The psychedelic experience in mid-age
By Michael C. Blumenthal
I had last taken LSD almost fifteen years ago, at the age of twenty-seven — on October 27, 1976 to be precise — in Babcock State Park, located in the beautiful southwestern corner of rural West Virginia. I still have a photograph of myself taken on that day. In it, I am lying amidst the grass, eyes closed, an expression of almost Edenic contentment on my face, looking like someone who — to paraphrase the renowned phrase attributed to the French poet Paul Éluard — had seen another world, and it was this one.
I remember the day well — hiking along the outer periphery of the Park’s gorge at the height of fall foliage season; feeling the bright, life-giving sun against my face and body; watching and listening to the crystal-clear mountain water cascading over the rocks; soaking up the sensuality and womanly beauty of my companion.
I also remember that night, returning to Washington, D.C. to the shocking, painful reality of a more human, more deeply flawed world: My house had been broken into during our absence, and most of my worldly possessions (consisting, at that time, of a three-speed bike, a stereo, a battered old black-and-white TV set, a 3-piece black corduroy suit, and a $75-dollar government reimbursement check) taken. In a brief, twelve-hour span I had gone from what I felt was an experience of the numinous — indeed, what I felt to be the divine — to that of being the victim of one of life’s most debasing, dehumanizing acts: an impersonal, anonymous crime.
Even in the psychedelic 60s and early 70s, I had never been a very responsible member of the Haight-Ashbury generation. Too deeply steeped in melancholy, in belated mourning for the death of my mother, and in the heavy-handed constraints of my Germanic past, I was somewhat of an outsider to the famed experimentation with “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.” Nor did I wish — as one of my generation’s “gurus,” Timothy Leary, advised at the time — to entirely “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” I wanted to be part of my world and its struggles, mundane though they often seemed. My heroes weren’t Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin, but Abraham Lincoln, Albert Schweitzer, and, I must confess, a tad of Henry Miller. I was, then as now, a kind of moralist — the kind of person who wants even his experiences of pure pleasure to attach themselves to something useful and decent… something morally responsible. What I was after, what I felt certain psychedelics (along with poetry, nature, human affection, and responsible action) might help me find, was not just a self-centered orgy of pleasure, but a responsible relation to the sacred… much like that which another kind of religious person might seek through prayer.
It wasn’t, in fact, until after college — during the summer of 1970 — that I first began to experiment, ever cautiously, with psychedelics. I knew, for one, that I wanted to be in a psychologically sound place before ingesting a psychedelic substance. So-called “bad trips,” I was convinced (in both psychedelics and in life) were usually caused by starting out from a bad place to begin with. One needed, I assumed then, and as I am even more certain now, to be grounded before learning to fly — not like Icarus, but like his father, Daedalus, who knew and respected that precarious balance between groundedness and flight.
The first time I actually even saw a hallucinogenic substance was during the summer of 1970 in Eugene, Oregon, when a former professor of mine who had abandoned academic philosophy to join an organization called The Christ Brotherhood introduced me to psilocybin mushrooms. “If you can’t love the brothers you can see,” he said to me on that clear, July night in Eugene (exhibiting the kind of rhetorical flourish that made the 60s famous), “how can you love the Father whom you CAN’T?”
My friend Jack and I ingested the mushrooms a week later, while backpacking in Estes Park, Colorado. What I remember most clearly about our “journey” — along with diving into an ice-cold mountain lake naked and then walking, still naked, into some campers’ site and scooping a handful of Skippy Peanut Butter out of a jar with my fingers — is, on our descent, being so taken with the divine orderliness, the poetic justice, of the mosquitoes feeding on my blood that I woke the next morning almost delirious with fever from hundreds of bites.
Nonetheless, my experience in Colorado was resplendent with a sense of the world’s tremendous, deeply infused, order and potential divinity. And, stupid and reckless though my “vision” of the mosquitoes’ may have been, it still strikes me (even as I sit here in New Hampshire, once again scratching mosquito bites) as having contained a basically profound and unsentimental truth: I had recognized the orderliness and sanctity of the natural world, and our own human role as that of being merely a part, and not the dominant force, in its cycles of life and death, predator and prey.
Taken on the whole, my limited and carefully chosen experiments with psychedelics between that summer of 1970 and that fall day in 1976 were among the most meaningful, and most lingering, of my life. It was, in fact, this very sense of the sacredness of the psychedelic experience — and of the visionary consciousness one could enter into through it — that mandated that, in my life at least, the experience be undertaken rarely, seriously, and reflected upon in a way which would allow its sacred and numinous qualities, as Father Thomas Berry suggests in ‘The Dream of the Earth’, to emanate into my more quotidian life. I had no genuine interest in purely pleasure-oriented or “escapist” drugs of any sort (such as opium, cocaine, or heroin), but wanted my rare ventures into the psychedelic arena to be of the sort that would — much like my work as a poet and writer — deepen my consciousness and my sense of what it was to be, in the best sense of the word, human. So that — during the 15 years between that fall of 1976 and that beautiful spring day almost twenty-five years ago in Vermont when I again took LSD — my sense of reverence and respect for the psychedelic experience, my certain conviction that I would, someday, again embark on it, remained intact.
Yet — on the exterior, “factual” level — much had changed: I had gone from being a romantic, insecure, basically possessionless, 27-year-old puer aeternus (eternal youth) to being a 42-year-old husband, father, professor, real estate owner, author of six published books and two or three unpublished ones, an occasional psychotherapist, member of organizations and committees, a respectable citizen. In other words, I went from being a frequent escapee from the world to a citizen of it.
So why do this again? Why threaten the relatively secure, stable, hard-won, and more-or-less contented order of my life with yet another foray into the “otherwordly?” Why — in the company of my wife and one-year-old son — invite in visions that might call into question all the structures I had so carefully built up around me? Why jeopardize what my friend John calls “the good-enough life,” conducted under the auspices of my good-enough consciousness, for one that might be more troubling, more unsettling, more — how else can I say it? — more dangerous?
Throughout human history, shamans, poets, religious figures and ordinary citizens have sought out visionary, ecstatic experience. Among North American Indigenous tribes and other so-called “primitive” peoples, what is known as the “vision quest” — an experience marked by pilgrimage, fasting, and/or the use of hallucinogenic substances — has long been an integral part of the culture. The ultimate aim of such a quest, in each of these societies, is not to escape from the daily obligations and burdens of the culture, but to incorporate the wisdom gained during the vision back into the daily life of the people. Shamans, above all, have been seekers in this realm, for the shaman, as Terence McKenna points out, is the remote ancestor of the poet and artist, “one who has attained a vision of the beginning and the endings of all things and who can communicate that vision.” (One of the great tragedies of our own cultural situation, he also points out, is that we have no shamanic tradition.)
One needn’t claim so lofty or esoteric a heritage, however, in order to yearn for a vision of life that is closer to the sacred, closer to whatever deity or deities we wish to worship than is our ordinary, stressed-out, competitive, often alienated world. I had always been in my life — as a poet, teacher, scholar, lover, citizen, father — a kind of quester, someone not entirely satisfied with the “good-enough life.” I had known — both under the influence of drugs and without them — moments which suggested to me that the world, both the one which I occupied and the one into which I had ushered my son, contained more of sublimity, more interconnectedness and sacredness, than was acknowledged by everyday experience. And I had also found that, in recent years, under the pressure and strain of much of that experience (job-related stress, the pressures of raising a family, the lack of sacredness and peace in my day-to-day life), I had lost some of that sense, a sense which I considered it not only my wish, but my obligation, to retain.
So that, in response to my self-addressed question as to why I ought, at my age and station in life, to do this again, I could only reply: Why not? Nothing I had ever experienced under LSD as a younger, less grounded, man had led me to suspect that — though “sadder, but wiser,” as the poet Elizabeth Bishop put it — I should be frightened of what I might experience now. Had I not, under LSD, experienced some of those “moments of perfection” which Sartre speaks of, and to which we (if we are to survive spiritually) must return time and time again the way even a camel, after a long, parched trip through the desert, must return to an oasis?
The media, of course, not only solidifies this simplistic thinking, but fosters it as well. After all, it makes neater, easier copy. Uncomplicated, intelligible even to the ninth-grade-level audience to whom most of the media directs itself, this false dialectic of bad and good, black and white, evil empires vs. good ones, men (a generic entity) vs. women (another one), Hussein vs. Bush, relieves the media (and ourselves) of the hard thinking and particularized scrutiny that a responsible relationships to the truth requires.
In such a world and at such a time, “drugs” are a convenient and effective whipping board for what ethnobotanist Terence McKenna calls “the cardinals of government and science who presume to dictate where human curiosity can legitimately focus its attention and where it cannot.” Politically, drugs are also an attractive target — for who can argue with the fact that the abuse of drugs (and, more significantly but rarely mentioned, the conditions that lead to such over-indulgence in them) is taking an unconscionable toll on our national life, on our children and our cities, on our schools and our future. But, of course, the politicians are well aware, it is far safer (and simpler) to speak of symptoms than of causes, to launch a “War on Drugs” (Reagan) than a “War on Poverty” (Johnson), to blame the moment’s generic devil — “drugs” — for our ills, rather than the unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, lack of community and debased spiritual milieu that makes them so attractive an alternative to “reality.” It is far easier, for example, to blame — as Newsweek did in the early 1990s — the use of hallucinogenic drugs for our adolescents’ psychological despair than to explore the underlying spiritual hunger and sense of societal purposelessness that often leads them to drugs to begin with.
There is, I suspect, yet another, more shadowy, aspect to the vehemence of this repressive campaign against “drugs” by a society rampant with far-more-widespread and dangerous addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, and pharmaceuticals — namely a fear of, and a longing for, the kind of consciousness hallucinogenic experience may provide. “All flesh is hypocritical,” Edward Dahlberg wrote. “There is not a depravity we condemn that is not a parcel of our dreams.” In a society that implicitly and explicitly considers competition, contentiousness, hostility, cruelty, and meanness not only as the basis of its economic system, but of a Social Darwinistic “New World Order,” any possible foray into a consciousness that questions those basic human assumptions needs not only to be feared, but “religiously” avoided.
But the sacred, the numinous, the extra-ordinary, as the mystical German poet Rainer Maria Rilke so well knew, always inspires fear in us, as it should:
For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we are still
just able to endure,
and we stand in awe of it because it coolly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.
For genuine attention to beauty (as opposed to the drug-induced escapism politicians and the media love to focus on) calls into question much of our usual experience and attitudes, shakes the foundations of significance which we ascribe to the small stresses and challenges that, for most of us, constitute our daily lives. It is both appealing and terrifying because it may, indeed, cause us to look at ourselves and our world so differently that we may have no other choice but to heed the edict at the end of another well-known Rilke poem (‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’) — “You must change your life.”
Yet this sort of fear — the kind that comes from a mature, conscious, and personal choice to enter and confront, even if only temporarily, both the beauty and terror of “seeing” more than we usually see, is, I believe, of a far different order than the externally-imposed, nearly-hysterical terror created by the advertisements of such organizations as The Partnership For a Drug-Free America, whose terrifying image of a whole egg (image l) and then a splattered one (image 2), accompanied by the horrific text – “This is your brain.”(l) “This is your brain on drugs. (2)” – substitutes a media-created, obliterating terror for a well-informed and humanly honorable right to make a free and mature choice about the state of one’s own consciousness.
So that I was scared and apprehensive, as anyone who dabbles in the sacred ought to be, when — on May 18, 1991, on one of the most beautiful spring days I have ever seen (even in my ordinary state of consciousness), resplendent with lilacs and apple blossoms, song sparrows and mourning doves — in the company of my good friend James and my new family (who accompanied, but didn’t partake along with me), in a small town in Southern Vermont, I, for the first time in 15 years, ingested a small clear capsule containing 250 micrograms of the substance known as LSD.
“And the light shall bless the shadow/ And the day shall sing.” The words had come to me on a morning walk into the gorgeous Vermont hills before ingesting the LSD capsule, and they are, I have little doubt, about as close as I will be able to come to accurately conveying the experience of LSD in language. As Rilke says: But later, among the stars,/ what good is it — they are better as they are: unsayable. (“The Ninth Elegy“)
But try one must, nevertheless. As Rilke also says: Speak and bear witness.
The first word that comes to mind is stretching. Suddenly, the skin seems no longer quite able to contain the body. The smile seems too elongated for the lips, laughter too full-bodied and boisterous for the mouth. It is as though the body has been, all this time, inside an envelope that is suddenly being turned inside out, so that what was once confined is opened, what was housed is unleashed. It is, indeed, the “envelope” between self and world, that rather accidental and arbitrary, purely cellular, separation between self and air, self and sky, self and tree, self and other, that seems, euphorically, to be breaking down… or, perhaps more accurately stated, revealed as illusory.
And now a second word comes: adorable. My friend James, a handsome, youthful, intense-looking man in his early 60s, is standing near his dog, Boomer, who, at thirteen, is near the end of the canine life cycle. They exchange gazes, words, gestures. And there is, indeed, something so adorable about their interaction, so terribly humorous and sweet. It is, I think, no accident that the word adorable keeps coming to my mind, coming as it does from adore… to venerate, to pray. And Boomer, this dog now nearing the end of his life, seems alternately whimsical, serious, playful, questioning, and serene. No accident, I think to myself (if “thinking” is still what I can be thought of as doing), that the Buddhist deities always manifest themselves in animals… cows, dogs, cats.
The best thing of all, perhaps, during this early period, is how much fun the world is… how whimsical, how divinely entertaining. These interactions, of man and dog, of dog and child, seem so perfectly hilarious… and the hilarious and the adorable, the frivolous and the worshipful, seem to be one.
Now it is the same sensation I remember from my earlier experiences: the natural world, first, becoming a tremendous, tremendously poignant, clarity… then a vibrant, pervasively copulating, breeding, animating whole. Time — as I suspect most LSD “trippers” and mystics will tell you — is among the first things to go… it “goes,” that is, only in the conventional sense of being a constraint, a measure, an obstacle. Minutes, perhaps hours, pass, but each contains so poignantly the seeds of some renewal and “turning” that the idea of time as something that is merely “passing” seems entirely inappropriate, inconsequential. One can only think of the visionary Yeats, in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, fusing “what is past, or passing, or to come.” Or of Rilke, writing in a letter of 1924: “It seems to me more and more as though our ordinary consciousness inhabited the apex of a pyramid whose base in us (and, as it were, beneath us) broadens out to such an extent that the farther we are able to let ourselves down into it, the more completely do we appear to be included in the realities of earthly and, in the wider sense, worldly, existence, which are not dependent on time and space.”
My wife hovers around me, appears and reappears. As does my year-old son Noah, along with James and Boomer. We are, I realize, well dispersed throughout the life cycle: Boomer (at 91 dog years), nearing the end; James, at 61, a man in full maturity; my wife and I, at 36 and 42 respectively, around mid-age; our son Noah, just beginning his in-this-flesh-incarnated life.
There is a beauty in all this, a rightness. Simplistic, perhaps, to say that I have a sense of having fulfilled some sort of biological destiny, of having taken my place in the cycle of death and renewal… simple, yet accurate. And James’s face, his presence — hovering, nurturing, kindly, competent — goes through all the permutations of this cycle as well. At times, I see him as youthful, vigorous, boyish, curious. At others, he is elderly, wizened, slightly fragile, saddened… dying. All of these, no doubt, true.
Michael C. Blumenthal is a poet and educator who has also ventured into essays, memoirs, and fiction. Blumenthal trained as a lawyer, went into editing and then became a lecturer in poetry at Harvard University and ultimately director of the Creative Writing program there. Among his better-known verse collections are ‘Days We Would Rather Know’ and ‘Dusty Angel’. His eighth book of poems, ‘No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012’, was recently published by Etruscan Press.