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Alright, maybe ‘is’ is a bit too strong of a word here but I think there is a large amount of territorial overlap between the Buddhist meditation technique vipassana and the psychological effects of MDMA. I also think being aware of the similarities between the two can elucidate useful strategies for using MDMA for self-realization and awareness.
I became interested in the overlap between the worlds of the spiritual and occult mystics and the worlds induced by specific drugs when I read Aldous Huxely’s The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell when I was a teenager. The similarities are striking and haven’t really been overlooked with any of the classic psychedelics. MDMA isn’t really a classic psychedelic though and is better labeled as an entactogen (touching within) or empathogen (generating a state of empathy), whereas LSD or psilocybin is more fitting of the entheogen label (literally meaning generating God within). As I’ve pointed out before there is plenty of evidence to suggest many modern religions could have originated at least in part from the use of psychedelics, so it would be of little surprise that similar realms are encountered in both. MDMA is an outlier here though. Its use is restricted to about the last hundred years, with practically none before the 1970’s and it doesn’t commonly seem to get linked to any specific spiritual experience or exercise almost at all. Most often it’s associated with raves and PTSD therapy but what if it were seen as an continuation of the emotionally de-armouring and self-awareness enhancing effects of the meditation technique vipassana.
“Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
The scientific laws that operate one’s thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace.”
This sounds very similar to how Alexander Shulgin talked about the MDMA experience. In one interview he had said,
“I found myself able to remain completely clear, completely lucid, I had excellent recall. I had none of the cloudiness of recall that sometimes does come with some of the delusional drugs. None of that was there at all. I found myself being able to think honestly. That’s a strange term because you think of honesty as interaction between two people. But to be able to be honest with yourself and think, ‘Why did I do that? Well, I’ll tell you, I did that because of such and such’, was fantastic. It was an honest answer in an area where we’re so used to denial or to disavowing, or to just hiding our feelings. I felt myself come open. I found it extremely exhilarating because I’d discovered a completely magical place.”
This is in line with a lot of people’s experiences as well; a swelling of empathy, a incredible degree of personal insight, strong body awareness, intense awareness of body and mind connections and connection to surrounding environment. I bring up these similarities really as a way to offer a new lens to use to view the MDMA experiences. The goal of vipassana is eventual liberation but in shorter terms tends towards an increase in physical and emotional intelligence and health.
When I was a kid I was turned off to MDMA because of the typical image of glow sticks and pacifiers. Seeing people use the drug as if it were cocaine or just another party enhancer. As Shulgin also said, “MDMA, it was becoming apparent, could be all things to all people.” MDMA used strictly as a party enhancer can still be positive but obviously some of the potential magic for self reflection is wasted. With psychedelics the set and setting of course are important. That’s precisely why I think it’s helpful to find traditional methods of changing consciousness to match with and enhance the ways it can be shaped by drugs. If MDMA is viewed as vipassana then it is an exercise of self examination, and examination of self in relation to others. When one approaches the MDMA experience with this mindset they are already going in the direction that the chemical will eventually steer them. Hopefully in this way, one can get the maximize benefits from this powerful tool. As Shulgin also said,
“The expectation of a drug’s effect very much influences the effect that drug will have. This was brought out years ago. I think it was Tim Leary who popularized the expression “set and setting”. The “set” is what you expect a drug to do and the “setting” is the environment in which you use that drug. A lot of the early work, for example with LSD, was studied by Abramson and others in his living room with music in the background. The interaction between him and the people who were in the experimenting group was largely positive. For another group, in Los Angeles at about the same time, the setting was a hospital room, with stethoscopes and emergency equipment at the ready and a Code Red button to be pushed in case something went wrong. And almost to the person, the same drug was rejected, was found negative in its end results and was not wanted again. Exactly the same drug! The same type of person. The same background of health and freedom from psychotic problems. And yet the two different settings and the two different sets – the ‘we-are-going-to-study-this as a possible social lubricant’ versus the ‘we’re-going-to-study-this to see if it causes any liver damage’ made such a difference. You take the same drug in two different contexts and you get two entirely different results.”
The essential idea here is that by combining our ancient and modern forms of neurological change into coherent intelligent systems we can hopefully embrace the positives that both offer while minimizing the negatives, and maybe create a whole that’s greater than its parts. Also to be clear, I’m not necessarily saying try and meditate next time you take MDMA, to take MDMA at all, or never enjoy bass heavy electronic music. Rather, I’m saying just by creating a trip with space for examination of self and other, and one that embraces the shared trajectory of MDMA and vipassana you can get truly incredible results. This also pairs exceptionally well with a daily routine of vipassana before and after the MDMA experience. I don’t think they are identical, and I admit the title in that way may be seen as misleading, but I think it’s important to create more positive associations around psychedelic drugs in order to help counteract all the negative press they get. I hope here to contribute to the cultural dialog a view point on MDMA that creates positive and proactive expectations, or a good set to try out for an experiment. This really is an incredible tool for self discovery if used as such. That being said I definitely also think there really is nothing wrong with a good ol’ fashioned cuddle puddle.