The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience

R. E. L. Masters and Jean Houston

Quotations reprinted without permission from Holt Rinehart Winston edition

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"At other times, I 'awakened' into increasingly incredible and terrifying worlds. It seems to me that giant elevator shafts extended down into the infinite and insane-looking men kept passing into the elevators and coming out again -- the same men, over and over. I sensed that I was moving toward some final undefined cataclysm of total damnation, but then awakened into what I supposed was another of the nightmare worlds and discovered that instead it was the 'real world'."
"If each nerve were allowed to dance its own dance, then all would be confusion. Some music, some form simply must be imposed on the dancing. This imposition of form and pattern on Being is one of the survival functions of the brain."
S reports a series of images showing "how it would have been" without the "infusion of spirit into matter." Consciousness would have developed along continuous evolutionary lines, would have been "entirely animal in nature," and man would have been a creature entirely ruled by his appetites. S sees these "degenerate beings" and their world of "low waterfront cafes." Man "as he might have been" is seen by S as a creature who rather resembles himself. But, unlike himself, this might-have-been man is about three feet high, thick, squat, and coarse, with a head hunched over to one side and with frog's weblike protruberances growing out from the sides of the head. The legs are thick and gnarled and the feet are rooted in some "slimy stuff." One effect of the infusion of spirit, then, may be physically observed in the refinement of man's body -- his angularity and attenuation. Did the blast, S muses, serve to diminish the effect of the "gravitational squash"?
"...the accident of this thing exploding into this planet and sending out its rays and particles through the faults of the earth and the organismic structure it had penetrated. The blast touches off a profound reaction in matter and in the animal consciousness. These are infused by the other , but not wholly conquered by it. Between the lines of silver that surge through the body of matter the chunks of meat remain."
This led into a discussion of the interpersonal psychology of Sartre, which S summed up as "a Darwinian snarl".
S was particularly impressed with his "new and firm conviction" that "otherness is an essential condition for growth [and that he must] open myself to an infusion of otherness in order to escape the narrowness of my self-limiting self-concern."
p. 34: "the fructifying nature of otherness"
The possibility of such applications was remarked at the turn of the century by the German toxicologist Louis Lewin, sometimes described as the founder of psychopharmacology.
p. 36: "the visionary vegetables"
The distortion of perception yields a much greater range of phenomena and is psychologically much more significant than the heightening of perception which is only a consciousness of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling or touching "better" than before. The distortions may serve to impose a symbolism upon the environment, may be an essential component of empathic and mystical experiences, and may be an extremely important aspect of the subject's participation in the transformative symbolic dramas occurring on the deeper drug-state levels.
"I am a veteran explorer of those depths and labyrinths that are my own self, but for such an immediate and furious onslaught I was not ready. Surging wildly across the surface of my mind -- even, as it seemed, across the surface of my brain, a brain now capable of intense sensations -- swirled a purple sea, irresistable, angry, and teeming with clammy, serpentine shapes that I thought tried to fasten and feed, but then were swept brutally away in the seething, terrible, thick liquid. The much suddenly deluged self reeled and trembled before the force of the tidal wave of whatever atrocious stuff had engulfed it.

"Purple, but with throbbing, bulging, vein-like masses of green and red and black, I think that sea was; and of the texture of syrup, or of blood that is congealing. Heavy, tumultuous seas, and thickening, rising up to awesome heights -- with consciousness tossed as a lifeboat is tossed in a typhoon's onrush. Capsize seemed imminent and I longed to cry out my terror, to beg for an antidote; yet somewhere in the midst of bewilderment and the fear of being swept away altogether, was my pride which insisted I ride out the storm. I hung on to this pride, once I found it, as if it were the shattered mast of the vessel of my self. Then, in the midst of a raging sea of colors I could name, but which were horrible, I saw myself clinging to that mast; and the waters gradually turned black and still; and an eerie silver sun came up; and I knew I was saved."

(Subject's description of the effects of LSD, intramuscular injection)

"I had been up for three days and two nights working on a manuscript. That was the first mistake. The room where the 'experiment' was to take place was a dirty, dingy, insanely cluttered pesthole. That was the second mistake. I was told that I would see God. That was the third and worst mistake of all.

"The needle jabbed into my arm and the dimethyl-triptamine oozed into my bloodstream. At the same time the steam came on with a rhythmic metallic clamor and I remember thinking that it would be good to have some heat. Within thirty seconds I noticed a change, or rather I noticed that there had never been any change, that I had been in this dreamy, unworldly state for millions of years. I told this to Dr. ____, who said, 'Good, then it is beginning to pass the blood-brain barrier.'

"It was too fast. Much too fast. I looked up at what a minute ago had been doors and cabinets, and all I could see were parallel lines falling away into absurdities. Dimensions were outraged. The geometry of things crashed blindly into one another and crumbled into chaos. I thought to myself, 'But he said that I would see God, that I would know the meaning of the universe.' I closed my eyes. Perhaps God was there, behind my eyeballs.

"Something was there, all right; Something, coming at me from a distant and empty horizon. At first it was a pinpoint, then it was a smudge, and then -- a formless growing Shape. A sound accompanied its progress towards me -- a rising, rhythmic, metallic whine; a staccato meeyow that was issuing from a diamond larynx. And then, there it loomed before me, a devastating horror, a cosmic diamond cat. It filled the sky, it filled all space. There was nowhere to go. It was all that was. There was no place for me in this -- Its universe. I felt levelled under the cruel glare of its crystalline brilliance. My mind, my body, my vestige of self-esteem perished in the hard glint of its diamond cells.

"It moved in rhythmic spasms like some demonic toy; and always there was its voice -- a steely, shrill monotony that put an end to hope. There should not be such a voice! It ravaged the nerves and passed its spasms into my head to echo insanely from one dark corridor of my mind to another. Me-e-e-e-yow-ow-ow-ow me-e-e-e-yow-ow-ow-ow me-e-e-e-yow-ow-ow-ow -- the incessant, insatiable staccato went on. It would not have been so bad if it had just been diabolical noise. The chilling thing was that I knew what it was saying! It told me that I was a wretched, pulpy, flaccid thing; a squishy-squashy worm. I was a thing of soft entrails and slimy fluids and was abhorrent to the calcified God.

"I opened my eyes and jumped up from my chair screaming: 'I will not have you! I will not have such a God! What is the antidote to this? Give me the antidote!' But as I said this I doubted my own question for it seemed to me that this was the only reality I had ever known, the one I was born with and the one I would die with. There was no future beyond this state of mind, there was no state of mind beyond this one.

"'There is no antidote,' said Dr. ____. 'Relax, it's only been three minutes. You've got at least twenty-five more minutes still to go.'"

...we might remark that cork as a substance is especially well adapted to the psychedelic experience. Soft and porous, cork as a substance is experienced as nonresistant and even receptive to the attempts at Einfuehlung by the subject. Also, its surface is such as to easily capture the subject's attention and then draw him into the object through the customary cracks and large pores. The coloring is pleasant and the configuration either highly suggestive or sufficiently innocuous... other kinds of bark as well seem particularly well suited to eliciting desirable ideational and emotional responses.
The first case is that of a four-year-old boy, S-9, who was interviewed one week after his LSD (250 micrograms) "session." S's mother, recently separated from his father, was associated with a psychedelic drug-taking (Drug Movement) group in New York City. The boy obtained the drug by taking from the refrigerator an LSD-saturated sugar cube, which he ate. He began to experience almost immediately what, insofar as can be determined, were authentic hallucinations.

Among the first hallucinations to appear were a number of crustaceans, especially (as it could be gathered) crabs and lobsters. This very much impressed S's mother in view of the fact that the child's zodiacal sign is Cancer, represented by the crab, and she felt certain that the boy had no knowledge of this symbolism. Throughout his whole "session," which lasted some twelve hours, with reduced effects in the last several hours (after a tranquilizer had been administered), S continued intermittenly to see crabs and lobsters coming out of the walls and crawling across the floor towards him. When first he saw these creatures he "screamed and threw a fit." Later he was reassured when his mother told him the sugar cube was responsible and the effects would wear off. He said he had been afraid "it's going to last and last."

S also hallucinated a whole array of "monsters" -- apparently creatures such as elves, dwarfs, and other small, deformed human-like beings. Fearful at first, he gained confidence when his mother encouraged him to "make friends with the monsters" -- probably the best suggestion possible and one the boy was able to carry out. After some of his anxieties were disposed of, several of the "monsters" came and sat on S's knees and in the palm of his hand and he talked with them. Others danced around him and made faces. From time to time, S's fears would return; then, with his mother's help, he would overcome his fears again and enjoy playing and talking with the hallucinated beings.

Seen one week after this experience, S did not give any surface indication of having been harmed by it. He said he would not like to have any more LSD; and his mother said he seemed to have lost his appetite for sugar cubes.

It is of interest to compare this child's psychedelic experience with that of a noted philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, as described by Simone de Beauvoir in The Prime of Life . Sartre, it would seem, could have used someone to persuade him to "make friends with the monsters."

On the afternoon of the session Simone de Beauvoir called the hospital to find out how Sartre was faring. He answered the phone and told her he was fighting a losing battle with a devil fish and mentioned a number of other disturbing experiences. He reported umbrellas changing into vultures and shoes changing into skeletons, faces that became hideous, and crabs, polyps, and "grimacing things" that he saw from the corner of his eye.

Sartre apparently recovered from this harrowing experience but, a week or two later, fell into a deep depression that recalled his mood during much of the session. He said he now was hallucinating. Houses had leering faces and gnashed their jaws, and clocks resembled owls. Still later, he described himself as "on the edge of a chronic hallucinatory psychosis." He was being followed by lobsters and crabs (and we do not mind noting an amusing coincidence -- that, like S-9, Sartre's zodiacal sign is the crab); also, by assorted other monsters... The abnormal phenomena eventually disappeared and Sartre himself attributed the whole experience to "the physical expression of a deep emotional malaise." In Simone de Beauvoir's account, "Sartre could not resign himself to going on to the 'age of reason,' to full manhood."