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.”