My experience with mysticism began in an unlikely place: a little Ohio town called Columbiana. And I was not the only kid in town with this proclivity.
Six years ago, for the first time in three decades, I visited this town where I lived from age 6 to 13. Once again I walked through the woods behind my family's old house, enthralled with the enthrallment that I experienced there as a child looking for fossils, catching minnows in the creek, and making forts out of dirt and sticks. I felt the awe and wonder that filled my soul in my early years. I remember sensing the presence of an overwhelming transcendent energy when I was out in the woods. But I could not form words to describe those powerful moments.
As a kid, I sensed that these experiences had something to do with Christianity. But our family went to a "mainline" Presbyterian church where a mild form of Protestant orthodoxy was preached and taught, with no reference to the direct experience of God. Doctrine and Bible stories were the foci, not spiritual encounter. So it wasn't until much later that I learned to connect the dots between my own mystical experiences and those of Jesus and the spiritually-awakened Christians who followed him.
Columbiana looks hardly any different now than it did when my family moved to California during the first Summer of Love in 1966. It's a beautiful, peaceful, sweet place. A fancy night out in Columbiana is dinner at Das Dutch (as in Deutsch, as in Pennsylvania Dutch, as in German Mennonite) Haus, where the fare doesn't get much more exotic than creamed chicken on a biscuit. Another night-out option is to watch a second-run movie at the Manos Theater on the roundabout at the center of town, which in my childhood seemed like the navel of the universe. The slightly-rolling but otherwise flat landscape formed a circumscribed horizon, as did the limits of access to the world beyond, consisting of three grainy channels on the black-and-white television and the pages of the Youngstown Vindicator newspaper. In those days, we had no felt sense of being "left out" by living in a small town in the Midwest.
"How to Change Your Mind", by Michael Pollan, is a history of psychedelic drugs in America, a first-person account of the author's contemporary foray into the realm of hallucinogens, and an analysis of how they are being used and studied today. As Pollan richly describes, there was a well-developed culture around LSD dating all the way back to the early 1950's, when a great deal of promising research into its therapeutic benefits began. It was shown to be remarkably effective in treating alcoholism. "Bill W", the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was convinced of its usefulness, but was dissuaded from promoting it because of his new organization's stated aversion to recovering alcoholics' use of drugs of any kind. Thousands of engineers and corporate leaders, particularly in what later became known as Silicon Valley, took LSD and had powerfully positive experiences. One of them was the inventor of the graphical interface, and the original version of the Internet, Doug Engelbart. Without LSD's impact on the computer industry, would I be rolling a mouse on my desk to edit this article right now?
As a geeky, tall, pale-faced kid, I was utterly out of place in Santa Cruz, which was well within the epicenter of the emerging counterculture. It took me a month to grow out my hair and change my name from Jamey to Jim and begin to fit in to the brave new world I had come to call home. Talk of drugs was in the air, as was the pungent aroma of marijuana. But in high school I was a serious student and political activist, and took no interest in drugs. In college I was just as serious, and since I paid my own way through the University of California doing menial jobs between classes, I could not afford to get stoned.
Meanwhile, back in Columbiana, one of my younger former classmates became fascinated with psychedelics. One of the notable families in our town was the Stamets clan. They owned a machine tool business, one of the major industries in Columbiana. Paul Stamets was two years younger than I. Paul's older brother gave him a book about hallucinogens. He read it with enthusiasm and then lent it to a friend. His friend's conservative parents found the book and burned it. When Paul found out what happened to the book, it only confirmed his conviction that the subject was very important.
Paul Stamets went on to become the world's foremost mycologist. He now runs a lab in the Pacific Northwest where he has come up with dozens of novel practical uses for fungi. But the mushrooms that matter most to Stamets are the ones with psychedelic properties. Stamets has consumed many psylocybin mushrooms, powerfully sensing the interconnectedness of the cosmos when he does so. He observes that the mycelium of fungi form underground webs that send chemical messages between the tree roots into which they are integrated. In humans, the mushrooms induce a conscious experience of the very web of life in which they are integuments. Michael Pollan interviewed Stamets at length, and went hunting for mushrooms with him. Pollan later ate some of the mushrooms, and eloquently described the sublime revelations that came to him.
Pollan described the "Good Friday" experiment at Harvard Divinity School. The seminarians who took the drug had profound mystical experiences. The Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary conducted LSD research, and one of his subjects was Huston Smith, who became a globally-venerated scholar of comparative religion. A life-long Methodist, Smith was deeply impressed with his LSD experience and strove to integrate what he had learned from it into his own spirituality. About 16 years ago, I had the privilege of sitting with him for a whole day in Berkeley with a small group of other campus ministers. He'd just written a book about his psychedelic experience: "Cleansing the Doors of Perception". Smith was well into his 80's and apparently felt that the "statute of limitations" had passed on any bad effects on his career that might arise from his revelations of the powerful positive impact on his spirituality that LSD had on him. Smith was one of the founders of the Council on Spiritual Practices, which advocated for the responsible, controlled use of psychedelics for the purpose of mystical enlightenment.
I had my own experiences when I was in seminary in the 1970's, and it was a privilege to be able to talk with Huston Smith about them. San Francisco Theological Seminary had an odd blend of students in that era, and I found myself drawn to the oddest. I concluded that if there was ever a place and time to do some extreme spiritual exploration, seminary was it. Pollan, in his book, makes much of the effect of "set" and "setting" on the experiences of people who ingest psychedelics. The molecules themselves have no fixed experiential content. Rather, they open up the "doors of perception" so that the pre-existing "set" or emotional state of one's mind, and the "setting" or environment in which one ingests them, are hugely influential on the subjective experience. Good "set" and "setting", you are likely to get a good "trip". Negative "set" and "setting", you may well suffer a "bad trip". If you're told it will induce a carnival, you might well end up in one. If mystical union with the Divine is suggested, you'll tend to experience that. I went to a seminary that looked like a Scottish castle, with a spectacular view of the redwoods flanking Mount Tamalpais. I was learning how to practice vipassana - mindfulness meditation - from my roommate who had spent a year in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal before his Tibetan lama told him he ought to go study the religion of his home culture. I had the right "set", and the right "setting".
It powerfully confirmed what I was learning in meditation practice. What I think is just what I think: it is not what is real. My definitions of what I see and experience are just that: definitions. They aren't the realities which I have defined. There are thousands of other amazing, boggling, fascinating ways to interpret and define these underlying realities, and psychedelics open you to a bunch of them. There is a reality far deeper, far beyond our conventional mental categories and assumptions. Opening myself to a fresh encounter with that underlying reality is an out-of-ego experience of jaw-dropping wonderment. An overwhelming awareness that everything is connected; a palpable, visible certainty that Love holds the universe together, and that in this Love, the meaning, purpose, and value of life is to be found.
It was a very memorable place to visit, but I saw that if I wanted to live there, I'd need to do so without psychedelics. Since that time long ago, I have not taken any, nor have I recommended that others do so. After my experiences, I got even more serious about contemplative meditation. It's legal, it's free, and it's available all the time, everywhere. It revolutionizes my mind, and if we all did it, it would revolutionize the world.
In 1986, I went to an event in Marin County held by the Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly Magazine. Whole Earth was founded by Steward Brand, a very creative but sensible leader in the counterculture movement from the 60's forward. He was much influenced by his psychedelic experiences. The event celebrated the publication of a book of CoEvolution articles, mine among them. The highlight was a conversation between Stewart Brand and Ken Kesey, the novelist and leader of the Merry Pranksters, memorialized in Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test". On stage, Brand asked Kesey: "Why did the 60's counterculture sputter and stop?" Kesey's answer: "We ran out of acid! There was a bottleneck in production. If only we'd had enough production capacity, we could have reached critical mass, and enough of the American population would have been turned-on so that the culture would have permanently changed." An outrageous statement. But even as I and the rest of the crowd laughed, I thought to myself: "Maybe he's right." (Pollan reports that Timothy Leary estimated the "critical mass" number at 4 million. But only 2 million Americans had taken psychedelics by 1969.)
Pollan's book comes out at time of significant resurgence in the use of psychedelics by Americans. In Silicon Valley, its current manifestation is in "microdosing", taking small doses of hallucinogens on occasion in order to enhance capacity for creativity and complex problem-solving. College students are "tripping" in large numbers again. Other folks are using them for periodic mental and spiritual "tune-ups". A rapidly growing number of researchers are freshly probing the therapeutic benefits of these substances. Pollan describes the emerging, underground profession of "spiritual guides" that has emerged. They've developed their own set of ethical standards and shared practices, which strike me as equally useful for guiding people through mystical experiences that are not induced by psychedelic substances.
This is a good time to reconsider the outlandish words of Ken Kesey and Tim Leary. What would America be like - what would the world be like - if everyone had psychedelic experiences? More specifically, had them with a healthy, positive "set" and "setting", and with a sensitive guide? What if everyone got it, viscerally, with all their senses convicting them unassailably, that Love is God, and that every grain of sand and every ant crawling on the ground is suffused with this Divine Love, and that everything and everybody are crowns of creation to be encountered with reverent awe?
But even in the wildly improbable event that the whole country tuned-in and turned-on, there would be the day-after problem. What will we do, take psychedelics with breakfast every day? For one thing, it's a strictly controlled substance. That could change, but I doubt it will go the way of marijuana any time soon. And there's the practical matter of going to work and getting things done, which is tough under the influence of a mysticism-inducing dose of the stuff.
There are multiple possible take-aways from Pollan's excellent book. It can be seen as an argument for once again giving psychedelics the status they had in the 1950's, when they were researched for their potential therapeutic benefits, and from there find a way to make them available to the general population under controlled circumstances.
But in it I heard a call for tuning-in and turning-on to contemplative practice, to good religion that guides us into the direct experience of God as the Love at the source, center, and goal of existence. As Pollan explains, mysticism is revolutionary because the experience has its own authority, putting it in competition with popes, preachers, and politicians. The cure to fundamentalisms of all kinds is to know God, rather than to believe stuff about God that "authorities" declare. The cure to the selfishness, greed, and fear that motivates the leaders of our federal government today, and the voters who support them, is the sensed subjective conviction that Love is the Ultimate Reality. Some folks may "drop" some LSD or "magic" mushrooms now and again, to get there. But how much better to "drop" some Meister Eckhart, Buddha, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Jesus, Rumi, Hafiz, or Thich Nhat Hanh every day! Let's do what they did. Let's go where they went. Special molecules are not required to follow this mystical path. And the revolution that will follow will bring more of heaven to this earth.
The poet Allen Ginsburg dropped LSD for the first time in 1960. Immediately he took off his clothes and announced he was going out into the streets to start a "peace and love movement". He tried to call Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Mao Zedong to broker world harmony, but - funny thing - he couldn't get through on the phone. Pollan suggests that Ginsburg's first "trip" was the start of the 60's counterculture era. Its excesses and abuses gave it a bad name. It wasn't just for lack of LSD that the counterculture got countered.
So this time, let's get it right. Psychedelics? Maybe someday we'll find a way to integrate them, legally and safely, as tools for mental health and spiritual growth. Meanwhile, I recommend mindful contemplation to everyone. Let's keep our clothes on, do the simple but challenging disciplines required to experience God directly every day, and let them influence our behavior toward kindness. This can bring the revolution that my generation dreamed would happen fifty years ago.
A 12th c French Catholic Christian monk, Guigo II, described the spiritual life as climbing a ladder. The steps were lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio – reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. This “ladder” has defined Catholic Christian spiritual discipline ever since. An ancient practice, employed increasingly today in churches both Catholic and Protestant, is called “Lectio Divina”. It follows Guigo’s four steps.
CONTEMPLATIO is an adaptation of Lectio Divina for use by people of all faiths or no religious background.
Lectio/Visio: Read aloud a short passage from the scripture or wisdom literature of your choice. Release any interpretation or opinion you may have about this passage as you read it. This list of the questions of Jesus from the Gospels is a good source of Christian texts for Lectio. In place of, or in addition to, the reading you can do “Visio Divina” – sacred seeing – gazing at an icon, image, or object, while releasing assumptions or judgments about it.
Meditatio: Close your eyes and let the passage or object “sink in” for two minutes. Sit with it. Hold it lightly – don’t force any attempt to interpret it. Attend to it without judgment or preconception and with an open heart.
Repeat Lectio/Visio and Meditatio four times.
Oratio: Pray aloud: “May I receive from the scripture (or object) what my soul needs for today, so that I may compassionate towards all whose lives I touch.”
Contemplatio: For 10-20 minutes, get into a physical position in which your body will be comfortable but you’ll be unlikely to fall asleep. (The “lotus position”, seated with legs crossed and tailbone slightly elevated on a little pillow, is just one way to achieve this balance.) Begin with mindful meditation: close your eyes, and in silence, observe whatever arises to take your attention. The object of your observation can be anything at all. A thought. An idea. A sensation – something your body feels, something you hear. A memory. A scheme for the future. It can be an urge – a desire – a sense of needing or wanting to do something. Let it all be; don’t try to change your thoughts or experiences. (Wait until after your Contemplatio practice to consider ways you want to change your thoughts or actions.) Watch all that arises and passes, observing with non-judgmental, caring attention. Be a quiet presence with these experiences, like a friend who stays close in silence with a loving attitude toward you. Ask yourself: how does the lectio/visio enlighten your self-examination, or vice-versa?
With practice, you will reach a point in Contemplatio where you have so thoroughly and lovingly observed yourself – your thoughts, emotions, urges, sensations – your body, your mind, even your personality – that you will ask a profound question: is that which is being observed doing the observing? Who or what is watching and paying attention within you? The mystical and philosophical traditions of the world have different ways of expressing this sublime awareness. In Buddhism, this is the moment of enlightened, pure consciousness that there is no self. In Hinduism, this is the moment expressed in the Sanskrit phrase: “Tat tvam asi – I am that" - one with the Ultimate Reality of Brahman. In Christianity, it is the moment of awareness that God is the loving observer within us. It is the moment of mystical union with the Divine, which St Paul described: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” Non-religious people sometimes describe it as the moment of awakening to being one with the universe or with nature as a whole.
(Found in the journal in which students write prayers and reflections in the USC Little Chapel of Silence)
My wife, Roberta, wanted to see the new documentary about Mr. Rogers on her birthday on Sunday afternoon: "Won't You Be My Neighbor?". (This says a lot about her, and about why I adore her.) She loved it. But she was both charmed and mystified that I wept almost all the way through the film. She wondered if it brought up something painful for me. "No, no," I answered. "I just want to be like Mr Rogers when I grow up."
The film overwhelmed my emotions with the power of love to open hearts and connect people to each other. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian pastor who channeled his "urge to clerge" into his long-running masterwork of television, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood". He was a progressive Christian before many folks used that term to describe a faith that is defined by practice rather than doctrine, a religion that is expressed in deeds much more than in creeds. When he shared a kiddie-pool to cool his white feet with the black feet of Officer Clemmons, he modeled the kind of racial harmony that the children - and adults - of the country needed to see and emulate at the time. For Christians, that image was lifted straight out of the New Testament story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper. For those who didn't make the biblical connection, the message that mattered was just as clear.
The title of the children's show was just as biblical. "Who is my neighbor?" the lawyer asked, leading Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Every kid in America was neighbor to every other when they entered into Mr. Rogers' realm. As Jesus modeled compassion through fictional stories, and through his own practice, so did the show. The funky sets of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood were part of the magic. The un-slick production made room for children to use their imaginations. Jesus didn't use fancy props, either, yet his stories animate our moral imaginations two thousand years later. Every episode culminated in Fred Rogers, wearing a fuzzy sweater, looking the kids straight in the eyes and treating them as equals. As people to be taken seriously. As people capable of dealing with life's hard issues. "Childhood is not all clowns and balloons," he said. Kids let him in to their world because he left his ego, such as it was, at the door with his leather shoes. He was not an entertainer. Nor was he a preacher, nor a teacher. He was a non-anxious pastoral presence who invited children - and adults - to look within and face their feelings together. And as the film reveals, he was the same humble presence off-camera. A man of the cloth, cut from whole cloth.
He was a contemplative, mindful Christian who treasured silence, and he practiced it on a medium that otherwise abhorred it. He judiciously used "dead air" in his show to let kids form their thoughts, drawing out more about what they were feeling and thinking. He gave children the precious gift of quiet, focused attention - the refined essence of love.
Fred Rogers was on a mission to reverse the coarsening of American culture. And the film could not have come out at a more appropriate time, given his commitments. We can only imagine how he would talk to children today about the crude lies emanating from the White House. But we can be sure that he'd show a gentle but honest reflection of this reality, along with a positive way to respond.
I came out of the theater resolved to be a nicer, kinder, more patient, less reactive, more meditative person. WWMRD? - what would Mr. Rogers do? Years after his passing, it's still a question worth asking.....
Every day at my job, I witness and celebrate America's religious freedom in action. Through our Office of Religious Life, over 70 religious clubs from all the world's faiths, including a secular humanist club, practice their traditions in harmony with each other. They compete with each other openly in the "marketplace" of ideas and practices on campus, with respect for each other and gratitude for the liberty they all enjoy. None of them complain to us that they are in any way oppressed or stifled. We're a private campus, so we could impose all sorts of restrictions on them that would not be possible in the wider public sphere. But they have all the rights they'd have at a publicly-owned university, as well as many extra benefits for all of them - without any one faith tradition getting special privileges. What happens at the University Religious Center at USC is what real religious freedom looks like in America, and it's a beautiful thing.
But the Trump administration acts like it exists in a parallel dystopian universe.
“A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week, announcing the formation of a Justice Department task force devoted to defending religious liberty. The movement “must be confronted and defeated.” Sessions added. (Vox.com-August 1, 2018)
To Jeff Sessions statement, I say "amen", with a footnote: he is a key player in that "dangerous movement".
The party of lies - the Republican Party, the party of Trump - is using Orwellian "newspeak" on the subject of religious liberty. Before the Republicans took control of the federal government, America already had religious freedom - the kind that prevails right here at USC. That freedom was under threat from fundamentalist Christian "culture warriors" before Trump took office. Now that threat is armed with the authority of the federal government to turn the definition of "religious freedom" inside out and make it the freedom of fundamentalist Christians to impose their contorted interpretation of the Gospel on everybody else. For them, "religious freedom" is something totally different than what the framers of the Constitution had in mind, and something very different from what we enjoy every day at USC.
Let's get crystal-clear about what religious freedom is. It is the freedom of individuals to believe what they wish, to practice their faith traditions, or lack thereof, as they wish, and to express and propagate their faith in the public square - which includes their efforts to turn their faith convictions into public policy. This is necessarily predicated on the government refraining from privileging any one religion over another. The "separation of church and state" is a one-way affair: the government can't endorse any particular religion, but religion is free to endorse or influence any politician or public policy it chooses. A church or temple that endorses a particular candidate might lose its nonprofit status, but if it is willing to pay taxes like any other business, it can do as it pleases.
The only real threat to this religious freedom comes from the people who are twisting its definition like a pretzel: politically and socially conservative evangelical/fundamentalist Christians and their right-wing Catholic and Mormon allies. They believe that since their religion isn't getting special privileges, isn't able to force itself on everybody else, they are being persecuted. That's a lie. No culture-warrior Catholic is being forced to have an abortion or to use birth control. No anti-gay fundamentalist Protestant is being forced to marry someone of the same sex, or to perform such a wedding ceremony. No evangelical baker is being forced to eat cake at a same-sex wedding. When a fundamentalist baker, serving the general public, discriminates against gay couples by refusing to make them wedding cakes, that's not the exercise of religious freedom. That is a fundamentalist discriminating against somebody who isn't like them. The fundamentalist is free to choose another line of work that does not expose them to gay couples ordering wedding cakes. Same with the hard-right Catholic pharmacist who doesn't want to give birth control pills to customers who ask for them. They are free to find another line of work in which they don't have to face such situations. When a progressive Christian woman, who believes that God calls her to use birth control in order to help save God's creation from the very real threat of over-population, goes to that pharmacist and is refused service, whose rights have been violated? Hers, not the pharmacist's. The pharmacist has freedom to practice his or her faith, not freedom from having to engage in commerce and public life with people of other faiths, or of no faith at all.
Consider the religious conscientious objector to war, who must pay taxes that fund the military - whether he or she likes it or not. Religious objectors are free to think and advocate for what they want, but that does not exempt them from their public responsibilities under the rule of law. Where are Jeff Sessions and his fellow whiny, sanctimonious Pharisees when it comes to Quaker and Mennonite and Jehovah's Witness war resisters? Their silence about this kind of objection is deafening. It is a silence that speaks volumes about their real intention, which is for the government to privilege their narrow kind of religion over all others.
And that's what makes theirs a very dangerous movement indeed. Because freedom of religion is not just about religion. It's about freedom, period. My freedom to be myself - my freedom to think or pray or worship in ways that reflect who I am - is utterly bound and connected to your freedom to be and do the same for yourself. My freedom to go to a Republican baker and get the same treatment whether I am gay, straight, Mormon, socialist, Catholic, or Jedi is bound inextricably with the baker's freedom to buy ice cream from a Democrat ice-cream shop owner. It's about the freedom to go to a pharmacy and expect to be given the same service whether you are black, white, agnostic, fundamentalist, or a progressive Christian. It's about the freedom to go to a taxpayer-subsidized hospital, whether Catholic or secular or Adventist, and get the same services that anyone else would get at any other hospital. (Unfortunately, we're headed in the opposite direction, as very many hospitals owned by conservative religious groups deny access to a list of services. Many of these hospitals are the only ones in town in rural areas. Effectively they are imposing their religions on entire regional populations, yet a huge percentage of their revenue comes from taxpayer funds.)
Without real religious freedom, America will be sliced up into isolated sectarian enclaves, distorting public space and life beyond recognition. Fundamentalist Christianity, which presumes that individuals must choose for themselves whether or not to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, will be imposed on everybody by government edict. This outrageous irony will not be lost on people. Religion will suffer if Jeff Sessions and his ilk get their way. Banning abortion will result in the most ferocious backlash against Christianity that this country has ever seen. Privileging fundamentalism by the government will cheapen and corrupt the Christian religion as a whole - including fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity - in the hearts and minds of Americans. Just look at what has happened in Iran: a whole generation has turned against Islam because the government forced it down their throats.
Let's celebrate the wonderful religious freedom we already have, and defend it from Trump and the Republicans at the polls in November. For Christ's sake, let's get their creepy hands off our religion, and all others! The future of our faith depends on it.