Review of Huston Smith’s Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals, for the American Academy of Religion’s Mysticism Study Group; republished here by the author
After educating over two and a half million buyers of The World’s Religions, exploring the subject with Bill Moyers in a 5-part TV series, and receiving eleven honorary degrees, what moved Huston Smith, in his senior years, to take up the live-wire question of the religious efficacy of certain psychoactive agents? The proximate cause was a suggestion from the Council on Spiritual Practices, but it turns out that this question has long engaged the energies of the author.
Gathering his essays on entheogens, the new book starts with a report inspired by his own experience with mescaline, includes his widely-anthologized essay, "Do Drugs Have Religious Import?", and deals with such subjects as "the sacred unconscious," the work of Stanslav Grof, and the experiment with an entheogen at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, in which the author was a participant.
Smith’s title of course alludes to Aldous Huxley’s slim book of 1954, which itself borrows the line from William Blake: "if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."...
In Cleansing the Doors of Perception, the author reports on the occasion that "enlarged my understanding of God by affording me the only powerful experience I have had of his personal nature" (page 105). Smith explains that while he knew that God is love, he’d never been immersed in the knowledge that "God loves me, and I him, in the concrete way that humans beings love individuals, each most wanting from the other what the other most wants to give and with everything that might distract from that holy relationship excluded from view..."
The agent that occasioned this experience was psilocybin, a psychoactive agent found in several species of mushrooms; and the setting was Good Friday, 1962, at Marsh Chapel. Until this service, Smith writes, he had experienced "no direct personal encounter with God of the sort that Bhakti yogis, Pentecostals and born-again Christians describe" (page 100-101).
According to Smith, entheogenic experience introduced him to the true meaning of awe. He quotes Gordon Wasson, who discovered the psilocybin mushroom ritual in the Mexican mountains: "Ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. After all, who will choose to feel undiluted awe? The unknowing vulgar abuse the word; we must recapture its full and terrifying sense."
Smith could not fairly be called either mindlessly enthusiastic about entheogens or punitive toward them. Instead, he describes the significance in various cultures of entheogenic initiation. In the modern West, Cleansing the Doors of Perception reminds us, we are accustomed to associating agents such as mescaline and psilocybin with a "counter culture." Thus, it's easy to forget that an experience of awe occasioned by agents such as these has been at the very heart of more than a few cultures. As a guest of the Native American Church, Smith has personal experience of mescaline in a religious setting.
In writing the preface to the revised edition of The Road to Eleusis (included in Cleansing), Smith asks: "can a way be found to legitimize, as the Greeks did, the constructive, life-giving use" of entheogens "without aggravating our serious drug problem?" (page 115). Here Smith refers to the Eleusinian mysteries, a long initiation that arguably culminated, according to the book by Wasson and his colleagues, with the use of an entheogenic drink, the kykeon.
Far from being counter-cultural, this ritual was much prized in Greek society in the golden age and attracted many of the most creative thinkers, artists, and philosophers for centuries. The equivalent today might be a well-structured initiation that involved many of our most accomplished leaders in various fields.
Smith believes that when set and setting "are rightly aligned, the basic message of the entheogens —that there is another Reality that puts this one in the shade—is true" (page 133). He gives witness that, for him, entheogenic initiation endorsed the "traditional, theomorphic view of the human self."
At present, the use of entheogens is forbidden in the U.S. under a non-discriminating prohibition of psychoactive agents other than those sold, for example, by tobacco manufacturers, liquor distributors and pharmaceutical firms. In effect Smith asks, can we responsibly make a place, as many other cultures have, for an experience of awe or self-transcendent wonder occasioned by entheogenic plants and chemicals?