Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 14—When I’m Sick of Gratitude

Signs of gratitude for firefighters fighting the Grizzly Creek Fire, by White River National Forest (U.S. Forest Service). From Wikimedia Commons.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

for you have exalted your name and your word
above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,

you increased my strength of soul.
(Psalm 138)

During the month of November, we are bombarded with admonishments to “be thankful.” Sometimes I find the constant barrage of sanctimonious advice irritating. It can actually put me in a foul mood: I don’t want to be thankful, and I don’t particularly want to be reminded and told and preached at by greeting cards, shared memes, and news articles on the mental health benefits of gratitude addressed to everyone and no one in particular. This year, in the midst of a pandemic, reminders to be grateful grate on my nerves!

This irritation is actually a reminder of how gratitude works, because gratitude is a function of attention, and in our advertising-saturated world, our attention is commodified. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg make money by manipulating our attention, capturing our eyeballs and measuring our attention in milliseconds. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram know exactly how fast you scroll, and use algorithms to make you linger over advertisements. Advertisers may use the word “gratitude,” but they make their money on our restlessness, boredom, and dissatisfaction.

The irritation I feel at having a multibillion-dollar company tell me to slow down and smell the roses is more than mental anger at its hypocrisy. My frustration is biological. My Grinch-like attitude is the function of a distracted mind.

It doesn’t change the truth of the importance of gratitude, though. David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the foundation of spirituality. In order to be thankful, to feel gratitude, we have to refocus our attention. It is difficult to be grateful when we are in a state of distraction.

This is why simple disciplines like meditation and keeping a gratitude journal are so effective. They are the complete opposite of the endless scrolling of social media. They are tools that help us to refocus our attention on the simple pleasures of being alive: I woke up today. I can take a deep breath and smell the air. I can see beauty in a fallen and decaying leaf which leaves behind a fragile, skeletonized system of veins.

The author of the psalm above says that an answered prayer “increased my strength of soul.” We don’t know what the prayer or the answer was, but pausing to be grateful, to focus our attention on the goodness of the gifts we receive—bidden or unbidden—makes our souls stronger. Gratitude increases our resilience and helps us make it through tough times.

If we want to feel grateful, it helps to go somewhere quiet and away from screens. I invite you to do it now.

Prayer:
Giver of all gifts, Source of all grace, I am grateful.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 13—Religion and the Brain

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
(Psalm 139:14)

I’ve been interested in the neuropsychology of religious experience since I first read William James in college. As a pastor, I’ve talked to plenty of people who wonder if their mystical experiences, transcendent visions, or sense of calling are “genuine” or simply “all in their heads.” “Did God really speak to me, or am I going crazy?” is a common question.

It doesn’t help that so many mental health problems are related to religion. People do have religious delusions. Sometimes their anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder attaches to a religious idea, and they fear that they might accidentally sin or incur God’s judgment. People who are depressed may feel that God hates them or is out to get them. LGBTQ people have been subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” that leaves lasting trauma.

But religion can also be associated with good mental health outcomes. People who have supportive religious communities are often more resilient in the face of trauma. Adolescents have lower probabilities of risky behavior. LGBTQIA folks who have supportive religious communities often report high levels of life satisfaction. And William James pointed out that having “saints” and mystics to emulate and aspire to benefits humanity as a whole.

There are certain ways that religious practice changes your brain. We know from studies of Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns that contemplative prayer and meditation—what the researchers call a “self-stimulating brain reward system“—can alter the function and even the physical structure of the brain. Mindfulness meditation is often prescribed as an intervention for anxiety and depression.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for attention, is one of the places most clearly affected by prayer and meditation. Some areas of the parietal lobe respond differently: they relax. These areas are responsible for the distinction between ourselves and the rest of the world, the barrier between “self” and “world.” When this area relaxes, it may help us feel connected to the rest of the universe or to God. Attention and connection are two areas of our brains we can train with practice.

Moreover, prayer and meditation seem to quiet the “default mode network,” the systems in our brain that are often responsible for the story-telling function of our brain. The DMN is what keeps us thinking about the future and the past and often keeps us ruminating or worrying.

When stimulated, the temporal lobe sometimes creates a sense of presence, as though someone is in the room with us. People who are about to have seizures sometimes report this feeling. It’s not clear to me that this is necessarily a particularly religious experience, but it certainly could be.

Certain neurotransmitters are also associated with mystical-type experiences. DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is a psychedelic compound that appears to be produced naturally in our brains. It may be responsible for some of our more trippy spiritual experiences, but it, too is associated with changes in our default mode network, feelings of connectedness, and heightened attention and fascination.

So when people ask me about whether their religious experience is “real” or “all in their heads,” I shrug. ALL spiritual experiences are also brain experiences—at least for human beings. We cannot imagine having an experience without our brains. When you see a beautiful painting or fall in love, your brain gets involved. You may even feel it in your body, as a warmth or pressure in your chest, or goose bumps on the back of your neck. It is a biological as well as a spiritual experience.

We still have so much to learn about spirituality and the brain.

Prayer:
Creator of the Cosmos and my brain, I give you thanks that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 12—Being Outside

Two Paths Diverged… by Ché Lydia Xyang. From Wikimedia Commons.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
(Revelation 22:2)

The pandemic has forced more people to stay at home, but it has also forced more of us outside. We are going outside to lessen the monotony of being indoors. Meeting others outside lessens the chances of passing on covid-19. The sun disinfects us.

Collectively, we are experiencing the benefits of being outside at a time when a flurry of research is pointing to how nature-deprived we are. It turns out we needed this healing for a long, long time. Covid-19 has forced us to confront it.

Below is just a sampling of the recent research into the physical and mental health benefits of being outside. We’ve learned that bacteria in the soil and aromatic aerosols from trees affect our brains and bodies. We’ve learned that forests communicate and act as one large organism. We’ve learned that interacting with that organism gets us out of our patterns of ruminating and into our sense in the here-and-now. We’ve learned that being outside and getting our hands dirty lowers our heart rate and stress levels. We’ve learned that walking in forests boost our immune systems, increases our ability to pay attention, and even fights cancer.

All of these mental and physical health benefits are important. Most of us could benefit by spending more time outside. But nature is not just something that we take, like a drug, so that we can increase productivity and be more effective indoors.

As we intentionally spend time outside, a more profound shift can happen in our state of being. We begin to understand that human beings and nature are not separate. Our culture tends to think of “human beings” and “nature” as two distinct realms, in part because of the way we objectify the earth and conceptualize our place in it. But the truth is we are part of both a tamed “human world” and a wild “more-than-human world.” This term, coined by author David Abram, helps us consider ourselves in relation to the rest of the planet.

I am currently in training to be a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, in part because I believe it is my responsibility as a pastor to help the 21st century church turn away from a toxic theology that treats the earth as if it were disposable. I take very seriously these words about protecting life on this planet:

“I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Gus Speth

Spiritual and cultural transformation is my job. It’s what I’ve been called to do. And too often, Christian pastors have scorned the creation God loves. This toxic theology has practical consequences, leading not only to terrible policy that harms the planet, but to a population of people who increasingly feel sad, alone, and hopeless.

If we want to develop a public health policy that takes mental health seriously, I believe we need to help people fall in love with this planet and with the more-than-human world. I think the authors of the Bible knew that the leaves of trees could heal the nations.

Prayer:
Creator and Lover of the World, we tell the story of how you so loved this creation that you would even enter it yourself. Help us to do the same thing, to enter creation fully and bodily, so that it can teach us how to be more human and more alive.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 11—Boundaries And Intimacy

The Group Bond of Ducks, by Santrina HUYNH, from Wikimedia Commons

Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman
    and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?

(Proverbs 5:20)

The book of Proverbs also has a lot to say about infidelity. It’s important to observe that there is a lot of cultural misogyny in its pages; “the adulteress” is blamed for being a snare. But this also serves as a metaphor for folly—we do stupid, short-sighted things because we fail to see the big picture.

This boundary violation is not merely a moral problem; it is a systemic problem.

What Townsend and McCloud observe in their book Boundaries in Marriage is that infidelity is usually caused not by seduction, but by intimacy, and intimacy is a function of boundaries. One of the most common scenarios for infidelity is when one spouse gives up talking about a problem or a part fo their lives with the other spouse. They have allowed a new boundary to form between them. A wall has gone up.

At the same time, one of the partners starts talking about their marriage problem with a third party who is not a professional. Instead of seeking a counselor or pastor, they talk to a coworker. If they gripe about their spouse or share feelings they can’t share with their spouse, they’ve opened a window into their lives for this other person. They share something with this third party that they do not share with their spouse, which creates a sense of intimacy. Now this new pair already have a shared secret.

When we look at case studies of infidelity, we can sometimes trace it back to a systemic problem in a marriage that existed well before it became an emotional or sexual act. One or both spouses ignored the problem because it was tolerable—until it wasn’t.

What applies to marriage specifically applies to all relationships generally. We simply don’t have time for all the people in the world. We only have brain space for a handful of close relationships. Our limited time and social energy is why friendships ebb and flow. What we share with some that we do not share with others creates a sense of bonding, a level of trust that reinforces itself the more vulnerable with each other we become. Our friends are people about whom we often say, “I can tell them anything.” We may trust our friends with our secrets, with keys to our home when we’re away, with care of our pets and other loved ones. We ask them to babysit. We take them on vacation. In good relationships, trust becomes a virtuous cycle.

We all have a public face and a private, interior world. If I share with you how I really feel or who I really am, something I don’t feel I can share with everyone else, it creates intimacy and trust. This applies to many parts of our lives we keep private, from our physical nakedness to our internet passwords, stories of our childhood to social gossip.

Of course, we all have different risk tolerances for the boundaries we create. Some people have few secrets and trust many people. Some of us are more reserved. Being “too open” or “too reserved” are relative ideas. Our boundaries only become a mental health problem if our behavior makes us lonely or chronically wounded, or if it damages relationships we find important.

It works the other way, too: People with social anxiety may long to connect deeply with others, but find it difficult to develop the intimacy they want. People who have a poor sense of identity may have few boundaries because they look to others for their sense of self.

Prayer:
Beloved, the Quran says that you are closer to us than the jugular vein. Give us a sense of intimacy with you that allows us to negotiate healthy boundaries and life-giving relationships with other humans.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 10—Boundaries Against Harm

You shall not pass!

An enemy dissembles in speaking while harboring deceit within;
when an enemy speaks graciously, do not believe it, for there are seven abominations concealed within;
though hatred is covered with guile, the enemy’s wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.
Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling.
(Proverbs 26:24-27)

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about fools, liars, and enemies.

I think it’s important, in this contentious season, for Christians to acknowledge that Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, but he did not say that they would have no enemies. In fact, in the same chapter he tells his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), he says that they can expect persecution (verses 11-12). He tells his disciples to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees,” and says that religious leaders “tie up heavy burdens for others” that they do not bother to lift (16:6, 23:4). He himself would be betrayed by a friend, thrown under the bus by religious leaders, and turned over to Roman authorities who used crucifixion as a way to terrorize the populace and advertise their authoritarian version of “law and order.”

Enemies exist—but we don’t have to be enemies in return. This is also part of a healthy boundary. Setting a boundary is not an invasion of someone else’s privacy or an imposition on their right to live. It marks where my control stops. I cannot control other people, no matter how hard I try. I cannot make them love me, or act appropriately, or believe certain things. For me to have healthy boundaries, I also have to acknowledge theirs.

This is why the Proverbs’ writing about enemies isn’t just talking about other people: it’s addressed to me. “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling.” The act of doing harm or nurturing animosity can harm us. Whenever I read this, I think of Wile E. Coyote.

You can see it coming, can’t you?

The world does have its share of fools, liars, abusers, bullies, thieves, and Wile E. Coyotes. It is not “unloving” to acknowledge this reality, or to name folly, lies, abuse, bullying, and thieving. We may not be able to control the behavior of others, but we can establish boundaries which keep our physical and mental health safer. And we do not have to respond in kind. We can respect other peoples’ boundaries. The Road Runner doesn’t respond with violence, but with a kind of judo, using Coyote’s machinations against him.

Yes, I realize it’s just a cartoon. Real life doesn’t have the kind of instant karma of Looney Tunes. But there is still a wisdom in its teaching.

It’s also important to recognize that in real life, “enemy” is not a static category. One of the sayings of community organizers is, “We have no permanent allies, and no permanent enemies.” We acknowledge that relationships change. We have the power to set new boundaries, or redraw old ones, even with people who may disagree with us.

In our present moment, I find that masks are a good illustration of this concept. These days when I meet someone in person and one of us isn’t masked, I simply ask, “What’s your risk tolerance? Would you rather stay masked, or is physically distanced okay?” This way I’ve given them an either / or option. (This is also a good strategy to use with toddlers! Give them a choice of options, and they are more likely to comply). I also have no problem asking other people to mask up when distance isn’t an option, but I don’t automatically assume they are an enemy. I find that if I ask, “What’s your risk tolerance?” and give them a choice, I make them aware that I’m willing to negotiate with them, but that I have boundaries.

While there are a few liars about the current pandemic (like our current president), and many people who are taken in by such lies, I try to see this as an opportunity to make the ideas of boundaries and consent more explicit in our social life. I can behave with integrity and respect, even if other people find it difficult to do so. If someone won’t respect my boundary, I do not have to be in relation to them.

These boundaries—the ones we set for ourselves—can be the most important ones of all.

Prayer:
God of boundless grace and gracious boundaries, you have designed a world in which we are most connected to others when we have a strong sense of self. Help us to be people of integrity, respect, and clear boundaries.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 9—Healthy Boundaries

by TriviaKing, from Wikimedia Commons

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 
… Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.
(Matthew 7:1-2, 6)

These two verses snuggle side-by-side. Jesus commands us not to judge, and in the very next breath tells us not to waste energy on difficult people. His followers have no end of trouble with this boundary. I count myself in that group.

We discover our first boundary when we are infants or toddlers: I end here, at the boundary of my skin, and the rest of the world is “out there.” There is a separation between my “internal” world and the “external” one. There are parts of our brains that are responsible for this distinction between self and world, and we can see them light up on fMRI scans. When people who meditate deeply feel that they are one with the universe, these parts of the brain decrease in activity.

We develop relationship boundaries soon after we develop a sense of self. Young children start to distinguish between “family” and “stranger,” and may shy away from people they previously welcomed. As we grow into adolescence, we continue to develop and expand our group identity. We determine group boundaries, negotiating over and over again who “my people” are. During this process, some of us may have a hard time finding a balance between separation and enmeshment, learning to trust or mistrust parents, authority figures, friends, and love interests.

Henry Cloud and John Townsend use an architectural analogy for the importance of boundaries: relationships are made up of walls, doors, and windows.

I imagine my own house that has a wide porch, a small yard, and a sidewalk. Nearly anyone is welcome to hang out on my porch. The amount of trust and intimacy in our relationship determines where someone can go after that. Friends can come inside and have a drink. Close friends and family can hang out in the kitchen, or even walk into our messy rooms. Only a very few are welcome into bedrooms or private areas. People I trust may even be welcome to walk into the house unannounced. But if I do not trust someone or they have malicious intent, they may not even be welcome in my yard.

In our spiritual life during this contentious political time, I see a grand renegotiation of so many boundaries. There has been a massive loss of public trust. We have changed our opinions about acquaintances and even family. Many people are struggling with what kind of boundaries they need to apply.

Jesus’s call to refrain from judgment sometimes seems to push against the call to honor our own boundaries and protect our energy. I suspect that when Jesus was preaching these two lessons, he had in mind a certain religious tendency to offer unwanted help and correction. “I know you think you’re helping, but please shut up,” could be one way to paraphrase this lesson. “It’s good neither for you nor the other person.”

I do not think this takes away from our duty and calling to forgive others, promote love, and challenge injustice, but it reminds us that sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to choose not to interact with someone.

Prayer:
Love that lights up the universe, thank you for the shelter of healthy boundaries. Help us to be hospitable and secure, so we may live and love without fear.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 8—Accepting What Is

Depiction of the concept of soul (Ātman) in Jainism, by Vijay K. Jain, 2012. From Wikimedia Commons.

stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:34

One of my favorite learnings from the study of Buddhism is this notion that though suffering is inevitable, manufactured suffering is not. We manufacture suffering by living in the past or the future, letting regret or worry impinge upon our present experience now. Jesus asks, “Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” (Matthew 6:27).

In the midst of an election season and a pandemic, living in a world situation that makes it difficult to make long-term plans, I often find myself frustrated and anxious. I resent that I could not take a vacation this summer.

But if I live in my head in the past or the future, I miss the present moment. I am relatively safe. I have my family with me. The sun is shining. Can I add to my life by worrying? Of course not.

And there is a big difference between worrying and problem-solving. In fact, worrying spends psychological energy that I could be spending on fixing real problems. Worrying is a process of thinking about something and then trying to put it out of mind. We want to avoid it, but our brains keep putting it back in front of us, because our brains are trying to keep us alive.

Problem-solving means changing my behavior. It involves putting the problem squarely before my attention, determining what action-steps I can take to affect the problem, and committing to implement them. Once I have committed to action, whenever I feel inclined to worry, I can remind myself that I am doing what I can to address the problem.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is about being fully conscious in the present in order to create behavior change for the future. It has several philosophical similarities to Buddhism. We do not achieve change by resenting our present circumstances, ruminating on the past, or dreading the future. We create change by becoming aware and appreciative of our conscious experience in this moment, being fully present and fully alive.

Does it sound too simple? Like Buddhism, ACT invites people to simply try it out. If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to worry and regret later.

Prayer:
Author of time, you stand in the future and in the past, and all space and time for you can be rolled up like a scroll. Help us to encounter you here, in the present moment, which will empower us to transform our own time.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Theology and Kink in the News

Today’s reporting from CNN. Click for story.

The unfortunate thing about the salacious sex lives of our so-called-conservative leaders is that not only are they unsurprising, but when they are outed it simply reinforces the stigma associated with being honest about sexuality.

None of us believes Falwell’s particular kink is unusual, right? Or that “cuck” is a term loaded with contempt precisely because *so many* manly men sense that their jealousy is an aphrodisiac, and they are secretly embarrassed about it, right? Just like so many virulently anti-gay pundits are in the closet. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves. We are masters at projection.

I have to admit feeling some schadenfreude, because Falwell is a cruel and hypocritical person.

But y’all, it’s also so, so sad. We cause so much misery in our own lives by refusing to be curious about *why* something appeals to us that is socially taboo.

For example: there is a reason the woman in the Song of Songs teases her lover by saying,

Tell me, you whom I love with all my heart—
where do you pasture your flock,
where do you rest them at noon?—
so I don’t wander around with the flocks of your companions. (Song of Songs 1:7)

She teases him by saying she will give her affections to his friends. She says this BECAUSE jealousy evolved to create this very response, a mixture of anger and arousal that is highly stimulating. White conservative men, many (but not all) of whom are perpetually angry, are particularly attracted to this brew of emotion. They are also highly defensive about it. That (and misogyny) is why “cuckold” is their epithet of choice.

(FTR, I think it’s pretty obvious that what we’ve heard in the media is only the surface-level stuff. Also, I don’t really need to hear any more.)

The Bible also tells the story of an explicit BDSM relationship between Samson and Delilah. Pastors have often preached that Delilah “tricks” Samson, but she doesn’t. She asks directly, “Tell me how to tie you up.” He tells her, and then submits to being tied up. THREE TIMES.

You think *modern* people invented bondage play? Like human beings only *recently* learned about kink? (And that’s not all that’s in the Bible, BTW).

Why does Samson eventually reveal his secret? Because even the strongest man in the world needs to feel vulnerable sometimes. The burden of being strong is exhausting. Samson was tired of performing all the time. So it’s particularly bitter that he ends his life performing! (Judges 16)

All that to say: so much of religious conservatism is about performing. Most of these preachers and pundits who have such loud voices in our society are performing. When Falwell says he was depressed, I believe him—but not for the reasons he gives. It is sad that their comeuppance creates *more* incentive for people performing conservative religiosity to be incurious about their own brains, their own sexuality, and their own spiritual lives. Seeing their colleague publicly humiliated, they bury their secrets deeper.

And no, admitting, “We’re all sinners” is not helpful. Sin isn’t even the point. The point is if you’re afraid of your own internal life, you will never be at peace. You are at constant enmity with the world and God because your theology of sin sucks. It is our own incuriosity about our inner life and our binary view of good and evil that creates such manufactured suffering.

When you live your whole life under a giant SHOULD, you develop a “worm” theology. “You are not worthy, and you never will be, you pervert, you miserable worm.” It does not shame one into being a virtuous person. It makes one into a hypocrite.

Hypocrite literally means “actor.” A performer.

In our society, we are lousy with them. And this kind of religion is killing our planet.

Drug Policy and the Church, Day 6: Whiteness and Drug Policy

Simplified visualization of the persistence homological scaffolds. left: normal state. right: under the psilocybin effect, by G. Petri, P. Expert, F. Turkheimer, R. Carhart-Harris, D. Nutt, P. J. Hellyer, F. Vaccarino. In plain language, the image on the left represents neural connection in a normal brain, and the right represents connectivity under psilocybin. From Wikimedia Commons

I have decided it is important to be bold in sharing that I have had psychedelic experiences for several reasons:

  1. I had the privilege of using them legally, in a safe, therapeutic, research setting. Part of that privilege was obtained by being an ordained religious leader, which in turn was made more likely because of the privilege of being white, male, and middle-class.
  2. I believe in the potential therapeutic benefits of plant medicines, not only for those suffering from various forms of mental illness, but also for “well” people.
  3. I believe in the potential of these therapies to address not only personal, but also generational trauma that has epigenetic effects.
  4. It is absurd that these naturally occurring substances are classified as schedule 1 drugs, and that nearly incalculable harm is done to human lives under the pretense of keeping them “safe.” We warehouse human beings in prison at tremendous cost to society, when it would be more humane and cheaper to give them free housing and mental health care.
  5. I had two experiences nearly two years ago, and continue to reap the benefits; whereas many people are taking a pill every day for years or decades in order to alter their brain chemistry.
  6. I obtain some of this power to speak for change by virtue of having practiced abstinence before and since. I have never smoked pot or consumed any illegal drug. I am no hedonist; my motivation for changing drug policy is simply the outrageous injustice and harm it is doing to our society.   

I started out this week sharing that the War on Drugs is a racist, failed policy, enacted by frightened men desperate to hold on to coercive power. I am very aware that the reason I am able to talk openly about my own experience is because of something known as “psychedelic exceptionalism.” Essentially, when white middle-class people use drugs, it’s okay.  

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, crack cocaine became a moral panic. Reflecting Nixon’s original logic in creating a War on Drugs, laws were written to create harsher penalties for drugs that black people were more likely to use. Drug policy was specifically geared to hurt black people worse. But in the current opioid epidemic, which is harming more white people, our national dialogue has changed course. Suddenly we are holding manufacturers accountable and talking about compassionate care for addiction.

All of this is due to white privilege, our society’s tendency to treat white people more humanely, as individuals with backstories, people who are worthy of respect.

Because I had the very rare opportunity to appreciate the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of a substance currently classified as a schedule 1 “illegal” drug, because I am white, not addicted, and hold a position of privilege, I have come to realize that I have a moral obligation to expose the hypocrisy and systemic racism of our nation’s drug policy. As a religious leader with a Ph.D in preaching and ethics, I cannot be silent about this obvious and outrageous harm we continue to inflict upon generations of human beings, especially if that policy is upheld by moralizing from the pulpit.

There are certainly important policy discussions we need to have about decriminalization versus legalization, and how to mitigate the very real harms that substance abuse has on individuals, families, and society. Some drugs are worse than others, and there must certainly be a way to control access, especially for people most vulnerable. Drugs can do harm. But the harm we manufacture must end, and it should not be illegal to grow any plant medicine that God created.

It is beyond reason that a living thing should be illegal.

Jesus said that his mission was to a) bring people abundant life (John 10:10) and b) set the captives free (Luke 4:18-21). While drug addiction can certainly be both oppressive and life-destroying, our social policies have done far worse. Addressing this wrong will require us to acknowledge both the existence of white supremacy and the harm done by the War on Drugs.

Prayer:
Lord of Liberation and Life, we are born into oppressive systems which we did not design; but we can unmake them. Give us the courage and discernment to break every oppressive yoke.


Drug Policy and the Church, Day 5: Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Children playing in a fountain in Centurion, South Africa, by Brian van der Spuy. From Wikimedia Commons

“What are you experiencing, David?” asked Bill.
“Um… I see some stained glass patterns, I think. There’s some movement and a faint light.”

I was about twenty minutes into a psilocybin session at Johns Hopkins. I was lying on a couch wearing an eyeshade and headphones. My support team sat next to me on the floor. An automatic blood pressure cuff gently squeezed my arm every thirty minutes, monitoring my body for signs of distress.

What I was thinking was, “Man, this is kind of a let-down. If I’ve gone through all this—taking time off work, telling my life story three or four times, filling out hours of screening forms and questionnaires, and this is all I get—I will be pretty disappointed.”

“And what will I do with my disappointment?” The question came floating up from deep inside me.

I looked down and realized I was holding my disappointment. I was cradling it, like a baby. And I was weeping with deep, wrenching sobs. I realized I had been carrying so much unacknowledged disappointment, hopes for ministry and for life and relationships. I had been unwilling and unable to acknowledge it. And almost as suddenly, I realized that God was also cradling me, like a mother, while I cradled my disappointment. She was telling me that it was okay to have hopes, and okay to be disappointed, and that I was loved more deeply than I could possibly imagine. And then she proceeded to show me how much I was loved.

I realized that I could not be truly grateful if I did not acknowledge my disappointment. I could not simply “put a brave face on it” and pretend to be cheery. And once I had acknowledged it, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all that was right and good in my life.

And that was all in the first 45 minutes.

At the end of a six-hour session, I felt as if I had been through six months of psychotherapy, as though I had lived a whole other life before coming home to my own skin and my own reality. In the days after, I felt more grounded, grateful, and stable. I felt more loving toward my friends, family, and even strangers. I was overwhelmed with appreciation of the beauty and mystery of life. Almost two years later, I still feel the lingering effects and the lessons of that first session. I know in my bones that God does not expect me to act grateful when I’m not, to feel the way I think I “should” feel. And that makes me more free to be truly grateful and to love.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy is an emerging field. It is being tested as a treatment for drug addiction, PTSD, and treatment-resistant depression. It has shown promise in reducing recidivism among ex-prisoners. One friend I know kicked a 30-year heroin habit after one session with an indigenous plant medicine. He has been clean ever since.

There is a lot of hype about psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy, and I think it is important to remain cautious about “new” therapies. People who are chasing an experience may not reap the full benefit of these substances because there is psychological, internal work that needs to happen in tandem. It cannot replace talk therapy. Our capitalist, consumerist, pharmacological approach to physical and mental health is about pill-popping and miracle cures, about “superfoods” and consuming or avoiding the trendy ingredient du jour. Big Pharma, like other industries, only makes money by commodifying wellness. My fear is that psychedelic therapy will experience the same fate.

But its roots are in positive psychology, indigenous practices, and holistic understandings of mental health and human society. Not only does it have the potential to help people who are suffering from mental illness, it has the potential to help “well” people thrive.

I wanted to spend this week focusing on drug policy and the church because this is a prime example of the way racism hurts everybody. These substances have been locked away for fifty years because the Nixon White House—and subsequent leaders—wanted to disrupt Civil Rights and the antiwar movements. Instead of healing people, we’ve been locking them away for decades, creating more generational trauma instead of healing it.

But there is a better way for us to be.

Prayer:
God of Salvation, you salve our wounds and heal all our diseases. Help us to be agents of healing in our selves, our culture, and our planet. Amen.