LSD and Religious Experience
Walter N. Pahnke
A paper presented to a public symposium at Wesleyan University, March 1967.
From LSD, Man & Society Richard C. DeBold and Russell C. Leaf, editors
©Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 1967
See also the Discussion which followed the presentation of Dr. Pahnke's paper.
THE relationship between LSD and religious experience is an issue
that is quite complex and needs careful analysis to avoid a loose
and uncritical association. It would be misleading to assume that
the experiences are automatically identical.
LSD-type drugs have been called by many names. In the early 1950's
the term psychotomimetic, i.e., psychosis-mimicking,
was generally used; but this rather negatively loaded term was
seen by some as being too narrow and limiting to accommodate the
wide range of experiences being reported and observed. In 1957
Dr. Humphry Osmond (Osmond, 1957) proposed the term psychedelic,
i.e., mind-opening or mind-manifesting, to encompass the full
range of positive and negative experiences that he had seen in
his work with such drugs. Psychedelic will be the term used in
this paper to refer to the unique class of LSD-type drugs.
In this discussion a survey will first be made of the various
kinds of psychedelic experiences with an especial examination
of the mystical type, and possible reasons for this variety will
be mentioned. Then we shall look at some of the evidence that
psychedelic mystical experiences occur at all and discuss whether
or not they can be considered "religious." The LSD churches
that have grown out of the evangelistic enthusiasm associated
with LSD will also be examined along with their possible impact
on individuals and society. Finally, the future prospects for
the investigation and use of psychedelic drugs will be discussed.
Psychedelic experiences can be divided into five types: psychotic,
psychodynamic, cognitive, aesthetic and psychedelic peak or mystical.
These have been described elsewhere (Pahnke and Richards, 1966),
and a brief description of each will suffice.
The psychotic experience is described as very intense,
negative, dysphoric and hellish by those who have been through
it. Characteristic elements include fear to the point of panic,
paranoid distrust, delusions of suspicion or grandeur, toxic confusion,
impairment of abstract reasoning, remorse, depression, isolation
and/ or somatic discomfort, all of which can be of monumental
proportions. These words can perhaps be better illuminated by
the following description written by a well-prepared subject who
took LSD under medical supervision:
Time itself seemed to have frozen. I was sick way down inside.
I had lost trust in the doctor and the judgment of part of my
own mind. The terrible thing was that I was going insane and the
normal part of my mind knew this was taking place. I was two people
in the same body. The one with the insane mind was pulling the
one with the sane mind over on his side. I think I was 95% insane.
Then things became even more confused and frightening. It seemed
as if I had three minds, two that were insane and one perfectly
normal. In other words, I was having the experience of having
a front row seat watching myself who was insane.
Faces now looked distorted, eyes were of a cruel expression, and
they seemed to have the power of looking through me and my very
thoughts. The least amount of noise sounded one hundred times
louder. Everything I heard was driving me into a living hell.
The doctor looked like the devil to me. He had tricked me.
I didn't think either of us was sane now. As a matter of fact,
I thought everyone was inhuman, and I would go through life in
this situation and this would go on forever. There never even
existed something as wonderful as death that could get mebody
and mindout of this horrible, unnatural life (Unger, 1964).
This account illustrates especially well the feeling of many people
at some time during an LSD session that something has gone wrong
and that they never will be the same again. Such feelings only
increase the panic and hopelessness. Adequate preparation and
skilled handling, however, do make a crucial difference in the
outcome of most cases. In this particular instance, the patient
was guided through an extremely frightening and unpleasant part
of his experience to a very positive and helpful climax. Unfortunately,
such a happy ending is quite uncertain in uncontrolled settings.
The second type of experience is the psychodynamic, in
which material that had previously been unconscious or preconscious
becomes vividly conscious. We see abreaction and catharsis in
the reliving of traumatic incidents from the past or in the experiencing
of symbolic material. The use of LSD in Europe employs what has
been termed the psycholytic method, which emphasizes the uncovering
of psychodynamic material. Suggestion certainly plays a role,
because the patients of Freudian therapists produce incidents
from the stages of psychosexual development, whereas archetypal
symbols are often encountered by patients of Jungian therapists.
Essential to this method, however, is the support and guidance
of a skilled therapist, both while the patient is having the experience
and while he is between drug sessions. A detailed description
of the psycholytic method has now been published in the papers
presented at an international LSD conference in 1965 (Abramson,
The third type of experience, the cognitive, is characterized
by astonishingly lucid thought. The mind seems subjectively to
be able to view things from a new perspective and to see the interrelationships
of many levels or dimensions all at once. Such experiences usually
occur when the drug effects are waning. The very existence of
such states of mind led people to speculate that creativity research
might be aided with psychedelic drugs. Harman and his co-workers
(Harman, McKim, Mogar, Fadiman and Stolaroff, 1966) have already
published a pilot study in which twenty-seven professionally employed
males underwent a single moderate-dose psychedelic session in
a small group setting. Each subject had a particular problem on
which he could not obtain closure and hoped to gain some new perspective
through the psychedelic experience. The setting was structured
so that expectation was maximized, and the sessions were run with
a minimum of interruption. The results in terms of problems actually
solved were promising (9 out of 44 attempted problems yielded
practical solutions), but not conclusive because of the lack of
a control group. Certainly this is an area that merits further
The fourth type of experience is the aesthetic. Perhaps
the reported increase in all sensory modalities is what attracts
some people to take LSD for "kicks." These reports do
not exaggerate. Fascinating changes in sensation and perception
do occur: synaesthesia in which sounds can be "seen;"
objects such as flowers or stones that appear to pulsate and become
"alive;" ordinary things that seem imbued with great
beauty; music that takes on an incredible emotional power; and
visions of beautiful colors, intricate geometrical patterns, architectural
forms, landscapes or almost anything imaginable.
The fifth type of experience is the focus of interest in this
presentation and has been called by various names: psychedelic
peak, transcendental or mystical. For the sake of this discussion
we shall refer to it as the psychedelic mystical or experimental
mystical experience. Its psychological characteristics have been
described elsewhere (Pahnke, in unpublished thesis) and will be
only briefly summarized here.
These characteristics, nine in number, were derived from a study
of the literature of spontaneous mystical experiences reported
throughout world history from almost all cultures and religions.
In studying accounts of these strange, unusual experiences, an
attempt was made to extract the universal psychological characteristics
as free from interpretation as possible. Scientific evidence indicates
that these universal characteristics derived from spontaneous
mystical experiences also precisely describe experimental psychedelic
ones. The nine characteristics can be listed as follows:
1. Unity is a sense of cosmic oneness achieved through
positive ego-transcendence. Although the usual sense of identity
or ego fades away, consciousness and memory are not lost; instead,
the person becomes very much aware of being part of a dimension
much vaster and greater than himself. In addition to the route
of the "inner world" where all external sense impressions
are left behind, unity can also be experienced through the external
world, so that a person reports that he feels a part of everything
that is (e.g., objects, other people, nature or the universe),
or, more simply, that "all is one."
2. Transcendence of time and space means that the
subject feels beyond past, present and future and beyond ordinary
three-dimensional space in a realm of eternity or infinity.
3. Deeply felt positive mood contains the elements of joy,
blessedness, peace and love to an overwhelming degree of intensity,
often accompanied by tears.
4. Sense of sacredness is a non-rational, intuitive, hushed,
palpitant response of awe and wonder in the presence of inspiring
realities. The main elements are awe, humility and reverence,
but the terms of traditional theology or religion need not necessarily
be used in the description.
5. The noetic quality, as named by William James, is a
feeling of insight or illumination that is felt on an intuitive,
non-rational level and has a tremendous force of certainty and
reality. This knowledge is not an increase in facts, but is a
gain of insight about such things as philosophy of life or sense
6. Paradoxicality refers to the logical contradictions
that become apparent if descriptions are strictly analyzed. A
person may realize that he is experiencing, for example, an "identity
of opposites," yet it seems to make sense at the time, and
7. Alleged ineffability means that the experience is felt
to be beyond words, non-verbal, impossible to describe, yet most
persons who insist on the ineffability do in fact make elaborate
attempts to communicate the experience.
8. Transiency means that the psychedelic peak does not
last in its full intensity, but instead passes into an afterglow
and remains as a memory.
9. Persisting positive changes in attitudes and behavior
are toward self, others, life and the experience itself.
The reasons for the great variety of psychedelic experiences (characterized
here under five headings) have provided a fascinating research
problem and are now generally recognized to be caused by dosage
and the extra-drug variables of set and setting. Of course, most
sessions do not contain just one kind of experience. In fact it
is not uncommon for all five types to be present in a single psychedelic
experience, though in varying proportions.
Dosage appears to be a crucial variable. Each individual has his
own range of tolerance and response to any drug, and no absolute
figures can be quoted. In the low dose range, for most people,
below 200 mcg of LSD, the probability is great for the emergence
of aesthetic, cognitive and psychodynamic experience. At somewhere
between 200 mcg and 400 mcg of LSD, there appears to be a critical
level beyond which psychedelic mystical experience becomes possible,
which can be compared to the minimal amount of thrust needed for
a rocket to launch itself into orbit. Psychotic experiences are
possible at any dosage level, but are much more probable at the
The presence of the drug at a certain dosage is a necessary but
not sufficient condition, because the extra-drug variables of
set and setting play a crucial role in determining the kind of
drug response. Psychological set is here defined as factors within
the subject, such as personality, life history, expectation, preparation,
mood prior to the session and, perhaps most important of all,
the ability to trust, to let go, to be open to whatever comes.
The setting is here defined as factors outside the individual,
such as the physical environment in which the drug is taken, the
psychological and emotional atmosphere to which the subject is
exposed, how he is treated by those around him and what the experimenter
expects the drug reaction to be. A person who has taken a psychedelic
drug seems to be much more sensitive to non-verbal cues, perhaps
because of an increase in suggestibility, but the exact role of
suggestibility is a problem that needs to be further investigated.
It seems clear that the drug is only a trigger, a catalyst or
facilitating agent. The kind of psychedelic reaction is largely
dependent upon extra-drug variables. Also, at the present state
of knowledge, the exact content is impossible to predict with
certainty. Psychotic reactions are the easiest to produce; mystical
experiences are the hardest, certainly not automatic, even under
optimal conditions. Much more needs to be learned.
We turn now to an examination of the evidence that psychedelic
mystical experiences actually occur. Most researchers who have
worked with LSD in either a therapeutic or a supportive setting
have reported the occurrence of mystical experiences in varying
degrees of frequency. Some workers, especially most of the European
psycholytic therapists, have not been very much interested in
such experiences and, in fact, have tried to discourage their
occurrence as an unwanted distraction. The frequency with that
kind of set and setting is much less, but, even so, these experiences
are still reported. As time has gone on, some of the European
psychiatrists who have heard about the work done in Canada and
the United States have become more interested (Arendsen-Hein,
1967; Johnsen, 1967).
Dr. Arnold Ludwig, of the Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin,
has purposely programmed his LSD sessions to focus on psychodynamic
issues and has definitely not encouraged mystical experiences,
as he has informed me personally. Interestingly enough, this kind
of experience has occurred anyway in some patients, who then often
sought out the hospital chaplain for discussions of religious
Houston and Masters (Masters and Houston, 1966) report a series
of 206 subjects with whom they have worked, but of whom little
more than 3% were considered to have had true mystical experiences.
Such figures need to be interpreted cautiously unless a careful
definition with some kind of method for quantifying the experience
A questionnaire has been developed that is based on the nine characteristics
of spontaneous mystical experiences outlined above (Pahnke, in
unpublished thesis). For any subject the percentage of the maximum
possible score for each category can be determined. Varying degrees
of completeness are possible, but to be counted as a mystical
experience it was decided that both the total score and the score
in each separate category must be at least 60% to 70%. This questionnaire
has been used in two studies that I have conducted.
The first was carried out on Good Friday in 1962 to test the hypothesis
that persons who were given psilocybin would have experiences
similar to those reported by spontaneous mystics. Twenty theological
students from relatively similar religious and socio-economic
backgrounds, after medical and psychiatric screening, were carefully
prepared in groups of four with two leaders for each group. All
thirty participants listened over loud-speakers to a meditative
Good Friday service in a private basement chapel while the actual
service was in progress in the church above. The experiment was
so designed that half of the subjects received 30 mg of psilocybin
and the rest, who became the control group, got as an active placebo
200 mg of nicotinic acid, which causes no psychic effects, only
warmth and tingling of the skin. From our preparation all the
subjects knew that psilocybin caused autonomic changes. Those
who got nicotinic acid thought that they had received psilocybin,
and suggestion was thus maximized for the control group. The drugs
were administered double-blind, so that neither the experimenter
nor the participants knew the specific contents of any capsule.
Data were collected by tape recording, written account, the mystical-experience
questionnaire and personal interview. When all the data were analyzed,
the scores of psilocybin subjects were higher to a statistically
significant degree in all categories than those of the control
subjects. In regard to degree of completeness, only three or four
of the ten psilocybin subjects reached the 60% to 70% level of
completeness, whereas none of the control subjects did.
The second series of experiments was performed at the Massachusetts
Mental Health Center during 1965 and 1966, an account of which
is now being prepared. Forty carefully screened normal volunteers
were selected. Most of the subjects were over thirty and held
responsible positions in the community as professional people.
The sensational publicity about LSD in the popular press added
difficulties to our recruitment. We rejected more than 50% of
our volunteers on the basis of medical and psychiatric history,
physical examination, psychological testing and psychiatric interview.
After three hours of preparation, psilocybin was administered
to four subjects at a time in a carefully prepared room with cut
flowers, pictures of nature scenes, candlelight and a place for
each subject to recline and relax. Silence was maintained during
a six-hour program of classical music. The setting was supportive,
and there were no interruptions for testing during the session.
We encouraged the subjects to relax and to let the music carry
them. At the present time, the data are not completely analyzed,
and all that can be reported are some preliminary impressions.
First, the procedure seemed safe for carefully screened normals.
No one suffered physical or psychological harm even after a one
year follow-up. Second, 20% to 40% of the subjects had a mystical
experience, depending on the level of completeness desired. Third,
95% of the subjects said that they would be willing to take the
drug again, perhaps sometime in the future, but not too many were
eager to do so right away. Having had such powerful experiences,
they expressed a desire for time to integrate what had been learned.
In comparison to the 3% of mystical experiences reported by Houston
and Masters, and the 20% to 40% in our two studies, some 75% of
over 100 patients from the alcoholism project at the Spring Grove
State Hospital in Baltimore have had intense mystical experiences
during their first session with LSD. It should be remembered that
of these patients each had between twelve and twenty hours of
individual therapy before his session, which was run individually.
In our sessions we had only three hours of preparations, and the
sessions were run in groups of four. Individual monitoring seems
to help guide someone toward a positive experience. At Spring
Grove everything is done to ensure optimal conditions (Kurland,
Unger, Shaffer and Savage, 1967). An important consideration is
whether or not such mystical experiences are religious. A simple
identification of religious experience with mystical experience
fails to take into account the many definitions of religion. Religions
vary in their emphasis upon mysticism, although there is a tendency
to make the mystical element the most important characteristic
of religion, especially among psychologists of religion who have
been interested in the dramatic phenomena of the mystical experience.
William James reflected this attitude by his preference for religion
that is an "acute fever" rather than a "dull habit."
Not all religious experience is necessarily mystical in the sense
of our definition of mystical experience given below. Pratt, for
example, divides religion into four kinds or aspects, of which
the mystical is only one, the other three being the traditional,
the rational and the practical or moral (Pratt, 1921). Even when
quite emotionally meaningful, participation in a particular religion
by observing religious laws, through intellectual belief in a
certain creed or theology or in institutional membership and attendance
at rites and rituals may not result in or be the product of mystical
On the other hand, all mystical experience is not necessarily
religious. Again much depends upon how one chooses to define religion.
If one makes the concept of a "personal God" central
to the definition of religion, many forms of mystical experience
could not be considered religious. The phenomena of mystical experience
may occur outside the framework of any formal religion with no
reference to an articulated theology.
The problem is by-passed or merely indicated, rather than solved,
by broadening the definition of religion to include any experience
that would qualify as mystical by our criteria. Tillich, for example,
considers an experience religious when it gives ultimate meaning,
structure and direction to human experience, or when one is concerned
"ultimately" (Tillich, 1951). Better, perhaps, is Huston
Smith's definition in an unpublished address. He has defined as
a religious experience one that elicits from the experiencer a
centered response from the core of his being. Since his being
includes feelings, thoughts and will, a religious experience triggers
in the experiencer a triple movementa movement of the emotions
in awe, of the mind in belief and of the will in obedience. Here
we return to the important ninth characteristic of mystical experience.
What changes are there in the person's life? What does he do about
it in terms of some religious discipline? If we accept Smith's
definition of religious experience and compare it with the nine
characteristics, we can perhaps say that such a psychological
definition of mystical experience has at least something religious
about it. Whether or not mystical experience is religious depends
upon one's definition of religion.
Rather than labor the point, the following examples of actual
experimental mystical experiences may help the reader to decide
whether such experiences would fit his personal definition of
religion. The first is the experience of a Christian ministerial
student who took a compound from the psilocybin series in a carefully
controlled experiment that was conducted in a German research
institute under the supervision of an experimenter who was not
particularly interested in mystical experiences.
I hesitate to attempt a summary of my 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 poetryalthough in the
final analysis this may well be the only possible means of verbal
expressionbut 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, being simultaneously intoxicated
with an ecstatic joy. This euphoric feeling... 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.
... 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
... It would seem more accurate to say that I existed 'in' these
dimensions of being as I had not only transcended my ego, but
also the dichotomy between subject and object.
It is meaningful to say that I 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....
The feelings I experienced could best be described as cosmic tenderness,
infinite love, penetrating peace, eternal blessing and unconditional
acceptance on one hand, 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 towards the genuine,
inexpressible feelings actually experienced.
It is misleading even to use the words 'I experienced,' since
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. At this time it seemed as though
I was not M. R. listening to a recording, but paradoxically was
the music itself. Especially at one climax in the Fantasia, the
'love' I was experiencing became so overwhelming as to become
unbearable or even painful. The tears I shed at this moment were
in no sense those of fear, but ones of uncontainable joy.
... During the height of the experience, I had no consciousness
of time or space in the ordinary sense. I felt as though I was
beyond seconds, minutes, hours, and also beyond past, present,
and future. In religious language, I was in 'eternity
... 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, as I have said, leave me with
a profound sense of awe.... In no sense have I an urge to formulate
philosophical or theological dogmas about my experience. Only
my silence can retain its purity and genuineness.
It may be objected that a divinity student would obviously have
such an experience because of his familiarity with mysticism and
religious language. In the Good Friday experiment, however, the
control subjects with the same amount of suggestion did not have
mystical experiences. Also the next several examples were written
by chronic, hospitalized alcoholics who had received LSD treatment
and who did not have the same interest in religion and mysticism.
The accounts are perhaps even more vivid in their simple straightforwardness.
Following are excerpts of accounts from four different patients
I found myself drifting into another world and saw that I was
at the bottom of a set of stairs. At the very top of these stairs
was a gleaming light like a star or jewel of exceptional brilliance.
I ascended these stairs and upon reaching the top, I saw a gleaming,
blinding light with a brilliance no man has ever known. It had
no shape nor form, but I knew that I was looking at God himself.
The magnificence, splendor, and grandeur of this experience cannot
be put into words. Neither can my innermost feelings, but it shall
remain in my heart, soul, and mind forever. I never felt so clean
inside in all my life. All the trash and garbage seemed to be
washed out of my mind. In my heart, my mind, my soul, and my body,
it seemed as if I were born all over again.
A feeling of great peace and contentment seemed to flow through
my entire body. All sounds ceased and I seemed to be floating
in a great, very very still void or hemisphere. It is impossible
to describe the overpowering feeling of peace, contentment, and
being a part of goodness itself that I felt. I could feel my body
dissolving and actually becoming a part of the goodness and peace
that was all around me. Words can't describe this. I feel an awe
and wonder that such a feeling could have occurred to me.
At the peak or climax of my experience, I realized a great scene
was about to unfold within myself. I actually shook and shuddered
at what I felt. A tremendous earthquake feeling was building up
in me. There was a tremendous force, and I came and saw a glorious
beauty of space unfold before me, of light, color, and of song
and music, and not only of one thing good and beautiful, but of
a oneness in fellowship, a wanting to belong to this greatness
of beauty and goodness that unfolded before my eyes, and that
Suddenly, I could see my family handing me great love. It seemed
to be pouring out of their hearts. I cried, not bitter tears,
but tears of beauty and joy. A beautiful organ was playing in
the background, and it seemed as if angels were singing. All of
a sudden I was back in eternity. There was music and beauty. Peace
and happiness, tranquillitycould not possibly describe my feelings.
My heart was filled with joy that was overwhelming. Just a beauty
and peace that I have never known. At this point, I felt that
time was thousands of years ago, thousands of years from now,
The profound emotional impact that these experiences have on people
can be sensed. The promising possibility that such positive experiences
may have therapeutic value is one implication. Another is the
usefulness of such a tool for investigating profound mystical
experiences that heretofore have been hard to study scientifically
because of their rarity.
The basic psychological experience goes beyond any particular
framework, but does lend itself to many possible interpretations
afterwards, since the rational mind inevitably goes to work and
tries to understand. For example, the mystical experience of union
or fusion with its concomitant characteristics has been interpreted
in many ways: fading or melting into the universal pool, boundless
being, the void, satori, nirvana, samadhi,
the atman-Brahman identity; the awareness of a "Beyond,"
"More" or pure "Self;" or union with God.
Yet in spite of the particular interpretation, the psychological
experience itself is the basis.
This experience of encounter with what is felt to be a divine
dimension deep within a person is not new. It has been reported
throughout the centuries in the history of man's spiritual quest.
It should be remembered that there are psychotic states of mind
in which people also speak in religious metaphors, such as, of
meeting God or of being God. The similarities and differences
between psychosis and mysticism form an interesting area that
needs much more serious study and analysis, for the answers are
by no means worked out as yet.
One objection sometimes raised against calling these drug-facilitated
experiences mystical or religious is that the accomplishment of
something usually considered so rare and unattainable except by
extraordinary effort or great merit now seems too easy. What seems
like a short-cut causes a feeling of uneasiness. Perhaps the Puritan
ethic, so pervasive in our culture, is the psychological explanation.
Pleasure is supposed to be earned through hard work and painful
Indications are, however, that what one does with a psychedelic
experience may be more important than merely having it.
Without integration into the on-going life of the individual,
the experience may be only an irrelevant memory, no matter how
beautiful. Much work is needed to integrate the insights from
LSD when used as a part of psychotherapy. The analogy might be
drawn of a trip to a new country. If the traveler knew nothing
about the history and culture of this country, he might have an
interesting trip, but only a fast-fading memory would remain.
If, on the other hand, before he departed, he learned as much
as possible about the country, its language and customs, talked
with people who had been there before him and prepared himself
fully, he would probably not only enjoy the experience more, but
could utilize it to enrich his life afterwards by thinking, reading
and talking about it with others who had made such an experience
an integral part of their lives.
At the present time there is a growing ferment of excitement and
alarm caused by the religious movement that has been inspired
by psychedelic drugs. Already there are four major psychedelic
churches, which have been founded by persons who are convinced
that their psychedelic experiences have religious implications.
These four churches are The League for Spiritual Discovery, The
Neo-American Church, The Native American Church and The Church
of the Awakening.
The League for Spiritual Discovery, or L.S.D., is the most recent,
having been founded by Timothy Leary in September of 1966, and
it already claims from three hundred to five hundred members.
The psychedelic celebrations that have been performed in some
major cities throughout the country have received considerable
publicity. These "light shows" have attempted to portray
some psychedelic phenomena, but people who have actually had an
LSD experience seem to agree that only a crude facsimile is produced.
Leary has used these occasions to give psychedelic sermons about
his church. The central message has been summarized as "Turn
on, tune in and drop out." In essence, the message is of
withdrawal, but not from everything, not from all social life,
with nothing in its place. The withdrawal is from the meaningless
games in which we are involved, to allow full-time commitment
to spiritual exploration, which Leary feels is the most important
reason for living. An attempt is made to criticize modern American
The Neo-American Church was founded in 1964 by a psychologist,
Arthur Kleps, who calls himself Chief Boo-Hoo, the Patriarch of
the East. Kleps states that the purpose of this title is to remind
him not to take himself too seriously. Membership now allegedly
numbers over six hundred. LSD is their sacrament, and one of their
main beliefs is that alteration of consciousness with LSD is a
religious right of any citizen.
The Neo-American Church should not be confused with the Native
American Church, which has deep historical roots going back to
the religious practices of the Aztecs in Mexico before the time
of Christ. When the Spaniards came, they tried to stamp out the
use of peyote, but the custom persisted underground. Sometime
between 1700 and 1880, the religious use of peyote spread across
the Rio Grande River into the southwestern United States and from
there to the Plains and then all the way into Canada and as far
east as Wisconsin and Michigan. The church has been legally incorporated
in Oklahoma since 1918. At present membership has been estimated
at anywhere from 50,000 to 250,000 Indians, with only a few white
members. Peyote is used in a religious ceremony as their sacrament,
which they feel is essential to their church.
Some important features of the ceremony are constant among different
groups. The rite is an all-night affair extending from about 8:00
p.m. on Saturday until about 8:00 a.m. on Sunday. It usually takes
place around a central fire in a teepee and is led by four or
five Indian officials. The ritual begins with prayer, followed
by the singing of songs by each participant in turn accompanied
by the water drum, ingestion of the sacramental peyote and contemplation.
Although the contents of the individual prayers and songs are
spontaneous, the ritual as a whole follows a definite pattern.
At midnight there is a water-drinking ceremony, and at dawn parched
corn in sweetened water, fruit and dried sweetened meat are eaten.
[For a detailed description of the ritual with diagrams of the
arrangement of participants, see Omar C. Stewart's Washo-Northern
Paiute Peyotism, Volume XL, Number 3 of the Publications in
American Archaeology & Ethnology of the University of California
(1944); and compare to Weston La Barre's The Peyote Cult,
Number 19 of Yale University Publications in Anthropology, an
enlarged edition of which was published in 1964 by The Shoe String
Press of Hamden, Connecticut.].
Because the ceremony is regarded as very sacred by the Indians,
preparation for the rite is taken seriously. Proper preparation
includes being physically clean, spiritually pure, psychologically
humble and in a mood for concentrated meditation (Slotkin, 1956).
The participants feel that peyote aids contemplation by increasing
their powers of introspection, sensitizing their consciences and
producing visions of great meaning. Throughout the ceremony the
participants conduct themselves with due solemnity. White men
who have attended these worship services as observers or as participants
have taken peyote with the Indians in a receptive manner and have
been impressed by the serious and sacred nature of the ceremony
(Osmond, 1961; Schultes, 1963; Slotkin, 1961).
The Church of the Awakening was founded in 1958 by two married
physicians, John and Louisa Aiken from New Mexico. The church
has grown slowly but steadily and has at present about 350 members.
Only people who have demonstrated a serious interest in spiritual
awakening have been encouraged to join. The members claim that
their spiritual lives have been deepened because of participation
in psychedelic ceremonies using their sacrament peyote. The use
of the sacrament is restricted to once every three months, if
even that often. The major emphasis seems to be on integration
of spiritual insights into the on-going life of the individual
There are certain legal problems posed by the existence of psychedelic
churches. Both natural products, like peyote, cactus buttons,
mushrooms or morning glory seeds, and synthetic chemicals, like
LSD, psilocybin or mescaline, are considered drugs by the law
when taken into the human body and thus requiring medical supervision.
Because this is the way our society has defined things, there
is really no legal mechanism or social sanction for a church to
use these substances for spiritual exploration. Unwillingness
to accommodate to this fact has caused legal difficulties for
Timothy Leary, Arthur Kleps and some of their followers. But the
issue becomes clouded because the religious use of peyote in the
Native American Church has been permitted by the Food and Drug
Administration and by the Supreme Court of California. The matter
becomes even more complex when Dr. John Aiken, a licensed physician,
seeks to administer peyote for what he considers bona fide
religious purposes. If he is not allowed to do so, and the Indians
are, does this constitute discrimination against white people?
Undoubtedly, religious freedom and related issues will receive
much publicity in the years ahead as test cases reach the courts.
If the matter is decided by outlawing all religious use of psychedelic
substances, even by the Native American Church, it may turn into
another sorry example of the white man's disregarding the sensitivities
and cultural heritage of the American Indian.
In the meantime there is an increasing need for organized religion
to consider the impact of the psychedelic religious movement.
If instead of the collapse of a fad, as some predict, there is
continued interest, growth and enthusiasm, what might be the effect
on religion in America? Persons having had powerful psychedelic
mystical experiences may well feel that organized religion, in
contrast, is moribund and irrelevant to their needs. Such a trend
could be perceived as a threat, and the churches might feel a
need to encourage suppression of psychedelic drugs. On the other
hand, it can be speculated that with an imaginative and creative
approach to an increasing amount of mystical experience, revitalization
of religious life in the churches could occur. The churches could
help people to integrate such profound experiences with the aid
of meaningful and appropriate religious symbols. Such people do
tend to talk about their drug experiences in religious terms.
In our experimental work with divinity students and ministers,
those who had a meaningful religious framework were much helped
in using positive psychedelic experiences to understand their
faith more existentially.
Some definite dangers, however, are posed by the growing use,
religious and otherwise, of psychedelic drugs. The possible dangers
to the individual have been fully discussed at this conference.
It should be emphasized that unsupervised and unskilled use will
inevitably lead to psychiatric casualties in a certain, as yet
unknown, percentage of cases. The most obvious reasons are lack
of screening, inadequate preparation, unskilled handling during
the drug reaction, and little or no help with useful integration
after the experience. The dangers to society have also been mentioned.
If more and more people drop out and withdraw, can society continue
If psychedelic drugs really can change people's goals, values,
motivations and needs for achievement, the impact could be considerable
on our society, in which there is so much stress on money, power
and status. Less emphasis on these traditional goals, coupled
with the availability of more leisure time, could alter our style
of life. Some argue that such changes in moderation might be healthy,
yet it is possible that widespread adoption of a radical change
in outlook might be disastrous to a society that wants mainly
to multiply its Gross National Product and to compete successfully.
Such issues need realistic and sensitive consideration.
There has been too much heat and perhaps not enough light propagated
by the psychedelic drugs. Because of mass-media coverage, certainly
everyone today has heard of LSD. Interestingly enough, almost
everyone has a definite opinion, no matter how little or how much
he knows about the field. These opinions, pro or con, usually
have a deep emotional basis. Certainly the reason is more than
just an abhorrence of drug taking, because other drugs such as
tranquilizers, sleeping pills and alcohol are taken freely with
no such emotional reaction. The dangers of negative consequences
such as psychological breakdown appear to be a logical reason,
but since most drug experiences are positive, there must be an
additional explanation. A deeper reason may lie in the nature
of the profound emotional experiences, often considered religious,
which seem to have the power to change a person's values and to
generate enthusiasm and inspiration in a direction perhaps not
shared by society in general. Such consequences may be seen as
a threat when considered logically, but felt even more powerfully
to be so at a subliminal or non-rational level.
Our society is faced with the fact that the use of psychedelic
drugs is spreading rapidly. Do we have the capacity and wisdom
to deal constructively with this problem, or will we seek a solution
by restrictive legislation and police force? In this instance,
suppression has much less a chance of succeeding than in the illegal
use of narcotics, which has not been stopped. Throughout history
when enough people have really wanted something, no restrictive
measures have worked. Laws did not stop the introduction of coffee
into Europe, nor the consumption of alcohol in the United States
What will undoubtedly result, however, from a rigid suppression
of psychedelic drugs is a severe inhibition of research in this
area. The more laws that are passed, the more the public identifies
the drugs with something negative. People in power, in both the
public and academic realms, are influenced by public reaction
and the mass media, and when research is proposed, there is hesitation
and lack of support. The decline of research with psychedelic
drugs has already occurred. Dr. Harold Abramson, one of the early
pioneers in LSD research, has commented that an interested layman
can use LSD more easily in our society today than can a doctor
who wants to do legitimate research. The joint committee now set
up by the N.I.M.H. and the F.D.A. to screen proposals will possibly
enable more research to begin in the near future.
Research is especially important in regard to the individual and
the societal problems caused by the growing use of psychedelic
drugs. Education rather than suppression would seem a more effective
solution, and more research is needed to learn the unknown facts
about many aspects of these drugs. We need more knowledge about
their biological and psychological mechanisms of action, their
therapeutic possibilities, dangers and long-term effects. Valid
statistics about chance of harm would be useful in calculating
a realistic pleasure-to-risk ratio.
An important area for more research is the effect of psychedelic
drugs on relatively stable, well-adjusted persons. Many of the
people who have taken LSD and upon whom some of the conclusions
about its dangers are based were already drop-outs before encountering
the drug. For purposes of education and guidance it is important
that we base our facts on drug effects in normals rather than
on retrospective analysis of drop-outs. No one knows how many
successful people who did not drop out or withdraw from
their place in society have found that psychedelic experience
can be an enriching part of their total lives, without eclipsing
other interests and responsibilities.
There are many questions that can only be answered by careful
and well controlled research. For example, what are the exact
conditions responsible for the production of aesthetic, cognitive
or mystical experiences? All the extra-drug variables of set and
setting need to be studied intensively. An interesting project
would be to follow a group of persons who would have LSD sessions
at regular intervals for three to five years, or to do a longitudinal
study on a group of persons who had only a few sessions and then
were followed over a period of time. In a small group who might
take LSD together, other phenomena such as the effect on group
discussion, group interaction and group cohesion could be measured.
The sociology of religion has an extraordinary opportunity for
research in the psychedelic religious movement. Here is a chance
to study the formation and growth of what may become an important
form of religion in the United States. The small cult-like groups,
the evangelistic ferment, the utopian ideals, the struggle for
survivalall these elements can be studied for better under
standing of what has gone on when other religious movements emerged
in the past. Dr. R. Blum (Blum et al., 1964) has made a
start in this area, but other points of view would also be helpful.
Participant-observers, who would be more in rapport with those
in the movement, might add valuable additional data to the field.
With regard to the future, psychedelic drugs seem to be here to
stay as a fact of our present existence. The experiences are much
too powerful and have too many implications to be dismissed as
a passing fad. Indications are that the use will increase rather
than decrease and may have more influence on American life than
we now imagine. Certainly researchers with LSD even ten years
ago would not have predicted what has happened. More surprises
may be in store for us. Work needs to be done with these drugs
without delay in a disciplined scientific way rather than permitting
a black-market underground to undertake experiments by default.
If these drugs are ever going to be used legitimately, training
centers will have to be established, because specialized training
under supervision is needed to insure maximal safety. The work
thus far at the Spring Grove State Hospital has indicated that
even very unstable people can be treated with LSD in relative
safety if specific procedures are employed. These centers can
be used for the training not only of psychiatrists, but also of
psychologists, social workers, ministers or any one else who might
have a role in treatment with these drugs. Some day it may even
be possible to establish places where interested, serious people
could go to take LSD in maximal safety under the supervision of
trained personnel. Such a suggestion is utopian at present and
may take a long time in being developed, but it is possible in
Some people, however, and especially students, are not content
to wait and are asking themselves the existential question "Should
I take LSD now, on my own?" It is obvious that anyone who
really wants to obtain the drug and take it can do so. No amount
of admonition to the contrary from college administrators can
really stop anyone. It remains a personal decision, but anyone
contemplating such a course of action would be wise to consider
some basic facts.
First, there is a definite risk, which is certainly greater in
uncontrolled than in controlled conditions. The work at Spring
Grove and elsewhere has demonstrated that with skilled handling
the risk is minimal. Psychedelic drugs are like other powerful
tools in that the risk is greatly dependent upon the way they
are used. For example, for eye surgery a skilled surgeon is needed,
not a watchmaker, no matter how skilled he might be in the use
of fine instruments. The use of psychedelic drugs also requires
specialized training for maximal safety. At the Spring Grove Hospital,
three to six months, or longer, are needed to train a therapist.
The fact that safe procedures have been worked out, however, is
not much help at present to someone who would like to take a psychedelicdrug under supervision, because at present no authorized research
in the United States is being done with normal persons.
Another thing to consider is the time of life. Many persons in
college are going through an identity crisis and are trying to
decide where they are really going with their lives. Because a
psychedelic drug experience may affect judgment, it is probably
not a good idea to make a major life decision within three months
after a drug session. People undergoing intensive psychotherapy
or psychoanalysis are given the same advice. Decisions made at
such a time may turn out to be regretted later, especially when
no guidance is available during and after the drug session. People
who have a psychedelic experience when they are older and have
successfully settled some of the crucial issues of their lives
probably have a better chance for an enriching experience. It
would seem that the more life experience a person has had, the
better, just as the program fed to a computer is the basis upon
which the results are produced.
It is a misconception to imagine that LSD is the magic answer
to anything. Hard work is needed to utilize the experience, and
follow-up therapy with the therapist who guided the drug session
can be very helpful. Persons who take a psychedelic drug to "work
out their own problems" not only may be disappointed but
also may unearth additional conflicts. More than a few people
have been unpleasantly surprised by what emerged with great force
from the unconscious.
In spite of the very real dangers in self-experimentation, anyone
with a serious and scientific interest in this fascinating area
of research would not be discouraged about the prospects of legitimate
research. There is much work to be done, and people of the highest
caliber will be needed in the near future if we are to gain new
knowledge about these drugs and their possible applications. Ideally,
an interdisciplinary approach should be used involving the joint
efforts of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, clergymen,
theologians and philosophers.
Anyone interested in this field should get the best possible training
in the discipline of his choice. It has been said: "Turn
on, tune in and drop out." This can be paraphrased a bit
as follows: Turn on your motivation in the most concentrated way
possible; tune in to everything that's relevant to equip yourself
in the way of training for the work you want to do in the field;
and then, instead of dropping out, you will be ready to drop into
a worthwhile and interesting career, one that may be full of great
satisfactions and a sense of accomplishment, because this is an
A striking example of a future psychedelic research possibility
is the work with terminal-cancer patients. This area is relevant
to a discussion of religion and LSD, because the experience of
death has a crucial place in almost all religions. In spite of
much talk and concern, and perhaps guilt about the way terminal
patients are treated, not much has really changed in this anxiety-ridden
situation in our culture. Many times there is a growing isolation
from meaningful interpersonal involvement, as all efforts are
bent toward making the patient "comfortable."
Psychedelic therapy may have a role to play to make life more
livable for terminal patients. LSD was first tried for its analgesic
effect, which was found to be considerable (Blum et al.,
1964; Kast, 1963; Kast, 1964a; Kast, 1964b). More important, perhaps,
was the finding that fear, anxiety and apprehension were lessened
in some cases (Kast, 1966). By working with patients and their
families, the opportunity for an increase in interpersonal closeness
was afforded, especially in the wake of a powerful psychedelic
experience (Cohen, 1965). Current research to explore these initial
leads is only in the pilot stage, but it appears to be a promising
approach to help ease the agony and isolation of death, both for
those who will be left behind and for the one who must face the
end of his life.
In conclusion, let us ponder the wide influence that the accidental
discovery of LSD in a Swiss pharmaceutical laboratory has exercised
throughout the world. There have been far-reaching effects in
all kinds of research, especially in biochemistry, pharmacology,
psychiatry, psychology, sociology, philosophy and religion. The
interdisciplinary implications seem broad indeed. In spite of
the dangers that are certainly potential in the use of this powerful
tool, it has always been man's destiny to push ahead in order
to increase his knowledge. This area is no exception, but those
who undertake such research bear a heavy responsibility.
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