“In the fourth century AD the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men….They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand. They sought a God whom they alone could find, not one who was ‘given’ in a set of stereotyped from somebody else.”
Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert.
“To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.”
Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954).
I am walking on an animal path through a vast sea of creosote bushes in the Mojave Desert, about twenty miles east of Palmdale California. On a mild winter day, the gentle wind moves the spindly branches in a rhythmic dance in all directions. Protecting my face from a sudden swat of a wildly moving branch, I try to see the way ahead on the faint trail. The problem with creosote is the plants are about as high as a human is, so visibility ahead and perspective of the landscape are obscured. However, I march on, winding through the dense foliage. Suddenly rock walls appear, and a carefully constructed rock container looking like a well. I have come upon ruins in the desert. Where am I?
I walk around extensive rock ruins of building foundations and animal corrals. Later research tells me that this is Llano del Rio, built 100 years ago by Job Harriman. He created a desert colony that at one time had 900 residents, where rabbits and peanuts were raised. However, the brief blush of vitality ended when an earthquake fault drained away the main source of water for the colony. Less than four years later, the colony moved to Louisiana.
Aldous Huxley (1984-1963), author of Brave New World, came to this desert place to live for eight years with his wife Maria and son Matthew. Huxley, a life-long seeker of inner and outer mystical experiences, found a brief spiritual home here, fed by the Silence, and encounters with animate and inanimate nature. Obviously, the desert sparked immense creativity within Huxley, as he wrote eight books, several screenplays and many essays from this desert place.
What did Huxley experience in this vast expanse of sand, sagebrush and creosote? He shares this reflection:
“But the light forgives, the distances forget, and this great crystal of silence whose base is as large as Europe and whose height, for all practical purposes, is infinite, can coexist with things of a far higher order of discrepancy than canned sentiment or vicarious sport. Jet planes, for example—the stillness is so massive that it can absorb even jet planes. The screaming rash mounts to its intolerable climax and fades again, mounts as another of the monsters rips through the air, and once more diminishes and is gone. But even at the height of the outrage the mind can still remain aware of that which surrounds it, that which preceded and will outlast it.”
Aldous Huxley, The Desert: Boundlessness and Emptiness.
Although a professed agnostic, Huxley encountered Something Infinite in the desert vastness and silence. This desert experience sparked deeper searches for communion with this Presence. An earlier experience with peyote in 1930 with Aleister Crowley would lead to serious, guided journeys with mescaline (the key ingredient in peyote) with psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond in 1953 and LSD in 1955.
Cultural journalist Steffie Nelson contends that Huxley’s move to America and his desert experiences fostered his enchantment with pharmacopeia, mysticism and spiritual enlightenment. “…without the dedicated and well-documented cosmic explorations of Aldous Huxley and his cohorts, (the decade of the Sixties) would have looked very different. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, without Huxley, Timothy Leary might never have tuned in and tuned on, and Jim Morrison might never have broken on through.”
In the history of religions, entheogens have been a common gateway to communion with the Holy, augmented by vision quests, yoga, prayer and meditation. Entheogens are any psychoactive drug or plant substance used for spiritual experience. Previously hallucinogen and psychedelic were terms for these substances, but those words have connection to psychiatric pathology, so entheogen is now the more academic term. However, the difference from our world of privatized spiritual experience, in traditional cultures entheogens were taken within a community context. Rituals of purification and preparation, guidance from an experienced shaman or spiritual master, walked the participant through the inner journey that may bring back a message for the tribal community or initiate a psychic transformation into a shaman. In traditional culture, one did not take entheogens for personal spiritual insight alone; it was always for the common good and enrichment. We live in a very different world.
“In a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.
Ruck et al. 1979, Journal of Psychedelic Drugs.
In 1973, in Laguna Beach, at one time home to Timothy Leary, the ambulance arrived at South Coast Medical Center. My wife, Janice, on the medical staff, began to treat a young man for a bad LSD trip. Wearing only a football helmet and cowboy boots, he had jumped off a cliff on to the beach sand below. On a bad LSD trip, he thought he could fly and broke both his legs.
A few years later a teenaged couple arrived by ambulance, screaming and thrashing, to the ER. They had taken jimson weed, a common enthogen consumed by Paiute shamans, and they came very close to death. Over the years of her medical practice, Janice encountered many spiritual seekers who had taken LSD, peyote, mescaline, mushrooms and other substances. Some lived and some died.
Emmy Savage, daughter of Charles Savage MD, a pioneering physician in use of LSD, wrote in the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker:
“…the temptation to experiment with this kind of drug (LSD) is just too great. Lacking the context of a culture that supports shamanistic guidance for the young, the curious, and the foolish, the possibility for dangerous and even fatal consequences is great. And, regrettably, ours is a culture that is deeply suspicious of the unconscious, of mystery and the spiritual, and resentful of the time it takes for the intimate engagement required for such a therapy to work.”
William Johnston, SJ, who has spent most of his life in Japan studying and experiencing Zen Buddhism, shares this observation about entheogens and meditation:
“According to (the Filter Theory of Naranjo), the brain and nervous system are fitted with restrictive filters or barriers of some kind which prevent entrance of such knowledge as man needs for biological survival. These filters are nothing less than a repressive mechanism calculated to impede the inrush of knowledge that would otherwise overwhelm and break us. In this sense they are a sort of protective screen: humankind, unable to bear too much reality, must find some way of blocking things out.”
“But these protective barriers, this theory continues, can be removed so that more knowledge enters, thus expanding the mind. Probably one way of removing them is by the intake of drugs. Or they are perhaps broken down in certain forms of mental illness. In these cases, the floodgates are opened and reality rushes in, often with horrendous and traumatic consequences. Or again, some people may be born with less restrictive filters; and these are the ‘psychics’ who are open to telepathy, clairvoyance and other parapsychological sources of information. Meditation is also a human and natural way of opening the filters, welcoming the inflow of reality, and expanding the mind. It is a gradual process, a daily practice, in which the filters or barriers are slowly lifted to allow an almost imperceptible inflow of grater reality into the intuitive consciousness—-though this unhurried process may, at times, give way to a sudden collapse of barriers that cause massive enlightenment or mystical experience. In all this, meditation is safer than drugs because the meditator, if properly instructed and guided, can integrate the new knowledge and preserve his equilibrium.
Silent Music: the Science of Meditation, by William Johnston SJ, pp. 56-57.
In these daunting days of inner spiritual exploration and human consciousness, we have holy help in the time-honed wisdom of the world spiritualities. At the heart of their heritage of encounters with the Holy are persons foundationally set within a community of faith and the rituals and practices of meditation.
Silent Music, the Science of Meditation, by William Johnston SJ (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1974).
The Desert of Perception, Aldous Huxley Complete Essays, Volume V: 1939-1956 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002).