#5229 – On Auroville, Drugs and the Meaning of Life

Issue #5229 – Monday, June 16th, 2014 – Editor: Dustin LindenSmith

CBC Radio’s Ideas, hosted by Paul Kennedy, is a show devoted to various philosophical topics, especially as they pertain to society more generally. A recent episode produced by Ashley Walters was devoted to a study of the commune of Auroville in India, which some readers of this publication will already be familiar with via Jerry’s profiles of Annamika and Didier. The episode page is here:

http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2014/06/11/auroville-the-road-to-utopia/

A direct link to download the episode is here:
http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/podcasts/ideas_20140611_96920.mp3

As Jerry noted in a comment on that episode page, there was really no mention of Sri Aurobindo, nor of the root origin story for the community itself. The piece tended to focus more on the surface aspects of the way the community is organized, and how the power structures have either splintered or coalesced into somewhat secretive groups which are not, by virtue of the community’s structure, held accountable by anyone else in the community at large. Here is an excerpt from the episode’s summary:

The longing for an ideal community is as old as civilization. Who hasn’t felt that there has to be a better way to live out there, somewhere? It’s precisely this longing that inspired Ashley Walters to go to Auroville.

It’s a community in the south of India, established in 1968. It was founded on the principles of human unity and spiritual transformation. That all may sound like something straight out of the Age of Aquarius, but it’s these ideals which sustain the 2,000 plus residents who call Auroville home.

Not that it doesn’t have its problems: people don’t show up for housing meetings when there’s a housing crisis going on. Some residents live near the poverty level. While other more well-off ones maintain manicured properties homes in a rather upscale neighbourhood. And the mainly Western inhabitants have an economically and socially conflicted relationship with the poor Tamil villagers from the surrounding area, many of whom do the menial work of the community.

But as one resident says:

“There are actually people here who are quite willing and happy to have a low standard of living because their fulfillment comes from other areas. Like having the time one needs for one’s activities, instead of constantly being in the pursuit of money. Working at jobs that one loves, rather than, again, [just] making money.”

Maybe it’s the striving after perfection, and not the attainment of it that keeps Auroville going. And for those who live there, it looks like that’s more than enough.

A post I recently made featuring the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris generated some feedback, not all positive, but I recently came across a piece he wrote about psychedelic drugs that I found quite interesting:

http://richarddawkins.net/2014/06/drugs-and-the-meaning-of-life/

Harris begins with some context around the differences between psychedelic drugs and narcotics, noting that our language (and society) tends to make very little meaningful distinction between the two, even though the former class of drug has very few addictive or destructive qualities when compared with the latter.

One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves, along with the next generation, about which substances are worth ingesting and for what purpose and which are not. The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term, drugs, making it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use. The poverty of our language has been only slightly eased by the introduction of the term psychedelics to differentiate certain visionary compounds, which can produce extraordinary insights, from narcotics and other classic agents of stupefaction and abuse.

​He expands on this in the context of the so-called war on drugs:

The “war on drugs” has been lost and should never have been waged. I can think of no right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, constitutes one of the great moral failures of our time. (And the fact that we make room for them in our prisons by paroling murderers, rapists, and child molesters makes one wonder whether civilization isn’t simply doomed.)

After getting into some detail as to the neurobiological mechanisms of psychedelics, the article gets into some nice, meaty stuff about the way that our brains modulate our perception and their role in the formation of mind itself. He discusses two metaphors for how the brain filters out extraneous stimuli from our awareness, and mentions the “Mind At Large” theory posited by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception:

…​the primary function of the brain may be eliminative: Its purpose may be to prevent a transpersonal dimension of mind from flooding consciousness, thereby allowing apes like ourselves to make their way in the world without being dazzled at every step by visionary phenomena that are irrelevant to their physical survival. Huxley thought of the brain as a kind of “reducing valve” for “Mind at Large.”

​Harris continues by asking how the altered states of consciousness attained ​through psychedelics differ or mimic those attained during meditation, and points out that while any exalted state attained with psychedelics can indeed be attained through meditation, it’s almost always a faster and more direct path to use psychedelics instead—especially at first.

One thing is certain: The mind is vaster and more fluid than our ordinary, waking consciousness suggests. And it is simply impossible to communicate the profundity (or seeming profundity) of psychedelic states to those who have never experienced them. Indeed, it is even difficult to remind oneself of the power of these states once they have passed.

Many people wonder about the difference between meditation (and other contemplative practices) and psychedelics. Are these drugs a form of cheating, or are they the only means of authentic awakening? They are neither. All psychoactive drugs modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain—either by mimicking specific neurotransmitters or by causing the neurotransmitters themselves to be more or less active. Everything that one can experience on a drug is, at some level, an expression of the brain’s potential. Hence, whatever one has seen or felt after ingesting LSD is likely to have been seen or felt by someone, somewhere, without it.

However, it cannot be denied that psychedelics are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness. Teach a person to meditate, pray, chant, or do yoga, and there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending upon his aptitude or interest, the only reward for his efforts may be boredom and a sore back. If, however, a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD, what happens next will depend on a variety of factors, but there is no question that something will happen. And boredom is simply not in the cards. Within the hour, the significance of his existence will bear down upon him like an avalanche. As the late Terence McKenna never tired of pointing out, this guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse, is what separates psychedelics from every other method of spiritual inquiry.

Having said all of that, Harris clearly acknowledges the possible inherent risks to ingesting psychedelics generally, and closes his piece with this simple statement that might belie his own recent interest in encouraging the practice of meditation:

I believe that psychedelics may be indispensable for some people—especially those who, like me, initially need convincing that profound changes in consciousness are possible. After that, it seems wise to find ways of practicing that do not present the same risks. Happily, such methods are widely available.

Dustin

2 thoughts on “#5229 – On Auroville, Drugs and the Meaning of Life

  1. Hariod Brawn

    I think the problem with psychotropic drugs such as LSD is that whilst they do indeed induce, as Sam Harris says ‘profound changes in consciousness’, the profundity can so often be lost once the body’s chemistry normalises. For example:

    Our experience of sitting on a chair whilst tripping can indeed be profound, as we marvel to ourselves and fellow party-goers at the realization ‘I’m sitting a chair! No, really I am – I’m sitting on a chair! Now I see it – how amazing!’ We’ve seen for the first time a sheer and vital immediacy in our bodily posture. And yet this seeing is shrouded in conceptual confusion; it is unanchored and becomes set adrift in the subsequent moment of hallucination.

    However, if we sit on the same chair whilst meditating skilfully with a normalised body chemistry, then that same realization carries forward in time as insight, such as say, ‘the body sits, yet the self-entity is not present; there is (was) just this (that)’. So here, the mind integrates the significance of that ‘vital immediacy’ (of body posture). The cognition/insight can be reflectively apprehended with meaning and relevance.

    With gratitude and respect, Hariod Brawn.

    Like

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