In conjunction with the anniversary of Aldous Huxley’s death last November, we republished Jay Stevens’ article from the January, 1988 edition of High Times, originally titled “Door to Perception: Huxley Drops Mescaline” (excerpted from Stevens’ book, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream). Now, in honor of the anniversary of Huxley’s birth on July 26, 1894, we’re republishing portions of Aldous Huxley’s Moksha: The Uncollected Pieces on Psychedelic and Visionary Experience, which was featured in the Oct/Nov, 1975 issue of High Times, complete with an introduction by Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer, who also happen to be Winona Ryder’s parents.
The publication of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception (1954)—amidst the intellectual wasteland of Eisenhower’s America—had a cultural impact few books have ever achieved. The British author’s fortieth book describes the day in Los Angeles when Huxley, then nearly 60, “cleansed” his “doors of perception” with mescaline.The author of Brave New World (1934) had long studied the intellectual systems of East and West. His own life had become a conscious quest for the attainment of moksha (liberation) based upon “Love and work, passion and detachment.” Huxley’s literary output toward the end of his productive life comprises a series of maps to ego-shattering, soul-searching exploration. Brave New World Revisited (1958) and Island (1962) are among the most accurate applications of intelligence to consciousness expansion ever penned. The following selections are taken from Aldous Huxley’s Moksha: The Uncollected Pieces on Psychedelic and Visionary Experience. — Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer
Aldous Huxley made his last home in Los Angeles. There he could pursue the study of Vedantism, write film scripts for Hollywood and lecture. His letters to Canadian physician and researcher Humphry Osmond reveal Huxley’s early concern with the powers of mescaline and LSD-25.
740 North Kings Rd.
Los Angeles 46, Cal.
29 October, 1955
How strange that our letters should have crossed! I shall be much interested to hear the details of your joint experiment and to repeat the procedure….From my own experience I cannot see that it is necessary for anyone to do anything to keep the mescaline consciousness on a high level—it stays there by itself, all the time, so far as I’m concerned. It is, of course, perfectly legitimate and desirable to make such experiments, provided of course that one remembers the warnings of the mystics, the only people who know anything about the subject. First, that though miracles take place, of course, they are gratuitous graces, not saving graces, and have ultimately no importance, or anyhow no more importance than anything else—everything being, naturally, infinitely important if you approach it in the right way. Second, that siddhis or odd powers, are fascinating and, being fascinating, dangerous to anyone who is interested in liberation, since they are apt to become, if too much attention is paid to them, distracting impediments. However rich and rewarding, an expedition into the areas on the side of the direct route to the Clear Light must never be treated idolatrously, as though it had reached the final goal.
My own view is that it would be important to break off experimentation from time to time and permit the participants to go, on their own, towards the Clear Light. But perhaps alternation of experimentation and mystical vision would be psychologically impossible; for who, having once come to the realization of the primordial fact of unity in Love, would ever want to return to experimentation on the psychic level?…My point is that the opening of the door by mescaline or LSD is too precious an opportunity, too high a privilege to be neglected for the sake of experimentation. There must be experimentation, of course; but it would be wrong if there were nothing else. There is a point where the director must stop directing and leave himself and the other participants to do what they want, or rather what the Unknown Quantity which has taken their place wants to do….The highest mystical awareness comes only when there is freedom from the known, when there is no purpose in view, however intrinsically excellent, but pure openness. God’s service is perfect freedom and, conversely, perfect freedom is God’s service—and where there is a director with a scientific or even an ethical purpose, perfect freedom cannot exist.
In practice, I would say, this means that, for at least the last hour of mescaline-induced openness, the director should step aside and leave the unknown quantities of the participants to do what they want. If they want to say things to one another, well and good. If they don’t, well and good too. François de Sales’s advice to Mme. de Chantal, in regard to “spiritual exercises,” was not to do anything at all, but simply to wait. Every experiment, I feel very strongly, should terminate or (if this should be felt to be better) should be interrupted, by a period of simple waiting, with no direction either from the outside or from within….Let us give the Unknownest Quantity at least one hour of our openness. The remaining three or four can go to directed experimentation.
And now let me ask you a favour. There is an unfortunate man in this town (I don’t know him personally, but he is a friend of a friend), who has been using peyote on himself and other people who want to explore the remoter regions of their consciousness, get rid of traumas and understand the meaning of Christian charity. He is, apparently, a very worthy, earnest fellow; but, unwittingly, he has committed a felony. For in the state of California it is a felony to be in possession of the peyote cactus, and this man had a consignment of the plants sent to him from a nursery gardener in Texas, where peyote is legal. He will have to plead guilty, for he has undoubtedly broken the law. But meanwhile he can make a statement about peyote not being a dangerous drug. He has some of the references and I have given some others. Can you, without too much trouble, supply other references, medical, anthropological and psychological? I’d be most grateful if you would send me any references you know, so that I can pass them on to this poor fellow who is liable, under this law, to be sent to San Quentin for five years, but who may, if character witnesses are good (which they are) and if expert evidence can be marshalled to show that the stuff is not a dangerous drug, get off with a fine and probation.
My love to the family.
740 North Kings Rd.
Los Angeles 46, Cal.
23 December, 1955
My dear Humphry,
I was very glad to get your long, good, most interesting letter….
We had our LSD experiment last week, with Al, Gerald and myself taking 75 micrograms…I found the stuff more potent from a physical point of view than mescaline—e.g. it produced the feelings of intense cold, as though one were in shock….The psychological effects, in my case, were identical with those of mescaline, and I had the same kind of experience as I had on the previous occasion—transfiguration of the external world, and the understanding through a realization involving the whole man, that Love is the One….I had no visions with my eyes shut—even less than I had on the first occasion with mescaline, when the moving geometries were highly organized and, at moments, very beautiful and significant (though at others, very trivial)….Evidently, if you are not a congenital or habitual visualizer, you do not get internal visions under mescaline or LSD—only external transfiguration….
Time was very different. We played the Bach B-minor suite and the “Musical Offering,” and the experience was overpowering. Other music (e.g. Palestrina and Byrd) seemed unsatisfactory by comparison. Bach was a revelation. The tempo of the pieces did not change; nevertheless they went on for centuries, and they were a manifestation, on the plane of art, of perpetual creation, a demonstration of the necessity of death and the self-evidence of immortality, an expression of the essential all-rightness of the universe….
Who on earth was John Sebastian? Certainly not the old gent with sixteen children in a stuffy Protestant environment. Rather, an enormous manifestation of the Other….All of us, I think, experienced Bach in the same way. One can imagine a ritual of initiation, in which a whole group of people transported to the Other World by one of the elixirs, would sit together listening to, say, the B-minor Suite and so being brought to a direct, unmediated understanding of the divine nature. (One of the other records we tried was one of traditional Byzantine music—their Greek version of Gregorian. To me at least, this seemed merely grotesque….Only polyphony, and only the highly organized polyphony (structurally organized and not merely texturally organized, as with Palestrina) can convey the nature of reality, which is multiplicity in unity, the reconciliation of opposites, the nottwoness of diversity, the Nirvana-nature of Samsara, the Love which is the bridge between objective and subjective, good and evil, death and life.) On this occasion I did not have any spontaneous psi awarenesses, and our attempt to induce psi deliberately seemed after a few minutes so artificial and bogus that we gave it up….Whether I personally shall ever be able to do psi experiments under LSD or mescaline, I don’t know. Certainly, if future experiments should turn out to be like these last two, I should feel that such experiments were merely childish and pointless. Which I suppose they are, for purposes of Understanding—though not at all so, for purposes of Knowledge.
Meanwhile let me advise you, if ever you use mescaline or LSD in therapy, to try the effect of the B-minor suite….John Sebastian is safer because, ultimately, truer to reality.
To return to your letter. Of course the stroboscope effect is not retinal. One of the stroboscopic effects, as experienced by my friend Dr. Cholden, was that the patterns he was seeing under LSD turned, when he sat under the stroboscope, into ineffably beautiful Japanese landscapes.
I wish old Jung were not so hipped on symbols….The symbol business has been a very smelly red herring, leading him off the trail of Given Realities “out there” in the mind (just as they are out there in the material world, in spite of Berkeley etc), and leading it into the jungle, about which he and his followers write in that inimitably turgid and copious style, which is the Jungian hallmark….
Give my love to Jane and the poetess. I hope the coming year will bring you all contentment, happiness, growth, understanding.
In this letter Huxley has somehow misread Osmond’s suggestion that “psychedelics” replace “psychotomimetics” as the name for mind-changing drugs. It is interesting to see Huxley bring the entire weight of linguistics to bear on the question of tripping.
740 North Kings Rd.
Los Angeles 46, Cal.
30 March, 1956
Thank you for your letter, which I shall answer only briefly, since I look forward to talking to you at length in New York before very long. About a name for these drugs—what a problem!…Psychodetic is something I don’t quite get the hang of. Is it an analogue of geodetic, geodesy? If so, it would mean mind-dividing, as geodesy means earth-dividing, from ge and daiein. Could you call these drugs psychophans? or phaneropsychic drugs? Or what about phanerothymes? Thumos means soul, in its primary usage, and is the equivalent of Latin animus. The word is euphonious and easy to pronounce; besides it has relatives in the jargon of psychology—e.g. cyclothyme….
I expect to be flying east on the tenth, or eleventh, and will let you know before then where we shall be staying—possibly not in a hotel at all, but in a borrowed apartment.
Mescaline and the “Other World”
My purpose tonight is to discuss the mescaline experiences, not of neurotics, but of those, who like myself, are relatively sane. Classic descriptions of this experience were given, many years ago, by Weir Mitchell and Havelock Ellis, whose accounts tally very closely with what I myself and all the experimenters with whom I am personally acquainted were able to report. These classic mescaline experiences differ in many respects from those we have heard discussed tonight….How different is the classic mescaline experience!…The classic mescaline experience is not of consciously or unconsciously remembered events, does not concern itself with early traumas, and is not, in most cases, tinged by anxiety and fear. It is as though those who were going though it had been transported by mescaline to some remote, non-personal region of the mind.
Let us use a geographical metaphor and liken the personal life of the ego to the Old World. We leave the Old World, cross a dividing ocean, and find ourselves in the world of the personal subconscious, with its flora and fauna of repressions, conflicts, traumatic memories and the like. Traveling further, we reach a kind of Far West, inhabited by Jungian archetypes and the raw materials of human mythology. Beyond this region lies a broad Pacific. Wafted across it on the wings of mescaline or lysergic acid diethylamide, we reach what may be called the Antipodes of the mind. In this psychological equivalent of Australia we discover the equivalents of kangaroos, wallabies, and duck-billed platypuses—a whole host of extremely improbable animals, which nevertheless exist and can be observed.
Now, the problem is, how can we visit the remote areas of the mind, where these creatures live? Some people, it is clear, can go there spontaneously and more or less at will. A few of these travelers were great artists, who could not only visit the Antipodes, but could also give an account of what they saw, in words, or in pictures. Much more numerous are those who have been to the Antipodes, have seen its strange inhabitants, but are incapable of giving adequate expression to what they have observed. At the present time they are reluctant to give even an inadequate expression to their experience. The mental climate of our age is not favorable to visionaries. Those who have such spontaneous experiences, and are unwise enough to talk about them, are looked on with suspicion and told that they ought to see a psychiatrist. In the past, experiences of this kind were considered valuable and those who had them were looked up to. This is one of the reasons (though not perhaps the only reason) why there were more visionaries in earlier centuries than there are today.
Those who cannot visit the mind’s Antipodes at will (and they are the majority) must find some artificial method of transportation. One method which works in a certain proportion of cases is hypnosis. There are persons who, under moderately deep hypnosis, enter the visionary state.
The opening of the door by mescaline or LSD is too precious an opportunity, too high a privilege to be neglected for the sake of experimentation.
More certain in their effect are the so-called hallucinogens, mescaline and LSD. Personally I have never taken LSD, so I can speak, from experience, only of mescaline. Mescaline transports us very painlessly…to the mind’s Antipodes, where we find a fauna and a flora strikingly different from the fauna and flora of the familiar Old World of personal consciousness….They conform to the laws of their own being, they can be classified and their strangeness possesses a certain regularity of pattern. As Klüver has pointed out in his book on peyote, visionary experiences, though varying from individual to individual, belong nevertheless to one and the same family. Mescaline experiences of the classic kind exhibit certain well-marked characteristics.
The most striking of these common characteristics is the experience of light. There is a great intensification of light; this intensification is experienced both when the eyes are closed and when they are open. Light seems praeternaturally intense in all that is seen with the inward eye. It seems also praeternaturally strong in the outside world.
With this intensification of light there goes a tremendous intensification of color, and this holds good of the outer world as well as of the inner world.
Finally there is an intensification of what I may call intrinsic significance. That which is seen, either with the eyes closed or open, is felt to have a profound meaning….
Intensified light, intensified color and intensified significance do not exist in isolation. They inhere in objects. And here again the experiences of those who have taken a hallucinogen, while in a good state of mental and physical health, and with a proper degree of philosophical preparation, seem to follow a fairly regular pattern. When the eyes are closed, visionary experience begins with the appearance in the visual field of living, moving geometries. These abstract, three-dimensional forms are intensely illuminated and brilliantly colored. After a time they tend to take on the appearance of concrete objects, such as richly patterned carpets, or mosaics, or carvings. These in turn modulate into rich and elaborate buildings, set in landscapes of extraordinary beauty. Neither the buildings nor the landscapes remain static, but change continuously. In none of their metamorphoses do they resemble any particular building or landscape seen by the subject in his ordinary state and remembered from the near or distant past. These things are all new. The subject does not remember or invent them; he discovers them, “out there,” in the psychological equivalent of a hitherto unexplored geographical region.
Through these landscapes and among these living architectures wander strange figures, sometimes of human beings (or even of what seem to be superhuman beings), sometimes of animals or fabulous monsters. Giving a straightforward prose description of what he used to see in his spontaneous visions, William Blake reports that he frequently saw beings, to whom he gave the name of Cherubim. These beings were a hundred and twenty feet high and were engaged (this is characteristic of the personages seen in vision) in doing nothing that could be thought of as being symbolic or dramatic. In this respect the inhabitants of the mind’s Antipodes differ from the figures inhabiting Jung’s archetypal world; for they have nothing to do either with the personal history of the visionary, or even with the age-old problems of the human race. Literally, they are the inhabitants of “the Other World.”
This brings me to a very interesting and, I believe, significant point. The visionary experience, whether spontaneous or induced by drugs, hypnosis or any other means, bears a striking resemblance to “the Other World,” as we find it described in the various traditions of religion and folklore. In every culture the abode of the gods and of souls in bliss is a country of surpassing beauty, glowing with color, bathed in intense light. In this country are seen buildings of indescribable magnificence, and its inhabitants are fabulous creatures, like the six-winged seraphs of Hebrew tradition, or like the winged bulls, the hawkheaded men, the human-headed lions, the many-armed, or elephant-headed personages of Egyptian, Babylonian and Indian mythology. Among these fabulous creatures move superhuman angels and spirits, who never do anything, but merely enjoy the beatific vision.
The costumes of the inhabitants, the buildings and even many features of the landscape in “the Other World” are encrusted with precious stones. Interestingly enough, the same is true of the inner world contacted under mescaline or in spontaneous vision. Weir Mitchell and many of the other experimenters, who have left an account of their mescaline experience, record a profusion of living gems. These gems which, in Mitchell’s words, look like clusters of transparent fruit, glowing with internal radiance, encrust the buildings, the mountains, the banks of rivers, the trees. One is reminded, as one reads these descriptions of the mescaline experience, of what is said of the next world in the various religious literatures of the world. Ezekiel speaks of “the stones of fire,” which were found in Eden. In the Book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem is a city of precious stones and of a substance which must have seemed to our ancestors almost as wonderful as gem-stones—glass. The wall of the New Jerusalem is of “gold like glass”—that is to say of a transparent, self-luminous substance having the color of gold. Glass reappears in the Celtic and Teutonic mythologies of Western Europe. The home of the dead, among the Teutons, is a glass mountain, and among the Celts it was a glass island, with glass bowers.
The Hindu and Buddhist paradises abound, like the New Jerusalem, in gems; and the same is true of the magic island which, in Japanese mythology, parallels Avalon and the Isles of the Blest.
Among primitive peoples, ignorant of glass and having no access to gemstones, paradise is adorned with self-luminous flowers. Such magical flowers play an important part in the Other World of more advanced peoples. One thinks, for example, of the lotus of Buddhist and Hindu mythology, the rose and lily of the Christian tradition….
Gem-like objects, bright, self-luminous, glowing with praeternatural color and significance, exist in the mind’s Antipodes, are seen by visionaries and are felt by all who see them to be of enormous significance. In the objective world, the things which most nearly resemble these self-luminous visionary objects are gems. Precious stones are held to be precious, because they remind human beings of the Other World at the mind’s Antipodes—the Other World of which visionaries are fully conscious, and ordinary persons are obscurely and, as it were, subterraneously aware. There is a magical kind of beauty, which we say is “transporting.” The adjective is well chosen; for it is literally true that certain spectacles do carry away the mind of the beholder—carry it out of the everyday world of common, conceptualized experience into the magical Other World of nonverbal, visionary awareness.
Flowers are almost as transporting as precious stones, and I would be inclined to attribute the almost universal passion for flowers, the almost universal use of flowers in the rites of religion, to the fact that they remind men and women of what is always there, praeternaturally bright, colorful and significant, at the back of their minds.
Of the connection between visionary experience and certain forms of art,…suffice it to say that the connection is real, and that the almost magical power exercised by certain works of art springs from the fact that they remind us, consciously or, more often, unconsciously, of that Other World, which the natural visionary can enter at will, and to which the rest of us have access only under influence of hypnosis or of a drug such as mescaline or LSD.
Drugs That Shape Men’s Minds
In the course of history many more people have died for their drink and their dope than have died for their religion or their country. The craving for ethyl alcohol and the opiates has been stronger, in these millions, than the love of God, of home, of children; even of life….Why should such multitudes of men and women be so ready to sacrifice themselves for a cause so utterly hopeless and in ways so painful and so profoundly humiliating?
To this riddle there is, of course, no simple or single answer. Human beings are immensely complicated creatures, living simultaneously in a half dozen different worlds. Each individual is unique and, in a number of respects, unlike all the other members of the species. None of our motives is unmixed, none of our actions can be traced back to a single source and, in any group we care to study, behavior patterns that are observably similar may be the result of many constellations of dissimilar causes.
Thus, there are some alcoholics who seem to have been biochemically predestined to alcoholism….Other alcoholics have been foredoomed not by some inherited defect in their biochemical make-up, but by their neurotic reactions to distressing events in their childhood or adolescence….Nor must we forget that large class of addicts who have taken to drugs or drink in order to escape from physical pain. Aspirin, let us remember, is a very recent invention. Until late in the Victorian era, “poppy and mandragora,” along with henbane and ethyl alcohol, were the only pain relievers available to civilized man. Toothache, arthritis and neuralgia could, and frequently did, drive men and women to become opium addicts.
De Quincey, for example, first resorted to opium in order to relieve “excruciating rheumatic pains of the head.” He swallowed his poppy and, an hour later “What a resurrection from the lowest depths of the inner spirit! What an apocalypse!” And it was not merely that he felt no more pain. “This negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened up before me, in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed…Here was the secret of happiness, about which the philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered.”
“Resurrection, apocalypse, divine enjoyment, happiness….” De Quincey’s words lead us to the very heart of our paradoxical mystery. The problem of drug addiction and excessive drinking is not merely a matter of chemistry and psychopathology, of relief from pain and conformity with a bad society. It is also a problem in metaphysics—a problem, one might almost say, in theology. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James has touched on these metaphysical aspects of addiction:
“The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties in human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no. Drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man….The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole.”
William James was not the first to detect a likeness between drunkenness and the mystical and premystical states. On the day of Pentecost there were people who explained the strange behavior of the disciples by saying, “These men are full of new wine.”
Peter soon undeceived them: “These are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day. But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel. And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh.”
And it is not only by “the dry critics of the sober hour” that the state of God-intoxication has been likened to drunkenness. In their efforts to express the inexpressible, the great mystics themselves have done the same. Thus, St. Theresa of Avila tells us that she “regards the centre of our soul as a cellar, into which God admits us as and when it pleases Him, so as to intoxicate us with the delicious wine of His grace.”
Every fully developed religion exists simultaneously on several different levels. It exists as a set of abstract concepts about the world and its governance. It exists as a set of rites and sacraments, as a traditional method for manipulating the symbols, by means of which beliefs about the cosmic order are expressed. It exists as the feelings of love, fear and devotion evoked by this manipulation of symbols.
And finally it exists as a special kind of feeling or intuition—a sense of the oneness of all things in their divine principle, a realization (to use the language of Hindu theology) that “thou art That,” a mystical experience of what seems self-evidently to be union with God.
The ordinary waking consciousness is a very useful and, on most occasions, an indispensable state of mind; but it is by no means the only form of consciousness, nor in all circumstances the best. Insofar as he transcends his ordinary self and his ordinary mode of awareness, the mystic is able to enlarge his vision, to look more deeply into the unfathomable miracle of existence.
The mystical experience is doubly valuable; it is valuable because it gives the experiencer a better understanding of himself and the world and because it may help him to lead a less self-centered and more creative life.
In hell, a great religious poet has written, the punishment of the lost is to be “their sweating selves, but worse.” On earth we are not worse than we are; we are merely our sweating selves, period.
Alas, that is quite bad enough. We love ourselves to the point of idolatry; but we also intensely dislike ourselves—we find ourselves unutterably boring. Correlated with this distaste for the idolatrously worshiped self, there is in all of us a desire, sometimes latent, sometimes conscious and passionately expressed, to escape from the prison of our individuality, an urge of self-transcendence. It is to this urge that we owe mystical theology, spiritual exercises and yoga—to this, too, that we owe alcoholism and drug addiction.
Modern pharmacology has given us a host of new synthetics, but in the field of the naturally occurring mind changers it has made no radical discoveries. All the botanical sedatives, stimulants, vision revealers, happiness promoters and cosmic-consciousness arousers were found out thousands of years ago, before the dawn of history….
Do we have to go on in this dismal way indefinitely? Up until a few years ago, the answer to such a question would have been a rueful “Yes, we do.” Today, thanks to recent developments in biochemistry and pharmacology, we are offered a workable alternative. We see that it may soon be possible for us to do something better in the way of chemcial self-transcendence than what we have been doing so ineptly for the last seventy or eighty centuries.
Is it possible for a powerful drug to be completely harmless? Perhaps not. But the physiological cost can certainly be reduced to the point where it becomes negligible. There are powerful mind changers which do their work without damaging the taker’s psychophysical organism and without inciting him to behave like a criminal or a lunatic. Biochemistry and pharmacology are just getting into their stride….
It seems quite possible that, within a few years, we may be able to lift ourselves up by our own biochemical bootstraps….Let us now pass to the strictly religious problems that will be posed by some of the new mind changers. We can foresee the nature of these future problems by studying the effects of a natural mind changer, which has been used for centuries past in religious worship; I refer to the peyote cactus of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States….Peyote produces self-transcendence in two ways—it introduces the taker into the Other World of visionary experience, and it gives him a sense of solidarity with his fellow worshipers, with human beings at large and with the divine nature of things.
The effects of peyote can be duplicated by synthetic mescaline and by LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a derivative of ergot. Effective in incredibly small doses….it lowers the barrier between conscious and subconscious and permits the patient to look more deeply and understandingly into the recesses of his own mind. The deepening of self-knowledge takes place against a background of visionary and even mystical experience.
When administered in the right kind of psychological environment, these chemical mind changers make possible a genuine religious experience. Thus a person who takes LSD or mescaline may suddenly understand—not only intellectually but organically, experientially—the meaning of such tremendous religious affirmations as “God is love,” or “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”
It goes without saying that this kind of temporary self-transcendence is no guarantee of permanent enlightenment or a lasting improvement of conduct. It is a “gratuitous grace” which is neither necessary nor sufficient for salvation, but which, if properly used, can be enormously helpful to those who have received it. And this is true of all such experiences, whether occurring spontaneously, or as the result of swallowing the right kind of chemical mind changer, or after undertaking a course of “spiritual exercises” or bodily mortification.
Those who are offended by the idea that the swallowing of a pill may contribute to a genuinely religious experience should remember that all the standard mortifications—fasting, voluntary sleeplessness and self-torture—inflicted upon themselves by the ascetics of every religion for the purpose of acquiring merit, are also, like the mind-changing drugs, powerful devices for altering the chemistry of the body in general and the nervous system in particular. Or consider the procedures generally known as spiritual exercises. The breathing techniques taught by the yogi of India result in prolonged suspensions of respiration. These in turn result in an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood; and the psychological consequence of this is a change in the quality of consciousness. Again, meditations involving long, intense concentration upon a single idea or image may also result—for neurological reasons which I do not profess to understand—in a slowing down of respiration and even in prolonged suspensions of breathing.
Many ascetics and mystics have practiced their chemistry-changing mortifications and spiritual exercises while living, for longer or shorter periods, as hermits. Now, the life of a hermit, such as Saint Anthony, is a life in which there are very few external stimuli. But as Hebb, John Lilly and other experimental psychologists have recently shown in the laboratory, a person in a limited environment, which provides very few external stimuli, soon undergoes a change in the quality of his consciousness and may transcend his normal self to the point of hearing voices or seeing visions, often extremely unpleasant, like many of St. Anthony’s visions, but sometimes beatific.
That men and women can, by physical and chemical means, transcend themselves in a genuinely spiritual way is something which, to the squeamish idealist, seems rather shocking. But, after all, the drug or the physical exercise is not the cause of the spiritual experience; it is only its occasion.
Writing of William James’ experiments with nitrous oxide, Bergson has summed up the whole matter in a few lucid sentences. “The psychic disposition was there, potentially, only waiting a signal to express itself in action. It might have been evoked spiritually by an effort made on its own spiritual level. But it could just as well be brought about materially, by an inhibition of what inhibited it, by the removing of an obstacle; and this effect was the wholly negative one produced by the drug….”
Physiologically costless, or nearly costless, stimulators of the mystical faculties are now making their appearance, and many kinds of them will soon be on the market. We can be quite sure that, as and when they become available, they will be extensively used. The urge to self-transcendence is so strong and so general that it cannot be otherwise. In the past, very few people have had spontaneous experiences of a premystical or fully mystical nature; still fewer have been willing to undergo the psychophysical disciplines which prepare an insulated individual for this kind of self-transcendence. The powerful but nearly costless mind changers of the future will change all this completely. Instead of being rare, premystical and mystical experiences will become common. What was once the spiritual privilege of the few will be made available to the many. For the ministers of the world’s organized religions, this will raise a number of unprecedented problems. For most people, religion has always been a matter of traditional symbols and of their own emotional, intellectual and ethical response to those symbols. To men and women who have had direct experience of self-transcendence into the mind’s Other World of vision and union with the nature of things, a religion of mere symbols is not likely to be very satisfying. The perusal of a page from even the most beautifully written cookbook is no substitute for the eating of dinner. We are exhorted to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
In one way or another, the world’s ecclesiastical authorities will have to come to terms with the new mind changers. They may come to terms with them negatively, by refusing to have anything to do with them. In that case, a psychological phenomenon, potentially of great spiritual value, will manifest itself outside the pale of organized religion. On the other hand, they may choose to come to terms with the mind changers in some positive way—exactly how, I am not prepared to guess.
My own belief is that, though they may start by being something of an embarrassment, these new mind changers will tend in the long run to deepen the spiritual life of the communities in which they are available. That famous ‘‘revival of religion,” about which so many people have been talking for so long, will not come about as the result of evangelistic mass meetings or the television appearances of photogenic clergymen. It will come about as the result of biochemcial discoveries that will make it possible for large numbers of men and women to achieve a radical self-transcendence and a deeper understanding of the nature of things. And this revival of religion will be at the same time a revolution. From being an activity mainly concerned with symbols, religion will be transformed into an activity concerned mainly with experience and intuition—an everyday mysticism underlying and giving significance to everyday rationality, everyday tasks and duties, everyday human relationships.