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Seeking Higher Ground
by Julia Lieblich - Religion News Service
San Jose Mercury News, January 31, 1998
Religion & Ethics section

hen Lewis Carroll's Alice swallowed magical cake, she was "delighted to find that she began shrinking directly." So was [Sylvia Windham], 23, a modern-day Alice on LSD.

"I became smaller and smaller and smaller until I felt the molecules, subatomic particles, the quarks," says Windham of a memorable LSD trip. "Beyond that, there were light bodies all around, and I was a light body. I flet I went into the great white light. . . . I definitely felt it was a God-like consciousness."

Windham, a Seattle resident who studied neurobiology in college, says she was "no hard-core tripper." And she says she has never taken LSD or psilocybin mushrooms just for the fun of it. For her, psychedelics are a sacrament that can awaken mystical experiences in anyone open to the adventure.

It's a dangerous adventure, warns the Rev. Arie L. Mangrum, pastor emeritus of Peace Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. "Many people," he says, are "downright deceived into thinking they are in touch with God when it's the enemy of their soul." And other critics question whether mystical talk is a cover for meaningless fun.

But Windham is among a surprising munber of people - ravers, aging hippies, scholars and ministers among them - who believe that, under the right circumstances, psychedelics can reveal spiritual truths.

Best-selling author Andrew Weil, the doctor Good Housekeeping magazine billed "America's favorite healer," has written extensively on the spiritual properties of "magical mushrooms."

And Berkeley resident Huston Smith, widely regarded as an authority on the history of religion, has written that "given the right set and setting, the drugs can induce religious experiences indistinguishable from ones that occur spontaneously." Still, he was careful to note in the 1992 edition of "Forgotten Truth" that "psychedelic theophanies can abort a quest" to lead a religious life "as readily, perhaps more readily, than they can further it."

How many people partake of the magic, religious or otherwise, is tough to determine given the secrecy surrounding drug use. The 1995 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse estimated that 9.5 percent of Americans older than 12 had used hallucinogens at some point in their lifetime and 1.6 percent used them in the past year.

From researchers to ravers

Users tend to divide themselves into three categories: the original researchers, such as Albert Hofmann, the 92-year-old inventor of LSD; middle-aged hippies who never stopped using psychedelics; and young ravers, primarily high school and college students, who take low doses of LSD, the milder Ecstasy (MDMA) and other drugs at all-night parties.

Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). estimates that less than a quarter of psychedelic enthusiats have spiritual aims; others put the number at closer to half. And still others say even recreational users may unwittingly find themselves communing with God.

Although proponents of psychedelics maintain that the drugs should be distinguished from cocaine and heroin and sanctioned for religious use, only Indians are legally allowed to use a hallucinogen, peyote, in religious rituals.

Peyote rituals began thousands of years ago among aborigines living along the Rio Grande and south into Mexico, notes Duncan Earle, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Shamanic role models

The shamanic cultures that flourished in hunting and gathering societies worldwide prior to the development of agriculture also inspire today's psychedelic travelers, as does the shamanism practiced today in the upper Amazon, notes Earle. Shamans, he says, often use hallucinogens. Shamans serve as a "conduit between the ordinary and non-ordinary world," divining the future and healing the sick.

The first North American to study the use of hallucinogens in a modem shamanic culture was a 55-year-old investment banker "who looked like an investment banker," says photographer Jeremy Bigwood of his late friend R. Gordon Wasson. After retiring from J.P. Morgan in the mid-1950s, Wasson traveled to southern Mexico, where a Mazatec shaman, Maria Sabina, introduced him to psychedelic mushrooms.

In a 1957 article in Life magazine, Wasson described the experience as a "holy communion" with "divine mushrooms." Of a later trip he wrote: "Our untrammeled souls were floating in the universe, stroked by divine breezes, possessed of a divine mobility that would transport us anywhere on the wings of a thought. . . . We were to find ourselves in the presence of the Ultimate." Later he began using the term "entheogen" rather than hallucinogen, to mean "God generated within you."

By the 1960s hordes of young people descended on Mexico looking for a spiritual high. Wasson lamented the visitors' lack of respect for the culture, says Bigwood. Sabina was even harsher, according to Wasson's writings, saying that "from the moment the foreigners arrive the holy children (mushrooms) lost their... force."

Stumbled upon LSD

Hofmann's accidental discovery the chemical compound LSD while doing pharmaceutical research in the industrialized West, as well as academic studies. Windham recently completed an oral history for MAPS of 47 people who took LSD between 1954 and 1962 as part of a study by psychiatrist Oscar Janiger. Almost half of the group, which included homemakers and police officers, described their experiences as spiritual, she said.

"People who did not have a spiritual experience struck me as those who did not have the inclination," she said. Still, she noted, "a Unitarian minister did not have a spiritual experience, and he badly wanted one. He felt he couldn't pass through to the other side."

In the 1970's,
Harvard professor
Timothy Leary
urged everyone
to experiment with
mind-expanding drugs,
but other researchers
urged caution.
When Harvard professor Timothy Leary urged everyone to cross to the other side, Wasson and Hofmann urged caution. But few people were listening, and casualties of high doses in unsafe settings abounded.

Today's ravers tend to be in the Leary camp, often dropping LSD, albeit in much lower doses, and partying all night in gatherings publicized by word of mouth. Terence McKenna, an ethno-botanist and author frequently billed as the new Timothy Leary, says it is hardly an atmosphere conducive to contemplation.

"Are there people so clueless they think the spiritual center of the rave scene is the rave?" he asks. "The real introspective work goes on afterward."

All become one

But Torsten Klimmer, a 28-year-old from San Francisco who loves psychedelic clothing and art, disagrees. "Sometimes parties come to such a high point that all become one being," he says.

Longtime users and more contemplative types prefer to be in quiet venues in small groups or alone. Some join Indians in peyote rituals. And then there are the wandering seekers who take spiritual adventure tours to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, where they drink ayahuasca, a mixture of two Amazonian plants, in rituals led by shamans.

McKenna believes that tours combining knowledgeable guides and serious seekers can "result in ... changed lives." He's less optimistic about tours for "trust fund" travelers "who are constantly drinking from one amusement to another" and wreaking havoc along the way.

Indigenous shamans, he says, are being "destroyed by money, blond women and invitations to Malibu."

Ayahuasca, he believes "can be made in the United States without busting up people's lives and culture," though ayahuasca fans note it is tough to find.

Whether chemically induced mystical experiences produce real transformation depends on the person, says the Rev. John Burciaga, a Unitarian minister in Bethesda, Md.

"The same two persons can have an experience where one comes away changed and the other doesn't" says Burciaga, who doesn't use hallucinogens. And that includes progressive clergy. "There is a significant subculture in the ministry," he says, who are interested in hallucinogens along with other means of achieving ecstatic religious experience, such as fasting.

How one interprets the psychedelic experience theologically depends partly on religious orientation. Buddhists typically talk about the possibilities for enlightenment rather than getting closer to God, and of integrating the psychedelic experience in ongoing meditative practice. Christians think more in terms of holy communion. Then there are the freelance "mystics" like Klimmer who create their own cosmic world view.

After a powerful experience on mushrooms, Klimmer says he "became a mystic, and my personal identity just scrambled away." He says he spent two months in India "living naked in the jungle." But it was at a party in Los Angeles that he experienced "the oneness that is nothingness" and saw God in the form of little angelic beings who initiated him as a shaman.

'Playing Indian'

McKenna is skeptical of anyone in his 20s who calls himself a shaman. "There's a lot of playing Indian," he says. But he appreciates youthful audacity and admits to his own share of chutzpah in talking about mushrooms as the missing link in human evolution, and about his faith in an alien intelligence.

Jeremy Bigwood, who guesses he matched McKenna drug for drug in the '60s and '70s, says he has yet to see an alien. But his experience with psychedelics changed forever the way he sees himself in the world. It has been 20 years since he ingested a hallucinogen, he says. He can't see himself finding enough of a sanctuary in the city. Still, he speaks of ayahuasca with the reverence of a man discussing a sacrament He was "mushroomed," to use his late friend Wassons expression, and its the closest he's come to seeing God.