With tears streaming down my face, I thought of a deer that I would kill in one month’s time. Under the influence of ayahuasca the tears flowed freely as I considered the responsibility to this animal, the reverence for the situation, and in a rare moment for me, I asked the Universe to guide my arrow straight through the heart killing it cleanly and quickly. This was my first experience with a higher power, with Source, Universe, God.
The magnitude of this experience came from an entheogen called DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which is the main ingredient in a traditional south American brew called ayahuasca.
The term entheogen literally translates to “the God within,” and is used to describe the spiritual benefits of using common psychedelic and hallucinogenic substances such as:
- Psilocybin (magic mushrooms)
- Mescaline (peyote and san pedro cactus)
- DMT (ayahuasca)
Despite the relatively new and politically motivated “war on drugs” started in the 1960s and 70s, entheogens have been used in traditional settings for thousands of years.
Below you’ll learn how entheogens can create mystical, spiritual experiences and how to get started if you have an interest in doing so.
A History of Entheogen Use
The earliest evidence of entheogen use dates back to 7 – 9000 BCE in the Sahara desert in southeast Algeria . The depictions clearly indicate mushroom (and specifically psilocybin) usage before recorded history.
In the Americas, the Aztec people called psilocybin “God’s flesh”, tribes across modern day USA used peyote cactus as a holy sacrament, and ayahuasca has been used deep in the jungles of south America for thousands of years according to archaeological evidence .
In fact, according to researcher and explorer Terence McKenna, psilocybin was a major part of our development as a species. In his “Stoned Ape Theory”, McKenna concludes that psilocybin mushrooms were a major part of humans developing consciousness and self-awareness 100,000 years ago .
While many of McKenna’s core theories have been put into question, there is no doubt these experiences have been profound teachers for humans and continue to be associated with organized groups such as the Native American Church, the Santo Daime, and others.
A group from the Native American Church does peyote in 1892
Entheogens and the Brain
The classification does not seem to be agreed upon by all, but classic entheogens are broken down into three categories:
- Tryptamines (Psilocybin, DMT)
- Ergolines (LSD)
- Phenethylamines (Mescaline)
All of these compounds are serotonergic in some way (interacting with the serotonin system). Within the brain there are receptor sites where serotonin (a brain chemical associated with mood and relaxation) usually binds.
These traditional psychedelics have an affinity for these various serotonin receptor sites by mimicking the structure of serotonin. Specifically this happens with the 5-HT2A receptor.
This is far more scientific knowledge than you need to know, but is interesting for the following reason:
Entheogens change your brain not only during a trip, but in long-lasting ways
According to scientific evidence, the 5-HT2A receptor is important for regulating mood, cognition, and plasticity (memory, learning, flexible thinking) .
Many entheogens interact with different types of the serotonin system (including 5-HT2B and about a dozen others), but this interaction with the brain has long-lasting effects and very specific mystical ones as well.
Mystical Experiences and Entheogens
Whether the substance is mescaline, psilocybin, or DMT, the science suggests a dissolution of our perception of “self” (sometimes called ego dissolution) , which allows a deeper sense of connectedness with the things surrounding us.
This often creates what many participants consider “mystical experiences” by which people can experience a relationship to a higher power. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, scientist Roland Griffiths and his team showed that 61% of participants using psilocybin could have a mystical experience with increased ratings of “openness” 12 months after the study .
Other recent studies have shown that high-dose entheogen use was considered one of the most spiritually meaningful experiences of their lives. 10 out of 14 said it was top 10 and 5 out of 14 said it was in the top 5 most meaningful spiritual moments .
Before draconian drug laws, the Harvard Divinity School did a study on volunteers who would later become some of the most well-known religious scholars in the world. In 1962, students were given psilocybin and almost all recorded profound religious experiences .
It is true, from both a scientific and anecdotal perspective, that entheogens can be highly beneficial for connecting to a higher power… but preferably in the right setting.
Entheogenic compounds are highly influenced by the set and the setting. In fact, Rick Strassman (a pioneer of DMT research) suggests that the context of taking these substances matters more than the substance itself .
This isn’t to shame anyone for using LSD, psilocybin, or other compounds to go to parties, light shows etc., but the setting is important for mystical or spiritual experience. This is the reason why our ancestors used these medicines with such reverence.
Why Use An Entheogen for Spirituality?
As the term “entheogen” suggests, there is an inward and personal focus that seems to come with most of these compounds. Because it translates to “the God within”, it provides all those who experience the substance with a perspective that our relationship to a higher power and sense of spirituality comes from our own creation.
In a spiritual context (shaman administering these medicines), there is less of an agenda associated with the experience. This allows us to develop our own relationship with a higher power that is uniquely shaped by your life experiences, your conditioning, and your education as a child.
Rather than seeking information or scriptures from religions (which can be valuable), one must literally find the God inside.
Spirituality as a Performance Enhancer
The word “God” especially in urban environments has a stigma and association alongside it, which is typically not positive. Intellectual elite and well-educated individuals tend to have a bizarre relationship to God, but having a relationship with a higher power or spirituality can be one of the greatest ways of improving your life.
According to a study of religion, spirituality (R / S) and health, having a connection to a higher power is one of the most important factors for improving markers of health .
After looking at all the journals between 1872 and 2010, the study concluded that R / S created:
- 79% correlation between R / S and well-being / happiness
- 81% correlation with greater optimism
- 73% correlation with a feeling of hope
- 93% correlation with purpose and meaning
- 61% greater self-esteem
- 61% inverse relationship with depression
The study is comprehensive and the list goes on and on. Having a relationship with a higher power is important for our health… but what happens if we don’t believe?
My experience with religion or God was minimal growing up. Both parents have PhDs, are agnostic, and I’d never been to a church service until I was 27 years old. Suffice it to say, my doctrines were evolution and science.
Then came entheogens.
The beauty of entheogens is that they allow us to have a unique experience with a higher power and formulate what that means for us. Simply because I had a series of ayahuasca, psilocybin, and other experiences does not mean I found Jesus or Allah, but rather my own, highly personal form of God, the Universe, Source… whatever we want to call it.
Entheogens, when done in the right setting, can have life-altering effects and positively impact our existence for years. That is one of the reasons Nootropedia has dedicated much effort and resources in spreading the good work de-stigmatizing entheogens and making them more widely available through partnerships with MAPS.org and our membership portal.
- References (Click to Expand)