The Agony and Ecstasy of God's path
A Benedictine monk explained to me that "Ecstasy opens up a direct link between myself and God". He had only taken Ecstasy with a small group of like-minded people in pursuit of prayer. "Ecstasy has the capacity to put one on the right path to divine union... It should not be used unless one is really searching for God."
Prayer, he said, is communication with God, but tends to be blocked by the internal dialogue, distractions and losing faith in oneself. Using Ecstasy while trying to pray removes these obstacles and, although he only uses Ecstasy two or three times a year, the experience makes prayer easier at other times and has provided him with valuable insights such as "a very deep comprehension of divine passion".
Most religious leaders are strongly opposed to the use of drugs, preaching that they can be misleading or damage the psyche, destroying the benefits of years of meditation or prayer. However, besides the Benedictine I also interviewed a rabbi and two monks from different Zen disciplines who believe that Ecstasy is a valid tool for teaching and mystical experience. All four have written religious works, three teach their religion and two are abbots, but none has revealed their use of Ecstasy in public.
The Rinzai Zen monk felt that Ecstasy had genuinely helped him on his rise to becoming an abbot. He had experimented over the years, and concluded that it was most effective on the second day of a seven-day meditation, as there was a danger of becoming distracted by blissful sensations.
The Soto Zen monk also maintains that drugs like Ecstasy can help with meditation: "Being still when taking MDMA helps you to know how to sit, as it provides you with experiential knowledge", he said, adding that the great majority of his students had sought his teaching as a result of a drug induced experience, and he was sure that the same was true of most schools of meditation in the West.
But is it a good way to learn? "It is like a medicine, a wonderful tool for teaching. For example, I had a very keen student who never succeeded in meditation until Ecstasy removed the block caused by his own effort when trying to meditate. That one experience helped him to make fast progress, and he has since been ordained a monk."
Learning to meditate can be difficult, he explained, because the student only occasionally has glimpses of the goal, and it is easy to lose faith and doubt whether the goal actually exists or if it is possible to achieve: "It is like a climber walking in the mountains", he said, "lost in the fog and unable to see the peak he has set out to climb. All of a sudden the fog clears and he experiences the reality of the peak, and gains a sense of direction. Even though the fog moves in again and it's still a long, hard climb, this glimpse is usually an enormous help and encouragement."
The rabbi had positive views about youth drug use. "Traditional religions have lost the ability to provide their followers with mystical experiences. Instead, young people are far more likely to have such experiences while on LSD or Ecstasy."
Most religious leaders, he said, were against the use of drugs because of their own ignorance. "If priests really want to understand young people", he said, "they should take drugs themselves. Then they would learn that certain drugs can produce the same quality and potential value as other mystical experiences."
Some people use Ecstasy for religious rituals. A group of eight graduating seniors from Harvard Divinity School held a non-sectarian ritual earlier this year using Ecstasy which they called 'The Harvard Agape'.
"The hymn done and the bell rung, the liturgy was open to the group... Indeed it was am amazing grace, that grace that passes all understanding. I was moved; I was in communion with everyone else in the room. It was as if, at that moment, all barriers had come down, all suffering had ended, all pain had been relieved, all joys had been known. I forgave the offences I had suffered and was forgiven for my sins. I was healed. I was strengthened. I was redeemed..."
As I was interviewing the monks I could not help but be impressed how different was their experience of Ecstasy to my own, even though I had gone out of my way to try to explore every aspect of the drug. They were so focused towards the divine as to appear slightly naive, and indeed the Benedictine simply could not comprehend the mood experienced by party goers on Ecstasy. He could only see it as sacrilegious. My interviews confirmed a quality of Ecstasy that is seldom acknowledged: it enables the user to have deeper and more wholehearted experiences, but the type of experience depends on their underlying concerns. As one who has experienced sensuous delights, exhilaration, insights into relationships and glimpsed my deep-seated neurosis under the influence of the drug but never mystical enlightenment these men's accounts were testimony to their single minded devotion and my own lack of it.
©Nicholas Saunders 1995 published in The Guardian, 29/7/95.