Taoism and the Psychedelic Experience

The following article has been written by Oliver Genn-Bash, current president of the University of Kent, Canterbury, Psychedelics Society. He can be reached at: ogennbash89@gmail.com

‘A good traveller has no fixed destination, and is not intent on arriving’ – Lao Tzu[1]

Taoist philosophy is extremely interesting when looking at it within the context of the psychedelic experience. Whilst there is largely a consensus regarding the subjectivity of the psychedelic experience there are certain common aspects which seem to permeate the experience from individual to individual, despite the supposed subjective nature of it. Taoism may ultimately provide us with a framework through which to understand the psychedelic experience in a constructive manner, whereby we may be able to examine various seemingly intuitive revelations through a certain lens.

The first point I want to make regards the notion of the self within the psychedelic experience. Losing our sense of self is a common theme when one is engaging with this kind of process, be it meditative, artistic, or psychedelic. One could argue that the concept of the self creates a barrier to having a free or uninhibited experience, and therefore it is the transcendence of this concept which is important to this kind of experience.

Taoist thought attempts to dispel this notion of the self through a rejection of the idea of projecting one’s own goals into the world in order to gain a degree of impartiality. To hold on to the idea of the self may cause one to view life as being that which has a concrete purpose, which is a result of the arrogance of certainty which stems from the ego. This creates a situation whereby one must have their goals or desires realised in order for their existence to have some sort of purpose. The psychedelic experience may throw us into something which is very different from the everyday perception of existence as a linear passage which has a defining purpose. Taoism is primarily concerned with the development of the individual, specifically with regards to one’s attitudes in life. The view is that we must constantly challenge our perceptions and values, whilst leaving them completely open to change in order to understand the world as a constantly fluctuating reality. Solid principles which have a purpose in achieving some form of end-point will ultimately produce problems, as through focusing so heavily on what must be achieved, one may miss what is happening around them. I would stress that this point, to a certain extent, resonates heavily with the psychedelic experience. One could make the case that the use of psychedelic substances or engagement in the psychedelic experience provides us with an arena through which to de-condition ourselves in order to navigate our environment in a less rigid manner.

The contemporary political philosopher John Gray has a somewhat Taoist essence to his work. He puts forward the notion that we have been trapped by the chains of rationality as the basis for perception. We attempt to create some form of rational basis from which we can act, but rather in the everyday course of our lives we seem mainly to react instinctively and intuitively to circumstances. Life would become very slow moving if we had the knowledge of every single choice at hand through which we could use to rationally make decisions regarding our actions within current circumstances. The pitfall of rationality is that one becomes fixated with what ought to be, creating a disconnection from the natural world and the events surrounding us. Gray elegantly states that “other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?”[2]

For example, individuals who are rigid, tense, uptight, meticulous in conduct and belief, humourless, quick to take offence, or overwhelmed by hardship represent the antithesis of Taoist qualities. To pride one’s self in going against the flow or current is not representative of a Taoist mentality, as it is viewed that one must constantly adapt to each situation rather than engaging in an ongoing conflict in the hope that your views or values will preside over those of others. However, this is not to assume that the adoption of such a mindset will result in a defeatist mentality. A comparison has been made between the Taoist mindset and flowing water, which is simultaneously the weakest and strongest of elements. Streams, whilst achieving their course, do not smash against rocks that can be easily avoided. Rocks that cannot be avoided are eroded over time, with such patience that the progression of the stream is almost invisible. This notion of adapting to a situation is known as wu wei within Taoism, meaning that there must not be any incidences of exertion that are not rooted in the nature of the situation at hand. The ability to adapt relies on the acceptance of the concepts of Yin and Yang. Yin signifies the ‘sunless side of the mountain’, whilst Yang represents the ‘sunny side’. Though these may be perceived as opposites, they are in fact two sides of the same coin, with neither existing without the other. Neither one is seen to be inferior to the other, and is never found in isolation from the other. The implication of the acceptance of the necessary relationship between Yin and Yang is that the individual will allow themselves to deal accordingly with instances of perceived positivity and negativity.[3]

One could argue that the very purposes of entering into a psychedelic experience is to begin a process which enables us to de-condition our thought patterns, ethical values, and our understanding of existence and reality in order to become more adaptable to situations. If we are more adaptable then we may be able to dissolve or reduce instances of conflict within our lives, making our existence more peaceful, tolerant, and enjoyable. To enter into the psychedelic experience with the hope of gaining some truth or becoming enlightened is to be misguided. The utility of such an experience is that we are able to step back from the self and gain a sense of humility, whereby we will become more tolerant of others within the world. A truly free and clear-minded individual is one who has the ability to question their own thoughts and values whilst not being chained to anything specific.

However, whilst a Taoist mindset maintains a constantly evolving proves whereby we are not chained to a singular perception of existence, it is asserted in the Tao Te Ching (the main Taoist text) that this notion is what firmly roots individuals, providing the way (the literal translation of ‘Tao’). In reference to a vessel said to have been used in the temple of Chou, the Tao Te Ching states… ‘Rather than fill it to the brim by keeping it upright, better to have stopped in time; hammer it to a point and the sharpness cannot be preserved forever. To be overbearing when one has wealth and position is to bring calamity upon oneself. To retire when the task is accomplished is the way of heaven’.[4] The vessel within the temple stands when empty, but topples when full. This passage metaphorically emphasises the necessity of those in a position of great knowledge or power to not allow their arrogance to take precedence. The necessary virtue of humility within Taoist thought is the virtue which grounds individuals who are familiar with the way. Taoism asserts that an individual can only act accordingly to the situation, rather than judging what is best through the application of certain preconceived notions. To label one’s self is to limit and predetermine actions and values, thus completely destroying the essence of humility.[5]

I put forward the point that the psychedelic experience is intrinsically humble, with regards to the notion that the individual has been overcome by this sense of ego loss. If one has come to the realisation that their goals or values do not take precedent over others than this essence of humility can be cemented. However, there is a problem here which must be addressed – This notion of ego ‘loss’ might be nothing more than a temporary suspension of the ego, through which the individual may return feeling that they can accomplish anything due to their going through the process of ego loss. There is ultimately a pitfall within the psychedelic experience which must be avoided in order not to be trapped within a narcissistic state. That pitfall is the belief that this experience holds any universal truth within whatever revelations we may encounter. To look at this from a Taoist perspective would dispel any truth claims, whilst putting the notion of enlightenment within the context of a path or process which has begun through engagement with the psychedelic experience, but that which has no end point.

[1] Legge, J. (2008) Tao Te Ching. Forgotten Books: 14

[2] Gray, J. (2003) Straw Dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals. Granta Books: 112-113

[3] Blofeld, J. (1980) Gateway to Wisdom: Taoist and Buddhist Contemplative and Healing Yogas Adapted for Western Students of the way. Shambhala Publications: 22-25

[4] D.C. Lau (1963) Tao Te Ching. Addison Wesley: 13

[5] Olson, R.P. (2002) Religious theories of personality and psychotherapy: East meets West. Routledge, 1ed:173-174

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