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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 Unfolding Self: Varieties of Transformative Experience

Metzner, Ralph. (19897.
Novato, CA: Origin Press


ISBN: 1-57983-000-5

Description: Paperback, xiv + 319 pages.

Contents: Preface, introduction, 12 chapters, chapter notes, bibliography, index.

Note: An earlier version of this book was published in 1986 by J. P. Tarcher as Opening to Inner Light.

Excerpt(s): Among modern philosophers and writers, the existentialists in particular have identified and described the prisonlike and angst-producing aspects of worldly existence. Søren Kierkegaard, the melancholy Dane, in his books Fear and Trembling and Sickness unto Death, wrote of the "demonic shut-upness" that results from the conflicts in our being and of the "dread" that results as we accept the "absurdity" of these oppositions. One senses that most of the existentialists never found a way to escape from the prison of existence: they only developed detailed and elaborate descriptions of its dimensions. ...

A personal experience that provided me with a very different perspective on and understanding of the psychological meaning of imprisonment may be relevant here. In 1961 and 1962 I and several other graduate students at Harvard University worked with Timothy Leary on a psychedelic drug research project involving convicts in a maximum security prison. The purpose of the research was to attempt to produce insight and change through the judicious use of psilocybin (the active ingredient of the sacred mushrooms of ancient Mexico) in a supportive group environment. To minimize the prisoners' feeling of being experimental guinea pigs, we adopted a policy of research staff also partaking of the drug with the prisoners on an alternating basis.

So I had the first six or so psychedelic experiences of my life behind the bars of a maximum security prison. To this day, I vividly remember the extraordinary experience of having my visual field expanded until it became a 360-degree circle or sphere, within which the prison walls, the bars on the windows, and the locks on the doors had become meaningless. Though still visible and real, they seemed ineffectual in imprisoning the human spirit, which soared unconstrained that day.

These experiences taught me that we can have inner freedom even while in an outer prison. The converse is of course also true: we can have inner bondage even while outwardly apparently free. The inner prisons, the shutters and locks of the mind, are more subtle and less obvious-yet perhaps for that reason more insidious. Since we do not ordinarily see them, we have no incentive to try to escape. As Gurdjieff says, if we do not realize we are in prison, we have no chance of escaping at all. (pages 56-58)

If we accept the notion that experiencing the body as prison and restrictive armor is fairly common, both in illness and in certain kinds of therapy, yoga, and psychic experiences, the question still arises as to why some individuals might be more predisposed to this kind of experience than others. Clearly, some people do feel very free, agile, and expressive in their bodies and may not resonate to the prison metaphor very much. A possible answer to this question is given in the research with LSD psychotherapy conducted by Stanislav Grof. Grof found that subjects in this kind of deep exploration (and this has since been verified with other kinds of nondrug experiential therapies) can relive aspects of their birth trauma.

He observed that there is a profound connection between feelings of being trapped, bound, shut in, imprisoned, and the apparent memory of the second stage of the four-phase birth process. ...

One could speculate that the sensory and perceptual memory of this kind of birth-related experience could be what underlies the metaphysical world view of existentialism, with its focus on anxiety, alienation, and helplessness, and its despairing and desperate search for meaning. We can also see that these kinds of perceptions, if somehow activated spontaneously instead of in a controlled, purposive psychotherapy situation, could readily precipitate an individual into a hellish psychotic state. As Aldous Huxley pointed out, such experiences under psychedelics are quite comparable to the visions and hallucinations of schizophrenia-and, he might have added, to the initiatory experiences of apprentice shamans. (pages 63-64)

While there is a close experiential analogy between madness and hell, I am not saying that only psychosis is hellish. Since hell and heaven are states of consciousness, one can "enter" them from other states-dreams, for example, or drug-induced states. The nightmare is a dream of madness and of hell. Likewise, the ability of hallucinogenic drugs to trigger hellish, psychotic-like trips is so well known that they were first referred to as psychotomimetic. A toxic delirium and illnesses marked by severe chronic pain and other conditions of psychosomatic "hell." ...

In LSD-triggered psychoses I have witnessed, the crucial turning point toward resolution always seemed to be the recognition of being on a journey, in a process, or in a temporarily altered state of consciousness. The purifying inner fires are then no longer experienced as torture, a shirt of flame one cannot remove, but instead are regarded as a necessary purgation, accepted-even welcomed-for their transformative power. Stanislav Grof observed that encounters with consuming fire are a frequent component of psychedelic experiences and are usually accepted as transformative. "The individual who has discovered all the ugly, disgusting, degrading, and horrifying aspects of his personality finds himself thrown into this fire or deliberately plunges into it and passes through it. The fire appears to destroy everything that is rotten or corrupt in the individual and prepares him for the renewing and rejuvenating experience of rebirth." (pages 80-82)

This Bardo Thödol, also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was adapted by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass), and myself as a manual for people taking high-dose LSD trips. We had observed that the essential features of this map of after-death visions could easily be identified in psychedelic experiences. Instead of physical death, these trips had ego death; instead of peaceful and wrathful deities, they had heavenly and hellish visions corresponding to the person's own religious background; and instead of rebirth, they had reentry, or return to the world of ordinary, familiar identity in a transformed and renewed condition, if the experience was successful.

LSD psychotherapy has also been found to be extremely valuable for people with terminal cancer, in work done by Walter Pahnke, Stanislav Grof, and others. The experience with LSD enabled cancer patients to transcend their pain-wracked bodies and become attuned to a level of consciousness that included the physical, but in the context of a more comprehensive, more unitive, pain-dissolving awareness.

In experiences with LSD or without, it is possible for people who are dying to attain this kind of transcendence of the physical in a way that alleviates much of the usual pain and fear accompanying death. One might well wonder whether this is not the natural, true way of dying designed for us by God and/or nature. (page 147)

The Nordic myth of ragnarök, the "twilight of the gods," is that the earth trembles as the tree shakes, and the roots come loose from the constant gnawing of the giant serpent coiled around its roots. This relentlessly gnawing serpent symbolizes the destructive forces of time, entropy, decay, and degeneration. The great tree, however, continues, ever renewing itself and nourishing all life. After one generation of gods dies, or fades away, a new generation of gods and humans will arise again, according to the visions related in the Eddas.

This kind of end-time vision, of a world falling apart and becoming uprooted, can occur in the course of a transformative process, as is shown in the following account written by me of an LSD experience, which also included interior yogic energy work:

I felt as though deep-seated, very old complexes were being loosened, released, and discharged into open awareness, in a manner that felt like the uprooting of deeply tangled root systems. As these sick and decaying roots were being pulled up, analogously to a kind of weeding-out process, I felt my body shaking, going through miniconvulsions. Since my awareness and my sense of identity were "in" my body, it felt like the whole environment-my whole "world," in fact-was shaking and convulsing. I felt that in this upheaval, a whole era in my life and in the life of the world was coming to an end. The rule of the old gods was ending.

This kind of experience suggests one possible psychological basis for the myth of the twilight of the gods: it represents the ending and dying of the old religious values and beliefs, including beliefs about the stability and continuity of the world.

A fascinating variant of the cosmic tree symbolism occurs in the ancient Indian Vedas and Upanishads and in the Jewish mystical Kabbalah. In both of these traditions, the tree is described as having its roots above, in heaven, in the Infinite, and extending its branches downward into the world of sense objects and matter.

With the root above and the branches below stands this ancient fig tree. That indeed is the pure; that is Brahman. That, indeed, is called immortal. In it all the worlds rest and no one ever goes beyond it. (Katha Upanishad).

Now the Tree of Life extends from above downwards, and is the sun which illuminates all. (Book of Zohar).

The symbolism of the inverted tree declares that the true origin, root, and source of our life is the One Spirit-called Atman-Brahman in the Vedanta, and Ain Soph, the Eternal One, in the Kabbalah. In this model, the downward-extending branches are our sense perceptions and emotional desires, through which we become attached to terrestrial nature. (pages 212-213)



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

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