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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 Journey: The Transforming Power of Mystical Experience. Burnham, Sophy. (1997).
New York: Ballantine.


ISBN: 0-345-39507-7 hardcover 0-345-42479-4 paperback

Description: Hardcover, xii + 323 pages.

Contents: Acknowledgments, introduction, 12 chapters, Appendix A: Christian Meditation, Appendix B: The Dark Side and the Way Out, notes, bibliography, suggested reading, index.

Note: The 1999 paperback edition (Wellspring) has the subtitle Walking the Mystical Path in Everyday Life. The book contains a wide view of mystical experiences, besides those occasioned by entheogens.

Excerpt(s): This book is motivated by certain raptures and epiphanies granted me, and especially by some that happened to me nearly twenty years ago. I have already written two novels–Revelations and The President's Angel–about what happens when you have a mystical experience. Now I struggle to capture in the clumsier nonfiction form a story that is unconventional, erotic, creative, confusing. . . . I write in case others have had such experiences and want to know they are not alone. I write to note some landmarks on the path, point out the avalanche slopes, the food caches, and the cairns left by others long before. Twenty years ago, I felt alone, blindly groping on the path. Yet looking back I see that guides, both human and spiritual, remained always at my side. ...

You will find no angels in this book, not because they were not present, pouring out their grace, but because we speak here of That to which even the angels point: the That toward which they guide, lead, nudge us along on our lives. "Look," they are singing. "Listen to That. Taste the music of I AM." We are rewarded with knowings, visions, and love beyond belief; and yet these ecstasies themselves, as you shall see, are no more than little chocolates tossed out to encourage us on the way. Just when we think we've learned something, we find-there's always more. (pages 5-6)

There are three ways of courting holy ecstasies: through the age-old religious disciplines of prayer and fasting, the expression of the longing heart; through sacred dance and ritual; and last by ingesting intoxicants or hallucinogenic substances. For centuries people have entered the sacred mysteries by taking sacred herbs or experimenting with chemicals and drugs: ether, opium, chloroform, belladonna, morphine, heroin, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana, peyote, alcohol, glue; there are an infinite number of substances. Alcoholic beverages provide a high, as, more mildly, do nicotine and caffeine. William James was experimenting with nitrous oxide when he wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience. He confesses that he never had a mystical experience. His experiences on nitrous oxide, like those of others taking drugs, converged toward a kind of metaphysical insight, the keynote of which was reconciliation, whereby the opposites of the world were all "melted into unity." Nothing persuaded him to count it "spiritual." (pages 208-209)

Nonetheless, sometimes they change the person taking them. A botanist I know (who does not take recreational drugs) believes that 30 million Americans took drugs between the 1960s and 1990s, and that the visions the drug users had while in that altered state account for the utterly new sea-change of attitude that we find today at the end of the century: a deep and reverent regard for our planet and for those others out in space, for our environment, for the rain forests and both wild and domestic animals, for the idea that the Earth itself–Gaia–is breathing, has consciousness, and that all living beings, all rocks and plants and sentient beings are inextricably entangled; that we humans are now evolving to a higher plane of divine consciousness.

In some cases the visions seen on drugs have had profound effects. Here is the revelation of another friend of mine, seen while "tripping" on LSD. Lily was twenty-two when she came from England to San Francisco, attracted to the hippie life. It was March 1970, and at a Grateful Dead concert she was given three "orange barrels," a very pure form of LSD.

A week later she decided to "drop one barrel." She had the impression it was a holy act, a sacrament that she was undertaking. She fasted beforehand–no breakfast–she wanted to be pure. She took one pill and telephoned a young friend of hers, Bill, and asked if she could come to his house. She wanted someone with her as she "tripped." She hitchhiked over. She hitchhiked everywhere in those days. By the time she arrived she was already "coming on." There was a taste in the back of her throat, and on her empty stomach it made her feel fuzzy. She recalls: I have no idea how I found his place; I'd never been there before. I told Bill I'd already started. He was shocked I'd already taken it."

The drug came on so fast that she got scared. She tried to throw up. She sat on the floor by the toilet and put her finger down her throat, but she couldn't vomit. She thought she would die, then thought, "This has to be okay. It was my choice. What will be will be."

It was early spring and the trees were just blooming. The next thing she knew she was sitting on the lawn looking up at a flowering tree, and it was glorious. She remembers it still as gorgeous, psychedelic explosions of pink light.

A moment later: "I was in heaven. I was on a cloud, certainly no longer on Earth.

"I remember saying, 'I want to see God,' There was a Voice of Knowledge over to my left. It said, I am God.

"I turned and saw a bright, BRIGHT Light! I was quite matter-of-fact. 'Why am I alive?' I asked. "What is the point of my life"'

"Then I was taken to the edge of the cloud and shown a Vision. I saw a long rope, and Jesus at the front of it had the rope over his shoulder, and he was pulling humanity by the rope. Humanity in the form of thousands of people stretched out in a long V, like a cone or the point of a pencil if Jesus were the lead at the tip. I couldn't see the end of this huge mass of people. I was up toward the point, and all of us were pulling humanity toward this . . . toward God! Toward the Light! But the Light was on the cloud with me. There were other Beings up on the cloud, full of light. I don't remember features. They were separate from the Light Source. They moved around. I felt that one of them looked over the edge of the cloud with me.

"This cone, this mass of humanity, was coming through a narrow cleft or gorge carved between high cliffs. I was also down there, fairly near the front of the cone, helping to pull it to a lighter, happier place.

"I had no more questions to ask God. God was in the Light where there is no Time. Then I had to come back into my body, which had now moved to a chair in the kitchen. I kept repeating, 'I don't want to go back.' But I was given the information that without a body you can't take action on the earth. Therefore I had to return. It was emotionally painful, sad. I felt constricted in my body. I didn't like it. I loved the spacious, open feeling of heaven."

Later Lily remembers being on BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, and looking at her body. She would move her hand, watching it touch her skin. "All I wanted to do was move my hand over my skin."

The experience changed her attitude, she said, and affected her deeply. Immediately afterward, still blissed out, she tried to tell a few people she'd met God. They laughed. She was shocked and hurt. She thought this was a religious experience that anyone could have and she wanted to spread the news. She was dissuaded from telephoning her parents in England to tell them to take acid. The next day caution reappeared. She remembered how in the Bible "Mary pondered these things and held them to her heart." She also felt that despite her own conviction of what she'd seen, because her experience had been prompted by a drug, others might invalidate it, diminish it as a mere hallucination.

She had two "barrels" left. She thought when she took them she would meet God again. It didn't happen a second time. Eventually she heard that you can find God through meditation, and retain more permanent results. She studied with Swami Satchitananda in Los Angeles, who taught her breath meditation, mantra meditation, hatha yoga, blending-with-the-guru meditation, and more. She did not stay with the guru. One day she had the experience of falling into his eyes as if into a vast space, somersaulting in his eyes. It felt intrusive, and she left.

Now she practices the Buddhist vipassana meditation described in Chapter 1. She feels safer on her own, she says, not tied too closely to one teacher or one path.

"Years later, though," she says, "when my father was dying in a nursing home, I found I could speak to him out of the experience of my vision, about this passage out of his physical body. And by the time I left, he was reconciled to leaving: he had seen in a dream how to die."

Today she says she has a deep faith in the fundamental goodness of the world, of people, of the universe, all nurtured by her experience. She has a deeper concern to do something for the planet, and feels that she'd better, as her mother would say, "buck up and DO it." (pages 211-215)



This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2000 CSP

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