[Vision2020] Psychedelic Drugs and Mystical Experiences

Nicholas Gier ngier006 at gmail.com
Sat Dec 8 17:36:50 PST 2018

For those who do not get the DNews, you will find my Thursday column right
For over 20 years I've been trying to set the record straight on the
meaning of mysticism.  It started with a presentation at a physics
conference at the UI in 1998. (Read why contemporary physics is not
mystical at webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/mysticism.htm.) The physicists in
attendance were really relieved to hear that the Tao of Physics and Dancing
Wu Li Masters, while valuable in so many respects, were wrong about the
spiritual connections.
May your Christmas season be mysterious and magical, and perhaps a few of
you might have some mystical experiences, but I doubt it.

*Psychedelic Drugs and Mystical Experiences *

 Nick Gier

Not month goes by that I don’t run across yet another misuse of the word
“mystical.” I just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da
Vinci, and I cringed when he described Mona Lisa’s smile as “mystical.” The
right words are either “enigmatic” or “mysterious,” and after reading his
analysis of the painting the smile is a little less so.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the “mystical” as “spiritual union
with God transcending human comprehension.” This definition needs to be
revised to include those mystics (primarily in India) who claim union with
an impersonal Divine One. While each name ultimate reality differently,
they all agree that the mystical experience is ineffable.

St. Catherine of Genoa, a medieval mystic, speaks of the dissolution of the
self into God in the following way: “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any
other Me except my God Himself.”

This is essentially the same as Paul’s phrase “Not I, but Christ,” the
Hindu saying “Not I, but Atman-Brahman),” or the later Buddhist saying “Not
I, but the Buddha nature.”

Those under the influence of psychedelics have intense perceptions and
strong ecstatic feelings, but Catherine experiences none of these: “When
the soul is naughted and transformed, then of herself she neither works nor
speaks nor wills, nor feels nor hears nor understands.”

In 1943, Albert Hoffman, the Swiss biochemist who first synthesized LSD,
describes his first trip as follows: “I perceived an uninterrupted stream
of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic
play of colors.”

In his classic work *The Doors of Perception *Aldous Huxley describes an
experience he had with mescaline in great detail. Remarkably similar to
Hoffman’s LSD trip, Huxley found his outer world richly and vividly
colored: his books “were like flowers, they glowed when I looked at them.
Red books, like rubies; emerald books; books bound in white jade. . .
intense, so intrinsically meaningful.”

In contrast to the mystical experience, Huxley’s visions were fully
differentiated and particularized. “Pure Being” is “a bundle of minute,
unique particulars.” Also different from mystical experiences, which are
reported as outside of time and space, Huxley’s visions and others on
psychedelics were in time and space, although it was not clock time (oddly
“there was plenty of it”) and space was wonderfully distorted.

In a later essay “Heaven and Hell” Huxley admits that “mystical experience
is beyond the realm of opposites. Visionary experience is still within that
realm.” He also speculates that an “infinitesimal minority are capable of
immediate union with the Divine Ground,” but a few more may be able to
experience the “visionary bliss of heaven.”

 In his new book *How to Change Your Mind *Michael Pollan claims that
psychedelic drugs can produce mystical experiences. A close look, however,
of his accounts reveals that they are, by and large, vivid perceptions or
visions not mystical union.

When Pollan ingested a huge psilocybin mushroom, he found that his self was
“spread over the landscape like paint, or butter, thinly coating a wide
expanse of the world with a substance I recognized as me.” Note that this
self, although wildly distorted, is still allowing him to perceive and to
describe his experience. This is not the total dissolution of all sense of
self and feelings reported by St. Catherine.

Pollan suggests that he experienced what Huxley called “Mind at Large” from
his own mescaline trip. He speculates that this might be “a universal,
shareable form of consciousness unbonded by a any single brain,” what
others have called “cosmic consciousness, the Oversoul, or Universal Mind.”

Among all the wonderous discoveries of astrophysics, evidence for a cosmic
consciousness has not appeared nor should we expect there to be any.
Consciousness is an attribute of large-brained animals and possible
extraterrestrial beings.

Huxley’s vision of “a bundle of minute, unique particulars” is more in line
with the exotic world of particle physics. Using playful words such as
“colored” quarks and the “beauty baryon” (containing three quarks),
physicists are expressing awe and wonder about a world that they find
difficult to express but try to measure anyway.

Although I believe as a philosopher that it is important to get the meaning
of words straight, some may think that this debate is just academic.
Therefore, I want to conclude with praise for Pollan for imparting
important information about how psychedelic drugs have helped patients with
addiction, depression, and anxiety. Pollan shows that before LSD was banned
in 1966, extensive studies proved the effectiveness of these drugs, and
these alternative treatments are now coming back as restrictions have been

Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of
Idaho for 31 years. Email him at ngier006 at gmail.com.


A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they
shall never sit in.

-Greek proverb

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.
Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance
from another. This immaturity is self- imposed when its cause lies not in
lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without
guidance from another. Sapere Aude! ‘Have courage to use your own
understand-ing!—that is the motto of enlightenment.

--Immanuel Kant
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