I remember well the excitement when in 1954 Roger Bannister, a 25-year-old British medical student, not a professional athlete, became the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. His time was 3mins 59.4 seconds, achieved at the Iffley Road track in Oxford and watched by about 3,000 spectators. In spite of strong cross winds with 30 m.p.h. gusts he broke the psychological barrier and made a four minute mile possible for every good miler. Inside two years the first three in top class mile races always broke the four minute mile. Today the record is around 3 minutes 43 seconds.
I threw the shot and discus when I was Bannister’s age and remember the awe everyone felt when the American Perry O’Brien put the shot over 50 feet, the four minute mile of the shot putter. Several records later he put it over 63 feet. My own shot putt improved as soon as the news came of his fifty footer, though I was not in his class.
Some records lasted for years before the psychological barrier was broken. I remember Jesse Owens clearing over 26 feet in the long jump in 1935. That record lasted 25 years. Now it’s over 29 feet and the new barrier is 30 feet.
Cornelius Warmerdam cleared an unheard of 15 feet in the pole vault. His record stood for 15 years. Now both men and women routinely clear 20 feet.
All of these examples are easily understood as psychological barriers that affected the performance of even world class athletes who had consciously or unconsciously accepted them.
As soon as one person, physically able and sufficiently confident, or insensitive to suggestion, broke the time or distance barrier, the others felt free to do the same, and did.
It is not difficult for an athlete to think, a bit more training, higher reps, different weights, faster moves, more creatine, whatever…and I shall beat my current best. But other, less physical activities present special difficulties not so easily overcome.
And it is the ability to have and realize spiritual or deep religious experiences that I want to examine. The four minute barrier there is mental, both physiologically and philosophically.
Spiritual experiences and visions seem to go together. The amazing William Blake said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” He was a brilliant man who could see clearly the angels and Biblical characters that he painted. They were quite as real to him as the City of London.
And he wasn’t crazy, merely possessed of a different kind of visual acuity without the barriers that others acquire by becoming educated out of their natural abilities by those who don’t possess them.
Everyone can acknowledge that there are musicians whose aural acuity can give them perfect pitch. When Mozart was a child he heard a violin at his uncle’s house and said it was a quarter tone different in tuning from the one at his house. Everyone piled into a carriage with the violin and went back to Mozart’s house. He was right. Quite an ear to carry the memory of a tone so effectively over a distance.
But some people are tone deaf. Ulysses Grant, the general who eventually crushed the Southern resistance in the Civil War by being impervious to worry about casualties, was tone deaf. He said that there were only two tunes he could recognize and one of them was Dixie. The other he didn’t know.
There was no way that Mozart, or any great musician, could have had a chat with Grant about music, had they been able to meet. But Grant did not deny that such musical ability existed among others. Musicians don’t deny the ability to organize armies that comes naturally to others either.
I know personally some color blind people who find it hard to distinguish colors that are startlingly different to me. Such people could not really understand a great artist talking about the palette he used for some famous painting. But they probably wouldn’t deny that the color sensitivity existed in some people more than others.
But let some clairvoyant with an abnormal ultra violet range be stupid enough as to say that he or she can see something in the living room that nobody else can see, and everyone will say “There’s nothing there,” because they can’t see it.
They will acknowledge that their cat or dog sometimes acts as though there is something in the room invisible to them. They don’t accuse the animal of hallucinating. The cat can see, the dog can smell, the bat can hear, the bee can perceive things that the average human being cannot. These things are OK to say or think, but say that you can see or hear something that other people can’t, and guess who is wrong, or deluded?
There is a definite double standard about these matters in the West because of the predominance of the left brain workings.
When the great psychologist William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience he was trying to narrate from an objective point of view what were actually varieties of mystical experiences.
His book is a classic and should be at least read, if not owned by anyone on a spiritual path. I remember how depressed it made me feel to read about the amazing visions and sensory experiences of obviously sane and rational people.
At the time I had no ability to visualize. My peers read books and saw the action and the landscapes being described as if projected on some inner screen. I read the words, and saw nothing. It was no consolation to me that I could remember the words, sometimes pages of them, verbatim, while my visually oriented peers could not.
Then I read The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley of the famous family of scientists. He had been a pretty cynical writer when he wrote Brave New World and something changed him into the deeply spiritual author of The Perennial Philosophy, a book on Hindu mysticism and scripture.
When I went into this interesting change I found that Huxley was almost as poor at visualizing as I was until he experienced mind altering substances used by shamans and had amazing visual experiences, about which he wrote in The Doors of Perception.
Those experiences were his four minute mile. Now he knew it was possible for his brain to do what other people’s brains could do. He experienced what other people had experienced. The boundaries of his mental perception changed radically. The man who inspired this change in Huxley was Gerald Heard, who emigrated to America with Huxley.
The mescaline that Huxley used, that inspired his book, was given to him by the British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, who invented the word psychedelic to describe the effects of the substances he was experimenting with.
Osmond gave LSD to many scientists and doctors to obtain records of their experiences, and to research better ways to care for, and understand schizophrenics. He was one of the men who treated alcoholics with LSD with great success.
Huxley’s experience with mescaline convinced him that there were other realities available to those who could change their state of consciousness, or perception. His substance-induced experiences, which other people like the founders of several religions experienced without any chemicals except those produced by their own unusual brains, enabled Huxley to enter into the world of the Hindu mystics and produce The Perennial Philosophy. When he was dying he had his wife give him LSD.
But back to Gerald Heard for a moment. He had been a science commentator for the BBC and specialized in communicating scientific discoveries that seemed to strengthen the views held by religious mystics about different states of consciousness.
One of the most famous writers about religion is Huston Smith, who wrote The World’s Religions, and followed several of them as a member in order to learn about them from the inside. Now Huston had been brought up as a Protestant, but he had read Huxley and Heard and knew they both attached great importance to meditation as a spiritual process.
As Huston says, his Protestant teachings had informed him that if he lived a decent life here on Earth he would meet God somewhere on the other side of the grave. He also knew from his reading that mystics claim that God can be found in this life, before the death of the body. It didn’t sink into to him as a young scholar until he found that Heard was meditating six hours a day to do this and had founded a retreat center for that purpose.
The already famous Aldous Huxley had spent six months there, meditating and writing The Perennial Philosophy, an explanation of the Vedanta of the Hindus. Both he and Heard considered the monks of the Ramakrishna order in America to be the most knowledgeable mystics available.
Heard arranged a meeting between Huxley and Smith and the acquaintanceship thus formed blossomed later when Smith became Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Humanities at MIT at the same time as Timothy Leary was Research Professor at Harvard in the Center for Personality Research.
Leary, who has been lied about for decades by the government, had encountered the effects of psychedelic substances found in mushrooms and had begun a research project at Harvard to investigate possible ways in which these psychoactive, (mind altering) substances could help correct behavioral disorders.
Huston Smith spent years meditating every day using the Vedanta and the Zen methods, each over periods of years. But he, also a poor visualizer, never had any of the visions that others had reported as a direct experience of God.
When he read of the effect of psychedelics on opening the doors of perception in the mind of Huxley, he was delighted. Huxley had written that nothing had been able to open the barrier that was preventing him having visions or mind pictures until mescaline overcame his disability and showed him the depths of beauty in everyday things.
When Smith told Huxley of his intense interest he was given Timothy Leary’s phone number. The trio met for lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club and arranged for a professionally monitored experience of mescalin on New Year’s Day 1960.
The Leary project worked with virtually non-addictive drugs such as mescaline, psilocybin and LSD. The aim of the research was to see if such drugs could change the behavior of people in a predictably positive direction. Smith calls these drugs entheogens, God enabling, as they often give virtually identical experiences to those reported by the mystics, whose brain pharmacies produce similar molecules. To be really precise, they allow them to happen, rather than cause them to happen.
In his book, Cleansing the Doors of Perception, published in 2000, in his old age, and forty years later, Smith writes about his experiences, and those of other researchers and shaman. He was familiar as a scholar with what had been written about the different levels through which the divine creative energy passes to end up in the material world. But in his mescaline vision he experienced them directly as levels of lights, shapes and manifestations.
He realized for the first time that some of the mystics who wrote down their visions and organized the inner worlds, were not geniuses who had constructed a wonderful set of concepts. They were merely reporting accurately what they saw, using the religious vocabulary available to them. Smith was having the same experiences as the prophets that he knew so well.
Smith deals with the religious use of psychoactive plants throughout history. They were used in the Eleusinan Mysteries of Ancient Greece that produced the Greek Classical philosophers and scientists, all initiates of the rites. We know about the Native Americans and their use of such substances in their religious rituals. Scientists like Carl Sagan recommended the use of marijuana to enhance creativity when writing books. The shaman of the Amazon have produced what is called the god drug, ayahuasca. The molecules of this substance give direct religious experiences. The most important component of the drug is usually written DMT…dimethyltryptamine.
DMT visions are often very similar to those described as the visions of various gifted Hebrew prophets in the Bible. And depending on the dosage taken, the visions are very similar in most people.
There seems to be a gradation starting with a golden chrysanthemum and progressing to elflike aliens made of light, sometimes with multiple faces. And there are many accounts of bird headed people. Accomplished shaman Michael Harner talks of these in his books and considers them as the true gods of our particular reality.
Irish researchers point to the similarities with the Little Folk who were seen by many ordinary people in Ireland, before the left brain took over, even there.
There are often palaces of stunning beauty made of gold and brilliant gems, with matrices of corridors and secret doors as real as anything seen in the mundane, or in inspired pictures drawn by fantasy artists.
Just having one mind blowing experience from these non-addictive psychedelics under strictly controlled conditions was the equivalent of knowing that a four minute mile was now available to human beings.
When Timothy Leary proved statistically that using psychoactive drugs on the prison population reduced markedly the return offender statistics the government became alarmed. That prisoners could be cured of their anti-social behavior by experiencing the wonder and beauty of their world seen through a different perception was not a welcome idea. More prisons, and ‘tough on crime’ had been the politician’s mantra for years. Now this PhD from Harvard was spoiling everything.
You may like to research how Timothy Leary was framed by the police who planted marijuana in his car. He got over thirty years as the sentence for his awful crime, and research that could actually help thousands of people was stopped.
But it does look as if certain drugs, known for centuries by the wise ones of tribal societies could induce and produce very quickly the same effects as meditation and spiritual practices persevered in for decades.
People came back from their ritual experiences with life changing insights. The ancient Indian scriptures that talk about the sacred plant soma that gave direct access to the gods have recently been discovered to be referring to a particular kind of mushroom. The amazing pharmacy of the brain can produce the same chemicals.
The pineal gland, the favorite gland of the mystic writers, and their Third Eye, can produce DMT. Some scientists believe that it is this gland’s function to keep our consciousness in the narrow spectrum of reality that most people experience. At the time of death the DMT from the pineal diffuses into the adjacent areas of the brain and may be the cause of the consistent visions of the corridor and the bright light that occur in so many near death experiences.
Maybe some of the major mystics of the world had unusually high productions of DMT in the area around their pineals. And evolution may have this as another step in the consciousness raising of humanity, if bone-headed greed and ignorance doesn’t destroy the race beforehand.
And a trifle of ecclesiastical history. The Catholic Church believed once that an embryo was not a person until it was 40 days old. Funnily enough the pineal gland appears in the developing embryo about the 49th day. Maybe that was one of the few things the Church got approximately right.
I have read and can recommend every book I’ve mentioned, and this one is a gem written by a scientist from the world of mathematics and physics and is a wonderful introduction to the real world, of which this one is a pale shadow. It is Sex, Drugs, Einstein and Elves by Clifford A. Pickover. My cover had a pretty illustration of the structural chemical formula for DMT. Happy Trails.