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The Ecstatic Adventure

  Reports of Chemical Explorations of the Inner World

    Chapter 5 — Empirical Metaphysics


DURING 1961 A series of monthly meetings was initiated at Harvard University in which ministers, theologians and psychologists from the psilocybin project discussed the religious significance of psychedelic drug experiences. Three lines of evidence indicated that religious concepts and symbols might prove to express the elusive quality of psychedelic drug experiences more satisfactorily than the stilted language of academic psychology. One was the undoubted historical fact of the widespread use of visionary plants in religious contexts. Another was the authoritative weight of the opinions of eminent students of mysticism such as William James, Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Robert Graves, Gordon Wasson, Alan Watts, and most recently, Professor Walter T. Stace of Princeton, who, when asked whether the drug experience is similar to the mystical experience, answered, "It's not a question of being similar to mystical experience; it is mystical experience." The third line of evidence, the most convincing, came from naturalistic (i.e. non-psychiatric, non-laboratory) studies of the effects of psychedelics. As Professor Huston Smith summarized them, in an article entitled "Do Drugs Have Religious Import?" in Journal of Philosophy (1964): "The way the statistics are currently running, it looks as if from one-fourth to one-third of the general population will have religious experiences if they take the drug under naturalistic conditions.... Among subjects who have strong religious inclinations to begin with, the proportion of those having religious experiences jumps to three-fourths. If they take the drugs in settings that are religious too, the ratio soars to nine out of ten."
    The last of these figures comes from the by now wellknown study carried out by Walter Pahnke, the "Miracle of Marsh Chapel," in which ten theology students were given psilocybin in a chapel during a Good Friday service and their reports compared in strictly controlled, "double-blind" fashion with those of ten control subjects who received a placebo. The statistical significance tests showed that "those subjects who received psilocybin experienced phenomena which were indistinguishable from, if not identical with... the categories defined by our typology of mysticism."
    Referring to R. C. Zaehner's critique of Huxley, Huston Smith, in the article referred to above, pointed out that "seen in perspective, Zaehner's refusal to admit that drugs can induce experiences descriptively indistinguishable from those which are spontaneously religious is the current counterpart of the seventeenth-century theologians' refusal to look through Galileo's telescope.... When the fact that drugs can trigger religious experiences becomes incontrovertible, discussion will move to the more difficult question of how this new fact is to be interpreted."
    While these debates over whether drug experiences are religious or not may seem academic to the layman—especially the psychedelically sophisticated layman who is well aware that the experience is one thing and the religious (or other) interpretation is another—yet they have a rather profound relevance to the whole future of the psychedelic movement in this country and in the world. For it is on the religious basis that psychedelics will win general social acceptability or not at all. At the time of the Harvard research, perceptive ministers were already looking for ways to safely and effectively "turn on" their whole congregation, realizing the profound possibilities that these experiences held for the growth of a genuine "fellowship" of communicants. An English psychiatrist has given LSD to several Church of England bishops. The one group in this country which now is able to use psychedelics legally in a non-medical context is the Native American Church. By 1967 three other churches had sprung up which incorporate the psychedelic sacraments into their charter. We may expect to see literally dozens of such "ad hoc churches" formed within the next ten years.
    "Dance-concerts" at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco have more of the atmosphere of a Baptist revival meeting than of a dance or discotheque. For those who have eyes to see, a spiritual revival is taking place in the United States today. Timothy Leary is appealing a conviction for possession of marihuana on the First Amendment's protection of religious belief and worship, a proposition the Supreme Court will undoubtedly find awkward to deal with.
    For these reasons the debates of the religious professionals will continue to play a major part in shaping the social form and structure of psychedelic pursuits in the future. Huston Smith, Professor of Philosophy at MIT, the first humanities professor at that august citadel of science, is supremely qualified for an authoritative opinion on the subject. Born in China of missionary parents, he has spent many years of his life in firsthand study of major world religions, living in Israeli kibbutzim, Indian ashrams, a Burmese meditation center and Zen monasteries in Japan. He is the author of The Purposes of Higher Education (1955), the highly regarded The Religions of Man (1958), The Search for America (1959) and Condemned to Meaning (1965).
    I remember from the Harvard meetings his tall, kindly presence, his wide erudition and his lucid, articulate speech.

NEW YEAR's DAY, 1961. Eleanor and I reached the home of Dr. Timothy Leary in Newton about 12:30 P.M. Present in addition to Tim were Dr. George Alexander, psychiatrist, and Frank Barron, research psychologist.
    After coffee and pleasantries, Tim sprinkled some capsules of mescaline onto the coffee table. One, he said, was a mild dose, two an average dose, three a large dose. I took two; Eleanor, more venturesome, took three.
    After what I estimate to have been about an hour I noticed mounting tension that turned into tremors in my legs. I went into the large living room and lay down on the 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—the transition was imperceptible. From here on time becomes irrelevant. With great effort I might be able to reconstruct the order in which the following thought-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. One, the mescaline acted as a psychological prism. It was as though the infinitely complex and layered psychological ingredients which normally smelt down into a single band of weak, nondescript sensation-impressions were now being refracted; spread out as if by spectroscope into about five layers. And the odd thing is that I was to some degree aware of them all simultaneously and could move back and forth among them at will, shifting my central attention to the one I chose. Thus I could bear distinctly the quiet conversation of Tim and George Alexander in the adjoining study and follow their discussion coherently, even participate in it in imagination. 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 number 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 and infinite light of God or the void, the light then breaks into forms and decreases in intensity as it diffuses through descending degrees of reality. My friends in the study were functioning in an intelligible wave band, but one which was far more restricted, cramped and wooden than the bands I was now privileged to experience. Bergson's notion of the brain as a reducing valve seemed accurate.
    Along with "psychological prism," another phrase came to me: "empirical metaphysics." The emanation theory and elaborately delineated layers of Indian cosmology and psychology had hitherto been concepts and inferences. Now they were objects of direct, immediate perception. I saw that theories such as these were required by the experience I was having. I found myself amused, thinking how duped historians of philosophy had been in crediting those who formulated such world views with being speculative geniuses. Had they had experiences such as mine 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 normal experience was flickering shadows on the wall.
    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 instantaneous and eternal—how could such things be put into words? I realized how utterly impossible it would be for me to describe them on the morrow or even right then to Tim or Eleanor. There came the clearest realization I have had as to what literary genius consists of: a near-magical use of words to bridge as far as possible the gulf between the normal state of existence and the world I was then in.
    It should not be taken from what I have written that the experience was pleasurable. The accurate words are significance and terror—or awe, in Rudolf Otto's understanding of a peculiar blend of fear and fascination. The experience was positive in that it unfolded range upon range of reality I hadn't known existed. 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 as if half-dead on a slab, cool and slightly moist. But I also had the sense that the body could function only if my spirit chose to return to it, infuse it and animate it. Should it choose to return? There seemed to be no clear reason to do so. Moreover, could it return if it chose? Can man see God and live, or is the vision too much for the body to stand—like plugging a toaster into a trunk 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 chance forcing this intensity of experience into active engagement with my body. It might shatter it.
    Later, after the peak had passed and I had walked a few steps, I said to Tim, "I trust you know what you are playing around with here. I realize I'm still under the influence and that things probably look different from your perspective, but it looks to me like you are 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 that never were on land or sea, and space—not 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: what this experience implied for the understanding of life and reality. So I regarded the visual as largely intrusion and distraction and tended to keep my eyes closed. Only twice did physical forms engross me fully. Once was when George induced me to look at the pattern a lampshade was throwing on a taupe rug. This was extraordinary; the shapes stood out like blocks in exaggerated 3-D effect. They twisted, turned and undulated like serpents. The other time was involuntary, when the Christmas tree, its lights turned off, 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 someone had retrimmed the tree, increasing its tinsel tenfold. Where before there was tree with decorations, now there were decorations with a figment of 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.

    Chapter 6

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