Attempts To Dam The Flow Of Psilocybin

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At this point in our journey I should like to examine the main objections which were often levelled against the use of psilocybin when it first became available in the wake of Wasson's discovery, Such objections were expressed precisely and clearly by various writers and social commentators, most notably the writer and philosopher Arthur Koestler whom I briefly mentioned earlier. Koestler, who had written numerous acclaimed books on science, philosophy, and the paranormal, tried psilocybin on at least two occasions at the start of the sixties. Leary, a fan of Koestler's work, had written to him about psilocybin's miraculous properties and invited him to come out to Harvard to try it for himself.

As it happened, Koestler's first psilocybinetic encounter occurred at the psychology department of Michigan which, unfortunately, was another hotbed for covert CIA experimentation and therefore not the best of places in which to start one's psychedelic journeying. His second taste occurred at Leary's apartment as Leary had originally intended. Both encounters convinced Koestler that psilocybin was basically worthless, an opinion dramatically at odds with Leary and most others who had tried it.

In March of 1961, Koestler published a polemic article in the Sunday Telegraph denouncing the psilocybin experience. Entitled Return Trip to Nirvana, Koestler recounted his personal psychedelic experiences and concluded in no uncertain terms that psilocybin had nothing whatsoever to offer humanity. He wrote:

"Chemically induced hallucinations, delusions and raptures may be frightening or wonderfully gratifying; in either case they are in the nature of confidence tricks played on one's own nervous system."

He offered even harsher words about his second trip at Leary's apartment. When an American writer and acquaintance talked of 'cosmic awareness', 'expanding consciousness', and 'Zen Enlightenment', Koestler thought this "downright obscene, more so than four-lettered words". Clearly, here was a man a trifle irritated by the blossoming psychedelic culture. Koestler was no hip hippy.

Koestler went on to argue that psilocybin gave rise to 'pressure-cooker mysticism', and no more. Discussing Huxley's pro-psychedelic observation that many mystics and religious visionaries employed various physiology-changing techniques like breathing exercises and fasting in order to facilitate altered states of awareness, Koestler countered with a parable about mountain-climbing, claiming that the view obtained when one has slogged for hours on foot up the mountain is far superior to the view obtained at the end of a cable-car journey. In other words, the laborious toil undertaken by the fasting, self-flagellating, cave-dwelling ascetic leads to a qualitatively different revelation than the armchair mystic who merely pops down a handful of Sandoz pills.

This is the classic philosophical objection laid against the potential transcendental effects of substances like psilocybin. It is too easy. Where is the relentless sweat and toil? Where are the physical scars of the tortuous journey that preceded the mystical illumination? How can one possibly have access to realms of the spirit without undergoing years of suffering? Are we to admit that any Tom, Dick, or Leary can achieve transcendence without experiencing untold pain, misery and self-mortification?

Koestler, at least, was convinced that there were no short-cuts to the divine, and he stated this clearly to Leary and in the article. Significantly, he admitted to Leary that he was in the wrong state of mind when he tried the psilocybin at Leary's apartment, that he had been awoken to painful memories of being a political prisoner during the war. Similarly, on the night before his first unpleasant brush with the drug, he'd had disturbing dreams which lingered on long enough to pervade the psychedelic state. In fact, Leary himself had second thoughts in inviting Koestler to try psilocybin as he came across as being too "controlled and rational". Although these factors go a long way to account for Koestler's negative encounters, the criticisms he raised still stand strong and the advocate for the continued investigation of psilocybin must perforce respond to the allegations.

I can offer two lines of defence to parry Koestler's objections. Firstly, it is almost certain that he did not dwell upon the fact that psilocybin is a natural product of the environment, and not an unnatural, alien synthetic. Had he actually gone out and picked psilocybin mushrooms for himself perhaps his experiences might have been more rewarding, since the actual act of mushroom collection leaves an indelible earthly mark upon the memory. This fact of psilocybin's naturalness, which I consistently remark upon, deserves a still more detailed examination and this is a good opportunity to begin doing so. I will return to answering Koestler's criticisms after this brief diversion.

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