An exclusive excerpt from Peter Bebergal’s Too Much To Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, published last week. Bebergal will be reading from Too Much at the NYU Bookstore on Wednesday, October 12th, at 5 pm. Come on by; he’ll sign a copy for you. For more details, click here.
By Peter Bebergal
In 1882 the psychologist William James (the novelist Henry’s older brother) published a number of articles, both anonymously and under his own name, in which he described his use of nitrous oxide. What we know as laughing gas he believed “simulates the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree.” James expanded this thesis in his definitive classic on religion, Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he captures the essence of his beliefs about mystical consciousness: “It is that our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different . . . No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” From a psychological point of view, James was convinced there was a common underlying phenomenon related to mystical states: an overwhelming sense of unity with the sacred dimension of reality. Call it nirvana, moksha, satori, Christ consciousness, or, in Hebrew, devekut—for James it was all the same.
This promise, this offering that has so long been associated with LSD and other psychedelic drugs, has meant different things to different people. For some it was the promise of liberation from those social norms that seemed to homogenize and dilute real experience. For others it was the promise of liberation from the ego. Some have written about hidden worlds, layers of dimensions that transcend the science of physics. Others wanted nothing more than to know God or some aspect of a divine consciousness. Maybe it was revelation, or prophecy of a sort, an experience not unlike those had by saints and mystics. It was a promise of universal transformation. In other circles, there was, and still is, the hope that drugs could alter the effects of mental illness.
My experiences, and what I hoped they would bring me, were in no way pure. They were in fact molded by an enormous and complex set of phenomena that included rock ’n’ roll, sixties drug literature, The Lord of the Rings, occultism, American movies, comic books, and the conjecture and experience of my friends, peers, and even the adults who tried to persuade me with their own stories and their own synthesis of culture and religion. By the time I was twenty-one my desire for whatever I imagined knowledge to ultimately be turned into a compulsion and an obsession that almost killed me. Consequently, I lived my life for the next twenty years as if this kind of experience was something that either was not real or, if it was, wasn’t for me to know. This desire had become too awash in superstition, addiction, and despair.
As I continued to stay clean I began to wonder if somewhere along the way, I had misunderstood the nature of some of the drugs I took, and that my circumstances—the age in which I lived, the place where I grew up, the people I talked to and hung around with, and, more important, my religious background at the time—had made it impossible for me to ever have experienced anything other than addiction and despair. The literature is clear: People all across the ages have had sublime experiences with psychedelic substances (and other spiritual exercises) to no ill effect.
There is indication that as early as ancient Greece the cult of Eleusis drank a mixture made with ergot, a fungus with certain hallucinogenic properties. For hundreds of years in Central American and Mexican Indian tradition, believers have used mushrooms containing the psychoactive substance psilocybin in their religious rituals, and some scholars have claimed the mushroom amanita was what the Vedas—the sacred Hindu texts—referred to as Soma, the method for seeing the gods. Even today the Native American Church uses peyote as a sacrament, what it calls the flesh of God, and believes it is a healing spirit for both mind and body. In Brazil, members of the Santo Daime Church—a syncretism of Catholicism, animism, and other indigenous beliefs—drink the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca as part of their religious practice. In all these cases the drugs have been and continue to be used within a very particular context. They are gifts from the community, wrapped in deep mythologies, language, and custom. The experiences are always contained within the particularities of that religion.
What I realized was that my experiences were also contained, but within a very different kind of community. For me, and many of my peers who grew up in the seventies and eighties, the context was not religious, but a manifestation of popular culture. At times it took on the facade of religion, using words like “karma” and “nirvana,” but it was secular to the core. The context of our drug experiences was infused with rock ’n’ roll, comic books, literature, counterculture celebrities, and whatever romanticized notion we somehow managed to glean from television and movies. All of these things, whether we were aware of it or not, were themselves charged like capacitors with occultism and Eastern mysticism, a charge that slowly discharges to the point where only a few electrons remain. How could an eighteen-year-old in his parents’ suburban basement, tripping on acid and listening to Pink Floyd, expect to commune with the gods, when he didn’t even know their names?
More than twenty-five years later, I have come across a temple hidden in the jungle. I needed to read the stories written on the walls. I needed to go inside and see the carvings, hear the echo of the drumbeats. This is one of the remarkable achievements of culture, when it acts as a transmitter for that peculiar kind of spiritual consciousness, those moments when we are confronted with the unutterable, the ineffable, and yet the only response is to carve out names in wood, to hammer out the shape of gods in stone, to dance, to sing at the top of our lungs. It’s incredible, really, that when we have found ourselves slack-jawed before death and birth and thunder and even stampeding bison, the first thing we do (after the hunting, of course) is turn these experiences into art. It’s because, I think, these experiences happen in the world, and despite the feeling of transport, we remain exactly where we are, on the ground, sitting in the dirt, climbing a mountain, walking in a park. We might even be sitting at dinner with friends, the fork still in our hand, the napkin in our lap, a cat rubbing up against our leg, when suddenly we experience a rush of holiness.
Alan Watts is best known for introducing Western audiences to Zen Buddhism in the fifties and was someone who embraced both the human and the mystical. As he once wrote, “The animality of the mystic is always richer, more refined, and more subtly sensuous than the animality of the merely animal man.” In Watts’s essay “The New Alchemy,” he agrees that there is something to be wary about when it comes to quick paths to a mystical experience, what can be described as God in a bottle. But he also points out that many mystical experiences are a result of “grace” or, to put it another way, they are unplanned experiences often had by those who believed themselves undeserving.
Watts goes on to suggest that psychedelics are not themselves capable of furnishing a full-blown mystical experience, but rather function as what he calls “an aid to perception in the same way as telescope, microscope, or spectroscope.” It’s only through actual practice and concentration that these substances can produce a classical mystical experience. The writer and psychedelic researcher Huston Smith, growing disenchanted with the sixties American drug culture, noted that experiencing a religious vision by way of psychedelics does not necessarily compel one to begin to lead a religious life, to act ethically, or to subscribe to a set of spiritual exercises. In fact, Smith complained about a “religion of religious experiences,” wherein the vision itself became the end, rather than the means toward a true religious consciousness. How can we today learn from Watts, who recommended, “When you get the message, hang up the phone”?
Sober these many years, I was skeptical this spiritual consciousness could be found in the way I had once sought it, but the idea persisted: It was possible to achieve some kind of religious and mystical consciousness aided by certain kinds of chemicals and plants. I knew I could never do those things again, but I needed to find out what is so beguiling about the possibility they promise. How is it that, now sober twenty years—my life richer and fuller than anything I could have imagined for myself—the desire has descended upon me once more, yet in an entirely unexpected form? I don’t crave the feeling of being high, but I crave the spiritual insight that I sought back then. Why would I feel compelled to pursue now the same spiritual insight I was after at fifteen? Partly it’s because the compulsion has never gone away. I have simply quieted it with other, more worldly pursuits, education, marriage, a child, a career. All of these are precious, but they can never completely subdue something that Aldous Huxley calls “the urge to transcend self-conscious selfhood. . . a principle appetite of the soul.”
Peter Bebergal is author of Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, a memoir/cultural history of drugs and mysticism (Soft Skull Press, 2011) and co-author, with Scott Korb, of The Faith Between Us (Bloomsbury, 2007). He blogs at mysterytheater.blogspot.com.
Catch Peter reading from Too Much to Dream as part of The Fall 2011 Revealer Reading Series at the NYU Bookstore on October 12th!