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The Ecstatic Adventure

  Reports of Chemical Explorations of the Inner World

    Chapter 8 — Uncontainable Joy


MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES ARE usually held to be indescribable. Yet when the writings of mystics are analyzed, it is possible to derive a set of categories which distinguish this type of experience from other human experiences. Such an analysis of the literature of spontaneously occurring mystical states was carried out by Walter Pahnke in connection with the "Good Friday" study at Harvard University.* The analysis, which was based on previous descriptions by scholars such as William James and Walter T. Stace, yielded a set of nine categories characteristic of mystical experiences. These categories are purely phenomenological, i.e. no attempt is made to account for them in terms of psychological or theological doctrine. We may illustrate them by quotations from the following account of an experience with a psilocybin derivative, undergone by a young theology student in a large European psychiatric clinic.
    (1) An experience of undifferentiated unity is perhaps the central feature of this type of experience. "I, John Robertson, ceased to exist, becoming immersed in the ground of Being … or in ... oneness … there was no duality between myself and what I experienced." If awareness of some external sensory event is still present in consciousness, one feels united with those external sense impressions. " … I was not ... listening to a recording, but ... was the music itself."
    (2) A feeling of intuitive certainty or objectivity, what James called the "noetic quality," is another hallmark of this type of experience. The perceptions seem more real than in the ordinary state. "I transcended my usual level of consciousness and became aware of fantastic dimensions of being, all of which possessed a profound sense of reality." Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing vague or "misty" about mystical experience.
    (3) Transcendence of space and time. The basic structure of experience is given by our sense of space and the passage of time. Both are profoundly altered in spontaneous or psychedelic mystical states. "I felt as though I was beyond seconds, minutes and hours and also beyond past, present and future…. Space was perceived in a totally new and most intriguing perspective." In recent experiments at Princeton, Dr. Bernard Aaronson has shown that a kind of psychedelic experience can be induced without drugs by hypnotically altering the perception of space or time. Future research may show that the difference between "levels" of consciousness is primarily a function of time-binding, that is, of the way sensory events are ordered. The time of dreams is different from the time of waking; the time of mystical or psychedelic states is different again.
    (4) Feelings of awe, reverence or sacredness, what Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum, are basic in this kind of experience. They are the natural emotional response to the realization of the overwhelming power and radiance of the universal energy process in comparison to the petty insignificance of man's ego-centered aims. This and the following category,
    (5) Feelings of joy, peace, love, blessedness, are amply illustrated in John Robertson's report. Reading such reports one can become almost surfeited with superlatives—such high-intensity emotion is far removed from everyday experience. The writer is frustrated by the limitations of typographical communication, which does not allow variations in intensity of expression the way the spoken voice does, with its modulations of tone and dynamics.
    (6) The feeling of paradoxicality often reported in these experiences, where a person "sees," but there are no visual images, is "dead," yet can think and answer questions, can be traced, I believe, to the domination of Aristotelian logic in Western thought. For us, a proposition is either true or false, a or not-a, God exists or does not exist, and countless gallons of ink and blood have been shed in disputes stemming from this kind of rigid either-or logic. Indian and Chinese thought, as well as mystical and psychedelic experiences, lead one to a logic of levels, rather than of propositions. The Hindu sees no incompatibility between recognizing that at the highest level only Brahman, the undifferentiated energy process, is real, and yet, at another level, worshipping Siva or Krishna with genuine devotion. The peaceful and wrathful deities of the Tibetan Book of the Dead are on one level illusory projections of one's own thought forms, and yet at another level they are "real"; they produce "real" emotions, which in turn affect thinking and behavior. As C. G. Jung pointed out in his introduction to that book, its background is not the niggardly European "either-or," but a magnificently affirmative "both-and."
    The remaining three categories of the mystical experience, (7) alleged ineffability, (8) transience and (9) positive changes in attitude and behavior, are clearly documented in the theologist's report, as are the usual sensory and aesthetic amplifications, and recovery of childhood memories.

I HESITATE To attempt a summary of my fifth drug experience, as I am acutely aware of the inability of linguistic symbols to contain, or even accurately reflect, the dynamics of "mystic" consciousness. In the words of the Russian poet Tyutchev, I feel as though "a thought that's spoken is a lie." To seek to condense any of my experiences into words is to distort them, rendering them finite and impure. In so acknowledging the profound ineffability of my experience, I am not trying to write poetry—although in the final analysis this may well be the only possible means of verbal expression—but intend only to convey the feelings of frustration and futility with which I begin this report.
    Now, four days after the experience itself, I continue to feel a deep sense of awe and reverence, and am simultaneously intoxicated with an ecstatic joy. This euphoric feeling is in no sense analogous to hebephrenic giddiness; it includes elements of profound peace and steadfastness, surging like a spring from a depth of my being which has rarely, if ever, been tapped prior to the drug experience. The spasmodic nature of my prayer life has ceased and I have yielded to a need to spend time each day in meditation which, though essentially open and wordless, is impregnated by feelings of thanksgiving and trust. This increased need to be alone is balanced by what I believe to be a greater sensitivity to the authentic problems of others and a corresponding willingness to enter freely into genuine friendships.
    I possess a renewed and increased sense of personal integration and am more content simply to "be myself" than previously. I feel a healthy independence of social pressures, coupled with a heightened sense of maturity and vocational dedication. Incidentally, a small nervous tic which on occasion has appeared between the thumb and first finger of my left hand during the past few months has not been evident since the drug experience.
    What happened in the drug state to have elicited such positive developments in my life? While the biochemical processes remain an intriguing mystery to me, I will attempt to express the subjective, existential memories which linger in my consciousness.
    In a poetic sense, I have always accepted Karl Jaspers' assertion that "Der Mensch ist grundsätzlich mehr als er von sich wissen kann:" ("Man is fundamentally more than he can know of himself"), but now, having actually experienced dimensions of being usually inaccessible to consciousness, I know these words to be factually true. Relatively soon after receiving the drug, I transcended my usual level of consciousness and became aware of fantastic dimensions of being, all of which possessed a profound sense of reality. I seemed to "see" these dimensions, yet have no memory of visual images, other than occasional abstract, colored lines. It would seem more accurate to say that I existed "in" these dimensions of being, as I had transcended not only my ego, but also the dichotomy between subject and object.
    It is meaningful to say that I, John Robertson, ceased to exist, becoming immersed in the ground of Being, in Brahman, in God, in "nothingness," in Ultimate Reality, or in some similar religious symbol for oneness. Yet if someone had asked me my name, or a question about the morning's lecture, what I ate for lunch or the books I am reading at present, I feel I could have "looked back on my ego" and given a correct answer. I remember thinking of the routine world of everyday life at one point and noting how strangely distant and unreal it appeared from my transcendent perspective.
    The feelings I experienced could best be described as cosmic tenderness, infinite love, penetrating peace, eternal blessing and unconditional acceptance on one band, and on the other, as unspeakable awe, overflowing joy, primeval humility, inexpressible gratitude and boundless devotion. Yet all of these words are hopelessly inadequate and can do little more than meekly point toward the genuine, inexpressible feelings actually experienced.
    It is misleading even to use the words "I experienced," as during the peak of the experience (which must have lasted at least an hour) there was no duality between myself and what I experienced. Rather, I was these feelings, or ceased to be in them and felt no loss at the cessation. This was especially evident when, after having reached the mystic peak, a recording of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor was played. It seemed as though I was not my usual self listening to a recording, but that I was the music itself. Especially at one climax in the Fantasia, love became so overwhelming as to become unbearable or even painful. I shed tears at this moment, not of fear, but of uncontainable joy.
    My attitude from the start of the experiment was one of openness and trust. Religiously speaking, it was not belief in any dogma, but simply belief itself—what Paul Tillich has named "the courage to be." Instead of trying to protect my ego, I "lost" it willingly. This transcendence of my ego may be partly responsible for the apparent decrease in my use of "normal" ego-defense mechanisms and also for the apparent absence of the fear of death. The decrease in dependence on ego-defense mechanisms is evident in my increased feelings of humility and my willingness to accept myself more fully, as well as in the phenomenon of an apparently repressed childhood sexual act which appeared in a dream during the second night following the experiment. Regarding death, although I now think some form of immortality through energy transformation is more probable than ever before, the question of immortality in general has ceased to be existentially important to me. I know that Being is eternal, whether I exist or not. I have no fear of losing my ego.
    Perhaps my attitude toward death is also influenced by my awareness of the relativity of time and space. During the height of the experience, I had no consciousness of time in the everyday sense of the word. I felt as though I was beyond seconds, minutes and hours and also beyond past, present and future. In religious language, I was in eternity.
    Space was perceived in a totally new and most intriguing perspective. Depth perception, for example, was increased far beyond normal standards—or so it appeared, at any rate. Similarly, the distance between myself and other objects seemed to vary. It seemed as though I could enter the picture on the wall, as though I could somehow reach behind objects which were out of my reach, and could see objects in the room from perspectives which were normally impossible. Much if not all of this change in spatial perspective was probably illusory. However, I feel it is possible that certain parapsychological phenomena may have been involved as well.
    Regardless of the interpretation of my altered perception of space and time, I seemed aware of the ultimate unreality of both of these dimensions. I was sensitive to other dimensions of being and felt a very definite sense of dullness when I finally returned to the world of space and time. The doorway leading to these greater dimensions seemed to close, and I was left in an illusory world.
    My kinesthetic receptors were affected during the experience and I "felt my body" in a completely new way. The "inside of my arm," for example, felt indescribably different, as though my muscles had dissolved and only my circulatory and nervous systems remained, wrapped around my bones. At one point I had to look down to see whether I was standing, sitting or lying on the bed. My cutaneous receptors, at least those sensitive to pressure, were also affected. Objects, even my left hand when clutched by my right hand, felt utterly strange in comparison with usual cutaneous reception.
    When my blood pressure was taken at one point, I felt momentary pain, especially when the air was released. Somehow it seemed as though certain cells in my blood had become conscious, or as though "I" was flowing through my veins and arteries.
    My sensitivity to beauty was significantly increased and I perceived aesthetic qualities in most all of the objects that surrounded me, even in the walls of the room itself. Colors seemed deeper and richer, and a soft, natural light seemed to reflect from all things. Besides seeing objects in greater visual depth, I also saw them with greater clarity, as though a great lens had brought everything into sharper focus for me. However, I saw nothing unusual when I gazed out of the window into the courtyard below and saw nothing like "auras" or unnatural light in the room. When asked about light, I commented that "light means something different."
    During the experience I felt an increased need for genuine human friendship and wished I could share my experience with those who were observing me, believing that in their brains similar if not identical, experiences were lying dormant. The mystic oneness I experienced seemed to demand a corresponding oneness in human relationships.
    As a whole, this experience stands out as being much more powerful, intense and meaningful than any of the previous four. It is true that I experienced this mystic oneness during the first experiment, but only briefly compared with the extended state of transcendent consciousness in this recent experiment. The second, third and fourth experiments approached this dimension, but never quite "broke through" the realm of the ego into the transcendent dimensions of being. Ego consciousness may have been somewhat altered, but not really transcended.
    In conclusion, let me affirm that even with my acquaintance with mystic literature of both East and West, coupled with the profound appreciation of natural and artistic beauty I have always enjoyed, I know I could never have understood this experience had I not lived it myself. The dimensions of being I entered surpassed the wildest fantasies of my imagination and leave me with a profound sense of awe. On the basis of my experience, I consider it probable that we stand on the threshold of significant advances in both the natural and the social sciences. I feel we must advance critically and cautiously, but nevertheless we must advance.
    What is a "transcendent dimension of being"? Such words on paper are little more than metaphysical poetry. Somehow I feel I could better communicate my experience by composing a symphony or by molding a twisted piece of contemporary sculpture, had I the urge to formulate philosophical or theological dogmas about my experience. Only my silence can retain its purity and genuineness.

    Chapter 9


*Walter N. Pahnke and William A. Richards, "Implications of LSD and Experimental Mysticism," Journal of Religion and Health, July 1966. (back to text)

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