Psychedelics in Light of the Yoga Sutras
[Reader’s Note: This piece was originally posted on the Reality Sandwich website and you can go there to read the many comments posted on this piece. Here’s the link: http://www.realitysandwich.com/psychedelics_light_yoga_sutras .
I feel ok about posting it here because I am the piece’s author : ) ]
“In addition to the LSD there were a number of other pills for this and that–diarrhea, fever, a sleeping pill, and so forth. He asked about each of these. He asked if they gave powers. I didn’t understand at the time and thought that by “powers” perhaps he meant physical strength. I said, “No.” Later, of course, I came to understand that the word he had used, “siddhis,” means psychic powers.”
~ Ram Dass on Neem Karoli Baba, from Be Here Now
“The beatific vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss, for the first time I understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to …”
~ Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception
I never heard any of my teachers mention the Yoga Sutras, a collection of aphorisms on Yoga dating anywhere from 200 BCE to 500 CE and attributed to a sage named Patanjali. In the West today, the text has become the primary source on Yoga and is highly quoted and referenced, but it just didn’t seem to be all that important to my Indian gurus. That said, much of what my traditional teachers were imparting to their disciples certainly meshed with what is found in the Sutras.
First and foremost, what is known as Raja Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga, which is laid out in the Sutras, was assumed by all of my teachers. The Sanskrit word “Ashtanga” translates as “8 limbs,” and these limbs are as follows:
1) Yama refers to the five abstentions.
* Ahimsa: non-violence,
* Satya: truth in word & thought.
* Asteya: Non-stealing
* Brahmacharya: Conservation of Sexual Energy.
* Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness
2) Niyama refers to the five observances.
* Shaucha: cleanliness of body & mind.
* Santosha: satisfaction/contentment.
* Tapas: austerity/physical & mental discipline.
* Svadhyaya: Self-study (Introspection), and Study of Sacred Texts.
* Ishvarapranidhana: surrender to (or worship of) God.
3) Asana: Discipline of the body: rules and postures to keep it disease-free and for preserving vital energy. Correct postures are a physical aid to meditation, for they control the limbs and nervous system and prevent them from producing disturbances.
4) Pranayama: control of breath.
5) Pratyahara: withdrawal of senses from their external objects.
The last three levels are called internal aids to Yoga (antaranga sadhana)
6) Dharana: Concentration of Mind.
7) Dhyana: steadfast meditation. Undisturbed flow of thought around the object of meditation (pratyayaikatanata).
8) Samadhi: oneness with the object of meditation.
My teachers all implicitly followed the above “8-fold Path” (Raja/Ashtanga Yoga), because they all assumed the primacy of meditation and Samadhi (meditation resulting in mystical union, or “cosmic consciousness”), seeing the other 6 limbs as a means to arrive at these last two. Meditation, in particular, was stressed repeatedly, especially by my main teacher, Amma, who would often exhort us to “Meditate, meditate, meditate!”; and if she had her way, we would all be meditating all day and night long. Once her Swami told us of how Amma had put him into a state of Samadhi for 24 hours straight, and Amma added: “Children, the day will come when you, too, will be absorbed in meditation for 24 hours in a day.” I’m sure a lot of us were wondering, “Really? Which lifetime?,” but we took the point that meditation is the most important of all practices.
If I am honest, I will tell you that I never had an experience of Samadhi beyond a taste of the lower Samadhis, such as “Bhava Samadhi,” which is a trance state involving feelings of ecstasy and bliss. Most of these experiences came in the first couple years of my exposure to Yoga, and it was largely due to them that I continued on the path. Spiritual experiences that occur early on, I have always heard, are gifts of grace that are signs to the seeker that something is indeed happening, and serve to draw the aspirant more and more inward. Certainly this was the case with me, but over time these experiences became fewer and farther between, so that I was left wondering if perhaps I should try harder, or if they were just a passing stage in the journey.
Besides spiritual experiences, another milestone/by-product of meditation and other spiritual practices is what are known as “siddhis,” often translated as “yogic powers,” and sometimes “psychic powers.” When I originally began the practice of yoga, I was attracted to the idea of gaining such special powers through my training. This was partly because I desired physical proof that my practices were bearing fruit, and I wasn’t just wasting time and struggling in vain. Of course, with my experiences, with all of the little “aha” moments, and with all of the positive changes — indeed, the transformation — that yoga brought to my life, no further proof was needed, really. The only problem was that even though I knew I was a completely different person on the inside, it appeared that it was not always so obvious on the outside. My family, especially, wondered and worried about my somewhat cultish and cloistered behavior, concerned that I was wasting my precious Twenties doing impractical things like meditation that were inconsequential in terms of real world values.
My eldest brother, for example, would sometimes say things to me like, “Instead of meditating so much, I would like to see you really begin to develop a body of work as a singer/songwriter,” to which I would respond, “Well, meditation is about going to the Source of all creativity, so it may seem like a waste of time, but it’s actually a very wise investment of my time.” I was heard, but not really understood or believed. So a part of me felt that once I was able to show my family that this wasn’t all just airy fairy nonsense, then they would think differently about me. Certainly this was not the best reason for practicing (nor was the drive to have spiritual experiences), but I was green and can put it down to spiritual ignorance at that point.
Now the reader may wonder: Did I ever attain any siddhis? I cannot say for certain. I feel that I began to see glimpses of them (such as clairvoyance), and had I continued with my intense sadhana (yogic practice), who knows? At this point, I feel like I’ve lost much of whatever I had, but that’s due to the choice I made to come back down to earth a bit. I did come into the presence of teachers, like Amma, who possessed such siddhis, and would sometimes display their powers, though usually only along the lines of clairvoyance (often referred to as “omniscience”).
Returning now to the Yoga Sutras, there is a relevant sutra regarding the siddhis that begins the 4th and final chapter (pada) of the text, known as “Kaivalya Pada,” or the chapter on liberation. The sutra reads as follows:
JANMAUSHADHI MANTRA TAPAH
SAMAADHI JAAH SIDDHAYAH
Janma = birth; aushadhi = herb, medicinal plant, drug, incense, elixir; mantra = incantation, charm, spell; tapah = heat, burning, shining, an ascetic devotional practice, burning desire to reach perfection, that which burns all impurities; samadhi = profound meditation, total absorption; jah = born; siddhayah = perfections, accomplishments, fulfilments, attainments, psychic powers.
Translation: “Siddhis are born of practices performed in previous births, or by herbs, mantra repetition, asceticism, or by samadhi.” (Sutra 4.1) [i]
Essentially, for our purposes, this sutra says that via “aushadha,” or herbs/drugs/plants, yogic powers can be attained. While this is fascinating information, unfortunately the sutras say nothing more about the subject, leaving us with many possible questions. Questions such as: 1) To what does “aushadhi” refer exactly?; 2) To which yogic powers do these herbs, aushadha , give rise? 3) How, exactly, do aushadha give rise to siddhis? 4) Is this sutra suggesting that it is permissible for a yogic aspirant to make use of aushadha as a means toward attaining success in Yoga? 5) Are all of the methods of attaining siddhis — past lives, herbs, mantra, tapas, and samadhi — of equal value, or are some better than others? 6) Why is the term “aushadhi” suddenly mentioned at the outset of the 4th and final chapter of the Yoga Sutras, and then not referred to again? These are some of the more basic questions that could be asked.
Fortunately, while we don’t have much of a way of finding what the original meaning of sutra 4.1 is, we can at least refer to the considerable body of commentary on the sutras, in addition to contemporary teachers in the yoga tradition. As for the latter, let’s consider first Neem Karoli Baba’s words to Ram Dass, already quoted above.
“In addition to the LSD there were a number of other pills for this and that — diarrhea, fever, a sleeping pill, and so forth. He asked about each of these. He asked if they gave powers. I didn’t understand at the time and thought that by “powers” perhaps he meant physical strength. I said, “No.” Later, of course, I came to understand that the word he had used, “siddhis,” means psychic powers.”[ii]
Neem Karoli Baba, a highly advanced yogi and guru, is asking his disciple, Ram Dass, if his LSD (and other pills) gives the consumer of them siddhis. Now, many of those who followed Neem Karoli Baba or were around him felt/believed/knew that he himself possessed such yogic powers, but as far as anyone knows, they were not derived from any kind of pill or drug, but from his sadhana andtapasya, meaning his yogic practice and discipline. In fact, one of the siddhis he was believed to possess was the ability to know anything that he chose to know at any time (again clairvoyance/omniscience), in which case perhaps he already knew the answer to the question he put to Ram Dass (apparently he was a bit of a trickster).
Whatever may be the case, for our purposes, it is enough to know that Neem Karoli Baba connected Ram Dass’s drugs to siddhis, because that is exactly what Sutra 4.1 appears to do. From this we would not be amiss in thinking that yogis like Neem Karoli Baba are well aware of this passage in the Yoga Sutras; or even if they are not aware of the specific passage, there is no doubt an understanding among yogis that yogic powers can obtained via herbs and/or drugs. It should also be well noted that Neem Karoli Baba ultimately told Ram Dass that “yogi medicine” such as LSD can give one a glimpse of Samadhi, but not the “highest Samadhi,” as he put it.
Turning now to our questions raised regarding Sutra 4.1, what do the traditional commentators on the Yoga Sutras have to say?
First, let us consider the words of Vyasa, a great rishi, or seer-sage who is credited as the author of the “Yoga Bhashya,” which is a highly regarded and referenced commentary on the Yoga Sutras. Though Vyasa’s comments on Sutra 4:1 regarding aushadha are cursory and ambiguous, like the sutra itself, we can still get some sense of his general approach. The text reads as follows:
“By herbs, as for example with chemicals in an Asura’s (demon’s) abode, medicinal powers are acquired.”
Swami Hariharananda Aranya notes the difficulty in Vyasa’s passage:
“The commentator has mentioned about the abode of demons but nobody knows where it is, but it is certain that supernormal powers on a small scale can be acquired by the application of drugs.” [iii]
That said, Swami Hariharananda notes, the “supernormal powers” acquired through drugs “have nothing to do with Yoga,” and are “insignificant.”
“Some in a state of stupor through the application of anaesthetics like chloroform etc. acquire the power of going out of the body. It has also been reported that by the application of hemlock all over the body similar power is acquired. Witches were supposed to practise this method. These powers are “insignificant.” [iv]
Swami Satyananda Saraswati of the Bihar School differs slightly with Swami Hariharananda Aranya’s view. He holds that the herbs to which “aushadhi” refers do indeed produce powerful siddhis, and such “psychic powers” are true siddhis, not insignificant or inferior. However, these herbs do not include LSD or ganja (marijuana), which have a deleterious effect on the body (and it is this to which Swami H. might have been referring). In his own words:
“Psychic powers can be obtained in five ways … Siddhis can also be had from herbs, but things like LSD and ganja are not to be included here because they cause disease and nervous disorders. These things cause depression of certain nerve centers and give rise to effects like samadhi, but they are not to be included in the herbs causing siddhis because they are of a lower type. Traditionally, aushadhi means the juice of certain herbs, such as anjana, rosayana, etc., but not LSD or ganja. The method of preparation is known to only a few responsible persons. These herbs are available in the Himalayas and nowhere else and bring about supramental states of consciousness.
“The effects of these herbs can be controlled through higher mental phenomena. There are certain preparations of mercury which are of great importance.” [v]
Swami Satchidananda (the so-called “Woodstock Guru,” who was wise to what his hippie yogi devotees were up to) differs from the above view in that he suggests that LSD and marijuana are indeed to be classed among the aushadha, and he agrees with Swami Hariharananda that siddhis obtained via herbs — any herbs — are of inferior value. He says:
“Patanjali…gives us some clues about the people who get some experiences through their LSD and marijuana. The so-called “grass” is an herb, is it not? Mushrooms could be considered herbs also … So, there are various ways of accomplishing the psychic powers. But normally it is recognized that all the others except samadhi are not natural. For example, using herbs means inducing siddhis by the use of certain external stimuli. It’s not an “organic” siddhi. It may come and then fade away. So, siddhis should come in the regular process of Yoga, not through external stimuli.” [vi]
Swami Satchidananda’s point is that the siddhis acquired through unnatural, non-organic means such as herbs is only temporary, and thus should not be taken seriously by the yoga aspirant. This is a point that would be good to be taken to heart by many of those who dabble in psychedelics, for it is clear that for most such persons, both experiences and psychic powers fade once the effects of the drug wear off. On the other hand, let us not discount the report of shamans who are capable of retaining the powers obtained from their plant medicine.
BKS Iyengar echoes Swami Satchidananda’s view somewhat in that he regards those siddhis gained via aushadha as inferior in that they can be lost due to a fall from grace. Writing his commentary on the Yoga Sutras in the mid-Sixties, Iyengar first spells out in greater detail the five ways of becoming an accomplished yogi (siddha):
1. By birth with aspiration to become perfect (janma);
2. By spiritual experience gained through herbs (or as prescribed in the Vedas),
drugs or elixir (aushadha)
3) By incantation of the name of one’s desired deity (mantra);
4) By ascetic devotional practice (tapas);
5) By profound meditation (samadhi)
Iyengar then goes on to note why all five of these classes of siddhas are not equal:
“There is an important distinction between these means of spiritual accomplishment. Followers of the first three may fall from the grace of Yoga through pride or negligence. The others, whose spiritual gains are through tapas and samadhi, do not. They become masters, standing alone as divine, liberated souls, shining examples to mankind…
“Sage Mandavya and King Yayati developed supernatural powers through an elixir of life. Today many drug users employ mescalin, LSD, hashish, heroin, etc. to experience the so-called spiritual visions investigated by Aldous Huxley and others. Artists and poets in the past have also relied on drugs to bring about supernormal states to enhance their art.” [vii]
Iyengar’s mention of Huxley is interesting here, particularly as Huxley referred to the psychedelics as “moksha medicine” [viii], and had he lived to have read Iyengar’s commentary, he no doubt would have been chagrined by Iyengar’s “so-called spiritual visions” put-down. We will be considering Huxley’s life and work shortly, but for now, let Iyengar’s view be noted well, that the truly great yogis do not attain their high status through the medium of aushadha.
Let us also take note that Iyengar’s point has been made and echoed by numerous other commentators. I.K. Taimni, whose commentary on the Yoga Sutras entitled “The Science of Yoga” has become one of the most well-regarded in the english language, translates “aushadhi” as “drugs,” and similarly notes that
“Of the five methods given only the last based upon Samadhi is used by advanced Yogis in their work because it is based upon direct knowledge of the higher laws of Nature and is, therefore, under complete control of the will.” [ix]
Taimni’s point is that the Yoga Sutras, after all, are all about attaining Samadhi through yogic discipline, not via aushadha (this is not the “Aushadha Sutras,” after all); indeed, he notes that all of the siddhis mentioned in the third chapter of the Sutras are obtained via what is known as “Samyama,” which is the combination of concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and absorption (samadhi). Like Iyengar, Taimni privileges the siddhis attained via Samyama above those obtained otherwise:
“The Siddhis which are developed as a result of the practice of Samyama belong to a different category and are far superior to those developed in other ways. They are the product of the natural unfoldment of consciousness in its evolution towards perfection and thus become permanent possessions of the soul, although a little effort may be needed in each new incarnation to revive them in the early stages of Yogic training. Being based upon knowledge of the higher laws of Nature operating in her subtler realms they can be exercised with complete confidence and effectiveness, much in the same way as a trained scientist can bring about extraordinary results in the field of physical Science.” [xii]
As with Swami Hariharananda, Taimni concurs that such yogic powers in any case are of not much importance, even when they are “remarkable”:
“Psychic powers of a low grade can often be developed by the use of certain drugs. Many fakirs in India use certain herbs like Ganja for developing clairvoyance of a low order. Others can bring about very remarkable chemical changes by the use of certain drugs or herbs, but those who know these secrets do not generally impart them to others. Needless to say that the powers obtained in this manner are not of much consequence and should be classed with the innumerable powers which modern Science has placed at our disposal.” [xiii]
This reminds me of the story of the guru who chides his student for showing off how he can walk on water. “Why would you bother yourself with that,” the guru laughs, “when the ferry works just as well, and might even be quicker?!!” Needless to say, perhaps, displaying one’s powers was/is generally not considered a wise course of action.
Two slightly more contemporary commentators have something quite similar to say regarding sutra 4:1. Krishnamacharya’s son, TVK Desikachar, in his relatively more recent book, The Heart of Yoga, remarks:
“The Vedas describe various rituals whereby the taking of herbal preparations in a prescribed way can change one’s personality … Only the practices described in earlier chapters [of the Yoga Sutras] to reduce and render the five obstacles [to yoga] ineffective can guarantee the end of these tendencies. Genetic inheritance, the use of herbs, and other means cannot be as effective.” [xiv]
The well-known scholar of Yoga, Georg Feuerstein, likewise mentions the ancient Vedic rituals, implicitly accepting their validity, though downplaying their ultimate value:
“The use of herbal concoctions may seem surprising. Yet this tradition goes right back to vedic times and ritual quaffing of the soma (fly-agaric?). At any rate, nowhere in the Yoga-Sutra or any other Yogic scripture do we find the claim that drugs can replace the years of self-discipline and commitment demanded of the yogin.” [xv]
One other traditional teacher who added to this overall consensus on the superiority of Samadhi was Swami Prabhavananda, who commented on Sutra 4:1 as follows:
“Certain drugs may produce visions but these are invariably psychic — not spiritual, as is commonly believed. Furthermore, they may cause prolonged spiritual dryness and disbelief and may even do permanent damage to the brain…Concentration [samadhi] is the surest of all the means of obtaining the psychic powers.” [xvi]
Swami Prabhavananda makes an interesting point, and one well worth considering. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of “chemical burnout,” which generally comes from years of taking psychedelics (and perhaps other drugs), usually in a less than disciplined way. So while the long-term effects of psychedelics are still not fully known, it is clear that for some they do seem to have a deleterious effect. Even for myself, who have almost exclusively ingested or smoked plant medicines (Ayahuasca, San Pedro, Marijuana) and done so but a handful of times, I wonder whether the expansive, ecstatic experiences are a corrective to my own spiritual dryness and jadedness, or are in fact adding to them. Were the experiences even real (if anything is)? Where was God? Won’t I be spoiled now for all of the beautiful little gifts of grace the universe throws my way every moment of every day? Etc., ad nauseum.
What is needed, it seems to me, is a constant connection with Source, one that is not dependent on any outside factor, such as a drug or herb or elixir or other concoction. On this, I am in agreement with the traditional commentators above. True, the path of aushadha might just be a viable one for some already advanced souls, but they also could be a trap or distraction for others, including myself.
That said, the fact that herbs that give rise to siddhis are mentioned at all in the Yoga Sutras is significant, and should give us pause. One wonders what the traditions around the use of aushadha are, and if it in reality is a real, viable yogic path, on equal par with the practice of “Samyama” that the Yoga Sutras privileges? What about the preparations of the juice of the herbs “anjana” and “rosayana” which Swami Satyananda Saraswati mentioned? To answer these and other questions I turned to the work of some of the more recent commentators on these subjects, including my Yoga and Ayurveda teacher, Dr. David Frawley, as well as Dr. Robert Svoboda and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (current head of the Himalayan Institute).
In his book, Inner Quest: Yoga’s Answers to Life’s Questions, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait discusses at some length the use of herbs in connection with spiritual practice. Among other things, he notes the connection of herbs not so much with the path of Raja/Ashtanga Yoga, but of Tantra and Kundalini:
“According to Ayurveda, especially the tantric version, herbs are the embodiment of the living goddess. If applied properly they release divine energies — to heal not only the physical aspect of our being, but the mental and spiritual aspects as well…[Using herbs as part of one’s spiritual practice] is briefly introduced in the first sutra of chapter four of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is greatly elaborated in the tantric scriptures, as herbs play a significant role in the advanced practices of Tantra and kundalini yoga.” [xv]
Admittedly, I know very little of Tantra, much less the tantric scriptures. Again, this is as a result of who my gurus were, which was decidedly not tantric gurus. Amma would on occasion strongly caution us against reading any tantric books, and my other teachers also never had anything to say about Tantra, and if they had, it probably wouldn’t have been anything good. Like many others, I had only heard of “tantric sex,” and hints of other forbidden things, and somehow it seemed to me to be a path for the wild, impure ones. And at that point, at least, I was not too tempted to take a walk on the wild side.
Interestingly enough, though, on my first trip to India to see Amma, my Australian friend Billy advised me to purchase a copy of Dr. Robert Svoboda’s Aghora: At the Left Hand of God, which is all about the tantric path, and it served as my first real introduction to the subject.
One of the first and most important things I learned from Svoboda’s book is that just as there is white and black magic, similarly, Tantra is divided into “righthanded” Tantra (Dakshinachara), and “lefthanded” Tantra (Vamachara). It is really only the latter which involves the “5 m’s,” namely: 1) Madya (wine); 2) Mansa (meat); 3) Matsya (fish); 4) Mudra (gesture); and 5) Maithuna (sexual intercourse). Still, both right and left-handed Tantra are legitimate paths, though both Drs. Frawley and Svoboda suggest that the Vamachara path is but a means to the Dakshinachara path, and not an end in itself.
Dr. Frawley has put it this way:
“Tantra is divided into the right handed and left handed Tantras. The right handed or Dakshinachara adheres to the Yamas and Niyamas of the Yoga system, including following a vegetarian diet. The left handed or Vamachara system includes the use of intoxicants, including alcohol and psychedelic or mind-altering drugs, and the eating of meat, but sanctified in a ritualistic context to make them spiritually beneficial. The Vamachara system uses the more overt sexual Yogas, though the Dakshinachara tradition is not opposed to sex in a sanctified relationship.
“Generally speaking, the right-handed Tantra is more for those in whom Sattva guna predominates. The left-handed Tantra is for those in whom Rajas and Tamas predominate.
“There are some Tantric teachers today who do claim that a meat diet and other Vamachara practices are a better and quicker way to reach Self-realization. They may claim that the Dakshinachara or sattvic approaches are not possible for people to really do today and only result in repression. This tradition does exist for those who want to follow it. Yet while the Vamachara done sincerely can be a valid path, particularly in the modern cultural context, it is a stepping stone to Dakshinachara, not a substitute for it.” [xvi]
Dr. Svoboda’s teacher, Swami Vimalananda, likewise suggests that the goal of Vamachara Tantra is Sattva. In a section on the subject of intoxicants and the “Left Hand Path,” Swami Vimalanda says:
“This is the true test of an Aghori: From full-blown Tamas he must graduate to pure Sattva, love for all.” [xvii]
In the end, Swami Vimalananda says he gave up intoxicants when he
“realized that the greatest intoxicant there is exists within me at all times. It is free, easy to use, harmless, and never gives me a hangover. It is the name of God. It gives the best concentration of mind. The effects of alcohol or marijuana or whatever will wear off by the next day, but the intoxication caused by God’s name just goes on increasing; there is no end to it. I use it all the time, and it always works for me. No matter what has been my problem, the holy name of God has always been my solution. This is true Aghora. Forget all the externals; only when your heart melts and is consumed in the flames of your desire for your Beloved will you ever come close to qualifying to learn the true Aghora.” [xviii]
In other words, in our context, this means that psychedelics are not the end-all and be-all of yoga, but a stepping stone to arrive at a clearer, purer realm of being and experiencing. This would involve ultimately graduating from psychedelics to a more Sattvic path involving vegetarianism, sexual moderation, austerity, meditation, and other “chemical-free” practices. [xxi]
Some are under the misconception that the yoga path absolutely forbids intoxicants, and perhaps especially mind-altering drugs, but here we see that this is not the case; rather, it is more a matter of more ideal vs. less ideal, where the path of chemically-enhancing one’s practice is not considered the most ideal. This misconception is fairly widespread, such that even I was a bit surprised when Dr. Frawley wrote to me the following:
“Intoxicants may be helpful on an outer level for some yoga practitioners, particularly to open them up to higher possibilities. Many ancient and tribal cultures have their sacred plants that can be used for such purposes. However, there is a tendency to abuse such plants or use them in a non-sacred way, so one should be very cautious in their application.”
I really thought that Dr. Frawley would give me more of a hard-line, like, “Psychelics and Yoga do not mix — period!” But clearly, thankfully, it’s all in one’s intent, and if one’s intent is to use the given plant or chemical in a sacramental way, then that is permissible. But again, the user must remember that once one is “opened up to higher possibilities,” as Dr. Frawley put it, then it is advisable to move on to a slower, but steadier and more reliable practice, such as “the name of God,” as Swami Vimalananda suggested (and “mantra,” we will recall from Yoga Sutra 4:1, is also a legitimate path to perfection/siddhi).
Now it might be asked: Although this all makes perfect sense on paper, how does it actually all play out in real, postmodern, hurtling-toward-2012 life? Because if I look at my own experience, according to this model, I actually started out on a fairly Sattvic path, and maintained it for years, but more recently I have taken a decided turn towards left-handed Tantra, including the use of psychedelics. Did I fall from the path? Or did I just become a bit impatient to have certain experiences of other realities that I was losing faith that I ever would? Put another way: Have I digressed and devolved, or is this somehow all a necessary step in my own “soulular” evolution?
And what about someone like Terrence McKenna, who went as far as to say that practices like chanting and meditation don’t even make much sense except in the context of the shamanic journey? [See previous footnote] Would McKenna have found his way to in any way accept that to further his evolution he might have to forgo his psychedelic sessions in favor of, say, vipassana meditation? For now, let it be remembered that the Yoga Sutras do say that aushadhais one path to the attainment of “siddha-hood”; or, we might say, psychedelics are their own path, their own discipline, and Terrence was faithfully following it.
Now what about these “siddhis,” or yogic powers? I had often heard and read that such powers are “milestones” along the path to enlightenment or Self/God-realization — they are not to be sought or abused, but rather to be seen as mere by-products along the journey of awakening. Yogananda, for example, discusses this point in Autobiography of a Yogi, noting that some yogis abuse such powers, demonstrating them for the sake of fame or fortune (as does Paul Brunton in a contemporary work to Yogananda’s, A Search in Secret India). More recently, however, in his book on the Yoga Sutras entitled Yoga, Power, and Spirit: Patanjali the Shaman, Alberto Villodo, Ph.D. maintains that according to Patanjali,
“the siddhis are essential to achieving samadhi, which is the true power … to deny them [the siddhis] is to deny your ultimate freedom. You can only step beyond these powers once you’ve acquired them. Renouncing them beforehand, as many practitioners of yoga do, mimics yet forestalls the true liberation… In addition, renouncing the siddhis, as some yoga teachers today advocate, keeps you powerless, and perpetuates your suffering as a victim.” [xxii]
This is a point well-taken, considering that the Yoga Sutras do describe a number of these siddhis, ranging from clairvoyance, knowledge of past and future events (including one’s past lives), the power to make oneself minute or even invisibile, superhuman strength, conquest of hunger and thirst, among others. Again, these all result from the practice of “Samyama.” But what of siddhis that arise through other means, such as use of aushadha — are they comparable?
As we have seen, Iyengar and others note that while such siddhis might indeed be equivalent to those gained via Samyama, they are generally not permanent acquisitions of the aspirant, but are rather subject to loss due to a “fall from grace,” or by some other means. This is an interesting point, and to really check its validity would perhaps require a very careful study of shamanism. For the time being, perhaps, we can at least consider anecdotal evidence.
For my part, I recently met a woman who had a quite harrowing LSD trip in the early Seventies and was never the same afterwards, not only because of the trauma, but because the LSD seems to have given her the ability to perceive unseen levels of reality. Today in her work she offers the shamanic healing technique of “soul retrieval,” as well as working in other therapeutic modalities that require access to these hidden dimensions. For her, at least, the effects of her psychedelic experience have lasted for more than 3 decades. Dr. Rick Strassman told me via email that he knows of a similar case, but here the woman’s psychic powers went away once she became a Christian. Dr. Strassman wrote,
I recently got an e-mail from a Christian woman, who when younger, was slipped some PCP, which “opened the portals” for her to have all kinds of paranormal, psychic, experiences. She’s a reasonable sounding woman, so I don’t think she was psychotic. She and her husband became serious Christians and the portals seem to have closed. How exactly do you mean “clairvoyant”? This woman wasn’t seeing things from a distance, for example.
It might be helpful to look into other “accidental” ways of acquiring such powers, such as through Near-Death Experiences (NDE’s). It seems a significant portion of those claiming to have had such experiences also maintain the experience left them with such powers (the movie “Resurrection” deals with this). Astral projection, or out-of-body experiences, are also another avenue for exploring this issue. In general, however, we can say that such claims remain difficult to prove or disprove; and in most cases of psychedelic use, the experience, and whatever psi powers attend it during the “trip,” generally disappear once the experience fades, or if not all at once, then eventually.
Such has been my experience thus far: As real and as powerful and transformational as my psychedelic experiences have been, it is amazing that so little of it actually has stayed with me. Perhaps if I did them more often, and in an even more disciplined way, the case would be different, but for right now, I am left with the sense that these things are so transitory to the point of being almost unhelpful as far as gaining siddhis, or attaining to Samadhi. This is not to diminish the value of having a glimpse, however paltry it might be, of Samadhi, as well as all of the other lessons that went along with that, don’t get me wrong; it is just to suggest that unless approached in a disciplined way as a discipline, the deeper lessons of these plant teachers might be missed.
Postscript: Since writing this essay, I read Padmani’s interesting piece, “Insects, Yoga, and Ayahuasca,” published by Reality Sandwich. One thing which is certainly applicable here is Padmani’s mentioning that “practices such as pranayama (breath control) and asana (physical exercise) — the two most important components of modern yoga practice in the West — are considered chemical means [“aushadhi“], according to Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, because they work by causing biochemical changes in the body and mind.” While I have not yet located the primary source for this (maybe Padmani could help?), I feel this to be a very important point — that we are indeed inducing changes in brain chemistry via the practice of Hatha Yoga, which is one reason why more and more people are becoming “addicted” — for better and/or for worse. I should also note that I thought to send this piece to RS because of Padmani’s piece, hoping that this might clarify some points she made, as well as move the discussion a bit further along.
[i] This is largely based on BKS Iyengar’s translation of the Yoga Sutras in “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” (“Patanjala Yoga Pradipika), Thorsons, Hammersmith, 1966/1996, p. 230.
[ii] A paraprhrase of the story told by Ram Dass in “Be Here Now,” Lama Foundation, New Mexico, 1971 (no page number listed).
[iii] As quoted in Swami Hariharananda Aranya, “Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali,” SUNY Press, 1983, p. 346.
[iv] Ibid, pp. 346-347.
[vi] Ibid, p. 346.
[vii] Swami Satyananda Saraswati, “Four Chapters on Freedom: Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India, 1976, 2000, pp. 307-308.
[viii] Swami Satchidananda, “The Yoga Sutras of Patanajali: Commentary on the Raja Yoga Sutras,” Integral Yoga Publications, 1990, p. 207.
[ix] Unfortunately, most of this evidence is anecdotal. For more on this, see Roger Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., “The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition,” Llewellyn Publications, 2007, pp. 223-234.
[x] BKS Iyengar, op. cit., pp. 230-231.
[xi] In his last book, the utopian novel, “Island,” which we will be discussing at greater length in a later chapter.
[xii] I.K. Taimni, “The Science of Yoga.” The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois 1961/1999, p. 378.
[xiii]Ibid, pp. 382-383.
[xiv] T.K.V. Desikachar, “The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice,” Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont, 1995, pp. 203, 206.
[xv] . Georg Feuerstein, “Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary.” Inner Traditions International, 1979, 1989, p. 126.
[xvi] Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, “How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali,” p. 203.
[xvii] Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ph.D. “Inner Quest: Yoga’s Answers to Life’s Questions.” Himalayan Institute Press, Honesdale, Pa, 1995/2002, pp. 112-117.
[xviii] Dr. David Frawley, “Advanced Yoga and Ayurveda Course,” pp. 116-117.
[xix] Dr. Robert Svoboda, “Aghora: At the Left Hand of God,” p. 184.
[xx] Ibid, pp. 185-186.
[xxi] Krystle Cole, who started the popular “Neurosoup,” says as much in her YouTube videos, though she and most will admit that practices such as meditation, chanting, breathing, etc., are not as powerful as a relatively high dose of a psychedelic. Terrence McKenna suggested that “mantra, yantra, tantra” in addition to psychedelics could be very effective, and not nearly so much on their own.
[xxii] Alberto Villodo, Ph.D., “Yoga, Power, and Spirit: Patanjali the Shaman,” xxv.
Image by autan, courtesy of Creative Commons license.