Ours is a time when pleasure and amusement seem to be the new god. In fact, according to Michael J. Wolf in his 2003 book The Entertainment Economy, entertainment has become the driving wheel of the global economy. The cause for this is not new. Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that there must be something wrong with our very existence because we are not happy with simply being. We are in a condition of eternal frustration, continually striving to find satisfaction. This search has led humanity to try different avenues: religion, knowledge, power, wealth, fame, pleasure — and drugs.
In our culture psychoactive drugs are used by some people for recreation, as a source of pleasure, or as a means of escaping reality. But there are also those who, whether they are fully aware of it or not, hope to find something deeper — something that can fall into the category of spirituality.
Most spiritual teachers have said that the way to attain real happiness is not by external achievements but by changing our lives, that is, by altering our perception of, and reaction to, the world. But this is quite difficult, as anybody who has tried it can attest. It is not surprising, then, that, since “magical pills” are available to alter our states of consciousness at any time and with no effort on our part, some people claim that drugs are a valid means towards spiritual experience.
This claim seems to be supported by the fact that some of the experiences induced by psychoactive drugs resemble some of the mystical states traditionally attained by means of purification, meditation, prayer, and devotion. And yet most spiritual traditions, including Theosophy, discourage or even forbid the use of drugs.
Admittedly, the shamanic traditions are a notable exception. But according to Theosophical teachings, they derive from the religions of a previous evolutionary cycle called the Fourth Root Race. At that time, the physical and psychic constitution of human beings was coarser, and drugs affected them in a different way than they do our more sensitive forms (Leadbeater, Talks, 2:33–34).
Since most religions rarely state clearly why they are against the use of drugs, all a practitioner can do is either accept or reject this blanket statement. But here a unique feature of the Theosophical teachings becomes crucial — its ability to explain many spiritual phenomena in a more or less scientific manner. This is due to the rich history of occultists and clairvoyants within the Theosophical Society, a number of whom are regarded as among the most influential in recent times, such as H.P. Blavatsky, Annie Besant, C.W. Leadbeater, Geoffrey Hodson, and Dora Kunz.
The Psychedelic Experience
The experiences generated by the use of psychedelic drugs have generally been interpreted in two alternative ways — as hallucinations or as spiritual experience.
For mainstream science, there is only one objective world — the one perceived by our senses. By this view, the psychedelic experience can be nothing but a hallucination produced by altering the chemical environment of the neurons.
The Theosophical view disagrees with this conclusion, stating that the cosmos has a nonphysical side that is as real and objective as the material one. Thus many of the experiences undergone under the influence of drugs can be the result of opening the doors of perception to some aspect of reality that is usually beyond the reach of the physical senses.
This, however, does not mean that these experiences are spiritual. Blavatsky stated that the nonphysical aspect of reality consists of several dimensions or planes that vary in their degree of materiality. Generally speaking, we could say that there are three planes of perception “above” the physical that are of a psychic nature; and three more above these, which are, properly speaking, spiritual. By the psychic dimensions, we mean realms in which a person exists in a nonphysical state, but is still affected by ignorance, a sense of separateness, and self-centeredness. It is only when consciousness works in the spiritual dimensions that it is really free from all these limitations, and the person expresses qualities such as peace, wisdom, love, and compassion.
Which of these planes becomes available to our perception under the influence of drugs? According to Mme. Blavatsky, it is the one immediately above the physical, generally called the “astral plane” (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 12:662). She defined this dimension as follows:
The astral region [is] the Psychic World of super-sensuous perceptions and of deceptive sights . . . No blossom plucked in those regions has ever yet been brought down to earth without its serpent coiled around the stem. It is the world of the Great Illusion. (Blavatsky, Voice of the Silence, 75-76; emphasis here and in other quotes is in the original)
“Super-sensuous” perception on the astral plane is quite different from normal awareness. As a result, when a person first gets in touch with this dimension, there is a sort of “perceptive shock” that is frequently interpreted as a mystical experience. Colors and forms, space and time, identity and personal boundaries — these are all different from the ones we are used to and may dazzle the inexperienced mind.
This bewilderment need not be permanent. Those who develop the ability to freely open their consciousness to the astral plane without the artificial aid of substances can experience it in a more continuous way. These people eventually adjust themselves to this new dimension, and sooner or later this perception starts to feel normal. Then it can be observed that there was no lasting mystical transformation, but only an extension of the field of personal experience.
Blavatsky regards this realm with skepticism. Not only does she deem it a plane of illusion, but she also writes in The Voice of the Silence that it is “dangerous in its perfidious beauty.” She warns: “Beware, Lanoo [disciple], lest dazzled by illusive radiance thy Soul should linger and be caught in its deceptive light” (Blavatsky, Voice of the Silence, 8).
Why is the astral plane regarded this way? C.W. Leadbeater wrote:
[Drugs] bring again into the physical consciousness indiscriminate impressions from the astral world. These come generally from the lower part of the plane, in which are aggregated all the astral matter and all the elemental essence concerned with exciting the lower passions and impulses. Sometimes they come from slightly higher regions of sensuous delight . . . but these are scarcely better than the others. (Leadbeater, Talks, 2:34)
The astral plane is basically sensuous in nature. Its lower part is the realm of passions and desires, and stimulates the animal nature in us. It also can bring quite terrifying experiences. But the higher aspect of this world is alluring, being far more beautiful and pleasant than the physical one. So what would be wrong with experiencing this level of the astral plane?
When spiritual seekers become aware of this delightful plane, they are in danger of getting caught in this world and abandon any higher search. For this reason, Christian mysticism interpreted such perceptions, which frequently occur to mystics, as temptations put in their way by Satan to lead them astray.
The perception of astral realities will eventually come to those who are pursuing a spiritual discipline. But this in and of itself does not constitute a spiritual experience. In fact, opening oneself to this perception prematurely and artificially is an unnecessary risk for those who are seeking to tread the spiritual path. True spiritual realities are beyond the realm of sensual stimulation, whether physical or astral. In her article “Sham Asceticism,” Mme. Blavatsky remarked:
A Sadhu [religious ascetic] who uses ganja and sooka — intoxicant drugs — is but a sham ascetic. Instead of leading his followers to Moksha [liberation], he does but drag them along with himself into the ditch, notwithstanding his walking and sleeping on spikes. A pretty business that, for a religious teacher! (Blavatsky, Collected Works, 4:351)
The drugs known in India as ganja and sooka (or sukha) are derived from cannabis (marijuana). In the West there has been a long debate about whether this substance is harmful or not. Marijuana has been banned mainly on the grounds that it is a gateway to harder drugs. But this argument, being ambiguous and difficult to prove, is losing strength, and this substance is being legalized in some parts of the world, including some states in the U.S. Today it is often regarded as a “soft” or relatively harmless drug.
But modern science is restricted in its ability to experiment systematically on human subjects. Even the experiments that have been conducted on these matters are highly limited in their implications. After all, it is impossible to put a group of people in exactly the same conditions for, say, twenty years, administering drugs to some of them but not to others and then comparing the effects. Moreover, science has no capacity to assess the influence of drugs on the hidden aspect of human beings. This can only be done by those who are versed in the occult science and have developed the appropriate means of observation.
Thus Mahatma Koot Hoomi, one of Blavatsky’s teachers, seems to differ with the view of marijuana as a harmless drug. Discussing how blind credulity kills the possibility of developing intelligence, he mentions “the old creeds and superstitions which suffocate in their poisonous embrace like the Mexican weed nigh all mankind” (Chin, 39).
Geoffrey Hodson also believed that the idea of marijuana as being “soft” is erroneous:
From my clairvoyant researches Marijuana . . . is not just a gateway drug leading on to something worse and more harmful, but it is in and of itself destructive to the mechanism of consciousness, especially if used extensively. In my opinion it would be a great pity if any encouragement was given by legalizing it. (See Keidan, “Mature Answers,” for all quotations from Hodson in this article.)
As we are going to see, the use of drugs is denounced in Theosophical literature not because of blind prejudice or a moralistic attitude, but based on the “scientific knowledge” derived from clairvoyant investigations by highly trained individuals.
Admittedly, these reports do not attempt to distinguish the effects of one drug from those of another. Most likely this is because none of the clairvoyants did systematic observations to study the specific effects of different drugs. It is also possible that even very different drugs have similar effects in these areas. In fact, as we will see, on occasions the clairvoyants describe similar effects even for alcohol, which is quite different from psychedelic drugs, marijuana, and narcotics.
Effects on the Brain
Blavatsky observed that “the habitual use of hashish, opium, and similar drugs” are “destructive to the development of the inner powers” (Blavatsky, Key to Theosophy, 262). The reason for this may be connected to two glands in the brain — the pineal and the pituitary, which are directly related to so-called “altered” states of consciousness.
According to Blavatsky, psychic vision is caused by the “molecular motion” of the pituitary gland. When artificially stimulated, it “gives rise to hallucinations” (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 12:698).
She identifies the pineal gland with the “third eye,” which, she says, “is the chief and foremost organ of spirituality in the human brain.” The occult activity of this gland “gives spiritual clairvoyance” and can take the soul “to the highest planes of perception.” (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 12:619, 698; “Dialogue,” 409).
One of the effects of drugs (and to a lesser extent, of alcohol) is the overstimulation of these glands so that they can be artificially open to the perception of subtler planes. But this is a forceful method that eventually damages them. This is why HPB wrote to the members of the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society:
The use of wine, spirits, liquors of any kind, or any narcotic or intoxicating drug, is strictly prohibited. If indulged in, all progress is hindered, and the efforts of teacher and pupil alike are rendered useless. All such substances have a directly pernicious action upon the brain, and especially upon the “third eye,” or pineal gland . . . They prevent absolutely the development of the third eye, called in the East “the Eye of Siva.” (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 12:496)
Geoffrey Hodson observed a similar effect:
Continued use, in fact sometimes even a single dose of a drug like LSD can permanently damage the delicate mechanism of consciousness in the brain, especially relating to the brain’s switchboard of the thalamus and hypothalamus along with the pineal and pituitary glands, and by so doing prevent any real spiritual progress from proceeding in that lifetime.
Similarly, Dora Kunz, codeveloper of the energy healing technique known as Therapeutic Touch, observed “a disturbance in the relationship between the thyroid, the adrenals, the pituitary gland, and the hypothalamic region” in drug-addicted patients (Karagulla and Kunz, 150).
When the organs that bridge the gap between the brain and the spiritual nature are permanently damaged, the waking consciousness becomes isolated from its true source. This can produce a lack of spiritual feelings and aspirations, an absence of any sense of responsibility, a self-centered attitude, depression, and anxiety.
In discussing any of the ill effects of the use of drugs we must keep in mind that the degree of the consequences will depend on how much our nature is affected. Sometimes the damage is small and can be repaired. In more extreme cases it can be permanent. Although generally speaking the more a person uses drugs the worse the consequences tend to be, the extent of the effects will be different in each one.
Effects on the Etheric Web and the Chakras
Between the physical and the astral bodies there is a layer of etheric matter, which, while allowing the vitality (prana) and the spiritual influences to come down into the body, keeps the forces and entities of the astral plane outside the field of waking consciousness. This, as Leadbeater explains, is an important protection for those who are not ready to deal with this challenging world:
But for this merciful provision the ordinary man, who knows nothing about all these things and is entirely unprepared to meet them, could at any moment be brought by any astral entity under the influence of forces to cope with which would be entirely beyond his strength. He would be liable to constant obsession by any being on the astral plane who desired to seize upon his vehicles [of consciousness]. (Leadbeater, Chakras, 77)
This “etheric web” may be harmed in several ways. One kind of damage is produced by the excessive use of alcohol and tobacco and the consumption of drugs, and it is due to the chemical nature of these substances. Again, in Leadbeater’s words:
Certain drugs and drinks — notably alcohol and all the narcotics, including tobacco — contain matter which on breaking up volatilizes, and some of it passes from the physical plane to the astral . . . When this takes place in the body of man these constituents rush out through the chakras in the opposite direction to that for which they are intended, and in doing this repeatedly they seriously injure and finally destroy the delicate web.
These substances may produce two different effects according to an individual’s constitution. They may burn away the web, leaving “the door open to all sorts of irregular forces and evil influences,” or they may produce “a kind of ossification of the web, so that instead of having too much coming through from one plane to the other, we have very little of any kind coming through” (Leadbeater, Chakras, 77–78).
The first result produces people oversensitive to nonphysical influences. They are excessively affected by the emotions and thoughts present in their environment. In more extreme cases, they are prone to obsession by astral entities, even without being aware of it. The second effect makes a person insensitive, even to spiritual influences. The external manifestation of this is similar to the one described for the damage of the pineal gland.
Hodson, having worked in the field of energy healing, frequently dealt with the ill effects of different types of harmful practice. His observations corroborate those of Leadbeater, at least in regard to the first kind of effect described above. Referring to the etheric web as a “shield,” Hodson said:
When illicit drugs are ingested there is a tendency to break down this shield enabling negative influences from the astral world to enter the aura, especially through the chakras which are the psychic sense organs. These problems can range from hallucinations and delusions to a full-scale obsession by a human or sub-human entity. If the process of abuse has occurred to an advanced degree – no amount of repair that I am able to do will help.
Regarding the chakras, research developed in the 1960s with Shafica Karagulla, M.D., on drug addicts, led Dora Kunz to observe:
The most outstanding finding in these cases of drug addiction was the dysrhythmia in both the core and the petals of the etheric solar plexus chakra, which affected the whole etheric body. . . . Furthermore, there was a definite decrease of [the chakra’s] brightness . . . and the leakage [of vitality] there made the patients feel permanently tired. (Karagulla and Kunz, 150)
She also observed that “the effects of narcotics such as morphine and heroin begin at the etheric level and then reach the physical.” Although opiates are useful in medicine, she says that their continued use adversely affects the chakras. In these cases, “the direction of movement within the chakras is reversed by the drug, and it is this that causes the addiction. In turn, this physiological change in the chakras produces a condition of fear and anxiety in the patient” (Kunz and Karagulla, 151).
Effects on the Higher Consciousness
In his book Kundalini, the late international president of the Theosophical Society George S. Arundale stated: “All narcotics, drugs, stimulants, clog the system and interpose a deadening miasma between the individual and all larger consciousness” (Arundale, 14).
Although this statement is not very specific about the nature of this “deadening miasma,” the words chosen seem to point to an effect that takes place at the level of the subtler nature, rather than merely on the physical body and its etheric counterpart. In fact, in her investigations on addicts, Dora Kunz observed that they were also affected in their astral (or emotional) bodies: “At the astral level, the solar plexus chakra was greatly disturbed in addicts, with an erratic emotional pattern and periodic lack of energy” (Karagulla and Kunz, 150).
Finally, the ill effects possibly affect even higher principles than the astral body, as can be gathered from this statement by Leadbeater: “The taking of opium or cocaine . . . from the occult point of view it is entirely ruinous and fatal to progress . . . Nearly all drugs produce a deleterious effect upon the higher vehicles, and they are therefore to be avoided as much as possible” (Leadbeater, Hidden Side of Things, 358–59).
Speaking of the points explored in this article, Geoffrey Hodson said:
This has led [my wife] Sandra and I to severely warn people: if you want spiritual experience get it by the safe means of meditation. Unfortunately, for many young people they want instantaneous results and therefore continue to experiment with drugs — a very serious mistake!
Warning against psychoactive drugs may make us unpopular among certain people interested in spirituality. But then the Theosophical Society has a history of upholding truths that were unpopular at the time, such as the ideal of universal brotherhood, the connection between science and spirituality, the wisdom of ancient cultures, and others.
Free will can be intelligently exercised only when one has enough information to make a conscious choice between alternative courses of action. It is the opinion of this author that our organization can render a great service to humanity by making this knowledge available.
Quest, Winter 2015
Blavatsky, H.P. Collected Writings. Edited by Boris de Zirkoff. Fifteen vols. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977–91.
———. “Dialogue on the Mysteries of the After-Life.” Lucifer 3:17 (Feb. 1889), 407-16.
———. The Key to Theosophy. London: Theosophical Publishing House, .
———. The Voice of the Silence. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1992.
Chin, Vicente Hao, Jr., ed. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett. Quezon City, Philippines: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993.
Karagulla, Shafica, and Dora Kunz. The Chakras and the Human Energy Fields. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989.
Bill Keidan, “Mature Answers”; http://www.geoffreyhodson.com/Mature-Answers.html.
Leadbeater, C.W. Talks on the Path of Occultism. Three volumes. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1980.
Wolf, Michael J. The Entertainment Economy: How Mega-Media Forces Are Transforming Our Lives. New York: Crown Business, 2003.