When I first began using psychedelics, I considered myself spiritual but non-religious. In fact, I was severely disillusioned with the religion I had grown up in and still felt pain from leaving my church in my teenage years. And while I knew psychedelics might give me some sort of spiritual experience, I didn’t realize just how thirsty I was for spiritual awakening and a mystical understanding.
Looking back, I now understand that if I had thoroughly defined my spirituality before taking psychedelics, I would have approached them in safer and more beneficial ways. For those who are just starting to explore psychedelics, it can be very helpful to take the time to solidify your spiritual stance and plan what you will do if or when you have a spiritual experience.
Psychedelics and Spiritual Experiences
Psychedelics have been associated with mystical states throughout the ages and continue to evoke spiritual responses today. In a recent study with psilocybin, 67% of participants reported that their clinical trial with psilocybin was among their top five spiritual experiences, and 17% of participants said the experience was the most significant spiritual experience of their life. This study indicates that psilocybin, along with other psychedelics, can have a lasting spiritual impact even when taken in a secular setting.
To better understand the relationship between psychedelics and spirituality, it is helpful to consider the various spiritual identities. Social research defines five main spiritual identities: atheist, agnostic, unsure, religious, and spiritual. Each of these identities approaches spiritual needs differently. A religious person may follow the teachings of a religious leader and find community among those who share their religion, while an atheist may follow the moral teachings of a philosopher and find community through social groups. And when it comes to psychedelics, your spiritual identity may affect your experience in one of the following ways.
How Prepared You Are for a Psychedelic Experience
Those with a richer spiritual history may be more prepared for the possibility of a spiritual awakening under the influence of psychedelics. If you are a religious or spiritual person who has engaged in mystical rites such as prayer, meditation, or ecstatic states, then you may be more open to the idea of a spiritual experience. Alternatively, if you are an atheist or an agnostic, you may be more skeptical and end up unprepared for a spiritual experience.
Because I used to be highly religious and participated in ecstatic prayer sessions at my church, I was familiar with some of the physical and emotional responses I had to psychedelics. This made the experience less overwhelming and more manageable than it might have been otherwise. For those without a strong spiritual background, it may be helpful to engage in some spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, ecstatic dance, or prayer to help prepare for a potentially intense spiritual experience while using psychedelics. If these practices do not sound appealing, consider reading philosophical debates about spirituality or researching spiritual experiences others have had while taking psychedelics.
How You React to a Psychedelic Experience
People react to psychedelics in a variety of ways. Some may have a mystical experience and feel overwhelmed, disoriented, and afraid. Others may feel comforted, curious, or excited by the same situation. While these various reactions have many contributing factors, your spiritual history will play a role. If you are devoutly religious and your spiritual awareness while using psychedelics contradicts your religious understanding, you may suffer a sort of spiritual dissonance. A well-defined spirituality will help you identify the cause of this dissonance, whereas people who fail to define their spiritual identity may have a harder time figuring out exactly what was unsettling about their experience and moving forward from it.
It is also important to realize that, while psychedelics may produce mystical states, not every psychedelic session will result in a spiritual revelation. Some people who are highly religious may feel disappointed or guilty if they do not have a spiritually significant experience while using psychedelics, especially if they had the intention of expanding the spiritual self. Recognizing your desire for a spiritual experience before taking psychedelics can help you identify the source of your disappointment and prevent you from pursuing unhealthy amounts in pursuit of a spiritual experience.
By defining your spiritual identity and reflecting on your desires, you can prepare yourself for either an extreme spiritual experience or none at all. If you have a rigid spiritual identity or a history of unfulfilled spiritual desires, make sure you have a spiritual advisor, friend, or therapist to talk with soon after taking psychedelics.
How You Talk About Your Psychedelic Experience
After a psychedelic session, you may have trouble describing what you saw and felt. Those with a religious or spiritual background may use metaphors from their spiritual history to describe their experiences while atheists and agnostics may use more secular metaphors. For instance, a religious person may say they felt the love of God, saw angels, or understood heaven during their non-ordinary state of consciousness. An atheist, on the other hand, may describe a connection with others and a sense of well-being or responsibility. It is important to realize that two people may describe similar experiences with drastically different vocabulary based on their spiritual history. Knowing this can help you connect with others after a psychedelic session and can help a therapist or counselor better communicate with you when discussing the experience.
It can also be helpful to try examining your experience through the lens of other spiritual identities. Maybe try describing your experience as if you were religious and again as if you were an atheist. This can help you process your experience both on your own and with others.
How You Integrate The Experience Into Your Life
A mystical experience with psychedelics will have the most lasting, positive effects if you take the time to integrate what you learned into your everyday life. There are many different methods for psychedelic integration, including meditation, therapy, journaling, and spiritual counsel. Which method will be most effective for you will likely depend on your spiritual identity. If you are an atheist or an agnostic, you may be more comfortable going to a secular psychedelic therapist. If you are spiritual, you might be more comfortable with prayer, meditation, or spiritual counsel. Figuring out what type of integration practice will be most effective for you before taking psychedelics will make it easier to ensure you have help on hand should you have a challenging experience.
Understanding all the ways your spirituality can affect your relationship with psychedelics will help you prepare for a more meaningful, lasting experience. For me, my spiritual pain and desire after leaving my religion made me crave the spiritual ecstasy associated with psychedelics and made me struggle more to integrate the experience. By taking the time to define your spiritual identity before a psychedelic experience, you can enter into it feeling better prepared to reap the most benefits and integrate it into your life afterward.