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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 Psychedelic Subculture in America

King, William Clyde (1972).
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University

ISBN: none

Description: vi + 274 pages. Unpublished doctoral dissertation in anthropology.

Contents: Acknowledgements, list of figures, 9 chapters, Appendix A: Demographic and Life History Data Summaries, bibliography.

Note: Available from UMI, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI., in several sizes and bindings.

Excerpt(s): Thus, the use of psychedelics around the world follows similar patterns. It is often found in conjunction with revitalization movements. The substances are used almost universally for divination; healing; contact with spiritual figures like ancestors, demons, gods; and an effort to recapture something we might call oneness or unity with self and others.

Superficially, our culture's use of the substances does not seem to follow this pattern. We hear reports of the chemicals being used for kicks, to be 'in', to be 'out', to achieve enlightenment, to drive ourselves crazy, etc. But it is the perspective of this study that if we investigate the use of these substances in our culture in enough depth, we might find a pattern of use very similar to that in other cultures. Further, we can in this analysis, observe the development of this subculture, and thereby gain some understanding of the development of revitalization movements in general. This dissertation, then, will concern itself with the analysis of the subculture as it developed in this country - and more specifically at a midwestern liberal arts college - from 1963-1970. (page 5)


The mode of research that I am using in this project is that of 'participant-observation'. Participant-observation is, for Fabian, "a self-reflexive praxis", whereby "mood is translated into insight". Thus, the object of such research is not prediction-manipulation as with the empiricist-behaviorist schools; rather, the goal is understanding of the experience of the persons whom we study (and secondarily to understand ourselves). (page 46)

Time. I spent six years involved in the psychedelic subculture at an intense level. This time period is far longer than the normal field experience for anthropologists (from 1 year to 18 months); and it is considerably longer than the other studies of drug users. In addition to providing the possibility of gaining greater depth of penetration into the phenomenon, it allowed me to observe the dynamics of the subculture as it grew and matured, and to perceive changes in the orientations of individuals in the subculture (i.e., some of my 'informants' were close friends for six years). ...

Social Circumstances. During my six years involvement in the subculture, I participated in a great number of social contexts. Public events like rock concerts; grass smoking (approximately 1000 times); various living arrangements; approximately 75-80 psychedelic experiences; discussions for many hours with many people. These events took place in several different environments. Over half of the six years were spent at one midwestern liberal arts college. The rest of the time was divided between other colleges, suburban environments, and cities. (page 61)

Selective Report of Experiences. Since I cannot present all 75-80 trips in this space, I will select only those that had a more pronounced effect on my total experience, and/or those which are relevant to this research.

My first experience with psychedelics was with peyote (in fall, 1964). One of the four 'original' members of the psychedelic subculture at the college asked me if I would like to try a drug that he got from an Indian who was a member of the peyote church, the Native American Church. He and three friends had tried it in the spring, 1964. I did not associate this plant with the 'poisons' I had been indoctrinated against like marijuana or heroin, so my curiosity overcame any fear and I agreed. A few days before the proposed experiment, one of the persons brought some marijuana and asked if I would like to smoke this with him and my friend. I was very uptight about this, but decided that I shouldn't be 'chicken' and tried it. After a few minutes, I felt very strange, but was no longer afraid. Up to that time, it was the strangest experience of my life. I felt as if I had heard music for the first time in my life. Also, I had no bad aftereffects, unlike some of my experiences with alcohol. (page 64)

During the fall and winter of that year, I took acid several times, along with the now habitual pot smoking that was spreading rapidly through the campus. This drug taking became an all-consuming project for several persons, including myself. The major reasons seemed to be relief from boredom and an effort to avoid any work associated with school. Several people dropped out and went to NYC (most returned within a year or so). One of my best friends, the person who had turned me on to pot, peyote and acid, suggested we that we meet, with two other friends in NYC during spring vacation for a big acid trip. We were all taking drugs virtually non-stop for the month previous to this vacation. Thus, when we got to NYC, we were all fairly 'bummed out.' We smoked DMT the night before the trip; and arose the next day ready for our 'big mind-blower." We had heard that some people had bummers on acid; but on the surface, at least, we were confident. We scored the acid and took two capsules. We were told it was strong, and a half a capsule would be enough; but we were afraid of being tricked, so we took two each. ... Something horrifying (to all four of us) happened between two of the other people, and I ran to another car (occupied by a couple 'parking') in total panic. I somehow communicated to them that I needed help and they took me to a hospital. As I was led through two sets of doors, I became panicked that this place was some kind of prison or concentration camp, and sat down in a lotus position and held my knees and the rest of my body rigid. At this point, I lost sensory contact with my surroundings, and began an inner voyage of undetermined length (I would guess now that it lasted about one or two hours).

During this period, I experienced what I later read (in The Psychedelic Experience, by Leary et al) to be various levels of consciousness. I first experienced many flowing, noisy forms and processes, some of which seemed like biological processes. Next, I experienced a Double Helix, that sometimes split and rejoined. Next, I experienced what can only be described in terms of 'electron grids' or 'atomic grids'. I was conscious only of these forms and the presence of great quantities of energy, sort of buzzing. Next, I experienced only wavelike motion -- a kind of cosmic pulsation that was my total experience. Last, I experienced the Void, or what I later discovered Leary to label as 'Clear Light'. When I read this several days later, I was impressed that these two syllables were the only way to describe the experience -- simply Clear Light. I passed in and out of Clear Light three times; but although as I passed out I knew that Clear Light was the most profound experience of my life, I was never sure how to hold it, or even if it was possible to hold it. ...

... We were incoherent enough that it was decided to send all of us to Bellevue for observation. When we got there, we were still hallucinating quite vividly in spite of the large doses of thorazine (my arm hurt for a week from where they had shot the needle through the rigid muscle tissue). Two of us were taken to a room which contained a desk, chairs, other things and an orange (I think Oriental) psychiatrist. Since, I presume, he had no idea where our heads were, he asked what seemed to him an obvious question "Why you take the RSD?" Whether due to his mispronunciation of LSD or his strange appearance or the fact that he came into the visual field at short intervals 'on a wave' or the absurdity of his question, we broke into uncontrollable laughter. He immediately decided that this was a symptom of derangement (and as we later discovered, LSD psychosis), and sent us, in blue pajamas, to Ward PS 7 (the psychotic ward). This caused us anxiety due to the horrid colors, sounds, etc. in the ward. We tried talking ourselves down, but a misshapen guard kept telling us to shut up since it was three o'clock in the morning. We ignored him, but he didn't go away. Instead, he sent us to the 'tank', where they keep troublesome psychotics whose tranquilizers have worn a little too thin for them to be asleep. The room contained three urine-and-feces stained mattresses, several persons without control over these functions, a man who had only yellow rotting stumps for teeth and kept saying 'call Ella, Ella Fitzgerald, she's my mother', various visual aberrations, and the two of us. I related this only to point out that the mental hospital is not the place to come down from a trip. ... Within the next two days, we were released in custody of parents and/or psychiatrists.

We had collectively decided not to take drugs anymore, nor to tell others of our trip. We eventually gave in to the pressures of notoriety (our trip was mentioned in a national magazine) and told of our 'archetypal bummer' to various people. When I went home, I met a minister, one of my father's students, who had participated in the Leary experiments at Harvard. He gave me a copy of Leary's book. This was the first time I had been able to make any sense of what had happened to me. I began to realize that what had occurred in New York was what was described in the book as a 'religious' experience. It had not been so for me (because I had not labeled it as such), but the contents of the experience were the same as those described. My panic had been predominant only at the beginning and the end of the trip; the peak experience had not been unpleasant. However, I was very reluctant to take drugs again, as were my companions (we all took drugs again with one year). (pages 66-71)

The Interviews. Toward the end of this six year period, I administered interviews to fifty members of the subculture at the college where most of the earlier research took place. The sample was selected, beginning with one of my major informants and branching out into the various layers of the subculture (what sociologists call a sociometric sample). The interviews were constructed to be as open-ended as possible, allowing about two hours for each interview. In some instances, the time actually used was less than two hours; in some instances more. In a few instances, more than one person was interviewed at the same time - e.g., a man and his wife. (page 78)

In spite of my belief that individual persons are unique (a value which I still hold), certain patterns of psychedelic drug use emerged from my interviews during 1969-70. Thus, the users of psychedelic drugs can "choose" from a number of possible 'careers' or partial biograms. These types will be described as model persons - ideal types; they are listed below:
  1. The experimenter
  2. The 'amusement park freak'
  3. The rappers
  4. The 'self-expressionists'
    • the body-oriented people
    • the thing-oriented people
  5. The Shamans
  6. Dealers and groupies
  7. Intermediate persons
It must be remembered, however, that although these 'types' will be represented by specific persons in any synchronic view of the subculture, they are actually 'states of being' in which a person may exist for various lengths of time. These categories are thus phases in a career through which persons pass; they are not reflective of immutable 'types' of people. Therefore, although I have used nouns to represent these categories, verbs (e.g., experimenting, rapping) might better indicate the diachronic nature of the categories. (page 131)

Shamans. The shamans are the center of the subculture. They are the final product of a 'successful' psychedelic career. From the actual words of the interviews, only two distinguishing features emerge: they meditate and do yoga regularly; and they do not smoke cigarettes (their drug use is decreased as a whole also). The major methodological reason for my including them in a separate category from the others was the feeling I got from the interviews. The shamans, through kinesic cues of various kinds, demonstrated a self-assuredness, inner peace, and humble attitude that was as obvious to me as it seems to be to the other persons in the subculture. Several times, persons mentioned that one or another of the shamans was 'very together'. The only kinesic cue which I can describe accurately enough was that they all sat in lotus posture throughout the interview. Other persons sat in the lotus position; but they were shifting around, and generally exhibited a certain discomfort. The shamans liked the lotus posture; it was their preferred way of remaining in one place. As one put it, "the full lotus position encloses your energy in a 'sacred space'". The shamans would all be seniors, except that two were out of school for a year. All had some religious training; all profess religious values which are best described as 'global' - i.e, they like Christ and Buddha. Two were demand fed and two were schedule fed: this means that you can regulate your life in spite of demand feeding, a lesson that many radicals and amusement park freaks need to learn - personality change is possible. They have used grass sporadically - frequently for 3 years (2. 5-3. 5). They have tripped 25 times (16-34) in the last two years (1. 5-3). They show no great preference for any particular drug:


Two have used speed in the past; and one of those has used heroin. Neither plans to use them again. Three reported having bummers in the past; none are anxious about it happening again. All report that their trips are quiet now - they like to meditate, do yoga, or spend the time outdoors. They are concerned with many aspects of the experience (all have read a good deal about drugs and related topics); 1 is in the acid class, all have taken Eastern Religions, all are in the yoga class (taught by the married couple in this group), all meditate regularly. Thus, they practice what they preach, so to speak. (pages 169-171)

As the subculture began to form in the early 1960's, individuals had a choice of three perspectives with which to label their experiences, each of which was to some extent a reaction to the other perspectives. Leary proposed (following others like Huxley) the religious nature of the experience, to some extent in reaction to others who saw it as psychotic. The medical profession and the Army saw the experience as psychosis-producing or mimicking, somewhat in reaction to earlier claims for its mystical value. Kesey saw the experience as fun, and secondarily as important for the person's experience; as we have already seen, his position was to some extent an anti-environment to the hospital perspective (see One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and to the staid perspective (from Kesey's point of view in the early sixties) of Leary and his coworkers.

Thus, the illegal user initially had three potential labels for the experience - religious, fun, or psychotic. (pages 230-231)

Ego Transcendence. Zen, and to some degree yoga, purport to enable the person to transcend the dualistic thinking of the ego - to become one with one's self and thus the universe. They state that through meditation of various kinds the person can resolve these cosmic questions which trouble him or perplex him. But they say that this truth can only be realized inside oneself. That is, it (truth) is not subject to empirical validation - the same problem as with the reality of the other experiences. ... The more 'important' reason for the practice of these [meditative] methods of ego-transcendence is self-realization or enlightenment (satori, kensho). And that goal is not empirically verifiable, except perhaps for the persons inside the experience.

Thus, the psychedelics provide the person with keys to temporarily open the doors of his perception; but these doors close each time. Most persons in the subculture eventually choose to follow the highway that they have glimpsed during these experiences. Their success in this voyage is determined only by their faith in its reality and their will to pursue it. (pages 245-246)

Compilation copyright © 1995 – 2001 CSP