A Variety of Religious Paths in Psychedelic Literature Posted on 06 May 13:21 , 0 comments
In the mid-to-late 1950s, after the publication of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), a debate ensued as to whether hallucinogens, soon to be coined ‘psychedelics’ by Dr. Humphrey Osmond in a letter to Huxley, could be used in order to facilitate a religious/mystical experience. Although Huxley did not go so far as to equate the visionary experience of mescaline with the mystical in those texts, as described in various works of scripture, the question of their relationship, as it were, was put out into the open. He wrote:
Visionary experience is not the same as mystical experience. Mystical experience is beyond opposites. Visionary experience is still within that realm. Heaven entails hell, and ‘going to heaven’ is no more liberation than is the descent into hell. Heaven is merely the vantage point from which the divine Ground can be more clearly seen than on the level of ordinary individualized existence (Huxley 1994: 102)
However, Huxley’s literary approach offered a mechanism for the action of psychedelics that would allow for a visionary or religious experience based on a state of ego- loss. He did this by developing a Bergsonian reducing-valve model in order to describe the action of mescaline on the consciousness: that mescaline removes certain filters in the brain that gear consciousness toward individualized biological necessity. However, rather than saying that one becomes less conscious once these biological definitions are removed, one, in fact, becomes privy to a wider spectrum of data, a less limited form of consciousness that Huxley described as ‘mind-at-large’. Mind-at-large, in this sense, is equated with a form of ‘divine Ground’ and thus Huxley propounded an ontological pathway from personal consciousness to increasingly universal consciousness, which could be induced, partially or otherwise, by facilitated sessions with a psychedelic substance.
Furthermore, Huxley couched his approach heavily in the language of scripture, particularly Eastern scripture, which equated the ‘expanded’ forms of consciousness religiously, and can be aptly described therefore as a psychospiritual approach. This becomes even more stark in his final novel Island (1962), wherein an hallucinogenic mushroom described as the ‘moksha-medicine’, facilitates a religious experience for the protagonist based on ego-liberation—moksha is derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘liberation’. That Huxley, and numerous other writers, employed Eastern religious language in order to describe the psychedelic experience has been a bone of contention for some commenters and, as a result, raised the question of whether, and which, existing religious systems most appropriately described the experience therein.
David Lenson, writing in On Drugs (1995), says the following concerning the proliferation of Eastern religious discourse and psychedelics in the mid-twentieth century: “What would have happened if psychedelics had entered directly into the West without a prejudice generated from the scripture of a distant religion? There is a chance that they might have led to that rarest of moments, a purely Western mysticism” (Lenson 1995: 143). This essay contends Lenson’s comment on two points. First, it argues that psychedelics directly entered the Western culture, at the time, through its own disciplines of psychiatry and psychoanalysis and not Eastern scripture; second, while this scripture was used descriptively by authors, it was not the only religious outlook to mediate people’s experience, and did not wholly supersede the psychiatric facilitation and its own mediatory functions.
Interestingly, Lenson does not question whether or not the relationship between psychedelics and mysticism is in itself valid, he only laments that it was Eastern approaches that were used to describe it. Yet, contextually speaking, it is important to address this question before proceeding.
In his essay The Anaesthetic Revelation (2013), Dr. William Rowlandson notes that the partial definition of a mystical experience as ‘ineffable’ means that any textual definition is a debate “between linguistic systems rather than a perceived consensual reality” and therefore writes: “Can one encounter the divine with psychedelic? It depends on your moral, ethical and theological assumptions, and on your understanding of the divine and of psychedelics” (Rowlandson 2013: 239). In this respect, this essay does not seek to give a definitive answer to whether a ‘genuine’ mystical, or religious, experience can take place under the influence of psychedelic substances. Rather, it seeks to outline the different religiously-mediated paths used to describe the psychedelic experience as a textual body of evidence that entered into a discourse post Huxley’s texts.
However, while not explicitly entering into the debate equating traditional forms of mystical experience with the psychedelic, this essay does intend to argue for the emergence of a psychiatrically-contingent form of religious observance. While not ‘pure’, to use Lenson’s term (but what it is for that matter?), a combination of psychiatric method and various textual religious descriptions, developed a psychospiritual approach to religion, and religious experience: Albeit, at this stage in the 1950s and early 1960s, a deeply experimental form. So while the comparison between psychedelic states and religious/mystical states remains moot due to ineffability, a religious state with its own particular signifiers was being explored and articulated through psychedelic literature and practise.
This essay does not claim to be exhaustive in its exploration of the relationship between psychedelics and religious experience in literature, instead it will take into account a number of type-specimens of certain forms of religious discourse. For instance, Jane Dunlap’s Exploring Inner Space, in which the author hopes to find a ‘chemical Christianity’, will be a type-specimen for a Christian approach. For each type-specimen there is two objectives: First, to examine and contextualize the content for symbol sets that are associated with the particular religious path in question (the image of Jesus Christ or a cross, for example); second, to relate this to the narrative structure, understood to be contingent to psychiatric methodologies, in order to ground the path within the wider psychospiritual approach. Before looking at these type-specimens more closely, however, it is necessary to first outline psychospirituality in terms of method and narrative form, which will be achieved by examining the role of set and setting in psychedelic and psycholytic therapy.
PSYCHOSPIRITUALITY: METHOD AND NARRATIVE
During their research heyday, before the scheduling of numerous psychedelic substances in the mid-1960s, set and setting emerged as a first principle for managing experiences with hallucinogens. In this essay, this emergence is understood specifically within the context of psychiatry, psychotherapy, and literature, as an interdisciplinary dialogue that allowed researchers, therapists and writers to approach the experience elicited by these substances through a controlled, experimental method. According to prolific LSD researcher Dr. Stanislav Grof:
It has been a puzzling problem since the early years of experiments with LSD to understand how a single drug can produce such an enormous range of different experiences appearing in various combinations and seemingly on the same continuum. It was obvious that the long-term systematic investigation of the LSD procedure in a large number of individuals would be required in order to develop a typology of experiential patterns and sequences (Grof 2010: 14)
Unmediated, the effects were uncontrolled and highly variable. As a result, researchers (and therapeutic practitioners) began conducting their work within the confines of increasingly directed aims—such as those contingent to psychotherapy. Indeed, it was made explicit that this was a necessity. In the first British journal article on LSD, by Dr. Ronald Sandison et al., for example: “We cannot emphasize too strongly, however, that the drug [LSD] does not fall into the group of “physical” treatments and that it should be used only by skilled psychotherapists and their assistants” (Sandison 1954: 503). Thus, through this method the ‘set’ of a patient could be directed toward the goals of therapy, by what some researchers came to describe as a ‘guide’. Indeed, the ‘psychedelic guide’, noted Robert Masters and Jean Houston in their 1966 book The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience should, ideally, be educated in two specialities: psychotherapy and the use of psychedelics (Masters 2000:132).
Moreover, the ‘setting’ of experiences was deemed to have an important effect. Dr. Oscar Janiger, for instance, conducted numerous LSD experiments in naturalistic settings (a small house in Los Angeles) in order to determine the substance’s characteristic effects. All settings, he recognised, would have some degree of influence, thus Janiger “concluded one could not conduct any study in a vacuum, nor eliminate all external influences. He decided to keep his set and setting as consistent as possible so that, at the very least, they would remain standard” (de Rios 2003: 18). While this was important for attempting to come to an understanding of the generalized characteristics of LSD, it posed an interesting question for psychiatrists who wished to direct the experience to certain aims. In fact, for psychedelic researchers, leaving the clinical setting was vitally important:
One of the most clear-cut lessons taught [to] us by scientific psychedelic drug research to date is that the hospital and other clinical settings should be avoided. When such a setting is offered in combination with the subject’s expectation of a psychotic or psychotomimetic experience something along these lines will probably eventuate. And a very large amount of research now indicates that while such experiences are terribly distressing to the subject, they are not of compensatory value to the researcher (Masters 2000: 136)
Indeed, the ability to manipulate set and setting in order to produce results contingent to particular aims and hypotheses was most famously explored by Walter Pahnke. On Good Friday 1962, in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, Pahnke gave twenty small capsules, half of which contained the hallucinogen psilocybin, to twenty divinity students in order to examine the relationship between drug experience and religious experience (Pahnke 1966). In other words, the setting (a chapel) and the set (divinity students) was geared toward facilitating a religious experience. Participants filled out questionnaires in a follow-up study, and Rick Doblin completed a twenty-five year follow-up (Doblin 2012). Although there were methodological shortcomings, a statistically significant amount of participants reported having genuinely mystical elements in their experience (Pahnke 1966; Doblin 2012). Thus the subject’s imaginal, provoked by a psychedelic, could be religiously directed through a controlled set and setting.
Therefore, it follows, with a combination of psychotherapeutic approaches and religious intentions, an experimental paradigm for religious knowledge/experience was a seemingly viable possibility. This methodological approach is referred to here as the psychospiritual—meaning that spiritual experiences are attained through the manipulation of states of consciousness via psychiatric/psychotherapeutic practitioners (guides), in this case, through the use of certain psychedelic substances.
The psychospiritual approach, in the academic world of the West, can be traced back to at least William James (1842-1910) who postulated this possibility in his work Varieties of the Religious Experience (1902)—a work that had a huge influence over researchers and writers during the mid-twentieth century, especially those involved in the development of psychedelic therapy, to which this essay will now briefly turn.
With a dramatically increasing body of research with hallucinogens during the mid- twentieth century, a number of therapeutic methods emerged that utilized them as an adjunct to therapy; namely the psycholytic and the psychedelic (Grof 2010). The former utilises them alongside traditional Freudian and Jungian methods, while the latter emerged from psychotomimetic research (a belief that hallucinogens mimicked a psychotic state-of- consciousness) as a result of the author Aldous Huxley’s aforementioned reading of the experience. Huxley’s mescaline experience was facilitated by former psychotomimetic researcher Dr. Humphrey Osmond, and this explains Huxley’s notion of ‘heaven and hell’ so far as when the state is not pathologically-determined (schizophrenic), then it can be cultivated for exploring the realms of the human subconscious and, ultimately thereafter, for religious purposes. It was with this approach to apparently ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ people that psychedelic therapy was developed.
The premise of psychedelic therapy was to deal with questions associated with, and arising from, the nature of self within a universal, spiritual and philosophical context. While not dealing with a personal psychopathology per se, it does aim at overcoming a certain socially-contingent spiritual-pathology, which was believed to occur due to the materialist- reductionist paradigm of the Western society (Roberts 2012). This paradigm supposedly casts the individual as merely an individuated body, alienated from universal and spiritual concerns. In other words, psychedelic therapy aims to allow the patient to overcome the contradiction between how Western society invokes them individually as a singular unit and the interconnectedness of their being demonstrated through spiritual and environmental understandings. As the philosopher and Oriental populariser Alan Watts wrote:
Is it possible, then, that Western science could provide a medicine which could at least give the human organism a start in realising itself from its chronic self-contradiction? The medicine might indeed have to be supported by other procedures—psychotherapy, “spiritual” disciplines, and basic changes in one’s pattern of life, but every diseased person seems to need some kind of initial lift to set him on the way to health (Watts 1962: 12)
Psycholytic therapy usually involved a series of low-dose sessions with psychedelics that was buffered—before, after and during—with psychotherapy and, in keeping with traditional methods, did not intend for the patient to achieve a state of ego-loss. Psychedelic therapy, on the other-hand, typically involved one high-dose session that was buffered by questionnaires and therapy in order to examine specific aims and goals of the individual involved. The intention of reaching a state of ego-loss in psychedelic therapy purportedly helped facilitate new concepts of self, in line with the therapeutic aims. In practice, however, there is a certain amount of cross-over between the two, as many psychedelic researchers employed numerous sessions on test subjects in their explorations of its effects, and were usually trained psychotherapists as well (as already noted, this was seen as an important prerequisite for guides.)
These two practical therapeutic approaches became mirrored in the narrative and content of various works of literature that were published during the same era of research, leading to what is termed here as the ‘psychospiritual narrative’ (Dickins 2012). So, for example, a psycholytic text such as Constance A. Newland’s My Self and I (1962) is narratively constructed along her series of LSD sessions, with the thrust of the content being determined by her over-coming of personal neurosis; moreover the book is sectioned between traditional Freudian content and imagery in the first part, and archetypal/cultural Jungian imagery in the second (Newland 1962). Note also how there is a narrative movement from personal to cultural contingency to an expanded consciousness. However, it is the psychedelically-mediated texts that most obviously utilized the psychospiritual narrative, wherein explorations of the mind would facilitate therapeutic religious experiences (as opposed, for instance, to simply psychonautical or creative explorations.)
As the psychospiritual approach was developed in literature and practise, and the use of psychedelics became an increasingly social and cultural concern, it came to regarded within the context of a variety of religious traditions—partly as a response to Huxley, partly due to personal bias. Culturally speaking, individuals adhere to different religious systems and beliefs, depending on their upbringing, life experiences, expectations etc.. These cultural filters became descriptive methods in psychedelic literature that, as a body of evidence, correspond to a generalized research on psychospiritual experience. It is now necessary to turn to various type-specimens, determined by, but also transforming of, pre-existing bodies of religious knowledge, within psychedelic literature.
TYPE-SPECIMENS: TEXTUAL RELIGIOUS APPROACHES
As already noted, this essay does not intend to be an exhaustive list of religious paths utilized in psychospiritual narratives. However, a number of type-specimens will be identified and explored in order to ascertain the extent to which they function as part of the developing psychiatric context for approaching psychedelics psychospiritually. Broadly speaking three categories will be discussed (and this researcher hopes more work can be built upon it in the future): Buddhist, Christian, and secular. Each will be examined through its contingency to psychiatric practise and its use of particular religious iconography.
The utilization of the ideas and imagery of Eastern scripture, as David Lenson wrote, had a huge impact on the literary manifestation of the psychedelic experience: Buddhism (Zen and Tibetan), Taoism and Hinduism all became important descriptive sources. Contemporary commentators similarly recognized this Eastern influence, even if they, like Lenson, seemed unaware of the Western traditions being similarly employed and/or developed. William Braden, writing in The Private Sea: LSD and the Search for God (1967), noted: “It appears that there is presently occurring, especially in America, a wholesale introduction of Asian theories regarding the nature of man and the cosmos” (Braden 1967: 18). Again, to reiterate the point, the so-called “wholesale introduction” might be better understood in terms of the theories being read and utilized through a Western psychiatric cultural filter. As a consequence, the psychospiritual narrative that appeared within this oriental context, tended to be designed within a therapeutic schema.
The psychiatric cultural filter had, before this period, already taken a large hand in disseminating Eastern scripture into the popular Western milieu. (It should also be noted that the writers known as the ‘beat generation’ also has a fascination with Eastern scripture and drug use, but an examination of their influence is outside the scope of this essay.) The first type-specimen we will examine is The Psychedelic Experience (1964) by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert. The book is based on the Buddhist text The Tibetan Book of the Dead (TBD), (although TBD’s textual roots are arguably from a pre-Buddhist era,) and it purports to be a guide book for taking one through the psychedelic experience in order to achieve a state of ego-loss. It is thus contingent to the aims of psychedelic therapy. This examination will be done by briefly tracing TBD’s impact on the West generally and specifically into this period of literature. Moreover, it is necessary to outline how a psychiatric context was the ground through which it is understand and extrapolated.
Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1927) was, although not a complete translation, an attempt to synthesise the main points of what was originally titled the Bardo Thödol, or The Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo for a Western audience (Evans-Wentz 1960; Bishop 1993). It was compiled and edited by Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz. The book was originally designed to guide people through the experience of death with the intention of having them follow the white light in order to avoid another corporeal life: “The first part, called Chikhai Bardo, describes the psychic happenings at the moment of death. The second part, or Chönyid Bardo, deals with the dream-state which supervenes immediately after death, and with what are called ‘karmic illusions’. The third part, or Sidpa Bardo, concerns the onset of the birth-instinct and of prenatal events” (Evans-Wentz 1960: xxxvi). The Buddhist text was studied during life in preparation for death, and was also read over the dying and dead body in order to guide them through the process.
When it was first published in the West, the text had a wide ranging impact on the Western imagination (Evans-Wentz 1960; Bishop 1993). Aside from the Buddhist and spiritual interest, psychologists and psychiatrists became fascinated by the text; Carl Jung, for example, wrote a Psychological Commentary for the 1938 Swiss edition and subsequent publications in English also included it (Evans-Wentz 1960). Jung’s commentary demonstrates why the text subsequently became very important for psychedelic literature. He wrote: “Metaphysical assertions, however, are statements of the psyche, and are therefore psychological” (Evans-Wentz 1960: xxxvii). The fact that this book, to Jung’s mind at least, was a psychological tract, and one in which described a journey from one state to another, meant it was easily corresponded to the psychedelic territory.
Aldous Huxley had first proposed the book’s usefulness in connection with hallucinogen use in his two mescaline texts. He compared, in his own experience, good and bad reactions to the display of colours and white light: “An almost identical doctrine is to be found in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the departed soul is described as shrinking in agony from the Clear Light of the Void, and even from the lesser, tempered Lights, in order to rush headlong into the comforting darkness of selfhood as a reborn human being” (Huxley 1994: 37). Furthermore: “Like heaven, the visionary hell has its praeternatural light and its praeternatural significance. But the significance is intrinsically appalling and the light is ‘the smoky light’ of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the ‘darkness visible’ of Milton” (Huxley 1994: 98). While Huxley may have only been using the TBD as simile or metaphor, the relevance of the text for psychedelia had been grounded.
Interestingly, for Leary et al., the relevance of the book was slightly shifted and this, no doubt, is because of the development of psychedelic therapy or, in other words, the necessity of building a therapeutic framework around the psychedelic experience based on method of ego-loss. Their later integration of the Tibetan model, therefore, is understood here as reflecting the need for psychiatrists to develop a practical therapeutic model that adhered to their theoretical concerns about the psyche.
Ralph Metzner said of his first LSD experience, in which an early form of the guide book was employed, that he found himself feeling that afterward “[f]or about two or three hours I had no problem maintaining that state of spherical openness. It was effortless. I knew I was in my body, but I had no identity with it. My identity and awareness seemed to be spread throughout the room and even beyond into the forest outside” (Dass 2010). This is very much in line with Huxley’s mind-at-large and reducing-valve model, so far as identity with the body, the ego consciousness, is reduced as the awareness of mind-at-large increases. By the time of its publication, Leary, Metzner and Alpert were no longer working within the confines of an academic institution, thus The Psychedelic Experience was a model, although based on the insights garnered from their own psychiatric training, that anyone could employ—an attempt to culturally legitimize the practise within the wider social.
The Psychedelic Experience, narratively speaking, is structured into the three bardos: First Bardo, called The Period of Ego-Loss or Non-Game Ecstasy; Second Bardo, The Period of Hallucinations; and the Third Bardo, The Period of Re-Entry. After these three sections there are some technical notes for people to conduct their own sessions, including instruction on what drugs, in what doses and the way to create an ideal setting for the experience. What is obvious from the outset is the manner in which the adaption of principles has occurred: Rather than preparing an individual to follow the white light in order for the liberation of the soul to occur and, thereby, remove the circularity of rebirth into the body, this text focusses on the liberation of the ego:
In the realm of the Clear Light, similarly, the mentality of a person in the ego-transcendent state momentarily enjoys a condition of balance, of perfect equilibrium, and of oneness. Unfamiliar with such a state, which is an ecstatic state of non-ego, the consciousness of the average human lacks the power to function in it (Leary 2008: 27)
As a therapeutic method, then, the aim is to detach an individual from their personal ego, which is seen as a socio-political construct that keeps people spiritually and personally alienated. Then, having achieved ego-loss, and a necessarily interconnected spiritual state, guide them through ‘re-entry’ while maintaining their liberated ego. Clearly, the Oriental spirituality is being employed in the service of psychedelic, psychiatric models and not vice- versa. In this respect, it is a particular religious path being applied to the particular psychospiritual aims of psychedelic therapy.
The second path this essay will examine is a Christian one, and its type-specimen Exploring Inner Space: Personal Experiences Under LSD-25 (1961) by Jane Dunlap, a pseudonym for the nutritionist and writer Adelle Davis (1904-1974). Davis undertook five LSD experiences under the auspices of Dr. Oscar Janiger’s study on the creative process, which examined the action of the substance on artists and writers (Rios 2003). Davis, herself, purportedly entered into the study in order to find “a chemical Christianity”, and based on results such as hers, Janiger later, in conjunction with Marlene Dobkin de Rios, posited the existence of ‘neurotheological’ circuits in the brain that corresponded to the religious experience. Furthermore, as a friend of both Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, it safe to presume that he therefore shared certain psychedelically-tempered expectations (Stevens 1993: Rios 2003). What is of interest to this essay, however, is how Davis’ psychospiritual narrative is constructed via her attempts to read the experience as Christian: namely, through her upbringing, expectations, and the qualitative content of her experience.
Exploring Inner Space describes five LSD experiences, the first of which was conducted by a friend of Davis’, identified as Dr. Snow, and occurred on the 24 October, 1959 in “Dr. Snow’s beautiful home rather than the somewhat dreary rooms of the university infirmary” (Dunlap 1961, 19). Davis’ following four LSD sessions were similarly conducted to the first, but were under the auspices of Janiger’s sub-study on LSD and creativity, although her own aims were explicitly spiritual (Dunlap 1961).
Her wish to discover a “chemical Christianity” was based on her belief that, while being intellectually, physically, and emotionally developed, she was spiritually neglected, and that to live a full life all of these aspects should be addressed. LSD, therefore, potentially offered her the chance to correct her perceived spiritual paucity. In her opening chapter, she describes her spiritual development, which was tempered by uncertainty, a fear of Hell in her youth, and had ultimately left her in a “spiritual rut”. Most importantly, for this essay however, she did not expect to overcome this by leaving the spiritual path that culture had imbued her with i.e. Christianity. Indeed, she re-imbued the psychedelic experience with her own intentions. Of one experience, she wrote:
During this period hundreds of visions passed before my eyes, and dozens of Old Testament characters again lived and breathed. Later I repeated the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm over and over. With each repetition, the words became more meaningful, more wrought with comfort, forgiveness, and God’s love (Dunlap 1961, 192)
During her LSD experiences Davis became increasingly aware of religion as a whole. She was confronted by a cascade of religious figures from the Buddha, through Islamic, Hindu, and minor Christian characters. However, ultimately in her LSD vision, she was confronted by Christ Himself, and not only was she filled with his love, but with the spirit of Christian evangelism, embodied in her wish to become a Billy Graham figure. Davis came to believe that, “to think of religion as confined to church attendance was a mockery and a hypocrisy. Again the conviction came that religion was a deep inner need of every person who ever lived, a soul crying for spiritual growth and fulfilment” (Dunlap 1961: 188). Her spiritual recognition, therefore, while tempered by a Christian symbology that was inherent in her personal and cultural background, rested on an experiential groundwork. She rejects the formalities of a Church-going schema and instead focuses on the necessity of a psychospiritual path. The Christian path is personally individualized, and she rejects the communality of the Church.
The last example that shall be discussed here is Malden Grange Bishop’s The Discovery of Love: A Psychedelic Experience with LSD-25 (1963). This is a particularly interesting text for two reasons. Firstly, it is highly-contingent to the methods, practises and aims of psychedelic therapy. Secondly, Bishop’s own dislike for organized religion and its accompanying dogma meant that he attempts to describe a spiritual experience under the influence of LSD without recourse to any particular religious tradition. As such, it will be described here as a secular path, so far as it follows the formula and aims of psychedelic therapy, creating a psychospiritual narrative, but does so within the confines of this particular medical model only. And, indeed, the book often takes an explicitly anti-religious stance. To clarify this it is necessary to take a closer look at the text itself, and what it says regarding Bishop, religion, and the nature of the LSD experience it describes..
Bishop was a technical writer by trade; a well-educated, family man, who when asked for his reasoning for wishing to take LSD, wrote: “I want to know more about myself. I want to discover who I am. I want to learn to love more deeply, and more completely. Love, to me, is that state wherein love is its own reward, and where the lover demands nothing whatsoever of the loved one. Love is freedom. I want to be free in love” (Bishop 1963, 28). The text, therefore, perfectly reflects the aims of psychedelic therapy promoting one’s understanding of the self and, moreover, that it was applicable within a spiritual, emotional and metaphysical territory, he said: “What I really discovered under LSD was love. Some call it God, and I like this term too. It is God; it is Love” (Bishop 1963, 14).
His single high-dose session, the reader is told, was administered at the ‘Institute of Psychedelic Studies’ in San Francisco and on the Institute’s board of directors was Dr. Humphry Osmond, whose methods were being practised at the institute (Bishop 1963). Osmond also wrote the foreword to Bishop’s text. He wrote: “The background here is the whole of the author’s life and unless we know what manner of man he is, we cannot hope to follow, let alone understand, his account of the mind manifesting experience” (Bishop 1963, 8).
Bishop opposes the lesson of his LSD experience, the recognition of a self beyond his corporeal existence, to the word faith because unlike faith he was imparted with an experiential, sensual knowledge that was a verifiable ‘truth’ while, “faith is the acceptance of something which you cannot otherwise prove” (Bishop 1963, 14). Bishop is drawing a line between the monotheistic, Western religions, in particular protestant Christianity, and that which one might experience on LSD. He is decidedly against organised religion and its moral dogmas, positing instead spirituality based on experience. He says, “The LSD experience is not concerned with morality. Rather it is concerned with immortality, which is what each of us seeks” (Bishop 1963, 15).
He is going a step along with Huxley’s position in Island by proposing that LSD could itself be the basis of an experience-based religion, a psychospiritual approach. Indeed, most importantly, he is not placing his experience within a fictional framework—he was verifying a practical social tool that he had tested. Interestingly, Bishop stands alone in all the primary psychedelic texts of this period for developing a specific spiritual understanding based on, and manifesting from, psychedelic therapy itself, rather than through the lens of a particular religion.
The meaning of the word psychedelic, as used by Bishop in his brand of experience- based spirituality, had begun to transform by 1963. Although Osmond had decided on the word because it had no previous connotations, by 1963, its meaning had begun to develop from ‘mind-manifesting’ into a word loaded with new intrinsic meanings. Bishop describes the word psychedelic in two ways during the book; as meaning mind-manifesting, which is concurrent with the meaning of the word attached to it by Osmond but also as soul- manifesting. Herein lies the very dichotomy that is at the heart of this territory of drug writing; the Greek term psyche is employed to mean both soul and mind and therefore underlines the conjunction between psychological and spiritual understandings; otherwise known here as the psychospiritual. Huxley’s early speculations had developed into a psychiatric practice that took both elements seriously and which had begun to filter into the social in new textual and psychiatric forms. In the case of Bishop: “My own experience under LSD was the revelation of my soul to me. There can be no deeper experience, no more profound revelation” (Bishop 1963, 13). The psychedelic experience was, in Bishop’s words, a “revelation”. Consequentially, the text can be understood as validating LSD, and other hallucinogens, as the basis for a revelationary, and experience-based spirituality, mediated by Western medical practises.
Once psychiatry had integrated the literary exploration of Huxley and given credence to a scientific practise that embraced the possibility of elucidating a psychospiritual experience, literature responded by asking more fervently, what was the nature of this experience? As has been shown, there were a number of answers to this question, but while the path and content of the psychospiritual might be coloured by particular culturally-contingent religious symbol sets, it was the medical practise itself, and the employment of psychedelics, which underpinned them all, and this is most obviously realized in Bishop’s text.
Of course, the well-told tragedy of scientific research with hallucinogens largely coming to an end in the 1960s provides the greatest sticking point here. Lenson contented that with the introduction of Eastern religious ideas, Western culture missed a chance to develop its own mystical tradition. However, by looking at the literary evidence alone, it seems obvious that there was the development of a particularly Western tradition: A psychospiritual approach developed within the medicals parameters of certain disciplines such as psychiatry and psychoanalysis. The tragedy was not that Eastern ideals had disturbed the chance of a Western method, they were symbol sets, along with traditional Western ones, that the burgeoning psychospiritual approach utilized in its own territorialization. The tragedy was that its development, culturally and medically within mainstream society, was curtailed by law—and law alone.
With the psychedelic movement, and certainly its psychospiritual elements, being driven underground, other approaches that had been present, or recently emerging, became the staple frameworks for the now illegal users of psychedelics—frameworks such as the Native American Church and the various shamanic practises of South America. While it is certainly true to say that these other traditions were, and often still are, formulated through the language of psychology by Westerners, the development of a particular Western tradition has become more diffuse. Perhaps rightly, if only for the wrong reasons. And with the psychedelic research seemingly burgeoning again it will be interesting to see whether the psychospiritual approach will, once again, become a primary area of investigation and development.
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Bishop, Peter. Dreams of Power: Tibetan Buddhism and the Western Imagination. London. Athlone Press. 1993.
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Doblin, Rick. Pahnke’s Good Friday Experiment: A Long-Term Follow-up and Methodological Critique 84-93, In Roberts, Thomas [ed]. Spiritual Growth with Entheogens: Psychoactive Sacramentals and Human Transformation. Rochester. Park Street Press. 2012
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