Psychedelics and Healing

I wasn't going to write anything about Buddhism and psychedelics because I agree with what Brad Warner and James Ford wrote. I don't believe psychedelics are, or aid in, Buddhist practice.

Then I read the Lion's Roar article. At the end, someone is quoted as saying, "Its purpose is finite. The goal is to let go of that and be able to rely entirely on your own resources." When I read that I felt a wave of anger. It reminded me of being back in the monastery in Japan, when my community convinced me to go off of anti-depressants. They believed anti-depressants were harmful, and that Buddhist practice was about complete self-reliance. I believed them, and went off the medicine. And for a long time, I believed that I shouldn't need anyone or anything. Buddhism was about relying entirely on my own resources. I wrote a chapter in my book championing me own radical, self-reliance.

I regret that now.

Buddhism may or may not be about relying entirely on ones one resources, but I want a larger, broader form of healing. When we make the decision to heal, we find that we need things-- doctors, support, medicine, teachers, community. We find that we cannot rely on our own resources.

I just began training to be a therapist at the California Institute of Integral Studies, which has a long history of supporting therapy combined with psychedelic use. During the first week-long intensive, I noticed tons of judgement arise in me about this. I grew up in a family and community with many former hippies who did a ton of LSD for "spiritual purposes." My experience of these people was that they were often more disconnected, further away from reality rather than closer to it. As a child, this was lonely and confusing. And so I appreciate the Buddhist injunction to be in this reality.

On my grad program, I had one very meaningful heart to heart with a woman who swore by what she called "plant medicine." I told her how much judgement I felt, and how scared this made me to think about. We talked about it openly, and she was able to hold my judgment with kindness and sensitivity. She explained that "plant medicine" saved her life. When she said that, I felt happy that she was alive-- that whatever medicine she had taken had worked for her.

I realized that I was very triggered by the word "medicine." I looked at her and said, "I wish I didn't need medicine," and I started to cry.

I wish I didn't need medicine. I wish I didn't need anti-depressants, or tylenol, or caffeine, or the occasional Netflix binge, but I do. We all need medicine, actually. The Buddha had rules that allowed for monks to carry medicine with them.

The judgement and righteousness about medicine among Buddhists is harmful. Yet people so rarely can articulate this with nuance. Psychedelics and anti-depressants are not Buddhism. Of course not. And yet they can be a part of a larger path of healing. They are not for everyone. Anti-depressants quite literally do not work for 50% of the people who take them. But they work for some people. Psychedelics can be extremely dangerous for some people, and for others, they have healing capacities. I wish there was more research about this, to be frank.

Buddhism is not a magic bullet that solves all of our problems. As other teachers have said, meditation practice opens the door to a larger path of healing. On that path of healing we will each need to find our own medicine.

Don't let anyone shame or judge you about your medicine-- which means don't shame yourself about needing medicine. The Buddha said judging is like wearing a necklace of shit around your neck. All it does is stink.


  1. Thank you for this, I was really moved by it. I've been thinking a lot about this topic; it's not simple. As a psychologist, I work with a number of people who have or are also seeking "plant medicine" healing. For myself, I too have had judgment (hippie parents) and fear. And I've seen quite a gamut, from life-changing shifts that lead people to meditation practice, to "bad trips" that are really troubling. I've come to see that so much involves proper set and setting. And it's definitely not right for everyone. But there are people who enter the Way through this gate.

    Sickness and medicine give rise to each other. The whole world is medicine. Who am I?

    Ah, hating medicine! And we need it so much! It's so human, and easy to dismiss from the lofty Zen crystal palace.

    "Don't let anyone shame or judge you about your medicine-- which means don't shame yourself about needing medicine. "


    I'm really wondering what place psychedelics might have in bringing people to the Way. Not so much once we are there (though who knows?) Would love to have more conversations with Zen folks on this.

    Oh, and about that precept. "I take up the way of not misusing drugs." What is it to misuse them?


  2. Sometimes I feel that this may be to a certain way of holding aspects of Buddhist practice related to impermanence - old age, sickness and death. Disability sometimes seems to be viewed as simply inevitable, and the desire to seek optimum or even better health is brushed away as some sort of denial. Sometimes that message is not explicit, and it may even be unintended,,, but I still feel that it is a hidden attitude. In that case, rather than being a way of urging us to value every moment, impermanence teachings feel like they are being used to avoid encountering pain,,, as though labeling it "inevitable" resolves the need to deal with it.

  3. Check out Bruce Lipton and Nicki Scully. I personally can not tolerate anything that even remotely alters my reality, but being around Nicki and seeing her with her "sacrament" made me realize that for others it can be a useful tool. Bruce has written extensively on the subject, it might be of interest to you.


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