The use of hallucinatory drugs to enhance or alter consciousness
has been known for centuries. Cannabis or hemp
plant was cited in Chinese literature about 2737 B.C.E. and was
used in India before 800 B.C.E. Primitive peoples used hallucinogens
sacramentally in religious ceremonies. Much of the Romantic
literature of the nineteenth century was written from
drug experiences. Drawing primarily upon laudanum, a form
of opium, novelists and poets created not only fantasy works,
but the classical horror literature as well.
The publication of an English translation of Louis Levins
Phantastica; Narcotic and Stimulating Drugs, Their Use and Abuse
(1931) drew the attention of physicians and other specialized
readers to such vision-producing agents as peyote (from Mexican
cactus) named anhalonium Lewinii because of Lewins pioneer
scientific researches. However, it was not until Aldous
Huxleys The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell
(1956) that the subject of the visionary powers of drugs like
mescaline became more widely known in Britain and North
LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), the active principle in peyote,
had been discovered accidentally by the Swiss researcher
Dr. Albert Hoffman in 1943. Huxleys The Doors of Perception
mentioned LSD in relation to the work of psychiatrists like
Humphrey Osmond, who had experimented with the drug in
order to elucidate problems of schizophrenia. Psychiatrists and
doctors began to experiment cautiously and observed the
strange changes of consciousness and vision experienced
through taking LSD. Hoffman also synthesized psilocybin, the
active principle in a Mexican mushroom used in religious ceremonies
by certain tribes.
It was Huxleys description of his own visionary experiences
with mescaline and his sophisticated discussion of the possibilities
of chemical ecstasy as a kind of religious experience that
stimulated American intellectuals to initiate experiments. The
mass media society of the fifties and sixties, with its instant communication
geared to a bandwagon of populist trends, helped
to spread the concept of instant chemical mysticism, and the
growing availability of drugs like LSD and marijuana rapidly
created a mass counterculture.
At the spearhead of the psychedelic revolution were two
Harvard psychologists, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert,
who had instituted experiments with psilocybin at the beginning
of the 1960s. Their own use of the drug and their conclusion
that it should be available broadly with control given over
to the public eventually led to their dismissal from their research
and teaching positions. Subsequently, believing that
psychedelics opened individuals to an awareness of their own
inner psychic structures, they eagerly took leadership roles in
the emerging psychedelic subculture with a manifesto that ran
The game is about to be changed, ladies and gentlemen.
Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he
carries around in his skull. Present social establishments had
better be prepared for the change. Our favorite concepts are
standing in the way of a floodtide, two billion years building up.
The verbal dam is collapsing. Head for the hills, or prepare
your intellectual craft to flow with the current. . . .
Many individuals elected to flow with the current and began
to press for legalization of certain drugs like marijuana. With
the backing of millionaire investment banker William Hitchcock,
Leary and Alpert campaigned vigorously for the new
world of inner space revealed by LSD. Psychedelic religious
groups sprang up combining insights from their drugs experiences,
yoga, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and other mystical literature.
At first the new democracy of psychedelic drug consumption
was characterized by the presence of a creative artistic culture
nurtured by the glamour of an awakening mystical experience.
It soon provided the opening for an underworld of hard drug
pushers to invade the psychedelic scene, with its associated
crime and violence. Although many discriminating LSD and
marijuana users claimed that their lives were changed by a single
beatific drug experience that illuminated new dimensions
of existence, their testimonies were countered by horror stories
of the bad trips and anti-social behavior of LSD users.
Leary became a counterculture hero, evading police and imprisonment
and preaching a gospel of Tune in, turn on, drop
out. Alpert eventually went off drugs and made a trip to India,
returning shortly as Baba Ram Dass, a Hindu guru with a message
of conventional Hindu mysticism. He found a large following
among what would soon be known as the New Age movement.
While leaving drugs behind, he continued to believe, on
the authority of his guru, that LSD had served a valuable function
in introducing the spirituality to a society dominated by
The psychedelic era came to an end. For many it had been
a time of awakening that led them to a range of mature spiritual
visions from orthodox Christianity to occultism and Eastern
mysticism. The possibilities of the use of mind-altering drugs
such as LSD were, however, distorted beyond recognition by
the intrusion of legal structures that made continued controlled
use and experimentation impossible, an underground
culture which became solely dependent on the drugs as a
source for spirituality rather than using them as a help in the
spiritual quest, and the popular confusion of psychedelic drugs
with hard drugs in both the psychedelic community and among
the public at large.
In the aftermath of the psychedelic revolution it now seems
clear that the primary benefit from the consumption of psychedelic
substances came from garnering the wisdom of native cultures
that to some extent limit and control their use and advise
consumption only within a meaningful system of mystical development.
There are significant qualitative differences between
the bare chemical experiences of an ecstatic nature and
the traditional mystical experience to which they were freEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Drugs (Psychedelic)
quently compared. Sudden changes of consciousness can be
life-changing, but also addictive; one experience creates a demand
for its repetition. However, when mysticism is sought for
its own sake at any cost, particularly with chemical shortcuts,
this perpetuates the self-serving egoism of the affluent society,
in which one buys metaphysics with the same attitude with
which one buys a new automobile.
Within the patient gradual character transformations that
come with the mystical life (in all of the traditional world religions)
a maturity of physical, mental, and emotional life is attained.
It may be the case, as many native peoples suggest, that
some drugs assist that process. However, a chemical experience
that emphasizes spirituality-upon-demand quickly ceases to expand
consciousness and merely reproduces the initial heightened
feelings as the by-product of its intense sensory and emotional
A remnant of the psychedelic culture remains in such
groups as the Neo-American Church and the Peyote Church of
God, and in the continued popularity of the writings of Carlos
Castaneda (even though his original writings have been demonstrated
to have been fraudulently produced.)
Baudelaire, Charles. Artificial Paradise On Hashish & Wine as
Means of Expanding Individuality. New York McGraw-Hill,
Leary, Timothy. Flashbacks An Autobiography. Los Angeles
J. P. Tarcher, 1983.
. Politics of Ecstasy. New York G. P. Putnams Sons,
Masters, Robert E., and Jean Houston. Varieties of Psychedelic
Experience. New York Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966. Reprint,
New York Dell, 1967.
Osmond, Humphry, and B. Aaronson. Psychedelics The Uses
& Implications of Hallucinogenic Drugs. Garden City, N.Y.
Slack, Charles W. Timothy Leary, the Madness of the Sixties and
Me. New York Peter H. Wyden, 1974.
Zaehner, R. C. Mysticism; Sacred & Profane. London Clarendon
Press, 1957. Reprint, London Galaxy Book; Oxford University