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The Spiritual Use of Psychedelic Drugs

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    Hello.  I wish to start a conversation with interested members about the use of psychedelic drugs for spiritual purposes.  First off, I wish to show that this is an appropriate forum in which to discuss this important topic.  Consider this quote from The Power of Myth, page 13, to wit:


    Campbell: On this immediate level of life and structure, myths offer life models.  But the models have to be appropriate to the time in which you are living, and our time has changed so fast that what was proper fifty years ago is not proper today.  The virtues of the past are the necessities of today.  The moral order has to catch up with the moral necessities of actual life in time, here and now.  And that is what we are not doing.  The old-time religion belongs to another age, another people, another set of human values, another universe.  By going back you throw yourself out of sync with history.  Our kids lose their faith in the religions that were taught to them, and they go inside.

    Moyers: Often with the help of a drug.

    Campbell: Yes. The mechanically induced mystical experience is what you have there.  I have attended a number of psychological conferences dealing with this whole problem of the differences between the mystical experience and the psychological crack-up.  The difference is that the one who cracks up is drowning in the water in which the mystic swims.  You have to be prepared for this experience.

    Moyers: You talk about this peyote culture emerging and becoming dominant among the Indians as a consequence of the loss of the buffalo and their earlier way of life.

    Campbell: Yes.  Ours is one of the worst histories in relation to the native peoples of any civilized nation.  They are nonpersons.  They are not even reckoned in the statistics of the voting population of the United States.  There was a moment shortly after the American Revolution when there were a number of distinguished Indians who actually participated in American government and life.  George Washington said that Indians of the southeast were put into wagons and shipped under military guard out to what was then called Indian Territory, which was given to the Indians in perpetuity as their own world – then a couple of years later was taken away from them.

    Recently, anthropologists studied a group of Indians in northwestern Mexico who live within a few miles of a major area for the natural growth of peyote.  Peyote is their animal – that is to say, they associate it with the deer.  And they have very special missions to go collect peyote and bring it back.

    These missions are mystical journeys with all the details of the typical mystic journey.  First, there is disengagement from secular life.  Everybody who is going to go on this expedition has to make a complete confession of all the faults of his or her recent living.  And if they don’t, the magic is not going to work.  Then they start on the journey.  They even speak a special language, a negative language.  Instead of saying yes, for example, they so no, or instead of saying, “We are going,” they say, “We are coming.”  They are in another world.

    Then they come to the threshold of the adventure.  There are special shrines that represent stages of mental transformation on the way.  And then comes the great business of collecting the peyote.  The peyote is killed as though it were a deer.  They sneak upon it, shoot a little arrow at it, and then perform the ritual of collecting the peyote.

    The whole thing is a complete duplication of the kind of experience that is associated with the inward journey, when you leave the outer world and come into the realm of spiritual beings.  They identify each little stage as a spiritual transformation.  They are in a sacred place all the way.

    Moyers: Why do they make such an intricate process out of it?

    Campbell: Well, it has to do with the peyote being not simply a biological, mechanical, chemical effect but one of spiritual transformation.  If you undergo a spiritual transformation and have not had the preparation for it, you do not know how to evaluate what has happened to you, and you get the terrible experiences of a bad trip, as they used to call it with LSD.  If you know where you are going, you won’t have a bad trip.

    Moyers: So this is why it is a psychological crises if you are drowning in the water where —

    Campbell: — where you ought to be able to swim, but you weren’t prepared.  That is true of the spiritual life, anyhow.  It is a terrifying experience to have your consciousness transformed.


    Now, for me personally, my introduction into psychedelia came when I was in junior high school, age 14, in 1976, through music.  In particular, my uncle, knowing I was a confirmed Beatlemaniac pretty much from the age of 2 (no kidding, I have a picture taken in 1964 of me listening to my grandmother’s 5-transistor pocket radio, which I had already absconded as my own) had given me his copy of the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver.   As many of you no doubt already know, the standout track of that album is John’s Tomorrow Never Knows:

    Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
    It is not dying, it is not dying

    Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
    It is shining, it is shining

    That you may see the meaning of within
    It is being, it is being

    That love is all, and love is everyone
    It is knowing, it is knowing

    That ignorance and hate may mourn the dead
    It is believing, it is believing

    But listen to the colors of your dreams
    It is not living, it is not living

    So play the game “Existence” to the end
    Of the beginning, of the beginning
    Of the beginning, of the beginning
    Of the beginning, of the beginning
    Of the beginning, of the beginning

    I was gratified to hear Joseph Campbell answering Bill Moyers on his 1981 interview that is included on the 2nd DVD special features of the Power of Myth:

    Moyers: What did you think of the outpouring about the death of John Lennon recently.  Was he a hero?

    Campbell: Oh, he definitely was a hero for a whole world of, well, everything that was represented in the whole world of rock and roll and the, uh, young people’s counter-culture movement.

    Moyers: Explain that in the mythological sense.

    Campbell: Well in the mythological sense, he is the innovator, and those young men, those four young men had achieved something in that they brought forth an image for which there was a readiness.  Somehow it was in tune with the time.  If that same constellation turned up thirty years before, it would have fizzled out.  But there was something  just to the time.  Of course that’s an important thing with respect to the public life hero, uh, that he should be sensitive to the public needs of his time.  And what those young men gave, the Beatles there, was a whole new spiritual depth of the music, and all.  And they started the whole fad, let’s call it, for meditation.  And of Oriental music, which had been over here, suddenly, now, we know what it’s about, and we hear more of it, and it is used for its original intention, as a support for meditations and so forth.  That’s what they did.

    Moyers: That’s the story of the hero again.

    Campbell: That’s it.


    Now, Joseph makes a big point that one has to be prepared for such a journey, so that one can swim where the unprepared will founder.  Fortuitously, this is what happened for me.  Somewhere he says that the “hero will encounter the journey that he has prepared for.”  As mentioned already, although I was introduced into psychedelia via the music in 1976, it would take a further 12 years, in the summer of 1988 to be exact, when I was 26, before I would actually procure some psychedelic mushrooms.

    During those 12 years, I done a great deal of learning, day by day, of all sorts of interesting things.  For example, I would learn how the Bible came to be written.  I would learn, as best I could, of great philosophers, particularly of Socrates and Kant.  I would learn of Einstein’s Relativity theories and the Copenhagen revolution of quantum mechanics.  And I would read, read, read, books such as Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception; Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan series; and even such gems as Frank Herbert’s Dune series.  So by summer of 1988, I was so ready!  And, I would not be disappointed!

    I took four separate trips that summer, each about a week apart.  I have notes, somewhere, but haven’t looked at them lately.  The first trip was memorable because time seemed to just stop, and then go backwards, then forwards, crazy like that.  I would look at my digital clock, which said: 6:01 pm.  I remember thinking that that information was meaningless without 6:00 and 6:02 to go with it.

    Has anyone seen the documentary Have A Good Trip on Netflix yet?  It has a bunch of famous people (like Sting, Carrie Fisher, a number of comedians) recounting their LSD experiences.  One of them, comedian Lewis Black, recounts his trip where he forgot his own name.  He really doesn’t go anywhere with his story, but it touches upon my second trip, and by far the most important and useful psychedelic trip that I’ve had so far.  (I would trip another 50+ times in 1995 when I moved in with some Deadheads at 610 Ashbury St. before Jerry Garcia died, but all of those were “museum trips,” like what Paul Scheer describes in Have A Good Trip.)

    My second mushroom trip was the key trip.  It was what I call the “spiritual trip,” as opposed to a “museum trip.”  (I did greatly enjoy the 100th Anniversary show of Claude Monet at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park in 1995, where everything swirled around madly, but it was not on the same order as my 1988 trip.)  Like Lewis Black, my entering “the zone” had to do with names.  In particular, a friend of mine was handing me a bag of Bell brand of potato chips as I was coming on.  I remember thinking that the identifier, Bell brand, was important.  I then turned my attention to the T.V. where an episode of M*A*S*H was on.  (If I see it again, I can identify which show it was.)  But all the characters on the screen were definitely NOT following the script.  Instead, they were all looking for “it.”  In my state of mind, “it,” became of huge import.

    Many of you who are reading this, I presume, will know where I was heading in a psychological sense.  I was about to “depersonalize.”  And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what I believe is at the crux of the spiritual experience, down to the jewel-point, as it were.  For if there is no “you” to identify with, then there is no “other” as well.  Thus we come to John Lennon’s realization on one of his acid trips put into song: “I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together.”

    Now, it is one thing to conceptualize this state of affairs as an exercise of one’s imagination, it is quite another to actually experience this.  No kidding!  Alas, I have not depersonalized a second time, even after ingesting copious amounts of fresh LSD.  My trips became longer, but not more intense.  The third and fourth mushroom trips of 1988 were interesting too, as I was able to experience an “All is Love” feeling, but it was quite anticlimactic by comparison to trip #2.  I was so far gone on trip #2, that one of my friends got scared for me and insisted on leaving me.  My other friend drove him home, leaving me alone.  I recall laying on the couch and thinking I was in a hospital bed and was coming to, but when I “awoke,” I was alone in the apartment.

    Two more things to note about this trip:  The first is that depersonalization is a completely paradoxical experience.  The “you” that disappears is being observed by “you,” which will indeed remember the experience as I have done.  This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the Universe/Existence/God, or whatever or not-whatever, is both utterly mysterious and paradoxical.

    The final portion of my trip had posed a very practical problem for me.  Remember, this is 1988, and one of the popular songs of the time was called Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me by a band called Oingo Boingo:

    Nothing bad ever happens to me
    Nothing bad ever happens to me
    Why should I care?

    A man broke into my neighborhood
    He threatened the family with a loaded gun
    He tied them all up and beat ’em real good
    He took everything and he got away clean
    And I can’t believe that anyone would
    Wanna do such a terrible thing
    But why should I care?

    Did ya hear about Fred? He’s unemployed
    They threw him away like a useless toy
    He went down the drain after 20 long years
    No warning, no pension, and nobody’s tears
    And I can’t believe that anyone would
    Wanna do such a terrible thing
    But why should I care?
    Why should I care?

    Every time I look around this place
    I see them scream, but I hear no sound
    And the terrible things happen down the road
    To somebody else that I don’t even know

    Nothing bad ever happens to me

    Why should I care?

    Have you heard about the Joneses, my, my, my
    It happened so quick, and no one knows why
    Their teenage son, he seemed okay
    But his suicide ruined everyone’s day
    And I can’t believe that anyone would
    Wanna do such a terrible thing
    But why should I care?

    Nothing bad ever happens to me

    Why should I care?
    (Nothing bad ever happens to me)
    Nothing bad ever happens to me

    I was left pondering this as I waited for my friend to return to his apartment where I was staying.  We talked a little bit about it.  I couldn’t resolve the issue really, other that to say to him that I did care, for whatever reason.

    I will now end this post with an interesting link from YouTube.  It’s an hour long special made in the Haight Ashbury by one Harry Reasoner, called The Hippie Temptation.  It’s a great example of why people like me don’t trust “the establishment,” aka “the Man.”  He does make some good points in it, but it is over-all unsympathetic, with lots of “appears to be” and “seems like” statements thrown in, like about chromosomal damage and mental institutions and suicide.

    If you’re interested, there is a great book published two years ago by Michael Pollan, called

    How to change your mind : what the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence

    New York Times Book Review
    10 Best Books of 2018

    Abstract: “A brilliant and brave investigation by Michael Pollan, author of five New York Times best sellers, into the medical and scientific revolution taking place around psychedelic drugs–and the spellbinding story of his own life-changing psychedelic experiences. When Michael Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety, he did not intend to write what is undoubtedly his most personal book. But upon discovering how these remarkable substances are improving the lives not only of the mentally ill but also of healthy people coming to grips with the challenges of everyday life, he decided to explore the landscape of the mind in the first person as well as the third. Thus began a singular adventure into the experience of various altered states of consciousness, along with a dive deep into both the latest brain science and the thriving underground community of psychedelic therapists. Pollan sifts the historical record to separate the truth about these mysterious drugs from the myths that have surrounded them since the 1960s, when a handful of psychedelic evangelists catalyzed a powerful backlash against what was then a promising field of research. A unique and elegant blend of science, memoir, travel writing, history, and medicine, How to Change Your Mind is a triumph of participatory journalism. By turns dazzling and edifying, it is the gripping account of a journey to an exciting and unexpected new frontier in our understanding of the mind, the self, and our place in the world. The true subject of Pollan’s “mental travelogue” is not just psychedelic drugs but also the eternal puzzle of human consciousness and how, in a world that offers us both struggle and beauty, we can do our best to be fully present and find meaning in our lives.”


    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 . . .


    Toby Johnson

      In anticipation of Mark’s posting about The Spiritual Use of Psychedelic Drugs, I’d posted a story about my being given Ketamine during a demonstration of “Psychedelic Therapy” at the Mann Ranch Seminars, summer 1974.

      My account is in #3516. It’s in this place in the Conversations:

      My experience echoed what Mark describes above of losing the sense of ego self and realizing the deeper, larger Self that underlies all consciousness.

      In writing that I mention that Campbell compared taking LSD to driving your car off a cliff to see what happens. And—synchronistically— the next day after I wrote this, Facebook popped up with a video of a car (actually a well-equipped SUV in the Australian outback) driving off a cliff/ i.e., dry waterfall, right down the vertical face, and then continuing on along the stream bed.

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