MDMA versus Meditation; A Myanmese Mediation

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In the monastery where Otto has spent the last two months prior to the trek, 4 a.m. is morning. Dawn is yet to break, and yet he is awake, sweeping dust from the stone floors, although not entirely awake due to the meditative state he performs in. Meditation comprises twenty hours a day here. This hour is no exception.

In hundreds upon thousands of house parties, nightclubs and festivals across the world, the nocturnal weekend world I’m more familiar with, 4 a.m. is night, potentially a night that will curve, stumble and then rise again past dawn and into the next day, all things having gone accordingly.

Polar opposites, you’d think. But beyond obvious statements about time’s relativity and the way we structure our lives, the contrast between meditation and drug use, stark at first, is actually a more ambiguous area than we might believe.

Myanmar seems a strange place to be comparing the relative merits of the two with regards to mental therapy and/or enhancement, but its relevance surprises me. Less strictly policed than surrounding countries where drug trafficking and even use is rewarded with the death penalty, it’s become a hub of Asian drug transportation, not far from Silk Road’s old roots. The myriad temples and golden shrines underline the widespread Buddhism here, and therefore the associated meditation. These disparate strands have even crossed over recently (and rather hilariously), with a monk arrested for harbouring no less than four million methamphetamine pills beneath one of those very monasteries.

It’s day two of three on a trek from Kalaw to Lake Inle. Dainty morning light pours through gaps in the trees onto narrower dusty paths, bathes open landscapes gold. Amidst the rolling hills, isolated villages and rice terraces, stretches of yellow and green just as quickly replaced by roads or scorched red earth, we’re entirely inoculated from the ethnic cleansing that’s not geographically that far away to the north. Given the light-hearted bubble we’re in, it might as well be in another universe.

Otto himself is vivid and colourful for someone so physically translucent. The whiteness of his pale, indoors monastery skin amplified by the tans of the other eleven on the trek. Pale blue eyes that shine with eager benevolence and enthusiasm to be speaking to people who weren’t monks for the first time in a while, I suspect.

He radiates positivity. And intelligence, too, having already acquired two degrees and taking a little time out before studying a derivative of meditation at Oxford.

As a result, even before commencing his studies at Oxford, Otto’s knowledge of meditation is encyclopaedic, as revealed when I ask him to fill in the vast holes in my knowledge. In 2014, UK parliament was pioneering in its use of mindfulness meditation, not that that’s such a positive sell in the wake of recent events. Better though, a Swedish workplace study showed two months of consistent meditation caused the left frontal cortex to ignite with activity in all subjects across different workplaces. It can increase dopamine supplies at source.

Though he doesn’t necessarily agree with more extreme versions of meditation, he says the proof of what can be done is staggering. The study where a group of monks sat in the snow and literally melted the snow around them, having risen their body temperatures, using Tummo Meditation (also known as Fire Meditation), to 45 degrees. It’s Googleable. Bear in mind, for us mere mortals, 40-42 degrees is high fever, 45 degrees would kill you. In a similar experiment, a long night was spent in cold conditions with monks drying wet towels draped across their backs.

I’m not sure what’s meant to be gained from this beyond just doing it for its own sake, which is likely the root of Otto’s scepticism, but it’s hard to deny they’re impressive feats nonetheless. For Otto personally, the role of meditation in his life has expanded beyond the meditative state itself. He believes it’s made him a better person. Which reminds me of my relationship with MDMA.

I soon find myself explaining that I genuinely believe MDMA use, or even ‘abuse’ given I’ve only ever come across it in a recreational sense, has made me a better person. Most of the actual science is beyond my comprehension – gray matter, cortexes, dendrites, unmyelinated axons, astroglia, cerebral hemispheres, synapses – most of these specifics might as well be in a different language. But without knowing the complicated production behind the scenes, I’ve felt the practical realities of being, in the correct scientific phraseology, absolutely off my nut.

And it’s pretty good, only what defines ‘goodness’ with regards to being a ‘better person’ long-term is, of course, a fluid, personal and mostly non-specific thing, but there are buzzwords we keep returning to – compassion, empathy, kindness, non-judgmental, understanding – and more along these lines, areas in which Otto believes he’s greatly benefited from meditation as I have from non-prescribed drugs. I try not to think about how dubious my claims seem in comparison, but maybe that vague, socially-conscious shame illuminates the real question: is it really that dubious?

Otto’s curious about the crossover between our wildly different experiences. It’s wisely directed. Of course, using MDMA essentially opens the floodgates for ‘dopamine’, that lovely happiness chemical that meditation increases resources of, so there’s already a notable link. He’s never used drugs, I’ve never meditated, and the question, that vital question that he keeps coming back to is, “do the effects when on the drug endure when later sober?”

Personally, yes. Under-the-influence epiphanies don’t always crumble under sober lights. Their meaning might change shape or be contextualised in a different way, but doesn’t necessarily render them any less meaningful. A percentage of the exchanges you’ve had when ecstatic of pupil and swinging of jaw reveal themselves to be utter bollocks later, of course, as much as those loved up texts to your ex’s Mum about going for coffee because you miss her (despite having scarcely exchanged a word while with her daughter) were a wonderful idea at time, but remembering the empathy you felt for a friend or a circumstance often carries over into ‘real life’ later.

That being said, it’s rarely scintillating or indeed that valuable to hear about how wrecked, spangled, obliterated, whatevered someone else is – I’ll spare you that, the “ex’s Mum” example is, thankfully, fictional – and it’s not a coincidence that the conversation seems to grow in importance once we’ve moved past my personal encounters.

I took to explaining, off the back of imprecise memories of things I’d read over the years, how MDMA has been used in a healthcare sense, curing or at least diluting the respective grips of PTSD and depression. I remembered the studies being mostly unlawful, underground ventures, even if by experts. Professor David Nutt, the ex-chairman of the Home Office’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, being fired for saying taking ecstasy is “no more dangerous than riding a horse” in 2009. Even, in a borderline hilarious incident, Channel 4’s ‘Drugs Live’ experiment in 2011, a nun on a controlled, 125mg dose of MDMA explaining that her narcotics had led to her feeling a profound “disassociation from God.”

However, the conversation that program was designed to ignite never continued. David Nutt toils away to prove the legitimacy of decriminalising drugs, but doesn’t seem to get anywhere. The potential for it to be seen as a medicine, and therefore the connected positivity remains underground, starved of oxygen.

It doesn’t take long to figure out why. Personal catastrophes are deafeningly loud, and the noise of lesser, progressive good is drowned out. How, for instance, does someone whose struggles with depression have lessened having used MDMA therapy argue their case to the mourning mother of a 17-year-old who recent died at a rave. The exact cause doesn’t matter; as long as drugs have been involved, it’s their fault. Regardless of your thoughts on that, it’s difficult to play devil’s advocate – “maybe they should have researched/personally Marquis-tested the pills?” or “maybe they should have known more about the dangers, therefore being more careful to monitor the amount of water they’re drinking?” – when the mother’s child is dead.

When Otto and I part, I’m relatively frustrated. The recent studies I’d read that remained sharp in my mind revolved around ayahuasca ceremonies in Ecuador and ‘microdosing’ one tenth of a tab of LSD before work, as part of your routine a few times a week, in San Francisco. It increases empathy and problem solving abilities, supposedly, though long-term risks remain unknown. Godspeed to the pioneers.

We all know Steve Jobs banged acid. Isaac Newton. The Beatles were a little fond, too. Many more leading experts in various fields will do, too, without our knowledge. Who knows, maybe psychedelics fuel Elon Musk.

But what about MDMA? I take to reading about the current landscape with regards to seeing what’s now perceived as a party drug in a medical sense.

What I found was encouraging, if not immediately.

When you Google ‘MDMA versus meditation’, it mostly just comes up with people in forums discussing their experiences trying to meditate while on the drug in their bedrooms. Good luck to them, but not much use to me. Luckily, a little looking around, and maybe a better input of words to the search engine, unearths some worthy words.

Articles in The Guardian and The Independent suggest clinical trials are being undertaken in the UK and US with a view to legalizing medical use of the drug in the next five years. In each, sufferers of PTSD and depression laud their own experiences of medically approved use as life-changing, hope when there was none.

James Hardin, as The Guardian relays, suffered from PTSD after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “He had nightmares and insomnia and loud sounds or flashes of light could send him into a state of anxiety. He was given psychotherapy and prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety tablets, but nothing worked. That is, until he he enrolled in one of Maps’ trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Hardin experienced a dramatic turnaround in his mental health within three months, and no longer has PTSD.”

Of MDMA therapy, he says: “I am one of the lucky few that got this amazing treatment. I don’t want to be the guy that got lucky – I want everybody to have this opportunity to recover.”

Which is good, as this in-depth Rolling Stone article reveals leading doctors are being forced underground, believing in these forms of therapy so much that they’re willing to risk incarceration. Legalising it means more elite doctors can practise without fear, and more people could potentially be helped given it wouldn’t be so exorbitantly priced.

MDMA, in the 1970s, was originally synthesised for use as a psychotherapeutic tool. It was only in late 2000 that it first got approved for a clinical trial. Just so happens that in the meantime, people realised it goes pretty well with music and light shows too, hence its current reputation. But people will always find a way to abuse narcotics, there’s an epidemic in the US with people abusing pharmaceuticals like Xanax, Vicodin and Oxycotin, it’s not a reflection of MDMA’s positive, medically worthy aspects that it entered the public consciousness as a tool for wreckheads during the Hacienda days. Not its fault, either – why wasn’t it studied more in the first place?

So what of the comparison with meditation? First, it’s impossible not to note that nobody has ever died from meditation. There’s no comedown either, it’s a consistent higher plain rather than the dizzying highs and, later, plummeting lows of MDMA use. But it should be noted comedowns are largely related to the other substances thrown in when it’s cut up by street dealers, not an issue with controlled doses in controlled environments, as proposed.

It gets particularly interesting in this old study – from 1995 – about elite monks literally using MDMA while meditating. In it, the author describes taking a Rinzai Zen monk to a rave. Though the monk had done MDMA while meditating, this was his first time doing it in a party scenario.

“When it took effect, he glowed and announced “This is meditation!” Far from being alien to his experience, he saw that everyone was totally absorbed in their dance without self-consciousness or internal dialogue, and that was the very essence of meditation.

Economics students will know notorious psychologist Abraham Maslow for his ‘hierarchy of needs’. A rabbi from the West London Synagogue interviewed in the link above refers to Maslow’s conclusion concerning ‘peak experiences’, saying:

“Taking drugs is like reaching the top of a mountain by cable car instead of the toil of climbing – it can be seen as cheating, but it gets you to the same place.”

So maybe MDMA and meditation aren’t entirely dissimilar, but at the crux of this lies the question of whether it’s okay to use artificial means to achieve tangible benefits. In a recreational sense, actual abuse will do long-term damage to how your brain naturally releases serotonin and dopamine, depleting natural sources of happiness and creating a dependency, even if it will never be addictive in the same breath as heroin. Teenagers using too young will affect the way their brains develop. It’s dangerous, a fine line to tread, and only fun and occasionally personally revolutionary if precautions are taken and you limit the amount you take, but in a medical sense, of course it is.

Much of this is a mess, a series of scattered ideas. It’s difficult to tame them into something more linear. If anything, the discussion with Otto and later further reading brought me back to the conclusion that is, in many ways, the conclusion for everything. We’re all different. Your methods might not work for me, and vice versa. But also that you’ll never know what works unless you experiment enough. That’s not an advocation for you to get wrecked on Class A’s this weekend, more thinking aloud on the possibility of trying meditation for myself.

And that only applies to personal use. In terms of medical use for PTSD and depression sufferers, it’s almost farcical that people see MDMA in such a black-and-white ‘drugs BAD!’ light. Concrete preconceptions aren’t exactly progressive, particularly with science advancing so rapidly. Why is this potential treatment being left so far behind?

In another article from The Guardian, ironically related to the mindfulness meditation applied in UK parliament, it says:

“Mental health problems are estimated to affect one in four and academic studies claim mindfulness can affect a 20% reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. If practiced regularly, proponents report it develops “in the moment” and non-judgemental attention which prevents people becoming caught up in anxious or depressive thoughts.”

Meditation can help those with mental health issues, too. But as far as I’m concerned, a ‘reduction’ in symptoms, when we’re talking about such a huge percentage is good. The suggestion that MDMA therapy, or even, as covered in the Rolling Stone article, mildly riskier use of ayahuasa and ibogaine for more extreme cases, is potentially better.

Only ‘potentially’ for now. It’s difficult to be conclusive without more science applied and studies conducted. Let’s hope that’s the case soon.

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