Some weeks ago, the good folks at New World Library sent me a review copy of The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness, a new book by Alan Watts. Actually, it’s not new, it is a reissue of a book he published in 1962.
The Joyous Cosmology is described as Watt’s “exploration of the insight that the consciousness-changing drugs LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin can facilitate ‘when accompanied with sustained philosophical reflection by a person who is in search, not of kicks, but of understanding.’”
I recall reading this book in the late 60s shortly after I read Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. It was at time when I hadn’t had any drug experiences, but I was open to the idea that psychedelics could be a shortcut to enlightenment.
This reissue contains the original forward by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), written while both were professors at Harvard, years before either became famous. The new edition also has a new introduction by author Daniel Pinchbeck, who writes, “Reading [the book] again, I can’t help but recall my first forays into the soul-unfolding and mind-opening qualities of the visionary plants and chemical catalysts. Those first trips unmasked the brittle delusions of our current culture and revealed that deeper dimensions of psychic reality were available for us to explore.”
By the time I got a chance to try LSD and mescaline, I had already realized the ‘brittle delusions of our current culture’ but I was still searching for those deeper dimensions of reality. However, my experiences with these drugs were more on the kicks side, rather than the understanding side. And because, I didn’t have what I considered to be consciousness expanding experiences myself, I began to wonder about the validity of all those experiences I had read about. I still do.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s such people as Cary Grant and James Coburn experimented with LSD in controlled settings, under the auspices of therapists at different clinics in California. I suspect that is the best way to have meaningful encounters with psychedelics. As far as I know, Leary and Alpert did pretty much the same thing in the beginning.
Watts does mention some clinical experiences in the Appendix, but in the Prologue he suggests they are not ideal, and one gathers that the setting for the experiments he describes in the first 93 pages of this 118 page book was informal, perhaps or perhaps not at a “country estate on the West Coast.” Although one of Watts aims was to testify about the spiritual value of psychedelic experiences, his methodology did not involve spiritual practice. It seems that he would pick a topic, “with some such theme as polarity, transformation (as of food into organism), competition for survival, the relation of the abstract to the concrete” and so on, and then he would listen to music, gaze at bushes, or at piles of trash, which he found to be extremely funny. Of course, on acid just about everything is hilariously funny.
Watts was a profoundly intelligent and articulate man, and an exceptional writer. You can’t argue with the some of the insights, or the quality of the writing:
In the contrast world of ordinary consciousness, man feels himself, as will, to be something in nature but not of it. He likes it or dislikes it. He accepts it or resists it. He moves it or it moves him. But in the basic superconsciousness of the whole organism this division does not exist. The organism and its surrounding world are a single, integrated pattern of action in which there is neither subject nor object, does nor done to.”
I have to say though, that these insights do not seem necessarily different or more profound than the insights from meditation and study of Buddhist philosophy he discusses in his other books.
Watts’ contention is that psychedelics heighten perception – again no argument – however, in the Prologue, he says “But the transformation of consciousness undertaken in Taoism and Zen is more like the correction of faulty perception or the curing of a disease. It is not an acquisitive process of learning more and more facts or greater and greater skills, but rather an unlearning of wrong habits and opinions.” That is certainly true to some extent, but I am not sure I buy the idea that the perceptions and the transformation of consciousness produced by the psychedelic experience are completely valid or more suited to Western needs. The transformation of consciousness meditation brings is natural, while psychedelics produce an altered state of consciousness. At least, that’s how I see it.
Even with that in mind, I still enjoyed rereading The Joyous Cosmology once I got into it. The book can be read on several different levels. If psychedelics are your cup of tea, you’ll love the book. If they aren’t, you can appreciate it as a fascinating document of prosaic, mind-blowing time in our cultural history or as simply an account of one man’s mystical, albeit drug-induced, experiences. Regardless of what may lie behind it, Watts’ writing is always compelling, and powerful in the sense that it is almost impossible to read his insights and not re-think your own perceptions.
Purple haze all in my eyes
Don’t know if it’s day or night
You’ve got me blowin, blowin my mind
Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?
– Jimi Hendrix