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  The Private Sea

    William Braden

        4.   The sound of one hand clapping

    A spark touches off an explosion. But the explosion is not simply a product or property of the spark. If one opens a window and looks at the view, one does not equate the view with the window; one does not suppose that the window caused the view. In the same sense, LSD has been described as a chemical key which opens some window in the mind.
    Similarly, electric shock may awaken a mental patient to the "reality" of the common-sense world, but nobody will say that the common-sense world is a product of the shock. By the same token, it could be argued that LSD awakens normal men to a still greater reality—and that it does so by means of a chemical shock which liberates the mind from ingrained thought patterns based on verbal abstractions and the memory-forethought habit.
    Our normal mode of thinking can be described as survival-thinking. We see a traffic signal, and we think "stop" rather than "pretty red light." Furthermore, since our mind is designed to act upon things, we normally limit our perception to those things we wish to act upon. This is known as attention, a form of consciousness in which awareness is brought to a sharp but limited focus; we see what we have to see, and we see it the way we need to see it. Both abstraction ("stop") and attention are designed for action, and so we view the world in terms of our action upon it. Along these same lines, Huxley described the brain and nervous system as a "reducing valve" which receives the flood of sensory input and filters out all that which is not necessary for action, and therefore for survival; were it not for this, we could not function in the world as we know it. To function, we must deceive ourselves as to the actual nature of reality—a form of adaptation which LSD researcher Willis W. Harman has termed cultural hypnosis. "We are all hypnotized from infancy," wrote Harman, who went on to propose that this was just another way in which to describe enculturation. We accept suggestions from the environment—from our parents and society—and these suggestions shape the manner of our perception; finally, we perceive things in a state of hypnosis: not as they are, but as we are told to see them. Thus the child first sees the traffic signal as a pretty red light, which it is; but soon he learns to see it another way—as an abstraction—or else is run down by a truck. And so it must be.
    Genius, however, has been defined as looking at things in just a slightly different way. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that genius looks at things more as they actually are: the genius is not completely hypnotized but only partly so. Reality is still reality, after all, and it does no harm perhaps to steal an occasional glance at it, if only to satisfy ourselves that it still exists. LSD presumably allows us to do this by breaking the trance; it enables us, in Huxley's term, to become Mind at Large. The reducing valve is shut down, attention is scattered, and we are back again in the real world—happy and helpless. Comparing survival awareness and psychedelic awareness, Orientalist Alan W. Watts has suggested the analogy of a spotlight and a floodlight, and the analogy may be an apt one; it is true that the psychedelic subject often will focus his attention for long periods upon some object of delight—a flower, perhaps, or a crack in a wall—but as Watts put it, this is an unprogrammed mode of attention in which one looks at things rather than for things: the world is not chopped into pieces for purposes of action or cause-and-effect analysis. In any case, LSD from this point of view is simply a trance-breaking snap of the fingers—and the same applies to any chemical agent which might be involved in ordinary religious experience. The chemical does not determine the experience, it merely permits it. In this connection, we may read a certain significance into one of the LSD cultist's familiar expressions, "turned on." We turn on a radio and hear an orchestra playing Vienna Bonbons, and of course the music was there in the room all the time, and the music would be there even if the radio were not; the radio simply allows us to hear the music. The comparison is all the more valid if, as indicated earlier, LSD in fact does quit the brain after triggering its chain of metabolic processes, and it may be significant in this connection that some cultists say they have learned to turn on without drugs. And finally there is an interesting piece of evidence that has come to us all the way from Japan.
    To produce the sudden insight called satori, many Zen Buddhists in Japan contemplate a "mind-murdering" form of riddle called the koan. (What is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your original face before you were born?) These riddles of course defy logic, and that is just what they are supposed to do; they are designed to break down the rational intellect, just as LSD does, and thus provide the student with a new viewpoint. If asked to explain ultimate reality, a Zen master might kick a ball—or slap his pupil in the face. And the idea is that ultimate reality has nothing to do with words or logic: it is raw existence in the here and now. Satori is in fact remarkably similar to psychedelic experience, if not indeed identical, and it is produced by a form of shock which is neither chemical nor electrical but intellectual—or at least mental.
    Still, the non-physical explanations of psychedelic experience raise many questions. If psychedelics simply awaken a subject to reality, why does the subject invariably return to his trance-state after a predictable interval? Why will another chemical terminate an experience? And what of psychosomatic medicine? Doesn't it suggest the possibility at least that Zen Buddhists and self-starting cultists have developed a capacity to influence their metabolism: that they somehow initiate a biochemical reaction which in turn initiates their experience? The issue of chemistry cannot be avoided, it seems; psychedelic cultists and religionists alike should be prepared to face squarely the possibility or even probability that their metaphysical systems are in fact inexorably linked to biochemistry.
    This is not a new question; it is one of those very old questions we referred to earlier. And it revolves around the musty dispute between the materialists, who say that the soul or psyche is just an aspect or property of the material body, nothing more, and the dualistic idealists, who make a clear distinction between spirit on the one hand and matter on the other. According to the idealists, the soul merely inhabits the body, and it survives the body after death.
    William James met the problem head on more than six decades ago in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He wrote sardonically: "Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic."
    James himself had participated in experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). This turn-of-the-century psychedelic produced what James referred to as the anesthetic revelation, and far from convincing him that religion was mere chemistry, it indicated to James that there were unfathomed realms of consciousness which "forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality." James scoffed at "superficial medical talk" about hypnoid states, and he asserted that medical materialism was "altogether illogical and inconsistent."
    If all states of mind are caused by some organic condition, then one "could as easily argue that the liver determines the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist."
    The sturdy atheist has yet to answer that, but what about the Methodist? With its obvious capacity to alter states of consciousness, LSD might appear to make hash of dualistic idealism. Even if it does, however, materialism is by no means the only option that remains. An alternative can be found within orthodox tradition, and this is the alternative offered by Thomas Aquinas. One hesitates to speak for a saint, but it does seem entirely likely that Saint Thomas would have no trouble reconciling religious conviction with LSD or the adrenochrome-adrenolutin hypothesis.
    Dualistic idealism derives from Plato and has been passed on to us by Saint Augustine and Descartes, among others. But Thomistic philosophy rejects it and proposes instead the unitary idealism of Aristotle. This affirms the reality of both the spiritual and the material, but it does not insist that they be viewed antagonistically—or indeed as separate entities. One might as easily distinguish the warmth of the sun from the sun. Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor is no less beautiful because it issues from catgut and horsehair. One does not say, "It's merely catgut" or "It's simply horsehair." Nor does one listen to Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert and say, "It's nothing more than epiglottis, after all." In the same sense, the human personality implied for Saint Thomas a combination of mind and matter, body and soul. He acknowledged a physiological factor in dreams, moods, insanity. He did believe that a certain spiritual element survives after bodily death; but he considered this soul without its body an insignificant phantom, and he held that human personality, as opposed to this phantom, is an indivisible union of spirit and matter. This view has serious implications for personal immortality, as we shall see later. But it also provides a framework for a religious interpretation of psychedelic phenomena.
    The supposed necessity for religion to insist upon a soul-body dichotomy traces back to that original sin of the I-It mind, dualism. And it also reflects a primitive line of reasoning which Sir James Frazer described in The Golden Bough: "As the savage commonly explains the processes of inanimate nature by supposing that they are produced by living beings working in or behind the phenomena, so he explains the phenomena of life itself. If an animal lives and moves, it can only be, he thinks, because there is a little animal inside which moves it: if a man lives and moves, it can only be because he has a little man or animal inside who moves him. The animal inside the animal, the man inside the man, is the soul."
    Thus the Huron Indians supposed the soul had a head and body, arms and legs; for the Nootka the soul was a little fellow who stood erect inside the head, and whenever he fell over, you lost your senses; for many primitives the soul was a manikin exactly resembling its possessor, and it was proper to speak of fat souls and thin souls, or long souls and short souls. The soul could escape through the natural openings of the body; the Marquesans therefore would hold the mouth and nose of a dying person, and the Wakelbura of Australia would stick hot coals in the ears of a corpse to allow themselves a running start before the dead man's ghost took after them. The soul also could escape in sleep and wander about, so the children of Transylvania were instructed to sleep with their mouths shut, and it was bad form to awaken anybody suddenly—or worse yet, to move the body of a sleeper. In Bombay it was tantamount to murder to alter the appearance of a sleeper, painting a man's face perhaps or adding mustaches to a slumbering woman. Such notions may well amuse us, but one might ask how they differ in essence from the basic assumption of dualistic idealism. That assumption has always been difficult to defend, and there is perhaps no compelling reason for us to defend it. The proposition that spirit is a property of matter has assumed importance only because the dualists have been so outspoken in their insistence that spirit is not a property of matter. Once you grant the former proposition, it loses all its force as an anti-religious argument. That chorus of "merely" and "simply" and "nothing more than" becomes about as meaningful as the "nevermore" which Poe's raven was trained to repeat. We do not even know, really, what matter actually is, and as far as Thomism is concerned, for example, LSD apparently does nothing to destroy the religious premise—as James defined it. If anything, it strengthens the premise. From this point of view, it matters not that mystical experience has a chemical aspect. To say that it is physical as well as psychical is to say nothing at all. "Of course it is," Saint Thomas might well reply. "And what of that?"
    In fact, some theologians and scientists alike regard LSD as a kind of telescope with which to scan the deep-space regions of the spirit: a discovery which will enable man to gain a far greater understanding of his religious instinct. Now mysticism can be produced in the laboratory. It can be analyzed under experimental conditions with proper controls. And some have predicted this could lead to an eventual reconciliation of science and religion: to a science of religions if not a scientific religion or indeed a religious science.
    That could be a bit optimistic, and it might appear to patronize religion. Considering their contrary viewpoints, it might be asked whether the rational is suited to study the instinctive any more than the instinctive is suited to study the rational. But perhaps there is some hope for an accommodation. As religions professor G. Ray Jordan, Jr., put it, there is a chance at least that intensive research with LSD "might do much to provide empirical proof of a primary beingness in some sense conscious which is the mystical or intuitive base and perhaps goal of man's religious aspirations and behavior." That goes directly to the heart of the matter: the possibility that there is such a thing as absolute Being (not to be confused, by the way, with a Being) and that this gives life its direction and purpose. Absolute Being in this sense means an ultimate nature, either realized or potential—as an oak tree has the ultimate nature of an oak tree (realized), and an acorn has the ultimate nature of an oak tree (potential). If it could be demonstrated that absolute Being exists in the universe, this would of course knock the existentialist props from Sartre's basic proposition. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Sartre once participated in a mescaline experiment under psychiatric supervision, and he did not like it at all, as Masters and Houston report the incident in their excellent study, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. When Simone de Beauvoir telephoned the hospital to ask how he was doing, Sartre told her unhappily he was fighting a losing battle with a devilfish. )
    As for the common future of science and religion, there is another possibility, and it was suggested long ago in The Golden Bough. Sir James considered science a natural outgrowth of religion, and in fact he traced a line of development from magic to religion to science. As Sir James saw it, magic was actually a primitive form of science; it was based on the assumption that there were immutable laws to the universe and that man could control them. Thus magicians fearlessly ordered the gods about, threatening to kill them or bash their heads if they did not obey. But there was a fatal flaw to magic, and this lay "not in its general assumption of a sequence of events, determined by law, but in its total misconception of the nature of the particular laws." In the course of time the wiser magicians realized their spells were not working, and they concluded the gods must be running the show after all. Thus the Age of Magic became the Age of Religion; the magicians became priests, and they prayed to the gods they had sought to command. The point is that magic preceded religion "and that man essayed to bend nature to his wishes by the sheer force of spells and enchantments before he strove to coax and mollify a coy, capricious, or irascible deity by the soft insinuation of prayer and sacrifice." But then man discovered new laws, and these truly seemed to work; the priests became proud magicians again, and the Age of Religion became the Age of Science. Sir James thought this was well and good, as it should be. But he added:
    "Yet the history of thought should warn us against concluding that because the scientific theory of the world is the best that has yet been formulated, it is necessarily complete and final.... In the last analysis magic, religion, and science are nothing but theories of thought; and as science has supplanted its predecessors, so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect hypothesis, perhaps by some totally different way of looking at the phenomena . . . of which we in this generation can form no idea."
    Today's magicians have found perhaps that their spells do not work quite as they had hoped. Members of the drug movement in turn may find Sir James's words prophetic, suggesting that psychedelic insight can supersede both science and religion as we presently understand them. Certainly the cultists imagine that they have just the thing Sir James indicated might be necessary: a totally different way of looking at phenomena.
    Curiously perhaps, scientists have seemed somewhat more receptive to the idea than have religionists. Among the latter, there are those who deny that psychedelics offer any insight into the actual nature of deity or cosmos.

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