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The Journey

By Carl S ~

“In the beginning was The Fungus... '”

Now, many raised to believe in the “spiritual” will find themselves perplexed or insulted by that idea. They are taught almost from infancy, that a Great Spirit or Creator beyond the constraints of physics brought the Universe into existence. They have no idea where that Spirit concept, living in Its own spiritual environment, originated from. Neither do they consider the possibility that the “spiritual, mystical, revelational, transcendental,” experiences, the foundations of religions, probably originated from the effects of psychedelics found around the world. Simply put, their effects on the brain. The more one investigates that idea, the more sense it makes. Indeed, one researcher said it's likely psychedelic plants have been used in religious ceremonies for seven thousand years. They are still used in religious ceremonies. (The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 or RFRA, is cited by the religious right as the right to practice untouchable prejudice against and denial of the rights of others. This law originated with a suit brought against the U.S. Government by Native Americans because the government banned their traditional use of peyote in their ceremonies!)

Many, especially those practitioners of religious ceremonies, and researchers involved in trial testing of the effects of psychedelics, will say I have no right to speak about the connection between psychedelics and religion. They could dismiss me by quoting, ”A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” meaning I must have little knowledge on the subject. I won't agree of course. Besides, sometimes a little is all you need to get the big picture. For instance, if just one member of a cult realizes the members are on the road to being abused and enslaved, he might escape to be a whistle-blower and free those members. A little knowledge, in this case, would be a great thing! Sort out the details later on, from a safe distance. I've been told by believers initiated into the mysteries of the spiritual, “You just don't understand,” which is laughable. I have studied all sides of religious beliefs, pro and con. Let's try a different quote to illustrate the majority of believers we know: “He who knows only his own side of a case knows little of that.” John Stuart Mill, 1859. When it comes to beliefs, believers know little of their beliefs, the origins of those beliefs, or reasons why those beliefs persist.

My journey of discovery began with “The Doors of Perception” (1954) by Aldous Huxley. He describes his experiences on a psychedelic trip. (For those who don't know this author: he died on the same day as JFK, from cancer. At his request, he was given LSD as he died.) Huxley, after some trips, left off LSD because, he said, he was becoming separated from other people.

Then there came a Life magazine article about magic mushrooms (1957). Two men went to a village in Mexico, where they participated in a sacred mushroom ceremony conducted by tribal members who called the mushrooms “flesh of the gods.” (Is it any wonder Spanish conquistadors tried to destroy their religion, considering Catholicism's similar dogma,” this piece of matzah is the living body of Christ”?)

John Allegro's “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross,” makes the case all religions originated with a chance discovery of a mushroom, which, when consumed, can be lethal, but in small doses is capable of opening one's being to mind-bending and overwhelming awe, visions, and fear far beyond the comprehension of normal experiences. In time, this power was exploited by shamans who administered the settings and doses sufficient to impart mystical effects. They were thereby able to control the already superstitious and hyper-suggestible. (As they do today without the drugs.) This is not to say those shamans themselves weren't absolutely convinced they had discovered and experienced “the greatest realities, the meaning of everything.” Quite the opposite. (Compare them to their descendants, the priests, evangelists, cult leaders, clergy of faiths too numerous to mention: “The only people who are NEVER converted to spiritualism are conjurers.” George Orwell, 1954.)

Gore Vidal's historical novel, “Julian,” describes soldiers in the Roman army using a psychedelic in their ceremonies to give them access to the Mysteries of Mithras, eternal life, etc. ( It is a fact that psychedelics administered in controlled settings and communal ceremonies will eliminate the fear of death in the individual: a powerful conviction for a soldier or terrorist to have.) This book led me to investigate these ceremonies. Vidal's source was Franz Cumont's 1911 book, “Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism.” In practice before Christianity, the Mithraic religion went on to compete with the Christian religion, for 125 years. Recently, I read the book, “Blue Dreams,” by Loren Slader. Not only does the author lay out a short history of psychedelics, she includes tranquilizers and other mood balancers, some of which she's taken for over 35 years, as prescribed by her psychiatrists.

Over decades, I've come across many, many, studies which support a conclusion: “spiritual, mystical, transcendental, revelation” experiences are due not just to psychedelic plants, but include many other extremes of stress or relaxation affecting the brain, material factors. Among them are oxygen and blood flow deprivation, sleep and sense deprivation, fasting, and trauma due to blunt force blows to the head.
What prompted me to write about this subject after so many years is a 2018 book, “How to Change Your Mind, “ by Michael Pollan. The subtitle, “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” gives a good indicator of what you're in for. It refers to some of the sources I've mentioned. When you read the first person accounts of mystical, awe-inspiring, out-of-body experiences under the influence, you can see the connection between them and the “revelations” of prophets past and present, the holy men and saints who speak for God or gods. (Timothy Leary once said the Book of Revelations was written by a man on drugs; and he would know.) Reading the first-person testimonies of psychedelic-trippers is like reading scriptures.

But I strongly object to many of Mr. Pollan's conclusions. For one thing, he ignores the fact other animals besides us have a sense of self and perceive the minds of others. He and the researchers see a positive future for humanity exposed to psychedelic trips, one reason being they want us to freely relinquish our egos by opening up our minds to experiencing whole new realms of possibilities we never knew existed. This is not good. We must object on the grounds evolution has made our egos necessary for survival. Our sense of selfhood and our relationship with others in our surroundings determine our survival and maneuvering in reality, our personal awareness of real dangers and opportunities in regard to ourselves and others, and our ways of separating the real from the imaginary.

On page 193, Mr. Pollan sort of warns us: “It is one of the paradoxes of psychedelics that these drugs can sponsor an ego-dissolving experience that in some people leads to massive ego inflation. Having been let in on a great secret of the universe, the recipient of this knowledge is bound to feel special, chosen for greater things.” This might explain the power exerted by shamans, prophets, mystics, and other “holy” spokespeople for God and the gods, their absolute convictions. I can see how very intelligent individuals can be taken in by them - if they grew up in a society where religion surrounded them, and therefore, a presumption of, “there must be something to it. Until now, I have not been exposed to those who have experienced it.”

Then there's the problem of toxicity: LSD is synthesized from ergot, a fungus which causes temporary insanity. Psilocybin, another toxic substance, is the active ingredient in sacred mushrooms. From the tone of this book, the author and researchers often seem convinced the “transcendental, spiritual and mystical” experiences are accessed by, and not caused by, psychedelics. What all those who've had experiences under the influence of psychedelics describe as “evidence” are experiences of very intense feelings. But they’re merely describing feelings, which may have no anchor in reality. Their fMRI's reveal wide-ranging alterations in the brain's perceptions due to the influence of LSD, psilocybin, etc.

They are ways to have mind-expanding, awe-inspiring experiences which involve neither drugs nor damage to the brain. Consider the series, “Blue Planet” parts I and II, the images from the Hubble telescope, DNA and other evolutionary evidence, the close-up views and information from planets, etc., and your place in all of it. I find the Universe awe-inspiring and wondrous in itself without fantasizing a mind creating it. If you're looking for real evidence for a reality “greater than yourself,” you don't need to “abandon your ego.” Look to Science. You'll find new discoveries and how to make them, new ways of looking at things, ways unknown or forbidden for thousands of years. What more could you ask for?

Are the sources of all religious experiences aberrant manipulations of the brain, and/or purposeful alterations of normal brain functioning using sensory input? Aren't the “absolutely mind-convincing access to understanding the oneness of nature” feelings only wishful thinking exponentially expanded? Has Nature evolved organisms to play tricks on the brain, already known to lie to itself? And isn't that what religion is about after all, playing tricks on the brain?