The Private Sea
2. Through psychedelic eyes
On a good trip the LSD voyager may feel he has penetrated to the
godhead itself. But is it really the godhead he sees? Or is it
Before we describe what LSD does, let us first ask what it is.
That is a much easier question to handle, admittedly, and it is
mildly ironic that this is so. Where the mysteries of nature are
concerned, the situation is usually reversed, as Bertrand Russell
has pointed out in the case of electricity. Science can describe
very accurately what electricity does but hasn't the foggiest
notion what it really is. As for LSD, it is a synthetic drug:
d-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate, compounded from a constituent
of a rye fungus known as ergot. Its general history by now is
a twice-told tale and then some, so we shall be brief about it.
LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by Dr. Albert Hofmann, a biochemist
at the Sandoz pharmaceutical firm in Basel, Switzerland; but the
scientist did not know what he had created until 1943, when he
accidentally inhaled or otherwise absorbed a small amount of LSD
and thus discovered the drug's curious properties. It produced
uncanny distortions of space and time and hallucinations that
were weird beyond belief. It also produced a state of mind in
which the objective world appeared to take on a new and different
meaning. These effects, and the agents which produce them, are
now referred to as psychedelic a generic term which means "mind
manifesting," which in turn means nothing. The word has come
into common usage simply because of its neutral connotation; due
to the controversy involved, it is the only word so far that all
sides have been willing to accept. It is used as both noun and
Unlike heroin, opium, and alcohol, LSD apparently is not addictive.
This means simply that prolonged use of the drug, so far as we
can tell at this time, does not create a physiological
craving or dependency based on changes in a subject's body chemistrychanges
that are produced by liquor and junkand there are no physiological
withdrawal symptoms when use of the drug is terminated. LSD on
the other hand may be psychologically habituating; but
this, after all, can also be said of chewing gum and television.
There are literally scores of psychedelic substances, natural
and synthetic, and LSD is only one of many agents capable of producing
a full-fledged psychedelic experience. Identical effects can be
obtained from Indian hemp and its derivatives, including hashish;
from the peyote cactus and its extract, mescaline; from a Mexican
mushroom and its laboratory counterpart, psilocybin, which Dr.
Hofmann synthesized in 1958. Hemp and peyote have been used as
psychedelics for centuries, and mescaline was on the market before
the turn of the century. LSD's uniqueness lies in the fact that
it is very easy to make and mega-potent. According to the Food
and Drug Administration, a single gram of LSD can provide up to
ten thousand doses, each of them capable of producing an experience
lasting up to twelve hours or longer.
Scientists seized upon the drug as a tool for research and therapy,
and literally thousands of technical papers have been devoted
to it. Since LSD appeared to mimic some symptoms of psychosis,
it offered possible insights into the sufferings of mental patientsalthough
psychotherapists later came to doubt that it produces what was
first referred to as a model psychosis. Preliminary research indicated
it might be useful in the treatment of alcoholism and neurosis,
and it also served to ease the anguish of terminal patients. In
small doses, in controlled situations, it appeared to enhance
creativity and productivity. But the public at large knew nothing
of LSD until 1963, when two professors, Timothy Leary and Richard
Alpert, lost their posts at Harvard University in the wake of
charges that they had involved students in reckless experiments
with the drug. Leary went on to become more or less the titular
leader of the drug movement, in which capacity he soon ran afoul
of the law, and the movement spread to campuses and cities across
the country. By and large, it seemed at first to develop as a
middle-class phenomenon, attracting to its ranks mainly students
and intellectuals, liberal ministers, artists and professional
people, as well as bearded pariahs. Official panic provoked a
wave of legislation which ended or seriously hindered almost all
legitimate research programs; the legislation did little or nothing
to discourage the drug movement, which received its supplies from
black market sources.
Depending upon the point of view, Dr. Hofmann assumed the role
of a Prometheus or Pandora. In correspondence I once asked him
if he sometimes felt like the latter, to which he replied: "In
my opinion, every discovery in the field of natural science is
to be positively viewed, and thus also the discovery of LSD. If
one wishes to deplore the discovery of LSD, then one must also
view the discovery of morphine negatively, for morphine, one of
the most valuable gifts of pharmacy, is just as dangerous and
destructive as LSD when used improperly. There are no forces in
the universe that are bad in themselves. It is always up to man
whether he will make good or bad use of them." And if Dr.
Hofmann's words have a familiar ring, perhaps they are reminiscent
of the statements nuclear physicists were making in 1945.
LSD is a colorless, odorless, tasteless drug. It is taken orally
for the most part, and the precise nature of its action upon the
brain and nervous system has not been determined. It is believed,
however, that only a minute portion of the tiny dose ever reaches
the brain, and even this disappears in less than an hour. Possibly,
then, LSD sets off a reaction which continues long after the drug
itself has been dissipated. As Dr. Sidney Cohen, a leading medical
authority on LSD, expressed it, "The drug acts to trigger
a chain of metabolic processes which then proceed to exert an
effect for many hours afterward." In hipsters' terminology,
the subject is "turned on." And the experience begins.
The nature of the experience will depend on countless factors,
which are commonly summed up as "set" and "setting":
that is, the mood of the subject and the environment in which
the drug is administered. The subject becomes highly suggestible,
and the slightest false note can result in the nightmare of a
bad trip. Most experiences will include a hallucinatory period,
in which fantastic visions occur, and in some cases it is possible
to see sounds and hear colorsthe result of sensory short-circuiting,
referred to in the literature as synesthesia. One subject reported
that he could taste the categorical imperative (which he said
was something like veal). These very weird effects have received
considerable publicity; when they are pleasurable, theyand
sometimes sexual stimulationconstitute what may be regarded
as the "kicks" aspect of LSD. But the drug movement
cultists are not concerned with kicks in this sense. Skilled travelers
say they can avoid the hallucinatory period altogether and thus
are able to achieve and prolong the "central experience."
There does appear to be such an experience, and this is what the
cultists refer to when they speak of a good trip. It does not
always occur, and some people may never achieve it; it must be
sought after, perhaps, and expectation may be a significant factor
in its production. But it does exist, and it is the very basis
of the cult.
From various sources, then, let us see if we can construct a typology
of this central or core experience. While the problems of description
are notorious, in most cases the mind will appear to operate at
a new level of consciousness in which:
1. The sense of self or personal ego is utterly lost. Awareness
of individual identity evaporates. "I" and "me"
are no more. Subject-object relationships dissolve, and the world
no longer ends at one's fingertips: the world is simply an extension
of the body, or the mind. The world shimmers, as if it were charged
with a high-voltage current, and the subject feels he could melt
into walls, trees, other persons. It is not that the world lacks
substance; it is real, but one is somehow conterminous with it.
And it is fluid, shifting. One is keenly aware of the atomic substructure
of reality; he can feel the spinning motion of the electrons in
what he used to call his body, and he senses the incredible emptiness
that lies within the atoms, where the electron planets circle
their proton suns at distances which are comparably as vast as
those in the solar system itself. Thus it seems only natural that
one could pass through a wall, if only it were possible to get
all the atoms lined up properly for just one moment. In the vastness
of outer space, is it not a fact that billion-starred galaxies
are able to drift through each other like clouds of smoke or astral
ghosts, without the single collision of one star with another?
As for identity, it is not really lost. On the contrary, it is
found; it is expanded to include all that is seen and all that
is not seen. What occurs is simply depersonalization. The subject
looks back on his pre-drug existence as some sort of game or make-believe
in which, for some reason, he had felt called upon to assume the
reduced identity or smaller self called "I." Being had
concentrated its attention at a single point in order to create,
and play, the game of writer, banker, cat burglar. Or so it now
seems. If there is any analogy to this in normal existence, is
it not perhaps the moment when one awakens from sleep? In that
case, what is the first thing one asks oneself? "Where am
I?" Or isn't it rather, "Who am I?" And then, in
an effort of will, attention is concentrated to re-create the
role that was lost in sleep. Thus in the drug experience, as in
sleep, the normal state of tension is relaxed. Home at last, after
that dreadful party, Being slips out of her stays, so to speak,
and breathes an ontological sigh of celestial relief. Consciousness
is allowed to scatter, and the subject at last can be Himself
The subject is somehow united with the Ground of his Being, with
the life force that has created the visible world. He remembers.
And what he remembers is the true identity that underlies all
the individual egos of the world. He is one again with the universe,
the eternal, the Absolute.
He has found himself again. He is made whole again. That which
he once knew, he has remembered.
(But when did he know it? And when did he forget?)
2. Time stops. Or, in any case, it ceases to be important. And
perhaps it would be more accurate to say that memory and forethought
stop. The subject is content to exist in the moment in the
here and now. And time has no meaning in the here and now. Bergson
suggested that the sense of time consists simply of arrests of
our attention. Seconds and minutes do not really exist; they are
artificially created "immobilities" dreamed up by science,
which is unable to comprehend flux, mobility, or the dynamic character
of life itself. Installed within true movement, said Bergson,
the mind would lose its normal sense of time, since the normal
function of the intellect is to foresee, so as to act upon things.
"We must strive to see in order to see," he said, "and
no longer to see in order to act." This is precisely what
happens in the psychedelic experience, where forethought is anesthetized.
Without forethought there is no anticipation. Without anticipation
there is no desire. And time stops.
3. Words lose all meaning. In the here and now there are no abstractions.
An object represents only that which it is. It is perceived as
a Ding-an-Sich, a thing-in-itself, and it matters not whether
Kant said that sort of perception is impossible. Kant never took
LSD. If he had, he would have known that rose is a rose is a rose
is a rose.
The same feeling is captured in childhood perhaps. As Wordsworth
wrote, recalling his boyish days when nature was all in all:
. . . I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures.
The psychedelic experience is similar but multiplied at least
a thousand times over. Coincidentally, Havelock Ellis wrote, after
experimenting with mescaline in the 1890's: "If it should
ever chance that the consumption of mescal becomes a habit, the
favorite poet of the mescal drinker will certainly be Wordsworth."
But thing-in-itself perception is beyond all language. It is,
in fact, the antithesis of language, which is the real cause of
our normal inability to see the thing-in-itself. This is so because
we think in words, and words are abstractions or symbols of things;
as a result, we tend to think and perceive in symbols. Thus the
American flag fluttering on the Fourth of July is seen in terms
of Concord and Lexington. The flag-in-itself is never seen; we
must always associate it with something else. And so on. And the
English language is especially crippling because of its painful
stress on simile and metaphor. Thus a rose isn't a rose; it's
what my love is like. Ruskin quite properly attacked the pathetic
fallacy as evidence of a "morbid state of mind." But
the psychedelic experience suggests that all figures of speech
reflect the same unhealthy attitudeand that speech itself is
a web of deceit. The Greek poets sensed this. For the Greeks,
as Edith Hamilton pointed out, a thing of beauty was never a symbol
of something else, but only itself. A star was just a star, a
primrose a primrose. "That a skylark was like a glow-worm
golden in a dell of dew, or like a poet hidden in the light of
thought, would have been straight nonsense to them. A skylark
was just a skylark. Birds were birds and nothing else, but how
beautiful a thing was a bird, 'that flies over the foam of the
wave with careless heart, sea-purple bird of spring."' And
if symbols as such are deceptive, how much worse are the symbols
of use. We look at a peach, and we see something to eat. We look
at a field, and we wonder how many bushels of wheat it will yield.
We meet somebody for the first time, and we ask ourselves what
this new person can do for us. Can we play bridge with him? Sell
him some insurance? Worst of all, we look at our loved ones even
in terms of our own needs, emotional and otherwise. In the terminology
of Martin Buber, we live in the world of I-It. We associate things,
and we use things, and we never look at the thing-in-itself in
the here and now. Moreover, we cannot look upon an object without
thinking the word which symbolizes it. Tree. Lamp. Table. But
the psychedelic world is the world of pure experience and pure
relation; it is the world of I-Thou. In this world, for example,
a tree is not a source of timber or shade. A tree is to look at.
And it is not a tree. It is that, there. Now. And that
is a that is a that is a that.
4. There are no dualities. Sweet and sour, good and evil these
also are abstractions, inventions of the verbal mind, and they
have no place in the ultimate reality of here and now. As a result,
the world is just as it should be. It is perfect, beautiful. It
is the same world that is seen without LSD, but it is seen in
a different way. It is transfigured, and it requires no meaning
beyond the astonishing fact of its own existence.
What does "meaning" mean anyhow?
Meaning is just one more abstraction, implying some future use
or purpose; it has no place in the here and now of naked existence.
And is this perhaps the significance of the Eden story? They ate
of the tree in the midst of the garden, and their eyes were opened,
and they became as gods, knowing good and evil. The first dualism,
fundamental to all others. What does this story represent if not
the introduction into the world of a new way of thinking and a
new form of perception? What does it refer to if not the evolutionary
product we describe so proudly as intellect, or the rational mind?
What does it signify if not that moment when man looked about
him and said for the first time: "This is wrong." Not,
"This hurts me," or "The tiger is chewing my leg,
and I wish he wouldn't." No. "This is wrong."
What an idea! What a curious concept. No doubt it was the greatest,
or worst, idea that man ever had. It marks that point in the process
of becoming when life took charge of itself. Man had accepted
the world; now he decided to judge it. Thus Adam became the first
existentialist, taking upon himself the nauseating responsibility
that turned Sartre's stomach. In doing so he laid the basis for
those existential anxieties which are nothing more or less than
ontological anxieties. He estranged himself from his environment;
worse yet, he alienated himself from the very Ground of his Being.
In Eden he had lived in perfect I-Thou relation, neither judging
things nor subsuming them with words. East of Eden lay the world
of I-It, where the ground was cursed for his sake, and the Lord
told him what he could expect from it. Thorns and thistles he
could expect from it. So Adam was cast out of the garden, his
own mind the flaming sword that would prevent his return. He lived
in the world of I-It, and he sought there for meaning. But he
never found it, and none of those who came after him have found
Men are frustrated in the search by their I-It minds of use, which
have made meaning synonymous with purpose. Nothing is meaningful
unless it leads to something else, or produces some future effect.
Thus a man smokes to enjoy himself and that is a meaningless
action. But he puts on his shoes so he can go to the storeand
that by definition is meaningful. But it is not meaningful enough,
and man craves for an ultimate meaning. He wants his life to lead
to something else, somewhere in the future. It doesn't, apparently,
so he feels the anxiety of meaninglessness. Taking hope, however,
he diagnoses his anxiety as a form of psychic pain. The sense
of meaninglessness is meaningful in itself, he decides; it implies
there is a meaning somewhere, and he is estranged from it. Which
is so. But the ultimate meaning he seeks is in fact the absence
of meaningin the sense of purpose. Meaning is simple existence
in the here and now. And of course man already lives in the here
and now. The trouble is, he doesn't know how to live in it. And
this is what LSD seems to tell him. It tells him that he is still
in Eden, if only he knew it. It is only necessary to spit out
the apple and look at the world through psychedelic eyes. The
apple is his intellect, or way of looking at things, and under
LSD his intellect no longer functions. Forethought is put to sleep,
and he opens his eyes upon Paradise regained.
A voice whispers in his ear. It tells him: "Essence precedes
5. The subject feels he knows, essentially, everything there is
to know. He knows ultimate truth. And what's more, he knows that
he knows it. Yet this sense of authority cannot be verbalized
(any more than the experience as a whole can be verbalized) because
the experience is a whole which cannot be divided, and it transcends
all partial abstractions. What is known is pure Being, which cannot
be compared with anything else. The subject is identical with
that which he knows and therefore is speechless. In any case,
language can never describe that which language itself is responsible
for negating. Finally, there is the problem raised by H. G. Wells
in his tale of "The Richest Man in Bogota." To a race
of eyeless men, how do you explain sight? What words do you use?
This describes the psychedelic experience, produced by a chemical.
But it also describes something else.
It describes religious mysticism.
It describes the experience of saints and prophets since the first
tick of history's clock. And it describes as well those flashes
of insight that sometimes come to humbler folk in moments of prayer,
or of grace.