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The Ecstatic Adventure

  Reports of Chemical Explorations of the Inner World

    Chapter 4 — Psychiatry vs. God


THE FOLLOWING ACCOUNT, by a well-known Quaker psychologist and psychotherapist, is a very clear description of the mechanism of the so-called psychotic experience induced by psychedelics. No one knows what percentage of trips take this direction—perhaps 1 to 2 per cent, more likely less—but the danger is real, though small. Eastern psychologists have always emphasized the necessity of meditating on the demonic aspects of the psyche, so as not to be too surprised by them when they manifest themselves in altered states of perception. As Dr. Havens points out: "It must be said again and again that bad trips may ultimately be good ones." Our experience with thousands of sessions confirms this: the "bad trip" is one in which the person recoils in terror when unexpectedly confronted with ranges of energy which he cannot control. But the pain and anxiety induced by the experience are an impetus to further growth. They show clearly where one is not, and unmask pride and vanity. Conversely, the purely pleasant session or "good trip" also has within it the seeds of its opposite. Merely pleasant trips can produce misplaced spiritual pride—"I must be very cool, I've never had a bad trip."
    It must be emphasized that terror at the confrontation with the Divine is natural and instinctive, and has been felt by every voyager on the great journey beyond the self. It is basically the fear of death, which is a biological survival reflex. The individual wants to preserve his identity. Almost every mystic-psychedelic experience has a moment of this primal terror. If the person is prepared and consciously willing to surrender his control, then he can pass through this moment and come to the realization that what he thought was his identity was in fact only a tiny fragment of the Real Self—and this is liberation. If the surrender does not take place, one spends the remainder of the trip in a more or less painful and frustrating return to the everyday ego identity, until the energies subside sufficiently for the person to feel that he has regained "control."
    As Dr. Havens makes very clear in his scrupulously honest self-examination, it is precisely because one is heavily ego-involved with the maintenance of sanity (an occupational hazard of psychiatrists and psychotherapists) that the impending loss of it produces panic. When the borderline between madness and sanity is defined strictly and narrowly, a trip "over the edge" is that much more likely. Artists and creative people, who usually have a broader acceptance range of normality and a greater tolerance for the so-called primitive elements of the psyche, tend to have fewer bad trips.
    The experience described here is also an exact illustration of the double-bind theory of schizophrenia. According to this theory, psychosis is a special strategy designed for an untenable situation. I can't win: either I end up in the mental hospital or I am annihilated by God. Checkmate. In this case the double bind is entirely internally produced, and it is possible to go beyond it eventually. In other, more unfortunate situations, the checkmate is produced by contradictory pushes and pulls from inside and outside. The person who does not return from an LSD trip for days, weeks or months, who finally commits himself to a hospital because any structure is better than continued chaos, is one whose delusional and hallucinatory experiences are incapable of resolving the continuing double bind of his actual situation.
    The inner journey is difficult and dangerous because we are so unfamiliar with the terrain. Indeed, it is surprising that there are not more psychotic episodes with LSD. But when men climb mountains or explore jungles, we accept the fact that they may get terrified or hurt; we don't rush to make mountain-climbing illegal. Ronald Laing pointed out "we feel that Columbus was entitled to be mistaken in his construction of what he discovered when he came to the New World." Should we not allow a person to make mistakes in the discovery of his own New World? Should a man not be entitled to his madness?

THE PSYCHOTIC EPISODE here recounted was triggered by taking three hundred morning-glory seeds. It was my second psychedelic trip; the first had been a mystical experience eight months previously, under 50 mg. psilocybin.
    After a couple of hours of waiting and chatting with my wife, daughter and a friend in our backyard, I retired to a partially darkened bedroom. As soon as I lay down I recalled from my earlier trip the movement toward the Cosmic Mind and the unsuccessful struggle to let go sufficiently to merge completely with it. Very quickly I became frightened at the prospect of losing my self, my sense of separate identity. Loss of sanity seemed possible. I began to panic. After fifteen minutes or so I called my wife. I felt that her physical presence would somehow prevent ultimate catastrophe. On and off throughout the afternoon I called upon her for support. I was struck by my helplessness and my need for her; I shuddered when I realized bow such a clinging might impede the surrender of self which seemed so imperative.
    As I struggled against the Angst which threatened to inundate me, an impossible choice began to emerge: If I moved toward union with the Cosmic Mind, full annihilation of the ego (i.e. nothingness) confronted me. A bottomless abyss. But if, on the other hand, I revealed to others how panicked and helpless I felt, they would call a psychiatrist, I would lose my job and perhaps go to a mental hospital. Worse than this, such a reliance on psychiatry to take care of me would be a cringing betrayal of my "vocation" to move toward Unitive Consciousness. (The earlier experience had pointed to the existence of such a wider consciousness and the necessity of my knowing it more experientially. It had suggested how much clinging to self, family, status and possessions interfered with such knowing.) Crying for help would be loss of self-identity by another road, i.e. by denying the life path I had traveled and the task that had given it meaning. But as the logic of these thoughts pushed me back toward "giving all," I sensed the panic of annihilation again! I could move neither forward nor back; I was caught. Thus arose the "great straddling." I could conceive of my state either as spiritual or as psychiatric: I was standing as it were before God, who was demanding total surrender; or I was in the midst of a drug-induced psychosis which called for immediate professional attention.
    The fright of the impending loss of self in the Totality led immediately to the feeling, "I am a man of unclean lips," "No man can look on God and live." Later on I wrote: "Your silence arises from having seen that to talk about God implies a discipleship which you cannot fulfill. You really want to die in bed at seventy-five." Openings like this made my stomach quiver. Any talk of God should shake us to the roots of our being; He demands an impossible obedience! Another thought began to assail me: To benefit at all from this experience, even to talk or write about it, would lead toward a spiritual commitment which by slow steps could end in a demand for self-immolation I could not endure. The crucified Christ came to mind as the paradigm. I was wholly unworthy to look on God. I was not ready to lose my life to find it.
    One characteristic of morning-glory seeds as a psychedelic agent is the intermittent nature of the effects, i.e. one returns periodically to the usual space-time world and normal consciousness. (This is apparently caused by the fact that the active indoles are embedded in other organic materials; thus the former do not reach the brain in a steady flow.) This in-and-out effect heightened the inner battle. When I was "in," I felt the awe of the Transcendent, and the terror of ego loss. The safety of the everyday was a strong pull. But in the "out" periods, I was tormented by the failure symbolized by this cowardly longing. During one of these out periods I asked myself whether confronting the Ultimate was always so devastating, or whether it was made so by my particular bang-up. The answer came immediately: Yes and no. Full reality is awesome to contemplate; but it is so partly because of our cringing nature. Man longs for God, but fears to meet Him.
    My first encounter with this "great straddling" was crowded into a relatively short period (half an hour?); it recurred a number of times throughout the afternoon. There were periods of respite, and occasional times of elation and "cosmic joy." But the important openings of the experience were on the dark side.
    Each time I would come down, the acute panic was reduced and I would want once again to return to my "religious vocation." Life seemed impossible without continuing somehow on this path. This led inevitably to the desire to approach God, and a renewal of the terror of annihilation. But even in this state I felt, "This experience is of God—or of the Abyss! It is somehow extremely significant! It is a forward movement. Perhaps it is a violent dramatization of the faith-doubt conflict of our time. Perhaps I am living out the struggle which many feel between the scientific-naturalistic way and the cosmic-spiritual way of looking at the world. Maybe I have an important role to play in a new religious synthesis!" Seeds of a messianic image! Toward the end of the afternoon (about six hours into the experience) I was in a high period, feeling somewhat mysterious and remarkable because of what had happened to me. My wife was sitting nearby; she was partially hidden from me, but I assumed she was making some notes about some especially pregnant remarks I had just made. I was inwardly pleased but felt I should somehow fight the tendency to make me into a prophet of some kind. Thus I told her sharply to stop writing down everything I said. She looked up in surprise: "Oh I've been reading—I didn't catch what you were saying."
    Such misperceptions dramatized the delusional aspects of the experience. In psychiatric terms, I was caught in an obsessive doubt about psychiatry vs. God, combined with a vacillating but powerful messiah complex. At moments I saw myself emerging from these encounters with reality as a psychotherapist-guru of surpassing wisdom and holiness. Perhaps I was destined to become the leader of a new Western religion. In a more rational interlude I wrote, "If and when I go off the deep end, it will be with a messiah complex, the 'authority' of which I will doubt to my dying day."
    There were other paranoid dimensions. When I heard my wife comment to our daughter, "He talked more at the laundromat," I felt they were interested in my words as important information for psychiatric evaluation! I became aware of the way in which almost every word and gesture could be taken in opposite ways: self-judgmental or self-affirming and hopeful. One example was the word daimon, which had been in my mind: a benign indwelling spirit could turn instantaneously into a self-destroying demon and vice versa.
    The psychotic process also had the power of telescoping time. As I contemplated what the future held for me, I saw no let-up in the psychiatric-spiritual conflict. It became absolutely clear that at the time of my death I would not have advanced far enough to "let go self." I would be more terrifyingly face to face with God than I was now. Each moment brought me closer to that final confrontation. But this was not a direct confrontation with God—it was a standing on the edge of the abyss into which I must inevitably fall. It was as if all the moments between now and my death were quickly lived through, and I was immediately facing that dread event.
    My imagination again returned to the present moment. I had obviously failed, and would probably continue to fail, i.e. to progress to the point of surrender to the Cosmic Mind. This failure would be greater if I resorted to the "psychiatric way" rather than the "religious way." But consciously to choose the latter would commit me to it more solidly, close the psychiatric escape hatch, and make more devastating the final crisis of death. Thus a move in any direction now—this very moment—held within it the seeds of final failure and self-destruction. Because death would be the time of ultimate judgment, any thought, any reminder of death was torturous. I was lying on the couch in the living room. It seemed as though even the slightest movement of my finger would constitute a choice, and hence would lead toward annihilation. I was totally, inexorably paralyzed; I could not move in any direction. Finally I was able to focus directly on the paralysis rather than the thoughts behind them; I overcame it by getting up and going into the kitchen to eat. But the closeness of death remained with me as a persisting theme.
    The messiah complex had a psychiatric guise also. I envisioned myself as a classic case of the twentieth century. Inner conflict between a naturalistic view of the world and a powerful religious longing is shared by many. My psychosis had been precipitated by the twentieth-century magic potions, the psychedelics. Further, my constant tendency to turn round on myself, to try to understand and analyze everything, was likewise a touchstone of our self-analytic age. I would become the celebrated case of the age of analysis! (At one point it occurred to me that ending up in a mental hospital would not be a catastrophe: it would mean a loss of ego in the sense that all my cherished vocational and family ideals would be jettisoned. This forced self-negation might lead toward enlightenment!)
    All things were turned to the service of the psychosis. One of these was my knowledge of psychiatry. When I began to feel intense anxiety, I immediately asked what it meant. Naturally it signaled a serious mental disturbance, an anxiety neurosis, perhaps the beginning of a psychotic episode. From this thought greater anxiety, greater certainty of the seriousness of the panic. "Surely this is psychosis." One writer has called this "meta-crisis," the intensification of psychiatric disturbance which labeling it can create.
    But I knew at all times, so far as I can remember, that my experience was not merely psychiatric. I was dangling over personal abyss and cosmic Abyss. My personal psychological reality and ultimate Reality were not separate. I also sensed that some aspects of reality were coming through louder and clearer than usual; other ranges I wasn't bearing at all. This was a partial, a one-sided encounter. I was also aware that, by retreating to aloneness and thinking about my previous session, I had chosen to be where I was. I could have moved away from these frightening experiences, but I was held and fascinated by them. To have retreated in fear would have led to guilt or anxiety at a later time.
    The "great straddling" is a conflict between the consolations of a psychiatric view and the demands of a religious one. The "comforts" of psychiatry which drew me, partly unconsciously, included more than being relieved of my suffering. A modern psychological view of human experience, pre-eminently Freud's, had provided me with a way of structuring my life. Magic and superstition had been exorcized. I knew the source of whatever strange impulses or dreams came to me. I had some guides for behavior in "good mental health." I at times buttressed my image of myself as a solid, sane and responsible person by contrasting myself with those depressives, psychopaths and schizophrenics whom I saw in my clinical work. I had even been able to reconcile this psychological view with the wider frame of reference of a religious view.
    But though the appeal of psychology and psychiatry had been existential enough, the reconciliation had not. It had been primarily intellectual, of the mind's making. I was discovering how shattering it could be to move experientially from a personal, psychologically oriented frame of reference into a wider, spiritual one. It meant the breaking of old forms and the acceptance of new, less cozy ones. An apparently intellectual puzzle could partially mask the facing of a critical existential threshold, a decisive turning.
    In less anxious moments during the morning-glory afternoon, I struggled with the question, "Is this experience a psychotic delusion or a glimpse of reality?" Sometimes the answer would come, "It is an unanswerable question, the wrong question." Or I would become convinced that the dilemma was a false either-or which I could break out of. But at other times another reply, equally strong in conviction, would emerge: "The question as you experience it admits of no answer; you will die with a question about Reality on your lips. That's terrifying, and that's okay! You will never know Reality finally; the Abyss will always be there; but all is well." At times a deep "cosmic confidence" pervaded my being. I felt liberated and wholly secure. But these moments were overshadowed by the frightening moments.
    As time has passed since this encounter, my understanding of why my question was unanswerable and wrong has shifted. Above all else, I believe that it was wrong because it focused on a choice between psychosis and Reality rather than between clinging and surrender. I could not choose because either alternative—psychiatry or divine obedience—was impossible. But both were impossible for the same reason: I could not let go. A genuine surrender in either context would have sufficed. Even within the psychiatric context, to have relaxed my hold on "sanity" and all the ego rewards it entails might have been temporarily embarrassing, but it would have been enlightening and freeing. It is as if the "great straddling" set my next task before me—which was less making a choice than crossing a threshold. The great Zen master Hakuin writes about the Great Doubt of the Zen disciple:

By pursuing a single koan he comes to a point where his mind is as if dead and his will as if extinguished. This state is like a wide void over a deep chasm and no hold remains for hand or feet. All thoughts vanish and in his bosom burns hot anxiety. But then suddenly it occurs that with the koan both body and mind break. This is the instant when the bands are released over the abyss. In this sudden upsurge it is as if one drinks water and knows for oneself beat and cold. Great joy wells up...*

A similar sequence can be found in the mescaline experience of John Blofeld, a Buddhist scholar. He describes an "appalling mental torment" parallel in intensity to my own. The turning point came when be was able to "cease to cling—to cling to self, loved ones, sanity, madness, life or death." (See Chapter 11 of this book.)
    The agony of my experience seemed centered on the struggle with ego, on ceasing to cling. It is worth speculating on what it is in Western religion and in psychiatry that frames the struggle in these terms. Christianity is person-centered. We are meant, at least in the Protestant tradition, to become strong, independent individuals, to assume responsibility for our every act, to develop our full potential. Psychiatry builds upon the same root assumption: the symptoms and experiences of the sufferer are his and his alone. Although he may be allowed to blame his parents or his environment to some extent, the mentally ill person is nonetheless ostracized and set apart. He has failed to "make something of himself," to be his own man, to achieve full personhood. Man's ultimate aloneness is only the logical conclusion of this peculiarly Western emphasis on the solitary individual. When God is conceived as another person to whom one must surrender, the stress becomes unbearable. That which the culture most carefully nourishes, the individual self, must be abnegated, relinquished. It is not surprising to find that historical-cultural factors play an important role in this brief psychosis.
    But we have still not dealt adequately with the question, "Is this experience a psychotic delusion or a glimpse of reality?" I am convinced that it contained elements of both. The abyss over which I hung so precariously is a part of the Deep of all human life. But we are largely cut off from this Deep. The stress on ego controls, rationality, focusing outwardly rather than inwardly have prevented us from hearing the full range of dissonances and harmonies of human existence. Our present lives are empty, lacking in depth, substance and direction.
    In a difficult, penetrating book, Michael Foucault (Madness and Civilization, Random House, 1965) traces the history of the attitudes of society toward mental illness from the decline of leprosy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to the Freudian revolution of the twentieth. In madness he posits the wisdom of unreason, a wisdom necessary to man's full knowledge of himself. During the Renaissance, writes Foucault, "man communicates with what is deepest in himself, and with what is most solitary. ... The madness of desire, insane murders, the most unreasonable passions—all are wisdom and reason, since they are part of the order of nature." But by the end of the eighteenth century, the "dialogue" had broken down:

... the man of reason delegates the physician to madness, thereby authorizing a relation only through the abstract universality of disease; ... the man of madness communicates with society only by the intermediary of an equally abstract reason which is order, physical and moral constraint, the anonymous pressure of the group, the requirement of conformity ... the constitution of madness as a mental illness... thrusts into oblivion all those stammered, imperfect words without fixed syntax in which the exchange between madness and reason was made. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue of reason about madness, has been established only on the basis of such a silence. (pp. x and xi)

Thus we have come, charges Foucault, to a nothingness of existence more radical than the nothingness of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: "... this nothingness is no longer considered an external final term, both threat and conclusion; it is experienced from within as the continuous and constant form of existence" (p. 16). Or again, our present world is one "without images, without positive character, in a kind of silent transparency which reveals ... a great motionless structure…" (xii).
    Psychedelic drugs are only one of many avenues by which men are seeking to cut beneath the overrationality, overcontrol, non-involvement of today. Experience of the abyss is not simply idiosyncratic. Others know well the chasm that opens between our present ego-restricted lives and the wider seeing which is possible. It must be said again and again that bad trips may ultimately be good ones. "The way up is the way down." Spiritual gains are never made without risk. There will be many casualties. There is risk also in feeling that one's personal experiences might have meaning beyond his own life. Certainly the megalomania of this experience chiseled that danger into my memory. But each of us has some share in shaping the life to come. Deep personal experiences may be significant in shaping the inner landscape of the future. Today that landscape appears dismally flat, largely a featureless plain. But earthquakes are beginning to occur, and where peaks appear there will also be dark valleys, bottomless canyons. All must be described, explored and mapped. The Great Doubt, the Abyss, the Terror of Reality are facts of inner experience whose validity and importance the present age must acknowledge.

    Chapter 5


*Quoted from Orategama, in Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism (New York: Pantheon, 1963), p. 259. (back to text)

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