This is part two of a three-part conversation between Michael Stone and Dr. Douglas Osto. It took place in September 2010, while Michael was teaching at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Dr. Douglas Osto is the programme coordinator of the Religious Studies Programme at Massey University in New Zealand. He is doing research on the intersection of drugs and Buddhism.
Shôken Michael Stone is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher and Buddhist teacher. He is authorized to teach in the Vipassana tradition and is also a Zen student of Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. He travels internationally teaching about yoga, Buddhism and social action. He leads Centre of Gravity Sangha in Toronto, a thriving community of people interested in the intersection of spirituality and community practice. He has written four books with Shambhala Publications on yoga, Buddhism and ethics and his new book is Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.
So you’ve told me that you were introduced to Buddhism by your uncle, who had mental health issues and had done a lot of LSD. Do you see a potential danger in psychedelics for some people?
Yeah, I do. I think there is a danger in psychedelics. There is a danger for people who are organized to have possible psychotic experiences with both psychedelics and meditation, and for people who have had severe emotional or physical trauma. Both meditation and psychedelics can be very troubling. Now we are starting to create in North America very intelligent mindfulness-based meditation techniques that we can introduce for people who’ve had, or who can enter into, extreme states. And I actually think that meditation can become an incredible tool for people even with schizophrenia.
If it’s done properly.
Yes, if used very carefully, one on one. But certainly for somebody who has a disposition toward a more psychotic organization, I don’t think psychedelics are a good idea. I wouldn’t know how to even begin using psychedelics properly with someone who was schizophrenic. I don’t know how that would be helpful. But I know people who have done that.
Yeah, I think Grof did some experiments. Which raises another issue that interests me: the whole idea of altered states of consciousness. People do obviously have very profound altered states of consciousness when they are taking psychedelics and that will depend a lot on their mindset, their particular setting and dosage. What about meditation? Have you experienced some profound altered states of consciousness through meditation?
I have some students, especially on retreat, who have altered states all the time. A lot of times it happens very physically the way energy moves in the body, or sensations of heat, or releases, not emotional, but really physical. I would call all those altered states of consciousness. Now having said that, the key in meditation practice, at least in Buddhist practice, is really just to let those experiences happen and unfold without interfering with them too much. For example, if somebody is starting to have a lot of heat or the feeling of fire rising up in their torso and they tell me that this is going on during a retreat, I’ll give them the instruction to really focus on their exhale to get the energy to go down instead of up.
If somebody is experiencing a heaviness and there is the sensation of weight coming from their chest down into their legs and it’s painful, I’ll get them to focus on their inhalation, so that the energy comes up. That’s just two examples of how I like to get people to have really balanced energy, so that they can get really, really still.
If there are all kinds of shaking, or even sexual arousal that happens during meditation practice, I really encourage people just to watch it. So for example in yoga vocabulary there are these two terms: citta and purusa. Citta I translate as “consciousness.” And purusa I translate as “awareness.” I like that vocabulary because awareness watches consciousness, but consciousness can’t watch awareness.
In your experiences with LSD and mushrooms, were you a solo tripper, or did you have friends that you did these things with?
I think ninety percent of the time I was by myself. And I could only really enter what was being offered if I was in the natural world.
Do you think some of that loneliness could be because you were having these really profound experiences, but without anybody else, so there was nobody who could sort of relate to what was happening? Were you able to share these experiences?
Even when people were relating to what was happening, or had been through similar experiences, I still felt like they were so trans-verbal that I felt like they were private in some way. I just didn’t feel like I found anyone around me who could appreciate that what I was experiencing through these visions was the base of reality. At that time, I thought that it was THE most important thing.
In your life?
At the time, I thought “In life.”
In life, full-stop. Right.
That a human could actually have this experience, to me it just kind of flattened every other experience down to a much, much lower level. I don’t know if I would articulate that now, but that’s how I thought about it then.
And this was still around when you were in your late teens, or early twenties?
Early twenties now. It was like you’re born and you’re going to die, and that’s part of a greater cycle. How can anyone not stop everything they’re doing and really investigate that?
As a kind of vision quest almost; to try and tear the veil away and see reality.
Yeah, and at the time it was just how do you tear the veil away, and then once the veil fell, I didn’t feel like I needed to investigate that realm too much anymore. As a practitioner who does a lot of sitting, and I feel like I know how to work with my mind, I feel a deep connection with all living creatures. I don’t have such a strong desire to have those more colourful or dramatic experiences through mushrooms. I wish I could explain why; I never really thought about it until now.
What’s your relationship with something like mushrooms now? Do you think of it as, possibly, a door opener for somebody on the path, or is it something that just personally happened to you? Do you still use substances occasionally, or is it more of a kind of prohibition that you’ve imposed on yourself? How is your relationship with these things now?
I’m still intrigued by mushrooms, and I would certainly explore them again. But right now my practice is really quite ordinary. It is really about waking up to the way that the I-making mechanism of the mind functions and when I can really see that happening, compassion and generosity and kindness start to plant themselves in me. Having said that, I remember being able to see that I-mechanism, that storyteller, a little bit when I was on mushrooms. But the mushrooms pushed past it and didn’t lead to the skill of working with it, which is a kind of technique it seems like. Something like learning the piano.
That is a skill I have learned now, but I didn’t have then. So now it would be interesting to see what it would be like. But again, I don’t feel particularly ambitious in that way, until now that we are talking about it, I think, “What would that be like?” But, I certainly think it is a door opener. And I think that meditators and Buddhists in particular who have commitments to precepts and vows need to really make sure that they are open to the fact that it’s a door into aspects of the mind that many young people use in order to enter into a path that they wouldn’t have otherwise found.
Though we can judge the path as using intoxicants, I think that it is not totally an intoxicant. Because it doesn’t intoxicate your ego necessarily – it can open it up and, in that respect I think, I think those drugs, those experiences, really helped me open up to a committed path that is now the centre of my life.
One of the things I am curious about is, especially as brain science gets more developed, that there are some people who would say that the experiences that happen in meditation are somehow more real, more veridical than psychedelic experiences. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think it is just a different kind of experience, or do you think that they’re qualitatively different?
All I can say is that I have chosen meditation as the primary path because my intention is to serve and have less suffering in my life. And psychedelics didn’t do that for me.
Do you know of people who’ve had visions, like geometric patterns, in meditation? Things that they would have in a psychedelic experience?
Yes. Although definitely not as dramatic. The experience in meditation is MUCH more physical. It’s not as image-based. I’ve never heard anyone describe experiences in meditation that are as colourful or magical as a Fellini film. I’ve never heard anyone talk about things happening in meditation practice like they would if they were on hallucinogens.
This again ignores the whole somatic aspect of psychedelics too, because like mushrooms or LSD, they do a lot more than make you see certain things. There are probably a lot of things that happen in the body also.
It reminds me of when you have a dream and you wake up in the morning and feel like something has shifted. But you have no idea what. I think mushrooms can work that way – they can really shift some physical things going on in the body, especially subtle layers of the body. But they can mess things up too.
What about the about ethics of hallucinogens. There is a precept against intoxicants. How do you see that playing out in your own practice? Do you abstain from alcohol or other types of intoxicants as part of your practice?
The way I translate that precept is not taking anything that intoxicates your ego. That includes money. That includes anything that really inflates or deflates your personality. So for example, I’m happy having a glass of wine or two, but being drunk is not interesting to me. So I don’t do it. And I don’t do it, because my body doesn’t like it, and I don’t feel like I have much clarity. I really enjoy alcohol, wine in particular, but I can’t drink too much of it.
So you look at it in terms of moderation, rather than like a very black and white rule.
Having a beer is relaxing. And that’s ok for me.
Yes, I have a particular fondness for beer. But I was a teetotaller for a year once as part of following the precepts, and the one thing that I really particularly missed and decided that I would make a part of my life was beer. And when I lived in London I drank a lot, because it was a very social thing to do, and it didn’t feel right for me. Now I’ll have two beers maybe once every two weeks. That feels okay, and I feel it would be almost masochistic to deny myself that sort of thing. As for psychoactives, you drink wine occasionally – how about caffeine, or do you try to avoid it?
I love cappuccino. I drink espresso almost every day. One of the most important practices for me is friendship. Spending time drinking coffee in the mornings at this social coffee house that I go to is a really nourishing practice, and part of my life. I really enjoy it. Especially because my life so revolves around being a teacher in the community, it’s a place where I can totally step out of that.
There are many drug treatment centers that offer a more spiritual approach towards drug rehabilitation.