The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Winter 2015 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard."From the Editor's Desk" Quest 103.1 (Winter 2015): pg. 2.

Richard SmoleyFew spiritual issues are as vexed as psychedelics.Theosophy, like most esoteric schools, has generally condemned them. Pablo Sender and Pyarvin Abbasova ably state this position in this issue.

Another, more nuanced view is offered by Jay Kinney, who was (as he says) a member of the TS at the high point of his psychedelic investigations in the early '70s. (I can't imagine that he was alone.) With his usual wry wit, he says essentially the same thing as the great scholar of religions Huston Smith. In an influential article on this subject, entitled "Do Drugs Have Religious Import?", Smith concluded, "Drugs appear able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives."

I cannot say that I completely agree.

I was born in 1956, which meant I came of age at the tail end of the great countercultural impulse. So I had some exposure to psychedelics. They were plentiful at college. I could take them or leave them when offered, but usually I took them. The experiences were sometimes colorful and pleasant, sometimes grim, but all in all they produced no great effects on me. I did not use these drugs for a long time afterward.

Then, in 1987, at the advice of my psychiatrist (I was living in San Francisco, after all), I was introduced to psychedelics in quite another way—as a serious means of insight and spiritual exploration. I was by no means the only person who did this; there were and no doubt are still many, although of course they have to keep their practice completely private. Nor was I looking for a quick way out of a meditation practice, since I had already been meditating for many years.

Thus began four years of regular psychedelic use (every three or four months), under the guidance of a knowledgeable medical eye. Unlike the rubbish that floated around at college, these materials (chiefly LSD and Ecstasy) were of the highest quality. The set and setting were safe, protected, and comforting. There was someone stone-cold sober at hand to get you a glass of water or send away people who might come knocking at the door. Soothing, ambient New Age music was playing on the stereo. Lying down with eyeshades on, you explored whatever inner realms you were destined to confront.

Certainly the experience was mixed. Most of the trips were benign and even beatific, but others were dark. In any event I was not doing these materials to avoid my life—I was doing them in order to see my life more clearly and face it more effectively. Some of the  decisions I made as a result of these insights were, in retrospect, bad; others were good. Viewing the whole thing as fairly as I can, I’m inclined to say that the mistakes I made were ones that I would have made anyway, while the good decisions were things that I might otherwise have missed. 

The biggest mistake I made while using these materials was failing to stop when I should have—because after about three-and-a-half years I was being prodded by some inner guidance during the trips to give them up. I did not heed this warning. I continued to do them for another year before I stopped for good in September 1991. Practically all of the unpleasant experiences I had took place in that last year.

Since then I have had no interest in using these materials. Would I do it all over again? All things considered, I probably would do it—or most of it—again. Did I punch holes in my aura with these reprehensible violations of occult law? I couldn’t begin to tell you. But then we are all walking around with a wound or two.

I say all this not to preach in favor of psychedelics, or for that matter against them. I am nobody’s psychiatrist and nobody’s guru. But I am convinced that any sober and judicious evaluation of psychedelics must also consider this kind of use.

Another, more personal point: There are stages, particularly in later life, when you have to look back at where you have been and take stock of it. Usually you judge it in the light of whatever worldview you then hold. If you are a Catholic and Catholicism says something is wrong, you accept this (usually unconsciously) as if it were your own opinion based on your own experience. The same holds true if you are a Buddhist, or a Theosophist.

It is quite another thing to match these teachings up against your own experience, because even with the best and finest teachings, experience and doctrine never jibe completely. There is always some discrepancy.

This discrepancy, this difference between what it’s supposed to be like and what it’s really like, is awkward to deal with. At the same time it is also precious, because it constitutes what you know of yourself and not because some book says so. In fact only this can be called knowledge in the true sense. As the Greek tragedian Aeschylus wrote: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Richard Smoley