Psychedelic Reflections — Afterword
Lester Grinspoon & James B. Bakalar
Psychedelic Reflections ©Human Sciences Press 1983
One of the people we asked to write for this book replied that after long thought he had to decline, because he feared the effect on his ability to support himself and his family if he said what he really thought about psychedelic drugs. This may be an unusually strong expression of a feeling that is more common in milder forms. Anyone, whatever his views on the drugs themselves, ought to recognize that it is an unhealthy situation in a free society. Even if this kind of fear is not common—even if it is not justified—the fact that it exists at all suggests something seriously wrong in our social response to psychedelic drugs. They were once regarded by some as the great liberating force of our time, the destined sacrament of the Aquarian Age, and by others as a threat to sanity and civilized society. In the last 10 years, since the end of the psychedelic craze, they have been neglected almost entirely. All these attitudes, as the essays in this anthology suggest, are wrong, but apparently they can still affect people's actions to the point of self-censorship.
It is hard to achieve balance in our thinking about psychedelic drugs because the response to them is intimately bound up with a whole set of attitudes about everything from drugs in general to mysticism in general. As a drug abuse problem, LSD and its relatives are no longer a very serious issue. There has probably been a moderate decline in illicit use of psychedelic drugs, and there has certainly been a substantial decline in publicity about it. We are not ever likely to face an epidemic of psychedelic drug abuse again. The question now is not how to get these drugs off the streets—which is probably impossible anyway—but how to get them back into laboratories, hospitals, and other supervised settings. The irony becomes obvious in rereading the public debates of the sixties. The most determined opponents of the drug culture and advocates of restrictive legislation continually warn against allowing the concern about abuse of psychedelic drugs to prevent legitimate research. But that is in effect what we have done. Uncontrolled use continues, probably at the same level it would have reached even without the laws, while controlled legal use has become impossible. We should arrange ways for people to take psychedelic drugs responsibly under appropriate guidance within the law, and a way for those who want to administer them to volunteers for therapeutic and general research to do so. This is not the place to go into details about informed consent and selection, preparation, and training of subjects and guides. But it is important to keep in mind that from 1950 to 1962, when LSD and mescaline were more freely available within the law than they are ever likely to be again, there were very few reports of adverse reactions.
To discuss how to handle the problem of psychedelic drugs within the present system of rules and institutions, however, is to suggest what a restricted and historically peculiar system it is. LSD and its relatives are treated for research purposes very much like a new antibiotic, as medicines to be tested for specific, concrete, limited efficacy and safety and accepted or rejected on that basis. In other words, the model is Western physical medicine of the last 50 years. Compare the great variety of more or less successful alternatives: Huichol peyote ceremonies, Mazatec curing rites vision quests, psycholytic therapy sessions, the Native American Church. These are the arrangements that arise naturally in any culture where the drugs are not suppressed, and analogues of them were developing among us even when the LSD abuse problem was at its height. They still exist, but they have been driven underground, and we have effectively foreclosed our choices. For us anything called a drug must be either a simple medicine or a "drug of abuse." Evaluating psychedelic drugs in the same way that we evaluate aspirin will always be enormously to their disadvantage, since they do not bring guaranteed relief for any simply defined problem. The Mexican Indian who said, "Aspirin is a drug, peyote is sacred," was making a distinction that our laws do not permit.
Using different analogies makes the anomalies in our laws and attitudes obvious. For example, as a voyage and an adventure, taking LSD might be compared to flying a plane or climbing a mountain. Psychedelic drug use as a form of spiritual or psychological exploration might be compared with methods like kundalina yoga, Tantra, or the more emotionally intense forms of psychotherapy, all of which induce drastic changes in consciousness that may occasionally endanger emotional stability for the sake of some alleged insight, awakening, or realization. Even psychoanalysis can produce psychotic reactions. Yet no one considers outlawing any of these practices. To many people familiar with psychedelic drugs, such comparisons seem more appropriate than an analogy with antibiotics or aspirin, or even with drugs used mainly for pleasure or because of addiction.
Consider another analogy. Imagine that no one has ever remembered his dreams before, except a few widely ignored mystics, primitives, and madmen. Then someone invents an electrical gadget that permits them to be recalled. At first, dreams come as a revelation. People who use the machine are overwhelmed by their depth of emotion and symbolic significance. They rush out to look up the obscure literature about this neglected state of awareness. Psychologists discover that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. Others examine them for prophecies, philosophies, and religions, clues to personal salvation and social revolution. Meanwhile, there are the many who have never remembered their dreams and do not understand why anyone considers them important or useful; they declare it all mental illness and social decadence, and demand that the machines be outlawed. Ultimately the dreamers too become somewhat disillusioned. Remembering and interpreting dreams provides no sure cure for any illness and no obvious alternative view of the world. Their meaning for art, philosophy, and religion is ambiguous. Many dreams are unpleasant or frightening. People sometimes act foolishly in following the commands of their dreams. Some dream interpretation is superstitious, some of the popular dream interpreters are of dubious character, and some of the dream cults have repellent practices. Dreams are not the answer.
One possible outcome is that we decide to record and study dreams, relate them to other states of consciousness and to neurophysiology, find out their possible scientific, therapeutic, and creative uses, and so on, while cautioning against overvaluation of them. Another possibility is withdrawing in fear, declaring that we were meant to forget our dreams and that remembering them is pathological and socially debilitating, and finally suppressing the means by which they are remembered. We have removed a source of disturbance, at the price of denying part of our own potential. Psychedelic drugs resemble this imaginary machine. They sometimes allow people to see things about themselves that they did not know before, without telling them how to interpret and act on what they see. We have the choice of ignoring and suppressing this knowledge or finding ways to make use of it.
One of the main problems is that we have no appropriate classification for psychedelic drugs. We cannot regard them as divine: should we then treat them like aspirin or heroin? Are they outlawed because we fear drugs, or because we fear the social effects of altered states of awareness, religious intensity, and mysticism? LSD use may be conceived as part of a drug problem that also includes something as utterly different as heroin addiction; it may also be seen as part of a social trend toward irrationalist religious enthusiasm combined with scorn for gainful labor and political participation; and these fears are in practice inextricably entangled.
In modern society we are uneasy about experiences we cannot quickly classify. We are unwilling to tolerate much ambiguity, for example, about whether an activity is religious ritual, medicinal, or recreation, and our legal arrangements depend on these classifications. Use of psychoactive drugs in general and of psychedelic drugs in particular crosses these lines and muddies these distinctions, and that appears as a threat to control and rationality, a problem for the law and society. We have chosen, in effect, to divide psychoactive drugs into three categories: first, medicines, second, drugs that may be used for pleasure (alcohol is the main example) and third, so-called drugs of abuse, a few of which also have medical uses. Psychedelic drugs have been classified as drugs of abuse without medical uses, and our legal and social attitudes toward them follow from that. Some of the hostility to psychedelic drugs, especially among people who are unsophisticated about them, is based on the assumption that they are just another exotic vice providing enviable but dangerous thrills, which like all such stereotypical vices can also drive the user into addiction, madness, and despair.
But at a deeper level the social response to psychedelic drugs is also connected with their users' tendency to revert to religious language and interpretations in talking about them. The idea of drug use as a religious practice—in fact, of any connection between drugs and religion—is one we are willing to indulge in preindustrial cultures but violently reject for ourselves. Orthodox religion in the West long ago abandoned the sacramental use of drugs, so during the psychedelic era this field was appropriated by sects, eclectic or syncretic, which challenged the hegemony of established medical and police rules. The "LSD priest" (Timothy Leary's term) who led a "drug cult" was in effect a rival of the physician in importing and applying expertise on drugs. The old calling of priesthood or shamanism invaded territory claimed by modern medical professionals. Modern medicine was even likened to a state religion, with imposing organized strength, an intellectually powerful ideology, an ability to create and sustain faith, and the all-important support of civil authority; it was said to treat unorthodox healing practices as heresy or pagan superstition to be eliminated by a mixture of official coercion and missionary activity. A religious war in which medicine served as the ideological arm of cultural orthodoxy was said to be disguised by scientific terminology and talk about health hazards.
These quasi-religious disputes suggest that our attitudes toward psychedelic drugs involve response to certain kinds of experience as well as certain substances. We have a mysticism problem as well as a drug problem, and its historical causes are older and more complicated than the causes of the drug controversy. Mystical, messianic, and shamanistic religion always comes into conflict with established authority after social evolution has reached the stage of hierarchical state systems. Any contact with divinity not subject to priestly mediation and formulation in terms of traditional doctrines appears as a threat to the political and social order, and may be classified as madness or vice. It is feared that all accepted standards will be abandoned in a frenzied search for some individual or communal self-realization.
The potential challenge to social order in all forms of religious intoxication, drug-induced or not, is augmented by special characteristics of modern Western society. Max Weber discovered a cultural foundation of modernity in the Protestant ethic of inner-worldly asceticism, which developed at about the same time as the scientific revolution. The Protestant ethic demands the attainment of salvation by work and activity according to rational norms within this world. In identifying religious duty with rule-governed mastery of everyday life, it opposes all forms of otherworldliness in religion, including the other-worldly asceticism of desert saints; it also opposes all mysticism, for in mysticism the highest virtue is to be possessed rather than active, a vessel rather than an instrument of divinity. Both conservatives and radicals in a society devoted to the extension of rule-governed control over the external world are likely to see great dangers in mystical and messianic religion, either because it is too passive and socially quietist, or simply because it may tend to devaluate everyday life and economic activity.
This mistrust of religious virtuosity, whether it takes the generic or the specifically modern form, should not be regarded as mere cowardice, intellectual rigidity, or defense of established privilege. As the sadder aspects of hippie culture showed, all standards of truth and social responsibility may be abandoned in the search for spiritual revitalization by means of magic, myth, and mystery. Mysticism claiming ineffability is a common form of rebellion in rationalistic ages like our own; it can be useful in moderating the excessive pretensions of intellect, but the danger is that it will turn into a mere plea of impotence: a denial of reason and an admission of incapacity to cope with social problems that takes the form of quietism or messianic fanaticism
So the belief that psychedelic religiosity may cause a breakdown of social order (as conservatives fear) or abandonment of the struggle for social change (as radicals fear) is no more and no less reasonable than the fear of a breakdown of individual mental stability during a drug trip; in some circumstances it could be justified. But for the most part these circumstances do not now exist. As the essays in this book prove, the vision achieved in ecstatic states usually depends for its social content on the intellectual set that is brought to it; once it recedes it can serve as a backdrop for action as well as passivity, and for moderate as well as extreme action.
If the self-image of modern Western society cannot easily accommodate virtuoso religion and mysticism, it also precludes the suppression of virtuoso religion and mysticism. Liberal principles demand free speech, freedom of worship, and the right of privacy. The government does not claim to know what sorts of experiences and thoughts its subjects should and should not cultivate. But drugs are a special case. We do not admit, even to ourselves, that outlawing psychedelic drugs could be in part an attempt to eliminate certain kinds of experience and thinking. By regarding them as merely exotic vice, dangerous instruments, or poisonous substances, we avoid the issue. Therefore, in the case of drugs, the liberal principles that prevent expression of the typical modern distrust of enthusiastic and mystical religion by legally suppressing it do not operate.
Psychedelic drugs are a borderline case in many ways—therapeutically, intellectually, and socially. The components of research, therapy, religion, and recreation in their use are hard to separate (the awkward term "consciousness-expansion" is an attempt to define a role for them by avoiding all these familiar categories). Since we do not know where to place them, they become an easy target for confused fears about drugs in general or matters unrelated to drugs. For example, the idea has been suggested that centers should be established where people could go to take psychedelic drugs in a safe environment. But are these centers conceived as analogous to resorts, amusement parks, psychiatric clinics, religious retreats, Outward Bound expeditions, or scientific research institutions? Without any further examination, the very ambiguity of purpose is enough to create hostility and suspicion. And in this field liberal governments feel justified in asserting themselves with the kind of confidence that only despotic governments display with respect to other social questions.
Our legal and political institutions, like our natural science and psychiatry, are failing to supply the complex response these complex drugs demand. We should show more confidence in our capacity to tolerate and make use of them. That demands, first, a more consistent application of liberal principles. We need to produce a suitable balance between individual choice and protective authority, and in doing this it is probably useless to try to find replacements for the existing inadequate conceptual categories. We simply have to tolerate some openly recognized ambiguity in dealing with psychedelic drugs. The old forms of religious justification, for example, are obviously no longer plausible. Except for a few isolated individuals and groups like the peyote church, intoxication can no longer be sacred in the primitive and ancient sense, no matter how intensely religious it may seem as pure experience. Too much has been changed by the intellectual and social revolutions of the modern age; there is no point in mourning the loss, if it is one.
But we have something to learn from religious forms of drug use, especially about the protective and assimilative function of ceremony. Preindustrial societies might also have something to teach us about the proper balance between democracy and authority in managing psychedelic drugs. When primary religious experience is no longer restricted to specially qualified charismatic individuals, the resulting democratization presents special dangers and opportunities. The danger is that everyone will think himself qualified to start his own religion, as Timothy Leary once half-facetiously recommended, and some sort of authority and tradition is needed to avoid this parody of liberal individualism.
For example, in his last novel, Island, Aldous Huxley tried to salvage a communal significance for the drug experience by imagining a utopia in which psychedelic drugs play an integral part. On his fictitious island in the Indian Ocean, a decentralized political system and a Western science and technology stripped of their excesses are guided by a Buddhist philosophical/religious tradition, with the help of a psychedelic drug called moksha medicine that is used on carefully defined occasions, especially by the dying and in initiation rites. Huxley's utopia avoids the danger of excessive individualism by an emphasis on community, discipline, and tradition in the use of psychedelic drugs. The usefulness of the drug depends on the quality of the social system and not the other way around. He also avoids the cultural limitations of primitive mythologies and communities by incorporating the most tolerant and ecumenical of the great world religions and the most universally applicable body of human intellectual achievement.
Unfortunately, Huxley is pessimistic about his own solution, at least for the short run. His utopia survives only because it is an island that has been fortunately isolated for generations from the malevolent forces of the modern world. In the moving and horrifying final chapter, it is destroyed in a coup d'etat by a neighboring ruler who represents Oil, Progress, Spiritual Values (Huxley's ironic capital letters), military force, lying propaganda, and demagogic tyranny in a combination with all the worst features of capitalism, communism, and third-world nationalism. If the fate of Huxley's island turns out to be the fate of the world, there will certainly be no place in it for psychedelic drugs. Whatever their dangers and potential for abuse, they are worse than useless to a modern despotism. Unlike Huxley's earlier invention, soma, they do not reconcile the user to a routine or keep the fires of the intellect and passion burning low. On the other hand, the hippie idea of drugging ourselves into individual and social salvation is obviously illusory, and Huxley certainly did not mean to promote that illusion.
Something in the nature of our society and of the drug trip itself tends to make us fall into attitudes of worshipful awe or frightened contempt when thinking about psychedelic drugs. It is as though they had to be either absolutely central or beyond the periphery of normal human experience. But in primitive shamanism that is not what happens; instead, at least ideally, "the otherwise unfettered power of the world beyond human society is harnessed purposefully and applied to minister to the needs of the community." (Lewis, 1971, p. 189). That is just what technology, including drug technology, is supposed to do in our society. We should find a modest role for psychedelic drugs, not deifying or demonizing or ignoring them, and distinguishing rational from irrational fears. The metaphysical hunger that provides one reason for the interest in these drugs is a permanent human condition, not an aberration that is created by the drugs nor one that can be eliminated by suppressing them. Huxley's Island expresses not faith in psychedelic drugs, which would be a form of idolatry, but hope for mankind. It dramatizes the conviction that the drugs can be used, rather than condemned and neglected, and that finding a way to use them well is a test for humanity. We should use our resources of intelligence, imagination, and moral discernment to face that test.
Clark, W., Lieff, J., Lieff, C., & Sussman, R. Psychedelic research: Obstacles and values. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 1975, 15: 5-17.
Huxley, A. Island. New York: Harper & Row, 1972 (orig. 1962).
Lewis, I.M. Ecstatic Religion. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971.