|Location(s):||New York, New York|
|Tag(s):||Psychology, Counterculture, Drug Culture, Religion|
|Course:||“US Since 1945,” Juniata College|
In 1964, psychologists Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert published The Psychedelic Experience, a manual intended to prepare the users of psychedelic drugs for sessions. The authors had researched the therapeutic aspects of psychedelic substances, as well as their religious possibilities. The book is heavily influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, (also known as Bardo Thodol) a funerary text that describes spiritual after-death experiences. The authors’ experiments with LSD and other psychedelics began at Harvard University, until unfavorable representations in the press led to the suspension of the research and, in 1963, the dismissal of Leary and Alpert from their faculty positions at the institution. The authors continued their own research, through observation of others and under the influence of hallucinogenic substances themselves.
The text focused on the use of psychedelics with the intention of achieving spiritual enlightenment. The authors devoted Part 3 of their text to an explanation of how to achieve a beneficial experience through proper preparation for a session, noting proper drugs and dosages as well as the critical importance of an experienced “guide.” A guide was expected to serve as a relaxed, secure, and wise presence to help the “voyager” through their trip, “always ready to help navigate their course, to help them reach their destination.” Also important to a successful session was what Leary frequently referred to as “set and setting.” This idea emphasizes proper mental and physical preparation by participants, as well as a suitable environment for the experience. Most significantly, the authors stated that the manual “prepares the person for a mystical experience according to the Tibetan model,” and instructed participants to delay religious interpretations until the end of the session when they could best benefit the individual spiritually.
A significant proportion of those drawn to Buddhism and other Eastern traditions in the 1960s—like Leary, Metzner, and Alpert—were influenced by the effects of psychoactive substances, and vice versa. Reflecting on psychedelic drug use in the 1960s, scholar Richard Batchelor asserts that “it is all too easy either to dismiss claims of spiritual significance for drugs as thinly veiled justifications for hedonistic indulgence, or to invoke the tragic consequences of heedless excess as grounds for denying the validity of any drug-induced experience at all.” LSD advocates were continually forced to defend the legitimate benefits of its use.
The authors of The Psychedelic Experience, trained in medicine and psychology, were pioneers in the exploration of consciousness and spirituality through the use of psychedelics like LSD. Their research, during the short window of time when LSD was legal, gave some legitimacy to the possibilities of personal and religious development through the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Their work on the spiritual benefits of psychedelics would become even more significant in debates over the use and control of such substances in the late-1960s—debates over one’s right to control their own brain. However, it could not prevent the federal prohibition of LSD in the United States in 1968.