Psychedelics and the Religious Experience
Psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD are being researched again after a 40-year hiatus, and the results are promising, from both a scientific and spiritual perspective.
I spent a lot of time in the Gardner A. Sage Library. I also passed many hours just outside of it. As a religion student at Rutgers University, it was accessible to me as part of the theological seminary. During the day, I would scour texts learning about ancient faiths. At night, I would climb down a metal ladder bolted into a brick façade leading to an underground courtyard.
By day, my imagination was filled with the visions and hallucinations of millennia-old sages and prophets. While the sun slept, I was having my own thanks to healthy doses of psilocybin and LSD. I would stare at movies that didn’t exist playing across those bricks, contemplating the cosmos from a tiny library basement in New Brunswick.
My first cover story for the university’s Daily Targum entertained the notion of having a religious experience while on psychedelics. My editor later told me she received numerous letters about the piece, most expressing disdain. Critics claimed it impossible to have the slow revelations of, say, disciplines like yoga and meditation instantly with a tab of acid. It is, they said, cheating.
In the 20 years since those long days and longer nights, my feelings haven’t changed about the power of psychedelic (“mind manifesting”) substances. Fortunately cultural assumptions have shifted dramatically. While these chemicals were scientifically studied and governmentally funded during the '50s and '60s, research ended when they were ruled illegal by Richard Nixon in 1970. The law states psychedelics have no therapeutic or medical value.
Since then, these substances have been locked in the same legal drawer as narcotics — ironic, as that word is derived from the Latin narko, “to make numb,” a claim nobody on LSD would ever make. Decades of potential therapeutic research have been missed, most notably thanks to corporate greed.
Don’t take my word for it. Here are the words of Director of the National Institute of Mental Health Tom Insel:
The N.I.M.H. is not opposed to work with psychedelics, but I doubt we would make a major investment. ... It would be very difficult to get a pharmaceutical company interested in developing this drug, since it cannot be patented.
Thankfully not everyone is so pessimistic. Psilocybin, the main compound in "magic mushrooms," was the focus of a recent trial at N.Y.U. Researchers discovered that it helps alleviate anxiety and existential distress in cancer patients. For the uninitiated, this sounds like an escape; much like my detractors in ‘95, psychedelics are believed to conjure false gods in the minds of users.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First off, psychedelic substances force you to confront personal issues — a "bad trip" is often encountered during an investigation of latent emotional content. In fact, during both of my experiences with the entheogenic brew ayahuasca, my entire evening was consumed not by visions of cosmic serpents, but by habitual character patterns. My revelations had nothing to do with universal harmony, but the courage to practice techniques for breaking bad habits. Yes, there were plenty of visual and auditory hallucinations. They simply weren’t the most pertinent aspect.
Such introspection is not uncommon and should not be underrated. As philosopher and linguist Alan Watts wrote of his first LSD experience:
It was an intensely interesting aesthetic and intellectual experience that challenged my powers of analysis and careful description to the utmost.
Now, as Watts admits, and as I have experienced myself in over 100 psychedelic episodes, these substances serve other functions. And it is here that the true therapeutic and religious value emerges: a reduction in anxiety levels.
Pretty basic, no? Yet not so simple. Stress is most commonly associated with elevated levels of the steroid hormone cortisol. While low levels of cortisol help repair tissue after exercise, chronically elevated levels result in suppressed immune functioning, promotes osteoporosis, acts as a diuretic, disrupts sleep, is linked with excessive protein breakdown and obesity, and impairs learning by damaging the hippocampus. Anxiety is a killer in every sense.
On a larger scale, as evidenced in the N.Y.U. cancer study, anxiety regarding death is pervasive. Americans don’t know how to die; we’ve never developed proper rituals for it. Many elders spend their final days in the cold confines of an ICU or in senior homes. Instead of celebrating life, we mourn the past, so much so that we’re never really here.
Part of what psychedelics address is the present moment. This helps contribute to a drop in anxiety. Instead of an intense focus on where one is heading, or where one’s been, this moment, now, is emphasized. Unsurprisingly, psychedelics alter brain chemistry in a similar manner as meditation.
This occurs in the brain’s default mode, or, more broadly stated, the imagination. Our brain is always in one of two modes: central executive (complete focus) and daydreaming, the default. Researchers in Australia and Norway found that nondirective meditation — letting the mind wander while in meditation — helps reduce anxiety. This is the same region accessed by psychedelics.
As Michael Pollan writes in The New Yorker,
Blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution.
While anecdotes usually make for poor science, they play an essential role in neuroscience and psychology. Ego dissolution is the foundation both Buddhism and yoga were built upon. You can argue this idea persists in Christianity and Islam (“surrender”), in which the practitioner attempts to dissolve his personal ego through faith in an earthly representative of a godhead.
What persists in both anecdote and research, however, is that breaking patterns is one of the most substantial benefits of psychedelics. LSD and iboga may help alcoholism. MDMA, once used in marriage counseling, is now showing dramatic improvements in veterans dealing with PTSD. (So is yoga.)
This is where the religious experience comes into focus. A feeling of unity with your surroundings, a deeply held sense of comfort and continuity, the lightness of being as anxiety surrenders — all emotional sensations produced when the self-defeating neural regions are turned off during experiences with psychedelics, meditation, and the mental state known as Flow.
The mystical is chemical. When these egoistic brain centers shut down, crosstalk occurs between neural regions that don’t otherwise communicate. Religious literature has expressed the sentiments that result for eons: unity, serenity, peacefulness, compassion. Given the frayed wires so many humans grapple with today, I’m not sure what could be more therapeutic, or spiritual, than this.
Image: agsandrew / shutterstock.com
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.
- Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
- As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
- Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.
Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.
These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.
How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.
Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.
One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.
The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.
Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"
This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.
Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.
Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.
What the future may hold
(NASA via Getty Images)
Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.
Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.
But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.
Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.
Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.
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