In a way we all know about ‘altered states’ from our day to day changes of mood. In ordinary life our states are altering all the time, but they follow patterns with which we are familiar. We fall into them and drop out of them, realising that we have been there before; they are not really new. We know the patterns and have grown used to them. They have become part of the changing scenery of our existence.
Then there are the ‘altered states’ produced by physical illness such as brain tumours and various neurological disorders which produce considerable changes in the personality. For our purpose we will bracket-out these from our considerations because in looking at these we run into the almost blind assumption that the brain is the cause. This is part of a dreary pop-scientific scene where it is difficult to think about ‘altered states’ with any spark of inspiration.
Then there is the rather flat territory of study so well documented in the psychiatric textbooks on pathology. This is another area where it is difficult to look at ‘altered states’ freshly because so-called mental illness is fatally locked into the medical model. Once we begin to look at altered states from the medical perspective it is hard to get out of it because the only terms of discussion allowable are the medical ones.
So rather than start out from ponderous efforts to define exactly what we mean by ‘altered states of consciousness’, let us plunge into a highly colourful, social and psychological event from our recent past: the amazing happenings around the beginnings of the counterculture in the 60s. We are talking about the hippies and the Summer of Love, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts. We are talking about ‘turning on, tuning in and dropping out’, about love-ins, and be-ins, about Timothy Leary and the religion of LSD, Andy Warhol and Pop Art, and Woodstock, about love-beads and flower-power. We are talking about rock and roll and sudden influx of Indian Gurus, about Jack Kerouac and Findhorn and Esalen; about the demonstrations against the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights movement in the US; about the birth of Women’s Lib and the Grateful Dead.
An anonymous writer on the internet has written:
‘It all happened so fast suddenly young men were wearing long hair and growing beards, young women were dressing like peasants and wearing psychedelic colours, all of them seemed dirty, drugged, and disrespectful of their elders and society at large. They were dropping out of college, starting up rock bands, living in communes, and travelling to the far reaches of the planet. To many it was frightening, mystifying, and inexplicable’.
I don’t think there is much doubt that the counterculture movement of the 60s, which spread from the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco through much of the western world, although eventually watered down and commercially exploited, was driven by psychedelic drugs. In a artcle in the NZ Listener (Feb 13, 1998) Mark Revington said: ‘LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, was the key to the cultural revolt (of the 60s) more powerful than the bomb.’
Now there is a view – which we will be supporting in this series – which says that the human brain is not so much an organ which facilitates perception of reality as it is a sort of filter acting as a sensory barrier blocking out an excess of reality. This idea originated with Henri Bergson who called the brain a ‘ a cerebral reducing valve’.
The sometimes bizarre experiences opened up by psychedelic drugs are not simply illusions created by chemicals interfering with the brain’s accurate perception of reality. This is a very naïve reading based on the Newtonian/Cartesian conception of what constitutes reality, a worldview increasing in question, both modern physics and in consciousness research.
Psychedelic drugs open up what we could call ‘other worlds’, what Jung has called the ‘collective unconscious’, what Hillman has called ‘the invisible world’, what Sheldrake has called ‘morphic resonances’, what the Shaman of primal societies were well practised in mediating. The worlds that all the archetypal myths and legends are about.
The only difference is that with the psychedelic experience we don’t visit these things at one remove; we don’t read about them or listen to lectures about them. This is a civilised filtering action where they are absorbed into ordinary life and defused. No, in the psychedelic trip we vividly experience other worlds at first hand, they appear to our physical perceptions, full fleshed. We cannot fob them off by saying they are dreams or illusions, because the psychedelic experience is often more real than ordinary reality. We cannot deny them! At the same time they can make ordinary reality, in some sense, secondary – even irrelevant; thus the ‘drop-out phenomena’ which they often produce. But we could equally call the psychedelic experience a drop-in phenomena, a visitation to a significant, some would say higher, reality – but certainly other. We drop-in to an other reality.
In other words the psychedelic trip can carry all the hallmarks of what in the past would have been called an overwhelmingly convincing religious experience.
Now first-hand, naked contact with this kind of numinosity can either make you extremely sane or completely mad. There were many acid-heads in the sixties who had had no preparation for what the were to run into when they dropped the acid. This was expressed by poet Allen Ginsberg who wrote:
‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz’.
Ginsberg was the poet of the Beat Generation who suffered with the angleheads in the best tradition of religious madness.
Timothy Leary was an early advocate of LSD experimentation. Leary taught psychology at Harvard and by 1960 was doing experiments with LSD and other hallucinogens, first on prison inmates and then on himself and his friends. LSD was not illegal at the time. In 1960, Allen Ginsberg, supervised by Leary, ingested psilocybin mushrooms, (under the influence of the drug, he phoned Jack Kerouac, identifying himself as God to the telephone operator), and began to spread the word about the new powerful psychedelic drugs. When Harvard dismissed Leary in 1963, he set up the Castalia Institute in Millbrook, New York, to continue his studies. Leary's approach to taking LSD was to stress the importance of ‘set and setting’, a practice of taking the drug in a controlled environment, as a safeguard against bad trips. The importance of ‘setting and set’ is something that Stanislav Grof will be emphasising in his research into LSD-assisted psychotherapy in Prague Czechoslovakia and later in the States.
In 1953, when Aldous Huxley took his first dose of mesculin, the civilised west was woefully ignorant about the psychedelics – the name, of course, was not yet invented. This was ten years before the counter culture of the sixties was lifted off the ground by LSD. We knew a few hearsay things about obscure Mexican native practices with mescalin and peyote, but few were prepared for the discovery and experience of LSD. Huxley, though, was prepared.
His preparedness derived from a style of life that lived on the edge of the invisible world, even though only in thought and study. Huxley, was a man of erudite learning with strong mystical leanings whose Perennial Philosophy, a compendium of the world religious and mystical thought, was published in 1946.
Huxley took his first dose of mescalin in 1953 and published his essay, The Doors of Perception (1960, describing the experience, in the following year. Humphrey Osmond - who, incidentally, coined the term ‘psychedelic’, meaning ‘mind- manifesting’ - has said that Aldous Huxley would in no way ‘have predicted that The Doors of Perception was going to have such an immense impact on an ever-increasing number of people’. The phrase ‘doors of perception’, by the way, is a quote from William Blake:
If the doors of perception were cleansed,
everything will appear to man as it is, infinite.
Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, as well as a subsequent essay on the same subject called Heaven and Hell (1956a), became leading-edge reading into the coming explosion of change; and there is no doubt that his immense reputation gave the impetus and justification to the intellectuals of the Beat Generation as the forerunners of the counter culture
What Huxley expected from the LSD experience was not in the least what he got. Instead fabulous landscapes, lovely jewels or multicoloured architecture ‘trembling perpetually on the verge of the ultimate revelation’, no visual imagery came to him at all. ‘To those in whom the faculty of visualisation is strong’ he said ‘my inner world must seem curiously drab, limited and uninteresting’. There was no complete transformation of the inner world. What did change, and changed in a most miraculous way, was the external world, his perception of things around him. ‘The great change’, he said, ‘was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant’.
‘I took my pill at eleven. An hour and half later I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase. The vase contained only three flowers - a full-blown Belle of Portugal rose, shell pink with a hint at every petal's base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-coloured carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris. Fortuitous and provisional, the little nosegay broke all the rules of traditional good taste. At breakfast that morning I had been struck by the lively dissonance of its colours. But that was no longer the point. I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation - the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.
Someone asked him if the experience was agreeable or disagreeable. In trying to answer he thought of Plato and feels sorry for the old philosopher in separating ‘being’ (eternity) from ‘becoming’ (change). Plato could never have ‘seen a bunch of flowers shining in their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were - a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being..,’ as he continued to look at the flowers he seemed to feel as though they were breathing, but breathing without each breath returning to the beginning, ‘only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning. He thought of the Zen Master who responds to the question of the novice, 'What is the Dharma-Body of the Buddha’? To which the Master answers, ‘the hedge at the bottom of the garden?' in the past such Zen nonsense had seem only vaguely wise in some way.
‘Now it was all as clear as day, as evident as Euclid. Of course the Dharma-Body of the Buddha was the hedge at the bottom of the garden. At the same time, and no less obviously, it was these flowers, it was anything that I - or rather the blessed Not - I released for a moment from my throttling embrace - cared to look at. The books, for example, with which my study walls were lined. Like the flowers, they glowed, when I looked at them, with brighter colours, a profounder significance. Red books, like rubies; emerald books; books bound in white jade; books of agate, of aquamarine, of yellow topaz; lapis lazuli books whose colour was so intense, so intrinsically meaningful, that they seemed to be on the point of leaving the shelves to thrust themselves more insistently on my attention.’
So much for Huxley’s beautiful description of his experience which introduced the west to the religious dimensions of psychedelics. And there is no way we can get the experience of the 60s into perspective without taking into account the cultural and religious use of psychedelics throughout history, especially among so-called primitive people.
Here is a quote from a book in the Psychedelic Library on the internet called Psychedelics and the Future by Humphrey Osmond and Bernard Aaronson:
‘…history shows that man has been an inveterate experimenter with chemicals, usually derived from plants, that make him happier or livelier, or alter his perceptions and awareness. In his sumptuous and magnificent book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1969), for example, R. Gordon Wasson, the mycologist-scholar, has shown convincingly that the Rig Veda, one of the oldest and greatest of man's religious works, devoted about one tenth of its collection of over one thousand psalms to celebrating the plant god Soma… being the mushroom Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, the classic toadstool of the birch forests of the world.
Societies that have sought and used psychedelic experience, however achieved, have nearly always had some kind of initiation ceremony, often of a religious kind, aimed at focusing expanded experience in a way that will enhance the participant's identification with and appreciation of his own society.
In the United States at present, only indigenous Indians are permitted a religion employing psychedelics, and they have achieved this only by much stubborn courage. Surely bona fide religious groups interested in these matters who are prepared to conduct themselves in a manner in keeping with safety and public decency, should be encouraged and supported. They are likely to serve a valuable social function in the future.’
The chaos that surrounded the discovery of hallucinogenic drugs in the west during the 60s is so different from the way primitive peoples deal with them that it is worth visiting a village in the uplands of southern Mexico. Gordon Wasson, professor of mycology, experienced the divine mushroom with them and saw at first hand their attitude to it. He writes:
‘Only a handful of the inhabitants have learned Spanish. The men are appallingly given to the abuse of alcohol, but in their minds the mushrooms are utterly different, not in degree, but in kind. Of alcohol they speak with the same jocular vulgarity that we do. But about mushrooms they prefer not to speak at all, at least when they are in company and especially when strangers, white strangers, are present. If you are wise, you will talk about something, anything, else. Then, when evening and darkness come and you are alone with a wise old man or woman whose confidence you have won, by the light of a candle held in the hand and talking in a whisper, you may bring up the subject. Now you will learn how the mushrooms are gathered, perhaps before sunrise, when the mountain side is caressed by the pre-dawn breeze, at the time of the New Moon, in certain regions only by a virgin. The mushrooms are wrapped in a leaf, perhaps a banana leaf, sheltered thus from irreverent eyes, and in some villages they are taken first to the church, where they remain for some time on the altar, in a jicara or gourd bowl. They are never exposed in the market-place but pass from hand to hand by prearrangement. I could talk to you a long time about the words used to designate these sacred mushrooms in the languages of the various peoples that know them…
…the mushroom of the Aztecs carries its own conviction; every communicant will testify to the miracle that he has experienced. ...(While) you are seeing these things, the priestess sings, not loud, but with authority. The Indians are notoriously not given to displays of inner feelings—except on these occasions. The singing is good, but under the influence of the mushroom you think it is infinitely tender and sweet. It is as though you were hearing it with your mind's ear, purged of all dross. You are lying on a petate or mat; perhaps, if you have been wise, on an air mattress and in a sleeping bag. It is dark, for all lights have been extinguished save a few embers among the stones on the floor and the incense in a sherd. It is still, for the thatched hut is apt to be some distance away from the village. In the darkness and stillness, that voice hovers through the hut, coming now from beyond your feet, now at your very ear, now distant, now actually underneath you, with strange ventriloquistic effect. The mushrooms produce this illusion also. Everyone experiences it, just as do the tribesmen of Siberia who have eaten of Amanita muscaria and lie under the spell of their shamans, displaying as these do their astonishing dexterity with ventriloquistic drum-beats. Likewise, in Mexico, I have heard a shaman engage in a most complicated percussive beat: with her hands she hits her chest, her thighs, her forehead, her arms, each giving a different resonance, keeping a complicated rhythm and modulating, even syncopating, the strokes. Your body lies in the darkness, heavy as lead, but your spirit seems to soar and leave the hut, and with the speed of thought to travel where it listeth, in time and space, accompanied by the shaman's singing and by the ejaculations of her percussive chant. What you are seeing and what you are hearing appear as one: the music assumes harmonious shapes, giving visual form to its harmonies, and what you are seeing takes on the modalities of music—the music of the spheres.*
In my next talk we’ll look at some interesting experiments in LSD assisted psychotherapy before research was closed down in a backlash to the excesses of the 60s.
*The Hallucinogenic Fungi Of Mexico An Inquiry Into The Origins of The Religious Idea Among Primitive Peoples. By R. Gordon Wasson
This paper was first given as the Annual Lecture of the Mycological Society of America, Stillwater, Oklahoma, 1960, and later published in the Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, 1961.