The New Alchemy

Alan Watts

an essay from This is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience, by Alan Watts, Vintage Books, 1973, copyright Alan Watts 1958, 1960. This essay was written in 1960.


Besides the philosopher's stone that would turn base metal into gold, one of the great quests of alchemy in both Europe and Asia was the elixir of immortality. In gullible enthusiasm for this quest, more than one Chinese emperor died of the fabulous concoctions of powdered jade, tea, ginseng, and precious metals prepared by Taoist priests. But just as the work of transforming lead into gold was in many cases a chemical symbolism for a spiritual transformation of man himself, so the immortality to be conferred by the elixir was not always the literally everlasting life but rather the transportation of consciousness into a state beyond time. Modern physicists have solved the problem of changing lead into gold, though the process is somewhat more expensive than digging gold from the earth. But in the last few years modem chemists have prepared one or two substances for which it may be claimed that in some cases they induce states of mind remarkably similar to cosmic consciousness.

To many people such claims are deeply disturbing. For one thing, mystical experience seems altogether too easy when it simply comes out of a bottle, and is thus available to people who have done nothing to deserve it, who have neither fasted nor prayed nor practiced yoga. For another, the claim seems to imply that - spiritual insight is after all only a matter of body chemistry involving a total reduction of the spiritual to the material. These are serious considerations, even though one may be convinced that in the long run the difficulty is found to rest upon semantic confusion as to the definitions of "spiritual" and "material."

However, it should be pointed out that there is nothing new or disreputable in the idea that spiritual insight Is an undeserved gift of divine grace, often conveyed through such material or sacramental means as the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the mass. The priest who by virtue of his office transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, ex opere operato, by the simple repetition of the formula of the Last Supper, is in a situation not radically different from that of the scientist who, by repeating the right formula of an experiment, may effect a transformation in the brain. The comparative worth of the two operations must be judged by their effects. There were always those upon whom the sacraments of baptism and communion did not seem to "take," whose lives remained effectively unregenerate. Likewise, none of these consciousness-changing chemicals are literally mystical experience in a bottle. Many who receive them experience only ecstasies without insight, or just an unpleasant confusion of sensation and imagination. States akin to mystical experience arise only in certain individuals and then often depend upon considerable concentration and effort to use the change of consciousness in certain ways. It is important here, too, to stress the point that ecstasy is only Incidental to the authentic mystical experience, the essence of which might best be described as insight, as the word is now used in psychiatry.

A chemical of this kind might perhaps be said to be an aid to perception in the same way as the telescope, microscope, or spectroscope, save in this case that the instrument is not an external object but an internal state of the nervous system. All such instruments are relatively useless without proper training and preparation not only in their handling, but also in the particular field of investigation,

These considerations alone are already almost enough to show that the use of such chemicals does not reduce spiritual insight to a mere matter of body chemistry. But it should be added that even when we can describe certain events in terms of chemistry this does not mean that such events are merely chemical. A chemical description of spiritual experience has somewhat the same use and the same limits as the chemical description of a great painting. It is simple enough to make a chemical analysis of the paint, and for artists and connoisseurs alike there is some point in doing so. It might also be possible to work out a chemical description of all the processes that go on in the artist while he is painting. But it would be incredibly complicated, and in the meantime the same processes could be described and communicated far more effectively in some other language than the chemical. We should probably say that a process is chemical only when chemical language is the most effective means of describing it. Analogously, some of the chemicals known as psychedelics provide opportunities for mystical insight in much the same way that well-prepared paints and brushes provide opportunities for fine painting, or a beautifully constructed piano for great music. They make it easier, but they do not accomplish the work all by themselves.

The two chemicals which are of most use in creating a change of consciousness conducive to spiritual experience are mescaline and lysergic acid diethylamide (known, for short, as LSD). The former is a synthetic formulation of the active ingredients of the peyote cactus, and the latter a purely synthetic chemical of the indole group which produces its effects even in such minute amounts as twenty-five micrograms. The specific effects of these chemicals are hard to identify with any clarity, and so far as is known at present they seem to operate upon the nervous system by reducing some of the inhibitory mechanisms which ordinarily have a screening effect upon our consciousness. Certain psychiatrists who seem overly anxious to hang on to the socially approved sensation of reality---more or less the world as perceived on a bleak Monday morning---classify these chemicals as hallucinogens producing toxic effects of a schizoid or psychotic character. I am afraid this is psychiatric gobbledygook: a sort of authoritative rumble of disapproval. Neither substance is an addictive drug, like heroin or opium, and it has never been demonstrated that they have harmful effects upon people who were not otherwise seriously disturbed. It is begging the question to call the changes of consciousness which they educe hallucinations, for some of the unusual things felt and seen may be no more unreal than the unfamiliar forms perceived through a microscope. We do not know. It is also begging the question to call their effects toxic, which might mean poisonous, unless this word can also be used for the effects of vitamins or proteins. Such language is evaluative, not descriptive in any scientific sense.

Somewhat more than two years ago (1958) I was asked by a psychiatric research group to take 100 micrograms of lysergic acid, to see whether it would reproduce anything resembling a mystical experience. It did not do so, and so far as I know the reason was that I had not then learned how to direct my inquiries when under its influence. It seemed instead that my senses had been given a kaleidoscopic character (and this is no more than a metaphor) which made the whole world entrancingly complicated, as if I were involved in a multidimensional arabesque. Colors became so vivid that flowers, leaves, and fabrics seemed to be illumined from inside. The random patterns of blades of grass in a lawn appeared to be exquisitely organized without, however, any actual distortion of vision. Black ink or sumi paintings by Chinese and Japanese artists appeared almost to be three dimensional photographs, and what are ordinarily dismissed as irrelevant details of speech, behavior, appearance, and form seemed in some indefinable way to be highly significant. Listening to music with closed eyes, I beheld the most fascinating patterns of dancing jewelry, mosaic, tracery, and abstract images. At one point everything appeared to be uproariously funny, especially the gestures and actions of people going about their everyday business. Ordinary remarks seemed to reverberate with double and quadruple meanings, and the role-playing behavior of those around me not only became unusually evident but also implied concealed attitudes contrary or complementary to its overt intention. In short, the screening or selective apparatus of our normal interpretative evaluation of experience had been partially suspended, with the result that I was presumably projecting the sensation of meaning or significance upon just about everything. The whole experience was vastly entertaining and interesting, but as yet nothing like any mystical experience that I had had before.

It was not until a year later that I tried LSD again, this time at the request of another research team. Since then I have repeated the experiment five times, with dosages varying from 75 to 100 micrograms. My impression has been that such experiments are profound and rewarding to the extent that I do my utmost to observe perceptual and evaluative changes and to describe them as clearly and completely as possible, usually with the help of a tape recorder. To give a play-by- play description of each experiment might be clinically interesting, but what I am concerned with here is a philosophical discussion of some of the high points and recurrent themes of my experiences. Psychiatrists have not yet made up their minds as to whether LSD is useful in therapy, but at present I am strongly inclined to feel that its major use may turn out to be only secondarily as a therapeutic and primarily as an instrumental aid to the creative artist, thinker, or scientist. I should observe, in passing, that the human and natural environment in which these experiments are conducted is of great importance, and that its use in hospital wards with groups of doctors firing off clinical questions at the subject is most undesirable. The supervising physician should take a human attitude, and drop all defensive dramatizations of scientific objectivity and medical authority, conducting the experiment in surroundings of some natural or artistic beauty.

I have said that my general impression of the first experiment was that the "mechanism" by which we screen our sense-data and select only some of them as significant had been partially suspended. Consequently, I felt that the particular feeling which we associate with "the meaningful" was projected indiscriminately upon everything, and then rationalized in ways that might strike an independent observer as ridiculous---unless, perhaps, the subject were unusually clever at rationalizing. However, the philosopher cannot pass up the point that our selection of some sense-data as significant and others as insignificant is always with relation to particular purposes---survival, the quest for certain pleasures, finding one's way to some destination, or whatever it may be. But in every experiment with LSD one of the first effects I have noticed is a profound relaxation combined with an abandonment of purposes and goals, reminding me of the Taoist saying that "when purpose has been used to achieve purposelessness, the thing has been grasped." I have felt, in other words, endowed with all the time in the world, free to look about me as if I were living in eternity without a single problem to be solved. It is just for this reason that the busy and purposeful actions of other people seem at this time to be so comic, for it becomes obvious that by setting themselves goals which are always in the future, in the "tomorrow which never comes," they are missing entirely the point of being alive.

When, therefore, our selection of sense-impressions is not organized with respect to any particular purpose, all the surrounding details of the world must appear to be equally meaningful or equally meaningless. Logically, these are two ways of saying the same thing, but the overwhelming feeling of my own LSD experiences is that all aspects of the world become meaningful rather than meaningless. This is not to say that they acquire meaning in the sense of signs, by virtue of pointing to something else, but that all things appear to be their own point. Their simple existence, or better, their present formation, seems to be perfect, to be an end or fulfillment without any need for justification. Flowers do not bloom in order to produce seeds, nor are seeds germinated in order to bring forth flowers. Each stage of the process---seed, sprout, bud, flower, and fruit--- may be regarded as the goal. A chicken is one eggs way of producing others. In our normal experience something of the same kind takes place in music and the dance, where the point of the action is each moment of its unfolding and not just the temporal end of the performance.

Such a translation of everyday experience into something of the same nature as music has been the beginning and the prevailing undertone of all my experiments. But LSD does not simply suspend the selective process by cutting it out. It would be more exact to say that it shows the relativity of our ordinary evaluation of sense-data by suggesting others. It permits the mind to organize its sensory impressions in new patterns. In my second experiment I noticed, for example, that all repeated forms---leaves on a stem, books on shelves, mullions in windows---gave me the sensation of seeing double or even multiple, as if the second, third, and fourth leaves on the stem were reflections of the first, seen, as it were, in several thicknesses of window glass. When I mentioned this, the attending physician held up his finger to see if it would give me a double image. For a moment it seemed to do so, but all at once I saw that the second image had its basis in a wisp of cigar smoke passing close to his finger and upon which my consciousness had projected the highlights and outline of a second finger. As I then concentrated upon this sensation of doubling or repeating images, it seemed suddenly as if the whole field of sight were a transparent liquid rippled in concentric circles as in dropping a stone into a pool. The normal images of things around me were not distorted by this pattern. They remained just as usual, but my attention directed itself to highlights, lines, and shadows upon them that fitted the pattern, letting those that did not fall into relative insignificance. As soon, however, as I noticed this projection and became aware of details that did not fit the pattern, it seemed as if whole handfuls of pebbles had been thrown into-the optical space, rippling it with concentric circles that overlapped in all directions, so that every visible point became an intersection of circles. The optical field seemed, in fact, to have a structured grain like a photograph screened for reproduction, save that the organization of the grains was not rectilinear but circular. In this way every detail fitted the pattern and the field of vision became pointillist, like a painting by Seurat.

This sensation raised a number of questions. Was my mind imperiously projecting its own geometrical designs upon the world, thus "hallucinating" a structure in things which is not actually there? Or is what we call the "real" structure of things simply a learned projection or hallucination which we hold in common? Or was I somehow becoming aware of the actual grain of the rods and cones in my retina, for even a hallucination must have some actual basis in the nervous system? On another occasion I was looking closely at a handful of sand, and in becoming aware that I could not get it into clear focus I became conscious of every detail and articulation of the way in which my eyes were fuzzing the image---and this was certainly perception of a grain or distortion in the eyes themselves.

The general impression of these optical sensations is that the eyes, without losing the normal area of vision, have become microscopes, and that the texture of the visual field is infinitely rich and complex. I do not know whether this is actual awareness of the multiplicity of nerve-endings in the retina, or, for that matter, in the fingers, for the same grainy feeling arose in the sense of touch. But the effect of feeling that this is or may be so is, as it were, to turn the senses back upon themselves, and so to realize that seeing the external world is also seeing the eyes. In other words, I became vividly aware of the fact that what I call shapes, colors, and textures in the outside world are also states of my nervous system, that is, of me. In knowing them I also know my self. But the strange part of this apparent sensation of my own senses was that I did not appear to be inspecting them from outside or from a distance, as if they were objects. I can say only that the awareness of grain or structure in the senses seemed to be awareness of awareness, of myself from inside myself. Because of this, it followed that the distance or separation between myself and my senses, on the one hand, and the external world, on the other, seemed to disappear I was no longer a detached observer, a little man inside my own head, having sensations. I was the sensations, so much so that there was nothing left of me, the observing ego, except the series of sensations which happened---not to me, but just happened---moment by moment, one after another.

To become the sensations, as distinct from having them, engenders the most astonishing sense of freedom and release. For it implies that experience is not something in which one is trapped or by which one is pushed around, or against which one must fight. The conventional duality of subject and object, knower and known, feeler and feeling, is changed into a polarity: the knower and the known become the poles, terms, or phases of a single event which happens, not to me or from me, but of itself. The experiencer and the experience become a single, ever-changing self-forming process, complete and fulfilled at every moment of its unfolding, and of infinite complexity and subtlety. It is like, not watching, but being, a coiling arabesque of smoke patterns in the air, or of ink dropped in water, or of a dancing snake which seems to move from every part of its body at once. This may be a "drug-induced hallucination," but it corresponds exactly to what Dewey and Bentley have called the transactional relationship of the organism to its environment. This is to say that all our actions and experiences arise mutually from the organism and from the environment at the same time. The eyes can see light because of the sun, but the sun is light because of the eyes. Ordinarily, under the hypnosis of social conditioning, we feel quite distinct from our physical surroundings, facing them rather than belonging in them. Yet in this way we ignore and screen out the physical fact of our total interdependence with the natural world. We are as embodied in it as our own cells and molecules are embodied in us. Our neglect and repression of this interrelationship gives special urgency to all the new sciences of ecology, studying the interplay of organisms with their environments, and warning us against ignorant interference with the balances of nature.

The sensation that events are happening of themselves, and that nothing is making them happen and that they are not happening to anything, has always been a major feature of my experiences with LSD. It is possible that the chemical is simply giving me a vivid realization of my own philosophy, though there have been times when the experience has suggested modifications of my previousthinking. (1) But just as the sensation of subject-object polarity is confirmed by the transactional psychology of Dewey and Bentley, so the sensation of events happening "of themselves" is just how one would expect to perceive a world consisting entirely of process. Now the language of science is increasingly a language of process---a description of events, relations, operations, and forms rather than of things and substances. The world so described is a world of actions rather than agents, verbs rather than nouns, going against the common-sense idea that an action is the behavior of some thing, some solid entity of "stuff." But the commonsense idea that action is always the function of an agent is so deeply rooted, so bound up with our sense of order and security, that seeing the world to be otherwise can be seriously disturbing. Without agents, actions do not seem to come from anywhere, to have any dependable origin, and at first sight this spontaneity can be alarming. In one experiment it seemed that whenever I tried to put my (metaphorical) foot upon some solid ground, the ground collapsed into empty space. I could find no substantial basis from which to act: my will was a whim, and my past, as a causal conditioning force, had simply vanished. There was only the present conformation of events, happening. For a while I felt lost in a void, frightened, baseless, insecure through and through Yet soon I became accustomed to the feeling, strange as it was. There was simply a pattern of action, of process, and this was at one and the same time the universe and myself with nothing outside it either to trust or mistrust. And there seemed to be no meaning in the idea of its trusting or mistrusting itself, just as there is no possibility of a finger's touching its own tip.

Upon reflection, there seems to be nothing unreasonable in seeing the world in this way. The agent behind every action is itself action. If a mat can be called matting, a cat can be called catting. We do not actually need to ask who or what "cats," just as we do not need to ask what is the basic stuff or substance out of which the world is formed---for there is no way of describing this substance except in terms of form, of structure, order, and operation. The world is not formed as if it were inert clay responding to the touch of a potter's hand; the world is form, or better, formation, for upon examination every substance turns out to be closely knit pattern. The fixed notion that every pattern or form must be made of some basic material which is in itself formless is based on a superficial analogy between natural formation and manufacture, as if the stars and rocks had been made out of something as a carpenter makes tables out of wood. Thus what we call the agent behind the action is simply the prior or relatively more constant state of the same action: when a man runs we have a "manning-running" over and above a simple "manning." Furthermore, it is only a somewhat clumsy convenience to say that present events are moved or caused by past events, for we are actually talking about earlier and later stages of the same event. We can establish regularities of rhythm and pattern in the course of an event, and so predict its future configurations, but its past states do not "push" its present and future states as if they were a row of dominoes stood on end so that knocking over the first collapses all the others in series. The fallen dominoes lie where they fall, but past events vanish into the present, which is just another way of saying that the world is a self-moving pattern which, when its successive states are remembered, can be shown to have a certain order. Its motion, its energy, issues from itself now, not from the past, which simply falls behind it in memory like the wake from a ship.

When we ask the "why" of this moving pattern, we usually try to answer the question in terms of its original, past impulse or of its future goal. I had realized for a long time that if there is in any sense a reason for the world's existence it must be sought in the present, as the reason for the wake must be sought in the engine of the moving ship. I have already mentioned that LSD makes me peculiarly aware of the musical or dance-like character of the world, bringing my attention to rest upon its present flowing and seeing this as its ultimate point. Yet I have also been able to see that this point has depths, that the present wells up from within itself with an energy which is something much richer than simple exuberance.

One of these experiments was conducted late at night. Some five or six hours from its start the doctor had to go home, and I was left alone in the garden. For me, this stage of the experiment is always the most rewarding in terms of insight, after some of its more unusual and bizarre sensory effects have worn off. The garden was a lawn surrounded by shrubs and high trees---Pine and eucalyptus---and floodlit from the house which enclosed it on one side. As I stood on the lawn I noticed that the rough patches where the grass was thin or mottled with weeds no longer seemed to be blemishes. Scattered at random as they were, they appeared to constitute an ordered design, giving the whole area the texture of velvet damask, the rough patches being the parts where the pile of the velvet is cut. In sheer delight I began to dance on this enchanted carpet, and through the thin soles of my moccasins I could feel the ground becoming alive under my feet, connecting me with the earth and the trees and the sky in such a way that I seemed to become one body with my whole surroundings.

Looking up, I saw that the stars were colored with the same reds, greens, and blues that one sees in iridescent glass, and passing across them was the single light of a jet plane taking forever to streak over the sky. At the same time, the trees, shrubs, and flowers seemed to be living jewelry, inwardly luminous like intricate structures of jade, alabaster, or coral, and yet breathing and flowing with the same life that was in me. Every plant became a kind of musical utterance, a play of variations on a theme repeated from the main branches, through the stalks and twigs, to the leaves, the veins in the leaves, and to the fine capillary network between the veins. Each new bursting of growth from a center repeated or amplified the basic design with increasing complexity and delight, finally exulting in a flower.

From my description it will seem that the garden acquired an atmosphere that was distinctly exotic, like the gardens of precious stones in the Arabian Nights, or like scenes in a Persian miniature. This struck me at the time, and I began to wonder just why it is that the glowingly articulated landscapes of those miniatures seem exotic, as do also many Chinese and Japanese paintings. Were the artists recording what they, too, had seen under the influence of drugs? I knew enough of the lives and techniques of Far Eastern painters to doubt this. I asked, too, whether what I was seeing was "drugged." In other words, was the effect of the LSD in my nervous system the addition to my senses of some chemical screen which distorted all that I saw to preternatural loveliness? Or was its effect rather to remove certain habitual and normal inhibitions of the mind and senses, enabling us to see things as they would appear to us if we were not so chronically repressed? Little is known of the exact neurological effects of LSD, but what is known suggests the latter possibility. If this be so, it is possible that the art forms of other cultures appear exotic---that is, unfamiliarly enchanting---because we are seeing the world through the eyes of artists whose repressions are not the same as ours. The blocks in their view of the world may not coincide with ours, so that in their representations of life we see areas that we normally ignore. I am inclined to some such solution because there have been times when I have seen the world in this magical aspect without benefit of LSD, and they were times when I was profoundly relaxed within, my senses unguardedly open to their surroundings.

Feeling, then, not that I was drugged but that I was in an unusual degree open to reality, I tried to discern the meaning, the inner character of the dancing pattern which constituted both myself and the garden, and the whole dome of the night with its colored stars. All at once it became obvious that the whole thing was love-play, where love means everything that the word can mean, a spectrum ranging from the red of erotic delight, through the green of human endearment, to the violet of divine charity, from Freud's libido to Dante's "love that moves the sun and other stars." All were so many colors issuing from a single white light, and, what was more, this single source was not just love as we ordinarily understand it: it was also intelligence, not only Eros and Agape but also Logos. I could see that the intricate organization both of the plants and of my own nervous system, like symphonies of branching complexity, were not just manifestations of intelligence---as if things like intelligence and love were in themselves substances or formless forces. It was rather that the pattern itself is intelligence and is love, and this somehow in spite of all its outwardly stupid and cruel distortions.

There is probably no way of finding objective verification for insights such as this. The world is love to him who treats it as such, even when it torments and destroys him, and in states of consciousness where there is no basic separation between the ego and the world suffering cannot be felt as malice inflicted upon oneself by another. By the same logic it might seem that with out the separation of self and other there can be no love. This might be true if individuality and universality were formal opposites, mutually exclusive of one another, if, that is, the inseparability of self and other meant that all individual differentiations were simply unreal. But in the unitary, or nondualistic, view of the world I have been describing this is not so. Individual differences express the unity, as branches, leaves, and flowers from the same plant, and the love between the members is the realization of their basic interdependence.

I have not yet been able to use LSD in circumstances of great physical or moral pain, and therefore my explorations of the problem of evil under its influence may appear to be shallow. Only once in these experiments have I felt acute fear, but I know of several cases in which LSD has touched off psychic states of the most alarming and unpleasant kind. More than once I have invited such states under LSD by looking at images ordinarily suggestive of "the creeps"---the mandibles of spiders, and the barbs and spines of dangerous fish and insects. Yet they evoked only a sense of beauty and exuberance, for our normal projection of malice into these creatures was entirely withdrawn, so that their organs of destruction became no more evil than the teeth of a beautiful woman. On another occasion I looked for a long time at a colored reproduction of Van Eyck's Last Judgment, which is surely one of the most horrendous products of human imagination. The scene of hell is dominated by the figure of Death, a skeleton beneath whose batlike wings lies a writhing mass of screaming bodies gnawed by snakes which penetrate them like maggots in fruit. One of the curious effects of LSD is to impart an illusion of movement in still images, so that here the picture came to life and the whole entanglement of limbs and serpents began to squirm before my eyes. (2)

Ordinarily such a sight should have been hideous, but now I watched it with intense and puzzled interest until the thought came to me, "Demon est deus inversus---the Devil is God inverted---so let's turn the picture upside down." I did so, and thereupon burst into laughter for it became apparent at once that the scene was an empty drama, a sort of spiritual scarecrow, designed to guard some mystery from profanation by the ignorant. The agonized expressions of the damned seemed quite evidently "put on," and as for the death's-head, the great skull in the center of the painting, it became just what a skull is---an empty shell---and why the horror when there is nothing in it?

I was, of course, seeing ecclesiastical hells for what they are. On the one hand, they are the pretension that social authority is ultimately inescapable since there are post-mortem police who will catch every criminal. On the other hand, they are "no trespassing" signs to discourage the insincere and the immature from attaining insights which they might abuse. A baby is put in a play pen to keep it from getting at the matches or falling downstairs, and though the intention of the pen is to keep the baby closed in, parents are naturally proud when the child grows strong enough to climb out. Likewise, a man can perform actions which are truly moral only when he is no longer motivated by the fear of hell, that is, when he grows into union with the Good that is beyond good and evil, which, in other words, does not act from the love of rewards or the fear of punishments. This is precisely the nature of the world when it is considered as self-moving action, giving out a past instead of being motivated by a past.

Beyond this, the perception of the empty threat of the death's-head was certainly a recognition of the fact that the fear of death, as distinct from the fear of dying, is one of the most baseless mirages that trouble us. Because it is completely impossible to imagine one's own personal absence, we fill the void in our minds with images of being buried alive in perpetual darkness. If death is the simple termination of a stream of consciousness, it is certainly nothing to fear. At the same time, I realize that there is some apparent evidence for survival of death in a few extraordinarily unexplainable mediumistic communications and remembrances of past lives. These I attribute, vaguely enough, to subtler networks of communication and interrelationship in the pattern of life than we ordinarily perceive. For if forms repeat themselves, if the structure of branching trees is reverberated in the design of watercourses in the desert, it would not be so strange if a pattern so intricate as the human nervous system were to repeat configurations that arise in consciousness as veritable memories of the most distant times. My own feeling, and of course it is nothing more than an opinion, is that we transcend death, not as individual memory-systems, but only in so far as our true identity is the total process of the world as distinct from the apparently separate organism.

As I have said, this sense of being the whole process is frequently experienced with LSD, and, for me, it has often arisen out of a strong feeling of the mutuality of opposites. Line and plane, concept and percept, solid and space, figure and ground, subject and object appear to be so completely correlative as to be convertible into each other. At one moment it seems that there are, for example, no lines in nature: there are only the boundaries of planes, boundaries which are, after all, the planes themselves. But at the next moment, looking carefully into the texture of these planes, one discovers them to be nothing but a dense network of patterned lines. Looking at the form of a tree against the sky, I have felt at one moment that its outline "belongs" to the tree, exploding into space. But the next moment I feel that the same form is the "inline" of the sky, of space imploding the tree. Every pull is felt as a push, and every push as a pull, as in rotating the rim of a wheel with one's hand. Is one pushing or pulling?

The sense that forms are also properties of the space in which they expand is not in the least fantastic when one considers the nature of magnetic fields, or, say, the dynamics of swirling ink dropped into water. The concepts of verbal thought are so clumsy that we tend to think only of one aspect of a relationship at a time. We alternate between seeing a given form as a property of the figure and as a property of the ground, as in the Gestalt image of two profiles in black silhouette, about to kiss. The white space between them appears as a chalice, but it is intensely difficult to see the kissing faces and the chalice simultaneously. Yet with LSD one appears to be able to feel this simultaneity quite vividly, and thus to become aware of the mutuality of one's own form and action and that of the surrounding world. The two seem to shape and determine each other at the same moment, explosion and implosion concurring in perfect harmony, so giving rise to the feeling that one is actual self is both. This inner identity is felt with every level of the environment---the physical world of stars and space, rocks and plants, the social world of human beings, and the ideational world of art and literature, music and conversation. All are grounds or fields operating in the most intimate mutuality with one's own existence and behavior so that the "origin" of action lies in both at once, fusing them into a single act. It is certainly for this reason that LSD taken in common with a small group can be a profoundly eucharistic experience, drawing the members together into an extremely warm and intimate bond of friendship.

All in all, I have felt that my experiments with this astonishing chemical have been most worth while, creative, stimulating, and, above all, an intimation that "there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy." Only once have I felt terror, the sense of being close to madness, and even here the insight gained was well worth the pain. Yet this was enough to convince me that indiscriminate use of this alchemy might be exceedingly dangerous, and to make me ask who, in our society, is competent to control its use. Obviously, this applies even more to such other powers of science as atomic energy, but once something is known there is really no way of locking it up. At the present time, 1960, LSD is in the control of pharmacologists and a few research groups of psychiatrists, and though there are unscrupulous and frankly psychotic psychiatrists, this seems to me a far more reliable form of control than that exercised by the police and the Bureau of Narcotics---which is not control at all, but ineffective repression, handing over actual control to the forces of organized crime.

On the whole, we feel justified in using dangerous powers when we can establish that there is a relatively low probability of disaster. Life organized so as to be completely foolproof and secure is simply not worth living, since it requires the final abolition of freedom. It is on this perfectly rational principle of gambling that we justify the use of travel by air and automobile, electric appliances in the home, and all the other dangerous instruments of civilization. Thus far, the record of catastrophes from the use of LSD is extremely low, and there is no evidence at all that it is either habit-forming or physically deleterious. It is, of course, possible to become psychically dependent on stimuli which do not establish any craving that can be identified in physiological terms. Personally, I am no example of phenomenal will power, but I find that I have no inclination to use LSD in the same way as tobacco or wines and liquors. On the contrary, the experience is always so fruitful that I feel I must digest it for some months before entering into it again. Furthermore, I find that I am quite instinctively disinclined to use it without the same sense of readiness and dedication with which one approaches a sacrament, and also that the experience is worth while to the precise degree that I keep my critical and intellectual faculties alert.

It is generally felt that there is a radical incompatibility between intuition and intellect, poetry and logic, spirituality and rationality, To me, the most impressive thing about LSD experiences is that these formally opposed realms seem instead to complement and fructify one another, suggesting, therefore, a mode of life in which man is no longer an embodied paradox of angel and animal, of reason fighting instinct, but a marvelous coincidence in whom Eros and Logos are one.


(1) I have often made the point, as in The Way of Zen, that the "real" world is concrete rather than abstract, and thus that the conceptual patterns of order, categorization, and logic which the human mind projects upon nature are in some way less real. But upon several occasions LSD has suggested a fundamental identity of percept and concept, concrete and abstract. After all, our brains and the patterns in them are themselves members of the concrete, physical universe, and thus our abstractions are as much forms of nature as the structure of crystals or the organization of ferns. (back)

(2) Later, with the aid of a sea urchin's shell I was able to find out something of the reasons for this effect. All the small purple protuberances on the shell seemed to be wiggling, not only to sight but also to touch Watching this phenomenon closely, I realized that as my eyes moved across the shell they seemed to change the intensity of coloring, amounting to an increase or decrease in the depth of shadow. This did not happen when the eyes were held still. Now motion, or apparent motion, of the shadow will often seem to be motion of the object casting it, in this case the protrusions on the shell. In the Van Eyck painting there was likewise an alteration, a lightening or darkening, of actual shadows which the artist had painted, and thus the same illusion of movement. (back)


LSD and the Psychedelics Menu Page
Cliff Schaffer's Home Page