An exclusive excerpt from Peter Bebergal’s Too Much To Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, published last week. Bebergal will be reading from Too Much at the NYU Bookstore on Wednesday, October 12th, at 5 pm. Come on by; he’ll sign a copy for you. For more details, click here.
By Peter Bebergal
In 1882 the psychologist William James (the novelist Henry’s older brother) published a number of articles, both anonymously and under his own name, in which he described his use of nitrous oxide. What we know as laughing gas he believed “simulates the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree.” James expanded this thesis in his definitive classic on religion, Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he captures the essence of his beliefs about mystical consciousness: “It is that our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different . . . No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” From a psychological point of view, James was convinced there was a common underlying phenomenon related to mystical states: an overwhelming sense of unity with the sacred dimension of reality. Call it nirvana, moksha, satori, Christ consciousness, or, in Hebrew, devekut—for James it was all the same.
This promise, this offering that has so long been associated with LSD and other psychedelic drugs, has meant different things to different people. For some it was the promise of liberation from those social norms that seemed to homogenize and dilute real experience. For others it was the promise of liberation from the ego. Some have written about hidden worlds, layers of dimensions that transcend the science of physics. Others wanted nothing more than to know God or some aspect of a divine consciousness. Maybe it was revelation, or prophecy of a sort, an experience not unlike those had by saints and mystics. It was a promise of universal transformation. In other circles, there was, and still is, the hope that drugs could alter the effects of mental illness. Continue Reading →