Merton and Huxley (Part Two)

In the last post, we read Trappist monk/author/antiwar activist/mystic Thomas Merton writing to his friend, author and psychedelic pioneer Aldous Huxley about how the psychedelic state related to the religious mystical state.

Here is Huxley’s reply:

“Dear Father Merton,

Thank you for your letter. The problems you raise are interesting and difficult, and their solution must be sought on the practical and factual level. A great deal of research has now been done on mescaline and lysergic acid, both by researchers and clinicians using the drugs therapeutically in such conditions as alcoholism and assorted neuroses. (One group now working on alcoholism in British Columbia, incidentally, is using lysergic acid within a religious, specifically Catholic, frame of reference, and achieving remarkable results, largely by getting patients to realize that the universe is profoundly different from what, on their ordinary, conditioned level of experience, it had seemed to be.) Statistically the results of all this experimentation are roughly as follows. About seventy percent of those who take the drug have a positive experience; the others have a negative experience, which may be really infernal. (A great many of the states experienced by the desert fathers were negative. See the thousands of pictures of the Temptations of St. Anthony.) All agree that the experience is profoundly significant. One finds again and again, in the reports written by subjects after the event, the statement that “this is the most wonderful experience I have ever had” and “I feel that my life will never be quite the same again.” Among the positive experiences a certain proportion, on the first occasion of taking the drug, are purely aesthetic-transfiguration of the outer world so that it is seen as the young Wordsworth saw it and later described in the “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality in Childhood”: a universe of inconceivable beauty in which all things are full of life and charged with an obscure but immensely important meaning. Those who are congenitally good visualizers tend to see visions with the eyes closed, or even, projected upon the screen of the external world, with the eyes open. The nature of these visions is often paradisal and the descriptions of them remind one irresistibly of the description of the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse or the Eden of Ezekiel, or the various paradises of other religions. Finally there are those whose experience seems to be much more than aesthetic and may be labeled as pre-mystical or even, I believe, mystical. In the course of the last five years I have taken mescaline twice and lysergic acid three or four times. My first experience was mainly aesthetic. Later experiences were of another nature and helped me to understand many of the obscure utterances to be found in the writings of the mystics, Christian and Oriental. An unspeakable sense of gratitude for the privilege of being born into this universe. (“Gratitude is heaven itself,” says Blake- and I know now exactly what he was talking about.) A transcendence of the fear of death. A sense of solidarity with the world and its spiritual principle and the conviction that, in spite of pain, evil and all the rest, everything is somehow all right. (One understands such phrases as, “Yea, though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” and the great utterance, I can’t quote it exactly, of Julian of Norwich.) Finally, an understanding, not intellectual, but in some sort total, an understanding with the entire organism, of the affirmation that God is Love. The experiences are transient, of course; but the memory of them, and the inchoate revivals of them which tend to recur spontaneously or during meditation, continue to exercise a profound effect upon one’s mind. There seems to be no evidence in the published literature that the drug is habit forming or that it creates a craving for repetition. There is a feeling- I speak from personal experience and from word-of-mouth reports given me by others- that the experience is so transcendently important that is in no circumstances a thing to be entered upon light-heartedly or for enjoyment. (In some respects, it is not enjoyable; for it entails a temporary death of the ego, a going-beyond.) Those who desire to make use of this “gratuitous grace,” to co-operate with it, tend to do so, not by repeating the experiment at frequent intervals, but by trying to open themselves up, in a state of alert passivity, to the transcendent “isness” to use Eckhart’s phrase, which they have known and, in some sort, been. Theoretically, there exists a danger that subjects would have a craving for constant repetition of the chemically induced experience. In practice this craving doesn’t seem to manifest itself. A repetition every year, or every six months, is felt, most often, to be the desirable regimen.

      A friend of mine, saved from alcoholism, during the last fatal phases of the disease, by a spontaneous theophany, which changed his life as completely as St. Paul’s was changed by his theophany on the road to Damascus, has taken lysergic acid two or three times and affirms that his experience under the drug is identical with the spontaneous experience which changed his life- the only difference being that the spontaneous experience did not last so long as the chemically induced one. There is, obviously, a field here for serious and reverent experimentation.

         With all good wishes, I am

                                                           Yours very sincerely,

                                                               Aldous Huxley”  

                                                       Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley

There’s a reply by Merton listed on the Merton archives webpage which I’d very much like to read but it’s not, itself, online. I’m curious how Merton replied. I don’t think he ever got his chance to take LSD or mescaline. But it would be interesting to see how someone who could be considered a “professional mystic” like Merton would make of the psychedelic state.

I’ve had a mystical experience and have also taken LSD (among other psychedelic drugs) and I’d agree here with Huxley’s assessment. To couch it in terms more familiar to Merton, I would say that God is there and present and speaking to us all the time. What psychedelics allow us to do, is to remove the filter that normally prevents us from feeling God’s Presence. Or have that Divine understanding of Love that is felt during a psychedelic experience. (At least a good one.)

It’s not surprising to read (in the previous post) that Merton was skeptical of it. Any prescribed drug he’d possibly taken before is nothing like what a psychedelic experience can be. There’s absolutely no frame of reference.




~ by R.M. McGrath on 07/25/2012.

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