March 11, 2015:
I read a back issue of the New Yorker at Starbuck's yesterday morning and came upon a piece by Michael Pollan called "The Trip Treatment," about using psychedelic drugs to help cancer patients cope with their condition. It is a powerful piece about a powerful drug, psilocybin, the difficulties involved in doing research with it, especially in designing scientific experiments, since the results are all self-reported, and public attitudes about psychedelics. But what affected me the most was remembering my own experiment with a psychedelic, LSD, which I conducted on November 4, 1972, in a little cabin in the western Catskills near a village named Downsville.
It was indeed an experiment. I had recently received a contract for what would be my first published book, the one I discussed last time in this space, Reality Police, about the mental health system. I knew that LSD was said to mimic a psychotic episode and I wanted to know what that was like before I actually checked myself into a mental hospital. So, with a couple of friends, one of whom had some LSD, we drove to Downsville, borrowed the cabin, and I and the friend who had the LSD took tabs, while the other friend kept tabs on us. It was a misty, cloudy day. The flies in the cabin, just warming up with our arrival, buzzed at the windows. Somebody put some music on. And it began.
It was intense at first. Perceptions changed quickly. The flies, for example--the buzzing of the flies slowed down, organized itself, and became a kind of music, and the music was, in a way I cannot describe, beautiful. When I breathed, the room breathed with me. While my perceptions slowed down, my train of thought sped up. Long meditations on subjects like the order of things, the question of whether our lives are fated or chosen, and other subjects that seemed to go on for an hour, each of them, had taken, when I looked at my watch, a few minutes at most. In the midst of this I could sense, even caught a glimpse of, other presences in the room, three of them, and realized that each of us had a guardian with us, they floated about two feet off the floor, and they were talking about us among themselves. They made me feel safe, and I was never afraid during this entire experience. And it continued to build. I thought about who I was and how I had gotten there, and came to marvel at the immensely long train of events that creates each one of us, the apparent infinity of accidents that point one forebear down this road rather than that to meet the woman or man he or she will marry, only to create this other forebear, rather than someone else entirely. And how precise this process is, and yet at the same time how fluid, and how fixed fate and loose freedom intermingle and work together and fill the universe with this splendid dance of life.
We had been listening to baroque music, Bach, Haydn and the like, but I found it too slow and not very interesting, so somebody put on Ravi Shankar, the great Indian sitarist, and I realized at once that this was the true music of the gods, and a kind of ecstasy flowed into my mind. It was like wisdom pouring into me. Presuppositions, limits in the mind were melting away. By this time I was lying on the cabin's one bed and beginning to tremble and the friend who had not taken acid came over to see if I was OK, and she said out loud exactly what I was thinking--whatever I'm experiencing, this is how things are; this is the way the world really works. And that sense of being let into the actual, into reality, at its deepest level, has stayed with me ever since, for more than fifty years. She gave me thorazine to bring me down, but it only brought me down partway. I remember walking out of the cabin into the dull November light and looking at the surrounding hills and thinking that there was nothing beyond them, that we had to go out and create the world at every minute, that the universe is empty except we fill it up. That it's all far, far stranger than we think.
I've never taken acid again, but I would like to have it available if I know I'm dying. The cancer patients they're experimenting with at a few selected hospitals do know they're dying, and they pretty much all say the same thing after they've taken psilocybin. They achieve a level of calm, of acceptance, even of happiness that no one could have predicted. When I read this, I started to cry, very quietly, because this was Starbuck's, but real tears nevertheless. For what, I'm not sure. Myself and my own mortality? Out of compassion for those patients? Because we die without knowing essential things about life and death, and usually in fear? Because I will never get over my mother's Alzheimer's and the seven years she spent in a nursing home, not dying but wasting to nothing? We all seek the peace that passes understanding. So few of us attain it. But I had it for that day, and it has never entirely left me.