Lessons from two early psychedelic psychonauts are as relevant today as they were in 1977.
In 2020, psychedelics are still illegal to produce, possess, distribute, sell or consume, but therapeutic applications are beginning to receive long overdue support from reputable scientists and clinicians again, with expectation that therapeutic protocols will be developed to help with conditions such as PTSD, severe depression, opiate additions, smoking cessation, and anxiety for the dying. There may even be applications for autism.
But what about those in less extreme circumstances who want to explore psychedelics for their personal spiritual value, or who want to get unstuck from other emotional or habitual ruts? If a legal way or jurisdiction can be found in which to gain access to these drugs, how should an explorer approach them?
Perhaps history holds some clues. Remember that peyote, mescaline, and psilocybin mushrooms had been in use for countless generations. But what made LSD so interesting to Hofmann and other chemists of his time was the extremely small doses that could be administered to bring about similar psychotic effects. Hofmann wondered if there was a hidden chemical basis for naturally occurring psychosis that could be counteracted.
But the genie quickly got out of the bottle. Governments were soon experimenting with mind control, and an entire counter culture was taking it with their middle finger in the air. Everyone was talking about it and writing about it—while straining to find the words for it. Psychedelics were a veritable explosion that could not be controlled, except to outlaw them in 1968.
LSD: A Generation Later
The resulting psychedelic underground had been operating for almost 10 years, when Bruce “Eisner” Erlich organized a conference entitled “LSD: A Generation Later” at UC Santa Cruz in 1977, combined with Albert Hoffmann’s visit. There, many of the most loud-mouthed first generation responsible for starting the war on drugs with Nixon, and many less ostentatious explorers came together to discuss the state of affairs.
Two of the attendees: John C. Lilly, and Richard Alpert, offered clues to approaching psychedelics some 40 years after LSD 25 was first synthesized from the ergot mushroom, that are still relevant more than another 40 years later.
Approach Your Own Trip with Naïveté
John C. Lilly introduced himself and stressed that, being among the first generation of psychonauts, there was very little by way of scientific or cultural information to prepare them for where LSD would take them, or how the drug would impact their lives. They were the most naïve generation, and this, he said, was an advantage that later generations would miss out on.
The less a new explorer’s mind is seeded with pre-programming of earlier trippers, the less their own trips would be contaminated by others’ notions, and the more meaningful the trip would be. He often told anyone who had read his material to do their best to forget it before their own trip. “We’re published”, he said, implying that while the experience itself was alive, once written about, it is long dead.
Lilly’s Lesson: Approach your trip as a truly naïve beginner. Kill any pre-conceptions, and enter into your own trip as a means of gathering data about your own mind and earlier life experiences. It is up to you and you alone to interpret the data from your own trip.
There is Life Beyond Psychedelics
Richard “Dick” Alpert, a.k.a. Ram Dass introduced himself and said that during his first five years included hundreds of LSD trips (then legal), but that tapered off to a trip every year or two afterwards, and by the time of the conference in 1977 said, “I really don’t know that I care whether I ever take it again.”
Alpert honored LSD for it’s ability to break up many of his calcified thought patterns, but after so many trips, he had developed a tolerance for the drug, and he was not learning anything new. More trips just provided more grist for the mill. There was just too much data to know what to do with, and not enough time in one lifetime to process it all.
Having learned what he needed from LSD-produced egoless states, Alpert went on to live an egoless life to the best of his ability. The end-game, according to Alpert, was to become what one is trying to find through psychedelics or other spiritual means.[^fn1]
[^fn1]: Ram Dass dies at 88. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/23/obituaries/baba-ram-dass-richard-alpert-dead.html)
Alpert’s Lesson: Psychedelics are one instrument for achieving a temporary, egoless state. At some point even these powerful instruments run their course. Learn from them and move on.