By Saurabh Bhattacharya, November 1999
For most, the psychedelic generation is thankfully dead and buried under heaps of marijuana ash and acid drops. But the ghost of that era may still have a few spiritual lessons for New Age
…On one level, I was still a fetus experiencing the ultimate perfection of a good womb. On another level, I became the universe; I was witnessing the macrocosm with countless pulsating galaxies, and was it at the same time…
…I expanded all at once into a glowing conscious circle, growing larger and larger, until a maximum was reached, the ‘I’ remaining as it was, but instead of a confining unit, now encompassed by a shining globe of vast dimensions.
The excerpts given above describe two spiritual-mystical experiences-one resulting from meditation and the other from a drug ‘trip’. Can you figure out which is which? In all probability, you can’t, unless you have either come across these passages earlier or are plain lucky. Or, of course, if you have had what is popularly known as the ‘psychedelic experience’ and can recognize a high when you see one.
The similarities between a drug-induced experience and a mystical vision are far too alarming for our anti-drug conditioned mind to completely appreciate. It is a historical fact that, all over the world, drug visions have always been considered redundant, if not downright heretical, by established mainstream spiritual traditions. Over the years, the term ‘drug’ itself has been successfully stigmatized by society. Not without cause, as is evident in the havoc wreaked by drugs on the world’s youth from the ’60s till today.
Yet, it is also a historical fact that for centuries, psychedelic drugs such as marijuana, mescaline, and psilocybin have been integral to the spiritual practices of various tribal cultures and yogic traditions respected even today for their wisdom. Shamans of South America’s Yaqui tribe use psilocybin and mescaline extensively during meditation. In India, the Aghora sect of Tantra and a significant section of Shaivite Tantrics ritually partake of marijuana as part of their sadhana (spiritual exercise). The third most important deity in the Vedas, after Indra and Agni, is Soma, symbolized by the intoxicating plant soma and its juice. Even the first sutra of Kaivalya Pada in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra recognizes the path of drugs thus: ‘Janmaushadhi-mantra-tapah-samadhi-jah siddhayah (The siddhis (occult powers) are the result of birth, drugs, mantra, austerities or samadhi).’
What we term ‘drugs’—substances whose use (or abuse) leads to physical and/or psychological addiction—are technically known as psychoactive drugs. These can roughly be divided into three groups:
•Sedative/Hypnotic—This group includes tranquilizers, barbiturates, opium, and its derivatives such as heroin or brown sugar. The potential for physical addiction here is particularly high and the results are far from healthy.
•Stimulants—This comprises caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, anti-depressants and amphetamines. All these drugs, although low on physical dependence, range from moderate to high on the psychological dependence scale.
•Psychedelics—The drugs in this category include cannabis and its various derivatives (hashish, marijuana, bhang, charasand ganja), LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), and mescaline (found in the peyote cactus). The potential for physical dependence on these drugs is nil, and the psychological dependence ranges from moderate to zero. Most spiritual traditions that use drugs concentrate primarily on this group, because of their vision-generating capacities.
According to Pradeep Guha, a senior journalist based in New Delhi, India, who has been studying the world of psychedelics both in theory and practice for the past 30-odd years, the stigma attached to the word ‘drug’ today is unwarranted. ‘There are the ‘hard drugs’ such as morphine, heroin, or opiates,’ he explains, ‘and there are the ‘soft drugs’, which include not only the well-known cannabis family, but also alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and cocaine. All these drugs, when abused, definitely have bad effects. But this does not justify the moralistic tenor the word ‘drug’ itself has been burdened with. Why should society condone alcohol and cigarettes and shiver at the mere thought of ganja?’
In fact, according to a news report published in the New Scientist magazine (February 21, 1998), a December 1997 study by the World Health Organization noted that cannabis use is much safer than alcohol or tobacco. The article, however, adds that the relevant section never saw the light of day, thanks to pressure from the US National Institute on Drug Abuse and the UN International Drug Control Program!
Says Dr Amiya Banerjee, a psychiatrist at the New Delhi-based Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience (VIMHANS): ‘Traditionally, in India, we had a good adaptation to cannabis and opium, which was sufficiently low in potency. But then the western chemist came upon the wonder plant of opium, brought it to exceedingly purified levels, and began marketing it. The resultant addiction havoc worried the Big Brother of the West so much that it decided to clamp down on the drug source.’ The result: a bane on the word ‘drug’ and the gradual death of a significant, albeit peripheral, spiritual means.
But are the psychedelics really that spiritual? Can they be passports to the ultimate high that every spiritual seeker thirsts for? Or are they a load of dangerous rubbish packaged in the mystique of myth and tall tales?
‘With the first drag, Shiva (a Hindu deity) made the sky. With the second, he made the earth and with the third he made this world.’ This, according to Dr. Molly Kaushal, research officer at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, is how the Gaddi tribals of the northern Indian hill state of Himachal Pradesh describe the act of Creation. The ‘drag’ here, of course, refers to a puff of cannabis.
As she tells me this, an excited Madhusudan Baul, a folk singer from the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, chips in: ‘These three puffs are extremely important. There is a proper ritual involved in taking them. There should be a gap of at least 90 seconds between each puff. And the high that you reach after three puffs is the climax. No further smoking will make any difference.’
And what does he feel when he is on such a high? Madhusudan closes his eyes in bliss as he recalls: ‘We all know that God resides everywhere. But we see Him in bits and pieces. Cannabis makes me see God in His entirety. It is a sight of such unalloyed joy that tears well up in my eyes.’
A junkie’s gobbledygook? Not quite, points out Madhu Khanna, New Delhi-based Tantra scholar. ‘When you are on the spiritual path,’ she explains, ‘your body energies and vital centers are already in a heightened state of awareness. At this point, when you take ganja, you become completely in harmony. The drug allows you to get focused.’ But such a harmony comes with a rider: that of ritualized discipline. You can’t reach this state of divine bliss in a disco, merrily tripping on a joint. A mystical experience with psychedelics demands a complete overhaul of your attitude towards life.
Come to think of it, almost every serious psychedelic tradition has underscored the importance of discipline in using drugs. As Nicholas Saunders, the man known to popularize the synthetic drug Ecstasy, once said: ‘Spiritual experiences are special events. There is no known way that they can be induced reliably, although various religious techniques, such as meditation, can help to create a situation where they are more likely to occur.’
In this context, Saunders uses the words ‘set’ and ‘setting’—both terms popularized in the ’60s by psychedelic guru Timothy Leary. ‘Set’ means the proper frame of mind for a spiritual experience through drugs. Ideally, says Saunders, the mind should be thirsting for the experience and should be completely at peace. Next comes the ‘setting’, the physical state. The aspirant should be relaxed and in a comfortable situation and place. Over and above, Saunders emphasizes the need for a proper ‘sitter’, a guide who will help the aspirant through the ‘trip’.
The importance of a proper guide is nowhere more highlighted than in the works of enigmatic anthropologist-turned-sorcerer Carlos Castaneda. The acolyte of Yaqui Indian shaman don Juan, Castaneda began his journey into the mystical world by eating the mescaline-rich peyote cactus given by his guru. The resulting bizarre visions that make up his books apparently helped open the floodgates of his own consciousness.
There is no place for frivolity in a serious psychedelic experience. Even author and scholar Aldous Huxley, whose path-breaking book The Doors Of Perception was one of the first works to highlight the spiritual element in psychedelic drugs, cautioned: ‘There is a feeling that the experience is so transcendentally important that it is in no circumstance a thing to be entered upon light-heartedly or for enjoyment.’
Somewhere down the line, however, the emphasis on discipline got swept away by the manic intensity and the accessibility of the experience. In 1943, a Swiss chemist called Albert Hofmann accidentally discovered the chemical LSD, colloquially known as ‘acid’ and by far the strongest psychedelic drug around. Huxley, whose experience with mescaline had made him a serious student of psychedelics, experimented with LSD and extolled its virtues in his later books Heaven and Hell and Island. The last book, in fact, envisioned a world where a psychedelic drug called moksha blended with the ideology of Eastern mystical works such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Bhagavad Gita to create an intellectual utopia. Although his books instilled sufficient interest in the youth of the time to move east and discover marijuana, the final psychedelic boom was still waiting in the wings in the form of a maverick professor of psychology—Timothy Leary.
Together with another psychologist Richard Alpert (who later shifted more towards spirituality to become Baba Ram Dass) and a bunch of eager students, Leary soon launched a full-scale study called the Psilocybin Project at Harvard University, USA. The aim of this project was, in the words of Robert Forte, editor of Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In, to ‘understand the revelatory potentials of the human nervous system and to make these insights available to others’.
During this period, Leary also conducted the controversial Good Friday Experiment, which ‘produced religious insights under psilocybin in theology students that were indistinguishable from those of the most renowned mystics and saints’. The aim of this experiment, which took place in 1962 on Good Friday at Boston University, USA, was to gauge the spiritual-mystical effects of psychedelic drugs. Service was conducted in the main chapel of the university, while the experiment took place in another chapel linked by a loudspeaker. One and a half hours before the service, all the 20 volunteers were given identical-looking capsules. While half contained psilocybin, others were placebos. The experiment was conducted in a standard double-blind fashion: neither researchers nor participants knew who had the ‘real thing’.
With the success of the Good Friday Experiment and the popularity of the Psilocybin Project, what had begun as research soon turned into outright advocacy. In 1963, Leary was expelled from Harvard, thrusting him and the drugs he promoted into national prominence. He became a teen icon of sorts, touting LSD as the wonder drug of the century. His oft-quoted words ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ became the slogan for a youth tired of Vietnam, conventional education, and morally uptight religion. The boom had begun in earnest.
‘The early trips of the 1960s were done reverently,’ recalls Tal Brooke, a member of the psychedelic generation who later became a close disciple of Sathya Sai Baba in India, and then libeled him in his book Lord of the Air. ‘People would read Jung, Blake, Emerson and Martin Buber and then proceed in a woody setting. But by 1967, people were taking off in droves, like hordes of lemmings. They would OD (overdose) at rock festivals or watching a film… In shopping plazas, stoned people were getting the cosmological eye and could discern nuances of truth from the most pedestrian things.’ Unable to control the effect of the LSD-generated visions and without prior preparation, many people began committing suicide. Often, an overdose led to a comatose state that continued for hours. The storm triggered by Leary claimed far too many victims.
Despite the negative backlash, which finally led to a widespread ban on all psychedelic drugs, the movement did help open the portals of consciousness for many. When the pharmaceutical giant Sandoz began manufacturing LSD, the drug’s main clients were psychologists and psychotherapists. Their interest in this, and similar psychedelic drugs, stemmed from the element of schizophrenia present in the drug-induced visions. Not surprisingly, the community was most shaken by the mystical tenor of the visions comprised of leading clinical psychologists, such as Dr. Stanislav Grof and Dr. Walter Huston Clark. Notes Dr. Grof in his seminal book on LSD research, Realms of the Human Unconscious: ‘There are numerous indications that the maps of consciousness emerging from my LSD work are fully compatible and sometimes parallel with other existing systems. Examples of this can be found in Jung’s analytical psychology, Roberto Assagioli’s psychosynthesis, and Abraham Maslow’s studies of peak experiences, as well as religious and mystical schools of various cultures.’
Was it possible, then, those psychedelic drugs were indeed the ideal guides on a journey through the mind? To answer this query, it is first necessary to know why these drugs affect the mind the way they do. Although a large amount of research has been conducted on the chemical properties of psychedelics, science is still a bit foggy on the issue. Different theories have been floated on how the primary chemical in cannabis, a compound called tetra-hydro-cannabinol (THC) that’s found in the leaves and flowers of the shrub Cannabis sativa, precisely works in the body. One theory states that THC binds itself to certain receptors in the brain and the liver and this creates hallucinations. Another theory argues that THC reacts with the brain cells to create abnormal sensations.
Opinions also vary in the case of LSD, which apparently ‘mimics’ the serotonin already present in the brain to give abnormal messages to the body’s neuro-sensory system. The precise reaction of mescaline and psilocybin is still being studied. Overall, the scientific impression is that psychedelics have chemicals that act upon the brain cells to produce ‘visions’ disparate from the real world. But what is the meaning of these visions? Science cannot answer this question.
Obvious questions arise in this context. If a shift from reality is the reason for psychedelic use, is not a transcendence of reality the aim of meditation? If a psychedelic ‘trip’ can give you an experience similar to that of sages and mystics, why not go for it? Is there any harm if nirvana comes in the form of a reefer? Die-hard psychedelic advocates such as scholar Terence Mckenna see no harm in using the ‘psychedelic experience’ as a synonym for spirituality. ‘What the psychedelic experience really is,’ he said, ‘is opening the doorway into a lost continent of the human mind.’ Mckenna saw in this doorway the path to a cosmic comprehension.
Perhaps he is not far from the truth. Famous Indian saints such as Baba Muktananda and Neem Karoli Baba do not deny the mystical potential, albeit dangerously limited, of psychedelics. In one of his discourses, as recorded in Satsang With Baba, Muktananda states: ‘It is not correct to say that LSD helps you evolve spiritually. However, LSD draws the mind inward and it is then able to have some inner experiences, seeing sights of the inner worlds.’ But, he adds, this is possible as long as the effect of the drug lasts. After that, it is back to square one.
Neem Karoli Baba forwarded a similar view when he was asked by one of his disciples whether taking hashish helps spiritual development. ‘You should smoke hashish like Lord Shiva,’ he said, ‘only to be with God. But smoking hashish is not necessary to reach God. The effect only lasts a short while. Devotion to God is an addiction that lasts all the time.’
The whole drugs versus spirituality argument have been synthesized by author and founder of Creative Psychology Robert S.D. Roth in his well-known book The Master Game. ‘The high ends of Creative Psychology,’ he says, ‘can no more be attained by taking drugs than the high ends of art can be achieved by slopping paint about at random. However, if psychedelics are taken under the right conditions, with proper preparation, under the supervision of one who knows how to guide the explorer in the territory he will enter, they can, on occasions at least. challenge the traveler, saying: ‘These are the peaks of the mountains. They really exist. Now make up your mind. Are you strong and persistent enough to try to climb them?”
If that were the case, perhaps it is time the psychedelic experience is retrieved from the cobwebs of a justifiable, though alarmist, legislation and social mindset to breathe free in the next millennium. There are pitfalls on the psychedelic path. You may never even reach your destination. But then, haven’t saints around the world declared frequently: ‘There are as many paths to the ultimate High as there are beliefs’?
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