The Experience of Pleasure
Drugs feel good, there’s no denying. Human beings are primed and polished pleasure-seeking devices, and if we can get a hit, we will. In all the discussion on the legality of drugs, their role and harm they cause in society, there is a resonant, echoing, and very revealing avoidance of this fundamental fact.
A recent article in Crikey drew attention to this, saying, ‘Telling people that all illegal drugs are totally bad is not only patronising and paternalistic, but implausible in terms of those users’ own lived experience.’
So, full disclosure: I’ve used drugs. I smoked pot on a fairly regular basis, maybe a few times a week on average, for 7 or 8 years. During this time I was also drinking, occasionally in excess. In addition I used other drugs, although I never used any of them more than two or three times at most, and never in large doses: ecstacy, LSD, mescaline, amphetamines, heroin, opium, mushrooms.
I never had any problem getting drugs that I wanted. In fact, I hardly never went out of my way to get any, they were just around. I never had much money, but there always seemed to be enough to buy some pot. Except for the odd occasion, I never felt like I wanted more. Nor did I feel like smoking was an problem. I never had any run-ins with the law, even though we commonly smoked in public, in pubs, or coffee shops. Once I was at a party and some police arrived. Some guys threw a bag of pot on the BBQ, and the cops said, ‘You didn’t have to do that. We just wanted you to turn the music down.’ When I went to Thailand, drugs stopped being around and I stopped smoking and drinking, without missing it or craving at all. But of course, my life was soon filled with something much better: meditation.
I never smoked tobacco: hated the stuff, even a bit in a joint would give me headaches. I learnt early on at school about the irrationality of rules against drugs. My friends were having a ciggie and I was sitting chatting with them – everyone knew I never smoked. We got busted, and despite our protests the teachers refused to believe that I was not smoking and I was punished along with the rest.
So my main experience with drugs is pot and drink, often together. I’d like to give a few reflections about what, in retrospect, these experiences meant.
When you smoke pot, there’s an instant hit, a gentle glow of pleasure in the body. Your head gets lifted out of itself, and the concerns of life recede. At the same time there is a feeling of connection, of harmlessness and friendliness. Smoking is usually a communal activity. But even though it brings friends together, in the experience each one gets further out on their own trip. You can be laughing hilariously at something silly, but then just withdraw into watching a crack in the wall.
As a muso, I would normally find a guitar and start improvising. You get right into it, focused on every note, which sounds amazing – at least to stoned people. To others it sounds like aimless doodles. Actually, there’s a shift in relation to time: questions of form and structure become meaningless, and all that matters is the flow of notes happening in the present moment, the sheer sensual sound of it.
In all my years smoking, I never had any significant negative side effects, even after smoking a lot: a little groggy in the morning, perhaps, sometimes a mild paranoia (this can be strong in some people). In my experience, this contrasts strongly with alcohol, with its hangovers and vomiting; and in my case, tobacco, which gave me instant nausea and headaches.
This is my actual embodied experience, and I suspect many people have similar stories. It is one thing for scientific studies to lay out statistics and predictions, such-and-such a percentage of people will get lung cancer if they smoke x quantity of pot for a period of y years. But this is only one realm of discourse, an academic, disembodied, abstract notion of truth. The whole point of drugs is to get you here, into this body and experiencing this truth. And here, these things do not exist. In my own body, pot has no noticeable side effects, but alcohol and tobacco are clearly toxic. My body doesn’t like them and tells me so by becoming sick.
So you can come along with all your statistics and studies and try to prove to me that somehow your straight world has got it right: ciggies and drink are fine, but pot is of the devil. My own body – and the bodies of my friends – tells me otherwise. There is a culture of knowledge among drug users – not scientifically validated, but informed by countless occasions of actually using the stuff. Who is to say that a limited, randomized study of a few people in an abstract, artificial setting is inherently a better source of knowledge than the accumulated wisdom of an entire culture? For us, it is not a matter of establishing a valid experiment so that we can get our paper published in a journal, but a matter of life and death. We’re actually putting the stuff in our veins. It’s part of our life, who we are and how we define ourselves.
This is not to say that users will ignore science. Not true: we were very interested in it. It’s just that in the living of it, science is just another set of opinions, which does not displace our own lived experience. It’s apparent from the science, as I have shown in previous posts, that drugs cause harm, but also that there is no particular justification for asserting that illicit drugs cause more harm than licit ones. The science is ambivalent, and will be read accordingly.
In my years of using drugs, associating with musos, artists, and the like, almost everyone used drugs. I’d have to think hard to find anyone who never used drugs at all. Of course people would vary, some just didn’t like them, some used them a lot. None of these were evil or depraved. They were kind, harmless, creative, and intelligent people, who thought deeply about their lives, and who genuinely wanted to do good in this world.
I would have to say that, contrary to the straight world’s fantasy of wastrel addicts, most of us used drugs fairly responsibly most of the time. This is like when people drink, they will usually know when they must restrict themselves to one or two drinks, and when it’s okay to let go and get really drunk. Not all the time, obviously, but by and large. When you’re smoking pot, the hit comes on instantly, so it’s pretty easy to judge how much you want to have.
In all that time I never knew any addicts, or anyone whose life was ‘destroyed’ by drugs. I knew of some addicts indirectly, friends of friends, but no-one I normally hung out with. For sure, using drugs has a lot of negative effects, it saps energy and you just end up wasting a lot of time. But this is a long way from the stereotype of the wasted addict lying in a gutter. It happens, of course: I’ve seen a lot of people lying in the gutter on drugs, some of them drinking meths. I’m just saying it is not the norm, and it had no connection with my own experience of drug use.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I did know a few people whose lives were pretty devastated by drugs. But for them, while they did use other substances, the real killer was alcohol.
Why did we do it? We were young. We wanted to be different, independent. We thought we knew it all. We did it because it was outlawed, taboo. While this might sound strange, I think it is true to say that for us taking drugs was a moral choice. Not a wise moral choice, but a choice nevertheless. By taking our stand against the straight society, by actually ‘incorporating’ taboo, illicit substances in our own blood, we defined ourselves against ‘them’. We affirmed our own right to take control of our bodies, to make our own choices, to seek pleasure in our own way. Even to make our own mistakes.
And making mistakes is one way of finding your path. If you don’t have a map, you can either follow what everyone else is doing – even if you know it’s not going where you want – or you can strike out on your own. Sure, you’ll get lost, take wrong turns, end up in blind alleys. And some will die along the way. But sooner or later you’ll hit it.
And this is what happened to me, and several of my friends. We discovered Buddhism. Slowly, messily, dangerously, but we got there. This is not an isolated phenomenon. As is well known, the modern Western interest in Buddhism grew out of the hippy counterculture of the 60s, with its fascination with ‘Eastern’ mysticism. The experimenting with drugs, while it left a lot of wreckage, had some positive outcomes, namely, the modern flourishing of meditation in the West.
It is essential to understand this, as it underpins our attitudes to drug policy. The prohibitionists would have us return to an imagined 50s, when drugs were even more marginalized (whether or not this was actually the case is another matter). The problem is that this ignores the social forces that led to the widespread experimentation with drugs in the first place. There was a genuine movement towards a Higher Consciousness – we all heard it in the Beatles’ music; and their trip to India to do TM was a defining moment. This was not just a hedonistic indulgence: some of the people from that era, notably George Harrison, became genuinely interested in meditation and mystic spirituality, and continued to promote that in a positive way for many years.
The problem with the hippys was, I think, clearly analyzed by Ken Wilber, based on his pre/trans fallacy. He argued that within the hippy movement there was both a genuine yearning for a Higher Consciousness, a disenchantment with the means and methods of rational science whose ultimate gift was the atomic bomb; and a base hedonistic indulgence. These tendencies would be differently present in each person. However they were all united in their rejection of rational thought, and so were unable to distinguish between what was genuinely transformative and what was mere indulgence. This fracture line continued into American Buddhism, where it resulted in the well-known drugs-and-sex scandals that rocked several of the formative communities.
This historical process is not just my own experience, not just the experience of Western Buddhism as a whole, but is the experience that lies at the very roots of meditation in history. Meditation is a specifically Indian invention which evolved from the pre-existing religious and shamanic practices. One of these was the ritual consumption of a drug called soma. The identity and effects of soma are debated, but there is little doubt that it was a mind-altering substance of some sort, which would have contributed to the ecstatic trances of the ancient rishis. Together with the rituals, it stimulated the rishis to ‘envision’ inspired verses, just as artistic creativity today is often fueled by drugs. Today we call these verses the Ṛg Veda, one of the earliest and most magnificent cultural products of humanity.
The Vedas frequently lament the ‘death of soma’, which is often interpreted as a cultural memory of the time the ancient Āryans moved into India, where their former drug of choice was no longer available. This may be so, but it may also record a more subtle memory: the disillusionment and disenchantment with the drug experience, as with repeated use the drugs just don’t get you there any more. In any case, with the decline of the soma, the ascetics turned to other forms of spiritual stimulus – physical mortification, ecstatic ritual incantation, and ultimately meditation. This progress is recorded in the history of our meditation words: the Pali word jhāna is from the Vedic root dhī, which was the drug-inspired ‘envisioning’ of the sacred texts.
I am not making the argument that drug experience is an essential ‘gateway’ to meditation. That would be as ridiculous as the argument that pot is a ‘gateway’ to harder drugs. Remember the simile of the journey: if you don’t have a good map, you take a lot of byways first. if you do have a good map – the eightfold path – then you just walk it.
I am, however, making the argument that drug use is not solely an expression and cause of humanity’s lower instincts, but is also an expression, albeit confused, of a yearning for a higher, less constricted form of consciousness. I agree with Jung that the desire to become more conscious is humanity’s strongest motivation. If we want to formulate an effective drug policy we must stop misrepresenting drug users and drug usage as an entirely negative force. Nothing is. It has its good and bad sides. The more we try to repress it, the more we create divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and the more we confirm the belief of young people that the straight world just doesn’t get it.
In the discourse on drug use, the reality that the drug culture has had positive results, though it is plain to see, is systematically ignored, as it might ‘send the wrong message’. But the ‘wrong message’, which young people see with brutal clarity, is the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the straight world’s take on drugs. We knew very well that these things were not the demons they were painted as, and laughed outright at the absurd propoganda.
An effective policy must start by sending the ‘right message’: people who choose to take drugs are human beings with inherent wisdom and the capacity to make moral choices. As a society we should act with them, in respectful consultation and dialogue with users, who have the greatest investment in the issue. We should recognize that drug use has serious negative consequences, and out of compassion we should regulate its use in order to minimize harm, as we do with alcohol and tobacco.
At the same time we should go beyond mere management, and recognize that drug use is, in part, an expression of a genuine spiritual yearning. History has shown, time and time again, that this yearning will not be fulfilled through drugs, and the result will be either a downward spiral or stopping usage. The actual means to this transcendence is meditation, or comparable contemplative practices in different religious or secular contexts. Meditation is not, by itself, the solution to our drug problems. Nor are all drug users seriously interested in higher consciousness. Nevertheless, a significant number of them are. And rather than treat them like criminals, why not show them the real path to find what they’re seeking?