Psychedelic Sobriety: An Interview with Peter Bebergal
Peter Bebergal grew up a decade after the utopian glow of early popular psychedelic explorers had been tempered in murders, burn-outs and continuing Cold War nihilism. Acid flowed freely, but it was a street-side urban experience made more potent through punk rock and popular occultism. With the mythic promises of peace and transcendence still drifting in the air, Bebergal set off on a journey that lead through addiction and despair, while never losing sight of the deeper truths found in the psychedelic experience.
In his recently published memoir, Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, Bebergal explores his experience through personal reflections and interviews with psychedelic luminaries, such as Dennis McKenna, James Fadima, Arik Roper, Jim Woodring, and Mark Tulin. Using his personal reflections for the basis of a historical study of psychedelics in American culture, he brings a unique perspective to how popular media and culture affect the results of what has in the past been the sole domain of sacred ritual.
The recent resurgence of academic interest in entheogens, and their role in consciousness studies, gives Bebergal's work a particular weight as it explores the responsibility, illumination and potential dangers of unwary wandering. In the following interview, conducted via email, I had the opportunity to explore in more detail some of the nuances of the book's message.
How did writing this historically centered autobiography help you understand your experiences?
The single most important thing I realized was how mediated my experiences had been. Whether it was Silver Surfer comic books, Syd Barrett albums, or William Blake's poetry, cultural artifacts formed the language of my trips, my ideas, my hopes, and my fears. In understanding this, I came to believe that all experiences, not matter how pure we think they might be, are intimately shaped by symbols and mythologies and grammar.
I say in the book, there can be no pure experience. Even during the most
profound context-smashing acid trip, our unconscious is drawing from a rich and
abundant well. Maybe it's a Ray Bradbury story read in seventh grade or maybe
it's a passage from the Vedas.
You mention that one of your first
exposures to psychedelics was reading Carlos Castenada's Don Juan books in your
highschool library. Why did your
highschool have Castaneda in the library, today those would most likely never
get on the shelves?
Castaneda was part of the genesis of the mass marketing of alternative spirituality that really took off in the mid seventies. His books could be found just about anywhere. His writings had a profound effect on people trying to make sense of their psychedelic experiences as well those who were fed up with Judeo-Christian normative religion,
but were seeking a spiritual path closer to home than say Buddhism or Hinduism.
His books are easy to read, filled with sentence after sentence of quotable spiritual nuggets, and the biographical-anthropological framing gave the books some legitimacy that felt both personal and academic. His story seemed believable, despite how far out some of the events are.
Did your negative experiences lead to a better understanding of the distinction between magic and mysticism?
I can't think of anything more important to my spiritual life at this moment than this distinction. In the context of trying to understand how this had played out in my own life, particularly in regards to my addiction and recovery, I discovered people had been wrestling with this for a long time.
example, since the Renaissance magicians, (most of whom were decidedly Christian no
matter how heretical they accused of being), the relationship to magical workings
and mystical experiences has been a thorn in many a magus's side. The early
Jewish kabbalists tried to resolve this by seeing magic as a tool for naming
the heavenly creatures the mystic might encounter during ascension. By naming
the angels/demons the rabbi could control and ultimately banish them so as to
clear the path. This kind of magic is often called theurgy, as opposed to
thaumaturgy, which might seek to actually change something in the physical
The danger is that power of any kind becomes a kind of end in and of itself. So if you can control the spirit enough to banish it, what if you held onto it and commanded it to do something else; smite an enemy, reveal the location of treasure, or clean the kitchen. Suddenly union with the godhead doesn't see so interesting anymore. Arthur Waite, known mainly for his Tarot deck, was often in conflict with the Golden Dawn over this, and eventually, along with the writer Arthur Machen, left the magical order in pursuit of more mystical endeavors.
writers from Evelyn Underhill to Aldous Huxley would remind the person pursuing
mystical experiences to be wary of magical ideas that arise as they are sure to
throw you off course.
My own recovery and spiritual life is often about making sure I don't mistake my own will for God's or better yet, to hope that my will aligns with what the universe would have of me rather than what I might like to impose on it.
Do you think the greater depth of mythological studies in recent years is giving a better basis to understand the archetypal interplay that exist in the study of consciousness?
It's incredible really, how much more profound even simple experiences can be when you use the stories of gods as metaphors and references. I think the danger is, as Umberto Eco warns in Foucault's Pendulum, is turning metaphysics into mechanics. When we literalize our myths we strip them of their power to act on our unconsciousness minds and their ability to plant seeds for creative understandings.
I think Karen Armstrong is our greatest writer on both myth's power and what happens when we de-mythologize our stories. We end up with things like the Creation Museum, or dangerous apocalyptic thinking.
Since your youthful experimentation, you've steered clear of taking any entheogens, but you still maintain that there is a value in the lessons these substances impart. Can you elucidate more on the idea of "Psychedelic Sobriety"? Have you gained a deeper appreciation for the full depth of the psychedelic experience by staying sober?
No matter how good or bad my experiences were, they forever changed the way I perceive the world. I learned the value of the fringe, that real meaning is often found where everyone else is not looking.
I also have come to value how powerful the psychedelic experience is. It is not recreational, although it is used as such, but we should as a society have a bit more respect. Yet at the same time, I am not convinced that psychedelics can tell us anything useful about the shape or telos of the universe.
Sam Harris recently wrote on his blog, "As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to make conclusions about the nature of the cosmos based upon inner experience- no matter how profound these experiences seem."
Nevertheless, I also believe that our consciousness is intimately connected to the physical universe, and so maybe some day we will discover that quantum theory works on big things as well as very small ones and we will begin to understand better how they reflect each other. So above, so below.
In the book you mention that you experimented with hypnosis. How do you think your experiences with hypnosis would have been changed in a ritualized context?
Like most things, I would have benefited by having a deeper mythological language by which to create more apt metaphors by which to understand those deep trances and the images I encountered.
again goes to the question of language. We need language. We need it to
transmit our experience, and we need it to give clothing to the abstract nature
of those profound encounters with the ineffable. The true nature of God and our
relationship to God is beyond language, but we must talk about it. It is an
essential part of being human; to craft ritual and story.
Starting with the psychologist William James who developed the criteria for evaluating what can be called a mystical experience and up to an including the recent research at Johns Hopkins investigating whether or not psilocybin can occasion these experience, there necessarily arises another question. If people from such disparate backgrounds share these common descriptors, there must be a universal, objective spiritual "well" from which all these experiences arise that transcends religious and cultural language. But in some ways, the thing that's important is the transmission of these experiences, and that transmission is wholly dependent on language.
You present a view of Art as a sort of psychedelic medium in itself, could you elaborate on that?
Sometimes I think the only that people do that really matters is art, and I have found that in trying to understand my own experiences, I always turn to it-- be it music, literature, illustration -- to get a handle on them. The impetus for writing Too Much to Dream really began as a kind of mid-life crisis. I have not ingested in psychedelic for over twenty years, and I found myself reflecting again on what the original desire was all about, that compulsion for an ecstatic experience.
But instead of turning again to drugs, I started listening to psychedelic music again, and it was here that I discovered how powerful music is at conveying altered states, altered ideas, and narrating the longing for transcendence. And clothed in the excess of rock 'n' roll just makes it all the more immediate, exciting, and human. I don't' want to know what God looks like. I want to read the stories of those struggling like me, who might be willing to get close enough to get burned, to hear their songs, to study the emblems in their art.
How does disconnecting the study of psychedelic consciousness from sacramental use, such as some of the recent studies have tried to do, affect the result?
Some might argue that any use of these substances divorced from sacramental use is a disconnection. We want to commune with God, or the gods, but what if we have not learned their names through mythological and ritual means? I often wonder how these experiences can be really spiritual without being mediated by some deep connection to a tradition?
But more importantly, and I think a more complicated question is can there be any experience that is not mediated? How can one trust a deeply profound psychedelic experience that seems to teach something about God or the universe that is not a product of expectations and cultural detritus.
are waterlogged with culture, and while some experiences feel as though they
key direct from the cosmos into our souls. We often don't want to admit how
many associations are picked up along way; everything from music to
literature to movies to the sacred texts that inspire us.
As much as people are pleased that psychedelic research is being taken seriously, and the drugs themselves are finally again being tested in controlled and rigorous environments, there are many people in the underground who still believe these substances should remain free and "uncontrolled" as at it were because any FDA approved research will not, by virtue of the academic environment in which they are done, give enough deference to the spiritual dimension of the experience.
Did you find that the artists that you talked to had a different experience with psychedelics than some of the scientists, psychologists and theorists? Was there any common ground?
all the people I spoke with, most agreed that psychedelics can be valuable for
revealing important and necccessary things about the shape of human
consiousness and about the spiritual dimension of our lives, but that
eventually one must carve out a path -- art, meditation, activism, magic,
music -- to give these experiences lasting and even deeper meaning. The great
transpersonal psychologist Charles Tart told me in an interview, "the
value of psychedelics is what manifests later on and is more important than the
The other interesting thing, in terms or difference, was how the scientists working under FDA approval had to negotiate the tricky territory of the pscyhedelic underground. These two worlds intersect in some essential ways, but often are at odds regarding intention and most importantly, what the value is of objective and rigorous science.
As you know, many psychedelic conferences hold panels on everything ranging from the use of MDMA for PTSD to alchemical symbols and spiritual transformation. Many scientists worry that their work will not be taken seriously if they are lumped in with what they perceive as spiritual woo-woo or pseudoscience. It would be like having a panel on astrology at a conference on astrophysics.
And for those who value the spiritual dimension of psychedelics, the hard science fails to recognize or understand that not all experiences and truths are measurable in an FDA research setting.
How did these conversations help you frame your own experience?
What I came to realize that there is no one approach to understanding the role psychedelics play. The range of theories and methods is so vast, that I finally understood that while my experiences left much to be desired, they were also very real and not so uncommon.
This was made very concrete for me by Michael Murphy, one of the founders of Esalen, who despite his best efforts, never had a good trip and eventually came to see that psychedelics simply were not intended for his spiritual development. Here is a man at the center of the spiritual revolution, where everyone around him is holding these substances up as the key to human transformation and he said, "No thanks, not for me."
This allowed me to see that it didn't matter whether I failed the drugs or they failed me. I was going to have to find another way into the heart of God.
Mckenna said that rather than seeing mystical experiences as aberrations of ordinary experience, they should be seen rather as providing privileged insights into them. Thus, he said that all theories should be tested against the mystical experience, which would be asked to play the role of a criterion of truth in a 'psychedelic science'.
Do you think today's studies are coming closer to that? Is it justified to use mystical experiences as the basis for truth, when so many folks are living lives that are disconnected from that? Or is there a deeper mysticism in the ordinary that is missed by focusing on extreme experiences?
again, I worry about what we bring to these experiences. I think they are
guideposts and can serve as inspirations, but the real question is what do we
do after we have the mystical experience. Does it prompt us towards a spiritual
life, or do we become so enamored of the mystical moment that we continue to
seek it over and again. Huston Smith warned of making a "religion of religious
experiences." What good do these do for us, not matter how category
smashing they may be, if they don't actually transform us?
On the other hand, there is something to be said for the simple experience of having our perceptions altered, in whatever way that might happen. We often need to be able to look at things in a new way to learn, as you say, to see the deeper mysticism in the ordinary.
It's those moments when you are suddenly apprehended by the smallest detail; crows exploding out of the tops of trees, rain late at night as you are falling off to sleep, the arc of the Milky Way on a clear winter night. The gods are there also, waiting for us to meet them half-way.
Peter Bebergal is author of Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, a memoir/cultural history of drugs and mysticism (Soft Skull Press, 2011) and co-author, with Scott Korb, of The Faith Between Us (Bloomsbury, 2007). He blogs at mysterytheater.blogspot.com.
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