Mescaline Life Changing Experience Essays

1. McGlothlin WH (1964) Hallucinogenic Drugs: A Perspective with Special Reference to Peyote and Cannabis. RAND Corp. Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

2. Bruhn JG, De Smet PA, El-Seedi HR, Beck O (2002) Mescaline use for 5700 years. Lancet359: 1866. [PubMed]

3. Nichols DE (2004) Hallucinogens. Pharmacol Ther101: 131–181 [PubMed]

4. Krebs TS, Johansen PØ (2013) Over 30 million psychedelic users in the United States. F1000 Research (in press). [PMC free article][PubMed]

5. Hallock RM, Dean A, Knecht ZA, Spencer J, Taverna EC (2012) A survey of hallucinogenic mushroom use, factors related to usage, and perceptions of use among college students. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2012 Dec 19 [Epub ahead of print]. pii S0376-8716(12)00451-6. 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2012.11.010. [PubMed]

6. Briggs G, Freeman RK, Sumner JY (2011) Drugs in Pregnancy and Lactation: A Reference Guide to Fetal and Neonatal Risk. 9th ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

7. McGlothlin WH, Arnold DO (1971) LSD revisited. A ten-year follow-up of medical LSD use. Arch Gen Psychiatry24: 35–49 [PubMed]

8. Griffiths R, Richards W, Johnson M, McCann U, Jesse R (2008) Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. J Psychopharmacol22: 621–632 [PMC free article][PubMed]

9. Griffiths RR, Johnson MW, Richards WA, Richards BD, McCann U, et al. (2011) Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences: immediate and persisting dose-related effects. Psychopharmacology (Berl)218: 649–665 [PMC free article][PubMed]

10. Morgan CJA, Muetzelfeldt L, Muetzelfeldt M, Nutt DJ, Curran HV (2010) Harms associated with psychoactive substances: findings of the UK National Drug Survey. J Psychopharmacol24: 147–153 [PubMed]

11. Carhart-Harris RL, Nutt DJ (2010) User perceptions of the benefits and harms of hallucinogenic drug use: A web-based questionnaire study. J Subst Abuse15: 283–300

12. Doblin R (1991) Pahnke’s “Good Friday Experiment”: a long-term follow-up and methodological critique. J Transpersonal Psy23: 1–25

13. McWilliams SA, Tuttle RJ (1973) Long-term psychological effects of LSD. Psychol Bull79: 341–351 [PubMed]

14. Hoaken PNS, Stewart SH (2003) Drugs of abuse and the elicitation of human aggressive behavior. Addict Behav28: 1533–1554 [PubMed]

15. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2011) Drug Profiles: Lysergide (LSD). Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

16. Nutt D, King LA, Saulsbury W, Blakemore C (2007) Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. Lancet369: 1047–1053 [PubMed]

17. Nutt DJ, King LA, Phillips LD (2010) Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis. Lancet376: 1558–65 [PubMed]

18. Van Amsterdam J, Opperhuizen A, Koeter M, Van den Brink W (2010) Ranking the harm of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs for the individual and the population. Eur Addict Res16: 202–207 [PubMed]

19. Taylor M, Mackay K, Murphy J, McIntosh A, McIntosh C, et al. (2012) Quantifying the RR of harm to self and others from substance misuse: results from a survey of clinical experts across Scotland. BMJ Open2: e000774 [PubMed]

20. Studerus E, Kometer M, Hasler F, Vollenweider FX (2011) Acute, subacute and long-term subjective effects of psilocybin in healthy humans: a pooled analysis of experimental studies. J Psychopharmacol25: 1434–1452 [PubMed]

21. González-Maeso J, Weisstaub N, Zhou M, Chan P, Ivic L, et al. (2007) Hallucinogens recruit specific cortical 5-HT(2A) receptor-mediated signaling pathways to affect behavior. Neuron53: 439–452 [PubMed]

22. American Psychiatric Association (1994) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental health disorders. 4th ed. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.

23. Kessler RC, Barker PR, Colpe LJ, Epstein JF, Gfroerer JC, et al. (2003) Screening for serious mental illness in the general population. Arch Gen Psychiatry60: 184–189 [PubMed]

24. Sunderland M, Andrews G, Slade T, Peters L (2011) Measuring the level of diagnostic concordance and discordance between modules of the CIDI-Short Form and the CIDI-Auto 2.1. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol46: 775–785 [PubMed]

25. International Consortium in Psychiatric Epidemiology (2005) Appendix for “New Scales to Screen for Serious Mental Illness in the General Population”. Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

26. Patel V, Lund C, Hatherill S, Plagerson S, Corrigall J, et al. . (2010) Mental disorders: equity and social determinants. In: Blas E, Sivasankara Kurup A, editors. Equity, social determinants and public health programmes. World Health Organization. pp.115–134.

27. Vittinghoff E, McCulloch CE (2007) Relaxing the rule of ten events per variable in logistic and Cox regression. Am J Epidemiol165: 710–718 [PubMed]

28. Catts VS, Catts SV (2010) Psychotomimetic effects of PCP, LSD, and Ecstasy: pharmacological models of schizophrenia? In: Sachdev PS, Keshavan MS, editors. Secondary Schizophrenia. Cambridge University Press. pp.141–168.

29. Van Amsterdam J, Opperhuizen A, Van den Brink W (2011) Harm potential of magic mushroom use: a review. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol59: 423–429 [PubMed]

30. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2011) Drug Profiles: Hallucinogenic Mushrooms. Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

31. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2009) DrugFacts: Hallucinogens - LSD, Peyote, Psilocybin, and PCP. Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

32. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2012) Get the Facts: Hallucinogens. Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

33. Department of Health and the Home Office (2012) LSD. FRANK Drug Awareness Campaign. Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

34. Department of Health and the Home Office (2012) Magic Mushrooms. FRANK Drug Awareness Campaign. Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

35. Johnston LD, O’Malley PM (1997) The recanting of earlier reported drug use by young adults. NIDA Res Monogr167: 59–80 [PubMed]

36. Laing R, Siegel JA, editors (2003) Hallucinogens: A Forensic Drug Handbook. Academic Press.

37. Halpern JH, Sherwood AR, Hudson JI, Yurgelun-Todd D, Pope HG (2005) Psychological and cognitive effects of long-term peyote use among Native Americans. Biol Psychiatry58: 624–631 [PubMed]

38. Bouso JC, González D, Fondevila S, Cutchet M, Fernández X, et al. (2012) Personality, psychopathology, life attitudes and neuropsychological performance among ritual users of ayahuasca: a longitudinal study. PLoS One7: e42421. [PMC free article][PubMed]

39. Kuzenko N, Sareen J, Beesdo-Baum K, Perkonigg A, Höfler M, et al. (2011) Associations between use of cocaine, amphetamines, or psychedelics and psychotic symptoms in a community sample. Acta Psychiatr Scand123: 466–474 [PubMed]

40. Bonn-Miller MO, Bernstein A, Sachs-Ericsson N, Schmidt NB, Zvolensky MJ (2007) Associations between psychedelic use, abuse, and dependence and lifetime panic attack history in a representative sample. J Anxiety Disord21: 730–741 [PubMed]

41. Vardy MM, Kay SR (1983) LSD psychosis or LSD-induced schizophrenia? A multimethod inquiry. Arch Gen Psychiatry40: 877–883 [PubMed]

42. Abraham HD (1983) Visual phenomenology of the LSD flashback. Arch Gen Psychiatry40: 884–889 [PubMed]

43. Batzer W, Ditzler T, Brown C (1999) LSD use and flashbacks in alcoholic patients. J Addict Dis18: 57–63 [PubMed]

44. Pechey R, Halligan P (2012) Prevalence and correlates of anomalous experiences in a large non-clinical sample. Psychol Psychother85: 150–162 [PubMed]

45. Caputo GB (2010) Apparitional experiences of new faces and dissociation of self-identity during mirror gazing. Percept Mot Skills110: 1125–1138 [PubMed]

46. Ohayon MM (2000) Prevalence of hallucinations and their pathological associations in the general population. Psychiatry Res97: 153–164 [PubMed]

47. Schankin CJ, Maniyar F, Goadsby PJ (2012) Field-testing the criteria for “visual snow” (positive persistent visual disturbance). F1000 Posters 3. Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

48. Halpern JH, Pope Jr HG (2003) Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder: What do we know after 50 years? Drug Alcohol Depend69: 109–119 [PubMed]

49. Voigt K, Wollburg E, Weinmann N, Herzog A, Meyer B, et al. (2012) Predictive validity and clinical utility of DSM-5 Somatic Symptom Disorder - Comparison with DSM-IV somatoform disorders and additional criteria for consideration. J Psychosomatic Res73: 345–350 [PubMed]

50. Genova P (2002) The Permanent Trip. The Thaw: Reclaiming the Person for Psychiatry. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press. pp.17–19.

51. Henderson LA (1998) Adverse reaction to LSD. LSD: Still with us after all these years. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. pp.55–75.

52. Andersson C, Kristinsson J, Gry J (2009) Occurrence and use of hallucinogenic mushrooms containing psilocybin alkaloids. Nordic Council of Ministers. Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

53. Aberle DF (1991) The Peyote Religion Among the Navaho. 2nd ed. University of Oklahoma Press.

54. Bergman RL (1971) Navajo peyote use: its apparent safety. Am J Psychiatry128: 695–699 [PubMed]

55. Perälä J, Suvisaari J, Saarni SI, Kuoppasalmi K, Isometsä E, et al. (2007) Lifetime prevalence of psychotic and bipolar I disorders in a general population. Arch Gen Psychiatry64: 19–28 [PubMed]

56. Marona-Lewicka D, Nichols DE (2007) Further evidence that the delayed temporal dopaminergic effects of LSD are mediated by a mechanism different than the first temporal phase of action. Pharmacol Biochem Behav87: 453–461 [PubMed]

57. Garden M (2007) Can meditation be bad for you? The Humanist. Available: Accessed 2013 Apr 30.

58. Shapiro DH Jr (1992) Adverse effects of meditation: a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators. Int J Psychosom39: 62–7 [PubMed]

59. Kuijpers HJH, Van der Heijden FMMA, Tuinier S, Verhoeven WMA (2007) Meditation-induced psychosis. Psychopathology40: 461–464 [PubMed]

60. Lyons D (2001) Soviet-style psychiatry is alive and well in the People’s Republic. Br J Psychiatry178: 380–381 [PubMed]

61. Lee S (2001) Who is politicising psychiatry in China? Br J Psychiatry179: 178–179 [PubMed]

62. Bar-el Y, Durst R, Katz G, Zislin J, Strauss Z, et al. (2000) Jerusalem syndrome. Br J Psychiatry176: 86–90 [PubMed]

63. Kalian M, Witztum E (2000) Comments on Jerusalem syndrome. Br J Psychiatry176: 492. [PubMed]

64. Nicholson TRJ, Pariante C, McLoughlin D (2009) Stendhal syndrome: a case of cultural overload. BMJ Case Reports 2009: pii: bcr06.2008.0317. [PMC free article][PubMed]

(Photo by JB Banks)

Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person's thoughts. Every waking moment--and even in our dreams--we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.

Drugs are another means toward this end. Some are illegal; some are stigmatized; some are dangerous--though, perversely, these sets only partially intersect. There are drugs of extraordinary power and utility, like psilocybin (the active compound in "magic mushrooms") and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which pose no apparent risk of addiction and are physically well-tolerated, and yet one can still be sent to prison for their use--while drugs like tobacco and alcohol, which have ruined countless lives, are enjoyed ad libitum in almost every society on earth. There are other points on this continuum--3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or "Ecstasy") has remarkable therapeutic potential, but it is also susceptible to abuse, and it appears to be neurotoxic.[1]

One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves, along with the next generation, about which substances are worth ingesting, and for what purpose, and which are not. The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term--"drugs"--and this makes it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use. The poverty of our language has been only slightly eased by the introduction of terms like "psychedelics" to differentiate certain visionary compounds, which can produce extraordinary states of ecstasy and insight, from "narcotics" and other classic agents of stupefaction and abuse.

Drug abuse and addiction are real problems, of course--the remedy for which is education and medical treatment, not incarceration. In fact, the worst drugs of abuse in the United States now appear to be prescription painkillers, like oxycodone. Should these medicines be made illegal? Of course not. People need to be informed about them, and addicts need treatment. And all drugs--including alcohol, cigarettes, and aspirin--must be kept out of the hands of children.

I discuss issues of drug policy in some detail in my first book, The End of Faith (pp. 158-164), and my thinking on the subject has not changed. The "war on drugs" has been well lost, and should never have been waged. While it isn't explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution, I can think of no political right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one's own consciousness. The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, constitutes one of the great moral failures of our time. (And the fact that we make room for them in our prisons by paroling murderers and rapists makes one wonder whether civilization isn't simply doomed.)

I have a daughter who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that she chooses her drugs wisely, but a life without drugs is neither foreseeable, nor, I think, desirable. Someday, I hope she enjoys a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If my daughter drinks alcohol as an adult, as she probably will, I will encourage her to do it safely. If she chooses to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation.[2] Tobacco should be shunned, of course, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer her away from it. Needless to say, if I knew my daughter would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if she does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.

This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics. As I will make clear below, these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, there are people who cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug. It has been many years since I have taken psychedelics, in fact, and my abstinence is borne of a healthy respect for the risks involved. However, there was a period in my early 20's when I found drugs like psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools of insight, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence. I think it quite possible that I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring without having first pressed this pharmacological advantage.

While human beings have ingested plant-based psychedelics for millennia, scientific research on these compounds did not begin until the 1950's. By 1965, a thousand studies had been published, primarily on psilocybin and LSD, many of which attested to the usefulness of psychedelics in the treatment of clinical depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), alcohol addiction, and the pain and anxiety associated with terminal cancer. Within a few years, however, this entire field of research was abolished in an effort to stem the spread of these drugs among the general public. After a hiatus that lasted an entire generation, scientific research on the pharmacology and therapeutic value of psychedelics has quietly resumed.

The psychedelics include chemicals like psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and mescaline--all of which powerfully alter cognition, perception, and mood. Most seem to exert their influence through the serotonin system in the brain, primarily by binding to 5-HT2A receptors (though several have affinity for other receptors as well), leading to increased neuronal activity in prefrontal cortex (PFC). While the PFC in turn modulates subcortical dopamine production, the effect of psychedelics appears to take place largely outside dopamine pathways (which might explain why these drugs are not habit forming).

The mere existence of psychedelics would seem to establish the material basis of mental and spiritual life beyond any doubt--for the introduction of these substances into the brain is the obvious cause of any numinous apocalypse that follows. It is possible, however, if not actually plausible, to seize this datum from the other end and argue, and Aldous Huxley did in his classic essay, The Doors of Perception, that the primary function of the brain could be eliminative: its purpose could be to prevent some vast, transpersonal dimension of mind from flooding consciousness, thereby allowing apes like ourselves to make their way in the world without being dazzled at every step by visionary phenomena irrelevant to their survival. Huxley thought that if the brain were a kind of "reducing valve" for "Mind at Large," this would explain the efficacy of psychedelics: They could simply be a material means of opening the tap.

Unfortunately, Huxley was operating under the erroneous assumption that psychedelics decrease brain activity. However, modern techniques of neuroimaging have shown that these drugs tend to increase activity in many regions of the cortex (and in subcortical structures as well). Still, the action of these drugs does not rule out dualism, or the existence of realms of mind beyond the brain--but then nothing does. This is one of the problems with views of this kind: They appear to be unfalsifiable.[3]

Of course, the brain does filter an extraordinary amount of information from consciousness. And, like many who have taken these drugs, I can attest that psychedelics certainly throw open the gates. Needless to say, positing the existence of a "Mind at Large" is more tempting in some states of consciousness than in others. And the question of which view of reality we should privilege is, at times, worth considering. But these drugs can also produce mental states that are best viewed in clinical terms as forms of psychosis. As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to make conclusions about the nature of the cosmos based upon inner experience -- no matter how profound these experiences seem.

However, there is no question that the mind is vaster and more fluid than our ordinary, waking consciousness suggests. Consequently, it is impossible to communicate the profundity (or seeming profundity) of psychedelic states to those who have never had such experiences themselves. It is, in fact, difficult to remind oneself of the power of these states once they have passed.

Many people wonder about the difference between meditation (and other contemplative practices) and psychedelics. Are these drugs a form of cheating, or are they the one, indispensable vehicle for authentic awakening? They are neither. Many people don't realize that all psychoactive drugs modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain--either by mimicking specific neurotransmitters or by causing the neurotransmitters themselves to be more active. There is nothing that one can experience on a drug that is not, at some level, an expression of the brain's potential. Hence, whatever one has experienced after ingesting a drug like LSD is likely to have been experienced, by someone, somewhere, without it.

However, it cannot be denied that psychedelics are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness. If a person learns to meditate, pray, chant, do yoga, etc., there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending on his aptitude, interest, etc., boredom could be the only reward for his efforts. If, however, a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD, what will happen next will depend on a variety of factors, but there is absolutely no question that something will happen. And boredom is simply not in the cards. Within the hour, the significance of his existence will bear down upon our hero like an avalanche. As Terence McKenna[4] never tired of pointing out, this guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse, is what separates psychedelics from every other method of spiritual inquiry. It is, however, a difference that brings with it certain liabilities.

Ingesting a powerful dose of a psychedelic drug is like strapping oneself to a rocket without a guidance system. One might wind up somewhere worth going--and, depending on the compound and one's "set and setting," certain trajectories are more likely than others. But however methodically one prepares for the voyage, one can still be hurled into states of mind so painful and confusing as to be indistinguishable from psychosis. Hence, the terms "psychotomimetic" and "psychotogenic" that are occasionally applied to these drugs.

I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could have ever imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of Nature herself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and to be amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be--and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of these deeper possibilities.

People generally come away from such experiences with a sense that our conventional states of consciousness obscure and truncate insights and emotions that are sacred. If the patriarchs and matriarchs of the world's religions experienced such states of mind, many of their claims about the nature of reality can make subjective sense. The beautific vision does not tell you anything about the birth of the cosmos--but it does reveal how utterly transfigured a mind can be by a full collision with the present moment.

But as the peaks are high, the valleys are deep. My "bad trips" were, without question, the most harrowing hours I have ever suffered--and they make the notion of hell, as a metaphor if not a destination, seem perfectly apt. If nothing else, these excruciating experiences can become a source of compassion. I think it would be impossible to have any sense of what it is like to suffer from mental illness without having briefly touched its shores.

At both ends of the continuum time dilates in ways that cannot be described--apart from saying that these experiences can seem eternal. I have had sessions, both positive and negative, in which any knowledge that I had ingested a drug had been entirely extinguished, and all memories of my past along with it. Full immersion in the present moment, to this degree, is synonymous with the feeling that one has always been, and will always be, in precisely this condition. Depending on the character of one's experience at that point, notions of salvation and damnation do not seem hyperbolic. In my experience, Blake's line about beholding "eternity in an hour" neither promises, nor threatens, too much.

In the beginning, my experiences with psilocybin and LSD were so positive that I could not believe a bad trip was possible. Notions of "set and setting," admittedly vague, seemed sufficient to account for this. My mental set was exactly as it needed to be--I was a spiritually serious investigator of my own mind--and my setting was generally one of either natural beauty or secure solitude.

I cannot account for why my adventures with psychedelics were uniformly pleasant until they weren't--but when the doors to hell finally opened, they appear to have been left permanently ajar. Thereafter, whether or not a trip was good in the aggregate, it generally entailed some harrowing detour on the path to sublimity. Have you ever traveled, beyond all mere metaphors, to the Mountain of Shame and stayed for a thousand years? I do not recommend it.

(Pokhara, Nepal)

On my first trip to Nepal, I took a rowboat out on Phewa Lake in Pokhara, which offers a stunning view of the Annapurna range. It was early morning, and I was alone. As the sun rose over the water, I ingested 400 micrograms of LSD. I was 20 years old and had taken the drug at least ten times previously. What could go wrong?

Everything, as it turns out. Well, not everything--I didn't drown. And I have a vague memory of drifting ashore and of being surrounded by a group of Nepali soldiers. After watching me for a while, as I ogled them over the gunwale like a lunatic, they seemed on the verge of deciding what to do with me. Some polite words of Esperanto, and a few, mad oar strokes, and I was off shore and into oblivion. So I suppose that could have ended differently.

But soon there was no lake or mountains or boat--and if I had fallen into the water I am pretty sure there would have been no one to swim. For the next several hours my mind became the perfect instrument of self-torture. All that remained was a continuous shattering and terror for which I have no words.

These encounters take something out of you. Even if drugs like LSD are biologically safe, the potential for extremely unpleasant and destabilizing experiences presents its own risks. I believe I was positively affected for weeks and months by my good trips, and negatively affected by the bad ones. Given these roulette-like odds, one can only recommend these experiences with caution.

While meditation can open the mind to a similar range of conscious states, they are reached far less haphazardly. If LSD is like being strapped to rocket, learning to meditate is like gently raising a sail. Yes, it is possible, even with guidance, to wind up someplace terrifying--and there are people who probably shouldn't spend long periods in intensive practice. But the general effect of meditation training is of settling ever more fully into one's own skin, and suffering less, rather than more there.

As I discussed in The End of Faith, I view most psychedelic experiences as potentially misleading. Psychedelics do not guarantee wisdom. They merely guarantee more content. And visionary experiences, considered in their totality, appear to me to be ethically neutral. Therefore, it seems that psychedelic ecstasy must be steered toward our personal and collective well-being by some other principle. As Daniel Pinchbeck pointed out in his highly entertaining book, Breaking Open the Head, the fact that both the Mayans and the Aztecs used psychedelics, while being enthusiastic practitioners of human sacrifice, makes any idealistic link between plant-based shamanism and an enlightened society seem terribly naive.

As I will discuss in future essays, the form of transcendence that appears to link directly to ethical behavior and human well-being is the transcendence of egoity in the midst of ordinary waking consciousness. It is by ceasing to cling to the contents of consciousness--to our thoughts, moods, desires, etc.--that we make progress. Such a project does not, in principle, require that we experience more contents.[5] The freedom from self that is both the goal and foundation of "spiritual" life is coincident with normal perception and cognition--though, admittedly, this can be difficult to realize.

The power of psychedelics, however, is that they often reveal, in the span of a few hours, depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime. As is often the case, William James said it about as well as words permit[6] :

One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,--for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.

(The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 388)


Recommended Reading:

Huxley, A. The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell.

McKenna, T. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution.

McKenna, T. The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History.

McKenna, T. True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author's Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil's Paradise.

Pinchbeck, D. Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism.

Stevens, J. Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream.

Ratsch, C. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications.

Ott, J. Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History.

Strassman, R. DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences.

Follow Sam Harris on Twitter:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *