Freaky Friday: Cross-Posting Gary Laderman on “LSD”

Editor’s Note: Today marks the third in a series of cross-postings from the Social Science Research Council’s Frequencies project– earlier posts from that “genealogy of spirituality” examined the AA Big Book and Marijuana.  Here, in a piece that’s sure to get that Freaky Friday groove on, Emory University Professor of Religion Gary Laderman explores LSD’s contribution to the contemporary spiritual landscape of the US.  The original illustration from the Frequencies site is by Joe Meiser.

Picture yourself on a train in a station,
With plasticine porters with looking glass ties.
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile,
The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

— The Beatles,
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (1967)

When I was 17 I dropped my first tab of acid. A friend and I excused ourselves from school, drove to Chatsworth Park in the San Fernando Valley, and tripped for about seven hours. The experience was breathtaking, to say the least: the blue sky and clouds took on geometric shapes and impossible proportions; when I waved my hand in front of my face it left multicolored trails and incandescent traces that confounded my sense of bodily space; I was overcome with a strange and powerful love for all of humanity that seemed to be personally exhilarating and cosmically liberating at the same time; and an indescribable awareness of inner light and profound insight overwhelmed my consciousness that was as mystical as it was psychologically illuminating.

The year was 1979, way beyond the psychedelic and tumultuous decade of the 1960s often associated with drug experimentation and mind-expanding possibilities with altered states of consciousness. But it is a fitting anecdote to begin this essay for one specific reason: it was through the ingestion of LSD that I came to understand the utility and value of the word “spirituality.” Previous to this experience the only thing I knew about religion was based entirely on the many years of Sunday school and endless hours of Hebrew school at my reform Jewish temple in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah several years earlier. What I experienced under the influence was nothing like religion as I knew it, and while I had heard the word “spirituality” used occasionally over the years, I had no idea what it referred to until my psychedelic trip in Chatsworth Park. After that day the meaning of the word spirituality became crystal clear to me and I began to use it more frequently in my own speech and imagination to identify perspectives and experiences that were decidedly not about religion, and most assuredly about sacred insights, expansive consciousness, transcendence of the body, and inner knowledge.

Unlocking the Doors of Perception

The point I would like to make here—and in an effort now to shift the narrative from personal confessional to cultural analysis—is that LSD contributed to a society-wide awareness of spirituality as a viable and meaningful alternative to institutional religion. LSD was itself a trip through categorical space, a tab that transitioned a tripping public from one idea of experience to another, from an idea of religion to one of spirituality. Even with the obvious dangers and bad trips associated with LSD, use of this drug and the public commentary about it provided Americans with a vocabulary to describe personal religious experiences utterly disconnected from conventional language used to identify the sacred, and not quite tethered to but not completely separated from the deep-rooted histories of spirituality provided by Leigh Schmidt in Restless Souls and Catherine Albanese in A Republic of Mind and Spirit.

In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, LSD was, for many, a potent manufactured sacrament that unlocked the doors of perception in an American culture imprisoned by theological conformity, blew open the boundaries of religious experience hemmed in by doctrine and narrow ideas about social propriety, and legitimated popular cultural transformations that idealized notions of inner truth, self-seeking personal illumination, and consciousness expansion. In other words, experiences with LSD and the publicity surrounding them gave shape and content to modern understandings of spirituality.

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