NOT ALL THE EARLY RESEARCH
had been performed in psychiatric wards. On Good Friday 1962, Dr. Walter
Pahnke, a young Harvard philosopher, caused what came to be known as the 'Marsh
Chapel Miracle' when he tested psilocybin on a group of theology subjects.
Psilocybin, chemically related to LSD, is the active ingredient in the
mushrooms that South-American Indians had used in their rituals for centuries -
the same shrooms that in the
It was a serious, triple blind program, involving twenty subjects without previous experience and ten seasoned trip guides. Neither the researchers, nor the subjects, nor the guides knew who were getting the drug and who the placebo. They withdrew en groupe to the university chapel, where the subjects were welcomed with organ music, perhaps Bach's cantatas, which steer the soul heavenward with a firm hand.
During the Good Friday service all participants received the holy sacrament - and the lucky ones 30 milligrams of psilocybin. The less fortunate were given a nicotine related drug that just produced some tingling sensations. The results were awe-inspiring: nine of the fifteen who received the psilocybin had deep religious experiences of a mystical nature, unlike anything they had ever experienced before. (It is incomprehensible that the church has not pounced on the psychedelics and sponsored them. With Eucharist like that - the churches would have been full.)
Several of the students had to refer to the classic Christian mystics to illustrate how they had felt. One participant reported: "I felt a deep union with God. I carried my bible to the altar and tried to preach. The only words I mumbled were peace, peace, peace. I felt I was communicating beyond words."
Many mystics have lamented their incapacity to describe what they experienced - and in several cases gone on to give us fascinating descriptions. It is simply not possible to communicate what takes place on a high level of awareness to someone living on a lower level. It's like explaining orgasm to someone who has never experienced it. You can sum up the vegetative symptoms and emotional reactions, but cannot evoke symptoms and sentiments of nearly the same intensity.
Some stretch the parallel even further. As Richard Blum c.s. state in Utopiates: "The psychedelic experience is like sex. Anyone who has not had the experience cannot really grasp the meaning." And: "Both the sexual and psychedelic experiences are fiercely attacked and controlled by those who do not like it themselves and do not want others to have it. All the familiar psychological escapes from and distortions of the sexual impulse are seen to operate in relation to the psychedelic experience - fear, hysteria, rationalizations about protection of the young, repression, rumour, puritanical control."
This is why many mystics
have resorted to poetry, the form of verbal expression most capable of
transcending the literal. To the same end, ancient Japanese monks invented the
Zen paradox, which essentially communicates: 'Shut up already.' In
The 'Marsh Chapel Miracle' affected psychedelic research everywhere, because it so clearly demonstrated the consequences of setting and set. What experiences people had, clearly was determined not just by the drug they took but also, and perhaps more critically, by their surroundings and dispositions. Under the auspices of Al 'Captain' Hubbard, the Canadian uranium magnate and original King Acid who turned on the likes of Huxley, it became the holy trinity of LSD research: 'Drug, Setting, Set'. What do you take, where, and what do you expect? In practical terms, it meant that with careful preparation, trip gurus could steer people's experiences. If people got lost on the trip and panicked, Hubbard would show them an old engraving of a girl lost in a forest. And if they looked a little longer, the suddenly saw that the clouds were shaped like a guardian angel... It may sound childish, but it worked.
Internal inputs, the results of mental conditioning, the mental set, could be modified by psychological preparation of the subject. Imprinting with positive, integrative information beforehand, much enhanced the chances at a positive, integrative experience. The more good stuff you could whisper in their ears, the sweeter their dreams. 'Listen John, we are all here to make sure that you don't commit suicide and if the horror gets too bad we'll knock you out with a shot from this here syringe' did less to give people a pleasant trip than 'Say John, if you meet God, tell him I love him and could use some help making this book a best-seller.'
External inputs were even easier to steer, selection of location being a prima variable. If you lived in the White House for instance: 'Darling, shall we have it in the blue room or in the pink room?' It makes all the difference. Some people's houses were great to trip in. Warm, soft, gentle, lots of fabric and upholstery. Or solid oak beams, roaring fireplace, cedar roof dripping resin. Or white and stark, hardwood floors, exposed brick honesty. Any house was good as long as it had character - and was clean.
There is something deeply depressing in dereliction that no amount of incense or good-vibe music can overcome. The reverse is also true. Drop a few hundred gammas and your own eyes will see: cleanliness is next to godliness. Any love lavished on a house will make it shine, make it a welcoming environment. Trippers, as also children, are very sensitive to this; they read moods blindly. In fact we all do. But in our hurried world most of the time we don't register it. The secret method to seeing things, hearing things, feeling things, smelling things, is to stand still.
As for the participants, Sidney Cohen said: "The ideal candidate for LSD is one who is mature, intelligent, and stable, who is fairly well acquainted with himself, and whose life has been a sort of preparation for this remarkable experience. By that I mean he has survived defeats, frustrations, and losses and has learned from them."
Ideal candidates may be created, and less ideal ones may be helped. Try to imagine what a different world we would get if young people could be introduced to psychedelics in a safe compound with a beautiful park, like an ashram, with knowledgeable guides - instead of in a car parked at the QuikMart, while Joe and Dave are scoring beer. Imagine if you could let the best and brightest, if they so chose, explore their minds like we are exploring outer space...
In later years a lot has been written about the ideal setting. But in those early days of programming we had to largely go by our hunches. What seemed most important was reassuring people that what they were undergoing was perfectly in order and part of the cosmic plan. To this end Herman Cohen and I prepared an audio-visual program of slides, selections of music and recorded messages. Most of the words were taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead - Leary and partners' version.
The true impact of Timothy Leary work is only now beginning to be felt. It seems as if his death in 1996 alerted the world to his importance. All the media, even many that dismissed him earlier, agreed: this was an extraordinary man. Not a saint, but a man with human shortcomings sincerely striving to become one. Though a fun-loving man with a freewheeling lifestyle, he more clearly than anyone else defined the sacral aspect of LSD, the key to love.
Herman Cohen and I, jointly and individually, programmed several group sessions of ten to fifty participants, in a variety of settings, all at night: the fairy tale ruins of Brederode Castle, an old Zaanstreek windmill, a floating student hostel in the Amsterdam port, the Moses and Aaron church on Waterlooplein, the old canal mansion that now houses the editorial offices of Vrij Nederland, the remote island of Vlieland... One thing became scientifically proven: the more participants the more diffusion, the more grey noise, the more scatter. Some of these group trips, I admit, were little more than slightly steered bashes; most were short of ideal; a few showed promise that one might make people share a long journey and arrive at the same place.
None was more
methodologically perfected than the trip for six in the filmmaker, John
Rosinga's patrician residence on Prinsengracht. It was so big that he rented
the ground floor to Hertz Rent-a-Car for their city operation. His own
sprawling apartment occupied the entire top floor. With its exposed beams, high
central fireplace, bear skins and casually distributed musical instruments, it
looked like a movie set - which was precisely what it was conceived for. It
would later be used to shoot Modesty Blaise, a film I got to see once in
The apartment had a warm country cottage atmosphere, yet at the same time it was wholly impersonal. Neutral, like a holiday rental. Everything in it, down to the colognes in the owner's bathroom, had been picked and arranged by an art director. It was stage-dressing, mood engineering, sensory programming - a perfect foundation for the programming that Herman Cohen and I, budding psychedelicologist, were setting up. Beside us there were Greetje Cohen, Ewald Vanvugt and friend Tania, and Richard Polak, a Rosinga production assistant (cable wrestler, he called it himself) who had procured the location. All had taken LSD before, the least experienced five times.
Vanvugt lit a dozen candles, I got a roaring fire going and wired my Akai studio recorder to the monstrous speakers suspended from the ceiling. Richard pushed a button and a movie screen inched down from the ceiling. Herman set the slide projector to the pilot tone of the recorder, while Greetje brewed tea to wash away the sugar.
Cosmic consciousness does not come in degrees, but any regard for the body and its functions brings you down in level and prevents its attainment. That is why, first of all, you have to be comfortable. Wear loose fitting clothes, or no clothes at all. Provide mattresses, soft cushions, bear skins... And before you ingest the dose, empty bowels and bladder, brush your teeth, shower, clip your nails, have an enema if you're from that school - whatever bodily chores it takes for your system to run unattended for at least the next four hours.
We all stretched out around the fire. My bear was white and smelled faintly of animal. We stirred three lumps each into the Formosa Oolong, and slowly sipped our drink, eyeing each lovingly, our bodies atingle with expectation. We knew that we were going to a level where our sensitivity would be vastly enhanced. It was like making love, without need to touch - but with no ban on physical contact either. We knew: you're free to do what you like, as long as you don't harm anyone else.
'I think I feel something.' Herman was the first to announce the onset, even though he would serve as our trip guide and had taken only one lump. We smiled at him knowingly. The people who trip most frequently are always the first to notice. After a few dozen trips you become so tripwired for the effect that you feel the onset as soon as your tastebuds identify the faintly metallic lysergic acid diethylamide. Some even get the first symptoms while they're still making tea.
Herman rolled the tape. My voice, low and serene, flowed from the speakers: "O voyager, the time has come for you to seek new levels of reality. Your ego and your game are about to cease. You are about to be set face to face with the Clear Light." On the wall-size movie screen glowed the Andromeda nebula, a stunningly realistic photograph of inner space. "The hallucinations which you may now experience, the visions and insights, will teach you much about yourself and the world. The veil of routine perception will be torn from your eyes." The nebula was replaced by a seastar; next came the whole range of classical macrophotography: a sliced cabbage, fireworks, a fly's eye, a desert rose, a Nautilus shell, a virus, a dividing cell... " This is the hour of death and rebirth; take advantage of this temporary death to obtain the perfect state - Enlightenment."
We began to loose our identities and melded into one. We had agreed not to speak, but exchanged smiles and groans to communicate our awareness of this process. The projected images of stars, cell structures and molecules, meant to show the stunning congruence of macrocosm and microcosm, began drifting off the screen and crept over the walls and the furniture like a filmy overlay.
The 300 gammas now came in at full blast. As a result of the ever higher perspective the 'We' that we had become continuously widened - like the view on earth from a rocket racing into space - and by now encompassed all of mankind; as the last fragments of our egos dissolved, it transcended even that state and melded with the One. Silence reigned. (Cohen and I had left long blanks on the tape; don't overload subjects with a constant stream of impulses.)
Another hour later, say two hours into the trip, if anyone had wanted to speak, they would first have had to invent the process, train scores of oral muscles - the whole circus. Anyway, there was nothing to say. If you sank into a trough and came down far enough to care for the world of matter, just looking at someone, feeling someone, was enough to know where they were.
Some of us may have embraced or otherwise fondled each other, though I do not recall much hugging. Perhaps because it is virtually superfluous, and often detracting. Hugging has little place in an experience that transcends the body. In the early stage, yes, if someone inexperienced feels a little scared of the changes that are going to come, by all means, provide comfort. And in the final stage, the return to self, yes, there too. Reconstituting yourself can be rough, especially when the self you reconstitute wasn't so wonderful before or emotionally damaged. But during the acme, the stellar, cellular, nuclear phase, touching has no particular added value over not-touching, because (a) you cannot be more one than one and (b) you are orgasmic already anyway.
We had started around ten in the evening. By four in the morning we were all up and about, exploring the apartment like children. Some of us took baths in the oval tub and groomed, taking our pick of the wide range of perfumes. A good perfume can produce a delicious flash, especially the classic organic ones such as Quadrille, Shalimar, Joy... Others leafed through coffee table books or tried the various instruments. Hey, a cello! What does that do if you bow the string?
'Zjwooooooooooo...' (Ad infinitum; the sound takes an eternity to die because it keeps resonating in the inner ear long after the vibrations in the air have stopped.) That one single note was the mother of sound. What sonorous wealth, what depth of feeling... Now what if you'd pluck the strings? 'Ploiiiing!' Hey wait, a trumpet! And a drum set! Vanvugt started banging away on the drum set, bringing down the milkyway.
Soon he was very energetic, leading us all on an expedition to the rear of the apartment, where he was sure one could get onto the roof. 'I want to be outside, in nature!' It seemed a reasonable desire. Guarded by Herman Cohen, we looked everywhere, but found no terrace, balcony or other architectural feature of similar intent.
'Look, here it is!' Vanvugt exclaimed. He pulled us along to a dormer. 'You see, you just climb over the sill and...' Three feet below the window ran a wide, zinc clad gutter. Four flours below lay the garden, wrapped in darkness. 'It's easy!' He pulled by a chair and prepared to lead us into nature, into freedom.
We had to work on him for ten minutes before he gave up the idea. Today he still maintains that there actually was a kind of walkway, something like a fire escape that we could safely have taken. Whatever the merits of this assertion, I am still glad that we didn't explore his walkway to heaven. If there is one danger to taking acid, it is that it can make you see walkways where there are none. The wise therefore do as divers do (beyond a hundred feet one can start to hallucinate) and never go anywhere without a buddy.
After this adventure,
which forced an accelerated return to the real world, we regrouped around the
fire, and played the re-entry tape. Images from The Family of Man, blueprints of machinery, African masks and
naturalistic paintings. Venus was born from Redon's vaginal shell, Vermeer's
milkmaid poured liquid light, the life blood itself. From outside sounded the
first noises of a city waking up. (
We repaired to the wooden bay window that projected from the façade like the bridge of a ship, and congratulated Tania on her achievement in preparing the morning tea. On the canal below passed the outsize wooden shoe that Heineken uses as a promotion, getting ready for some early event. The man at the helm happened to look up and saw us staring at him, six people sitting in a bay window at five in the morning. We all knew that we had made him look. That it actually worked was so funny that we collapsed in each other's laps, rediscovering laughter.
Laughter! Wow! What excess of tingling nerve ends, what gushing body juices! And boy, what raucous, further exciting noises! We rolled over one another like sea lions drunk on an overdose of herring and became sober only through exhaustion. We had some more tea (theine is revivifying, so is cacao's theobromine, but caffeine makes wired and speeds up the heart too much) and rolled a thin stick of grass. We had two puffs each and immediately had to and lay down as the trip came back on strong again. You don't expect 300 gammas of LSD-25 to just peter out. Certainly not if you give it a kick in the butt. Smoking hash or grass in the later phase of an acid trip can instantly bring it back up to full working force. It can even make it harder to deal with.
Cannabis fuzzes the logic, and while reinforcing intuition, introspection and poetic sensibilities, decreases the grasp on reality - on its material aspects that is. In the old days it was common for smoking writers to get their fingers tangled up in the keys of their typewriters, especially during the first few paragraphs after lighting up. Modern keyboards do not provide the same gymnastic opportunities, but make up for this by having keys that can lock up the machine or run a macro that wipes out the evening's work.
The brain, once smoke enters it, becomes a wonderful explorer, like a network browser. But you have to know how to work with it, otherwise it'll lead you everywhere and nowhere, into a tidal lagoon of trivia. If you manage to maintain focus, it's powers become phenomenal. Absorption of new material is much improved. (Try studying a new language on cannabis. Retention can easily double.) Analysis is more acute, synthesis more rapid. Creative combinations, solutions, ideas are found more readily. There is a constant flow of them. All you need to do is pick the ones that match your search pattern, fit the briefing.
If this focussing is done in an extreme form, which cannabis facilitates, excluding all input not relevant to the theme at hand, degrees of concentration can be reached that allow the performance of feats the person would ordinarily not be able to perform. Like eat with chop sticks, walk on fire... Take that cello for instance, a student may practice and practice arpeggios till his fingers are numb and never play music. Then one day perhaps he takes a little puff and, in this moment when he is filled with love and wants to express it, he grabs his instrument and makes it sing like he has never been able to before.
And the next day? Can he still do it? Perhaps not, but at least this once he has heard himself do it. He knows he can. All he needs now it to get back to where he was when he went out of his mind, when he transcended himself and his limitations, and became music. If he is any good, he'll get back up there.
This is the kind of learning all the psychedelics provide: you get to see how you could also be, what you could do if you could only do it. This is an enormous advantage. There is no better incentive to growth than a good, knock-out foretaste.
Where were we? This is typical. You start explaining the effect cannabis has in the aftermath of an acid trip and before you know you are writing the bible on the stuff. Always digressing, wandering, drifting... Here as elsewhere, content dictates form. It would be the greatest absurdity to write a well structured book on psychedelics, though I confess to trying it myself.
We tried to make up the balance. Had the programming worked for us? Yes it had, we felt. Richard was not so sure at the time, but when he suddenly showed up on the presentation of my previous book, and I discussed this project, he said that it had been the deepest, most meaningful experience of his life. It had 'turned him inside out', an experience that had given him a new attitude to life. All five of the six I have queried (including myself) still feel equally positive. It was one of those solid, binding experiences that forged the community.
Around the Cohens called it a day (Herman, then still working at the university, liked to cut his trips short with a barbiturate) and went home in a cab.
'Let's go into nature', Vanvugt urged us again. 'Dick has a car.'
'But can he drive?' Tania said.
'No', Richard said. 'But maybe Peter can.'
'Sure'. I had driven on acid before and loved the interaction with the machinery, this thing that so magically extended my facilities. Richard's car was a beige 2-CV. We were all driving 2-CVs because they were the cheapest thing on wheels, needed no cooling liquid ever and rarely filling up. Besides they were French, and thus artistic.
We drove out of town
through the IJ Tunnel, very slowly, took a right to Zunderdorp and were in the
middle of - well,
'Hey boys, is this cool?' Vanvugt was always checking the status, always worried that one day he would loose it and be picked up by men in uniform or worse, in white.
'Sure', said Richard Polak who had tripped in nature with Vanvugt before, 'we are just looking at these cows here, nothing the matter.'
'These are horses Dick.'
'Whatever. We are just...'
The policemen came back. Drove past very slowly, as if they were on acid.
'Hold your tongue', one of the horses said. 'Don't say anything till they're gone.'
'A horse is a horse of
course', Vanvugt declaimed, 'unless it is the famous Mister Ed.' He was always
on about this Mister Ed, with whom I was not familiar. Twenty five years later,
one sleepless night somewhere in a motel in
We got back into the car, drove another mile or so in the direction of a village, and suddenly, in a narrow creek bespangled with water-lilies, saw two swans dancing. We stopped, got out again, and tiptoed in the direction of the amorous pair. Swan lake, but with real swans. We stood there in total silence, breathlessly enjoying the grace of this natural performance, this naked pas-de-deux, when the Volkswagen with police came by again. Our car half blocked the road.
'Hey what's the matter here?'. One of the officers got out of the car. As I was the tallest, he walked up to me.
'Swans. We look at those swans.' Behind me I heard Vanvugt pant. This was not cool.
'Swans', the officer repeated. In his mouth it sounded like a menace.
'Yes, they are dancing. Look...'
The officer stood staring for ten seconds, clearly touched. Then his arse contracted, causing his brain to contract too and fall back into its ingrained pattern: 'You are blocking the road.'
'Yes sir, we'll move it.'
He got in, slammed the door as the other officer stepped on the gas and off they roared, scattering the swans.
This very same area is now a major toxic dump site, tons and tons of toxins dumped illegally over many years by Philips-Duphar. When you do something truly evil, they look the other way. When you gaze at nature's wonders you are a freak, a suspect, a danger to society. In practical terms I have learned to be very cool. Under the eye of authorities show no deep emotions, certainly not bliss, and if you can't help yourself, pull your car well off the road.