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Reply To: The Spiritual Use of Psychedelic Drugs


Thank you, Mark, for opening up this topic. It’s an endlessly fascinating subject. I’m sure at some point I’ll share some of my more profound experiences on psychics (I could write at length on the subject – and have – but you do such a wonderful job of sharing your key experiences that I don’t see a compelling need to turn this merely into a compendium of past trips).

However, speaking to the spiritual aspects, here are a couple more quotes from Campbell on the subject:


Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954), describing his own visionary experiences under the influence of mescaline, opened the way to a popular appreciation of the ability of hallucinogens to render perceptions of a quasi, or even truly, mystical profundity. There can be no doubt today that through the use of such sacramental revelations indistinguishable from some of those reported of yoga have been experienced.”

Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, p. 90

“Some very interesting research concerning the plants associated with these cults has shown that the people who were going to go through the great ceremony consumed a barley drink before attending the rites. One of the historically important hallucinogens is ergot, which is produced by a fungus that grows parasitically on barley. Since one family was for centuries in charge of the rites, many now believe that this barley broth contained a bit of the ergot. There is a very fine study called The Road to Eleusis, written by Albert Hofmann, who discovered LSD; R. Gordon Wasson; and classical scholar Carl A. P. Ruck. This book deals with the entire ritual of Eleusis in detail as a ceremonial matching of the rapturous state of the people who have taken the drink with a theatrical performance that is rendered as an epiphany. So there is an inward readiness to an outer fulfillment.”

Joseph Campbell, Transformations of Myth Through Time, p. 193


Joe was not enamored of the hippies in the sixties, thanks no doubt in part to their portrayal in the media. In the pages of Life magazine the lack of structure to the hippie lifestyle seemed obvious: hordes of barefoot, bedraggled, yet colorfully clad adolescents milling about the corner of Haight and Ashbury getting high, then wandering over to Golden Gate Park to get high, have sex, eat free food, get high, dance to free music, find a crash pad and have more sex and get high. No aims, no ambitions – a generation lost and adrift (mirroring the portrayal in the Harry Reasoner documentary you link to; Reasoner – my favorite 60 Minutes correspondent of all time – at least made an attempt to be objective).

It’s easy to understand how Joseph Campbell sometimes lumped LSD users in with schizophrenics, whom he describes as drowning in the same waters in which mystics swim. That may indeed have been the experience of some; though LSD has never been demonstrated to be the source of mental illness, it can unmask underlying disturbances in those already psychologically fragile.

But, it turns out, not all who wander are lost.

The drug culture of the sixties faded into oblivion; Campbell’s encounters through the seventies and eighties were with serious practitioners in psychology, anthropology, biology, and other fields who approached the subject of psychedelics not as a lark, but as one tool among many that expand our understanding of the nature of consciousness. Campbell certainly valued the research and insights of these recognized experts, whose observations often paralleled his own.

One of the key figures in expanding Campbell’s understanding of psychedelics was his good friend, Stanislav Grof, known for his research into the nature of consciousness (including observation and documentation of thousands of LSD research sessions at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague and the Maryland Psychiatric Research center in Baltimore), and a frequent collaborator with Campbell at Esalen seminars.

Dr. Grof has found (and I find this extremely interesting) that the differing imageries of the various world religions tend to appear and to support his patients variously during the successive stages of their session. In immediate association with the birth trauma, the usual imagery brought to mind is of the Old and New Testaments, together with (occasionally) certain Greek, Egyptian, or other pagan counterparts. However, when the agony has been accomplished and the release experienced of “birth” – actually a “second” or “spiritual” birth, released from the unconscious fears of the former, “once born” personal condition – the symbology radically changes. Instead of mainly Biblical, Greek, and Christian themes, the analogies now point toward the great Orient, chiefly India. “The source of these experiences,” says Dr. Grof, “is obscure, and their resemblance to the Indian descriptions flabbergasting.”

Campbell, Myths to Live By, p. 262


Joseph Campbell first met Stanislav Grof in the early seventies – but it was Grof’s meticulous research into LSD and other entheogens in the fifties and sixties that first documented mythological imagery revealing the contents and structure of the unconscious psyche, thus providing independent scientific confirmation of many of Campbell’s insights and observations.

It turns out the psychedelic experience mirrors the hero’s quest – departure from the world of every day experience, followed by a crisis of initiation (death/rebirth), and a return – and not just in the broad outline, but in exquisite detail. No wonder The Hero with a Thousand Faces was adopted as a guide to the LSD experience by many (Campbell was shocked in the sixties when his publisher told him that royalties from his seminal work had jumped up “one full decimal point!”); the book embraces the entire cast of characters across mythologies, mapping the multiple expressions of the hero motif as it unfolds across cultures, and in the individual life. Trippers in the sixties turned to The Hero with a Thousand Faces not because it imposes structure on a formless experience, but because the myths and rituals Campbell describes therein correspond with the inherent nature of the psychedelic experience:

That was the era of inward discovery in its LSD phase. Suddenly, The Hero with a Thousand Faces became a kind of triptych for the inward journey, and people were finding something in that book that could help them interpret their own experience. The book is the presentation of the one great mythic theme – that of the journey, of the quest, and of the finding, and the return. Anyone going on a journey inward or outward to find values will be on a journey that has been described many times in the myths of mankind, and I simply put them all together in that book.

“Living Myths: A Conversation with Joseph Campbell,” Parabola, Volume I, Issue 2, Spring 1976


Campbell’s work certainly helped me process my most potent, poignant, and profound experiences on LSD. Those experiences are what convinced me that the archetypes of the collective unconscious aren’t just abstract ideas, but very real, and very much, well, alive, for lack of a better term.

More to come, I’m sure . . .