Overweening Generalist

Sunday, March 27, 2016

On Psychedelic Frames and Peter Bebergal

I've just finished Peter Bebergal's 2011 memoir, Too Much To Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood and found it gripping because much of it seemed to speak directly to my own boyhood. Bebergal grew up in a suburb of Boston around the same time I was "growing up" (for some reason that term suddenly felt alien to me, ergo the quotation marks) in the sprawling 'burbs of Los Angeles.

A huge difference between Bebergal and me: here, in Bebergal, is once again a subspecies of character structure that I'm fascinated in and love to read about, but which seems alien to me: Bebergal is a "god intoxicated" person. All his forays into dropout punk culture (hilariously, he gets into 1960s-70s "psychedelic rock" after his punk phase), hanging out with street people and smoking pot, doing LSD (a couple of bad trips are rendered very well here), alcohol, cocaine, etc. Trying to "know" god or the Ultimate Transcendent Whatsit and chasing it with drugs and a fierce autodidacticism. Bebergal grew up in what looks like a non-observant rationalist Jewish home; I grew up in a non-theist, broken home. From the most rudimentary ideas in world religion, I had to teach myself what all the fuss was about. It wasn't discussed and my parents didn't bring my brothers and I up in any faith and we never went to church. I asked my father about this many years later and he said that he and mom had a talk about this: they'd seen far too much damage done to their friends and families in the name of religion than anything that might be considered uplifting. I was most decidedly not god-intoxicated, but I did want the gnosis, although it would be many years before I ever encountered the term.

                                  Peter Bebergal (photo: Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Throughout, Bebergal wants that gnosis, he wants direct experience of life-shattering knowledge of The Transcendent. I think I was looking for whatever blew my mind and made me think. I confess I seem to have not changed much since then, which may explain the quotation marks used above under "growing up."

Eventually, Bebergal crashes hard, gets into AA, and realizes he's an addict. He's been "clean" for 20+ years now, has a family, works at M.I.T., and also wrote a wonderful book on the underrated influence of occult ideas on the history of rock and roll, briefly reviewed by my colleague Tom Jackson.

Here's a short passage that gives us the tone of yearning in Bebergal's late adolescence:

Staying connected to even an idea of some transcendent reality without devolving into the psychedelic dreamspace was a challenge, and one I was not convinced I had to let go of. How to make it work without being lured back to the drugs themselves? Could I have a psychedelic experience - or even a shadow one - sober from my head to my toes, in my brain and in my blood?

In the final quarter of the book, Bebergal shifts his tone. He's straight but still wanting to unite with the transcendent. His tone turns scholarly, he goes to Divinity School, he reads like mad about magic, mysticism and illumination. After a marvelous observance about Hermes in his own life, he writes, "The difference between ecstasy and illumination is the same as that difference between magic and mysticism. Magic is often about instant results. Mysticism, while often characterized by dramatic singular moments, is about the long haul. In the same way I mistook magic for mysticism, I mistook ecstasy for illumination." (pp.191-192)

Problem With The Psychedelic Frame
Bebergal begins following the work of Strassman with DMT and other (resurgent) experiments done by academics and doctors with psychedelics and healing. After most of the book's peripatetic and picaresque episodes of a bright young god-seeking loveable fuckup, we see Bebergal, sober, as the thoughtful intellectual who knows his stuff. I did not know that, in 2000, two guys named Pickard and Apperson got busted for making probably 70% of the LSD used at raves in Unistat. Pickard got two concurrent life sentences. Bebergal discusses Rick Doblin, Dr. Strassman, Leary, William James, Aldous Huxley. He addresses why psychedelic researchers started using the term "entheogen" over "psychedelic" (too much cultural baggage) and "hallucinogen" (too misleading).

Then, the famous Johns Hopkins double-blind, active-placebo-controlled psilocybin experiments done under Dr. Roland Griffiths. (The active placebo here was Ritalin.) In effect, this was a chance to confirm the Harvard "Good Friday"experiment done at Marsh Chapel by Walter Pahnke under the auspices of Timothy Leary, in which divinity school students who did receive the psychedelic said many years later it was one of, if not the most important experiences in their lives. The same thing happened under Griffiths and Robert Jesse. One of those who received the psilocybin was a Psychologist and self-described "Zen Catholic" named John Hayes, who had never taken a psychedelic drug but who said he had had mystical experiences:

"It was like, 'Alright, what's the big deal?' Then, ba-boom!" he says. "There was a sense of moving in some sort of astral space with stars whizzing by me. It was like getting the big picture."

Hayes tried to describe his psilocybin trip, using "elusive" and "dream" and like he'd experienced something from another space-time dimension. Then, he fell back on his religious vocabulary. Here's where it got really interesting to me, and the book is worth reading if only for this final stretch: the problem of psychedelic experience and inadequate language. Culture - especially religious culture and its terminology - will lead to a sort of Heisenbergian Uncertainty Principle: there is no unmediated mystical or psychedelic experience. Our culture flows through us. Metaphors and framing are in the very air we breathe. And we don't know - can't know?, objectively? - if your experience is the same as mine when we walk through the forest on that Perfect Day, or ingest 2 1/2 grams of psilocybe cubensis. It's in the realm of qualia, no?

At Johns Hopkins the researchers took great care to prevent "expectancy": when someone doesn't know a thing about psychedelics, they tried to keep others who did know from using language or metaphors that might subconsciously alter the expectations of a subject who might not get the placebo. But Bebergal says there's nothing to do about the "deep pop-cultural language or preconceptions that most of us share. It is easy to imagine someone signing up to be a participant in the research and then immediately going home and googling all the associated terms, reading about Marsh Chapel and the studies of the past, even watching movies on YouTube of Timothy Leary describing his psychedelic breakthroughs." (p.179)

The language used in the questionnaires furthered this contamination of expectancy. Internal unity, God, transcendence of time and space, ineffability, awe, noetic qualities: from which area of world culture do these terms seem to emanate? Berkeley professor of East Asian languages and culture Robert Sharf had a problem with the language in the experiment, saying religious experiences can't be reduced to a "supposedly value-neutral, empirical, scientific kind of domain." Bebergal reminds us the late great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, said there was no such thing as a generic mystical experience, there is only Hindu mysticism, Jewish mysticism and Christian mysticism. (Bebergal studied the Sufis too, so probably would have wanted to argue with Scholem there was an Islamic mysticism, or so I'd guess he would've.)

It seems that Dennis McKenna - whose framing about psychedelic experiences seems quite different from his more famous brother Terence - had the most articulate arguments for Bebergal about why psychedelics have too much religious language baggage around them. Foremost these substances are "tools to explain consciousness" and that when the experience is described in spiritual terms this is merely an interpretation. (My emphasis...to draw us back to Bebergal's most active god, Hermes, who gave us Hermeneutics.) Dennis McKenna also thinks we give too much power to shamanic experts and other guides, because "Ultimately, the experience is yours." McKenna says that for people without a grounding in a spiritual tradition (this was me in my late adolescence), psychedelics can be used to solve problems, gain insight into natural phenomena, "or simply explore what human consciousness is capable of." It was with that last one that I received the message, and have since hung up. (For now.) McKenna says the experience can be so mindblowing that people want to share it through language and they create a context and try to get others to buy into that context.

Do we have a non-religious vocabulary to describe non-church-related ineffable experience? Is it in poetry? Blake? Ginsberg? Wordsworth? Rumi? Pound?

Talk About Cultural Baggage!
This week, meditating and reading, I happened upon a news story: one of our best writers on the War On Certain People Who Use The Wrong Drugs, Dan Baum, had interviewed John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon's right-hand men. Ehrlichman told Baum in an interview that the advent of the all-out War on Drugs (1971) began as a way to marginalize and imprison Nixon's enemies: hippies and blacks. ("Oh you're such a conspiracy monger, OG!") This way, every night on the TV news, Nixon's "silent majority" would see what scum all those weirded-out blacks and hippies were, with their pot and their LSD, etc. It worked. Enough of our fellow citizens bought it. It seems to me profoundly criminal that this was done. Also, I bet few reading this blog think this is all that "newsworthy" because of course this was how it was done. And furthermore, we've been trying to call attention to it for 40 years. Talk about cultural baggage and imagery that infects minds about certain drugs Control doesn't want used in the population...

Too Much To Dream was put out by one of my favorite publishing houses, Soft Skull Press, and I have not done the book justice. Bebergal has some terrific insights on music and psychedelic phenomenology, among other things. Read it!


Sue Howard said...

Fascinating post, thanks Michael. The OG at its best (from my perspective, ie combining a few things I know [a little] about with new authors/books to explore and new insights to think about).

michael said...

Thanks Sue!

I'll get 40-50 pages into a book and think, "Maybe I should review this as the OG?," so I start taking little notes on scraps of paper lying around. After I wrote this one and sent it out I found a note I'd forgotten about, but now I'd have to shoehorn it in, so I'd rather just mention it here:

After Aldous Huxley published _The Doors of Perception_ he was on BBC and someone wanted to know how all this drug taking added to the human stock of knowledge. Aldous said that or knowledge is framed (not his word, mine) within an ontology, a sense of Being in the world. What these drugs do is reveal another sense of Being, and suggest that there is knowledge within that other order of Being.

I'm paraphrasing from what I remember hearing Huxley say on a CD of "spoken word" Aldous from collected Beeb appearances he'd made. Does it make sense? To me, it makes profound sense, and I regret our best psychonauts have not succeeded (to my mind) in getting this point across, and I suspect it's because the terms "ontology" and "epistemology" are too rarified...

BTW: BRAVO to your colleague Brian Dean on his Disinfo article linking Lakoff and RAW. I'd love to see the whole thing. And I'm planning to riff off his article. Stellar stuff, exceedingly interesting to me.

Anonymous said...

it's not too hilarious to get into psych rock and other genres AFTER punk rock. practically everyone I was into punk rock with (growing up in the early 80s), were all 14-18 years old. we were all very young and completely ignorant of the music world at large. around '84, everyone started taking LSD and smoking pot, and the punk rock bands all started getting grungier then. practically every punker I knew was up to their eyes in the Monkees-inspired MTV revival of the 60s by '87, and attending every Grateful Dead show possible. I learned a lot (mainly that the Dead started to suck real bad by the late 70s and would never ever recover) about psych rock, garage rock, avant garde music, free jazz, etc., during the late 80s.

michael said...


I hear ya; I thought it was hilarious from my own inertial frame of reference: my slightly older age. Hell, I know a lot of guitarists who grew up listening and playing metal and Hendrix, Jimmy Page, etc, then later went all-out jazzbo or started listening to Vivaldi and Beethoven.

My cohort either thought punk was too harmonically and melodically dull, OR we loved it because of the basic slashing guitar sound and snotty attitudes of the bands and their singers. I remember coming home from the record store with Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow On Stage AND Never Mind the Bollocks: and I loved them both.

Yea, there IS no fixed uniformity of musical discovery, but Bebergal's order of discovery was one I had not personally known. I enjoyed reading about your own sequence.

BTW: I have tried to like the Dead many times, and it just didn't "take" with me. I do love the idea of them and their massive subculture though. And your riff on how they peaked musically before the late 1970s is one I've read a few times in the past couple months.

Thanks for weighing in!

tony smyth said...

Yeah, cant say I particularly like the Dead either, with the one exception of Dark Star. Once I heard that on acid, it was pretty obvious that they had also ingested pretty close to the time that was recorded. Garcia was a fine guitarist too, but once they got into their 'country- speedy up- now slow me down' phase it left me pretty cold. But Dark Star is pretty amazing IMO.

Sue Howard said...

OG: "Aldous said that or knowledge is framed (not his word, mine) within an ontology, a sense of Being in the world. What these drugs do is reveal another sense of Being, and suggest that there is knowledge within that other order of Being."

I love how that's put. "Sense of being" - I don't envy anyone trying to pin this stuff (or similar/related) down in words. Jody Radzik (don't know if you've heard of him) seems to me brilliant in making such attempts, eg: http://www.embodiednonduality.com/defining-the-starting-point/

OG: "BRAVO to your colleague Brian Dean on his Disinfo article linking Lakoff and RAW. I'd love to see the whole thing."

Ah, thanks for that. I think it'll be on the NewsFrames blog once the disinfo piece "sharing" on social media has died down. The part I like in the full article is the continuation of RAW's "it is raining"/"reified Actor" example to suggest (via Lakoff's ideas on hypocognition and systemic causation) what this has to do with our (ie "the public's") apparent problems in thinking about climate change, etc.

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece as usual. "Blake? Ginsberg? Wordsworth? Rumi? Pound?" Well, I find myself struggling with Ibn 'Arabi's vocabulary lately. It seems most useful to me, although I still use a lot of Pound & Wilson's vocabulary. The Beshara School plans to start online classes. I eagerly await signing up for them. I hope that that guidance will help me utilize Ibn 'Arabi's vocabulary.

michael said...

@tony smyth: maybe I would "get" the Dead if I did some psychedelics and listened in headphones. I have never done that. Pink Floyd, Bach, Beatles, Coltrane and Imrat Khan:yes. Dead? no.

@Sue Howard: Now I need to check out Jody Radzik! I really look fwd to Brian's long version; I was thinking the other day; my gawd how many people speak out of something that sounds childishly like direct causation; Lakoff's systemic causation seems woefully underappreciated.

@Eric: You're in my thoughts. I think even the greatest scholar of any writer knows the writer's vocabulary to some degree quite estimable, but I also think it's their vocabulary (in the tacit dimension) mixed with the great writer's.

tony smyth said...

Imrat Khan, former cricketer and now politician?? On acid?? Really?

michael said...

@tony: I wondered who you were referring to, so I googled the name and all I came up with is my guy:


His brother Vilyat was even better, I think. But Imrat had a performance on a CD I got from my library that truly SENT me.

chas said...

There is no generic mystical experience because there is no generic person! The mystical experience, which we could call a psychedelic experience, is always going to take on the character of the experiencer, one way or more than likely quite a few others.

My own psychedelic experiences have always been riffs on connection, with my environment and with people. I've had the experience, and it has never had any sort of religious coloring. I was raised Episcopalian and when I quit that in 10th grade I started bouncing around with a lot of different spiritual traditions, old and new, large and small, and have always appreciated the people who were either spiritually atheist/agnostic or of the opinion that we really aren't on the proper level to talk about something as all-encompassing as "God".

I like your bit that starts with this: there is no unmediated mystical or psychedelic experience.

Because there is no unmediated experience of any kind!

Thanks for the meal!

michael said...

@chas- I wish I'd taken it as far as you do, here: even when we think there is no medium through which we're experiencing ANYTHING in life, we're all already mediated via our biases, habits, the structure of our language, our education, our "set" ("setting" might be a more "visible" medium?), our genetic makeup, happy and sad accidents that have occurred to us, and I'm sure many other things that influence the frame/reality tunnel we're working from when we experience ANYTHING.

I think the main reason I emphasized there seems to be no unmediated mystical or psychedelic experience (privileging those two broad mental "states) was because I've read so many books and articles that seem to presuppose that these states must always be mediated...if the idea isn't stated outright. I have no beef with religious language and metaphors, but want to try to shove the notions about psychedelic experience and religious metaphors: they are not required when talking about your trips.

Man, there are times when I'm reminded that the many of the readers of the OG are probably far smarter than the OG himself.

Thanks for adding a lot to the topic, Chas!

chas said...

Just riffing off your ideas, man. I'm enjoying how your mind works.