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Angels We Have Heard While High

One of the more depressing experiences related to drug use is being compelled to listen to somebody trying to convey some "cosmic" revelation they had while under the influence. But there are rare exceptions. E.g.:

Drug abuse has been called the United States' worst public health problem, and our government has waged a "war on drugs" for decades with decidedly mixed results. Drugs, especially tobacco and alcohol, sicken and kill millions of Americans, and the list of illegal drugs is long, with drug users filling our prisons.

What might it mean, then, when one of the world's most renowned religious scholars writes in his new book, "Cleansing the Doors of Perception," that some select illegal drugs hold the potential for humans to realize their highest spiritual potential, and that use of these drugs might even be part of the very origin of man's greatest aspirations and faiths?

Longtime Berkeley resident Huston Smith is no dope fiend. He's not even another Timothy Leary, thank goodness. Like Leary, Smith has taught at some of the nation's leading universities, but he's never left one in disgrace nor become a would-be "guru", preaching turning on or dropping out or whatever. He holds 11 honorary degrees and has authored 11 books, including "The World's Religions," the most widely used text on comparative religion, selling over 2 million copies in the past 40 years. He has produced a number of television series and was himself the subject of a Bill Moyers PBS series, titled "The Wisdom of Faith With Huston Smith."

With his book "Cleansing the Door of Perception", Smith "came out" about his drug experimentation and what it all might mean. While teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960, Smith encountered a small circle of already or soon-to-be (in)famous scholars who were looking into the psychological and spiritual potential of drugs such as psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, mescaline and LSD. Famed English author Aldous Huxley was visiting MIT and had already "come out" as a self- experimenter in his classic "The Doors of Perception." Across town, Leary and Richard Alpert (who renamed himself Ram Dass) were embarking on the "research" that would get them fired from Harvard and put them in the public eye as both gurus and scourges.

Smith, however, took a much quieter route. "I am more philosopher than activist," he notes. And thus he tried various drugs only a few times and for a short period, expressly with the purpose of exploring "drug-induced religious experiences on the grounds that they come up with the same basic claims about reality that religions always do."

His book is a collection of essays on that question, including updated versions of papers published in academic journals decades ago but still absorbing and timely today. The only real shortcoming of these landmark writings is that a broader range of mind-altering chemicals, either manufactured ones such as MDMA, known as Ecstasy, or indigenous concoctions such as ayahuasca from the Amazonian basin, have become increasingly common in recent years, with attendant risks and potentials.

Smith holds that true seekers do not use entheogens, which he defines as "virtually nonaddictive drugs that seem to harbor spiritual potentials," just for kicks. "Emotionally the drug experience can be like having forty-foot waves crash over you for several hours while you cling desperately to a life raft which may be swept from under you at any moment," he reports. In other words, for a seeker, entheogens are likely to be more challenging than thrilling, but with the potential to make "epochal" changes in one's view of the meaning of life.

As for any connection of drugs with authentic religion, Smith laments that "it is next to impossible to speak of it in the West today without being misunderstood."-In other words, without being labeled "pro-drug." But he feels so strongly that the a link exists that he likens our cultural denial of it to earlier refusals to accept that the Earth rotates around the sun. "When drugs can trigger religious experiences becomes incontrovertible," he notes hopefully, "discussion will move to the more difficult question of how this fact is to be interpreted."

Ever scholarly, Smith's admittedly tentative attempts at this interpretation are replete with fascinating historical references and quotes from thinkers ranging from Plato to Jung to William James. He looks back at ancient India, where entire sects used psychoactive mushrooms until the "quality" of religiously based drug use declined: "Three thousand years in advance of our times, India may have found herself on the brink of a psychedelic mess like the one America created in the 1960s."

The resulting repression of drug use by the ruling class may have resulted in more of the kind of sloppy illicit drug use (and abuse), where "it is impossible to determine whether sattva (illumination) or tamas (sloth) predominates." In other words, some things don't change, or, as Smith puts it, "One man's meaning is another man's mush."

There are also fascinating quotes from American Indians who have long used peyote as "medicine" to commune with their spirits and, ironically, to "cure" themselves of alcoholism. The use of drugs for spiritual purposes is really nothing new, and Smith even raises the possibility that some religious traditions have in fact developed out of primal drug experiences long forgotten in history.

Seemingly aware of the risks of overstating his case, Smith notes that drug-induced "theophanies," or religious revelations, are often not lasting, and that "[o]pening the gates of heaven at the start, there comes a time -- I can attest to this myself -- when they begin to open either onto less and less or onto the demonic." The dreaded bad trip, then, is a hazard for the true seeker.

Among the often-startling footnotes here is the revelation that Bill Wilson, revered founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, told Smith that he had tried LSD and "counted his entheogen experience as equal in the conviction it engendered to the conversion exper-ience that led him to his founding of Alcoholics Anonymous." Equally startling to many will be the mention of experiments with cancer and other severely ill patients who had their pain, both physical and emo-tional, greatly helped with the use of entheogenic drugs.

Smith's language and thinking do venture into arcane regions. But after all its deep inquiry into matters metaphysical and pharmacological, "Cleansing the Doors of Perception" closes with a crucial real-world policy question: "Can a way be found to legitimize, as the Greeks did, the constructive, life-giving use of entheogenic heaven-and-hell drugs without aggravating our serious drug problem?"

Smith does not propose to answer that riddle. What he does do in this brilliant, challenging, warmly written and courageous book is provide the strongest case yet for why that very question might be so important.

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