Wild colors. Weird sounds. Sensations of the presence of the divine. An acute feeling of the presence of a demon. The range of altered states of consciousness covers a gamut as wide and varied as the people who have taken LSD, DMT or any of the other psychedelic substances. And all those experiences are here, in Charles Hayes’ eye-opening, wonderful, and lovingly edited anthology.
The basic premise of Tripping is simple. Instead of writing yet another tome about how great acid, ecstasy and all the rest are—a project that is inevitably subjective, no matter how thoughtful the author—go out and ask the folks who have taken the drugs what they experienced. What we get, then, is the varieties of psychedelic experience, a kind of informal ethnography.
Hayes interviewed people from all over the world in the compilation of Tripping. It’s an informal ethnography because the interviewees are all English speakers; Hayes doesn’t claim to have been thorough or scientific. He simply went where he could go to get an interview, and was often referred to new sources by people he had previously spoken with. But this doesn’t limit its value as a contribution to the anthropology of the psychedelic experience. “I set out,” he writes in the preface, “to document psychedelic experiences that were transformational, awe-provoking, or otherwise indelible to their subjects” and to sketch the “pagan, aboriginal order in which the spirit [reigns] preeminent.” Hayes uses physicist David Bohm’s word to describe the preeminent reign of spirit as experienced with psychedelic substances: the holomovement within an “invisible web of events and relationships.” Or, as poet Anne Waldman says of her experiences, “things come apart and then reforge”: the web may be invisible, but can be experienced when one is opened to the possibility that it truly exists.
Connectivity is an ancient idea. It’s evident in the most ancient poetry of which we have textual remains. For example, there’s an ancient Mesopotamian poem about the creation of the world in which everything already exists except the gods, who are finally created when humans need them. It’s only later, much later, with the story of the Exodus and the beginnings of holy wars, that humans lost contact with the web of the world and replaced it with projections of our own political organization. Male sky gods dominate in cultures with kings; a single sky god predominates in cultures with kings holding absolute power. The frightening implications of this abound in the U.S., where a Bible-thumping and Old Testament code-talking president claims divine right to rule. What is so striking about the true stories in Tripping is how easy it is to burn away the dross of political organization and the tyranny of monotheism to reveal—profoundly and often overwhelmingly—the implicate order of the animistic universe.
Ruth, for instance (not all of the interviewees reveal their full identity—and who could blame them when “the Godzilla called the War on Drugs” menaces more threateningly than ever?), looks into a mirror while tripping and realizes “You are God, the most enlightened being. There was a bright circle of rainbow light around my head, no doubt a Christian allusion from being raised Catholic.” Ruth sees through the mirror, through the imprint of her upbringing to see the place “where all the spirits are hanging around.” The charm and value of this book is the way the interviewees tell their stories in everyday language. Very few are trying to argue their way to a particular point; they’re not trying to convince us of anything. They’re simply trying to describe what they experienced and they way they felt while tripping.
The peeling away of the monotheistic paint is like a Platonic remembering. Plato argued, in several of his Dialogues, that we are born knowing everything worth knowing but, having drunk from the river of Lethys, the river of forgetting, we don’t remember that we know what we know. Jeremy says, “I… became aware of an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu. I realized that I’d been in this consciousness many times before—that in some ways I’d been here all of my life—that this was that place, and I’d forgotten about it.” Jeremy reminds us that “As a kid, each of is taught, directly and indirectly, that you’ve got to keep yourself under control, that you’ve got to ‘behave,’ that you can’t be in touch with the true nature of the universe all the time.” Clark Heinrich, a writer and ethnobotanist, tells of his experience of reading passages from the Hebrew Bible while tripping with a friend. The thing is, after a while Heinrich stopped reading out loud. But his friend continued to respond in perfectly appropriate ways, as if he could hear Heinrich reading. Social animals that we are, the brain is amazingly tunable: when we free it up to remember what it has always already known, experiences far more powerful than mere empathy are possible, and indeed, common.
Hayes’ book concludes with an informative essay about the varieties of psychedelic substances, and a long conversation with the late, great psychonaut Terrence McKenna. McKenna’s theories provide foundational ideas about why we experience what we do when we trip: the universe is information, he says. To some this sounds like New Age tripe. But skeptics should be reminded that this is precisely what physicists are discovering: “It from bit,” as the great John Wheeler says. The “It” of the universe is informed and evolves from the “bit,” from the signifying relationships between the atoms and galaxies of the universe. This is true at the micro-quantum level, the macro-galactic level, and it is also true at the meso-human level. It from blotter bit!