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Machines Like Us

Of mushrooms and peak experiences

Saturday, 29 December 2012
by Juan Cole

Magic mushrooms. Photo credit

The magic mushrooms really do work. Depending on what you mean by "work."

I suspect that these mushrooms were used to make the soma of the ancient Hindu scriptures, and the haoma of ancient Iran.

The mushroom-produced drug induces feelings of oneness with the universe and afterwards, a sense of well-being. These experiences were called "peak experiences" by psychologist Abraham Maslow. His critics claimed that the experience itself is ethically neutral, and it can become a form of selfishness in itself. But these experiments seem to suggest that the experience is not in fact neutral, that it produces a weeks-long sense of well-being that is noticed by the people around one.

Drugs of all sorts can affect mental states, and mystics were always masters at using those states for self-betterment and self-exploration. Starbucks addicts may be interested to know that Muslim Sufi mystics probably started up the practice of drinking concentrated coffee, in the 1400s in Yemen, as a way of staying up late praying and seeking...peak experiences.

But the experience itself is not wisdom and wouldn't make a person wise. It is not the insight or nirvana of the Buddha or the moksha or liberation of the yogis or the fana' or self-effacement of the Sufis. That comes with a genuine discipline and a practical philosophy of life.

The human mind has the capacity to feel the oneness of things, to put aside selfish ego and the violence, psychic and physical, that it promotes. The drug just demonstrates that the capacity is there. This was known. The question is, what one does with it. A peak experience can just be an experience. Or it can be the beginning of a more fulfilled, kind and giving life. The drug by itself is no more important than a parlor trick. As with anything in life, it matters what is done with it. And, the true mystic does not need mushrooms to have peak experiences.

More exciting than the mystical high induced by this drug is the possibility that a processed form of it may help combat depression. For a lot of people, the existing depression drugs don't work or are unpleasant. The longer I live, the more I become convinced that most of the nasty things people do to one another come out of various psychopathologies, including their own depression. Less depression in the world would be all to the good. Also less selfishness, and more of an ability to empathize with others, even one's putative enemies. That's the peak of the peak, and I doubt it has anything to do with mushrooms.