Can Psychedelics Expand Our Consciousness?

Coming late in a new book by Sam Harris called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, this passage snapped me to attention. It’s not that Harris’s book had lulled me up to that point: It’s a provocative, informative and, at times, infuriating look at consciousness and the self. Its main argument is that techniques exist, meditation prime among them, to reduce human suffering by helping us to understand that the self — as conventionally understood — is an illusion. Our feeling of “I” is a product of thought, and thoughts merely come and go in our consciousness; there’s no self behind our eyes or in our head and when we grasp this, it’s easier to unmoor ourselves from the sources of suffering in our lives.

The ways in which Harris supports this thesis are worth reading. Yet as a parent of a college-age daughter, I found that it was his move beyond meditation — Harris’s expressed hope that his kids, once they become adults, will ingest psychedelics — that made me stop and think hard. Is Harris’s wish an ethical one? What can my field of anthropology bring to bear in thinking about this matter?

On this topic of psychedelics, Harris has an advantage that I lack. Not only has he spent considerable time in serious meditative practice, he also has experienced moments of immense beauty and love — and other moments of total terror — on MDMA (ecstasy), psilocybin (mushrooms) and LSD. I grew up in the ’60s in a family whose lives centered closely on law enforcement — my father was a captain in the New Jersey State Police — and I wasn’t exactly the drug-experimenting type. In high school and college, I watched a few friends go through trips good and bad, but that’s as close as I got.

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