Drugs and the Practice of Spiritual Discernment

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Two unexpected events recently conspired to grab my attention, forcing me to think with new-found urgency about drugs. Let me explain what happened and then suggest that the practice of spiritual discernment may be a useful ally in the struggle to make life-enhancing decisions about drugs and their use—decisions that are practical and spiritually sensitive. While primarily clustering my reflections about discernment around drugs, I aim to demonstrate how discernment can also help us frame decisions in other significant parts of our experience as well.

I’m no expert in addiction science, and as a result, what I say here is born of personal experience, shared in the hope that it will lead to deeper reflection and further discussion. My comments are offered from one friend to another, knowing that most of us have had to sort through issues of drug use either in ourselves or with others whom we love.

As I write this, I’m scheduled to consult with a psychiatrist next week about possibly changing the antidepressants I take every day. I’ve taken a wide variety of this kind of drug for 35 years, and one of the benefits—if I can call it that—of my long-standing tenure with antidepressants is that my brain has learned to alert me when it might be time for a change: time to take a fresh look at what, why, and how much I take.

What is of God gifts us with joy rather than just pleasure; peace rather than a temporary truce in an interior battle; and a personal integrity, a sense of having the “pieces fit together.”

I’m labeled a “high-functioning depressive,” and taking medication is an important part of a personal regimen that keeps me from getting sucked too far into depression’s brutal blackhole. The medications help me keep my life in right order, balanced, and in touch with the deepest dimension of an experience that is, I’ve come to believe, my experience of God.

By contrast, last week a friend called me from a residential drug rehabilitation facility where he’s been staying for three months. He will soon be leaving that facility to check into a sober-living house in the Northeast for an additional three months. This is his third trip through rehab for opioid and crystal meth addictions.

Before this round of treatment, he quit his job as a high school teacher. Despite his addictions, he was one of the school’s highest-rated staff members. Last year he told me he felt increasingly “bored and lonely”—difficult feelings for any of us but feelings that can prove catastrophic for an addictive personality. These feelings, he later admitted, increasingly led him to use drugs to temporarily relieve the increasingly intolerable inner chaos and distress he experienced.

Unlike the antidepressants I take to manage my depression, the drugs he took had the opposite effect: they plunged his life into desperate disorder and moved him not toward but away from what is of God. What criteria, then, can we rely on as we struggle to make decisions about drugs? Hard experience has taught me that one key seems to be in patiently learning to differentiate decisions that lead us to a feeling of being more fully alive from those that lead to a more confining interior sense of imprisonment and inertia.

Over time we can develop a kind of muscle memory of what is of God; it is against this tentative yet leading assurance that we learn to test decisions we’re contemplating. What is of God gifts us with joy rather than just pleasure; peace rather than a temporary truce in an interior battle; and a personal integrity, a sense of having the “pieces fit together.” Discernment learned over time can help us put into words what originally comes to us as a sense, a feeling, an intimation of what is of God.

Feeling intense interior disorder and chaos can quickly prove unbearable; these are feelings we instinctively work hard to tame, manage well, or defend against. No matter how we do it, underneath the angst is a hope to calm the storm, at least temporarily.

© John Robert Marasigan on Unsplash


Let me broaden the context of this discussion to include more than just discernment and decisions about drug use. For example, are we as reflective, intentional, and discerning about everything we ingest, not just drugs? Don’t we also need to discern signs of possible addiction—an interior coercion or lack of freedom—in what and how much we eat, how much we work, how many things we struggle to accumulate, and the quantity and quality of the media we take in?

Perhaps another key to discerning which course to take is to ask whether the proposed decision moves us into or away from the heart of our experience. What is born of peace and nourished in freedom is never an escape from experience. It is, rather, a way into our experience with renewed freedom of heart and generosity of will.

Although I’ve been associated with the Quaker practice of discernment for the past ten years, much of what I’m suggesting about discernment in this article is based on the spiritual practice of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). Ignatian spirituality also has a discernment method that Loyola distilled from the long tradition of Western spirituality and is found in his guidebook for retreats. His Spiritual Exercises, first published after his death, continues to facilitate life-changing spiritual insight and growth in people of all faith traditions. I’m proposing certain key notions in Ignatian discernment hoping they will complement and broaden Quaker discernment.

Ignatius of Loyola was a keen observer of what he called “interior movements” in a person: those swirling assortments of desires, attractions, urges, defenses, motivations, and biases and attachments to ways of thinking, acting, or outright psychic or physical addictions that actively move us either toward or away from being fully alive.

He also knew that personal attachments and addictions can be deceptive. Haven’t we all had the experience of discovering—sometimes when it’s too late—that what we initially want to move toward turns out, upon further reflection and discernment, to be exactly what we need to move away from? Isn’t it also true that what we instinctively are inclined to move away from is sometimes what we really need to move toward and embrace?

The virtue we perhaps need to develop is patience. At a practical level, we can learn to push the pause button before we act rashly with unexamined motives. An act that may take only an instant may require longer periods of reflection and discernment. Stopping, looking, and listening while weighing options is often the best antidote to deciding out of blind fear, emotional attachment, cultural bias, or life-defying addictions.

Addiction’s antidote is freedom, and freedom, it turns out, is always of God.

As someone once wisely said, learning to say no to ourselves is often the first step in developing interior freedom. This is the kind of freedom we need to make better and more spiritually informed decisions about what we take up and what we lay down.

Let me underscore once again that freedom is always dynamic; it’s always moving us forward, always teeming with potential for growth, change, and enduring joy. Acting without interior freedom (out of attachment, bias, or addiction) brings growth to an abrupt end, and it feels confining, static, and death-dealing.

If we apply these concepts to the two life circumstances about drugs that I introduced at the beginning, the choices may come into clearer focus. My use of antidepressants helps me order my life more gracefully and freely toward what is of God. Without them, I get stuck in anger and darkness, and quickly move into deceptive, damaging judgments about myself and others, making it nearly impossible for me to do anything productive. My depression—untreated—makes me imitate death while pretending to live.

My friend’s addictions to opioids and crystal meth, by his own admission, keep him from interior order and freedom—the capacity for growth. People who are addicted to drugs stop growing in most dimensions of their lives the day the addiction takes hold; there is no movement, no growth, only stasis—a personal death.

What my friend and I had in common is that we were both finally able to decide that we’d had enough of personal darkness, interior disorder, and confinement of soul. For me, it meant taking drugs, but for my friend, it meant stepping away from using the drugs that keep him enslaved. Both choices were toward what is of God, and both required that we ask somebody else to help us make our way.

In the end, what might “of God” mean? From what I’ve learned, it means being fully alive, free to make choices without the encumbrance of attachments and addictions that savagely cannibalize even the hope of living a life that is of God.

Addiction’s antidote is freedom, and freedom, it turns out, is always of God.

Joe McHugh

Joe McHugh lives in Minnesota, writes frequently for a variety of publications, and his book, Startled by God: Wisdom from Unexpected Places, was published in 2013. He has served in interim leadership positions at Friends School of Minnesota and Carolina Friends School.

7 thoughts on “Drugs and the Practice of Spiritual Discernment

  1. I just finished the book “Lost Connections” by Johann Hart”. I would recommend it to you as a follow up to your article. It seems that Johann Hart had used antidepressives since he was 18 years old and has been searching for alternatives as well as causes of his depression. He proposes an interesting discussion on this topic.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing. The recent holiday season was VERY stressful for me. I do not take any drugs. But I think professional help can be most helpful. Patience. Personal reflection. Personal insight. Actions to help oneself. I plan to seek some professional help. Being stoic and “strong” can be miserable. I do not believe our God want us to suffer- when help is available.

  3. I had a lot of friends who were addicts, all of them ended up in prison, poor kids don’t have an easy road to rehab thats just not an option for many, out of those quite a few have died and a couple have recovered. One friend who was able to get himself to a place of living a semi-normal life said to that being an addict was like having a storm buzzing in your head all the time, that thoughts were uncontrollable, “good thoughts” “bad thoughts” existed simultaneously, that there was no continuity and substance abuse calmed the storm.
    I’ve often wondered if that is what depression is like, that being an addict and having depression have a similar biological function. What are your thoughts on that?

  4. I would just add, after working in the addictions field for many years, that people who suffer from the addiction of your friend, often are self medicating. I worked on a dual diagnosis unit where we helped people to discern if the basis of their addictive behavior was in fact more effectively managed by antidepressant medication.

  5. I attended the Psychotherapy and Faith Conference in Houston many years ago because I heard that Gerald May was presenting on St. John the Divine and a friend and Friend was an organizer. Gerald May was a psychiatrist and theologian (brother of Rollo May). I remember the question being asked if there was a danger in treating, with drugs, depression that might be a “dark night of the soul” and interfere with God’s work.

    May said, “Don’t worry about it.” God is more powerful than drugs.

    In the last couple of decades there has a been growing number of people using plant medicines like ayahuasca, psilocybin and mescaline to treat depression, PTSD, and other psychological distress. Many experience their use as a deeply transformative spiritual experience. Other non-plant psychedelics such as LSD and MDMA are used. Are psychedlics drugs? The U.S. government classifies them as such.

    The clinical experimentation has shown remarkable long-lasting success with just a few sessions.

    I know that there are some, including Friends, who are using psychedlics, not just as therapy, but feel a calling, leading and moral responsibility to use them to get right with God and Nature, to heal and look for the way forward in saving human civilization and the biosphere that gives us our very existence.

    My religious upbringing and the Quaker testimonies, have generally, if not always frowned upon, even condemned the use of substances – alcohol and “drugs” – for any reason and as impediment to right relationship with God and spiritual health. But I believe the time has come, is past due, that we reconsider the lumping of all “drugs”, plant based and synthetic, into the same prohibited category, and that perhaps the use of some might be a doorway to spiritual healing and growth and even a calling.

  6. “It is just possible that God, in His inscrutable Grace, may wish to shatter all our Pharisaic pretensions, and through these remarkable chemical substances gracefully provide glimpses of the realm of the Spirit precisely to those whose path would otherwise never have come near it…. Seldom has the demand for the rethinking of the nature of mystical, experiential religion been so insistent. And this demand rests with unusual weight upon the Society of Friends, because of [our] claim to be a religion of immediate experience, of the inward Christ.” – Havens, J. (1964). A Working Paper: Memo on the Religious Implications of the Consciousness-Changing Drugs (LSD, Mescalin, Psilocybin). Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 3(2), 216-226. doi:10.2307/1384511

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