The Spiritual Revolution
One of the lesser known – and more notorious – revolutions in modern times was accidentally launched by a man who died last week.
The man is Dr. Albert Hoffman and the controversial discovery he made was Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, which set in motion a series of events that many attribute to precipitating some of the most fundamental changes of our times, from spiritual awakenings to the computer revolution, from a new vision of life to the Internet.
Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, for those that may not be aware, is better known as LSD, or just plain “acid.” This chemical compound was accidentally discovered by the Swiss chemist in 1943, when he inadvertently ingested it while working at the Swiss drug firm Sandoz. Despite its disreputable reputation, its illegality and the damage it has done to many, LSD remains an icon in contemporary society.
Just read this week’s obituaries – in mainstream media – about Dr. Hoffman, almost deifying the banned psychedelic, and it’s clear that America’s romance with LSD continues to haunt the modern psyche, despite its demonization by US officials who banned it in 1966.
The family weekly magazine Newsweek quotes, of all people, John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead: “Albert Hofmann was an accidental prophet. But his casual revelation likely introduced more people to the spiritual dimension than any other discovery of the last 500 years. Around 1966, enough of my generation had taken LSD to just cut loose. We had a sudden feeling of permission: we felt it was OK to look critically at the world, to ask serious questions about the war, about how this country was governed and what to do with our lives. LSD did that. It made authority look funny. There were many things conspiring to make that moment in history a little crazy, but our reaction would have been very different without LSD. It set us free in a way we’d never been before—maybe in a way that nobody had been. Hofmann was, and is, our patron saint.”
The venerable New York Times ran an essay in their Ideas and Trends column, analyzing the drug and the forces it unleashed affecting society in profound ways. In the Times article, Benedict Carey writes that “most drugs that capture the imagination of the wider culture seem at first to soothe the unease or gloom of their times, like Valium in the 1970s or Prozac in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But lysergic acid diethylamide… did exactly the opposite. It inflamed people’s hopes and fears, powerfully so.
“LSD, it turns out, is one of the most potent consciousness-altering substances known; an amount the size of a grain of salt can induce swirls of emotion, and shimmering clear senses in which the ordinary becomes extraordinary, luminous, meaningful. It can infuse a person with creative energy or overwhelm the brain with a swarming feeling of loss and fear.”
“Looking back, scholars say, it’s hard to imagine that such a drug, once in circulation, could not have taken Western culture for a wild ride, especially given the forces at play in the postwar United States. ‘It’s a terrible phrase, but I think of LSD as a potentiator of possibilities. It just evoked these grandiose possibilities with people,’ said Martin A. Lee, co-author of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The C.I.A., the ’60s and Beyond. Scientists in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, thought it might be the key to providing healing insight, a window on the soul, a way to transcend psychosis, mania, depression. Dr. Hofmann thought it could awaken a deeper awareness of mankind’s place in nature.”
Now before anyone crucifies me for participating in the glorification of LSD, allow me to me to make it very clear that I am in no way advocating the use of drugs – or any foreign substance – to elicit a mystical experience or for any reason. Quite the contrary, as I elaborated upon in a previous article, Drugs: Strange Fire.
Yet, we cannot ignore the social phenomenon caused by LSD (and other drugs), and the role it played in the rebellious 60’s and its aftereffects that still echo and shape society today. Thus, the focus of this article to dissect a bit the counterculture and the forces that helped shape the new world and open up new frontiers.
Two things stand out, amidst the many issues that LSD came to epitomize. The first is the deep spiritual hunger of our generation. Hence, the powerful reception to LSD – and other drugs and mechanisms – anything to relieve the monotony of pedestrian life.
Young people in the 60’s took to LSD in swarms many of “who longed not only to shake free of mainstream suburban-corporate culture but also to transform it, and themselves. They weren’t looking for an angry fix but something far grander.” “To put matters bluntly: the hippies were an attempt to push evolution, to jump the species toward a higher integration… LSD was a mind detergent capable of washing away years of social programming, a re-imprinting device, a consciousness-expander, a tool that would push us up the evolutionary ladder,” wrote Jay Stevens in his 1987 book, “Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream.”
LSD was seen by some as a tool for personal transformation, famously unlocking the Blakean doors of perception and altering human consciousnesses, as advocated by prominent proponents like Aldous Huxley. Timothy Leary, LSD’s pied piper, was a Harvard professor whose public raptures over the drug were a strong cocktail of mystical and scientific jargon. Regarding LSD, Leary said, “expand your consciousness and find ecstasy and revelation within.”
The second vital lesson from the LSD experience is the human temptation for a quick fix. Instead of earning our way to heightened consciousness, when the process comes too easily – by ingesting a pill, or injecting or other xxx – it will always be abused, and ultimately feed into human self-indulgence and self-destructive behavior. As Carey writes, with all LSD’s benefits, “by 1966 a raft of toxic knockoffs were on the street, and the authorities recognized that, whatever its upside, acid had become part of a self-devouring drug culture that exposed many users to a poisonous menu of illicit drugs. The government outlawed distribution of LSD, and research into its effects soon ground to a near halt.”
In the final analysis – though we have hardly reached the end of the journey – LSD did open up new channels of awareness, and despite its downside, led to a new way of thinking, the belief in novel possibilities, a sense of the unifying spirit within all of existence and the revolutionary conviction that we can change the world. It provided a vision of a new order.
Without this new awareness we would in all likeliness not have computers, cell phones and other technologies. Even if the science were there, the non-conformist attitude of the counterculture helped provide the courage needed to invest in new technologies and feel confident in the success of thinking differently and creating new paradigms.
LSD fashions and values had a major effect on culture, influencing popular music, television, film, literature, and the arts. In a 1995 Time Magazine article, Steward Brand attributed the computer revolution and the Internet to the counter-cultures psychedelic experience. “Most of our generation scorned computers as the embodiment of centralized control. But a tiny contingent – later called ‘hackers’ – embraced computers and set about transforming them into tools of liberation. That turned out to be the true royal road to the future… Hippies and nerds alike reveled in… contempt for centralized authority. To this day, computer scientists and technicians are almost universally science-fiction fans.
And all this was in 1995. Today, 13 years later, the cyberspace revolution and the information age bears the distinctive mark of the countercultural ’60s.
Undoubtedly we have not reached the end of the journey. The forces unleashed by the LSD generation continue to impact the world today. But hopefully, today we have also learned, in retrospect, how to extract the positive lessons and reject the negative ones – by focusing on healthy and natural ways of accessing the spiritual and discovering the inherent unity in existence.
I will never forget the fellow who came to one of my classes and wanted to know what my opinion was about the use of LSD to discover G-d (I shared this story on one of my radio shows, Growing Through Our Pasts, which complements this article). The gentleman was clearly stoned when he walked into the class – apparent from his demeanor and voice – and he described his own life story:
“I grew up in a semi-traditional home where we kept kosher, I attended yeshiva, was bar mitzvah-ed, read Hebrew and went to shul (synagogue) every Shabbos. Frankly, the rituals were always hollow experiences. We did them by rote and that was that. Then, as a teenager, I simply lost interest and drifted off. It wasn’t speaking to me. I essentially rebelled and left everything that was Jewish. Besides for some nostalgic or guilty visits to shul on Yom Kippur, I no longer was a practicing or active Jew.
“However, my search went on. Growing up in the late 60s, I went off to L.A. and discovered G-d and spirituality through Far Eastern religions, and most importantly, through my LSD experiences, which opened my eyes to a deeper reality. For the first time I came to the absolute awareness that the Divine vivifies everything in existence, and that an underlying unity connects us all. My spirituality was nourished from these alternative trips.
“And then, it was LSD that brought me back to my Judaism. Once, on a flight from the East Coast to the West, I had dropped some acid and I was in a trance surrounded by pulsating clouds. Suddenly I heard from the back of the plane a quorum of Jews davening (praying). As I heard them reciting ‘Kodosh, kodosh, kodosh (holy, holy, holy) is G-d, the whole earth is filled with His glory, I literally felt the celestial angels singing and sensed cosmic holiness all around me. As a child I recited these same Hebrew words many times. But I never experienced them in any personal, profound, or spiritual way. This time it was completely different. I jumped up and something drew me to the back of the plane. I joined them and for the first time in many years I prayed, this time with kavanah (intention), passion and feeling.
“Thus began my return journey to Judaism. I began to daven regularly, don tefillin daily, observe Shabbat, eat kosher. I would say that I’m more observant today than when was a child – and all due to LSD!”
“So my question Rabbi is this: “Without LSD, I would not be a practicing Jew. It woke me up to my soul and ignited my faith in G-d. It brought me back to my roots. What’s your opinion on that? Would you advocate LSD or other alternative methods to discover G-d?
You could hear a pin drop as 40-50 people in the class looked to me to see what I would say. Would I endorse – provide a hashgacha for – psychedelics? Or would I condemn the use of drugs, and in effect condemn this fellow’s – and many other people’s – return to embracing Judaism?
– Quiz: Before I tell you what I replied, what would you say? –
My reply: “Obviously we cannot endorse the use of any drug. But allow me to offer you an example. Imagine someone falling into a coma, G-d forbid. Every medical intervention doesn’t work. No one is able to revive the poor soul.
“Finally, one doctor suggests that since nothing is working, let’s inject the person with a massive dose of drugs in order to shake up his system, maybe, just maybe this will revive him. We would never inject a healthy, conscious person with this massive dose; it may even kill him. But in this dire situation, the doctors are left with no choice. They have nothing to lose. He’s going into atrophy and at a certain point, the body cannot maintain the comatose state. So as last resort, they inject the drugs and it works: They revive the individual.
“What do we derive from this? Would anyone suggest that we begin administering drugs to healthy people? Of course not! This dangerous method is only used for someone in a comatose state when all other options have been exhausted.
“The same is in our case. Many people today are in a spiritual coma, for one reason or another. Ignorance, assimilation, religious corruption, material temptations and dogma without soulfulness are some of the primary causes that have created a climate of apathy and alienation from religious commitment. There are healthy ways to revive a soul. Judaism advocates the study and experience of the “inner” mystical (soul) dimension of Torah as a “natural” way to awaken the human soul.
“In this spiritually comatose state, perhaps G-d in his mysterious ways planted spiritual reminders in the strangest places, in certain plants and chemicals, which have the power to induce a spiritual experience. But these dangerous methods should never be used on a healthy person. Once someone has fallen into a coma, and nothing else has worked, then and only then – after the fact – can we say that the drug saved his life. Obviously, the first option is to achieve the same revival through healthy means. And even when alternative means were used, even then, once you have been revived, now you must continue the spiritual journey in natural, healthy ways, and not depend on harmful drugs.”
“I therefore tell you,” I concluded, “that I am saddened to hear about your experience. It is indeed a sad testimony to the current state of religion that it could not bring G-d into your life in a relevant way, and that you needed some type of massive injection, so to speak, to get you out of your spiritual coma. But I am glad to hear that G-d did help wake you up. And now that you’ve discovered the Divine, you should be speaking to people, to young men and women who were like you back then, facing similar challenges. Share with them your experiences, offer them healthy, natural methods to access and ignite the soul, teach them how to live a wholesome transcendent life.”
We must be careful to distinguish between the means and the end, between the results of an experience and the experience itself. Even as we invalidate the method (LSD) used to reach G-d, we can never invalidate the person and his needs that led him to go there in the first place. Nor can we invalidate the results of the drug that revived his soul.
People are desperate because they need transcendence; they need purpose, meaning and passion. And they will search for it one way or another. It’s no accident that so many young people are drawn to drugs because there’s a vacuum in their lives. It’s easy to wring our hands and say, look how terrible.
But when there’s a profound vacuum and you don’t fill it in healthy ways you’ll fill it in unhealthy ways. That’s how it is. When the soul is hungry it will get its day. If it’s fed in healthy ways it will be healthy. If not, it will be extremely unhealthy, to the point of self-destruction. And that’s why drugs have such a powerful appeal, precisely because of the hunger.
So I told this fellow, “I feel that you were in a spiritual coma. The religion you grew up with was not presented in a way that spoke to your soul. You were left hungry. Since there was a vacuum you went to fill it.
“I will never judge you or in any way invalidate your hunger. Optimally, someone would have met you and provided you a healthy way to access your soul. Why try dangerous drugs, with all sorts of side effects, when healthy methods can wake you up?
“But once that did not happen and you found an alternative method, even as we see that method as destructive, we cannot invalidate the results of the experience that filled the void and the nourishment that fed the hunger, just as we can’t invalidate the void and the hunger.
“What you need to do is realize that G-d saved your life. And maybe G-d deposited a spark of rousing potency in bizarre compounds and substances (or in different ideologies and countries), like LSD or other forms which induce spiritual highs. Why did G-d place it there? Not because that’s the way to go, but because it could possibly be the last resort to prevent spiritual death from spiritual hunger. But that does not validate the experience. What it simply does is validate the soul’s search.”
Ahh, the dignity and mystery of a soul’s journey, with all its bizarre twists and turns, sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky, often peaceful, often painful.
In strange times, the journey takes strange turns. The key is to stay on course, and even when we veer a bit – never allow our pasts to haunt us. Rather, to see our pasts, no matter how regretful, as springboards for a healthy future. To extract the fruit and discard the shell.
Image by Krysthopher Woods/Flickr.