Psychedelic Mysticism

Transforming Consciousness, Religious Experiences, and Voluntary Peasants in Postwar America

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Morgan Shipley
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , November
     302 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this fascinating and wide-ranging text, Morgan Shipley notes that in our culture, the use of psychedelics (especially in the 1960s) is often associated with a type of hedonistic and narcissistic turning inwards, a drug-induced pseudo-mysticism that deflected energy from the political and social activism of the time. Shipley suggests that while “acid casualties” did exist, and are what stand out in our collective memory of that time period, in actuality, psychedelics often served as a catalyst for a genuine religious awakening, on both an individual and cultural level.

Shipley argues that “psychedelic mysticism” offered individuals the opportunity to directly experience the interconnectedness, oneness, and love that is the fundamental, central fact of the universe. This mystical vision, in turn, often led not to the apathetic, apolitical escapism that social critics so frequently derided, but rather, to a transformative reorientation of the individual’s beliefs and values in which she or he was inspired to enact the psychedelically-catalyzed mystical vision of interdependence and compassion in the social sphere.   

After a thorough and detailed exposition of the key academic critiques of the hippies’ use of psychedelics (for example, the common claim that the 1960s was an era of decadence and naïve experimentation leading to unproductive and amoral citizens), Shipley offers an intriguing counternarrative. He begins with the work of Aldous Huxley, the well-known author of Brave New World, who was also a key figure in psychedelic mysticism. (Huxley’s initial psychedelic experience is documented in thought-provoking ways in The Doors of Perception.) Noting how the universalism of Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy was, if anything, only deepened during his later exposure to psychedelics, Shipley explores how Huxley attempted to legitimate the spiritual efficacy of psychedelic consciousness by claiming that it was simply another, albeit uniquely modern, form of classical religious mysticism: a mysticism in which psychedelics cleansed “the doors of perception” so that individuals were able to directly experience states of mystical oneness.

Shipley notes how this claim by Huxley provoked, in turn, a pointed attack by the religious scholar R.C. Zaehner. In Mysticism: Sacred and Profane, Zaehner argued that the sort of mysticism generated by psychedelics was profane, amoral, and empty, compared to the sacred, highly ethical, theistic mysticism of Christianity. For Zaehner, given that psychedelic mysticism assumed a pantheistic oneness that was understood to be beyond good and evil, those who took psychedelics, like Charles Manson, could and often would justify any behavior. (Zaehner’s criticisms were later taken up by others who claimed that the states of consciousness catalyzed by psychedelics offered no more than instant gratification, and certainly not the authentic enlightenment associated with more austere forms of classical mysticism.)

Shipley goes on to describe how key figures in psychedelic mysticism such as Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Ralph Metzner, and Alan Watts recognized the ways in which the “set” (the total gestalt of a person’s psychological and cultural background, as well as her or his intentions when taking psychedelics) and “setting” (the environment in which psychedelics are taken) dramatically influenced an individual’s psychedelic experience. They therefore made a conscious attempt to structure and program the psychedelic process so that it would become a legitimate and powerful pathway to spiritual enlightenment. This “sacramentalization” of psychedelics, in which psychedelic guides actively sought to promote a ritualized, semi-structured, and explicitly religious use of psychedelics intended to generate unitive mystical experiences, primarily came about through the creation and utilization of several influential psychedelic manuals, especially Leary and Metzner’s The Psychedelic Experience. This manual (inspired by, and loosely modeled after, the Tibetan Book of the Dead), was not only understood as a type of “road map” of the psychedelic journey within, but was also seen as a way to consciously structure the psychedelic process so that a person was more likely to arrive at an ego-transcendent, and highly therapeutic, state of mystical oneness.  

Shipley goes on to point out how criticisms of psychedelics can at times obscure the ways in which many individuals, inspired by their psychedelic vision of divine mutuality and compassion, sought to improve the world by creating communities that were explicitly oriented around issues of social justice. He notes that, although critics often emphasize the alienation and withdrawal of those who use psychedelics, in fact, the powerful transformative experiences of mystical unity brought about by psychedelics often led directly to compassionate concern for the sufferings of others, an ethos of responsibility, and cooperative projects empowered by profound feelings of love. Shipley’s primary example of this psychedelically-generated impetus to help others is Stephen Gaskin, a psychedelically-inspired religious teacher and founder of The Farm. The Farm was a religious commune that was explicitly established in 1971 to actualize mystical insights in the here-and-now via this-worldly projects that were rooted in compassion, care, and altruism (such as Plenty Ambulance Service, an outgrowth of The Farm that provided free emergency care and transport for residents of the South Bronx from 1978 to 1984).

It is unclear how Shipley would respond to the disappointment of those like Huston Smith, himself a keen advocate of psychedelic mysticism, who expressed disappointment with the psychedelic movement’s seeming inability to manifest ongoing, structured, religious communities centered around sacramental ingestion of psychedelics, and who repeatedly pointed out that while psychedelics clearly appear to catalyze powerful religious experiences, it is less clear that they necessarily lead to genuinely transformed ethical and religious lives. Nonetheless, although occasionally a bit repetitive, Shipley does an excellent job of recovering the all-too-often overlooked mystical dimensions of the use of psychedelics, particularly in the 1960s. In addition, his suggestion that the mystical insights that are frequently catalyzed by psychedelics can often lead to ethically and spiritually transformed lives is thoughtful and provocative.

About the Reviewer(s): 

G. William Barnard is Professor of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
May 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Morgan Shipley is visiting assistant professor in religious studies at Michigan State University.



Diane Winston

Excellent review!


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