The Private Sea
4. The sound of one hand clapping
A spark touches off an explosion. But the explosion is not simply
a product or property of the spark. If one opens a window and
looks at the view, one does not equate the view with the window;
one does not suppose that the window caused the view. In
the same sense, LSD has been described as a chemical key which
opens some window in the mind.
Similarly, electric shock may awaken a mental patient to the "reality"
of the common-sense world, but nobody will say that the common-sense
world is a product of the shock. By the same token, it could be
argued that LSD awakens normal men to a still greater realityand
that it does so by means of a chemical shock which liberates the
mind from ingrained thought patterns based on verbal abstractions
and the memory-forethought habit.
Our normal mode of thinking can be described as survival-thinking.
We see a traffic signal, and we think "stop" rather
than "pretty red light." Furthermore, since our mind
is designed to act upon things, we normally limit our perception
to those things we wish to act upon. This is known as attention,
a form of consciousness in which awareness is brought to a sharp
but limited focus; we see what we have to see, and we see it the
way we need to see it. Both abstraction ("stop") and
attention are designed for action, and so we view the world in
terms of our action upon it. Along these same lines, Huxley described
the brain and nervous system as a "reducing valve" which
receives the flood of sensory input and filters out all that which
is not necessary for action, and therefore for survival; were
it not for this, we could not function in the world as we know
it. To function, we must deceive ourselves as to the actual nature
of realitya form of adaptation which LSD researcher Willis
W. Harman has termed cultural hypnosis. "We are all hypnotized
from infancy," wrote Harman, who went on to propose that
this was just another way in which to describe enculturation.
We accept suggestions from the environmentfrom our parents
and societyand these suggestions shape the manner of our perception;
finally, we perceive things in a state of hypnosis: not as they
are, but as we are told to see them. Thus the child first sees
the traffic signal as a pretty red light, which it is; but soon
he learns to see it another wayas an abstractionor else
is run down by a truck. And so it must be.
Genius, however, has been defined as looking at things in just
a slightly different way. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that
genius looks at things more as they actually are: the genius is
not completely hypnotized but only partly so. Reality is still
reality, after all, and it does no harm perhaps to steal an occasional
glance at it, if only to satisfy ourselves that it still exists.
LSD presumably allows us to do this by breaking the trance; it
enables us, in Huxley's term, to become Mind at Large. The reducing
valve is shut down, attention is scattered, and we are back again
in the real worldhappy and helpless. Comparing survival awareness
and psychedelic awareness, Orientalist Alan W. Watts has suggested
the analogy of a spotlight and a floodlight, and the analogy may
be an apt one; it is true that the psychedelic subject often will
focus his attention for long periods upon some object of delighta
flower, perhaps, or a crack in a wallbut as Watts put it, this
is an unprogrammed mode of attention in which one looks at
things rather than for things: the world is not chopped
into pieces for purposes of action or cause-and-effect analysis.
In any case, LSD from this point of view is simply a trance-breaking
snap of the fingersand the same applies to any chemical agent
which might be involved in ordinary religious experience. The
chemical does not determine the experience, it merely permits
it. In this connection, we may read a certain significance into
one of the LSD cultist's familiar expressions, "turned on."
We turn on a radio and hear an orchestra playing Vienna Bonbons,
and of course the music was there in the room all the time, and
the music would be there even if the radio were not; the radio
simply allows us to hear the music. The comparison is all the
more valid if, as indicated earlier, LSD in fact does quit the
brain after triggering its chain of metabolic processes, and it
may be significant in this connection that some cultists say they
have learned to turn on without drugs. And finally there is an
interesting piece of evidence that has come to us all the way
To produce the sudden insight called satori, many Zen Buddhists
in Japan contemplate a "mind-murdering" form of riddle
called the koan. (What is the sound of one hand clapping?
What was your original face before you were born?) These riddles
of course defy logic, and that is just what they are supposed
to do; they are designed to break down the rational intellect,
just as LSD does, and thus provide the student with a new viewpoint.
If asked to explain ultimate reality, a Zen master might kick
a ballor slap his pupil in the face. And the idea is that ultimate
reality has nothing to do with words or logic: it is raw existence
in the here and now. Satori is in fact remarkably similar
to psychedelic experience, if not indeed identical, and it is
produced by a form of shock which is neither chemical nor electrical
but intellectualor at least mental.
Still, the non-physical explanations of psychedelic experience
raise many questions. If psychedelics simply awaken a subject
to reality, why does the subject invariably return to his trance-state
after a predictable interval? Why will another chemical terminate
an experience? And what of psychosomatic medicine? Doesn't it
suggest the possibility at least that Zen Buddhists and self-starting
cultists have developed a capacity to influence their metabolism:
that they somehow initiate a biochemical reaction which in turn
initiates their experience? The issue of chemistry cannot be avoided,
it seems; psychedelic cultists and religionists alike should be
prepared to face squarely the possibility or even probability
that their metaphysical systems are in fact inexorably linked
This is not a new question; it is one of those very old questions
we referred to earlier. And it revolves around the musty dispute
between the materialists, who say that the soul or psyche is just
an aspect or property of the material body, nothing more, and
the dualistic idealists, who make a clear distinction between
spirit on the one hand and matter on the other. According to the
idealists, the soul merely inhabits the body, and it survives
the body after death.
William James met the problem head on more than six decades ago
in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He wrote sardonically:
"Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his
vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital
cortex, he being an epileptic."
James himself had participated in experiments with nitrous oxide
(laughing gas). This turn-of-the-century psychedelic produced
what James referred to as the anesthetic revelation, and far from
convincing him that religion was mere chemistry, it indicated
to James that there were unfathomed realms of consciousness which
"forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality."
James scoffed at "superficial medical talk" about hypnoid
states, and he asserted that medical materialism was "altogether
illogical and inconsistent."
If all states of mind are caused by some organic condition,
then one "could as easily argue that the liver determines
the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those
of the Methodist."
The sturdy atheist has yet to answer that, but what about the
Methodist? With its obvious capacity to alter states of consciousness,
LSD might appear to make hash of dualistic idealism. Even if it
does, however, materialism is by no means the only option that
remains. An alternative can be found within orthodox tradition,
and this is the alternative offered by Thomas Aquinas. One hesitates
to speak for a saint, but it does seem entirely likely that Saint
Thomas would have no trouble reconciling religious conviction
with LSD or the adrenochrome-adrenolutin hypothesis.
Dualistic idealism derives from Plato and has been passed on to
us by Saint Augustine and Descartes, among others. But Thomistic
philosophy rejects it and proposes instead the unitary idealism
of Aristotle. This affirms the reality of both the spiritual and
the material, but it does not insist that they be viewed antagonisticallyor
indeed as separate entities. One might as easily distinguish the
warmth of the sun from the sun. Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto
in E Minor is no less beautiful because it issues from catgut
and horsehair. One does not say, "It's merely catgut"
or "It's simply horsehair." Nor does one listen to Fischer-Dieskau
singing Schubert and say, "It's nothing more than epiglottis,
after all." In the same sense, the human personality implied
for Saint Thomas a combination of mind and matter, body and soul.
He acknowledged a physiological factor in dreams, moods, insanity.
He did believe that a certain spiritual element survives after
bodily death; but he considered this soul without its body an
insignificant phantom, and he held that human personality, as
opposed to this phantom, is an indivisible union of spirit and
matter. This view has serious implications for personal immortality,
as we shall see later. But it also provides a framework for a
religious interpretation of psychedelic phenomena.
The supposed necessity for religion to insist upon a soul-body
dichotomy traces back to that original sin of the I-It mind, dualism.
And it also reflects a primitive line of reasoning which Sir James
Frazer described in The Golden Bough: "As the savage commonly
explains the processes of inanimate nature by supposing that they
are produced by living beings working in or behind the phenomena,
so he explains the phenomena of life itself. If an animal lives
and moves, it can only be, he thinks, because there is a little
animal inside which moves it: if a man lives and moves, it can
only be because he has a little man or animal inside who moves
him. The animal inside the animal, the man inside the man, is
Thus the Huron Indians supposed the soul had a head and body,
arms and legs; for the Nootka the soul was a little fellow who
stood erect inside the head, and whenever he fell over, you lost
your senses; for many primitives the soul was a manikin exactly
resembling its possessor, and it was proper to speak of fat souls
and thin souls, or long souls and short souls. The soul could
escape through the natural openings of the body; the Marquesans
therefore would hold the mouth and nose of a dying person, and
the Wakelbura of Australia would stick hot coals in the ears of
a corpse to allow themselves a running start before the dead man's
ghost took after them. The soul also could escape in sleep and
wander about, so the children of Transylvania were instructed
to sleep with their mouths shut, and it was bad form to awaken
anybody suddenlyor worse yet, to move the body of a sleeper.
In Bombay it was tantamount to murder to alter the appearance
of a sleeper, painting a man's face perhaps or adding mustaches
to a slumbering woman. Such notions may well amuse us, but one
might ask how they differ in essence from the basic assumption
of dualistic idealism. That assumption has always been difficult
to defend, and there is perhaps no compelling reason for us to
defend it. The proposition that spirit is a property of
matter has assumed importance only because the dualists have been
so outspoken in their insistence that spirit is not a property
of matter. Once you grant the former proposition, it loses all
its force as an anti-religious argument. That chorus of "merely"
and "simply" and "nothing more than" becomes
about as meaningful as the "nevermore" which Poe's raven
was trained to repeat. We do not even know, really, what matter
actually is, and as far as Thomism is concerned, for example,
LSD apparently does nothing to destroy the religious premiseas
James defined it. If anything, it strengthens the premise. From
this point of view, it matters not that mystical experience has
a chemical aspect. To say that it is physical as well as psychical
is to say nothing at all. "Of course it is," Saint Thomas
might well reply. "And what of that?"
In fact, some theologians and scientists alike regard LSD as a
kind of telescope with which to scan the deep-space regions of
the spirit: a discovery which will enable man to gain a far greater
understanding of his religious instinct. Now mysticism can be
produced in the laboratory. It can be analyzed under experimental
conditions with proper controls. And some have predicted this
could lead to an eventual reconciliation of science and religion:
to a science of religions if not a scientific religion or indeed
a religious science.
That could be a bit optimistic, and it might appear to patronize
religion. Considering their contrary viewpoints, it might be asked
whether the rational is suited to study the instinctive any more
than the instinctive is suited to study the rational. But perhaps
there is some hope for an accommodation. As religions professor
G. Ray Jordan, Jr., put it, there is a chance at least that intensive
research with LSD "might do much to provide empirical proof
of a primary beingness in some sense conscious which is the mystical
or intuitive base and perhaps goal of man's religious aspirations
and behavior." That goes directly to the heart of the matter:
the possibility that there is such a thing as absolute Being (not
to be confused, by the way, with a Being) and that this gives
life its direction and purpose. Absolute Being in this sense means
an ultimate nature, either realized or potentialas an oak tree
has the ultimate nature of an oak tree (realized), and an acorn
has the ultimate nature of an oak tree (potential). If it could
be demonstrated that absolute Being exists in the universe, this
would of course knock the existentialist props from Sartre's basic
proposition. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Sartre
once participated in a mescaline experiment under psychiatric
supervision, and he did not like it at all, as Masters and Houston
report the incident in their excellent study, The Varieties
of Psychedelic Experience. When Simone de Beauvoir telephoned
the hospital to ask how he was doing, Sartre told her unhappily
he was fighting a losing battle with a devilfish. )
As for the common future of science and religion, there is another
possibility, and it was suggested long ago in The Golden Bough.
Sir James considered science a natural outgrowth of religion,
and in fact he traced a line of development from magic to religion
to science. As Sir James saw it, magic was actually a primitive
form of science; it was based on the assumption that there were
immutable laws to the universe and that man could control them.
Thus magicians fearlessly ordered the gods about, threatening
to kill them or bash their heads if they did not obey. But there
was a fatal flaw to magic, and this lay "not in its general
assumption of a sequence of events, determined by law, but in
its total misconception of the nature of the particular laws."
In the course of time the wiser magicians realized their spells
were not working, and they concluded the gods must be running
the show after all. Thus the Age of Magic became the Age of Religion;
the magicians became priests, and they prayed to the gods they
had sought to command. The point is that magic preceded religion
"and that man essayed to bend nature to his wishes by the
sheer force of spells and enchantments before he strove to coax
and mollify a coy, capricious, or irascible deity by the soft
insinuation of prayer and sacrifice." But then man discovered
new laws, and these truly seemed to work; the priests became proud
magicians again, and the Age of Religion became the Age of Science.
Sir James thought this was well and good, as it should be. But
"Yet the history of thought should warn us against concluding
that because the scientific theory of the world is the best that
has yet been formulated, it is necessarily complete and final....
In the last analysis magic, religion, and science are nothing
but theories of thought; and as science has supplanted its predecessors,
so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect
hypothesis, perhaps by some totally different way of looking at
the phenomena . . . of which we in this generation can form no
Today's magicians have found perhaps that their spells do not
work quite as they had hoped. Members of the drug movement in
turn may find Sir James's words prophetic, suggesting that psychedelic
insight can supersede both science and religion as we presently
understand them. Certainly the cultists imagine that they have
just the thing Sir James indicated might be necessary: a totally
different way of looking at phenomena.
Curiously perhaps, scientists have seemed somewhat more receptive
to the idea than have religionists. Among the latter, there are
those who deny that psychedelics offer any insight into the actual
nature of deity or cosmos.
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