A reader writes:
You may want to consider a Poseur Alert for your most recent reader: "After I came down from my Oregon sky odyssey, I felt a brief urge to return – to escape back – into the third-eye-pleasure-dome." Give me a freaking break. I can't think of many recent Poseur Alerts that top the pomposity of that sentence!
"I love acid. If I had some, I'd take some and hole up this weekend, watching old movies on TV. But the idea that it gives you some deep insight into the world is bogus."
There isn't any doubt that psychedelics seem to bestow insights on those who take them. Almost everyone who trips says that they got a lot out of it. What I'm questioning is how real that is. I'm saying that as a person who has tripped many many times, and who has done so in the company of a great many people.
These drugs distort our perceptions. It's very difficult to get a handle on how much time has passed when you're tripping, for example. What I'm arguing now is that they also distort our ability to accurately determine how significant ideas are. They tend to make things seem more significant than they really are.
Obviously, it's pretty hard to get a handle on whether or not such an exaggeration actually happens. Who's to say how significant an idea really is? The only meaningful way to gauge it, I think, is to try to see if people really do grow and bring back things from the trip that make them better people. My contention is that acid and shrooms don't really help much.
First, people don't really change that much after they trip. This is something that people talk about in books about psychedelics – Ram Dass, for example. He said that the problem with psychedelics is that you always come back down. That's why he started to study religion. And second, if you hang around with people who have taken psychedelics, they don't seem to be unusually wise.
You wrote about the documentary "Into Great Silence" when it came out. I think that if we were able to talk to the monks who have devoted themselves to prayer and to that lifestyle, we'd pick up on something from them – that they'd be unusually calm, that they'd be centered. You simply don't get the same feeling from people who take psychedelics. In fact, if you hang around with people who take too many of them, you often get a fairly negative vibe off of people.
The problem is that those monks are probably on the right track. And that means that becoming wise takes time and practice. It would really be great if you could get it from a pill, or even from a book. But I just don't think it works that way.
I'm someone who bought into what you might call psychedelic spirituality in a big way as a teenager, and I had a couple of very large experiences that seemed more or less miraculous at the time. But I always came down.
I know that the claims of the people you're quoting aren't terribly extravagant. But when I was a kid, people were really pushing the idea that psychedelics lead to spiritual enlightenment. I don't know if it's fair to call it a con, because I think the people who were putting those ideas forward believed them. But I do think it was a big wrong turn. At least it was for me personally. I think that the notion that psychedelics impart wisdom is a Bad Idea, in very much the same way that the notion that Che was a really great guy is a Bad Idea. They are things that are easy to believe in so you don't challenge things too much. I think I would have been better off watching a screening of Into Great Silence.
I really love psychedelics. As far as I'm concerned, you haven't really lived until you've seen Fanny and Alexander while you're tripping. I'm just skeptical of the people who come down from the mountain with special insights.
This morning while visiting Johns Hopkins I came across a call for volunteers "with a cancer diagnosis to participate in a scientific study of self-exploration and personal meaning' using 'entheogen psilocybin." I came across it because my wife is a cancer survivor and we spend lots of time (now thankfully, just for follow-ups) visiting various doctors on their campuses.
Draw whatever conclusions from this what you will. The physical toll of cancer and its treatments are horrible. The psychological toll on the patient and even on the family are pretty awful, too. While I must note that my wife would never in a million years take mushrooms, even for the benefit of a study like this, I'm glad some other poor couple that is also dealing with this hell might come across it. Who knows if a mushroom trip would help a cancer patient with self exploration and personal meaning. The fact that we are open to considering that it might is a good thing.