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Psychedelics, Antinatalism, and Dostoevsky

July 17, 2018


As a recently ordained priest serving in the Great Northwest, I have found that one thing for which seminary did not prepare me was the cultural fallout from the legalization of marijuana. The growing phenomenon has made its way into parochial schools, youth groups, and even parish staff. When I recently set Google Maps to drive to St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Yakima, where I was to teach a class on Christian spirituality, the app routed me to “Sweet Cannabis Relief Supplies” as the location most similar to my search preference. The irony of the situation—seeking one form of fulfillment and being misdirected to another—brought to mind wider conversations in neuroscience and psychology today about the relationship between psychoactive drugs and religious experience.

In a recent essay adapted from Michael Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, the Wall Street Journal reported on the use of LSD and psilocybin to treat depression, anxiety, and even alcohol addictions. Researchers at New York University, Johns Hopkins, UCLA and the Imperial College in London reported that after undergoing psychedelic treatment, patients have emerged from a “trip” with a rehabilitated belief in the goodness of being and the value of life. Worth noting, too, is the interest on social media in Dr. Michael Persinger’s God Helmet, a device that produces “mystical” experiences by electronic stimulation of the brain. Persinger reports that his subjects have experienced a wide range of spiritual phenomena, including out-of-body experiences and even visions of God. The God Helmet is being sold online for $659.00 (+ shipping) in one knockoff form or another, and others are looking to use the helmet to enhance video gaming experience. Some thinkers believe this device will revolutionize society’s traditional understanding of religion; now one can encounter “god” or transcendence by simply putting on a helmet.

As a Catholic priest, I cannot help but wonder about the implications of artificially induced cognitive states with respect to the authenticity of Christian spirituality. The twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar addressed a similar situation in the first volume of his trilogy, The Glory of the Lord, bringing theology into conversation with depth psychology and the Gestaltists. For Balthasar, every material thing is given a purpose or form (gestalt) by God. Each material form is an imperfect extension of the perfect form in the mind of God. In his view, God’s self-disclosure provides the revelation of the ultimate purpose of creation: the bringing together of genesis and apocalypse, fallen creation and its eschatological fulfillment into the single form of Christ. Balthasar’s gestaltian method is an insightful starting place to explain these chemically-induced theophanies of the mind.

In Gestaltian thinking, the mind organizes perceived sensations as a meaningful whole rather than a string of dissociated impressions. When looking at a bicycle, for instance, the mind does not see handlebars, wheels, and pedals. The mind sees a bicycle as a whole. The Gestalt school developed 114 principles of perception, or “laws of Gestalten,” the two most noteworthy here being the Laws of Similarity and Closure. The Law of Similarity states that in certain patterns, the mind tends to see lines or shapes that form a coherent continuation or direction. This explains why people can pick out a meaningful figure in something like a fluffy cloud. The Law of Closure runs along a similar logic; when the mind sees a familiar or coherent pattern with a missing part, it supplies that missing element. When looking at a circle that is 80 percent complete, the mind will supply the missing 20 percent and automatically perceive a whole circle. This law is not limited to geometric shapes alone, but to all perceptions and even memory. The mind experiences déjà vu, for instance, when a situation currently being encountered bears such a striking similarity to a past event that the mind concludes the events to be the same.

Could the confusion of a psychedelic trip with a mystical experience be explained as a verisimilitude of transcendence, by which the mind strives to complete the coherent pattern the best way it knows how, believing the impression to be “God”? The Law of Closure suggests that a person interprets sensations as the mind knows best based on a prior experience of the form it resembles. But if the mind has no a priori experience of God, can it not but settle upon a misinformed eidolon? The mind can also differentiate between a hand drawn circle and a more precise circle drawn with a protractor. While both share the same gestalt, they vary in degrees of perfection. Similarly, when the brain experiences a real or ersatz perception of transcendence, the distinction needs to be made as to whether this is a hand drawn or a perfect circle. In other words, is the mental process autosuggesting a judgmental error or is the experience an actual, undiluted encounter with transcendent Mystery?

Drug-induced “spiritual” experiences many indeed be nothing but a kind of spiritual pornography, where the brain is bilked into making love to a mere sensation, producing a facsimile of positive emotions without the encounter of a living person. The mind flirts with a kind of psychedelic idolatry, confusing the chemical form with the super-form of God. For this reason, the apophatic doctor John of the Cross insisted that the mind be weaned from the milk of spiritual consolation so as not to become attached to an imperfect mediation. John developed the spiritual doctrine of nada, which holds that God is not one being among many; rather, God is nothing, that is, no-thing. God’s presence can be revealed through material mediations but is not reducible to any material form, let alone a self-made chemical portrait.

Consumer America is rapidly becoming a practitioner of a pharmaceutical spirituality, offering eschatological hope in the form of hippie flipping instead of the enduring values and purposes that make life meaningful enough to justify suffering. Studies indicate a select number of people have positive spiritual awakenings from synthetic spirituality, while a small contingent even professes to have enough self-mastery to use marijuana recreationally and still maintain a healthy life. The danger of a bad trip triggering paranoia or even an addiction, however, looms in the background, together with the potentially dangerous thrill of a spiritual seeker opening a window of curiosity and exploration into the “spiritual” realm. Are such risks an operable remedy for alleviating an existential crisis?

Fantastically unhelpful in this regard is David Benatar’s philosophy of antinatalism, the latest rage online. As the name suggests, antinatalism is the belief that it is wrong to bring new sentient persons into existence. Professor Benatar sees an unbalanced asymmetry between the good and bad things in life, culminating in a net loss, since people seem to experience more pain than joy. In his view, it is therefore better not to exist. People often experience chronic pain, Benatar says, yet they never experience chronic pleasure, and so the implicit malevolence outweighs the good of existence. Thus, procreation is unjust and always wrong.

Clearly the human condition, as Nietzsche said, is inhospitable to a completely blissful existence. But even a life afflicted by tragedy does not preclude a sense of fulfillment or purpose. Suffering for a noble cause can be a source of happiness and depth of meaning, knowing a positive contribution is made to something larger than oneself. Achieving a great goal may come at the risk of accruing substantially more bad experiences than good, but the resulting sense of self-worth and satisfaction can redeem the entire struggle. A peaceful state of soul is not dependent on momentary emotional hedonism, nor does it rely on the vicissitudes of pain-free experiences or external objects of pleasure; meaning and suffering can indeed coexist.

The success of the great artists throughout history has often been attributed to the intensity of their sufferings. Fyodor Dostoevsky struggled with great darkness and even nihilism throughout his life, having been imprisoned in Siberian labor camps and being prone to epileptic seizures. Epilepsy disposed Dostoevsky to a new vision of the world, and while he described his seizures with utter terror, he noted strangely that they verged on the sublime. Dostoevsky was therefore able to see meaningful coincidences between dualities like pity and love, the terrestrial and eternal, darkness and ecstasy. Amidst the depth of human depravity, Dostoevsky found a circuitous link to the heights of the divine. After experiencing the horror of a seizure, Dostoevsky reported the experience of a harmony so sweet and strong that he would give his entire life for a few more seconds of that bliss. One brush with the eternal was enough to vindicate all the sufferings of his life, and in a single instant everything was beautiful. The apotheosis of Dostoevsky’s mysticism is evidenced by the character Zozima from The Brothers Karamazov, who is described as a man living with paradise in his soul. Zozima sees all of being permeated with God’s purposes: “Each blade of grass, each little bug, ant, golden bee knows its way amazingly: being without reason they witness to the divine mystery, they ceaselessly enact it.” Zozima possesses the full capacity of vision, enabling him to see the dark prison of the human condition as a glass palace. Dostoevsky believed in the power of divine beauty to make the world anew with hope, which for him was rooted in the Resurrection.

Zozima is a testament to the soteriological effects of mysticism. In a true mystical experience, a person gets a foretaste of the divine compensation that can heal all the sufferings of life, knowing that “the sufferings of this present life are nothing compared with the glory to be revealed” (Rom 8:18). Such eschatological hope can give a narrative structure to a person’s journey; inner strength is found in knowing that the totality of all life’s sorrows and joys form a gestalt that is more than the sum of its parts, coming from and returning to God. In such prayer experiences, a person catches a glimpse of their metaphysical destiny. While an LSD trip leaves a person with the feeling of connection to an anonymous universe, it offers no explanation for the ultimate purpose of existence nor the hope of the divine healing of the soul. The God Helmet might provide for a fun Saturday afternoon, but it makes no offer of grace. Divine grace helps a person transcend human weakness with supernatural strength and rise to the occasion of virtue.

One of the marks for discerning the authenticity of a mystical experience can be found in the writing of St. Teresa of Avila. In the Sixth Mansion of The Interior Castle, the saint complains about the sheer inconvenience of a divine encounter that comes at random while trying to accomplish her chores. “If a rapture is genuine we ourselves are powerless to resist it,” she writes, and it is “impossible to conceal.” Teresa lamented that such raptures lasted many hours and sometimes days, leaving her soul pining for God with a kind of divine hangover. The writings of the great Christian mystics make it clear that infused contemplation cannot be self-willed. Living a life of prayer and practicing virtue, however, can dispose one to a divine communication.

Contact with God is a fundamental remedy for finding reconciliation with the problem of existence. Every person wonders about the mystery of the human journey. Existence is a perennial puzzle that modern medicine hopes to solve from within the material system itself, while others reject the system outright. Dostoevsky’s wisdom offers a remedy that comes from without. Living from the view of the eternal, Dostoevsky was no longer defined by material contingencies but nurtured by an end that transcended him; and there his soul found a home. The wisdom of Christian mysticism is still relevant today and provides an invaluable medicine for those seeking a spiritual answer for the mysterious sorrows of life.