Notes on The Psychedelic Experience (TPE)

May 29, 2014 § Leave a comment




TPE opens with an emphasis on set and setting. Basing its model on The Tibetan Book of the Dead (TTBD), it stresses guidance of both the text and a guide.

If the manual is read several times before a session is attempted, and if a trusted person is there to remind and refresh the memory of the voyager during the experience, the consciousness will be freed from the games which comprise “personality” and from positive-negative hallucinations which often accompany states of expanded awareness. (3)

The authors make it clear that the intention of the manual is to disseminate esoteric knowledge from TTBD, making the information available to those who have not undergone consciousness expanding experiences. The Bardos, or ‘levels of experiences,’ are metaphors for the ego death experience. The Bardos move from the most liberated phases of ego loss into re-entry of the self. It is important to remember that The psychedelic experience is about re-entry. If you truly achieved enlightenment, you would not be here anymore. It follows that working with “game realities” becomes therapeutically useful.

I should note that by the end of the 1960s, the structure of these sessions became less and less emphasized, even by Leary himself, as well as his initial followers like Art Kleps. The goal to liberate the public, to democratize mystical experience became politicized as a way to tactically oppose existing governing structures and redefine citizenship. In this way, the psychedelic experience sought to restructure inherited notions of subjectivity. Even in TPE, however, we can see this critique at work.

You must be ready to accept the possibility that there is a limitless range of awareness for which we now have no words; that awareness can expand beyond range of your ego, your self, your familiar identity, beyond everything you have learned, beyond your notions of space and time, beyond the differences which usually separate people from each other and from the world around them. (5)

The writers also tend to emphasize human history in terms of evolution. This is not present in TTBD. It is important to remember that the writers of TPE are translating for a western audience and that they themselves are westerners. They do not escape their own cultural context. Notice the rhetoric of the following passage:

Liberation is the nervous system devoid of mental-conceptual activity. [Realization of the Voidness, the Unbecome, the Unborn, the Unmade, the Unformed, implies Buddhahood, Perfect Enlightenment – the state of the divine mind of the Buddha. It may be helpful to remember that this ancient doctrine is not in conflict with modern physics. The theoretical physicist and cosmologist, George Gamow, presented in 1950 a viewpoint which is close to the phenomenological experience described by the Tibetan lamas.

If we imagine history running back in time, we inevitably come to the epoch of the “big squeeze” with all the galaxies, stars, atoms and atomic nuclei squeezed, so to speak, to a pulp. During that early stage of evolution, matter must have been dissociated into its elementary components. . . . We call this primordial mixture ylem. (24)

The authors appeal to modern physics and scientific knowledge in general. We see this kind of affective move over and over when people talk about psychedelics – a tendency to universalize. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this, but in the context of history, culture and what Michel Foucault calls “knowledge-power,” we quickly become aware of the fact that power, like the psychedelic experience, is dynamic, not static, and re-inscribing knowledge always already positions power relationships. Even the Dalai Lama has asserted how difficult it is to transcend culture and that we are better off seeking liberation from within the contexts that we were born into. What has become so problematic about the psychedelic experience’s tendency to universalize is the ways, upon re-entry, it manifests cultural desires to dominate others. This is one of the reasons why TTBD was originally buried and kept as esoteric knowledge: liberation is itself a privilege, and the liberal impulse to democratize experience tends to all-to-often come from inherited notions of freedom in the western sense of both positive and negative freedoms and rights. While laudable as an idea, integrating human rights into western legal systems constantly faces the problem of oppression that comes with the need to order human societies. In terms of karma, John Locke’s idea of tabula rasa or “blank slate” can only refer to the affordances given to one incarnation among many; in other words, it relates to the potential within one human lifetime, not the more reductive version that we are all “born equal.” When one moralizes such an idea to adhere to “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps,” building on Benjamin Franklin’s biography, a different conservational force is at work.

Here we see the inherently political theological nature of the experience. Laws ought to enable liberation, but if liberation is treated as something wholly “other,” as transcendent in the ways that the Judeo-Christian God disappears from the world and we await some second coming of a king to an absent throne, then a kind of asceticism that is alienated from Nature occurs, much like the idea of “calling” that grounds Max Weber’s analysis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. That is, a calling that is itself alienated from nature by modernity and thus wholly out of line with the Buddhist principles in TTBD and which exacerbates the tendency to think that psychedelic experiences are about some sort of drug-induced escapism. We must qualify what we mean by “transcendence” when we think about psychedelic experiences.

I think that one of the most underemphasized aspects of TPE is just how difficult the Clear Light of the first Bardo is, just how fleeting it is. Anyone who has taken LSD or psilocybin mushrooms can tell you that the onset is anything but immediate. It is certainly a quick rise up to the peak experience and then a slowly descending compression of instances of “cosmic temporality” alternating with “earthly” temporality. So, it can be misleading to read:

A ball set bouncing reaches its greatest height at the first bounce; the second bounce is lower, and each succeeding bounce is still lower until the ball comes to rest. The consciousness at the loss of the ego is similar to this. Its first spiritual bound, directly upon leaving the body-ego, is the highest; the next is lower. Then the force of karma, (i.e., past game-playing), takes over and different forms of external reality are experienced. Finally, the force of karma having spent itself, consciousness returns to “normal.” Routines are taken up again and thus rebirth occurs. (29)

The fact is, if you are experiencing that “highest bounce,” you already missed the Clear Light. We are here (unless we are truly bodhisattvas) because we keep missing the embrace of the Clear Light. Posturing about enlightenment from a drug experience is just that: posturing, and beware of those who do such posturing, because they are playing a certain game. This includes me now. The authors qualify this well at the end of this section:

While on this secondary level, an interesting dialogue occurs between pure transcendence and the awareness that this ecstatic vision is happening to oneself. The first radiance knows no self, no concepts. The secondary experience involves a certain state of conceptual lucidity. The knowing self hovers within that transcendent terrain from which it is usually barred. If the instructions are remembered, external reality will not intrude. But the flashing in and out between pure ego-less unity, and lucid, non-game selfhood, produces an intellectual ecstasy and understanding that defies description. Previous philosophic reading will suddenly take on living meaning.

Thus in this secondary stage of the First Bardo, there is possible both the mystic non-self and the mystic self experience.

After you have experienced these two states, you may wish to pursue this distinction intellectually. (32)

We are now doing just that, pursuing the states intellectually, engaging with the uses of mysticism.

The text moves on to the Second Bardo and hallucinations. Notice again how the authors appeal to the biology of the brain in conjuction with a Vedantic metaphysics.

The underlying solution – repeated again and again – is to recognize that your brain is producing the visions. They do not exist. Nothing exists except as your consciousness gives it life. (34)

There is, of course, no way of classifying the infinite permutations and combinations of visionary elements. The cortex contains file-cards for billions of images from the history of the person, of the race, and of living forms. Any of these, at the rate of a hundred million per second (according to neuro-physiologists), can flood into awareness. Bobbing around in this brilliant, symphonic sea of imagery is the remnant of the conceptual mind. On the endless watery turbulence of the Pacific Ocean bobs a tiny open mouth shouting (between saline mouthfuls), “Order! System! Explain all this!” (35)

Notice also the appeal to experience and expertise: “The unprepared person will be confused or, worse, panicky: the intellectual struggle to control the ocean.”

The authors are themselves aware, to a certain extent, of their own historical and geographical context. In a passage that could have been lifted directly from Aldous Huxley, they write:

Persons from a Judaeo-Christian background conceive of an enormous gulf between divinity (which is “up there”) and the self (“down here”). Christian mystics’ claims to unity with divine radiance has always posed problems for theologians who are committed to the cosmological subject-object distinction. Most Westerners, therefore, find it difficult to attain unity with the source-light. (38)

Over and over there is an appeal to evolution and human history:

The minds sweeps in and out of this evolutionary stream, creating cosmological revelations. Dozens of mythical and Darwinian insights flash into awareness. The person is allowed to glance back down the flow of time and to perceive how the life energy continually manifests itself in forms, transient, alwasy changing, reforming. Microscopic forms merge with primal creative myths. The mirror of consciousness is held up to the life stream.

As long as the person floats with the current, he is exposed to a billion-year lesson in cosmology. But the drag of the mind is always present. The tendency to impose arbitrary, isolating order on the organic process. (40)

Notice the European Imaginary and the quality of alienation here:

One is joyfully aware of the two-billion-year-old electric sexual dance; one is at last divested of robot clothes and limbs and undulates in the endless chain of living forms. (43)

While you are floating down the evolutionary river, there comes a sense of limitless self-less power. The delight of flowing cosmic belongingness.

It comes about this way. The subject’s awareness is suddenly invaded by an outside stimulus. His attention is captured, but his old conceptual mind is not functioning. But other sensitivities are engaged. He experiences direct sensation. The raw “is-ness.” He sees, not objects, but patterns of light waves. He hears, not “music” or “meaningful” sound, but acoustic waves. He is struck with the sudden revelation that all sensation and perception are based on wave vibrations. That the world around him which heretofore had an illusory solidity, is nothing more than a play of physical waves. That he is involved in a cosmic television show which has no more substantiality than the images on his TV picture tube. (45)

Following these passages are all sorts of appeals to unity and oneness, to universalness, but notice the ways the authors collapse cultures:

Heroes, heroines, celestial warriors, male and female demi-gods, angels, fairies – the exact form of these figures will depend on the person’s background and tradition. Archetypal figures in the forms of characters from Greek, Egyptian, Nordic, Celtic, Aztec, Persian, Indian, Chinese mythology. The shapes differ, the source is the same: they are the concrete embodiments of aspects of the person’s own psyche. Archetypal forces below verbal awareness and expressible only in symbolic form. The figures are often extremely colorful and accompanied by a variety of awe-inspiring sounds. If the voyager is prepared and in a relaxed, detached frame of mind, he is exposed to a fascinating and dazzling display of dramatic creativity. The Cosmic Theatre. The Divine Comedy. (53)

The previous passage is in the section, Vision 7, “The Magic Theater.” It is important the way the writers here and elsewhere allude to western literature, in this case Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. We also read many references to sound and music in here, from Beethoven tonoise music. With the conclusion of the chapter on the Second Bardo, we see the impulse toward evangelism in TPE.

Meditation on the various positive and negative archetypal forms is very important for Second Bardo phases. Therefore, read this manual, keep it, remember it, bear it in mind, read it regularly; let the words and meanings be very clear; they should not be forgotten, even under extreme duress. It is called “The Great Liberation by Hearing” because even those with selfish deeds on their conscience can be liberated if they hear it. If heard only once, it can be efficacious because even though not understood, it will be remembered during the psychedelic state, since the mind is more lucid then. It should be proclaimed to all living persons; it should be read over the pillows of ill persons; it should be read to dying persons; it should be broadcast. (56)

As the writers turn to the Third Bardo, they re-emphasize how far way from the Clear Light most of us are.

Although no definite time estimates can be given, the Tibetans estimate that about 50% of the entire psychedelic experience is spent in the Third Bardo by most normal people. At times, as indicated in the Introduction, someone may move straight to the re-entry period if he is unprepared for or frightened by the ego-loss experiences of the first two Bardos. (59)

An interesting passage occurs relating to time and the paranormal here that we rarely hear about when people discuss psychedelic experiences; that is, there is a reference to the divinatory potential of the experience.

the voyager may also feel that he possesses supernormal powers of perception and movement, that he can perform miracles, extraordinary feats of bodily control etc. The Tibetan book definitely attributes paranormal faculties to the consciousness of the Bardo voyager and explains it as due to the fact that the Bardo-consciousness encompasses future elements as well as past. Hence clairvoyance, telepathy, ESP, etc. are said to be possible. Objective evidence does not indicate whether this sense of increased perceptiveness is real or illusory. We therefore leave this as an open question, to be decided by empirical evidence. (60)

Along with the paranormal we get a discussion of “pretas” or unhappy spirits. Many of us will recognize the idea of a haunted house or collection of ghostly energies concentrated in one place called a “preta loca.” This is important for considering reincarnation research and birthmarks as discussed in more recent work of Ian Stevenson and James Tucker at the University of Virginia.

The translation part of the text ends by stressing the particular nature of one’s experience once reentry has concluded.

The limited foreknowledge available to the voyager should be used to make a wise choice. In the Tibetan tradition each of the levels of game-existence is associated with a particular color and also certain geographical symbols. These may be different for twentieth-century Westerners. Each person has to learn to decode his own internal road map. The Tibetan indicators may be used as a starting point. The purpose is clear: one should follow the signs of the three higher types and shun those of the three lower. One should follow light and pleasant visions and shun dark and dreary ones. (72)

Use your foresight to choose a good post-session robot. Do not be attracted to your old ego. Whether you choose to pursue power, or status, or wisdom, or learning, or servitude, or whatever, choose impartially, without being attracted or repelled. Enter into game existence with good grace, voluntarily and freely. Visualize it as a celestial mansion, i.e., as an opportunity to exercise game-ecstasy.

So, here we are in game existence. What do we do with this information collectively, not just individually?














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