dressing style. On the plane back to New York, I was reminded of the suit again. A week later, in SoHo, I happened to walk past the Vivienne Westwood boutique. Down in the basement, they were having a sample sale. I found one copy of the exact suit I had been thinking of, in deep crimson. I put it on. It fit. At 70 percent off, I could even afford it.
Before taking DPT, I had started to reread Carlos Castaneda’s books on his relationship with the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan. I anticipated writing dismissively of Castaneda as a phony anthropologist who perpetuated a fraud. As Jay Courtney Fikes writes in Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixies, “Castaneda’s claims that he was a sorcerer’s apprentice, and that Don Juan’s teachings constituted a “Yaqui way of knowledge” are unsupported by photographs, field notes, or tape recordings.” Fikes believes that Castaneda simply recognized a good marketing niche and cashed in.
After DPT, however, Castaneda’s depictions of the sorcerer’s world seemed plausibly insightful. Don Juan reveals the alternative worlds shown through psychedelics as tricks-of-the-eye universes, whole realms of otherness revealed in mirror-scratches or the shadow-throwing flickers of candle flames. These are parallel dimensions of beings at once extremely threatening and powerful, and on the other hand, evanescent and ephemeral. Don Juan’s sorcery is a dangerous pursuit of knowledge that the sorcerer considers ultimately meaningless. “Seeing,” as Don Juan embodies it, requires detachment towards ordinary reality.
“A man who follows the paths of sorcery is confronted with imminent annihilation every turn of the way, and unavoidably he becomes keenly aware of his own death,” Don Juan says. “The idea of imminent death, instead of becoming an obsession, becomes an indifference.” Through DPT, I thought I saw such a jaded path open up towards amoral knowledge and power. What was most frightening was its seductiveness.
I could no longer argue with the idea of ambivalent spirit-realms with the power to suddenly overflow into this one. The rules of navigating in these realms may be, as Don Juan lays them out, extremely specific and seemingly arbitrary. Without a guide, the dangers for the integrity of the psyche may be
as imposing as the knowledge to be gained.
Post-DPT, I started to examine the occult tradition of the West. Impressed with Charity’s deft handling of the Tarot, I found myself peering into the somewhat unhinged writings of Aleister Crowley. Like Castaneda and the occult in general, I thought of Crowley as mere adolescent entertainment. Alas for me, I could no longer dismiss him so easily. The DPT journey—and its aftermath—transformed Crowley’s work, and Castaneda’s, from spooky fantasy to strict realism.
Crowley’s scholarly endeavor was to make a scientific system of correspondences between the mystical traditions, linking, for instance, the I Ching and Egyptian mysticism and the Tarot. “The laws of magick are closely related to those of other physical sciences,” he wrote. He laid out a model of the cosmos with many higher dimensions and endless beings inhabiting them, made of subtler stuff than us. “It is one magical hypothesis that all things are made up of ten different sorts of vibrations, each with a different vibration, and each corresponding to a ‘pianet.’” This theory—based on the Sephiroth, the ten emanations of God in the Qaballah—has a neat poetic resonance with modern “superstring theory” in physics, which postulates ten (or eleven) dimensions of space-time.
In the 1920s, Crowley wrote, “Magick deals principally with certain physical forces still unrecognized by the vulgar; but those forces are just as real, just as material—if indeed you can call them so, for all things are ultimately spiritual—as properties like radio-activity, weight and hardness.” Crowley considered the Tarot, based on the Tree of Life from the Qaballah, to be an accurate model of the forces and spiritual hierarchies at play in the universe
—a tool given to us by higher-dimensional forces.
In the 1920s, Crowley wrote, “Magick deals principally with certain physical forces still unrecognized by the vulgar; but those forces are just as real, just as material-if indeed you can call them so, for all things are ultimately spiritual-as properties like radio- activity, weight and hardness.”
Most people in the modern world reject the possibility that the self might have occult and transcendental dimensions that are carefully hidden by ordinary life. The possibility that such knowledge exists, and that you can receive direct experience of it, through psychedelics or other means, is
upsetting, even frightening. I now suspect that this might be the central reason that psychedelics have been strenuously suppressed by mainstream society, and rejected by psychiatry. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
All of Carl Jung’s researches led him to conclude that the unconscious as it was revealed through psychoanalysis had occult and even paranormal dimensions. Freud, despite his courage and brilliance, could not accept this possibility. He once confessed to Jung, as Jung described in The Undiscovered Self, “that it was necessary to make a dogma of his sexual theory because this was the sole bulwark of reason against a possible “outburst of the black flood of occultism.”
In these words Freud was expressing his conviction that the unconscious still harbored many things that might lead themselves to “occult” interpretations, as is in fact the case…. It is this fear of the unconscious psyche which not only impedes self-knowledge but is the gravest obstacle to a wider understanding and knowledge of psychology.
Jung believed that, ultimately, the individual cannot achieve true awareness without reckoning with the occult domains of the psyche (which does not mean they have to literally conjure up demons). He looked at the metaphors for the quest for self-knowledge hidden in Gnosticism, and in alchemy, where the injunction, “Visit the interior of the earth,” referred to techniques of seeking transcendent knowledge and power by delving into different modalities of consciousness.
The roots of European alchemy can be found in Gnosticism, a heretical offshoot of Christianity that flourished in the first centuries AD. The Gnostic version of Christ is something like a Leary-like advocate for direct spiritual experience over faith. In the “Gospel of Thomas,” one of a group of Gnostic texts discovered in a jar in the Nag Hammadi desert at the end of the Second World War, Christ said, “Open the door for yourself, so you will know what is.” In that same text, which may predate the Biblical scriptures and equal them in authenticity, Christ also announced, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Either of those phrases could stand as a psychedelic credo.
The hierarchies of invisible beings I had seen on DPI—as if I was a reflecting
surface, a mirror for them to display and even preen themselves—now seemed to be present everywhere. Walking in a community garden on East Houston Street, featuring flowering paths and a small pond with turtles in it, I saw emanations of that higher-order occult dimension in the swooping flourishes of rare flowers, in the pseudo-psychedelic patterns traced across a turtle’s scaly skin. It was suddenly obvious to me that the Darwinian theory of evolution, the Western rational perspective on world biology, with all of its flaws and gaps, could not be the whole story. It was true to a limited extent, but there were other truths as well. Life on earth has been sculpted into multitudinous forms by higher-dimensional beings for the enjoyment of their own skill and our delight. As I watched a turtle’s eye rotate in its socket, I had to admit that they were master craftsmen.
As I was reading about the Qaballah and the Western occult tradition, feeling oppressed by Crowley’s histrionic tone, I ran into an old friend of mine who had moved to San Francisco and was just in town for a few weeks. I had known Neil in New York for many years. We had shared an insatiable appetite for New York parties, art openings, and the pursuit of girls.
Neil seemed unchanged after five years. Thin and narrow, he wore antique suits and patterned ties, looking a bit like an ascetic Missionary from the 1940s on his first mission into the jungle. It turned out that Neil had become deeply involved in the work of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was an Austrian-born visionary and occultist from the turn of the century. Neil was even living in a Steiner-inspired Church in the Bay Area. I knew nothing about Steiner, besides the fact he had created schools and founded something called Anthroposophy.
Although he no longer took drugs or even alcohol, Neil’s interest in spirituality and mysticism had received an initial push through psychedelics. He described a DMT trip where he shot through a tunnel whose walls were covered with fast-changing runic script and visual symbols. “Then I looked up and I saw these guys hovering over me, smirking and winking at me and probing their fingers into my brain. Some of them looked like King Neptune, with tridents and long curly beards.” Then a woman in a yellow dress flew down in front of him. She was carrying a glowing tablet, and on that tablet Neil could see symbols that were changing. “The symbols of all the world’s spiritual traditions were there—Native American symbols, mandalas, and Jewish Stars and everything else. She was showing me all of the world’s
mystical paths in symbolic form.”
Steiner wrote. “Here, however, we must imagine these thoughts as living, independent beings. What we grasp as a thought in the material world is like a shadow of a thought being that is active in the land of spirits.”
A few years later, a musician friend turned Neil onto anthroposophy. He recognized the beings he had seen on DMT as the “Elemental Beings” described by Steiner. These nonphysical or “supersensible” beings live within all the processes of nature and help with the work of creating and maintaining the physical universe. They are related to the gnomes, nyads, dryads, and slyphs seen by country people throughout history. Many people have reported making contact with such beings through psychedelics. For Steiner, a natural clairvoyant, they were just a small part of a vast order of supersensible entities he encountered through his own visionary experiences.
“Steiner believes that opposing forces act on human beings all the time,” Neil told me. “One of these forces he calls “Luciferian,” which is not evil, but it is the force that pulls us away from physical reality, upwards into dream and fantasy, visionary realms and intellectual theories. There is an opposing force which pulls us down towards the earth, towards the mineral aspect of the physical body and death, and keeps us from awareness of spiritual reality. As human beings, we should strive to achieve balance between these different forces. Psychedelic drugs are totally Luciferian. They give access to worlds that you may not be ready to see.”
“Don’t you think that it depends on the individual?” I asked. “After all, you probably wouldn’t have found your way to Steiner if it wasn’t for psychedelics.”
“Obviously the drugs are here for a reason, but that doesn’t mean they are good for us. The beings we meet on psychedelics may not have our best interests at heart.” He quoted a song lyric from the British post-punk band, Magazine: “My mind ain’t so open that anything can crawl right in.”
I immediately started reading Steiner’s work. Steiner believed that different types of spiritual training were appropriate for different epochs. He called the spiritual consciousness of the ancient world and the shaman a “dusk-like clairvoyance.” In the present world, according to Steiner, that type of
consciousness was no longer appropriate. He devised a method of spiritual training based on meditations and cognition, using the highly developed thinking power of the modern mind to rediscover the lost spiritual realms.
According to Steiner, in the spiritual worlds, beings are not separate from each other as they are in the physical world. He writes, “To have knowledge of a sense-perceptible being means to stand outside it and assess it according to external impressions. To have knowledge of a spiritual being through intuition means having become completely at one with it, having united with its inner nature.” In other words, you meet a spiritual being by temporarily becoming that being. This suggests the effects of ingesting psychedelic compounds, which give the sense of temporarily melding into the psyche of an “Other.”
The higher spiritual realms consist of beings made entirely of thought: “The actual world of thoughts is what pervades everything in the land of spirits, like the warmth that pervades all earthly things and beings,” Steiner wrote. “Here, however, we must imagine these thoughts as living, independent beings. What we grasp as a thought in the material world is like a shadow of a thought being that is active in the land of spirits.”
Steiner describes a hierarchy of consciousness, from the lowest pebble to the highest spiritual being. On earth, a person who achieved truly rational consciousness (of course, for Steiner, rationality would include spiritual awareness) would be at the highest level of thought that we can imagine, while minerals exist at the lowest level of mental activity (for mystics, it seems that nothing, not even a pebble, is completely devoid of sentience). In the higher realms, you find beings whose lowest level of existence is rational thought: “Rational conclusions are the approximate equivalent of mineral effects on Earth. Beyond the domain of intuition lies the domain where the cosmic plan is fashioned out of spiritual causes.”
In 1997, largely inspired by the jewel-like multicolored landscapes I beheld with eyes closed on several mushroom trips, I decided to go to Nepal. The prismatic fast-changing psilocybin scenes seemed direct evocations of “Buddha Realms,” those sumptuous paradisiacal lands ruled over by enlightened unearthly beings, described in many Buddhist texts. After a few visits, I found myself drawn towards the stylized and highly ornamented artifacts of Tibetan art, the tangka paintings and mandalas used as aid to
I had picked up a lung infection during a Shiva festival in Kathmandu. To celebrate Shiva, the city with the third worst air quality in the world burnt fires of garbage all night long
With the money I made writing a never-published article about visiting a slightly embarrassing “Free Love Summer Camp” in the Oregon woods, I booked a ticket to Kathmandu, a city of crumbling Hindu temples, ancient stone streets, and dire poverty. I thought, perhaps, that Tibetan Buddhism might be a path for me. I visited several temples and monasteries. The solemn rituals of chanting monks and the stylized slow-motion pageantry of the costumed dances to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year, were beautiful. But I didn’t like the hierarchical and non-detached feeling of the Westerners who clustered around the high-powered Lamas.
From Nepal, I went to Dharmsala, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s government-inexile, in Northern India. I appreciated the smiling faces and earthy warmth of the Tibetans—monks and commoners—but I was once again put off by the graspiness radiated by the Westerners. I had picked up a lung infection during a Shiva festival in Kathmandu—to celebrate Shiva, the city with the third worst air quality in the world burnt fires of garbage all night long—and spent a week coughing, waiting for either the Indian antibiotics or Tibetan homeopathic remedies to take effect.