Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicalsby Huston Smith
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
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 Learya meeting arranged by Aldous Huxleyand the profound effect it had on his understanding of reality. In wrestling with the questionDo 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 volunteersmostly seminary studentswere 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.
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Read an Excerpt
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.
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