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In this book, renowned philosopher and scholar of religion Huston Smith, takes a serious look at the use of psychedelic drugs as a means to achieve mystical union with the divine. In a unique blend of direct experience and academic depth, Smith examines this controversial subject and describes the historic and turbulent academic experiments of the sixties in which he was both a subject and an observer. Smith begins by telling the story of his own initiation into the world of psychedelic drugs in the company of Timothy Leary—a meeting arranged by Aldous Huxley—and the profound effect it had on his understanding of reality. In wrestling with the question—Do drugs have religious import?—he draws on history, theology, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology.
He tells of fascinating experiments that attempted to shed light on this question, such as the one in which he participated as a guide, where twenty volunteers—mostly seminary students—were given psilocybin before they attended a traditional Good Friday church service. He discusses as well the use of peyote in Native American sacred rituals and the hallucinogenic plant soma in ancient India. Throughout, he does not approach the question of drugs and religion from any fixed standpoint. Instead, he mines his own experiences and his relationships to pioneers in this field to come up with insights on this intriguing subject that are not available in any other book written for the general public.
As I noted in my Introduction, my initiation into the entheogens took place in 1961 under the auspices of the Center for Personality Research at Harvard University as part of a project directed by Professor Timothy Leary to determine if a certain class of virtually nonaddictive mind-altering chemicals — mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD — could facilitate behavior change in desirable directions. Such changes are not easy to gauge. Subjective reports are notoriously unreliable, but two populations do lend themselves to statistical measurement. Six months after an entheogen experience, is a paroled prisoner still on the streets or back behind bars, and is the recovered alcoholic still off the bottle? Such were the kinds of questions that the study hoped to answer, but it was necessary to start from scratch, for this was the first concerted effort to study these substances scientifically. (At one point Freud had hopes for cocaine, but he soon abandoned them, and besides, cocaine falls into a different class of drugs because it is addictive.) Accordingly, the first step was to get some idea of the range and kinds of experiences the drugs occasion when given in a supportive atmosphere. Volunteers were solicited to establish a data bank of phenomenological reports. Subjects were screened to rule out those with psychological problems, and precise doses of one of the three drugs being investigated were administered. A physician or psychiatrist was invariably present, with an antidote ready should it be needed — chapter 7 of this book reports the onlycase I witnessed when one was used. Every effort was made to keep the sessions unstressful. Flowers and music were encouraged, and subjects were invited to surround themselves with meaningful artifacts — family photos, candles, icons, incense — if they chose to do so. Often the "laboratory" was the subject's own living room, and family and friends were welcome to be present. A follow-up report was required in which the subject was asked to describe the experience and retrospective feelings about it.
What follows is the report I turned in. Ralph Metzner got wind of it and included it in the anthology he published, The Ecstatic Adventure.
New Year's Day, 1961. Eleanor (who now answers to the name Kendra) and I reached the home of Dr. Timothy Leary in Newton, Massachusetts, about 12:30 P.M. Present in addition to Leary were Dr. George Alexander, psychiatrist, and Frank Barron, on sabbatical from the department of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
After coffee and pleasantries, Tim sprinkled some capsules of mescaline onto the coffee table and invited us to be his guest. One, he said, was a mild dose, two an average dose, and three a large dose. I took one; Eleanor, more venturesome, took two. After about half an hour, when nothing seemed to be happening, I too took a second capsule.
After what I estimate to have been about an hour, I noticed mounting tension in my body that turned into tremors in my legs. I went into the large living room and lay down on its couch. The tremors turned into twitches, though they were seldom visible.
It would be impossible for me to fix the time when I passed into the visionary state, for the transition was imperceptible. From here on time becomes irrelevant. With great effort I might be able to reconstruct the order in which my thoughts, all heavily laden with feelings, occurred, but there seems to be no point in trying to do so.
The world into which I was ushered was strange, weird, uncanny, significant, and terrifying beyond belief. Two things struck me especially. First, the mescaline acted as a psychological prism. It was as if the layers of the mind, most of whose contents our conscious mind screens out to smelt the remainder down into a single band we can cope with, were now revealed in their completeness — spread out as if by spectroscope into about five distinguishable layers. And the odd thing was that I could to some degree be aware of them all simultaneously, and could move back and forth among them at will, shifting my attention to now this one, now another one. Thus, I could hear distinctly the quiet conversation of Tim and Dr. Alexander in the adjoining study, and follow their discussion and even participate in it imaginatively. But this leads to the second marked feature. Though the five bands of consciousness — I say five roughly; they were not sharply divided and I made no attempt to count them — were all real, they were not of equal importance. I was experiencing the metaphysical theory known as emanationism, in which, beginning with the clear, unbroken Light of the Void, that light then fractures into multiple forms and declines in intensity as it devolves through descending levels of reality. My friends in the study were present in one band of this spectrum, but it was far more restricted than higher bands that were in view. Bergson's notion of the brain as a reducing valve struck me as accurate.
Along with "psychological prism," another phrase occurred to me: empirical metaphysics. Plotinus's emanation theory, and its more detailed Vedantic counterpart, had hitherto been only conceptual theories for me. Now I was seeing them, with their descending bands spread out before me. I found myself amused, thinking how duped historians of philosophy had been in crediting the originators of such worldviews with being speculative geniuses. Had they had experiences such as mine (subsequent chapters of this book suggest that they had had such experiences) they need have been no more than hack reporters. But beyond accounting for the origin of these philosophies, my experience supported their truth. As in Plato's myth of the cave, what I was now seeing struck me with the force of the sun, in comparison with which everyday experience reveals only flickering shadows in a dim cavern.
How could these layers upon layers, these worlds within worlds, these paradoxes in which I could be both myself and my world and an episode could be both momentary and eternal — how could such things be put into words? I realized how utterly impossible it would be for me to describe such things tomorrow, or even right then to Tim or Eleanor. There came the clearest realization I have ever had as to what literary genius consists of: a near-miraculous talent for using words to transport readers from the everyday world to things analogous to what I was now experiencing.
It should not be assumed from what I have written that the experience was pleasurable. The accurate words are significance and terror. In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto describes awe as a distinctive blend of fear and fascination, and I was experiencing at peak level that paradoxical mix. The experience was momentous because it showed me range upon range of reality that previously I had only believed existed and tried without much success to imagine. Whence, then, the terror? In part, from my sense of the utter freedom of the psyche and its dominion over the body. I was aware of my body, laid out on the couch as if on an undertaker's slab, cool and slightly moist. But I also had the sense that it would reactivate only if my spirit chose to reenter it. Should it so choose? There seemed to be no clear reason for it to do so. Moreover, could it reconnect if I willed it to? We have it on good authority that no man can see God and live — the sight would be too much for the body to withstand, like plugging a toaster into a power line. I thought of trying to get up and walk across the floor. I suspected that I could do so, but I didn't want to risk forcing this intensity of experience into my physical frame. It might shatter the frame.
Later, after the peak had passed and I had walked a few steps, I said to Tim, "I hope you know what you're playing around with here. I realize I'm still under the influence and that things probably look different from your side, but it looks to me like you're taking an awful chance in these experiments. Objective tests might reveal that my heart has been beating normally this afternoon, but there is such a thing as people being frightened to death. I feel like I'm in an operating room, having barely squeaked through an ordeal in which for two hours my life hung in the balance."
I have said nothing about the visual. Where it was important, it was abstract. Lights such as never were on land or sea. And space — not three or four dimensions but more like twelve. When I focused visually on my physical surroundings, I tended to be uninterested. Shapes and colors, however intensified, had little to contribute to the problem that obsessed me, which was what this experience implied for the understanding of life and reality. So I regarded the visual as largely an intrusive distraction and tended to keep my eyes closed. Only twice did physical forms command my attention. Once was when Dr. Alexander induced me to look at the pattern a lampshade was throwing on a taupe rug. That was extraordinary; the shapes stood out like three-dimensional blocks. They also undulated like writhing serpents. The other time was involuntary, when the Christmas tree, its lights unlit, suddenly jumped out at me. It had been in my visual field much of the afternoon, but this was transfiguration. Had I not been in the room throughout, I would have said that someone had re-trimmed the tree, increasing its tinsel tenfold. Where before there was a tree with decorations, now there were decorations with a clotheshorse of a tree to support them.
Interactions with Eleanor, who had dived inward and was reliving important phases of her childhood, form a happy but separate and essentially personal story. Around 10:30 P.M. we drove back to our incomparable, never-more-precious children who were sleeping as if the world was as it had always been, which it definitely was not for us. Neither of us fell asleep until about five, whereupon we slept until around nine. I was definitely into the cold that had been coming on, but my head was clear.
|Chapter One. Empirical Metaphysics||9|
|Chapter Two. Do Drugs Have Religious Import?||15|
|Chapter Three. Psychedelic Theophanies and the Religious Life||33|
|Chapter Four. Historical Evidence: India's Sacred Soma||45|
|Chapter Five. The Sacred Unconscious||65|
|Chapter Six||Contemporary Evidence: Psychiatry and the|
|Work of Stanislav Grof||79|
|Chapter Seven. The Good Friday Experiment||99|
|Chapter Eight. The Case of Cardinal John Henry Newman||107|
|Chapter Nine||Entheogenic Religions: The Eleusinian|
|Mysteries and the Native American Church||113|
|Chapter Ten. Something Like a Summing-Up||127|
|Appendix A||Secularization and the Sacred: The|
|Appendix B||Thinking Allowed with Jeffrey Mishlove: A|
|Notes and References||159|
I do not know the answers to those questions, but I find myself wanting to put them to the test. My reasons are theoretical rather than adversarial, for I am more philosopher than activist. It is true that, though this book is being published as a free-standing volume in its own right, it is also listed as number five in a series of books on the entheogens -- virtually non-addictive drugs that seem to harbor spiritual potentials -- that the Council on Spiritual Practices is issuing. I am comfortable with this, for not only did that Council instigate this book by asking me to pull its essays together; I support its objectives, which include working cautiously toward carving out a space where students of the entheogens can pursue their interests carefully and lawfully. I was fortunate in being able to do that under the umbrella of Harvard University's 1960-63 research program before it careened off course, and it is only fair to do what I can to accord others the same opportunity.
This said, however, I come back to my concerns here being philosophical rather than programmatic. During the semester that Aldous Huxley was at M.I.T., he remarked in the course of a seminar that nothing was more curious, and to his way of thinking more important, than the role that mind-altering plants and chemicals have played in human history. Add to that William James's point that no account of the universe in its totality can be taken as final if it ignores extraordinary experiences of the sort he himself encountered through the use of nitrous oxide. This entire book can be seen as an extended meditation on those two ideas.
As for the other two parties that I mentioned in my opening paragraph (and who join Huxley and James on the frontispiece of this book), I will defer until chapter 4 the story of the summer I spent working with Gordon Wasson on his claim that India's sacramental plant, soma, was a psychoactive mushroom. Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, I include not only for the judiciousness of his discussion of his problem child, but for a personal reason as well. A friend of mine who visited him in Switzerland had occasion to mention my book Forgotten Truth, which outlines the metaphysical position -- roughly the Great Chain of Being -- that my entheogenic encounters enabled me to experience. When my friend returned from that visit and told me Albert Hoffman had expressed interest in my book, I sent him a copy. The letter I received in reply opened by saying, "No other book in the last years has meant more to me than your Forgotten Truth. My experience and awareness of reality and its different aspects correspond completely with your view. The reward I got by studying your book was to find my insights, which are those of a natural scientist, a layman in philosophy, confirmed and expanded more fully by a professional in this field."
The essays in this book span almost forty years. I have edited them liberally, excising repetitions and passages I no longer consider important. Each essay is introduced by a statement that notes the occasion for which it was written and locates it on the trajectory of the book as a whole. My intent has been to produce a work that touches on the major facets of its enigmatic subject as seen through the eyes of someone (myself) who, given my age, may have thought and written about it more than anyone else alive.
Nomenclature has been a problem. I never use the word "hallucinogen" because error is built into its definition -- Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines "hallucination" as "(1) the apparent perception of sights, sounds, etc., that are not actually present [which] may occur in certain mental disorders; (2) the imaginary object apparently seen, heard, etc." The word "psychedelic" is etymologically innocuous, literally meaning "mind-manifesting," but it is dated, tagged to "the psychedelic sixties" when recreational use of drugs took over, and thus clearly inappropriate when speaking of shamans, Eleusis, and the Native American Church. We need a word that designates nonaddictive mind-altering substances that are approached seriously and reverently, and the word "entheogens" does just that. It is not without problems of its own, for etymologically it suggests "God-containing," whereas "God-enabling" would be more accurate -- Aldous Huxley told me never to say that chemicals cause visionary experiences; say that they occasion them. I retain "psychedelic" in the early essays of this book which were written when it was the going word, but thereafter, I follow the lead of Wasson, Hofmann, and Richard Schultes, and other pioneers in concluding that "entheogens" is the appropriate word for mind-changing substances when they are taken sacramentally.
From Cleansing The Doors Of Perception : The Religious Significance Of Entheogenic Plants & Chemicals, by Huston Smith. © June 2000, Huston Smith. Used by permission.
Posted July 22, 2004
If you take one thing away from this book, it will be that reality is always a multiple-choice question. The limits we impose on our own perspectives are often times limited to a series of chemical reactions and aggregate neural networks. Whatever your view on entheogenic substances (yes, drugs!), this book will at least make you question the idea that you are best suited for enlightenment in the scope of a 'standard' consciousness. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.