Drugs, perception, mental illness & spiritual realities  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

A friend (thanks, Rebecca Wimer!) alerted me to a website displaying the artwork of Bryan Lewis Saunders who “takes every drug known to man [and] draws [a] self-portrait after each use.” Saunders’ portraits, it is noted, “aren’t all that different from artist Bobby Baker’s self-portraits of mental illness.”

It would be easy to sneer at Saunders’ project, wondering why he would want to subject himself to such a drug regimen and whether the resulting artwork has any significance.

A lot could be said about this, and an excellent place to begin the conversation would be with an essay, “Altered States” (The New Yorker, August 27, 2012) by physician (neurologist) Oliver Sacks. Though the entire essay is worth reading and discussing, Sacks’ opening three paragraphs puts the topic in correct focus:

            To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see over-all patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future. And we need freedom (or, at least, the illusion of freedom) to get beyond ourselves, whether with telescopes and microscopes and our ever-burgeoning technology, or in states of mind that allow us to travel to other worlds, to rise above our immediate surroundings.
            We may seek, too, a relaxing of inhibitions that makes it easier to bond with each other, or transports that make our consciousness of time and mortality easier to bear. We seek a holiday from our inner and outer restrictions, a more intense sense of the here and now, the beauty and value of the world we live in.
            Many of us find Wordsworthian ‘intimations of immortality’ in nature, art, creative thinking, or religion; some people can reach transcendent states through meditation or similar trance-inducing techniques, or through prayer and spiritual exercises. But drugs offer a shortcut; they promise transcendence on demand. These shortcuts are possible because certain chemicals can directly stimulate many complex brain functions. (p. 40).

It seems undeniable that there is a link between psychotropic drugs and ways of seeing. I say it is undeniable not because I am up on the research on such things but because I was in college in the Sixties, and lived in a commune in New Mexico in the Seventies. Drugs of all sorts were part of the social fabric of my life, and long hours talking with people stoned on LSD or psychedelic mushrooms made it obvious that the drugs had changed their perception of reality—mostly for curse, and occasionally for blessing. Plenty of people got high merely because it was a fad, or through peer pressure, or because it was entertaining, or to escape the pain of coping with a broken world. But I met some who took drugs seriously, as part of a pilgrimage in which they wanted to know the truth of reality and had come to think that drugs might be a way to gain some insight into realities hidden from ordinary perception.

The belief that there is a mysterious link between spiritual realities, mental illness, and drugs was widely held during the Sixties but it was difficult to get many people outside the drug culture to take the idea seriously—especially Christians. We should be receptive to such things since we do believe that reality includes both the seen and unseen, and there are surprising times when the veil between the two is parted in some way. One time, we are told, St Peter was hungry, went up onto the flat roof of a house to pray, and “fell into a trance” (Acts 10:10). He saw a vision, spoke with God, and learned something that was crucial to the early church. Christ himself fasted 40 days and nights—now there is a radical use of a spiritual discipline—and had a personal encounter with the evil one (Matthew 4:1-11). Mystics over many centuries have used spiritual disciplines—silence, solitude, fasting—and sometimes found their perceptions altered.

I am not here arguing that drugs and spiritual disciplines are somehow parallel, but rather that we dare not be dismissive of the notion that spiritual realities are easily perceived and comprehended, or that there is not great mystery here, or that intelligent, sincere human beings can go to extreme lengths to find significance or to peer into the depths of reality.

With the rise of paganism and decline of Christianity in the West I suspect that once again the church will be asked to consider such things. I hope the watching world does not find us sneering.

Graphics: Drawing by Bryan Lewis Saunders, “‘Bump’ of Crystalmeth;” portrait of Dr. Oliver Sacks.

This entry was posted at Wednesday, October 03, 2012 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


PS: When I went to read Oliver Sacks' essay, I also saw this video of him discussing his experiences and how they helped him relate to his patients. Maybe you already saw it?


October 3, 2012 at 12:40 PM

I remember it wasn't surprising, back when, to find people who encountered what seemed to them like personal evil and frightening darkness when high or when having flash-backs. More surprising was that some few were drawn toward Christ through their experiences. It seemed to us that drugs often revealed a spiritual dimension, unseen, but around us all. It reminded me that as Christians we believe in unseen spiritual realities but often live as if what we see is all there is.

October 5, 2012 at 12:14 PM

Thanks for mentioning the video--forgot to do that.

October 5, 2012 at 12:44 PM

You have named my memories exactly. Perhaps because then, as now, we walked together.

October 5, 2012 at 12:44 PM

Margie, Beautifully said. I am thankful for you both!

October 6, 2012 at 8:05 PM

The self portrait experiment I found interesting not only for the aesthetic output, but also by the kind of 'giving over' of self to the drugs in search of the new, a type of admission that our knowledge and skills are often a hindrance, not a help. Fascinating how perception is shaped both by what we want to see and perhaps by other forces as well. Reminded me of Melody's trip from 'No Compromise': "We were standing at the bottom of a hill and as I looked up into the black, midnight sky I saw a huge glowing cross hanging in the heavens. I blinked, but it didn’t go away. It was a fiery, radiant gold. And it was beautiful. I stared at it in awe, and felt a peace wash into my heart.....Later on, when I woke up, I went back to the spot where it all happened. In the place of the cross there was only a tall telephone pole with a cross beam. That must have been what my hallucination hung itself upon."

December 21, 2012 at 9:28 AM

A fascinating link--I had either completely forgotten Melody's experience, or it hadn't registered with me. Over the past few years I've been living in the book of Daniel--and the visions and dreams of that book have made me wonder how little of reality we actually experience from day to day.

December 21, 2012 at 10:20 AM

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