Do Gods and Goddesses Exist? — What Does LSD Say?
This article is about the visions of supernatural beings that can occur during psychedelic sessions. It has three functions:
1. It is the next in a series about Christianity and its origins, whether Jesus was a historical or mythical figure, and the role of the apostle Paul. I am working towards a discussion of his Cosmic Christ figure and in the previous article I suggested that he might have had visions under the influence of magic mushrooms. (It might perhaps have been some other psychedelic substance).
2. It is part of a discussion between myself and Mitchell Diamond about the origins of religion, and evolutionary biology. This began when he published an article which I interpreted as saying that the beliefs in the supernatural of early peoples were illusory, and needed an evolutionary explanation. I assumed that his implication was that in post-Enlightenment times we should know better, that a belief in gods and goddesses was a primitive illusion. I responded by arguing that such experiences might have been real at that time. This article will show that such experiences were not limited to the distant past, but still occur in modern times.
3. It can be seen as part of an ongoing conversation with Benjamin Cain about materialism, religion, and the scientific method. (An article by Cain was the starting-point for the series mentioned in 1.)
The focus here will be on the life and work of Stanislav Grof, an intellectual giant in the field of Transpersonal Psychology. His career began in the 1950s when he worked as a psychiatrist in Czechoslovakia. There he participated in an experimental programme using LSD for therapeutic purposes, soon after it was discovered. It was considered to be an unconventional training tool, but the idea was that it might help therapists if they were able to spend some time in the worlds of their patients. They could then better communicate with them and offer better treatment. So the therapists had the opportunity to take the drug, and Grof was an early volunteer. He later moved to the USA, where he continued this work, until LSD was made illegal. He then devised a system of intensive breathing to obtain the same results without using the drug.
He had originally been trained in Freudian Psychoanalysis, but had become frustrated that all the talking and insights gained intellectually rarely achieved positive results in terms of relief of symptoms. He found that LSD dramatically accelerated the healing process, by taking the patients into otherwise apparently inaccessible realms of the psyche. The treatment often followed a standard pattern, as described in his book Realms of the Human Unconscious¹. His patients began by exploring their personal unconscious — for example, unresolved issues from childhood — then went on to episodes relating to the trauma of birth (what he calls perinatal sessions). They would then relive their birth, followed frequently by an experience of ego-death and rebirth. This seemed to liberate the consciousness of the individuals from the confines of the body, and they then went on to have transpersonal experiences. (For a list of some of his section headings, see footnote 2.)
Most relevant to this article is the section entitled ‘Experiences of Encounters with Various Deities’. Rather than describe the material there, however, I’ll recount some of Grof’s own experiences³. He says that “I have experienced in my psychedelic sessions deities from a variety of cultures”, including Hindu, Egyptian, Australian Aboriginal, Shinto. He or his patients can have experiences of deities from any culture in the world. (This is perhaps surprising, since one might expect a person to have experiences related to their own culture and religion.)
Here is a summary of his first story. He had just been married to a woman called Christina, who at the time was an ardent follower of Swami Muktananda. She wanted them to meet, to see whether her guru would approve of their relationship. A meeting was arranged and the Grofs arrived early and waited in the car park. There Christina told him that Muktananda was from the school of Kashmir Shaivism, therefore that he was a devotee of the Hindu god Shiva. This excited Grof because in his LSD sessions he had had two powerful experiences of Shiva. The first was a major encounter in his destructive aspect, a figure mediating the ego-death experience. Then, years later, during an extraordinary vision — which included the river of time flowing back to the cosmic source, an incredible furnace of cosmic energy, dinosaurs originating as a species — he saw a very powerful image of Shiva Nataraja as a symbol of this cosmic dance. He told his wife about these experiences while they were waiting, and then it was time to go to meet Muktananda.
At this point, it’s worth pausing to reflect upon what we make of such visions. Grof believes that these experiences are real, not chemically induced hallucinations, and that the deities encountered are “powerful entities; they exist on another level of reality, and they are endowed with tremendous energies”. On the other hand, he reports that when papers on such LSD sessions were first published, hardcore materialists were delighted because this ‘proved’ that mysticism was not authentic, but was rather dependent on brain chemistry, and distorted neuro-physiological processes. Before I continue, why not consider for a moment where you stand in that debate.
Returning now to the story, Muktananda invited Grof to sit down by his side. Then, in Grof’s words: “He lifted his dark glasses, which he very seldom did, and he turned my head, and was looking into my eyes from just a couple of inches, like an opthalmologist, very very carefully studying my eyes. And then the first thing that he said was ‘I can tell you are a man who has seen Shiva’. He said ‘this is very good’. And this just absolutely blew my mind, because I had just spent about 10 or 15 minutes talking about my experiences with Shiva, which he of course had no way of knowing”.
What are we now to make of Grof’s experiences? Does this not shed an interesting new light on them? Materialists argue that such visions are unreal hallucinations generated, goodness knows how, by the brain. Yet here we have the suggestion that such an ‘unreal hallucination’ can actually leave some kind of trace, detectable by someone who knows what to look for. We can easily imagine how materialists will respond: this is merely an anecdote; Grof may have misremembered, or worse made up the whole story; this is not science; of course Shiva is not real, and so on. I’ll leave the reader to judge. (See this article for what happened next in their meeting. I recommend, however, that you finish this article first.)
Now for the second story, which is perhaps even more extraordinary. Grof believes that psychedelic sessions can reveal information about the archetypal realms, experiences of deities from cultures that we haven’t even heard of. This supports the theory of Carl Jung that there is a collective unconscious which mediates access to the whole cultural heritage of humanity. As evidence of this, Grof offers the following example.
While he was working in Prague, he had a patient with severe claustrophobia who, during an LSD session, had a vision of a very scary, very ominous entry into the underworld, which was guarded by a goddess in the shape of a pig. He suddenly opened his eyes, and demanded that Grof brought some paper, and some utensils, because he needed to draw. He then compulsively started to draw geometrical figures, but was never satisfied with his results.
Grof describes this as a very powerful episode among the many he supervised. At the time he was under the influence of Freudian analysis, and attempted to gain some insight by asking the patient to free-associate. This approach led nowhere, however, and he remained with no understanding whatsoever of the meaning of this episode. After he moved to the USA, he became close friends with the mythologist Joseph Campbell whom, because of his encyclopaedic knowledge, he would sometimes quiz about puzzling episodes from his sessions. Over dinner one evening he asked Campbell about the above example. The response was: “This is fascinating. This obviously was the devouring mother of the Malikulins⁴ of New Guinea tribe. There was a cult of pigs in this culture. The boys were breeding these pigs, and they had rites of passage, puberty rites, in which they would ritually kill the pig. The pig represented the mother, and so it was a kind of ritual separation of the bond to the mother. This culture also has the image of the Great Mother in the shape of a pig, and they believe that she guards the entry into the underworld. They practise during their lifetime drawing of this specific, very, very intricate and complex labyrinth. And they believe that during the posthumous journey of the soul, when they die, they come to this entry into the underworld, and they have to demonstrate to the pig-goddess that they can draw this specific labyrinth. Otherwise they couldn’t make the passage”. Grof then comments: “So this was quite an amazing confirmation, a verification, and an identification of an experience that at the time looked very obscure”.
So here we have a Czech man, with absolutely no conscious knowledge of this tribe or their culture, who, under the influence of LSD, suddenly finds himself drawn into their initiatory puberty rite-of-passage, and feels compelled, without knowing why, to behave exactly in the way expected of one of their adolescents. How is this possible from a materialist, or Darwinian, understanding of the nature of consciousness and the brain? I submit that no such explanation is possible, but would welcome any suggestions or responses.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, Christianity, psychology, science, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Viking Press, 1975, my copy Souvenir Press, 1979
2. These are just some of Grof’s section headings: Past-Incarnation Experiences; Precognition, Clairvoyance, Clairaudience, and ‘Time Travels’; Identification with Other Persons; Animal Identification; Plant Identification; Oneness with Life and with All Creation; Consciousness of Inorganic Matter, Planetary Consciousness, Out-of-Body Experiences.
3. What follows is taken from The Cosmic Game, tape 5 of a series of audiocassettes called The Transpersonal Vision, issued by Sounds True .
4. This is my phonetic transcription from the tape. I have been unable to find any reference to them on the internet.