Perception and Knowledge:
Reflections on Psychological and Spiritual Learning
in the Psychedelic Experience
Frances E. Vaughan
from: Psychedelic Reflections, Lester Grinspoon & James B. Bakalar
©Human Sciences Press, 1983
Little controlled research has been done with psychedelics. But my own experience, coupled with my observation of hundreds of clients, students, and acquaintances who have used LSD in both controlled and uncontrolled settings, has convinced me that we have much to learn from appropriate investigation of this powerful mind-altering chemical. The dearth of research has not lessened the impact of psychedelic experiences on people's lives and on the culture at large. Psychology in general has failed to keep pace with personal explorations in altered states of consciousness, many of them induced by LSD or similar psychedelic substances.
In the past decade, transpersonal psychology has emerged as that branch of psychology specifically concerned with the study of human consciousness. It attempts to expand the field of psychological inquiry to include such human experiences as those induced by psychedelics, as well as similar states attained through the practice of meditation or other disciplines. As a transpersonal psychologist, I have been particularly interested in the study of consciousness as it pertains to psychological health and wellbeing. My clinical practice is devoted to facilitating human growth and development, often on the border between psychological and spiritual domains.
My personal introduction to LSD occurred under optimum conditions. In his book, LSD Psychotherapy,(1) Dr. Stanislav Grof observes that normal people benefit most when participating in a supervised psychedelic program, and that the experience can move them in the direction of selfactualization. My own experience supports this view. As a subject in early LSD research, I was thoroughly screened and well prepared. I had also had an opportunity to talk with other subjects who felt they had benefited. My first session was a profound and overwhelming mystical experience. Subsequent sessions seemed less important, but served as reminders of insights gained in the initial one.
A most striking feature of my psychedelic experience was the noetic quality of consciousness as it expanded from its usual perceptual range to a vast contextual awareness that recognized the relativity of all perception in space/time. I find the term re-cognize particularly appropriate, since the knowledge that was suddenly revealed to me under LSD seemed to be remembered rather than learned. I was awed by the vast range of consciousness, yet felt that I was simply uncovering what I had always known, i.e. the truth which had previously been hidden behind a veil of relative unconsciousness. As the illusory, changeable nature of ordinary reality became increasingly clear, I also realized how a normally constricted perceptual framework permits one to see only a fraction of reality, inevitably distorted to suit personal projections and presuppositions.
During the experience, I felt I understood what mystics throughout the ages have claimed to be the universal truth of existence. I had an academic background in philosophy and comparative religion, but I realized that mystical teachings had now taken on an added dimension. My perception seemed to have shifted from a flat, two-dimensional intellectual understanding of the literature, to a three-dimensional sense of immersion in the mystical reality.
The perennial philosophy and the esoteric teachings of all time suddenly made sense. I understood why spiritual seekers were instructed to look within, and the unconscious was revealed to be not just a useful concept, but an infinite reservoir of creative potential. I felt I had been afforded a glimpse into the nature of reality and the human potential within that reality, together with a direct experience of being myself, free of illusory identifications and constrictions of consciousness. My understanding of mystical teachings, both Eastern and Western, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Sufi alike, took a quantum leap. I became aware of the transcendental unity at the core of all the great religions, and understood for the first time the meaning of ecstatic states.
I now felt I had had some direct experience of the ineffable realms of union with God, and I discovered that my dissatisfaction with conventional religion was not due to the death of God, as some theologians proclaimed, but rather to the impoverished concepts of God currently in vogue. Whether one spoke of God, the Void, or the Self, Being, Bliss, or Consciousness, did not matter, for the words were so far removed from the experience that they were only fingers pointing to the moon; they bore little resemblance to the depth of realization that became available when I let go of my preconceptions about the nature of the universe. As far as I knew, such insights into the nature of consciousness had only been attained by rare individuals, many of them advanced practitioners of spiritual disciplines.
The world view that made most sense of this experience was clearly a mystical one. Neither the subjective nor the objective pole of experience could encompass the totality. The possibility of transcending boundaries between self and other, the illusory nature of ego, the interdependence of opposites, the relative nature of dualism and the resolution of paradox in transcendence became clear. All mental content was simply the play or the dance of life, and what could be known about consciousness became the focus of my attention. Psychodynamic material that came into awareness seemed irrelevant. My own personal drama was no more significant than light playing on a movie screen. Even feelings of joy, ecstasy, and liberation in letting go of attachments were less important than the insight and sense of knowing, or remembering, inexpressible truth. "Know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" were the words that seemed best to capture the nature of my experience. I felt free to be exactly who I was, free of fear and social constraints, and filled with love and compassion for all beings.
Although many of the insights that flooded my awareness were forgotten, many remained to influence my life. I felt I could see how much human suffering is self-imposed, how our beliefs shape our reality, and what it means to awaken to the realization that life is a dream of our own making. The dreamlike quality of existence, the unreality of past memories and future fantasies, and the acceptance of the interrelatedness of all things were insights subsequently confirmed as I learned more of the perennial teachings of both Eastern and Western contemplative traditions.
I also gained a new appreciation for the Christian teaching of forgiveness. I saw how our own condemnation injures us, and how our difficulty in forgiving ourselves for imagined imperfections contributes to neurotic guilt and anxiety. Not only did I feel forgiven for being just as I was, I saw that in reality there was nothing to forgive. This seemed to remove the obstacles to the experience of love and I felt an extension of love and forgiveness to all beings everywhere.
The subjective nature of time also became starkly apparent. My Newtonian world view was sufficiently shaken to make it relatively easy for me to accept some of the more apparently nonsensical propositions of the new subatomic physics, when they later came to my attention. Likewise, parapsychological phenomena no longer seemed incomprehensible. The fact that we could not explain part of our human experience in the existing paradigm seemed to indicate that the paradigm needed re-examination rather than to justify dismissal of the evidence.
For the first time, I understood the meaning of "ineffable." There seemed to be no possibility of conveying in words the subjective truth of my experience. A veil had been lifted from my inner vision, and I felt able to see, not just images or forms, but the nature of truth itself. The doors of perception were so cleansed, they seemed to vanish altogether, and there was only infinite being. Krishnamurti's characterization of truth as a pathless land seemed an appropriate description of this domain.
I felt that I had now experienced the grace of God. Truly I had been given a gift of infinite worth. I could understand why human beings throughout history have relentlessly pursued truth and sought enlightenment. I knew now why some felt impelled to sit in caves for years trying to become enlightened, why some were willing to die for ideals, and why suffering was endured. If asceticism was perceived as a means of attaining this state of oneness, I could understand why a person might choose it. I understood that the essence of my being was identical with the timeless essence of every living thing, that formlessness was the essence of form, that the whole universe was reflected in every psyche, and that my separateness was only an illusion, a dream from which I had, in this moment, fully awakened.
As I faced old fears and watched the tricks of my mind, I became increasingly aware of my ability to choose my subjective state. Consciousness seemed infinitely plastic. I could choose to focus the lens of attention on anything. Barriers and resistances had dissolved, and fears had disappeared along with them. In that moment I knew that I had nothing to fear. Only the creations of my own mind and my own thoughtforms could threaten me, and I could see them as if in a lucid dream, parading through the field of awareness. I was free to either attend to them or let them pass, choosing instead to experience more fully the bliss of pure being, just being present to my experience of the moment, with no added fantasy or distraction.
The affective tone of my experience was pure love. After the barriers dissolved, I could feel the depth of my love for life itself, and for my husband and children. They seemed perfect just as they were, yet I did not need them and therefore felt no fear or possessiveness. Life itself was enough. I too, was complete and acceptable just as I was. Old feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty had vanished.
My aesthetic sensibilities were profoundly enhanced, not only during the few hours of the session, but afterwards as well. This effect has lasted over a period of 15 years. My appreciation of music, art, nature, and human beings has continued to grow since that time. I remember being particularly struck by the joy of hearing music as I never had heard it before. I could laugh at my old self-image, which included "not being musical. " I was deeply moved by each piece of music that was played. As I listened without distraction, each one evoked a different aspect of my psyche, and at the center of each was the perfect still point of pure being where one could experience union with God.
I gained a new appreciation of my own capacity for choice and the role of consciousness in creating experience. For the first time I saw the possibility of taking responsibility for my own experience. I also felt I was truly participating fully in the universal human condition. All of my experience, including the experience of separateness and aloneness, was something I had in common with all human beings. Although my personal history and the events of my life were unique, the underlying unity of life became starkly evident. The forms of expression and experience were diverse, but the underlying qualities of being were universal.
I also felt a reduction in nonspecific anxiety, and a greatly diminished fear of death. As the illusory nature of many of my worries and fears became apparent, I became more trusting and accepting of myself, and more willing to enter into unfamiliar situations and take risks in exploring new creative endeavors. As I was released from feelings of neurotic guilt and inadequacy, my increased ability to relax also contributed to enhanced sexual enjoyment. My appreciation of life itself and of the simple tasks of everyday living was also profoundly enhanced. I found myself more open in my intimate relationships, and better able to give and receive love without fear.
I also became aware of a desire to be of service in the world, to make some contribution to humanity through my work. At the same time I felt more able to tolerate paradox and ambiguity. The recognition of the interdependence of opposites has since become a useful therapeutic tool in my practice; I often think of psychological growth as a balance and synthesis of opposites. In working with others to heal internal splits and conflicts, enabling them to take increasing responsibility for their own lives and wellbeing, I have had many opportunities to appreciate the importance of this capacity.
The effects of this experience seemed to me equivalent to what I might have expected from several years of insight therapy. I had been able to see through and let go of many constricting patterns of thought and behavior that previously seemed automatic and beyond conscious control. Some of the far-reaching effects appeared immediately in my personal life. For several months after this experience I remained in a semi-euphoric state in which I experienced being in love all the time. Everything in my life seemed to be exactly as it was supposed to be. Everything was all right. None of the small things I used to get upset about seemed to matter any more. I was experiencing a state of inner peace and serenity that allowed me to cope more effectively with everything I needed to do, while I felt in touch with a sense of divinity within.
This period of my life coincided with what seemed to be a time of new hope for humankind. The flower children in San Francisco were happily rebelling against the old order, and a better future seemed within reach. A sense of euphoria was in the air; the more sordid side of psychedelia became apparent only as time went by. My interest in understanding the experience led me to graduate school to study psychology, but I soon found that Western psychological models could not accommodate it. Yet I knew I was not unique. Many other people were reporting similar experiences. Eastern consciousness disciplines seemed to offer the best maps of this inner world, and they also offered instruction for attaining such states without the use of chemicals. Now I could hear, as if for the first time, the depth of the wisdom in their teachings and in the mystical doctrines of all ages and all cultures. As I sought for words to express my own ineffable experience I gained a new appreciation for those individuals who had attempted to communicate their own insights in writing or art. I also became interested in understanding intuitive ways of knowing; many years later I wrote a book about the development of intuition, entitled Awakening Intuition.(2)
My intellect was eager to incorporate what I had learned into working psychological models. I saw a need to formulate new psychological theories that could encompass such experiences. Among Western psychologists, only Carl Jung had addressed transpersonal experiences. He wrote, "... The fact is that the approach to the numinous is the real therapy and inasmuch as you attain to the numinous experience you are released from the curse of pathology."(3) That was apparently true of my experience, but it later became clear that a psychedelic experience in and of itself was not necessarily therapeutic. The popularity of psychedelics increased greatly, but few of their users achieved the therapeutic benefits I had experienced.
In his extensive research on LSD psychotherapy, Stanislav Grof noted that transpersonal experiences occur only rarely in early sessions of psychedelic therapy, but are quite common in advanced sessions. (1,4) Grof has provided a detailed map of the death/rebirth experience which he found to be therapeutic for many of his subjects. The experience of ego-death may be liberating and ecstatic, as it was for me, but it may also be terrifying to a person who is unprepared. However, under appropriate, carefully controlled conditions, a subject may be enabled to surmount the difficulties encountered in letting go of limiting self-identifications.
Phenomenologically, personal accounts of drug-induced mystical experiences may be indistinguishable from spontaneously occurring mystical experiences. In either case, the effects may or may not last. The glimpse of a larger reality that such experience affords may change a person's life if he or she chooses to integrate it. If, however, the experience is repressed, denied, or invalidated, it may only contribute to exacerbating existential guilt and anxiety. When a person is not able to stabilize such glimpses into transcendent reality and incorporate them into existing belief systems, they can certainly disrupt the ordinary adjustment of everyday life.
Transpersonal psychology (5,6,7) has attempted to formulate a conceptual framework for such experiences, since they obviously are not going to go away. Although psychedelics have been restricted, the public continues to experiment, and research continues to lag far behind. Moreover, the striking parallels between such experiences and those described by mystics raise many questions for mental health professionals. In the transpersonal domain, where psychological and spiritual growth are one, psychedelics appear to be powerful tools for the investigation of consciousness; they could enable us to expand our understanding of the human mind and the nature of creative consciousness. A willingness to question our assumptions and to keep an open mind with respect to potential benefits and potential hazards is essential.
For the past 10 years I have been practicing transpersonal psychotherapy and training therapists to work in this area. The lack of serious study in the field of psychedelic drugs has unfortunately restricted their use to uncontrolled personal experimentation. The dearth of research is clearly a drawback when therapists are so often called upon to handle situations where clients have been involved in uncontrolled experimentation. Although many people in our culture have taken psychedelics, few therapists are capable of assessing, evaluating, and integrating psychedelic experiences in a useful way. Psychedelics, like any powerful tool, may be used skillfully for the benefit of humanity, or unskillfully to the detriment of those whose ignorance leads to abuse.
As we search for ways of understanding the possibly infinite resources of human consciousness, I suggest that the potential of psychedelics as tools for learning should not be ignored. Today, when the survival of our planet is at stake, there is an urgent need to work responsibly in every facet of human endeavor. By refusing to tread where fools rushed in, we may be turning away from significant learning about human experience and how the mind works. People of differing views and persuasions must join together in exploration of the universals of psychological health and wellbeing and work to find ways of facilitating experiences that foster growth toward wholeness for everyone.
1. Grof, S. LSD Psychotherapy. Pomona, CA: Hunter House, 1980.
2. Vaughan, F. Awakening Intuition. New York: Doubleday, 1979.
3. Jung, C.G. G. Adler (Ed.). Letters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
4. Grof, S. Realms of the Human Unconscious. New York: Viking, 1975.
5. Walsh, R., & Vaughan, F. (Eds.). Beyond Ego: Transpenonal Dimensions in Psychology. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1980.
6. Wilber, K. Spectrum of Consciousness. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977.
7. Wilber, K. The Atman Project. A Transpersonal View of Human Development. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1980.