A shaman-healer prepares for an Ayahuasca ceremony in La Calera, Cundinamarca. Photo by Eitan Abramovic/AFP/Getty
Do psychedelics give access to a universal, mystical experience of reality, or is that just a culture-bound illusion?
In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a psychedelic renaissance. Research into the healing potential of psychedelics has re-started at prestigious universities such as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Imperial College London, and is making rock stars out of the scientists carrying it out. Their findings are being reported with joy and exultation by mainstream media – on CNN, the BBC, even the Daily Mail. Respectable publishers such as Penguin are behind psychedelics bestsellers such as Michael Pollan’s book How To Change Your Mind (2018), which was reviewed enthusiastically across the political spectrum. Silicon Valley billionaires are putting their blockchain millions into funding psychedelics research, and corporates are preparing for a juicy new market. The counterculture has gone mainstream. Turn on, tune in, sell out.
The renaissance involves the resurrection of many ideas from the first ‘summer of love’ in 1967, in particular, the mystical theory of psychedelics. This idea was introduced by Aldous Huxley in his classic The Doors of Perception (1954). Having studied mystical experiences for more than a decade without really having one, Huxley took mescaline, and felt that he’d finally been let in to the mystics’ club. Other 1960s gurus such as Alan Watts, Ram Dass and Huston Smith were also convinced that psychedelics led to genuine mystical experiences, and would be a catalyst for Western culture’s spiritual awakening.
The mystical theory of psychedelics has five key tenets. The first is that psychedelics lead to a mystical experience of unitive, non-dual consciousness, in which all is one, you are united with It, God, the Tao, Brahman, etc. This experience is timeless, ineffable, joyful and noetic (you know that it is true).
Second, that the psychedelic experience is the same as the experience of mystics, found in all religions. Different religions use different terms for ultimate reality, but all mystics are really having the same non-dual experience. This is the theory of the ‘perennial philosophy’, promoted by Huxley and other perennialists. It’s known in religious studies as the ‘universal core of religious experience’ theory.
Third, that the mystical experience previously occurred mainly to ascetics such as St Teresa of Ávila, and was somewhat rare and unpredictable, therefore scientists dismissed it as ‘ego-regression’, ‘psychosis’ and so forth. But now psychedelics have revealed a predictable and replicable route to mystical experiences, so scientists can study them in the lab. They can measure them using brain-scans, or questionnaires such as the Hood Mysticism Scale, developed by the American psychologist Ralph Hood, which measures to what extent a person’s experience maps onto the ‘universal core’.
Fourth, that this scientific research will create an empirical spirituality or ‘neuro-theology’. It will prove, or at least make more credible, the transcendent insights of the mystics.
And finally, that this will change the world. Humanity will join a new scientific religion of mystical experience, beyond differences of language, nation, culture, religion, class, gender or ethnicity. We will all become liberal environmental progressives. We will all overcome our fear of death. After four centuries of materialism, Western culture will be re-enchanted, but in a predictable, rational and replicable way. Homo sapiens will be upgraded.
These ecstatic ideas are back with a vengeance. The present psychedelic renaissance was started in 2006 by the Johns Hopkins’ psychedelic lab, with a paper called ‘Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance’. This paper repeated the claim of Huxley et al that psychedelics (in this case, psilocybin or magic mushrooms) reliably lead to a unitive mystical experience which ‘may be foundational to the world’s ethical and moral systems’. It measured the depth of people’s mystical experiences using the Hood Mysticism Scale. Subsequent Johns Hopkins studies found that the stronger the mystical experience induced by psilocybin, the more people were freed from addiction, depression, even the fear of death.
The millenarian hope bubbling below the cool, detached surface of the psychedelic renaissance is apparent if you read Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experience(2015) by William Richards, a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins psychedelic lab. The book climaxes in an epilogue of propositions that include: ‘In case you had any doubts, God (or whatever your favourite noun for ultimate reality may be) is’; ‘Consciousness, whether we like it or not, appears to be indestructible’; and ‘The ultimate nature of matter and mind (if you take the mystics seriously) appears to be an ontological source or force of energy called love.’ It’s not clear if these propositions are scientific findings or ecstatic poetry…