enjoying the experience itself?

Truly, is there something wrong with enjoying and learning from altered state experiences but still maintaining rationality as the “go to” for ethics, life, etc?

Is it even POSSIBLE to describe these and leave out the rational brain-chemical explanations without slipping into something pseudo-religious?

-olly

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