Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati MB, BS (Syd.)

Drugs and medicinal plants have a long history in various cultures, both for their role in treating illness and as mind-altering (psychotropic) agents. However, at no time in history have drugs been so pervasive. Alchemy's development into chemistry has made an enormous number of substances available to the common man. Today we continually eat, drink and breathe chemicals and drugs, in prepared and synthetic foods, added to meat, vegetables and fruit, in drinking water and numerous beverages and from smoke and aerosols. In fact, there is no escape from chemical pollution.

Although we associate the term 'drug' with substances such as heroin, LSD and marijuana, any chemical which finds its way into our bodies exerts an effect, either in the long or short term, on our mind and body. The science of ayurveda recognises even food, sunlight and fresh air as drugs, in that they have healing properties and stimulate the healthy production of the body's internal secretions, hormones and chemicals.

Apart from those drugs which we are bombarded with daily, there are three main areas in which drugs are used: the therapeutic setting, ranging from the witch doctor to the modern; the cultural-religious use, an ancient science in which drugs are used according to special systems of preparation and ritual to enhance our awareness of and insight into the sacred, magical and mystical; and abuse, in which we aim to escape the sufferings of life into a temporary, illusory respite, the illusion being that in our attempt to escape suffering we misuse drugs and enmesh ourselves in addiction and even more suffering.

In search of the sacred

In her study of some 4,000 cultures, Ohio State University (USA) anthropologist E. Bourguignon found that 90% of human societies practise some kind of institutional altered state ritual. Sioux warriors use the solitary vision quest, South American shaman induce hallucinogen-powered trance, the Senoi of Malaysia cultivate dreams, the !Kung of the Kalahari and Samo of New Guinea dance to induce an altered state of consciousness.

Modern civilisation has lost the keys of access to altered states of consciousness. Our own attempts are primitive and pitiful when compared with other cultures or the yogi's meditative experiences, including as they do mainly alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, cocktail parties, revival meetings, cricket or football hysteria, rock concerts and discotheques. Man has indeed developed great fear and anxiety about altered states and we are conditioned to believe that only the waking state is normal, anything else is to be shunned as abnormal In fact we are shutting a very important event out of our lives, for these altered states are the way to the experience of the sacred and profound, and are an essential ingredient for our psychological and social health. Without them we lock ourselves into a monotone normality, a self-created, shallow and unfulfilling prison.

It is the anxiety, loneliness, loss of meaning, resulting from the vacuity of our present imprisoned state, that has prompted many, in parody of the ancient mind-expanding rituals, to dabble and experiment with dangerous drugs. In our effort to regain the keys to altered states of consciousness, and ultimately greater psychological health, we may lose ourselves in the undisciplined, bizarre world of drug addiction and its resultant self-degradation.

The abused drugs

Abused drugs can be classified into four main groups:

  1. Depressants: such as barbiturates, methaqualone, glutethimide, chloral hydrate and tranquillisers act to depress the nervous system, and therefore affect breathing and heart rate as well as our thoughts and emotions. Tranquillisers are divided into two main groups, major and minor. Depressants are the most dangerous and most abused of the abused drugs in terms of addiction and withdrawal. They are also commonly used in suicide attempts.
    Abuse of these drugs does not lie solely with the so-called addicts for they are prescribed for insomnia, anxiety, irritability and tension and therefore are used by a large range of people from housewives to businessmen.
    Barbiturates and minor tranquillisers such as Valium, are the most abused of the depressants and it has been estimated that in the United States, ten percent of the workforce is addicted to barbiturates alone. Barbiturates create physical dependency while minor tranquillisers create psychological dependency. A stressful situation arises, for example, we may discover that our children have started smoking marijuana, and we immediately reach for a tranquilliser at the first sign of stress or anxiety, because our stress-handling mechanism is weak. Sleeping pills are another difficult problem because they tend to suppress dream sleep. When the pills are stopped we may suffer from disturbed sleep and nightmares which cause us to use pills again. It usually takes at least three to four nights to regain near-normal sleeping patterns.
  2. Stimulants: include amphetamines, cocaine, caffeine and tobacco and work in the opposite way to depressants, keeping the body going long after it is time to slow down. Stimulants suppress sleep and appetite and generally interfere with body rhythms. These are also addictive drugs and are potentially lethal if misused.
  3. Hallucinogens: consist of synthetic and natural substances, such as LSD, mushrooms, mescaline and other chemicals. Marijuana has hallucinogenic effects though it is in a different category to the above, being concentrated and varied forms of the original leaf. The major hallucinogens can cause a psychotic break in predisposed individuals. These drugs are not physically addictive though they can be psychologically so in certain individuals.
  4. Narcotics and opiates: includes opium, heroin, morphine, codeine and methadone which produce both psychological and physical addiction. They are mainly painkillers, cough suppressants and anti-diarrhoeal drugs and also have an anti-anxiety, euphoric effect for which they are abused. They are highly addictive, a heroin junkie can have a 'habit' worth $200 per, day, and overdose is relatively easy.

Apart from these four categories of abused drugs there are many other chemicals with which we self-medicate ourselves, for headaches, aches and pains, cough and colds, allergies, motion sickness, obesity, haemorrhoids and sleeplessness. We buy these drugs over the counter whenever we feel the need and, of course, it is left up to us to use discretion. However, it is a fact that our level of tolerance in modern 'civilised' society is far less than primitive people devoid of mechanised luxuries and living in harmony with nature. If we medicate ourselves for mild problems, just because pills are freely available, then this is a form of abuse. Some people go further than this and habitually take mild painkillers, such as APC's, the regular use of which gives us a mild lift and at the same time destroys our kidneys and causes bleeding of the stomach. They have recently been banned from sale.

Medical abuse

A very important and well documented area of drug abuse lies within the therapeutic, doctor-patient setting. Modern therapeutics is so primed to deal in either drugs, surgery or X-rays that it rarely allows other healing systems to become involved in the healing experience. Such modalities as massage, music, colour, art, exercise, herbs, relaxation and, of course, meditation and yoga, though they have been recognised as healing agents for millennia, are neglected because they cannot be easily dissected and replicated synthetically in laboratories.

Drug companies, concentrating their research and production on the major areas of human suffering, have marketed a vast array of compounds designed to suit every need. It has become easy for a doctor to prescribe a pill when a patient comes into his surgery, despite risk of serious side effects, rather than try a chemical free, less hazardous approach which may require more time and less profit. For example, many doctors prescribe corticosteroids for asthma, even in young people, despite the fact that we easily develop tolerance to these drugs. They eventually become not only useless but leave us addicted to them. Even if we cure ourselves from asthma we still face the problem of steroid addiction. This form of abuse of drugs and the decreased level of real patient care has also diminished respect for the medical profession and forced many people to seek alternatives.

One major example of drug abuse is the overuse of antibiotics for minor infections, coughs and colds, and so on. Salt water is often a more useful disinfectant and many times it is better to do nothing than interfere with powerful chemicals. Tranquillisers are also over-prescribed, for many doctors prefer to give a drug rather than listen to people's personal problems.

Actually, we only have ourselves to blame for the present abuse of the patient-doctor situation, for we allow it to exist. In our eagerness for instant relief from suffering and pain we misguidedly believe, and this attitude is fostered by advertising and doctors themselves, that a pill will solve all our problems. We have imbued pills and potions with magical powers, in much the same way as our primitive ancestors. Of course, many drugs are essential and work well at the right time and place, but we have become addicted to taking medicines any time we feel anxious or mildly unwell. This is, of course, a symptom of our present day instant society: instant coffee, instant communication, instant entertainment.

The endless human sea

When we push pills and chemicals into our body we do not appreciate exactly what we are doing. The human body is eighty percent water, a sea in which a vast array of substances, mostly unknown, interact in endless cycles. Everything we eat or put inside ourselves exerts an effect. Most drugs and medicines have multiple effects, and with our limited awareness we hone in on or advertise only one of these. This is why we should avoid taking any drug or medicine unless it is absolutely necessary.

Yogis have long respected the body and mind, its complexity and the need to retain a certain degree of purity, either through cleansing techniques or avoiding impurities. Yogic discipline aims at a balanced, disciplined life, pure and simple foods, exercise and asana, pranayama and meditation, to regulate our internal environment and avoid the physical and mental ill health that necessitates drugs. A relatively internally clean and relaxed body and mind can move through a wide range of emotions and states of consciousness and thereby enjoy a full and rewarding life. When yoga is added to this, the range of possible experiences is extended into realms previously inaccessible and thought to be impossible. The ultimate end point of yogic discipline is the generation of new chemicals in the body, called amrit, the nectar of immortality, which is associated with omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence, the transcendental experience.

Psychologist Ronald Siegel, of the UCLA Neuro-psychiatric Institute, states that mystical experiences, cosmic illuminations and metaphysical truths most probably boil down to brain mechanisms. He has studied various altered states of consciousness and has found that despite the variety of methods used, the visions we have in altered states of consciousness are remarkably similar geometrically, with mild cultural variations. He states, the tranquillity, indescribable bliss and suchlike of mystical experience represent a common internal landscape rather than an objective reality, the landscape of the brain-mind complex. Drugs, meditation, hyperventilation, hypoglycemia, crystal gazing, sensory deprivation and daydreaming all give access to our inner landscape, however, the quality, intensity and duration varies with each method.

We know that noradrenaline and serotonin control brain excitation, and altered states of consciousness probably result because of variations in the levels of these chemicals. Other research has shown that the euphoria, well being and pain free state of the normal as well as the altered state of consciousness probably results from a brain chemical called endorphin or enkephalin.

Researchers such as Siegel seek the ideal consciousness-raising drug, absolutely non-toxic, pharmacologically pure, and capable of inducing predictable visions and experiences; the 'moksha' of Aldous Huxley, a truth and beauty pill. There is a tremendous market for such pills and millions of people are at present doing their own private research at home because they are not satisfied with a two week vacation every year. This dissatisfaction arises from homo sapiens' hunger for access to the internal world and altered states of consciousness and the relaxation, euphoria, bliss, refreshment and regeneration such states provide.

In trying to regain access to our inner world, we have to choose from a variety of methods. Drugs interfere with our brain chemistry and we can never be sure whether the results will be good or bad, for any method of entry inside requires expert guidance. It is said that there were once masters who knew of certain herbs which could, when used in conjunction with strenuous and secret preparation, induce samadhi and various powers. This science has been lost today. Mention of it is made in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, chapter 4, verse 1.

Yoga is undoubtedly one of the best methods of inner awakening, being relatively safe and well charted. It also has various inbuilt safeguards. Asana and bandha, for example, compress organs and endocrine glands, affecting secretion and direction of flow. Pranayama and meditation directly affect the brain's functioning. Purity, poverty, contemplation are all methods of removing sensory distractions and increasing mental concentration. All the systems of Patanjali culminate in the absorbing, life altering experience of samadhi. We have only to choose the methods which suit us most, and in yoga there are techniques designed to suit all personalities and temperaments and to take us as far as we want to go.

It is undoubtedly preferable that we have a regular and safe doorway to altered states of consciousness rather than using chemicals. Anything which enhances our natural energies and chemical processes and refines them, which can be used by anyone in any circumstances, at home, work and so on, which leaves us feeling fresh, light, relaxed, prepared to meet the problems of external existence and which induces insight, wisdom and compassion is to be preferred over ephemeral, shallow visions and mild ecstasy requiring external agents. There are too many unknown factors involved in drugs, for example, coffee drunk in the early morning is thought to have adverse effects on our body rhythms, while drunk in the afternoon, is beneficial. Perhaps one day drugs will solve all our problems, take us to altered spaces of perception and insight, free us from pain, allow us to feel any emotion, cure cancer and heart disease. Until that time, if it ever comes, and if it is really a desirable thing, then we will have to look elsewhere for an answer to our present dilemma.

The place of drugs

Abuse of drugs will undoubtedly continue, amongst the poor and uneducated, the thrill seekers, and by the housewife with her daily burden and so on. Drugs will also continue to have a vast and important place in the treatment of physical and mental disease and in the exploration of consciousness. For example, Stanislav Grof, Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, USA, has been experimenting with LSD, both personally and with terminally ill cancer patients. Much of this type of work has been inspired by the words of Aldous Huxley, who himself took LSD before he died and also assisted his first wife to die while in a drug free altered state of consciousness. Huxley writes, "My own experience with Maria convinced me that the living can do a great deal to make the passage easier for the dying, to raise the most purely physiological act of human existence to the level of consciousness and perhaps even of spirituality."

Ultimately, hallucinogenic drugs can only give us an ephemeral, though intense glimpse of a separate reality. By radically altering our brain chemistry, they suddenly launch us into new experiences, but eventually we must come back into our normal waking state; we must come down. However, the memory of the experience remains and can change our lives for the better if we do not fall into the trap of looking outside of ourselves - in drugs for example, for our highs and altered states of consciousness, and the answers to our problems. Drugs must be viewed as a means not an end in themselves. Eventually we must be able to do without drugs or any external props, for the answers and experiences which lead to truth and certitude lie within.

Perhaps the role of drugs, especially consciousness expanding drugs, is best summed up by Albert Hofmann, the chemist turned mystic who discovered LSD-25's effects in 1943 when he accidentally absorbed a small dose through his skin in the laboratory of the Swiss firm Sandoz Ltd. When questioned as to the role of LSD in our anxiety-ridden urban decay and the breakdown of the family unit, he stated that, "We must try to get inside and feel that we are part of creation, in some way individually part of God - that We are partners in it and thus protected by it... We should experience the wonder of creation in our lives." To accomplish this state he advises that we should practise meditation.

Hofmann states the LSD assisted meditation can be useful especially in psychoanalysis, brain research and the treatment of terminally ill people, or for anyone who is stuck in an unpleasant world view in order to gain an otherwise unattainable view of reality. For this he prescribes one or only a few doses of LSD and in a medically supervised environment. He also states, "But of course it is much better if they just have a spontaneous expanding experience without it."

The prescription for the spontaneous expanding experience is to take yoga or tantra two or three times per day, in calculated and systematic doses. Meditators and yogis who previously took drugs feel that the meditation experience is more mature and fulfilling and its aims are fundamentally superior; the balanced expansion of awareness and skill in action. In the area of drug abuse, therefore, meditation is the ideal antidote because it is a positive addiction, an essential ingredient in our everyday life.

By developing meditative consciousness with consequent relaxation of the tensions which predispose to psychosomatic illness and the inner void which pushes so many to abuse drugs, we enter a phase of autonomy and control over our own lives, free from dependency of drugs and able to cultivate our well being up to our death... and beyond.