Entheogenic Spiritual Experience a Human Right ?

Entheogenic Spiritual Experience a Human Right ?

by Martin W. Ball

The following essay is an edited excerpt from the book, The Entheogenic Evolution: Consciousness and Awakening the Human Spirit, forthcoming from Kyandara Publishing in December, 2008.
The true heart of any religion or spiritual tradition is direct spiritual experience. It is from the immediate experience of the sacred that traditions arise, grow, and take on a life of their own as institutions and systems of belief. Yet without that initial spiritual experience, the inspiration that originally gave rise to the tradition, there is very little to base the tradition upon.
It isn’t difficult to see that this basic proposition is true. Of the “great” traditions of the world, meaning the more popular and well-established traditions, we find persons who were deeply immersed in direct spiritual experience. In the Judaic tradition, we find imposing figures such as Moses, who communed with God on the mountaintop, directly receiving messages and instructions from the beyond. Later, in the Christian tradition, we have the figure of Jesus, realizing and experiencing his own divinity. More recently, we find Mohammed in the Islamic tradition with his ecstatic flight to heaven to commune with Allah.
To the East, many more examples abound. In Buddhism we have the mystical figure of the Buddha, enlightened through meditation under the Bodhi tree. In the Taoist tradition, we find the sage of Lao Tzu and his work, the Tao Te Ching. The Hindu and Jain traditions also have countless significant mystics and saints, all inspired by their personal enlightenment experiences.
From the direct experiences of mystics, shamans, sages and saints, prophets and holy people, come the teachings and practices that become codified as religious and spiritual traditions and are then taught to others and passed on across cultures and history. But, at the root, at the very heart, we find inspired individuals who glimpsed and felt something of the sacred that impacted upon them so profoundly that they felt compelled to share their experiences and teachings with others, providing them with a path and methodology for experiencing the sacred themselves.
In U.S. law, religion has largely been defined according to the concepts of belief and practice. Coming from the Western and Christian traditions, where belief and right practice of worship have been overwhelmingly emphasized over any form of direct spiritual experience, U.S. law sees “freedom of religion” as referring primarily to the freedom to believe and secondarily to the freedom to practice. According to U.S. law, we are all free to believe whatever we want. No one can force us to believe any particular dogma or religious teaching, and if we choose, we can believe in nothing at all. As for practice, we are free to practice our religions however we see fit, as long as those practices do not interfere with the greater interests of the State, violate laws, or impinge on others’ Constitutional freedoms and rights.
However, something sorely missing from our legal protections is any recognition of the significance of direct spiritual experience itself. One can believe or practice however one may like, but that does not mean that one will necessarily have any kind of direct spiritual or mystical experience. In fact, given the general spiritual disenchantment currently plaguing the West, it isn’t a stretch to say that all our emphasis on correct belief and practice has largely cut us off from any kind of direct spiritual experience, which explains the strong attraction Westerners have to Eastern and Indigenous traditions where the emphasis is on experience. We in the West are largely starving for spiritual experience and a re-enchantment of our experience and view of the world and of ourselves.
Not only have many sought to find this re-enchantment through Eastern and Indigenous traditions, but also through the use of psychedelics and entheogens. However, these agents of spiritual experience and awakening are largely illegal in the West, making those who would use the sacred plants to find their connection to the sacred into criminals and outlaws. We are told that while we are free to believe that visionary medicines are sacred and a connection to the divine, we are not permitted to practice, as our practice is in conflict with other legal priorities, such as the so-called “war on drugs.”
How would things be different if not just belief and practice were protected by law, but if spiritual experience itself were also protected? What I would like to argue is that direct spiritual experience is the most intimate aspect of our religious or spiritual freedom and is central to our ability to freely explore our own spiritual natures. In short, the primary argument here is that it is time to reframe the discussion. Direct spiritual experience should be a fundamental human right, and any law that would counter that right should be discarded as decidedly undemocratic and as curtailing our basic freedom as spiritual beings.
Belief is a decidedly poor foundation upon which to build a spiritual or religious tradition, especially in the modern world. Many of the beliefs upon which Western traditions are built don’t hold up well against rationalism and scientific inquiry, especially when taken in their most dogmatic and fundamentalist forms. Much of the current debate in the West over science versus religion centers on this problem of belief and it promotes sloppy thinking on both sides. Religious leaders blindly dismiss scientific evidence when it conflicts with their cherished beliefs, wearing virtual blinders over their rational thinking, and scientists can be equally as naive, equating religion with mythological thinking and superstition and therefore needing to be dismissed as irrational and ultimately unreal. Both sides of this debate largely miss the fact that spiritual experience itself need not be based on any beliefs and that there are, in fact, many similarities between the claims of mystics, shamans, and scientists regarding the nature of reality when they are speaking from their direct experience rather than just repeating worn-out dogmas and long-cherished beliefs about reality and the way of the world.
Practice isn’t necessarily any better as a foundation for a spiritual or religious tradition. One can practice – go to church, worship, pray, etc. – all one wants, but without a clear guide for how to achieve spiritual states of consciousness and cultivate a direct connection and experience of the sacred, one can simply “go through the motions” for one’s entire life without ever having a genuine spiritual experience. Especially in our disenchanted world, religious liturgies and ritual forms can be empty and hollow, providing a social structure for religious practice, but very little in the way of actual spiritual experience. And even if a person in the West does manage to have a spiritual experience in such a tradition of practice, it is very likely that someone in authority is also dictating what one is supposed to believe about the experience. And if that person doesn’t fit the experience into pre-established dogmas, then he or she risks being branded a heretic or unbeliever in some form or another.
But what if we were truly free to choose how we wanted to explore our own spiritual natures, free from the constraints of dogmatic beliefs, strict ritual liturgies, and patronizing laws? What if we could, of our own free will, decide that we want to follow the path of entheogenic spirituality and use the sacred visionary medicines to enhance and explore our spiritual nature and cultivate our spiritual experiences as we saw fit? How would our society be different? How might things look if we had sovereignty over our minds?
Many contemporary religious practitioners claim that entheogenic spirituality is not true spirituality, not true religious practice. Sadly, such claims reflect a fairly profound ignorance of human history, culture, and religion. Altered states of consciousness, whether plant-induced or not, have been central to the development of spiritual and religious traditions from the dawn of time. Dreams, trances, visions, and ecstatic states have formed the core of much of what has been passed down to us as religious traditions throughout history, and many of these altered states have been visionary plant-induced. This is an undeniable fact of history.
One can look virtually anywhere in the world at any point in history, and find the use of sacred plants and medicines to cultivate direct spiritual experience among shamans and mystics. It is fairly safe to say that humans have always made use of visionary plants, wherever they are available, to enhance their spiritual experience. In many respects, use of visionary plants and “religion” have been synonymous, especially where the emphasis is placed on direct spiritual experience rather than on the weaker foundations of belief and practice. However various religions may operate today, it is clear that their origins lie in the direct and immediate experiences of the shamans and mystics who inspired the religions in the first place. In short, the shamanic and mystical experience is both prior to and originating of religion itself. Without the altered states of consciousness and spiritual experiences of shamans and mystics, religion, as we know it, would simply not exist.
Religions in the West have largely feared shamans and shamanic practice. Mysticism in the West hasn’t necessarily fared much better, but to some extent it was tolerated, though the Catholic Church branded some mystics as heretics and the mystery traditions were shunned and denigrated. Shamans were greeted with outright hostility, however, often being the targets of zealous Christian missionaries. 
Throughout Europe and the New World, countless shamans, witches, and healers were slaughtered at the hands of Christians, bent on stamping out any vestige of direct spiritual experience or practices that might be in conflict with the teachings of the Christian church. In Europe, that meant that thousands, if not millions, of women who practiced “witchcraft” were burned at the stake or otherwise killed. In the Americas, indigenous peoples were subjected to the brutality of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the intentional murder of their shamanic leaders. According to Christian dogma, by definition, shamanic practitioners had to be devil worshipers, and therefore their murders were justified, along with those who followed them or refused to accept the Christian teachings, beliefs, and practices.
While shamans and shamanic traditions fared better in the East, they were not free from persecution from the spread of other religions. Many shamanic traditions were incorporated into Eastern religious traditions, such as the more trantric schools of Buddhism and Hinduism, but even in these cases there was persecution of shamans. As trantric Buddhism spread through Asia, local shamans, who were often female, were treated as superstitious and ignorant. While they were not necessarily killed outright, as shamans and healers were at the hands of Christian missionaries, their practices were seen as less sophisticated and advanced than the complex trantric traditions that were largely male-dominated. It is only now that certain areas of Asia in the former Soviet Union are re-embracing shamanism, such as in the Republic of Tuva and Mongolia, both of which were heavily missionized by male Buddhist lamas.
It was not just Christians who were intolerant of shamans and other similar spiritual healing traditions in the West. With the advent of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, other dismissive and belittling attitudes towards shamans and spiritual experience in general became prominent in the West, the effects of which we are still living with today. In many ways, the Scientific Revolution was a reaction to the medieval scholasticism of Christian theologians, where all knowledge and proclamations of truth had to be subsumed under Christian dogma. Relying largely on Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, Christian theologians made their models of reality conform to their pre-existing philosophical and theological postulations, rather than letting the evidence decide their models. For example, many religious leaders refused to look through Galileo’s telescopes because the direct observation that the moon had varied features, as opposed to being a perfect, incorruptible sphere, as taught by Aristotelian philosophy and cosmology, would contradict their view of the world and universe. Scientists and rational thinkers, on the other hand, developed the relatively new view that observations about reality should inform our views on reality, not necessarily the other way around. If the moon is observed to be imperfect, then it is the theory that the moon is incorruptible that has to change, rather than the data should be denied and hidden away, as was the practice of the Church when observable facts contradicted their doctrine and theology.
One must also consider the esoteric origins of Western science, however, in order to understand its distinction from both the church and the folk traditions of Europe. Many early scientists were also magicians, astrologers, and alchemists, such as was the case with John Dee and Isaac Newton, among others. Alchemy was both an internal and external practice that sought correspondences between the manipulation of external metals and materials and the progression of spiritual awakening within the alchemist himself. It was alchemy that eventually gave rise to chemistry, just as astrology gave rise to astronomy, and natural philosophy gave birth to mechanics, physics, and biology. Thus, many of the roots of science were found within the Western esoteric traditions and secret societies, which were probably almost exclusively the province of privileged men within European societies.
Something quite significant is that, during the time of the Inquisition when the Catholic Church was busy exterminating local folk healers, the magicians, alchemists, and astrologers were largely left untouched and unharmed. A clear distinction was made between the “high” magicians and other esoteric practitioners who often taught at medieval universities and counseled heads of state and the aristocracy, and the “low” folk healers, midwives, “witches,” and other local magical practitioners, most of whom were women. In short, the European patriarchy was clearly focused on removing the female non-Christian practitioners of direct spiritual practice but was far less concerned with the elite males who served the existing patriarchal power structure.
Thus the male elite survived the Inquisition and, through various transformations, became the leaders of the scientific revolution. However, with the growing success of “science” and the “scientific method” of careful observation, accumulation of data, and theory formation and revision, the more subjective aspects of magical practice were left aside and eventually relegated to the subjectivity of “religion,” with the realm of objectivity left for science. With the philosopher Rene Descartes, we get a clear articulation of this view through his dualistic philosophy, clearly separating mind from body and the spiritual from the physical. Here, all things spiritual, subjective, and non-physical are given to religion, with observation of material facts through rational observation belonging to the province of science and scientific observation and theory building.
The result was that rationality and observation were seen as not only objective, and therefore verifiably true, but also as distinctly masculine traits. Under the scientific lens, nature was seen as feminine and the rational, male mind was viewed as the ultimate tool for unraveling the secrets of nature and providing domination over nature. In this sense, the scientific community reflected the same patriarchal misogyny of the Church in dominating women folk healers, making the feminine secondary and subject to the primacy of the masculine. And not only was nature feminine, but through masculine rationality, men were, in theory, able to dominate and control nature, bending “her” to their will.
We are still living with the effects of these forces of European society many hundreds of years later. The entire debate of the relationship or conflict between “religion” and “science” still bears the marks of this original divide. Science is seen to objectively deal with questions of the physical, while religion, at least according to scientists, should confine itself to the non-material and spiritual (which, according to many scientists, doesn’t really exist anyway, so religion is therefore strictly mythical and imaginary, or simply a function of belief and practice with no factual connection to observable reality). So on the one hand, we have objective, factual science that produces knowledge through supposedly purely objective means, and on the other, subjective, belief-based religion that does not promote subjective experience as much as it promotes adherence to beliefs and practices. When there is a conflict between the two views, as there often is, members of Western societies are basically forced to choose sides in this invented debate – either “objective truth” or “subjective belief” wins the day, with very little supposed meeting ground between the two. In short, we have either “knowledge” or “faith,” the former based on objectivity and the later on blind belief.
Neither position leaves much room for subjective experience. According to the scientific view, subjective experiences cannot be objectively observed, and therefore are not open to questions of truth, theory building, model making, or any of the other standard procedures for producing “knowledge.” Under this view, while a person may claim to have had a powerful spiritual experience, this is still theoretically subjective and therefore not amenable to the scientific worldview or system of practice. On the other hand, any subjective spiritual experience that does not fit within the confines of proscribed religious belief or doctrine is relegated to the bin of heresy, delusion, or devil worship.
These views were held fairly universally in the West until only relatively recently. In recent decades Westerns have paid far more attention to the practices, knowledge, and techniques of spiritual practitioners such as shamans, yogis, trantrikas, and others. It is becoming increasingly clear that shamans, for example, hold a vast repository of knowledge relating to nearly all supposedly “scientific” subjects, such as pharmacological properties of plants, ecological knowledge, astronomical knowledge, biology, medicine, and more. While there is still some dismissal of shamanic knowledge by mainstream rationalists and objectivists, overall, more respect for traditional knowledge is generally being shown within the larger society.
The same is also true of spiritual traditions that emphasize the cultivation of personal spiritual experience. Disillusioned by the hollow and empty teachings of the Western religions that emphasize largely irrational belief in the face of supposed scientific facts, many Westerners have turned to Eastern religions in the search for genuine spiritual experience and meaning. Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga, tai chi, chi gong and many other Eastern practices have found willing and ready practitioners in the West, who find a different emphasis in such traditions than what they have been traditionally offered in the West. Here, the emphasis is on each individual practitioner coming to his or her own spiritual realizations through a practice of meditation or spiritual exercise. While they may still be taught various beliefs in conjunction with a given tradition, the overwhelming emphasis is on direct experience itself.
Western societies still have a long way to go in their acceptance of subjective states of consciousness and personal spiritual practices. It is far more likely that a Western scientist will want to hook a Buddhist meditator up to a brain-scanning device than it is for the scientist to submit to a regimen of meditation and contemplation. The emphasis is still placed on the material side of the equation, with the Buddhist’s neurobiology and neurochemistry as the focus of scientific inquiry – not the value of the meditative experience and practice itself.
The same is largely true for Western science’s appreciation for shamanic knowledge. Pharmaceutical companies are scrambling to learn the herbal wisdom of the shamans, but few are actually learning the methods of altered states of consciousness through which shamans have come to their hard-earned wisdom. While the West is genuinely recognizing that shamanic and traditional wisdom cannot be universally reduced to myth, legend and pre-scientific irrationality, the methods and techniques of shamans are still viewed as subjective and unscientific and therefore not necessarily worthy of emulation. The result is that while the physical and practical side of their knowledge is being widely accepted and appreciated at this time, their methods are still thought to be too subjective to be considered scientific.
We can see a shift toward the value of direct spiritual experience, however. Because this has been sorely lacking in contemporary Western traditions, Westerners have sought their sources of direct spiritual experience elsewhere. However, even among those who seek to follow a mystical or shamanic path, there is still some fear and denigration of visionary medicines as genuine spiritual tools. Oddly, many contemporary Western shamanic practitioners claim that genuine shamanism does not use visionary plants, despite the historical and cultural fact that visionary medicines are used or have been used by countless shamanic cultures across the world. Many mainstream “shamanic practitioners” claim that their practice is “drug free” and instead make use of “shamanic drumming” and other widely practiced New Age-style techniques such as visualization, guided imagery, and the like. Similarly, those involved in meditation traditions often proclaim that visionary plants are “short-cuts” or “false awakenings,” and that only through years of dedicated meditation and study can one have a genuine spiritual experience or mystical awakening. So, in both cultural streams, there is still resistance to visionary plants and medicines, despite their place in both history and contemporary shamanic cultures.
The result is that, even among so-called “alternative” spiritual practitioners, there is still a fairly strong bias against visionary plants and medicines, sometimes even more so than among mainstream culture, as efforts are made by these alternative traditions to distinguish themselves from the more “questionable” practices of entheogenic spirituality. Thus despite the cultural shift, entheogens are still underground as spiritual tools in the West, and remain largely illegal to use, and even when legal, are still regarded with suspicion, and are treated as somehow illegitimate or not genuine. Entheogenic spirituality is viewed as being make-believe, imaginary, and hedonistic. It is not considered a real spiritual path.
When it comes to the spiritual use of visionary plants, spiritual seekers find that not only do they have to fight against the mainstream of Western history and culture, but also have to fight against restrictive and often discriminatory laws concerning the use of visionary plants and medicines. Ever since Timothy Leary and his colleagues at Harvard unleashed LSD on the West, we have been living with the repercussion of an irrational, dogmatic, and I would argue, unConstitutional “war on drugs,” which has caught many of the sacred visionary medicines in its net. Those who would seek to expand their horizons by seeking genuine direct spiritual experience through entheogens have to risk not only social scorn and punishment, but also the threat of jail and the prospect of losing everything in their lives, including their homes, property, families, jobs, and place within society. The “war on drugs” has put more people in jail than any other social program and is largely responsible for the fact that U.S. has the largest prison population on the planet, with a greater percentage of our citizens locked up behind bars than any other country in the world. It has also been used to promote repressive and intrusive police tactics and is often used as a means of imprisoning minority populations, with people of color being far more likely to be imprisoned for drug use or possession than caucasians. While it is likely the case that most people jailed for drug use are not necessarily seeking to use these substances for spiritual purposes, it is undoubtedly true that some are. For some imprisonment is literally a matter of religious freedom, in that they are being punished for consuming what in their tradition is considered a ceremonial sacrament.
How can this be the case? Even if we want to punish people for taking drugs, why is it that the ceremonial and sacramental use of visionary plants and medicines is largely illegal? Why isn’t an individual’s choice of sacrament a protected activity under our laws? Why do we not have a legally protected right to pursue and cultivate direct spiritual experience however we see fit, as long as our actions do not cause any immediate or direct harm to others?
From the brief overview of historical forces outlined above, it is not difficult to see that anyone in the West wanting to use a visionary sacrament would have a great deal of historical, social, and cultural inertia to overcome in order for their choice to be accepted by mainstream institutions. But it is not just acceptance that we are considering here, it is the actual legal recognition of a right to practice legitimate spiritual pursuits as one sees fit. Of course, our country’s laws arise from the same historical stream as our scientific and religious institutions; so the views of science and religion directly impacted how we conceive of Constitutionally protected activities and how we define which categories of choices deserve the protection of law.
When one considers the legal issues surrounding the sacramental use of entheogens, it is easy to see that the significance of cultivating direct spiritual experience is nowhere taken into consideration. Rather, we are confronted with issues of “belief” and “practice,” and rather narrow definitions of what characterizes freedom in the pursuit of a religious or spiritual practice. To understand how this functions in contemporary American society, let’s turn to examine some of our legal institutions and strictures and see how they impinge upon the right to explore spirituality as one sees fit.
Let us start with the United States Constitution and the supposed freedoms that it guarantees for all U.S. citizens. As the First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first part of this amendment addresses the fact that European immigrants to the U.S. often came from countries that had official state religions, such as the Anglican Church of England. This amendment was created to insure that there would be no official religion of the U.S. (despite the claims of many evangelicals today that the U.S. is a “Christian” country). In short, it reads that the federal government cannot require any U.S. citizen to belong to any particular religion, or to any religion at all. We are all free to believe and practice as we see fit and cannot be compelled into any particular religion, as had been the case in Europe. The second part limits the government’s ability to interfere with whatever religious tradition we freely chose to become a part of, clearly stating that the government cannot interfere with one’s ability to practice a chosen religion. This amendment immediately reflects back on the experience of Europeans immigrating to the New World, many of whom came specifically seeking religious freedom due to the persecution they faced at home. The U.S. was to be the land of religious liberty where people could believe and practice however they saw fit according to their own conscience and desire.
The first problem with this amendment is that it inspires us to question what defines a “religion.” Religions are generally understood to be institutions that have accepted beliefs, practices, rituals, hierarchies, sacred texts, ceremonial calendars, etc. But virtually no emphasis is placed on direct spiritual experience when defining religious practice or experience. We therefore have a somewhat restrictive view of what constitutes a “religion” per se, or what should be taken into consideration when defining or recognizing a religion. It also raises the question of who gets to decide what is accepted as a “religion” or not, with the answer being that it is the government itself that gets to decide what meets its criteria, despite the fact that the government shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion. While it is true that the government has certainly refrained from compelling our allegiance to any particular religion, it is also true that it is the government that gets to decide which practices and institutions merit the designation of religion in the first place, which could be construed as “respecting an establishment of religion.”
Thus the First Amendment is not without its problems and is not as clear-cut a protection as it may seem. It is all the more problematic when one is looking at questions of “spiritual” practice as opposed to “religious” practice. This is especially true when one considers shamanism and mysticism. Neither shamans nor mystics need to be a part of any particular religion at all in order to pursue spiritual aims, and has often historically been the case in the West, shamans and mystics have been purposely excluded from our institutions of religion and religious practice. They can therefore constitute a class of spiritual practitioners who are not participating in any given “religion,” at least not as defined in U.S. law.
If shamans and mystics and their practices already fall somewhat outside the definitions of protected activities under U.S. law, we can only imagine how much more challenging it would be for a solitary practitioner of entheogenic spirituality to make a case that his or her practices should be protected by the Constitution. Not only would such a person have to argue for why their practices are “religious” in the first place, but also explain why laws created to prohibit the use of illegal “drugs” should be disregarded in some cases in order to protect “religious freedom.” To date, no one has ever successfully argued in U.S. court that his personal choice to use an entheogenic sacrament to cultivate his personal spiritual experience is protected by the Constitution. And unless we carefully examine what we are protecting and how, it is unlikely that anyone ever will succeed in making such an argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. (complete document in archive)……
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