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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.

Understanding Understanding

Osmond, Humphry; Osmundsen, John A. & Agel, Jerome. (1974)
New York: Harper & Row.

ISBN: 0-06-013239-6

Description: Hardcover, viii + 225 pages

Contents: 11 chapters, index

Ordeals and drugs are not the only means for modifying one's experiential world. Some persons actually have a natural talent for controlling their experience without either outside aid (as from stress or drugs) or any internal influence (as from mental illness). Saint Ignatius Loyola selected the first Jesuits by the flexibility of their perceptions and their powers of imagery, according to the "Rule of Saint Ignatius." Taught to control their powerful imagery, the original Jesuits became "heroes of will and achievement." ... This was their way of achieving the new and strange experiences that man seems destined forever to pursue.

Certain practices of the church for a very long time made these strange - "transcendental" - experiences accessible even to followers who did not have the knack of powerful imagery. Before the development of means for storing fresh foods over long periods, people underwent severe vitamin deficiencies during the winter and immediately thereafter experienced genuine vitamin starvation during Lent. The physiological effects of this stressful regimen often were augmented by illness in many forms, which was frequently accompanied by fever. Religious prescriptions, compounded in this way of severe physiological stress and hypertheological focus, greatly facilitated the achievement of profound religious experience among even the least adept at imagery.

The achievement of altered states of consciousness through the use of hallucinogenic chemicals, stressful ordeals, techniques for manipulating powerful imagery abilities, or devout adherence to stress-producing religious rituals does not explain why man yearns for strange experiences. To satisfy that yearning, he will punish and abuse himself physically, risk losing his mind, and - as Thomas Traherne, seventeenth century mystic and poet, wrote - "put away the dirty devices of the world" in order to see things "as a little child again."

It may well be that mankind's yearning for strange experiences springs from a sort of pan-specific drive for both solidarity and distinction, for both belonging and not-belonging. It is this drive, it seems, that has lead humanity on a quest for new worlds that are very different from the ordinary, where people can find answers to questions, both private and cosmic:   Who am I?
  Why am I?
  What is the meaning of life? Of love? Of death?
  What is It all about?

Seeking answers to such questions has been the objective of the great religions and of some of the greatest human beings who ever lived. The aim: to achieve a kind of total experience that affirms reality by penetrating to its very essence. Drug taking is only one way of pursuing that goal - a universal and timeless but also comparatively feeble way of pursuing a "really real reality" through the attainment of a sort of "cosmic consciousness." Great men and women have joined in this quest by a large variety of means throughout recorded history: Jesus went into the wilderness; Buddha sought his nirvana; Socrates seems to have been rendered immobile by his daimon. (pages 86-87)

... My feeling is that it would be inexcusably arrogant for us utterly to disregard the thinking on matters of transcendence by some of the greatest human beings who have ever lived. Indeed, I believe that "transcendentalia" should be more thoroughly explored. As it happens, drugs - particularly the hallucinogens or psychedelics - are rather good vehicles for such explorations, and we should not discard them. But we should know their dangers. [page 91]

It was through our own personal experiences with mescaline that Dr. Smythies and I became aware of the psychological, artistic, philosophical, and religious implications of the use of these substances. One of the unexpected consequences of our first paper on this subject was an encouraging letter from Aldous Huxley, in which he suggested that we visit him in Los Angeles. The opportunity came, strangely enough, in a matter of weeks, when I went to Southern California for a psychiatric meeting. I took with me a few capsules of the cactus alkaloid mescaline, for Smythies and I had decided that our efforts in exploring drug-induced changes in one's perceptual world would benefit greatly from cooperation by those most able to describe experiences and whose perceptions were already well sharpened by many years of thought and inquiry. Aldous Huxley obviously filled our bill of particulars perfectly. I still look fondly at my picture of him, gazing down on Los Angeles from the hills through mescalinized eyes - an experience that served as a prelude to his writing The Doors of Perception. (pages 93-94)

In spite of remarks that I sometimes heard about "mystical trends" in his later years, I always found him shrewd, matter-of-fact, and to the point. But the history of mysticism - in spite of popular notions to the contrary - has always concerned the practical, hard-headed, socially effective people.

Aldous had got a Dictaphone for the occasion of taking mescaline. I could see no decent way out, and so we agreed to do the experiment. I had a restless night. Next morning, as I stirred the water and watched the silvery while mescaline crystals swirling down and dissolving with a slightly oily slick, I wondered whether it would be enough or too much. Aldous and Maria (his first wife) would be sad if it did not work. But what if it worked too well? Should I cut the dose in half? The setting could hardly have been better. It was a delicious May morning in Hollywood, no hint of smog to make the eyes smart, not too hot. Moreover, Aldous seemed an ideal subject, Maria eminently sensible, and we had taken to each other, which was very important for a good experience. But I did not relish the possibility - however remote - of being "the man who drove Aldous Huxley mad." My fears were groundless. The bitter chemical did not work as quickly as Aldous had expected, for he was a bit impatient. It slowly etched away the patina of conceptual thinking, and the doors of perception were cleansed. Aldous began to see things less impeded by his enormous rationalizing brain. Within two and a half hours, I knew that it was acting, and after three hours I was sure that all would go well, and it did. Aldous and Maria were greatly pleased, and so was I. In addition, I was much relived.

I had enjoyed myself and looked forward to Aldous' report, which has become widely known as The Doors of Perception. From then on, we usually saw each other at least once a year and were always writing. ... (pages 110 - 111)

... He asked me not to discuss this [Huxley's cancer] with Laura (his second wife, after Maria's death) or other members of his family, because they would worry, and it would not help him. He then dismissed the matter and read me the chapter from Island dealing with the Moksha medicine, the use of psychedelics for helping people prepare themselves to change for the better and how to prepare themselves for dying. It is, I believe, packed with his finest ideas, which will repay much study and consideration. It has still to be fully appreciated. (page 111)

This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP

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