How do psychedelics inform the spiritual journey?

How do psychedelics inform the spiritual journey? Image Source: Flickr user Nicolas Alejandro.

The following is a guest post by Brian Murphy, LCSW, a therapist in New York City who works with people who have taken plant medicines or encountered other spiritual experiences and specializes in integration and harm reduction. Brian also runs a holistic health program at New York Harm Reduction Educators, a needle exchange and social justice program in East Harlem. His website is and his email is [email protected].

If life is a spiritual journey, then what’s the destination? The one I see is our own wholeness—not a perfected future me, or even me with lots of warts knocked off—but a self that has gone to the loveless places inside and accepted all the lost and mucky parts that live there without needing to tidy them up. Me getting to know me is a journey where, as T.S. Eliot put it:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate

Where the last on earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning.

Where do plant medicines and psychedelics factor into this? Our mainstream culture has seen them as, at best, exotic offshoots from the spiritual journey, while in fact, they have played a major role in it for thousands of years. If life on the planet is a classroom for spiritual learning, plant medicines can be our private tutors, moving us along at a faster rate and giving us information we might not otherwise have figured out. They deactivate the familiar thought-based part of our brain and make it possible to open the unknown, unremembered gate that Eliot talks about. When we use plant medicines well, they help shift our center of gravity out of our arguing, pain-coping heads and towards a waking up mode where acceptance and trust reign. But like any other private tutor, they don’t take our tests for us. We do have to pay attention in the classroom of altered consciousness, and the bottom line is—plant medicine or not—you always have to earn what you learn. Ultimately, the magic is not in the mushrooms.

Reimagining the Spiritual Journey

The first image that comes to my mind for the spiritual journey is a wise old man, staff in hand, shrouded in a hood, and walking on some ancient pilgrimage path on his way to a holy shrine. He is dedicated and steadfast. He walks through rather nice scenery, and though he may endure all kinds of hardships, this pilgrim is not confused, he doesn’t get angry, and though he’s weary, he is right on track to reach his Jerusalem.

The plant medicine gave me a very different kind of image. The pilgrim in that picture could be a man or a woman; they might be young or old. They are not serene and steadfast because they are getting out of a bar at three in the morning and they’re totally drunk. They are in a Northern town, and it’s frostbite cold outside. But our pilgrim doesn’t register that as he/she stumbles aimlessly around the bleak, empty town. They fall over, get up, walk into a wall, and then they lurch out into the street where the occasional car wildly blows its horn at them. Sometimes they are tempted to lie down on the sidewalk for a nice little snooze or to take a walk by the river—either of which would be deadly.

Finally, they come to an intersection, and as they stand there swaying and staring up at the traffic lights, they think to themselves: there’s something so familiar about this spot, but what is it? Then, for a moment, the pilgrim remembers that somewhere in this city is a nice warm bed for them in a place called home. That’s what they have been aiming for all along, and they long for it with all their heart! And isn’t it straight ahead and then to the left or something? But as they start to move again, they momentarily realize they are drunk as a skunk and that by the time they reach the other side of the street, they will most likely have forgotten again where they are going. And so they stumble on, half heroic and half ridiculous, pursuing a long, crazy peregrination toward heart’s home, not just lost, but only intermittently aware that they are even searching.

Was that stately Medieval-style pilgrim with his cloak and staff ever a true picture of our inner journey? I’m glad if it was, but I believe that old geezer—whether he’s a Christian pilgrim, a guru, or a shaman—misrepresents our spiritual journey today. I think it’s less about self-improvement and more about accepting ourselves for who we are—and when we can love that, we don’t have to send our outcasts into the shadows. For, despite the shiny toys and so-called luxuries of modern life, the reality of our inner pilgrimage is the messy, frantic, dangerous, sloppy, absurd, and ultimately very poignant journey of the drunk. Our doors of perception, as William Blake famously said, are a long way from being cleansed, and the world we see around us is mainly a reflection of our own nutty thoughts projected onto the backdrop of our urban landscapes. We are all broken knights on a very long journey home.

Plants Medicines and the Path Home

The pilgrim’s drunk state is what we call normal consciousness, where the thinking is mostly compulsive and repetitive. It’s the consensus reality awareness all of us buy into to some extent, where we fill in the many gaps in our perceptions with habitual assumptions and inherited templates. Doubt, fear, and harsh condemnation form such a pervasive narrative that we usually don’t even notice they are there. But when we look at how we treat our planet and each other—especially the more vulnerable—we see just how drunk and lost we are. Plant medicine is one of the few reliable things today that has a chance to give our perception doors a good washing and bring us to a moment of clarity at the intersection. The medicine’s biggest value is not that it can help us go on astral journeys or commune with bees on Venus but that it can help us become whole people again, people who are authentic and kind to one another.  

The big experiences of plant medicine clear the way so that the journey can move forward apace. The medicine is a bullshit excavator, a piece of spiritual machinery that reaches through deeply habitual layers of ourselves that we normally can’t get past. When regular old me has stepped aside, then I can unearth my most recalcitrant, scared, and closed-off parts—my supreme inner drunks—and give them an intersection moment. Or, if I’m really lucky, I can get a taste of journey’s end, that place where love is so much the answer that I no care what the question was.

The spiritual journey is a long, slow walking-off of ordinary consciousness—walking off fear, walking off the need to follow our compulsions, and walking off the quiet desperation we feel when we try to control our disparate, arguing selves. It’s the letting go. It’s the slow process of me sorting through myself till I reach Me Central—that core who has a sense of where home is and who has mastered the art of self-acceptance—which turns out to be a stunningly difficult task. And when every part of me has been taken into the refuge of my heart, I don’t need to pillage the planet to get more toys or to project my unintegrated parts onto the “usual suspect” scapegoats of my society or my particular social group. Finally, when I stand again as one being, I arrive at my beginning and, as Eliot said, I now get to know the place for the first time. When I’m whole, I’m home.

Gandhi and the Buddha have shared their thoughts on the subject, but  I think Eric Clapton described our predicament best:

Come down off your throne

And leave your body alone.

Somebody must change.

You are the reason I’ve been waiting so long,

Somebody holds the key.

Well I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time,

And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home.