Jun 122013
 

joyous-cosmologySome 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

  2 Responses to “Review of “The Joyous Cosmology” by Alan Watts”

  1. This book review brings back memories! I read both Huxley’s and Watt’s books in 1965 after I’d attended a number of Watts’s lectures, and both the books and the lectures intrigued me sufficiently that I tried LSD with the mindset that it might just be a doorway to understanding some kind of ultimate reality. I also prepped by reading Leary, Alpert, and Metzger’s book based loosely on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. As they said back in the day, the experience one had was not just based on the drug, but also on the setting and the set, and I was lucky to have ideal circumstances for both. I was also lucky to have my experience before the law made the ingestion of LSD illegal. I must say, I had a very profound and positive experience, and that I also felt the experience was transformative in a number of significant ways which have persisted to this day. The experience was qualitatively different from my meditative experiences, but I would never have started meditating if it hadn’t been for my psychedelic experience. Even though the experiences are quite different, both experiences point to the same direct intuition of non-duality. I think the incremental nature of meditative experience, however, makes it easier to integrate into one’s day-to-day existence. My feeling after LSD was that something very profound had happened, but I had no notion of how to incorporate the insights I gained from it into my daily life. On the other hand, while I’ve had many fascinating and varied experiences on long meditation retreats, none were as revolutionary or profound as my psychedelic experience. I’m glad I had the experience, but I have no need to repeat it, and I am happy to just meditate now.

    Just my two cents.

    • Your experimentation, around this 1965 period, was rather early on compared to many people. I, on the other hand, didn’t try acid until 1971. By that time my mind was thoroughly inundated with not only “acid literature” like the ones we’ve mentioned, but also books like the “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” and of course psychedelic music, as well as exposure to the whole conscious-expanding counter-culture scene. Moreover, I had also been smoking grass, which definitely had a lasting effect on my mind-set. So, not to sound pompous, but I felt like I was already “there” by the time I got around to acid and mescaline. That’s why I didn’t have the transforming sort of experience you had, and also why I find it difficult to isolate any one element that had a leading contribution to expanding my consciousness. It was everything, the whole electrical banana.

      As I recall, my first trip consisted of piling into a convertible with my buddies and heading off to the drive-in. Watching a movie called “The House That Dripped Blood” and then “Hell’s Angels on Wheels” may not have been transformative, but let me tell you, it was an experience.

      Thanks for sharing your two cents. I’d say it’s worth much more.

      Oh, and how fortunate you were to attend some of Watt’s lectures. I don’t like to boast but once at a love-in in New Orleans, Timothy Leary told me to climb down from a tree. He was afraid my limb-perched presence would invite a hassle from the cops. I was 16 at the time.

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