The Private Sea
3. Chemistry and mysticism
In its broadest sense, mysticism refers to direct communion with
the divine; to intuitive knowledge of ultimate truth; to the soul's
sense of union with the absolute reality that is the Ground, or
the source, of its Being. And apparently it is impossible to distinguish
this experience from the central experience produced by LSD and
other psychedelic agents.
The classic accounts of mystical experience read like psychedelic
Baedekers. In recent years, moreover, a number of studies have
compared the two experiences, and the results have reinforced
the idea that the experiences are in some way connected. The best
known of these studies was undertaken by psychiatrist Walter Pahnke
at Harvard University, where psilocybin was administered in a
religious setting to ten theology students. Nine of the ten felt
they had genuine religious experiences, and Pahnke concluded that
the phenomena they reported were "indistinguishable from,
if not identical with," a typology based on W. T. Stace's
widely known summary of mystical experience.
At Princeton, students were shown accounts of a religious experience
and a psychedelic experience, and two-thirds of the students identified
the drug-induced experience as the religious one. In a book in
which they summarize five separate studies, including Pahnke's,
R. E. L. Masters and Jean Houston stated that "religious-type"
experiences were reported by 32 to 75 per cent of subjects who
received psychedelics in "supportive" settings, and
by 75 to 90 per cent of those who received them in settings that
included religious stimuli. And so on. The consensus of research
seems to be that the two experiences are at least phenomenologically
the same. This is a way of saying: "Well, they certainly
look the same, and beyond that I'm not going to stick my
neck out." What this neatly avoids, of course, is the problem
of comparing the sources of the experiences.
Significant parallels to psychedelic experience are to be found
in William James's observations on religious conversion, the faith-state,
and mystical experience. Conversion occurs, said James, when a
formerly divided self becomes unified, and "a not infrequent
consequence of the change operated in the subject is a transfiguration
of the face of nature in his eyes. A new heaven seems to shine
upon a new earth." James made the point that "self-surrender
has been and always must be regarded as the vital turning-point
of the religious life." And the total abnegation of self
or ego is without question the hallmark of psychedelic experience.
"Only when I become as nothing," wrote James, "can
God enter in and no difference between his life and mine remain
outstanding." Discussing the faith-state, James observed
that it too is characterized by an objective change in the appearance
of the world, which takes on a sweet and beautiful newness. "It
was dead and is alive again. It is like the difference between
looking on a person without love, or upon the same person with
love." In addition, there is a loss of all worry: "the
sense that all is ultimately well with one" and a "willingness
to be." Finally, there is "the sense of perceiving truths
not known before," and these "more or less unutterable
in words." As for mysticism, James found that it also is
marked by an ineffability requiring direct experience, as well
as a noetic quality which carries with it "a curious sense
of authority for aftertime." Still another aspect is passivity,
in which "the mystic feels as if he were grasped and held
by a superior power." And a final factor is transiency. "Mystical
states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances,
half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit."
One of those rare exceptions perhaps was Emanuel Swedenborg, the
so-called Swedish Aristotle, who was said to have had a mystical
experience which lasted, more or less continuously, for almost
three decades. LSD cannot match that record, but it does seem
to improve somewhat on the normal time limits indicated by James.
Except for duration, however, there is obviously a remarkable
similarity between James's typology and psychedelic experience.
And just incidentally, James noted that mystical states are often
accompanied by various photisms, or luminous phenomena, which
also are an aspect of psychedelic experience (for example, Paul's
blinding vision and Constantine's cross in the sky). Finally,
let us call attention to James's observation: "One may say
truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its roots
and centre in mystical states of consciousness." In other
words, we are likening psychedelic experience not just to mysticism
but to religious experience as a whole.
From this background, then, emerges LSD's first clear challenge
to orthodox theology.
Did the saints owe their visions to some biological short-circuit
which caused them to experience spontaneously what LSD cultists
achieve with a chemical? Can their mystic raptures be traced to
a malfunction of the adrenal glands? Does the faith-state have
a neurological basis? Is the religious experience as such nothing
more than a fluke of body chemistry?
The materialists would like to think so, and do. Dr. Sidney Cohen
(who is no materialist) has suggested that religious experience
may one day be redefined as "a dys-synchrony of the reticular
formation of the brain."
Some scholars have pushed even further. Not only do psychedelics
appear to duplicate religious experience, they say. It is possible
that religion itself is psychedelic in origin. One of the major
spokesmen for this viewpoint has been Gordon Wasson, an authority
on the psychedelic mushrooms of Mexico, who has suggested that
primitive men may have stumbled many times upon innocent-looking
plants which produce the same effects as LSD. These theobotanicals,
possibly mushrooms, might well have been a "mighty springboard"
which first put the idea of God into men's heads. Wasson also
has proposed a psychedelic explanation of the ancient Greek cult
that produced the Eleusinian Mysteries, and he has advanced the
idea that Plato's pure Ideas might be the product of a psychedelic
insight. (In other words, Plato was an acidhead.) Following this
line of reasoning, it might seem logical to conclude that the
Eden story is actually a psychedelic parableand we would be
happy to propose that theory ourselves had we not already proposed
another theory with an antithetical conclusion. In any case, Wasson
goes on to suggest that psychedelic sacraments in the course of
time may have been replaced by more innocuous hosts, and that
they represent perhaps "the original element in all the Holy
Suppers of the world." The whole idea, of course, is pure
speculation, and necessarily so, but at the same time it is very
interesting speculation and by no means implausible. It is particularly
tempting to apply Wasson's theory to the metaphysics of India;
according to Masters and Houston, an estimated 90 per cent of
the holy men in that country are currently on hemp and various
The point often is made that religious ascetics traditionally
have promoted their mystical states of consciousness by employing
techniques that rival LSD in their probable impact on biochemical
balance. These include fasting, yogic breathing exercises, sleep
deprivation, dervish dances, self-flagellation, and monastic isolation.
Even in the pews of the pious, religious contemplation may be
supported by such trance-inducing aids as organ music, stained
glass windows, repetitive chants and prayers, incense, and flickering
The question of religious chemistry has been underscored recently
by the wide attention given to the theories, already mentioned,
of Dr. Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond. Their adrenochrome-adrenolutin
hypothesis suggests that schizophrenia may be caused at least
in part by defective adrenal metabolism. Very briefly, the adrenal
gland secretes the hormone adrenaline, which helps coordinate
biological mechanisms in emergency situationsfor example, a
fist fight or a threatened traffic accident. Heart rate is increased,
the blood is sugared up and pumped to the necessary muscles. Adrenaline
also may affect the emotions, contributing to anxiety and depression.
In the body it turns into a toxic hormone called adrenochrome,
which in turn can be converted into either of two other compounds:
dihydroxyindole or adrenolutin. It is possible that dihydroxyindole
balances off adrenaline to reduce tension and irritability; in
schizophrenics, however, adrenochrome is converted primarily into
adrenolutin, which also is toxic, and the combination of adrenochrome-adrenolutin
results in a poisonous disruption of the brain's chemical processes.
That is the theory. And the prescribed antidotes are nicotinic
acid (niacin) or nicotinamide (Vitamin B-3). Discussing one of
the villains in the piece, the scientists write: "There are
few who doubt that adrenochrome is active in animals or in man,
and it is now included among the family of compounds known as
hallucinogenscompounds like mescaline and LSD-2 5 capable of
producing psychological changes in man."
The Hoffer-Osmond studies are far from conclusive, and similar
theories have been advanced in the past. But the studies hold
promise, and they are receiving serious considerationdue in
part, no doubt, to the significance they have in other areas of
current debate, including religion. The line dividing insanity
and mysticism has never been too sharply drawn, and the biochemical
theory of schizophrenia makes it all the more tenuous. Vitamin
B-3 actually has cured cases of schizophrenia, according to Dr.
Hoffer and Osmond. But Vitamin B-3 also has proved effective in
terminating LSD experiences, and the implications of this must
be obvious. As we asked earlier: Are insanity, mysticism, and
the psychedelic experience in some way related?
Aldous Huxley has suggested they are. The experience of absolute
reality is awesome enough in small doses, and the schizophrenic,
drugged by his own body chemistry, is like a man who is permanently
under the influence of a psychedelic. He is "unable to shut
off the experience of a reality which he is not holy enough to
live with." He cannot take refuge, even for a moment, in
"the homemade universe of common sensethe strictly human
world of useful notions, shared symbols and socially acceptable
conventions." The result is a bad trip which never ends.
But the psychedelic subject knows that he can and will return
to that limited but comforting world, and he is therefore in a
position to accept his experience: to enjoy it and to learn from
it. This in fact appears to be the main basis for denying that
psychedelics produce a model psychosis. As Dr. Cohen and parapsychologist
Gardner Murphy expressed it: "When the dissolution of the
reasoning self occurs in a chaotic manner, the result is called
psychosis. When the state is not accompanied by panic or anxiety,
it is perceived as mystical, and creative solutions of (or at
least an armistice with) life problems could result." Dr.
Cohen has proposed that the difference here makes logical a distinction
between insanity and unsanity, which he would place at polar ends
of a continuum; in the middle, somewhere, would lie sanity. Nevertheless,
it is a bit jarring to consider the possibility that religious
experience is an end-product of adrenochrome, described as a dark
crystalline material which can easily be made in a laboratory.
"In its pure form," write Dr. Hoffer and Osmond, "it
manifests itself as beautiful, sharp, needle-like crystals which
have a brilliant sheen. When the crystals are powdered, it appears
as a bright red powder, which dissolves quickly in water to form
a blood-red solution."
It would be interesting to see if a shot of vitamins could terminate
a spontaneous religious experience. But what if it did? And what
if LSD does in fact initiate such an experience? Does this mean
the experience is simply a manifestation of the drug?
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