- Hide the children. Pour some absinthe, fluff the pillows,
take off your pants. It is time.
- Because now we know: Getting nicely and wholly high on
illegal but completely natural hallucinogenic drugs might, just might open
some sort of profound psychological doorway or serve as some sort of giddy
terrifying rocket ride to a higher state of consciousness, happiness, a
sense of inner peace and love and perspective and a big, fat lick from
- It's true. There's even a swell new study from Johns
Hopkins University that officially suggests what shamans and gurus and
botany Ph.D.s and alt-spirituality types have known since the dawn of time
and Jimi Hendrix's consciousness: that psilocybin, the all-natural chemical
found in certain strains of wild mushrooms, induces a surprisingly large
percentage of users to experience a profound -- and in some cases, largely
permanent -- revolution in their spiritual attitudes and perspectives.
- Not only that, but the stuff reportedly made a majority
of testers feel so much more compassionate, open-hearted, connected to
and awestruck by the world and the universe and God that it ranks right
up there with the most profound and unfathomable experiences of their lives.
I know. Stop the presses.
- But let us sidestep the face-slapping obviousness. Let
us look past the fact that you are meant to react to this study's findings
like it's some sort of revelation, like it doesn't merely reinforce roughly
10 thousand years of evidence and modern research and opinioneering and
responsible advocacy by everyone from Timothy Leary to Terence McKenna
to Huston Smith to the Tibetan Book of the Dead with yet another study
to add to the pile in the Science of the No Duh.
- You know the type -- studies that merely reinforce ageless
common sense, that simply reiterate something that's been said and understood
for eons. There have been, for example, recent studies that prove that
meditation actually reduces blood pressure (no!) and that MDMA (Ecstasy)
is amazing at releasing inhibition and tapping the deeper psyche (shocking!)
and that marijuana is roughly a thousand times less harmful than Marlboros
and nine vodka tonics and smacking your family around in an alcoholic rage.
You know, duh.
- Because one thing painfully redundant studies like this
do provide is a nicely clinical framework, a structured context from which
to view a long-standing phenomenon. But here's the fascinating part: In
the case of something like psilocybin, it's not so much the astounding
findings that can make you swoon, it's also, well, the illuminating shortcomings
of science itself.
- Put another way, they are trying, once again, to measure
enlightenment. They are attempting to put a frame around consciousness,
cosmic awe, God. And of course, they cannot do it. Or rather, they can
only go so far before they hit that point where the sidewalk ends and the
world spins off its logical axis and the study's participants cannot help
but deliver the death blow every scientist dreads to hear: "You cannot
- Witness, won't you, these revelations:
- The psilocybin joyriders claimed the experience included
such feelings as "a sense of pure awareness and a merging with ultimate
reality, a transcendence of time and space, a feeling of sacredness or
awe, and deeply felt positive mood like joy, peace and love." What's
more, for a majority of users, the experience was "impossible to put
- It doesn't stop there. Two months later, 24 of the participants
(out of a total of 36) filled out a questionnaire. Two-thirds called their
reaction to psilocybin "one of the five top most meaningful experiences
of their lives. On another measure, one-third called it the most spiritually
significant experience of their lives, with another 40 percent ranking
it in the top five. About 80 percent said that because of the psilocybin
experience, they still had a sense of well-being or life satisfaction that
was raised either 'moderately' or 'very much.'"
- You gotta read that again. And then again. Because those
statements are just a little astonishing, unlike anything you will read
in some FDA report on Prozac from Eli Lily. The most profound experience
of their lives? One of the most spiritually significant? Can we get some
of this stuff into Dick Cheney's blood pudding? Into the Kool-Aid at the
American Family Association? Into Israel and Lebanon?
- But this is the amazing thing: Here, again, is hard science
running smack into the hot cosmic goo of the mystical. Here, again, is
science peering over the edge of understanding and jumping back and saying,
"Holy crap." It is yet another reminder that our beautiful sciences
have almost zero tools with which to quantify something like "transcendence
of time and space" or "a feeling of sacredness and awe."
And watching them try is either tremendously enjoyable or just depressing
as hell. Or a little of both. It all depends, of course, on how you see
- Here then, are your choices. Here are the three ways
to look at the effects of magic mushrooms on the consciousness of humankind.
Which angle you choose depends a great deal on how nimble you allow your
mind, your heart, your spirit to be. Or maybe it's just how much wine you've
- The first way is to simply presume that the lives of
the study's participants had obviously been, up to their psilocybin joys,
tremendously mediocre. So bland and so limp that something like hallucinogenic
mushrooms could not help but be, in contrast, as profound as being licked
- This is a clinical interpretation. The gorgeous experience
itself means nothing except to say that normal life is terribly drab and
crazy drugs temporarily scramble your brain in occasionally positive and
interesting ways, but never the twain shall meet, so oh well let's go back
- But you can also take it one step further. You may conclude
that the study underscores the harsh fact that we as a species are so divorced
from deeper meaning, so detached from the mystical and the divine and the
universal in our everyday instant-gratification lives, that it takes something
like a powerful hallucinogen to show us just how meek and limited and far
from merging with God we still very much are. This is the pessimistic view.
And it is, by every estimate, a very primitive and sour place to be.
- Ah, but then there's the third way. This is to suggest
that it's exactly the other way around, that perhaps at least some of us
are, as Leary and his cosmic cohorts have suggested for decades, just inches
from the celestial doorway, already on the precipice of realizing that
we are, in fact, the divine we so desperately seek. Problem is, we can't
see the edge through the tremendous fog of consumerism and conservatism
and quasi-religious muck.
- But even so, every now and then we manage to take a tiny,
unconscious, clumsy step ever closer to the edge, stumbling toward ecstasy
without really knowing or understanding that we're doing so. And ultimately,
sly entheogens like psilocybin are merely nature's way of clearing the
fog for a moment, of letting us know just how close we are by smacking
us upside the scientific head and tying our cosmic shoelaces together.
And doesn't that sound like a fascinating way to spend the weekend?
- Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every
Wednesday and Friday on SF Gate and in the Datebook section of the SF Chronicle.
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