Religion in the Making

It is a truth universally acknowledged but seldom discussed that no one gets very far in any serious endeavour without discipline. it is an inconvenient truth, but everyone knows it’s true. If you want to be Rocky, you need discipline. If you want to be Gandhi, you need discipline. If you want to acheive something or be someone, you need discipline.

In the spiritual life, discipline means spiritual practice. However, when people say that they are “spiritual but not religious”, what they mostly mean is that they don’t practice. Religious people go to church and pray and what-not: their religion imposes a formal rule of discipline on them, just like school imposes homework. But if you are “spiritual but not religious” you can apparently get all the benefits of religion without the costs. You are basically a free-loader.

This is not always true. Their are “spiritual but not religious” people who do have a regular spiritual practice, either a personal one that they’ve devised themselves or one they have picked up from a spiritual teacher or NRG (New Religious Group) to which they may be strongly or loosely affiliated. The most common practice is some form of meditation. And now, with the advent of meditation apps, you can do this in the comfort of your phone without any affiliation whatsoever.

Discipline is a particularly important issue when it comes to the sacramental use of psychedelics. The unpredictable and chaotic nature of psychedelics, particularly at higher doses, means that any semblance of control seems to go out the window. However, it is widely recognised that the context, the “set and setting”, in which psychedelics are taken increases the possibility of a positive and productive experience. This requires an element of conscious intention and discipline. If you attend an ayahuasca ceremony, for example, you be expected to participate in a formal ritual, which will vary in strictness according to the group or tradition. There will be explicit or implicit rules for what you can and can’t do before, during and after the experience.

Most people treat powerful psychedelics like ayahuasca or peyote like a kind of oracle. You need some help or advice about something, so you go and ask the plant gods. Then you take the knowledge back into your everyday life, keep calm and carry on. For this kind of use, you will typically take a psychedelic once every few months or years. For others, it is a more frequent event, perhaps a weekly one, like a regular Sunday service. In Christian terms, it’s a bit like the difference between regular church-goers and Christmas and Easter attendees.

People who take psychedelics recreationally don’t generally apply much discipline to it. They’re there for the ride and so just go with the flow. Usually it’s fun, and sometimes not so fun. At the back of their minds, they know that they’re not really getting anywhere, and that there is always the danger of psychological, if not physical addiction. If they want transformative experiences, over the long haul, they know that they will need some kind of discipline.

The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote that “to be religious and to pray – that is really one and the same thing.” The sacramental use of psychedelics for spiritual growth is necessarily a religious undertaking, which requires disciplined practice. And when it comes to religion, practice means prayer. Western post-Christians prefer the word “meditation”, but it really comes to the same thing. If you’re not praying or meditating, you’re not really doing religion, although you may be doing “spiritual but not religious”. Religion is nothing without practice: it is just a hollow relic of a by-gone age. A true, living religion is only possible in the context of a life of prayer. As the German poet Novalis put it, prayer is “religion in the making”.