This paper will aim to look at the role of entheogens in religious or mystical trance experiences, and the importance that entheogens hold for connection and a sense of belonging and community with the divine. The word entheogen will be defined, showing some conflicted views of the use of it—more so the implications that might exist with the use of the entheogen. Robert Forte (1997) posits that “direct experience of the divine is a goal of spiritual seekers everywhere” (3) and entheogens may act as a catalyst allowing the human condition to have this direct experience and a feeling of spiritual community, allowing—once more—everyday people the possibility to access, within a culturally specific mode, to the joys of the divine.
If we look at Winkelman (1997) or Maslow (1964), they view altered states of consciousness (ASC) in religious behaviour—almost certainly—as something that is universal to human societies (Winkelman 393, Maslow 19). Taking this inherent idea of ASC, Maslow looks at the issue of religious experience as 'peak experiences', something that is not restricted to merely theistic frameworks (Maslow xi, 19). Maslow's ideas can allow one to take the view that religious, mystical, or peak experiences are inherent to the human condition and that all of these experiences are the same at the core and this has always been the case (Maslow 19). Not only are these experiences similar world over, but the core role of the shaman, who uses these ASC or "techniques of ecstasy" (Eliade, 1964), is as well. To access ASC there are many different ways a shaman or individual can do this: through fasting, water deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, rigorous exercise ("dancing" and "long distance running"), sleep deprivation, drumming and chanting, social and sensory deprivation, as well as taking of sacramental entheogens or psychedelic substances (Winkelman 397).
What is an entheogen? The term entheogen was coined in 1979 to distinguish itself from the connotations of the terms psychedelic or hallucinogen, which were connected to the 60s Hippy-movement and the growing worldwide ‘War on Drugs’ (Forte et al 1). The term entheogen is used to refer to substances which can awaken or generate mystical experiences (Forte 1; Ruck 145). The word seems strange and not-real, but it has a solid semantic basis. Ralph Metzner (1988) objected to the term entheogen, as he saw it as “an unfortunate choice because it suggests the ‘god within’, or divine principle, is somehow ‘generated’ in these states,” Metzner’s experiences led him to conclude the opposite, “the god within is the generator…” (Metzner 1988, 19). This was not the definitions intention, and it seems Metzner prefers the term ‘hallucinogen’ or ‘psychedelic’ for the reason they act as catalysts or tools to allow for the effect of revelation, rather than implying that the substance itself produces these effects (Ott 205). Jonathan Ott argues that Metzner’s interpretation is a misunderstanding of the definition of entheogen and that it literally means “becoming divine within” not “generating the divine within” (Ott 205). Ott continues to argue that not only is it the right term to use “it is consistent and appropriate to speak of religious ecstasy catalysed by visionary plant-sacraments as ‘becoming divine within’ (205). In the end, Ott is agreeing with Metzner that the substances ingested are catalysing or facilitating “an intrinsic capability of human beings”, not as generating the experience themselves in a sense that would cause such experiences to be cheapened (Ott 205. Italics added).
Metzner, however, does raise a valid point as to the problem of word based semantics in dealing with drugs of a psychedelic nature, when trying to put across a valid and well thought out scientific or anthropological argument for the use or history of such substances. It is unfortunate that substances that are entheogenic and used in this context have been grouped up with other substances of abusable natures in the ‘War on Drugs’. The problem occurs when arguing the defining attributes that make up what could be called, or thought of, as a core-common mystical experience. While it is true that Maslow and Winkelman have argued for the core nature of the mystical experience, Metzner (1988) puts forward the idea that people who experience insight, while partaking of an entheogen or even in church or prayer, is not the same as one who can then apply that insight into practice—while this should be obvious it is often not taken into account when talking about the positives and negatives of mystical experience (Metzner 19). Thus, it seems that even though the mystical experience is core to the human condition the application of any insights attained in these states is not: “There is no inherent connection between mystical experience of oneness and the expression or manifestation of that oneness in the affairs of everyday life” (Metzner 19).
The Western church is often distrustful and sometimes openly hostile of spontaneous mysticism; this is even more so if it has occurred through the use of entheogenic substances (Braden 110). The obvious reason is they feel a slipping of power. The church loses the power as the providers, peddlers, and guides of the mystical and spiritual experience (Braden 110). One, then, does not need these middle-people for direct experience with God and the divine; however, it is this problem with contact with the immanence of the divine, which Braden mentions, the church also has objections with (110-11). It was in the seventeenth century that “Catholics were advised that the mystical experience was a gift from God, and was not to be sought after”, like a prize (Braden112. Italics added). What do entheogens offer the ailing faithful of the 21st Century? Entheogens offer them, what could be defined, as a real Eucharist—not a thing of metaphor and interpretation, but a tool to catalyse and propel one to experience divine oneness or the divine mind, the experience of monism. The Western church would frown upon this idea, they do not agree with the idea of “monistic absorption” as it goes against their doctrine of “union through love” (Braden 111). What people are missing from these traditional, dogmatic religions is a sense of the divine, Braden argues that this is due to the decline of “religious awe” (117). The question, then, is can people regain the sense of wonder they once had, this awe (Braden 117)? But this is something that primitive cultures has been doing for millennia, the ingesting of sacred substances, used as a sacramental catalyst to move them into a space where they can commune with the divine, unseen world.
It is necessary, argues Forte, to have a shamanic guide or even spiritual mentor that will aid one in the reintegration of an entheogenic, mystical experience: “Without the proper framework to understand mystical experience, even glorious encounters with the divine can be problematic or confusing” (Forte 3). Oft times, after ingesting an entheogenic substance one can experience what is called ‘ego-death’, where the self is disintegrated during an intense spiritual connection to the divine, the mentor or guide can aid in dealing with these powerful psychic states. Forte goes on to argue that the successful integration of ecstatic experience—entheogenic or otherwise—within a culture is due to an existing “suitable framework”, which defines or structures such experiences (3). It is therefore necessary, for a culture looking to delve back into the historic way of connecting with the divine, to have in place a framework which can deal with these experiences.
The idea of set and setting is a profound one when thinking about psychedelic substances (Lines np). Set and setting has an extremely powerful control over the type of experience an individual may have while under the effects of a psychedelic, in this way the substance "plays the role of a catalyst or trigger" (Metzner 3). Within a traditional psychedelic, shamanic experience one would guide the experience in a "carefully structured" (Metzner 5) way with the intention of either healing or divination. As David Steindl-Rast posits in his paper “Explorations into God”, “There are no shortcuts” (Forte 21). Entheogens will not give one a connection to the divine unless that person is focusing on that as their intention, one has to work with the experience, it will not happen on its own. Entheogens are tools to be made use of, it is through one’s spiritual journey that they will feel a longing for a deeper connection to something and it is here where entheogens can aid: whether that connection is to the sun, moon, nature, gods or goddesses. This focus on the mindset supports the participant in what can be quite powerful, traumatising, and stressful psychological experiences (Lines np). This is even so if the framework was one of the Western church, it is then possible that the church would feel less like they were not needed as the ‘middle-man’ and more needed as a guide of the spiritual and mystical experience, which seems to ring true to the vocation of the priesthood.
The ritualistic use of psychedelic substances, by the shaman, reaches back into prehistoric times (Metzner 2). These substances were always used in a respectful way, wary of the power they contained as shamanic divinational tools and as medicines (Metzner 2). Drug interaction in individuals is no longer viewed as a simple physiological action with the same effects in all people (Becker 67). There are many variables which affect the way a drug will interact in an individual and this is very important with regards to psychedelic substances that can alter perceptions in time, body, and vision (Lines np). Problematic or difficult experiences can happen within a religious framework or model, but within said framework the tools are available to turn these experiences into something “valuable and transformative” (Forte 3). The way in which any drug is taken has its effects influenced by set and setting, this being the case proper time and effort should be placed in making sure this can be achieved for the desired goal (Becker 75). Respect for the substance and focused intention is central and essential in these settings, during the undertaking of an entheogenic experience or inner journey (Metzner 5).
The direct experience of the divine is found within all the world’s major religions and it is seen “as an essential stage of spiritual development” (Forte 145). When in the right set and setting, with an entheogenic substance one can feel within a spiritual community, where they are supported and cared for in a sacred space. The entheogen does not create these feelings, but allows one to work with the experience and use it as a tool to explore and come in contact with the divine. Through entheogens it is possible for people to recapture the awe and wonder in the religious and spiritual, revitalise stagnating religions. Through the use of these sacred substances, and as long as they are respected as such, there is the possibility that many more people will turn back to religious beliefs. The ability for someone to experience the divine will do more for religious traditions than all the scripture and dogma and doctrine combined: “[people] need and want a sense of direct communion with the ultimate source of their faith,” entheogens provide this (Braden 19). When people stop listening, they stop feeling, and it is through the experiential aspect of entheogenic use that will bring people back to past, to experiences and knowledge that humanity has had for countless millennia, to contact with the divine, and a spiritual community within the self. The paper will end with a quote from David Steindl-Rast in regards to how he views the mystic experience:
The image I have in mind is that of a volcano. Our mystic experience is like a volcanic eruption. Fire, heat, light gush forth from our innermost depth. But the hot lava flows down the side of the mountain and cools off. The farther we are in space and time from the fiery eruption, the more this glowing magma turns into cold rock (Forte 21).
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