Psychedelic substances have a long history of therapeutic use, and the link to meditation is not new, as many people now view meditation as a natural extension of psychedelic states. Let’s examine the shared and differing aspects of these two alternative methods for personal growth and self-discovery, and how the two might be able to learn from each other.
Meditation vs. Psychedelics
The first step towards creating a fair, and in-depth comparison is to define each side and discuss what they have in common and what makes them different.
What Are Psychedelics?
Aldous Huxley and Humphrey Osmond named these substances after the Greek terms “Psyche” and “Delous” meaning “mind-revealing” or “Mind-manifesting”. Hence the very essence of these substances is defined by their ability to reveal hidden aspects of the mind. By removing the filters through which people orient themselves, they often encounter deep insights into the meaning of the world and their place within. This can even manifest as an epistemic shock, leading to a re-evaluation of their personality or worldview. High doses of psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, Ibogaine, DMT, mescaline, and others can be likened to hitting a gong very hard and sending out shockwaves rippling through the mind.
What Is It Like to Meditate?
In a similar vein, many types of meditation, such as the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Dzogchen meditation, aims to recognize the illusory nature of the self to reveal the Non-dual nature of our core experience. There are many different types of meditation that use various techniques, but a key feature in all of them is that they seek to cultivate a state of deep awareness of our ongoing experience that is unguided by goal-directed attention. Meditation can be tedious and hard, some people even choose to take a 10-day silent retreat to experience a truly selfless state. Similar to exercise, the more you practice meditation the better you are at cultivating these states. Because meditative states are much harder to achieve, people who attain them will have put in the greater effort than just ingesting a drug.
What Do Meditation and Psychedelics Have in Common?
Both psychedelics and meditation are thought to have transformative properties. Other similarities include:
- Both promote insightfulness and openness to new experiences
- Both increase creativity
- Both increase compassion for others
- Both promote self-actualization
- Both improve self-esteem
- Both increase positive mood
Key Differences Between Meditation and Psychedelics
There are some important differences between the two states:
- Meditation has fewer side effects, whereas psychedelics are more likely to cause bad trips.
- Meditation can be practiced every day, whereas psychedelics should only be used once a while.
- Meditation requires a lot of effort, and training, whereas psychedelics are relatively effortless.
- Meditation is legal, while Psychedelics are often still considered illegal in most parts of the world.
- Meditation can be interrupted voluntarily at will, whereas psychedelics require hours to wear off.
What Can Neuroscience Teach Us About Psychedelics and Meditation?
With the advent of modern neuroimaging techniques, researchers can now peer into people’s minds to investigate what kind of brain networks are active during altered states of consciousness. Although, just at the beginning of mapping the relationship between the brain and the mind, researchers have found that there are a set of brain regions that are always processing something, even when we are not engaged with anything on the outside world. Several neurons in different brain regions comprise the “Default Mode Network” that is constantly busy thinking about others, thinking about ourselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future. It is believed that people with depression and anxiety have too much activity in the Default Mode Network, which causes them to think too much about themselves and how they are seen by others. As we shall see, both psychedelics and meditation can have positive effects on its activity.
What Is Default Mode Network (DMN)
Current research suggests that psychedelics and meditation may have a potent effect on the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN), which is responsible for the internal dialogue that is referred to as “mind-wandering”. The Default Mode Network is a centrally connected hub within the brain that maintains an equilibrium between internal and external processing. But when this network becomes too active, this internal dialogue often leads to self-criticism, anxiety, and rumination, which are all common symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders.
How Is Default Mode Network Connected to Psychedelics?
By decreasing the connectivity of the Default Mode Network, psychedelics bring the promise of suppressing self-contained ways of thinking. At very high doses, this can even lead to ego dissolution, a state of pure experience that is void of any representation of one’s self. This leads to a blurring of the boundaries between the core self and the external world. It is believed that people with depression and anxiety have too much activity in the Default Mode Network, which causes them to think too much about themselves and how they are seen by others. So by decreasing Default Mode activity in these people could help them disengage from these types of thought patterns. Of course, the ego/self has many facets, for instance, MDMA blurs the social boundaries between self and other and increases prosocial behavior. This can also have a positive effect on building trust with a therapist or improving psychosocial functioning. And although MDMA also decreases Default Mode Network connectivity, it does not have such profound effects as Ego-Death, therefore it is often classified as an Empathogen or an Enactogen rather than a psychedelic.
How Is the Default Mode Network (DMN) Connected to Meditation?
Like psychedelics, meditation also decreases the activity of the Default Mode Network, for instance during focused attention meditation, mantra recitation, and loving-kindness meditation. Researchers believe that the Default Mode Network can interfere with attention because it distracts people from an external goal with spontaneous mind-wandering. This is why people sometimes forget what they are doing, due to a lapse of attention when their mind takes them somewhere else. So by suppressing the activity of the Default Mode Network via practiced meditation, people can get better at focussing their attention. Experienced meditators who can maintain states of ego-dissolution for hours on end are thus able to exercise more control on their minds, and less likely to be distracted, and less likely to linger on distressful emotions. This ability can have lots of benefits for increasing mental health and work productivity.
Is There a Synergy Between the Two States in the Eyes of Neuroscience?
Scientists believe that the synergy between psychedelics and meditation rests on their ability to decrease the influence of the Default Mode Network, which enables people to experience an ego-less state. So, what happens when you combine the two? Researchers at the University of Zurich wanted to find this out:
Expert Meditators Brain on Psychedelics Predicts Long-Term Health Benefits
Psychedelic researchers from Zurich recruited 39 expert meditators to take part in a double-blind psilocybin study, that administered 22 mg of psilocybin at a mindfulness meditation retreat in the alps of Switzerland. They found that psilocybin increased the flexibility of their brain states, such that they could reduce Default Mode Network connectivity and reach a state of ego-dissolution more easily. These changes in their brain activity also predicted positive changes in psycho-social functioning up to 4 months later. This seems to suggest that psilocybin made it easier for them to enter a meditative state and increased the long-term mental health benefits of meditation as well.
Psychedelics Increase Mindfulness
In another study, the same group investigated the synergistic effects of mindfulness and meditation following the experiences of expert meditators across the entirety of the 5-day retreat. Not only were they uninterrupted in their meditation practice, but psilocybin actually improved their level of mindfulness and meditation depth! The expert meditators gradually increased meditation depth until the 4th day, when psilocybin noticeably increased this trend and enabled them to meditate deeper than any other day of the retreat. Mindfulness meditation also increased the positive reactions of psilocybin and mitigated its negative effects, such as feelings of anxiety or a loss of control, compared to placebo plus meditation.
This shows that psilocybin seems to go well with meditation, but whether it would have the same effects on less experienced meditators is unclear. One thing is clear, however, that psilocybin may induce a state of ego-dissolution and temporarily increase the flexibility of the brain and its mental states, enabling it to enter a meditative state more easily. Both states, meditation and psilocybin, have been shown to induce changes in the default mode network, so it makes sense that the two states might benefit each other.
Psychedelics, Meditation, or Both?
You may be wondering which is better, psychedelics or meditation? As we shall see, they both have some unique advantages, so this is likely different for everyone. Luckily, there are good reasons for combining them, making it possible to receive the benefits of both worlds at once.
Are Psychedelics Meditation?
The short answer is no. Psychedelics and meditation have many things in common, such as their ability to induce ego-less states. But these effects can often vary from person to person, and from setting to setting. The experiences that an expert meditator will encounter on a psychedelic is not the same as what someone who has never tried either. Psychedelics are also believed to increase the dynamic repertoire of brain states, which means the brain is open to experiencing a wider range of mental states, that include mindfulness as well as the more bizarre corners of the mind. Expert meditators may be uniquely well-equipped to navigate this wide mental landscape!
Combining Meditation Practices With Psychedelic Experiences - Mixing Psychedelic With Meditation
Navigating the full intensity of a psychedelic experience can be challenging and not for the faint-hearted. It can also be very challenging since psychedelics can reveal thoughts and feelings regardless of whether a person is ready to face them. Luckily, there are many types of ancient traditions, ranging from Zen Buddhists, Sufi Mystics, and Indigenous Shamans who have developed several techniques for navigating altered states of consciousness through various techniques. Meditation is unique in that it cultivates an ‘awareness of awareness’ that can help people dedicate their undivided attention to the psychedelic experience. Often times a psychedelic trip turns bad for the very reason, when people encounter a challenging experience, they desperately try to fight it instead of embracing it. This is where the ability to attend to emotions in an accepting non-judgmental manner can have profound benefits.
Psychedelics as a Rite of Passage Into Meditation
People are often so engaged in (self) judgmental ways of thinking that they often close themselves off to think in other ways to interact with their environment. It can be extremely difficult to explain to someone the benefits of meditation without them having any prior experience. Psychedelics taken in the right context can be a useful tool for helping people open up to new experiences. For instance, the neuroscientist and podcaster Sam Harris often portrays his first experiences with MDMA as a rite of passage for establishing his interest in mindfulness meditation. People searching for more sustainable ways of cultivating these states will often turn to meditation as a natural extension of psychedelic states.
Meditation as a Buffer Against Bad Trips
It should be noted that psychedelics are not always safe for everyone and taking a large dose without prior experience can be like jumping into the deep end of the pool before learning how to swim. This is where meditation is potentially the most useful, as a compass for navigating an unsettled ocean. Expert meditators have greater emotion regulation capacities, that can help them integrate challenging experiences and buffer the distressing aspects of psychedelics that can lead to ‘bad trips’.
Does Meditation Have a Place Within the Future of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy?
There are many reasons why psychedelic-assisted therapy and meditation may be synergistic. Both rely on a greater openness to the present moment and increased awareness and acceptance of thoughts and emotions. Meditation may be an ideal complement to psychedelic-assisted therapy because it allows the individual to relax and reduce anxiety and fear that often accompany the initial experiences of psychedelics. Much of the research into the effects of meditation on the brain is still in its infancy, but as we have seen from the psychedelic research conducted in Switzerland, expert meditators seem to have a greater capacity for navigating the vast landscape of psychedelic experience. Meditation also seems to provide help in dealing with intense emotions in response to challenging experiences. This means there may be unique health benefits of integrating this technique with psychedelic-assisted therapy. Current protocols for psychedelic-assisted therapy dedicate the majority of their time to preparation and integration, and meditation techniques could improve the therapeutic efficacy of these processes, by helping patients feel secure with even high doses.
The future of these two modalities is intertwined, and they have many things to teach each other. Both offer valuable tools for improving psychological well-being and increasing compassion. Psychedelic-assisted therapy and meditation may actually be synergistic and may be particularly useful in the treatment of psychological symptoms and disorders that are not addressed well by conventional approaches. It is clear that psychedelics can be powerful tools for therapy and transformation, but that does not mean that all psychedelic experiences are inherently positive. As we move into a future where psychedelic therapy is more widely accepted and integrated into the treatment of many conditions, we may also begin to see improved methods for integrating the psychedelic experience into our daily lives. This may include the development of new modalities for incorporating meditation into our psychedelic experiences.