Rethinking the locks on the doors to perception
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – I have an immense pride and sense of tenure and belonging when it comes to the decade of the 1960s, the time during which I came to age, and I’m enormously glad for it. While there is some truth to the observation (variously attributed to Paul Kantner, Robin Williams, Paul Krassner, Pete Townshend, Grace Slick, Timothy Leary, Charlie Fleischer and others,) that if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there, I have to say that with some effort, a little detective work, some reading of my diaries, scrapbooks and journals, combined with interrogating some other survivors of my acquaintance, I may not be in a position to recall those years with perfect clarity, but I sure as hell remember them enough to state that I wouldn’t have chosen to miss them for any other time I can think of.
When we look back on that seminal decade, we are often inclined tend to focus on one or another single aspect of what amounts to a watershed period in the history of civilisation. Some see nothing but unwashed radicals protesting everything that had brought us to that advanced historical state. Others remember race riots, while some see the civil rights
advances; some see a lazy generation of pot smoking draft dodgers while others see a courageous youth movement that rejected war that had no good justification and risked everything to fight it. Some see it as the end of the mythical Ozzie and Harriett period that the Republicans still moon over while rational people see it as the period we actually resolved to and succeeded in landing on the real moon. Some see it as the death of art and music, while some of us see it as the birth and adolescence of a form of music that has never been equaled and may never be surpassed.
There is, of course, some degree of truth to every one of those perspectives, because the 1960`s was no more a simplistic decade than was the 1940s or the1850s or the 1900s; influences were nearly infinite and a simplistic overview with a trite summation fails to give anything resembling a fair assessment.
There were some things that emerged from the 60`s that were and continue to be enormously beneficial; they have become so much a part of our lives that is hard to imagine what life was like before them. A presumption of racial and sexual equality is one legacy that we mow accept as our birthrights. Plurality versus homogeneity has enriched all of our lives. And we are no doubt sick of hearing how everything from computers to Velcro are direct collateral results of the 1960s space efforts.
Not all legacies of the 60`s are to be celebrated, however; there are some serious regrets, too. Our current mistrust and cynical dismissiveness of government that reached its apotheosis with Nixon`s resignation and lingers today isn`t something to celebrate; I cringe every time I think of war protestors hurling abuse at returning Vietnam vets and calling them baby-killers. A lot of things could and should have been done differently. (Don`t even get me started on awarding Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973).
But just as we are making some real efforts to redress some of the unfair and brutal treatment and neglect meted to Vietnam vets, we can put some effort into getting right some of those things that we fucked up as we were feeling out ways forward in a period unlike any other in the history of the civilised world.
I believe that one of the most serious mistakes we made during the 60s was abandoning and the then demonising any serious research into the potential benefits of psychedelic substances. Hallucinogens had been around for thousands of years before they were re-discovered in the early ‘60s and used broadly as recreational aids. Throughout the world, truly mind altering substances have grown in form of mushrooms, cactus flower, weeds, and even toad sweat; most of these have been in use by one culture after another as recreational enhancements like the more dangerous alcohol and the milder and benign marijuana, and most have also been used in quasi-religious fashions as serious attempts to enter into altered forms of perception in an effort to understand the nature of reality and the ineffable aspects of the sensual and even non-sensual understanding of the universe that seem to be shared by sentient creatures across cultures, millennia, and even species.
The word psychedelic was first used by British- Canadian psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond in a letter to Aldous Huxley and later in a scientific paper published in 1956. It is of Greek derivation and it refers to the opening up of the mind (Psyche-= soul or mind while Delos = visible or clear); it was used as noun to identify certain substances, principally mescaline and psilocybin which Hudson had been investigating professionally. and which Huxley had been approaching as an artist. Lysergic acid 25 was by far the most powerful and synthesised by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1935 although its hallucinogenic properties were only accidentally discovered five years later. Right up until the demonisation and subsequent illegalisation of hallucinogens there was little question that the changes wrought by psychedelics were not only profound, but of extreme importance to psychology, philosophy, epistemology, and quite likely the more esoteric aspects of physics. LSD was perfectly legal until it was banned 1966 in California, and the rest of the world followed suit immediately on their coattails.
Much of the blame for the mainstream fear and loathing of these profoundly interesting and
promising substances can be placed at the door of a great man – an eccentric, deeply flawed, egocentric, and ultimately a victim of his own legend – Timothy Leary, a man who, early on, saw their significance and made every effort of which he was capable both of studying their effects and of popularising their use. Leary was a West Point drop out, who had taken psychology almost on a whim. becoming well known as a clinical psychologist. In some ways he was a typically upwardly mobile early 60s young married professional; he could have passed for a character in Mad Men. As a Berkley rising star, he indulged in martinis by the quart and lived the life of half an early 1960s young couple in California, throwing himself into a lifestyle of drinking, poolside flirting, swinging, and decadence until the suicide of his young, beautiful, unstable wife.
Finding himself teaching graduate psych courses at Harvard, he was introduced to psilocybin in Mexico and utterly astonished and fascinated by the effects and what he immediately saw were the potentialities of the drug.
Far more eloquent writers than myself have zealously tried to put into words the subjective experience of the internal reality to which one is introduced in a psychedelic ; I have no intention of trying to outdo Aldous Huxley or Timothy Leary himself (who was no mean writer). And as Leary specifically sought out the cutting edge poets, writers, musicians, philosophers, and other creative and influential people of his time to persuade them to attempt the psychedelic experience, paeans, poems, and polemics, treatises, treatments and tales, essays, epics, and odes have been written about the specific subjective experience. I will confine myself in the next installment of this series to some brief personal descriptions of my experiences with the various drugs.
Genuine psychedelics, whether they are the naturally occurring alkaloids like peyote, which
is the natural form of mescaline; or psilocybin, the active ingredient in the most powerful (and sought after) of the sacred mushrooms; or the pure laboratory compounds, notably LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, specifically batch #25) have a qualitatively different effect upon the human brain and psyche from the more common brain altering substances from caffeine and nicotine to alcohol and marijuana (or its active ingredient THC).
The legal, quasi-legal, and common drugs listed above, among others, have, for the most part, a depressive effect, They reduce the level of awareness of the world we inhabit or they
blunt the sharp edges, making the unpleasantness with which we are confronted daily somewhat more tolerable. As such, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with those ameliorative effects. Their side effects and addictive potential make them less than ideal, however. Some drugs, meth-amphetamines, ephedrine, cocaine, and others have an initially exhilarating effect that provides energy, euphoria. But it is short lived and, almost without exception are either tremendously addictive or carry devastating side-effects, or both. But what is key to everything that I am going to say about psychedelics is that this is all utterly different – not in degree, but in kind – from the use of the common recreational drugs.
Before I close this section of what is to be a deeper exploration of the psychological benefits available by the employment of psychedelic compounds, let me say this…I advocate their use. I have used most of them at one time or another and I am a much better person for having done so. I will be making a case that their value is far beyond their simple recreational value; I believe, with others who have thought deeply on the subject, that they have unexplored possibilities and that they may be the key to a quantum leap in the evolution of mankind.