Can the effect of drugs be described as a mystical experience?

                        The discussion on drugs and its effects is extensive. However, there is a line within that discussion which focuses on certain drugs and whether they induce spiritual effects. In order to start on such a topic it is of upmost importance to discuss and set the basis of the discussion; that being the methodology and the terms which will be used. The definition for ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystical experience’ is riddled with multiplicities and has been a colourful tug of war between scholars and mystics themselves. Focusing on the question, the definition of a ‘mystical experience’ is somewhat much more difficult to define as it is a personal esoteric experience. If we were to personify a mystical experience it would be an introvert who lives within themselves and stutters when being made to make small talk. A mystical experience is not just silent or vague like an introvert would be accused of. Inside there is substance, a science and a serious thinker.[1] For the sake of this misunderstanding, I aim to clearly lay out what my definitions are and how I intend to use them against the discussion of the effect of drugs.


What makes an experience ‘mystical’?

The work of William James (d. 1910), the famous American philosopher and psychologist, is held highly amongst scholars as he was one of the first to seriously look at spiritual experience from a psychological point of view. James was solely interested in the individual experience (Butler Bowdon). With the aid of The Varieties of Religious Experience, deduce what a mystical experience is by finding common factors between accounts of mystical experiences and then use them against terms of William James.

There are two characteristics that all mystics share in common. The biggest one being ineffability. That is to say that a mystical experience is difficult to articulate which can be humorously compared to the now famous case of the elderly parishioner in Spain who tried to restore the decaying painting of Jesus. There can never be a hand drawn carbon copy of a painting, but only an attempt at creatively reinterpreting the painting. What the artist saw in her vision and what a respective viewer sees will not be the same as what the painter wanted to express. To further on this quality, the mystical experience must be then experienced directly; it cannot be experienced through or imparted into another person. In this regard it can be said that a mystical state is more like a state of feeling than a state of intellect. It cannot be made clear to another who has never had a certain feeling what that feeling actually feels like.[2]

The second characteristic is noetic quality. Though it has been said a mystical experience is more a state of feeling that does not mean the state of intellect is disregarded. A mystical experience seems to be a state of knowledge. Those who experience mystical states will dip their toes into the many layers of truth, maybe even the deepest layer. While still being ineffable, it is displayed to the subject as a revelation, illumination, and an experience so full of significance and importance. As a rule the experience has a lingering authority for a long time after the experience. Things which would in a normal state of consciousness take no meaning, or lines of poetry which would be read without a second glance, would have its importance found. Its meaning would be fully realised like never before. That is to say that we have an ingrained ‘mystical susceptibility’, and through activities, namely taking psychedelic/hallucinogenic drugs, it allows that mystical susceptibility to leave the dark crevices of our insides and to roam our minds freely.[3]

James does not regard the next two characteristics to be mentioned as important as the first two, however I believe it has the same amount of importance for the title at hand. He mentions transiency as another characteristic. He observes that it is rare for a mystical state to be sustained for a long amount of time and they are rarely interruptive. Half an hour to an hour is probably the longest one can be in a mystical state; thereafter the state fades into ‘the light of (the) common day’[4], and the quality of the state can be imprinted to memory, but not perfectly. However, when these states recur the once imperfect reproduction of the experience is recognised and strengthened, and with every recurrence the importance attached to it develops along with the inner richness. Each time the experience occurs it transforms the inner life of the subject.[5]

James goes on to refer to Sir James Crichton-Brown, a leading British psychiatrist and medical psychologist, who gave these encroaching states of consciousness the name ‘dreamy states’. These dreamy states ‘bring a sense of mystery and of the metaphysical duality of things, and the feeling of an enlargement of perception which seems imminent but which never completes itself.’[6]

The final characteristic is called ‘passivity’. Though mystical states may be experienced as an effect of voluntary practices; whether that be putting oneself through bodily routines or what the manuals of mysticism instruct; when the self-expanding consciousness kicks in the subject feels that his own will is free floating in suspension, or even being grasped by a higher power[7]. A group of psychedelic scholars had noticed that a large number of drug-induced experiences are spiritually connected and that led to the development of the concept of ‘entheogen’. Entheogen is the substance that reflects the potential to internally commune with god.[8] There will be a further elaboration on entheogens later in the discussion.

The terms I will be keeping to are; ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, dreamy state and passivity with the definitions given above. However, to go on and give accounts of mystical and psychedelic induced experiences I will discuss the methodology by which I stand by for this question.


The two methodologies I had researched were empiricism and phenomenology. I have chosen phenomenology as the foundation for my methodology. Empiricism would require the analyst to view mystical experiences as an inductive inference of direct experiences[9], and not just the experience itself. It also relies heavily on sensation and the nature of mystical experiences would require the analyst to look further than just senses. However, Phenomenology is the study of consciousness, and the relevant conditions of experience, form the first-person point of view. The reason I have chosen phenomenology as a means to back up my discussion on the effect of drugs is because the subjects are experiencing the states, not the writer. It is the recipient who is living through the experience, not I. I can observe someone who has taken psychedelic drugs and engage with them but that is not what the question is asking. The question is asking that I analyse the experiences and use them to decipher whether psychedelic drugs are a pathway to mystical states. When using examples I am taking the first-hand accounts of the altered states of consciousness, which must include intentionality, and using them as evidence to support my conclusion; whatever that may be. For the benefit of the reader, it is of importance to mention the methods of the classical phenomenologists. There are three major methods amongst classical phenomenologists: 1) ‘the phenomenologist describes a type of experience just as we find it in our own experience. 2) the phenomenologist interprets a type of experience by relating it to relevant features of context; and 3) the phenomenologist practices analysis of experience, factoring out notable features for further elaboration.’[10] It is this final method that all the classical phenomenologists have practiced and it is the final method which I will use too.

The analysis of experience considers that without therapy or interrogation subjects are only vaguely aware of what is around them in the world. I would perhaps suggestively like to refer to psychedelic drugs as the interrogator, as those who are interrogated come to realise how they feel or think about something. For experiences which are ineffable, transient and dreamy, the times we live in have provided phenomenologists with new and perhaps improved ways into analysing such experiences. ‘Neurophenomenology’ further elaborates the ideas of the classical phenomenologists by assuming that the conscious experience is grounded in neural activity. This method mixes biological and physical science with pure phenomenology. For substance induced mystical experiences this is particularly helpful as it can be analysed and monitored in a controlled environment.[11] The most common and potent mystical-inducing drugs are Mescaline, LSD, DMT, and MDMA. The chemicals that make up the named drugs bare similarities to the endogenous neurochemicals in the brain. DMT can also be produced naturally in the brain. If the chemicals of a psychedelic drug can be produced naturally, it strengthens the argument that drugs can produce mystical experiences but what the drug is doing is that it is interrogating the chemicals in order to become active, to then induce the mystical experience. It could be perceived as a lazy person’s shortcut to receive mystical experiences, but with drugs like DMT there is a surety that the chemicals involved will place one in a mystical state; it’s just another route to achieving it.[12]

As mentioned before, these drugs would be referred to as entheogens. Mark Hoffman and Carl Ruck defined entheogen as “any substance that, when ingested, catalyses or generated an altered state of consciousness deemed to have spiritual significance.”[13] Therefore, entheogen’s unique selling point is that it is limited to experiences where they recognise their mystical susceptibility and these experiences are given spiritual interpretations.[14] These entheogenic states are categorised by two main descriptions. One being that all boundaries between the individual and the metaphysical realm disintegrate and what is behind the broken wall is a mystical and a congruent meeting with the higher power. The second description is that the entheogenic experience is a reflection of pure Conciousness and thus brings the subject into direct contact with the root of being.[15]

With these definitions and methods of analysing mystical experiences in mind, we now go onto the use of psychedelic drugs and whether the same terms used to characterise mystical experiences can be applied to drug induced experiences. Thomas B. Roberts, phD, is a professor at Northern Illinois University, where he teaches Foundations of Psychedelic Studies and has many written works focusing solely on psychedelics substances. Roberts is certain that psychedelic drugs and other drugs have the potential to spark ‘transpersonal’ experiences. Roberts uses the term ‘transpersonal experience’ to be characterised as “the feeling of the individual that his consciousness expanded beyond the usual ego boundaries and the limitations of time and space.”[16] It will be of great disdain to compare both ‘transpersonal’ and ‘noetic’ as they are respectively two well-grounded and well elaborated terms from two different authors. However, James’ term ‘noetic’ has an overlap to what Roberts uses as they both refer to opening the mind to inner truths, in particular the truths of the mindbody and the cosmos in which the person is within. So it is possible to say that psychedelic drugs can induce a noetic quality therefore, psychedelic drugs can unravel the secrets of consciousness.

Shamanism and hallucinogenic drugs:

To put all the above into context, I will be tunnelling my vision towards Shamanic traditions. Nature plays an integral role within Shamanism, as shamans consider nature as themselves; thus the they emphasise the importance of exploring and appreciating nature/ourselves. It is with this sentiment that shamans require allies; in this case hallucinogenic plants; to withdraw wisdom, lessons and ecstatic beauty for the sake of deepening the understanding of the world that they live in. The transcendence achieved through hallucinogenic plants is not just for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of helping humankind.[17]

This type of entheogenic spirituality is dependent on this induction of altered states of consciousness; it is the altered state of consciousness that aids almost every shamanic ritual. The rituals range from diagnosis and curing to soul retrieval and communication with nature spirits.[18] When entheogenic substances are taken, ancient shamanic traditions come to life and they are given life with a newer and more profound air of power. Those who experience the altered state see gnostic visions that validate the shamanic theology. Thus, regular access to this altered state of consciousness is necessary. Like other mystics from different parts of the world, shamans must be in contact with the divine. This is in order to continue the natural cycles and to observe and respect the gods and the spirits. The plants are revered because they brought the gods and the shaman together. The shamanic culture therefore moulds its theology and traditions through the pursuit of the entheogenic effects of plants. So, it is fair to say that entheogens is the most direct and powerful way to experience altered states of consciousness.[19] Referring back to the title at hand, the information above shows that the effect of drugs can be called an altered state of consciousness, but whether it can be called a mystical experience is harder to tell. The most obvious quality that entheogenic shamanic experiences share with mystical experiences is the gold thread which is weaved out of the ordinary reality. Revelations, guidelines and theologies are taken from these induced experiences, and they are then used to change the subject’s life (and humankind’s). The fact that the plants are used purely to encourage communication with nature or the higher power should be enough to say that the effects are mystical. Though there is hesitancy in that statement. Mystical experiences could be placed under the wider branch of Altered States of Consciousness; thus considering every mystical experience as an altered state of consciousness, but not all altered states are mystical experiences.[20] However, the dependence and undeniable certainty regarding entheogenics within the Shamanic culture makes it difficult to disregard that the effects are mystical.

Focus study – Carlos Castaneda:

To focus our findings on the previous information on shamanic traditions, I will look into Carlos Castaneda, the well-known author of The Teachings of Don Juan and his controversial, yet mind stimulating accounts of his interaction with shamanic traditions. He takes us through his journey into collecting information on the plants used by Arizonan Indians.[21] He had met don Juan, who was a Yaqui Indian from Sonora, Mexico. Don Juan had taken Castaneda as his apprentice and had taught him the ways of a ‘Man of Knowledge’ through the use of plants, or ‘allies’.

I will try to discern whether the effect of the drugs Castaneda took were actually mystical like shamans in general say they are.[22] There was an instance in Castaneda’s writings where he had chewed 14 buttons of peyote. This caused him to sing feverishly, so much so that he had to leave where he was sitting and he went to find his ally in the peyote field. He emphasises that he felt that each song he was singing were individually his, which for him was unquestionable proof of his singleness. The steps he was taking resounded on the ground and their echo had produced the indescribable euphoria of being a man. He saw every peyote plant shine with a bluish, scintillating light. He was drawn to the one plant that shone the brightest. As he sang to the plant, Mescalito; an ally; morphed into a man. He had asked Castaneda “What do you want?” Castaneda had asked Mescalito to tell him what was wrong with him and to tell him his real name. Mescalito had elongated his mouth, like a trumpet, until it reached Castaneda’s ear and he had told him his real name.[23]

It is examples like this, and others[24] that will confirm that the effects of drugs are mystical experiences. They have passivity, transient and dream like qualities. Castaneda speaks of Mescalito and his presence similar to the way William James described the way passivity includes a feeling of connecting with a power above them. Throughout the book, both Castaneda and don Juan are fascinated by Mescalito and his presence, like being in contact with a god, seeking advice or just companionship. It can also be said that throughout the book, we find that the more times Castaneda comes into contact with these drugs, the more he seems to find importance in smaller things, like attaching importance to the sound of his footsteps. If a mystical experience were delivered as a checklist, Castaneda’s experience would tick many of the boxes. However, it is not as simple as that. Experiencing things like the feverish singing, visioning the scintillating lights or the plant taking a male form will not be considered as characteristics of a mystical experience. They would be described as just hallucinogenic effects. [25] The noetic quality requires knowledge to be taken from the experience; the recipient may see these blue scintillating lights but may not be enlightened. The question must be asked then; must a mystical experience have every single quality in order to be called a mystical experience? If we are to discern whether the effect of drugs are mystical based on individual experiences, then the argument could be elaborated. When looking at one experience individually in this way it is easy to disregard it as non-mystical. However if we were to remind ourselves that a quality of a mystical experience is that through recurrences the worth of the experiences becomes richer and the subject finds importance, then Castaneda’s experiences has achieved this quality. Using collective data, like Carlos Castaneda’s accounts, it would not be a stretch to say that Castaneda did experience mystical states. By the end of his book Castaneda had learnt many lessons, though they were interpreted sometimes by don Juan, including lessons on fear, power, ego, knowledge and how to detect ordinary reality from non-ordinary reality.

Upon reading the accounts of Carlos Castaneda, I had questioned whether these drug induced experiences are just astral projections. Taking from accounts like the one mentioned earlier, Castaneda had seen his father and spoken to him about things he could never normally say.[26] For those who have terrifying or harmful experiences with hallucinogenic drugs, could they just be the repressed monsters hiding within the subject’s consciousness rather than a new and original cultivation of a spiritual state? Even those who have mystical experiences, is it because they too, like Castaneda and don Juan, have taken the path towards becoming Man of Knowledge and thus can experience mystical states? Is it just the mystically inclined that can have spiritual drug-induced experiences? It could be that Plato was correct; Many bear the Bacchic Rod but few are Bacchants.[27] Carrying Plato’s sentiment, I will elaborate on these questions by looking into the Apache’s ban on peyote.

Mescalero, an Apache tribe, had discarded the use of peyote in shamanistic rituals and to this day do not use it. A lot of hostility was brought to existence due to Apache child-rearing practices. In order to direct hostile impulse towards societal and familial members elsewhere, aggression had been institutionalised and was only addressed towards the ‘other’ i.e. witches, ghosts and cultural bogies. However, hallucinogenic drugs had influenced the subjects to unravel the repressed hostility towards their family and community members, and they had become dangerously expressive to the point where it was harming tribal unity. Under the influence of drugs, there is an almost regression within the subject as they release aggression in childish form, which tended to be directed towards parents and sibling surrogates. The bloodshed and tribal feuds lead to the Apache banning the growing of peyote. It is interesting, however, to find out that peyote was only to be used by shamans. It was only those who were regarded to have supernatural powers who could take peyote. This answers the question asked earlier. Those who are spiritual in nature and have learnt and worked to tread the path of god are more likely to not have bad non-mystical experiences with the drugs. Whereas the dangerous aggression shown by others who are not shamans or do not have the training or the strength to embark on drug induced journeys are unlikely to produce mystical experiences. The effect of drugs, in this case, is most likely the product of the repressed emotions. [28]

Another reason why peyote camps have been banned is because the Mescaleros fear that it has an evil power which will drive the subject to do evil.[29] This creates further questions; does a mystical experience have to be a positive one? William James spoke of noetic and passive qualities – does the knowledge of inner truths have to be positive? Does the communion with the higher power have to be positive? The effect of hashish has been discussed by many authors, and poems have been written by the subjects themselves, and this information can be used to answer the above questions.

Sufism and Hashish:

There is an extensive amount of literary work on the concept of ecstatic states within the mystical line of Islam. Guides have been written on how to achieve mystical states such as ; purifying the soul, being in absolute Love with God, and detaching oneself from the world are only just a few ways to achieve different states. However, the idea to take cannabis, or what it is known in and around Egypt as hashish was not mentioned by the famous Sufi scholars as a means to connect with God. Before researching into hashish, the expectation was that the use of drugs by Sufis were taboo and underground. It was wrong to assume such a thing. Hashish was commonly used and it was common knowledge that it would intoxicate the recipient to the point where they will achieve mystical experiences. Subjects had said that they smoked hashish to appreciate the nature of God, which would then stimulate mystical consciousness[30]. However, the effects of the drug were not always liked by the sober or the ruling government at the time. When hashish was taken and shortly after, there would be a ‘slumber of the soul’ and the faculty of thinking went down a steep downward slope. The drug was accused of draining the subject’s energy, making them unwilling to work. This was of course a great concern to the dominant culture as the drug had undermined the work ethic of the subject. It has also been said that the drug caused ‘insanity’ because it dried up the lower parts of the body causing vapours to rise in the brain. The result of this was that the mind had weakened and was slowly being destroyed.[31] Prosper Alpinus described hashish intoxication in Egypt. “For an hour afterwards, those who have taken it, display their madness, and remaining for a long time in a state of ecstasy, revel in their delightful dreams.’[32] From the outsider the effect of the hashish could be seen as madness. To the subject, it may be an intoxicated mystical experience. It is clear that the effects of hashish are not productive or go against the faux pas but have not great Sufis like Rumi and Hafez been accused of madness? Rumi was intoxicated by the love of God and had taken safe haven in the confines of his home and his poetry made his community worry about his sanity. The Sufi detaches themselves from the world and it can be said that the effect of hashish did almost the exact same thing. Though it can be argued that the effect of hashish may be mystical in nature, the effects cannot be said to be mystical.

There have been two sides to this argument. One side of the argument is that the effect of drugs can be described as a mystical experience because they supersede the 5 qualities. The second argument is that the effect of drugs cannot be described as a mystical experience because of the blurry lines between an altered state of consciousness and a mystical experience. The original question has led to many other questions. A summary of the points above would result in the finding that substance induced experiences awaken the mystical susceptibility within the subjects, and these can be both dreamy and wonderful or dreamy and terrifying. One example from one drug is not sufficient enough to write a conclusion. However, the fact that a whole culture is based on entheogens, a drug just for spiritual experiences, is sufficient evidence to say that the effect of the specific drugs is mystical. The introduction of ‘neurophenomenology’ assumes that there must be a connection between entheogens and the effects it has on neural activity. To even have the term ‘entheogen’, which etymologically derives from the greek root word referring to ‘the god within’ must mean that mystical experiences can occur.[33] There should be an emphasis on ‘can’; the entheogens and other substances have the potential to induce mystical experiences. Thus, this would explain the reason why the Apache had banned peyote fields but still allowed shamans to take peyote. The unpredictability could be dangerous. To tie in the essay, Carlos Castaneda, shamans and Sufis alike know what path they are taking before they take the substances. They are aware of what their intentions are and what they would like to achieve from these experiences. Don Juan had said ‘Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.”[34] And it is with this sentiment by which I end my argument.

[1] James, W (2002-2013). The Varieties of Religious Experience. Pennsylvania State University: An Electronic Classics Series Publication. p368.

[2] Ibid pp366-368

[3] Memoirs of Alfred Tennyson, ii. 473. In James, pp368-370.

[4] James p367

[5] Ibid. pp366-368

[6] Ibid. p370

[7] Ibid pp366-368

[8] Roberts, T. B and Winkleman, M. J. (2013). Psychedelic Induced Transpersonal Experiences, Therapies, and Their Implications for Transpersonal Psychology . In: Friedman, H. L and Hartelius, G The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology. -: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.. p460.

[9] Macmillan Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1969), “Empiricism”, vol. 2, p. 503.

[10] Smith, D. W, “Phenomenology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <;.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Horgan, J (2003). Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality. New York: Houghton Mifflin

[13] Hoffman, M. & Ruck, C. A. P. (2004). Entheogens (psychedelic drugs) and shamanism. In M.N. Walter & E. J. N. Fridman (Eds.) Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices and Culture. California. (Vol. 1, pp. 111–112)

[14] Roberts et al, p461

[15] Hoffman and Ruck p112

[16] Roberts et al, pp459-450

[17] McKenna, T and Mckenna, D (1975). The Invisible Landscape, Mind Hallucinogens and The Iching. New York: Blue Water Publishing. pp12-14.

[18] . Hoffman and Ruck, p113

[19]  Ibid. p112

[20] Ustinova, Y (2009). Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind : Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth. New York: Oxford University Press Inc. p19.

[21] Castaneda’s work was under the microscope as soon as it was published. The book is seen as a work of fiction by a large number of anthropologists and critiques as they believe his anthropological study was inaccurate for many reasons. One of them being that he was never actually where he said he was and instead was sitting in a library taking information from other books on shamanic use of peyote. Anthropologists also said that the terms he used are inaccurate of what Indian shamans use. There is very little to say that Castaneda met don Juan and that don Juan actually exists. However, if this were to be true, Castaneda  would have had to get the information from somewhere and not just from thin air. The sentiment is still there. The research, whether it be field work or from books, has been done. I have referred to this piece of literature because I am confident that this is not just pure story telling. For the sake of my question, it has enough information to help me decide whether these accounts are actually mystical or not. I am taking not just taking the accounts at face but as I have mentioned before, I will be analysing the experiences and factoring out notable features. ( Burton, Sandra; et al. (March 5, 1973). “Don Juan and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice” Time 101. <,9171,903890,00.html>  Retrieved December 23, 2011

[22] For the sake of intellectual honesty, I will note that I have only picked one example and will take into regard that not every example in Castaneda’s work follows the same patterns.

[23] Castaneda, C. (2006). Teachings of Don Juan. Available: <; Last accessed 13th Jan 2014, p65

[24] Examples can be taken from ibid, pg 44 and 55

[25] Roberts et al, p46

[26] “… He seemed to be unconcerned and told me to disregard the experiences because they were meaningless, or rather valueless. He said the only experiences worth my effort and concern would be those in which I saw a crow; any other kind of “vision” would be merely the product of my fears. He reminded me again that in order to partake of the smoke it was necessary to lead a strong, quiet life.” “He said that because this was the first time I was seeing a crow the images were not clear or important, and that later on with practice I would be able to recognize everything”. Castaneda, p78

[27] Phaedo 69D

[28] Boyer, L. B, Boyer, R. M, and Basehart H. W (1973). Shamanism and Peyote Use Among the Apaches of the Mescalero Indian Reservation. New York: Oxford University Press. Found on <;

[29] Ibid.

[30] Rosenthal, F (1971). The Herb – Hashish versus Medieval Muslim Society. Netherlands: Brill. p48.

[31] Ibid. pp 97-98

[32] Quote found in Nahas, G. G. (-). Hashish in Islam – 9th to 18th Century. Available: Last accessed 13th Jan 2014, p821

[33] Roberts et al, p45

[34] Castaneda, p46

Can the effect of drugs be described as a mystical experience?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s