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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

The Ecstatic Imagination: Psychedelic Experiences and the Psychoanalysis of Self-Actualization

Merkur, Dan (1998)
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press

ISBN:0-7914-3606-3 paperback
0-7914-3606-3 paperback
Description: Paperback, xiv + 226 pages.

Contents: Acknowledgments, preface, 9 chapters, references, index.

Excerpt(s): My first contention is that psychedelic drugs induce an alternate state-not restricted to consciousness-that consists of intense fantasying. Depending on the dosage, the fantasies may or may not reach pseudohallucinatory intensity. Beyond the induction of a state of intense fantasying or, to introduce a synonymous term, a state of reverie, the drugs themselves do nothing. They do not alter perception, or release forgotten memories, or induce psychoses, or anything else. All of the mental phenomena that are produced by psychedelics are fantasies.

My thesis entails the corollary that fantasy is a much more versatile and varied mental function than has previously been appreciated. In contrast with conventional psychoanalytic theory, which deems fantasy an irrational product of freely associating ideas, the empirical evidence proves that imagination is often highly rational. Sometimes it is even better informed and more self-knowing than conscious thought. ...

My second thesis is that the further variables of psychedelic experience arises from the inherent makeup of the human psyche. The varieties of psychedelic phenomena are neither more nor less than varieties of imagination that the psyche is capable of manifesting. For their explanation, we must look to the theory of the psyche rather than to the theory of psychedelic drug action.

My third and concluding thesis pertains to the claim of several researchers that the different varieties of psychedelic experiences tend to occur in a definite sequence, both within single psychedelic states and as the dominant variety in single sessions over an extended series. . .

. . It is my claim that the sequence of psychedelic experiences is determined not by a hierarchy among the varieties of psychedelic imagination but by the natural processes of personality change. Psychedelic explorations of the ecstatic imagination accomplish a transition from psychohygiene and psychotherapy to self-actualization. (pages 3-4)

This description of psychedelic mysticism was conceptualized a generation ago within the context of the "common core hypothesis" that all mystical experiences are one and the same. It also assumed that all mystical experiences consequently lead to a single "perennial philosophy." Even Grof, who constructed the most detailed typology of psychedelic experiences to date, provided only a single category, Perinatal Matrix I, for the discussion of unitive phenomena.

More recently, the consensus in the academic study of religion, established most prominently by Katz, has come to recognize that mystical experiences, not differing from any other order of experiences, are individually various because they are mediated by the psyche. There is and can be no direct, unmediated perception of Being, Self, the Absolute, God, or whatever. There is always a human psyche that accomplishes perception and, in so doing, filters and constructs it. As Paul recognized, "we see in a mirror, dimly" (1 Cor. 13:12). (pages 93-94)

It is my contention that the unitive phenomena of psychedelic experience are a class of related but individually different phenomena. I have provisionally divided them into twenty-four types in all. Several of the types correspond to existing technical concepts in psychoanalysis; others correspond to the beta-values that Abraham Maslow considered typical concerns of peak experiences. Some types of union are well known to students of comparative religion as the preferred experiences of different mystical traditions; others are comparatively unknown. I have arranged the twenty-four categories in an approximate order of increasingly complexity. (page 98)

[Editor's note: Merkur describes these twenty-four modes on pages 99 - 148. Future researchers may find these categories helpful in designing research to evaluate and describe states of unitive consciousness. Solitary, Willful Action, Self-Transcendent, Incorporation, Externalization, Inclusive, Identification, Personalization, Relational, Deterministic, Chronological, Propriety, Empathic, Responsibility, Humble, Energic, Vitality, Loving Presence, Omniscient, Omnipresent, Absolution, Imagined Knowledge, Imagined Purpose, Interior Dialogue.]

... Differences of genetic stock as well as of cultural heritage separate Western drug takers and Native American Peyotists; but once culture-specific differences are set aside, a single depth psychology is evident. The most important cultural difference between the two population samples is the religiosity of Native American Peyotists. Western drug takers include many secular individuals. A second difference is the tendency of Peyotists to emphasize moral and theistic experiences, where Western drug takers have favored the reportage of what they assumed to be mystical.

A further culture-specific factor is the apparent safety of Native American peyote use, which compares with the medical use of psychedelics in Western psychiatry. Most adverse reactions have resulted from illicit uses of psychedelics in Western culture. There is no reason to assume that a ritualistic "setting" is the significant variable. Among the Highland Chinatecs of Mexico, psilocybin mushrooms are employed for internal dialogues with the divine in a reverential manner that is almost entirely devoid of ritual. The mushroom experience is regarded as a serious event, but it is done without regard for setting, attendant paraphernalia, or formal procedural actions. Similarly, the safety of the Western medical uses of psychedelics cannot be ascribed to a factor of ritual. Rather, it is more likely that the mental "set," the deliberacy of purpose, whether religious or psychiatric, serves unconsciously to direct psychedelic experiences in safe manners. The anthropological literature reports religious experiences, but relivings of childhood experiences are rarely remarked. Savage remarked that "where there is no therapeutic intent, there is no therapeutic result." In all likelihood, religious intentions are similarly integral to religious achievement. Conversely, where intent is lacking, there is a greater likelihood to accidentally trigger unconscious materials in an adverse manner. (pages 171-172)

Precisely because psychedelic drugs facilitate experiences of the full variety of unitive modes, a common cross-cultural standard may be expected to emerge on their basis. Effective guidance of psychedelic experiences requires the innovation of an unprecedented form of spiritual direction that will allow itself to be guided by the experiential evidence of the inherent religious tendencies of the psyche. The historical traditions of spiritual direction are analogous to the missionary position; there are many more alternatives to be enjoyed.

Much work remains to be done. We do not know when each unitive mode is earliest developed, nor what factors facilitate and inhibit their sublimation. We do not know how to utilize defects, distortions, and lacunas in a person's unitive modes as a diagnostic device, nor how to systematically promote their sublimations. A cross-cultural form of spiritual direction, based on the theory of unitive modes, should nevertheless be possible. (pages 184-185)

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