Psychedelic Drugs and Mystical Experiences

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

Not a month goes by that I don’t run across yet another misuse of the word “mystical.” I just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, and I cringed when he described Mona Lisa’s smile as “mystical.” The right words are either “enigmatic” or “mysterious,” and after reading his analysis of the painting the smile is a little less so.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the “mystical” as “spiritual union with God transcending human comprehension.” This definition needs to be revised to include those mystics (primarily in India) who claim union with an impersonal Divine One. While each name ultimate reality differently, they all agree that the mystical experience is ineffable.

St. Catherine of Genoa, a medieval mystic, speaks of the dissolution of the self into God in the following way: “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself.” 

This is essentially the same as Paul’s phrase “Not I, but Christ,” the Hindu saying “Not I, but Atman-Brahman,” or the later Buddhist saying “Not I, but the Buddha nature.” 

Those under the influence of psychedelics have intense perceptions and strong ecstatic feelings, but Catherine experiences none of these: “When the soul is naughted and transformed, then of herself she neither works nor speaks nor wills, nor feels nor hears nor understands.” 

In 1943, Albert Hoffman, the Swiss biochemist who first synthesized LDS, describes his first trip as follows: “I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” 

In his classic work “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley describes an experience he had with mescaline. Remarkably similar to Hoffman’s LSD trip, Huxley found his outer world richly and vividly colored: his books “were like flowers, they glowed when I looked at them. Red books, like rubies; emerald books; books bound in white jade. . . intense, so intrinsically meaningful.” 

In contrast to the mystical experience, Huxley’s visions were fully differentiated and particularized. “Pure Being” is “a bundle of minute, unique particulars.” Also different from mystical experiences, reported as outside of time and space, Huxley’s visions and others on psychedelics were in time and space, although it was not clock time and space was wonderfully distorted. 

In a later essay “Heaven and Hell” Huxley admits that “mystical experience is beyond the realm of opposites. Visionary experience is still within that realm.” He also speculates that an “infinitesimal minority are capable of immediate union with the Divine Ground,” but a few more may be able to experience the “visionary bliss of heaven.”

 In his new book “How to Change Your Mind,” Michael Pollan claims that psychedelic drugs can produce mystical experiences. A close look, however, of his accounts reveals that they are, by and large, intense perceptions or visions and not mystical union. 

When Pollan ingested a huge psilocybin mushroom, he found that his self was “spread over the landscape like paint, or butter, thinly coating a wide expanse of the world with a substance I recognized as me.” 

Note that this self, although wildly distorted, is still allowing him to perceive and to describe his experience. This is not the total dissolution of all sense of self and feelings reported by St. Catherine. 

Pollan suggests that he experienced what Huxley called “Mind at Large” from his own mescaline trip. He speculates that this might be “a universal, shareable form of consciousness unbonded by any single brain,” what others have called “cosmic consciousness, the Oversoul, or Universal Mind.” 

Among all the wondrous discoveries of astrophysics, evidence for a cosmic consciousness has not appeared nor should we expect there to be any. Consciousness is an attribute of large-brained animals and possible extraterrestrial beings. 

Huxley’s vision of “a bundle of minute, unique particulars” is more in line with the exotic world of particle physics. Using playful words such as “colored quarks” and the “beauty baryon” (consisting three quarks), physicists are expressing awe and wonder about a world that they find difficult to express but try to describe anyway. 

Although I believe as a philosopher that it is important to get the meaning of words straight, some may think that this debate is just academic. Therefore, I want to conclude with praise for Pollan for imparting vital information about how psychedelic drugs have helped patients with addictions, OCD, eating disorders, depression and anxiety. 

Pollan shows that before LDS was banned in 1966, extensive studies proved the safety and effectiveness of these drugs, and these alternative treatments are now coming back as restrictions are being eased.

Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read why contemporary physics is not mystical at Email him at [email protected].

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