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My Trip to the Circus: Albert Hofmann and LSD

Albert_hofmannAlbert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, has died at the ripe old age of 102. So in honor of him, now seems like a good time to talk about my experiences with the drug he created.

I took LSD a lot in college, and for a year or two after. Quite a lot. For a while, I was taking it almost every week; and for most of my college years, I was taking it about once a month or so. And after I’d been taking it for a while, I was taking moderately hefty doses. You don’t get a physical tolerance to LSD — but you can get a sort of psychological tolerance to it. After I’d been taking it for a while, a hit or two would give me a light, fun trip — but if I wanted the experience of taking my mind into a radically unfamiliar place, I’d take five, seven, even ten hits.

And for the most part, it was a great experience. Kind of an important experience, too. I had a couple of bad trips (especially early on, before I’d figured out the “don’t take seriously the crazy shit your mind comes up with when it’s tripping” principle)… but on the whole, LSD was a positive, happy part of my life that shaped me in ways I feel good about. Partly it was just fun and entertaining, like fascinating and hilarious movies in my brain. But I actually got some important insights out of it as well: insights that have stayed with me long after I stopped taking the drug.

Lsd_structureI could gas on about this subject for hours. But I realize that there’s little in this life more tedious than listening to other people describe their drug experiences. So the main thing I want to say is this: Taking LSD is what gave me the awareness — not just the intellectual concept, but the immediate, visceral experience — of just how much of my perception and intuition was about how my brain worked, and how little of it was about how the world worked. There is nothing quite so humbling as putting a chemical into your body — a chemical measured in millionths of a gram — and having everything you see and feel and know be radically altered, to the point of being unrecognizable.

So in a lot of ways, taking LSD was the beginning of my skepticism. It was the beginning of my awareness that my brain could fool me, that my brain had its own agenda, and I couldn’t automatically trust what it was saying.

CrowleythothdeckNow, the downside is that, in a lot of other ways, it was the total opposite. Many of my stupider woo beliefs came directly out of “insights” I had when I was on LSD or other hallucinogens. The idea that mystical forces were guiding the Tarot cards when I shuffled them. The idea that subatomic particles must have free will, since their behavior isn’t predictable. The idea that every person on Earth was in exactly the right place, doing exactly what they were intended to be doing by the great World-Soul. (A pretty Calvinist idea when you think about it, although at the time I would have rejected that suggestion hotly.) I had drug hallucinations that I took very, very seriously, and believed to be accurate perceptions even after the drug faded. (I was, for instance, convinced for an embarrassingly long time that, when I was under the influence of LSD, I could make rosebuds bloom into roses, simply through the force of my concentrated drug-enhanced will. Loki, have mercy.)

So while I’m overall positive about my LSD experiences, I feel that I should acknowledge this side of them as well. I am strongly of the opinion that a lot of the more fuzzy, uncritical, poorly- thought- out ideas of the hippie and post-hippie movement (New Age woo and otherwise) were the result of an entire generation being unclear on the “don’t take seriously the crazy shit your mind comes up with when it’s tripping” concept.

EyeBut you know? All that stuff eventually faded. And what I was left with — along with a lot of warm, happy, hilarious memories of profound and wildly entertaining times shared with friends — was the deeply- ingrained, vividly- understood awareness that my perception and intuition did not necessarily represent reality. It was the beginning of my skepticism. And it was the beginning of the end of my solipsism. In a lot of ways, it was the beginning of my adult compassion: my relativism, my understanding that other people saw reality differently than I did and that this didn’t automatically mean that they were stupid and wrong. It was the beginning of my borderline- obsessive, sometimes irritating dedication to seeing things, as much as possible, from other people’s points of view.

And for that, I’m grateful.

Thanks, Albert.

(Tip of the hat to Susie Bright, both for the news and for the “everyone tell your LSD experiences” meme. Also for this unbelievably hilarious video. Video below the fold.)

Photo of Albert Hofmann by Stefan Pangritz, copyright CC-BY-SA.

Comments

  1. Betsy says

    Fascinating.
    I always suspected I had missed out on something by never trying drugs. Now I know it. Damn.

  2. Jennifer says

    I love your blog! Most of the most important things I learned about myself I learned while tripping on LSD. Thank you Albert Hofmann, you will be missed.

  3. Eric says

    Great post. I had many similar experiences that you describe so accurately. Including the ability to ‘shift’ my own perception so that I was able to fully comprehend and fully accept the ‘same thing’ from multiple perspectives. If that is the case, how can one’s view of the world be anything but relative and subjective? ‘Reality’ becomes a set of shared perspectives that we all agree on, and disagreement between two people is often times a disagreement on perspective without realizing it.
    Anyway…
    Thanks, Albert Hoffman!

  4. bruce says

    There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil. -Alfred North Whitehead; I too have benefited from psychoactive drugs; Can’t prove it without testing, but I’m convinced that such drugs enhanced the corpus callosum connections in my brain.
    It would be really wonderful if their was some sort of survey of people who have taken acid,mescaline, and the like to see how many have benfited and how many have been harmed; I’ll bet right now that those benefiting far outnumber those that have been harmed.

  5. says

    Yeh I remember the last time I did LSD it was at BurningMan in 1997 (or was it 96?). Anyways,
    I nearly rode my bike off into the desert at night
    like a damn fool chasing after the pretty lights and thinking
    “Wow….there must be a great rave just over there…wayyyyy over there…wheeeeeeeee.”

  6. DavidBodhi says

    Not all those “woo” insights are baloney. In fact, many of them are not, they are just misinterpreted to seem to be applicable to the personality, when they are really applicable to the deeper levels of the mind that are shared with all humans, or deeper, yet, will all living things, or deeper yet, with all of reality.
    Don’t reject your ‘woo’ thoughts. Study them and compare them to other informational sources, adjust your interpretations until they fit all the evidence.
    Let’s face it, the ONLY direct experience of reality is perception. Just because perception can be misunderstood doesn’t mean that it can’t be true and accurate.
    Part of what one SHOULD learn from LSD is to distinguish the perception from the concept that arises from it. And, yes, that is very Zen, as it should be.
    Far too many people throw the baby out with the bathwater as soon as they realize they misunderstood some flash of insight.
    Don’t do that!

  7. normanx says

    It is a shame that such a magnificent drug is considered as illegal. My experiences on it have all been exquisitely wonderful. It is a gateway to greater understanding of oneself and the world around you. I had not done it in… more then ten years…when a couple of years ago, someone offered me some in the morning at a music festival. And, it was as lovely an experience as when I was a youngster.

  8. Nurse Ingrid says

    “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”
    But some truths are more true than others. (with apologies to George Orwell.)
    And some “truths” are CLEARLY false.

  9. Nurse Ingrid says

    Emo Phillips has a great joke about reality vs perception, and the fact that our own brains can fool us:
    “I used to think that the human brain was the most fascinating and complex part of the body.
    Then I realized — look what’s telling me that.”

  10. says

    “But some truths are more true than others. (with apologies to George Orwell.)
    “And some ‘truths’ are CLEARLY false.”
    Yup.
    A commenter on this blog (in “The 100% Solution: On Uncertainty, And Why It Doesn’t Matter So Much”) quoted Isaac Asimov as saying this, one of the best ways I heard this concept expressed:
    ”When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”
    (Here’s that post, btw:)
    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2008/01/the-100-solutio.html
    It’s not that there’s no reality apart from our own perceptions, or that we can’t come to a better understanding of that reality. It’s that our perceptions will always be distorted, and our understanding will probably never be 100% right. Some people see that as a reason to just not try. I see it as a reason to try harder.

  11. says

    The main thing that prevents us from thinking and trying out things is fear. I don’t know if it is fear of failing, or looking stupid, or ending up worse, or whatever.
    I used to go surfing and skiing on LSD. In those cases, the fear disappeared. I let my body do what I had trained it to do, and it did it well.
    One memorable occasion happened in a ski resort where I was working. Two friends and I, on the night of a full moon, dropped in the evening and took four hours to walk up the mountain with our skis. Then as the moon started to decline, we skied down in a few minutes.
    It was more than worth it, both the climb and the descent. Time had no importance so the differences were not even noticed. We were laughing while we climbed and we laughed on the way down.
    I can tell you, sitting on the top of that mountain in the middle of the night was exhilarating. I doubt we would have done it without LSD, or even thought of doing it.
    Laughing on LSD is something only one who has taken it can understand. You can point something out to a partner and both look at it, and without a word, you both begin laughing.
    I haven’t taken for many years, maybe I am too old and wise now. Anyhow, the memories are still clear.

  12. says

    I love this video; I’m trying to imagine why the army thought that LSD would somehow benefit soldiers in combat situations.
    On the other hand, the military did actually give methamphetamines to soldiers in combat during World War II, thinking that it would help their performance.
    People on speed… with guns. Now THAT is scary.

  13. says

    There are many quantum physicists, such as Amit Goswami, who believe that subatomic particles do have a kind of consciousness. (This is covered in his book *The Self-Aware Universe.*) So no, it’s not a stupid woo idea. Nor is the idea that everyone is where they should be right now. It has its origins in Buddhist theology. So before you start judging ideas, look at who else is expounding them. Maybe they’re not as stupid as you thought.

  14. plum grenville says

    There are many quantum physicists, such as Amit Goswami, who believe that subatomic particles do have a kind of consciousness. (This is covered in his book *The Self-Aware Universe.*) So no, it’s not a stupid woo idea. Nor is the idea that everyone is where they should be right now. It has its origins in Buddhist theology. So before you start judging ideas, look at who else is expounding them. Maybe they’re not as stupid as you thought.
    Posted by: wandrew

    So your argument that Idea X merits consideration is that it “has its origins in [some religion’s] theology”? Got any other reasons?
    I have never heard of Amit Goswani or his book, so I don’t feel competent to comment on the stupidity/woo-iness or otherwise of the idea that subatomic particles are conscious. But given your aforementioned criterion for non-stupidity/woo-iness, I’m not going to rush out to research what sounds like a kooky idea to me.
    I’d be willing to bet that if Dr. (I hope she/he has a doctorate) Goswani is a real scientist and really claims that subatomic particles are “conscious” in some way, what she/he means by “conscious” is considerably different from what the average woo believer/non-physicist means.

  15. entheogenics says

    plum grenville: amit goswami is a professor of physics, particularly quantum. his book “god is not dead” is well worth your time – you might learn something – if you are able to grasp what he says.

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