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 other drugs.
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 candles.
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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