Psychedelic Materialism: When the Ego Latches Onto Altered States
I have previously explored the phenomenon of the psychedelic ego: a self-image that is inflated through the use of psychedelics; the irony being, of course, that experiences that can deflate — or disintegrate — the ego can end up having the opposite effect when the experience is over.
I looked at the different thought and behaviour patterns that may indicate an ego inflated by psychedelics, but I think I didn’t delve deep enough into one particular ego-based effect that these experiences can have, and that’s psychedelic materialism. This refers to the tendency, in some people, some of the time — which I myself have experienced — to become attached to psychedelic states as if they were valuable material possessions you can collect and show off to the world.
What is Psychedelic Materialism?
Psychedelic materialism is a materialistic mindset applied specifically to psychedelic experiences. We can think of psychedelic materialism as a subset of — and related to — either experiential materialism or spiritual materialism: craving, acquiring, and clinging to impressive experiences or spiritual experiences, respectively. Psychedelic experiences can feature awe-inspiring, mystical states of consciousness, so they are also prone to the egoic mindset of materialism. (I wrote this post on how experiential materialism can turn into a status game, which is also relevant in the context of psychedelic use.)
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Spiritual Materialism
I’ll now briefly sketch the views on spiritual materialism described in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973), a spiritual classic authored by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher who helped contribute to the understanding of Buddhism in the West and taught students who would go on to become influential teachers in their own right, including American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön.
This book warns about the pitfalls of the spiritual path, specifically how spiritual experiences become filtered through egoic processes — the grasping after material accomplishments or possessions. This teaching is instructive in terms of better understanding how psychedelic states can trap us in the same way.
Chögyam Trungpa states, “No matter what the practice or teaching, ego loves to wait in ambush to appropriate spirituality for its own survival and gain.” Similarly, the ego cannot wait to appropriate psychedelic experiences for its own purposes. Chögyam Trungpa also rejects the common notion that spirituality is all about achieving heightened, positive states of mind: “The idea is not to regard the spiritual path as something very luxurious and pleasurable but to see it as just facing the facts of life.” People may also pursue psychedelic use in the same way, craving euphoric states, where only feelings of security and warmth exist. Visuals and ecstasy can, like expensive luxury items, act like trappings — the shiny jewellery worn and shown off by the elite psychedelic user.
Psychedelics certainly have many uses. Recreational use is legitimate; psychedelic-induced fun can be part of the good life. But if one is trying to incorporate psychedelic experiences into a spiritual path, then regarding them only in terms of pleasure or ‘levels’ one is trying to complete can be a form of diversion. Integrating these experiences into a spiritual life should, as Chögyam Trungpa reminds us, involve helping us face the facts of life: our livelihoods, our relationships, our suffering, the suffering of others, and the impermanence of all things. He notes elsewhere that “Eventually we must give up trying to be something special.” This is another potential pitfall of psychedelic use. We become attached to the idea of being special through achieving peak experiences, when, in fact, we are not as special as our ego would have us believe.
Regarding spiritual materialism, Chögyam Trungpa says “if we regard knowledge as an antique, as “ancient wisdom” to be collected, then we are on the wrong path,” and “Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of ego’s display, part of the grandiose quality of ego. We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as “spiritual” people.” The exact same process can occur following psychedelic use. We want our intense altered states, and the narrative we construct around them, to prove that we are deeply spiritual people or brave psychonauts.
Chögyam Trungpa reiterates, “The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit.” Moreover, he underlines that we are often unaware of this process: “we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.” No matter how selfless, moral, insightful, or ‘spiritual’ the lessons we receive on psychedelics are, we should always be vigilant about the quickness of the ego in transmuting these insights into self-promotion, or the “look at me” attitude.
Michael J. Formica also explains the materialistic version of spirituality in a piece for Psychology Today:
Spiritual materialism is that process by which the ego grasps at the accomplishments and progress of the self upon the spiritual path; an act by which its very nature denies the Self.
As soon as we cast something into a role, as soon as we put a label on it, as soon as we name it and give it life by virtue of our investment (read: ego), we take away all its power and it is nothing more than an event — it is no longer a spiritual revelation, but simply a material experience. That is spiritual materialism at its peak.
When we have peak experiences (feelings of enlightenment, bliss, peacefulness, and unity), induced by meditation or psychedelics, there can be a tendency to get excited about having these experiences. In fact, how could you not? How could you not give yourself over to utter amazement? However, this awe may turn into grasping. One’s identity becomes tied up with the experience; this apex of fulfilment and joy becomes stuck in our mind, distracting us from the important task of decentring the ego, cultivating equanimity and awareness in the here and now, and being of service to others.
The Tell-Tale Signs of Psychedelic Materialism
I’ve already tried to pinpoint some of the signs of psychedelic materialism, related to the concept of spiritual materialism. But there are some other attitudes that I think are worth drawing attention to, which I’ve definitely found myself falling prey to at times. And I’d also like to summarise the attitudes already outlined:
- Feeling eager to share the details of your psychedelic experience, driven (not always wholly, but at least partly) by the desire to boast, perhaps even to make others feel jealous.
- Craving ‘better’ experiences than the last one, which might be in terms of visuals, positive emotions, or mystical effects. Connected to this is the belief that past experiences aren’t ‘good enough’.
- Perfectionism: chasing the ‘perfect’, ‘deepest’ or most intense psychedelic experience, the one that will finally satisfy the urge to trip. This is related to the previous point about craving better experiences.
- Treating the visual component of psychedelic experiences in a materialistic way, by which I mean treating the beautiful patterns and visions as valuable objects to be hoarded and described so as to impress others. I’ve described how this attitude can be culturally influenced, with Western psychonauts being particularly drawn to the dazzling colours and kaleidoscopic displays, in contrast to indigenous users who often prioritise insights, personal healing, and harmony in the community. But, it should be emphasised that this distinction is not so clear-cut.
- Feeling that sober life is not good enough — not exciting, novel, or enjoyable enough — after psychedelic use, or that a life without continued use of psychedelics is bland. This phenomenon can fade, nonetheless, through a process of integrating psychedelic experiences, so that sober life is imbued with positive emotions and changes, which dampens a potentially unhealthy and unproductive craving for psychedelic experiences. This doesn’t mean psychedelics shouldn’t continue to be a regular part of one’s life, but it does alter the relationship with them in a healthier direction. Psychedelics become a tool for betterment rather than escapism.
- You become attached to the psychedelic effect of not having an ego and being unified with a greater whole (perhaps all of humanity or the universe). We can call this the ‘paradox of ego dissolution’: the very experience of the ‘I’ losing meaning and reality — the death of the protagonist in your own story — itself becomes a way to identify yourself as separate, above, beyond, special, or better than others. We could encapsulate this outlook with phrases like “the ego of having no ego” or “my ego is more dead than yours”.
Ram Dass on How We Get Trapped Within Psychedelic Experiences
The late spiritual teacher Ram Dass warned about the potential trap of peak psychedelic experiences. And the trap he describes is definitely relatable. He said, “when I reflected on my trips with LSD and other psychedelics, I saw that after a glimpse of the possibility of transcendence, I continued tripping only to reassure myself that the possibility was still there.” He adds: “The trap of high experiences, however they occur, is that you become attached to their memory and so you try to recreate them. These memories compel you to try to reproduce the high.”
You trip, you come down, you return to old habits — but you still have the memory of these sublime experiences, and clutching those memories feeds a compulsion to return to psychedelics. The memories of psychedelic experiences can become objects of obsession, and this kind of obsessive materialism ultimately obstructs the spiritual path. But the cycle of coming up and down and relying on psychedelics to stay up can have negative repercussions. “Psychedelics could chemically override the thought patterns in your brain so that you are open to the moment, but once the chemical loses its power the old habit patterns take over again. With them comes a subtle despair that without chemicals you are a prisoner of your thoughts,” says Ram Dass.
The taste of paradise through psychedelics, like the taste of anything we consider an elevation of human experience, can lead to patterns of craving that take us away from the present moment, instead of inviting us to live more fully. Ram Dass continues: “If the high was too powerful in comparison to the rest of your life, it overrides the present and keeps you focused on the past. The paradox, of course, is that were you to let go of the past, you would find in the present moment the same quality that you once had.”
The way to combat psychedelic materialism, as Ram Dass argues, is to understand the finiteness of psychedelic peak experiences; they’re “just part of the passing show”, as he puts it. And if we want to instil our lives with more well-being, growth, harmony, and authenticity, we should not try to repeat past psychedelic experiences but instead infuse them into our everyday life. When this integration of the past into the present occurs — subtly, gradually, or in some major way — one’s approach to psychedelic experiences (in the past, present, and future) will become less materialistic in nature.