This story of unexpected samadhi is excerpted from Mike Millard’s new book, Love in the Time of Trump: A jagged memoir of the psychedelic ‘60s, today’s politics and religion.
School was out on that beautiful San Francisco spring day with protest in the air. Sagittarius dropped by to see if I wanted to go tripping around. His battered blue Monza convertible was running again and he had the top down. Sagittarius was a bit of a head case, but he was an old friend of Vernon’s and I knew him well enough to be fairly comfortable around him. “Cool,” I said. “This weather’s incredible, eh?”
“Yeah, it’s groovy and I have some new blotter,” he said. “Want to give it a try?”
I did. I and most City College students were on strike because Nixon and Kissinger had invaded Cambodia. Tom Hayden gave a speech at the football field and my political science teacher had promised B grades for those who participated in the student action. I was at loose ends, so off we went, rolling up to Haight Street and through the crowds toward the park. We stopped for two hitchhikers, a white cat with a huge ‘fro who looked like Hendrix’s bass player and a young chick traveling with him, Eric and Johanna, the guy said in a British accent, before he pulled out a bomber and fired it up.
“Smoke anyone?” he asked, extending it toward me. Didn’t mind if I did. I pulled deeply on the joint, hesitated a moment and passed it over to Sagittarius, who inhaled and held his breath, exhaled and toked again, before passing it back over his shoulder to big-eyed Johanna.
“Thank you,” she said, in plain American, taking the joint and inhaling expertly. Their vibes were nice. Sagittarius told them we were just tripping around the city and about to test fly some new acid if they were interested.
“Oh indeed,” Eric said, smiling, glancing at his companion for confirmation, “we’re always game for psychedelics, aren’t we dear?” She beamed in reply. They were. We pulled over in a shady turnout amid the greenery of Golden Gate Park and administered the small squares of paper as the gentle afternoon sun illuminated the green canopy overhead. Sagittarius, looking like some rough medieval priest with his unkempt long brown hair and beard, uttered a sort of benediction over the scene: “Let’s go trippin’,” he said, wheeling the car back out onto the road, where the afternoon whisked by in a blaze of laughter and light as I sat in the bucket seat and allowed it all to wash over me, the spontaneous beauty of life that sometimes touches us when we are young and have no cares and our hearts are open.
Later, as we were gliding downhill over the tattered end of Geary Street, sweeping down past Land’s End and the Family Dog along Ocean Beach, the mood had somehow turned. I sensed Sagittarius was growing irritated at my opinions that seemed to never quite agree with his, making him appear deficient or flawed before our passengers, or so he seemed to be thinking. Still, the acid was pure and the four of us were beginning to peak as afternoon sunlight cast up jewels across the gleaming San Francisco landscape. With his long hands clutching the steering wheel, his unkempt hair flying in the wind, Sagittarius looked darkly over at me and cursed in an accusatory voice he usually reserved for Nixon’s war crimes or Bill Graham’s ripping off the people: “Damn your worthless soul,” he said, almost snarling, though I wasn’t quite sure why, specifically, because my mind was largely caught up in the allure of the city and the moment and hadn’t been closely following his narrative.
Still, his verbal aggression startled me and my first clear thought was that I should avenge the insult by whipping his mangy ass. This seemed a perfectly normal reaction. He’d pulled our beat-up blue chariot over on the roadside along the stretch of beach, I noticed, which meant we could settle our differences out in the sand if we chose to.
Then another thought, unusual and gentler, came over me, from where I couldn’t say—I could forgive him, I would forgive him, I would let this go. And born out of this release there followed a peculiar psychological movement like a final tumbler unlocking the mental cage of my reality, which was left behind as my awareness expanded suddenly into an ocean of energy flowing outward into all things, into an intense, undulating unity of all things; I flowed through it as it flowed through me, light and beautiful like sunshine, billowing and radiant and limitless as clouds of glory, and for the first time in my life I was alive with awe and ecstasy. I felt my head glowing with energy and recalled prints of old European paintings with glowing golden halos encircling the heads of robed figures. I had not expected, could not have even imagined this.
Like a sunrise, it slowly came over me: This, this experience was the great mystery that people sometimes referred to as God. It did exist then! But it was so different. No old man with a beard. It was overwhelming bliss, it was everything, intelligence, all the intelligence ever, that had or would exist, and my own light was a small part of it, a wave tip that was normally isolated from the ocean as we all were, but not now because everything was reconciled into an infinite, eternal One. “We can stop in at our house on Scott Street,” Eric was saying from the back seat. “Some of us have gotten pretty high, I think.”
“Far out, show me the way,” Sagittarius was saying, glancing over at me as I leaned silently against the door, my face turned to the wind, floating in wonderment and confusion at finally being embraced by the ecstatic, endless oneness of all things. I had had no way of knowing about this, yet I felt that I had come home.
We rolled to a halt at the curb and entered a small, shabby Victorian house. I sat on a couch in a darkened living room, happy to be left mostly to myself as I passed ever deeper into the energy in which we all participate, but of which we are usually not aware. I heard Sagittarius whisper to Eric: “He could be Jesus,” to which the other replied, “Yes, but can he buy me dinner?” Eric put a James Gang record on the stereo, a band I didn’t know well and that seemed an odd choice for a Brit, but the guitars were nice. At some point, he faded away into the flickering shadows and whispers of the house. Sagittarius, too, seemed to have gone. The stereo was silent. I was aware that there were two more women working in the kitchen, who seemed to be quietly squabbling with Eric until the door shut softly and I was left alone, lingering in that dark room as a vision of subatomic vibrations gradually possessed me, varying wavelengths that seemed to appear somehow out of nothingness, their frequencies separating the many things from each other, creating the whole wild expanding universe that was somehow united by love and the Creator, who emerged from the numinous billowing whole as an ethereal spirit, like a feminine embrace or a soft kiss that embodied all the sacred wonder of nature, and out of her motherly embrace arose a single question: “In spite of the almost unimaginable perfection of the world that had been given to us, we seemed to be thoughtlessly destroying it. Why?”
The profound sadness of that question resonated through me for a long time (and does so to this day), until at last I could feel my enhanced consciousness beginning to recede back toward its normal state. I found that I could retain and understand an ever-smaller, dimmer aspect of the wonder that I’d beheld, and still, even amid the fading splendor and my hopeless confusion, I felt it had somehow transformed my life and that it would always be there and had always been there, though I hadn’t been able to see that. Now, I would never be the same.
Still, what I was to do with this shattering experience? Why had this lightning bolt of divination come to me? Was there a reason for this that was still not known? I was no priest or preacher, that was certain, no spiritual leader. I was mystified. It flitted across my mind that perhaps one day I would understand why this had happened, maybe I would even learn to articulate it, describe it, tell tales about it, but at that moment I was profoundly bewildered and I let it go streaming behind me like a thought of pure flame disappearing into the maw of time.
Then Eric was beside me. “We’d like you to come with us up to Northern California,” he said. “There is a place, you can have everything, dope, wives, freedom…” He gestured with his delicate hands, smiling. I was still too high to consider or make any decisions, sitting stunned and almost motionless as I was, amid a welter of mental complexities. I looked silently at him and smiled back. Eric finally nodded and again disappeared into the depths of the house. I sat for a longer spell, until at last I felt ready to stand up, and carefully made my way down a hall toward a lighted doorway where Johanna was lying with a book on a mattress amid rumpled bedding in a small room.
“Come in,” she said. I sat beside her, looking into her large pretty eyes, which had taken on a serious cast. She leaned close to me and whispered: “Don’t do it.” And then again, shaking her head: “Don’t do it.” I said nothing. My thoughts were still too many to consider any course of action. I made my way down the hall and wandered out into the San Francisco night. I never saw Eric or Johanna again. It was the right choice for me, my path diverged from theirs and led not away from the world but deeper into it. Still, I sometimes wonder what became of them.
In the months following this experience I attempted several times to once again attain that ecstatic, transformational state, but it never quite happened. I entered realms of energy-consciousness in which all things were composed of differing wave-lengths, but I never again experienced the profound spiritual unity as on that one particular day.
I had a bedroom in a large flat on Page Street shared by native San Franciscan Joe and his girlfriend, Frank and Donna and their baby — a small family who had come west from Connecticut in pursuit of the hippie life — and a long-haired roofer named Charlie, originally from Texas. It was a comfortable and interesting place to live, and I could easily make it out to City College by cable car.
In the flat below us was a computer programmer named William, his wife and two small children. William was considering including another wife in his family, which was meeting with some resistance, I was given to understand from Donna, who spoke often with his wife. William was a follower of Stephen Gaskin, a spiritual teacher who gave Monday evening talks at the Family Dog dancehall across from Ocean Beach.
And in the basement flat was Scientologist Janice and her son Kevin, who was eight or nine years old. Janice had hanging over her fireplace a framed picture of L. Ron Hubbard, the corners draped with tasseled purple cords and a small incense bowl set on the mantle before it. It created a sense of cultishness and worship that made me uneasy, although Janice was nice enough.
Sagittarius would drop by and we’d smoke a few joints or trip around, until one day he approached me with the idea of starting a religion. He played guitar and sang occasionally in local clubs, where he was also able to philosophize from the mic and had managed to attract a small band of followers. His proposition was to expand on that with my help into an actual religious group that would allow us to develop our ideas for building a new kind of society. His central tenet was a form of absolute subjectivity that would create a new world through the power of belief.
This seemed wrong to me, but Sagittarius insisted that if he believed something absolutely, with no doubt whatsoever, then it must be true by virtue of his sheer mental force. I’d poked fun at this construct in the past, which had irritated him, but I simply had no interest in his proposal to form a cult under a flag of irrational belief.
If everyone came together in such belief, he would maintain, then whatever they believed would become accepted reality. Most of the beliefs would be his, I assumed. I thought he’d taken too much acid, or more likely not enough. He seemed to be looking for an economic advantage, rather than seeking after the nature of ultimate reality, and a sort of gap began to open up between us. There were enough religions and cults out there already that sought to impose beliefs on their followers. They were everywhere at that time.
Sometime later in a book I came across an interesting letter from Thomas Jefferson in which he had written: “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” an idea that appealed to me, that made sense. How could anyone else find your way for you? Each person had to find it within themselves, didn’t they?
I would also come across Jiddu Krishnamurti, who had written: “I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.”
They made me feel that although I struggled by myself, I was not alone.
After about three years, I left the Haight for the University of Oregon in Eugene, where I was able to explore to my heart’s content. I had an ancient professor, a Unitarian from back East who had written a thick treatise on the philosophy of religion. It represented the integrated findings of his scholarly life and contained five “proofs” for the existence of God, all of which he freely admitted were subject to criticism and doubt.
After class one day, I unburdened myself to wizened Mr. Straton—no Doug or even Douglas, he was an old-school gentleman with thick glasses, an owl-beak nose and colorless, almost translucent skin—about my psychedelic experiences: “I had no interest in philosophy or religion until an acid trip when I encountered something like God, but not in the strict Christian sense. It was indescribable,” I said, gushing as the dam broke, “beyond comprehension, it seemed to encompass all intelligence, including my own, to my surprise, and it was alive beyond all understanding and honestly Mr. Straton, I was just awestruck. I hadn’t expected this and I still don’t know what to make of it or what I should do. I’m truly confused.” I looked at him eagerly. It was his subject, after all.
He regarded me suspiciously with a quick glance as he stacked his books in preparation for leaving, probably wishing to be discussing anything but this. Still, he looked up again, his expression much like that of an animal caught in a trap, and shook his head. “I don’t know, but I wonder if sometimes these things don’t happen too early, before a proper foundation has been built for them. That could result in an overwhelming confusion I would think.” He looked at me again, as if ascertaining whether I was going be all right, if I was still sane or had stepped over the edge. “One should be very careful with things like this,” he said, picking up his books and giving me a last, meaningful glance. The discussion was over. I thanked him for sharing his opinions, which were brief but seemed right. He hurried away, out of the classroom door, and I spent decades building such a foundation to support my experiences, until now I can finally write about them without seeming, to myself at least, to be either an idiot or a fraud.
Carl Jung was a great help in integrating world mythologies and religions into a single coherent vision, with Joseph Campbell bolstering his work. And in reading, I discovered that Campbell and Krishnamurti had become friends while crossing the Atlantic together on an ocean liner, which was fascinating, but I get ahead of myself…
The proofs for the existence of God cited by Straton were what you might expect when faith comes up against the hard wall of rationality and tries to explain itself. The causal argument, that from purpose or design, the moral argument, the epistemological argument from knowledge and the idea of truth as a whole, and finally the discovery through moral salvation, the territory of mystics, prophets, seers and the devout, and the one that I found to be most interesting. The five “proofs,” Straton had written, were profoundly related and taken all together “may constitute phases of a full, rationally coherent insight concerning God.”
Of course, other philosophers had dismissed them all at various times, and why not? We all find our own way. I won’t explore the first four here, but they are readily accessible through most basic texts on the subject, should you wish to examine them further. It was the fifth, discovery through moral salvation, or mysticism—Samadhi in Sanskrit—that spoke loudly if imperfectly to me at the time and has gained in clarity over the years.
Straton cited several first-hand experiences, predominantly Christian in context, among them Charles A. Bennett, a religious philosopher from the previous century who had written: “What happens is the direct contact with the Fountain Source of life heightens the whole significance of life, reorganizes the content of the mind, melts and fuses the contents of thought into new forms and brings fresh creative power.” This, to me, was a familiar pattern.
It seemed that in the basic act of creation all the opposites were born into simultaneous existence, that the personal and impersonal were one, as were being and nonbeing and so on. It was one great, infinite, eternal, living universe, perhaps multiverse, and we were all part of it, or so it seemed to me. It wasn’t Christianity or Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism or any of a number of –isms or cultish groupings that I’d come across in my explorations, though it may have borne some relation to them all. It was my own personal direct experience of what is divine in life, and as such it could not be refuted. I, too, seemed to be a sect of one.
Jim DeKorne, author of the underground classic Psychedelic Shamanism, spoke to me on the Big Island of Hawaii where he lives about some of his experiences in the ‘60s. “I’d heard about LSD but had no chance to try it until this buddy of mine who used to hang out with [writer Ken] Kesey and the pranksters got hold of some. It was probably Sandoz. I was curious and I took it. I kind of expected it to be a spiritual experience, and boom! My consciousness was somewhere way up high looking down on everything—and everything was perfect. Whatever happened, atomic war, plague, the planet was perfect in and of itself, everything was fine… I was an antiwar activist, and it was saying, ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’ That lasted about four hours, but then I started coming down,” he lamented.
The problem with this was that Jim was up there, where all was as it should be forever, then found himself evicted back into the hardscrabble of everyday life, wondering, “How can I get back there?” It was difficult to cope because he’d “been to the top of the mountain and now he was back in the swamp,” as he put it. “I wanted to be there all the time.”
This wasn’t unlike Aldous Huxley, who’d written that while you could experience the “white light,” you weren’t allowed to live in it permanently.
“I was fairly naïve,” Jim said. “On that first acid trip I didn’t know what Samadhi was, I had to look it up and say oh yes, that’s what I had experienced. And of course there’s various levels of Samadhi, and I think mine was not the highest because I was still able to see subject and object. I could look at reality and everything was perfect just as it was, God’s in his heaven, om-m-m-m-m, forever. “
Samadhi is viewed in mystical literature as having three or more levels and is often described as a meditative mental state in which the differences between all things fade into unity, in which only a pure awareness remains where nothing is missing from wholeness and perfection.
Psychoactive sacraments have helped us experience the divine since the first stirrings of religion at the dawn of human consciousness. They were involved at the “very origin of humankind’s religious cognition, the awareness that there was a spiritual dimension to our existence,” Professor Carl A.P. Ruck of Boston University told me.
Such sacraments were taken during the Mysteries of Eleusis, enacted for more than a thousand years at a shrine outside Athens. Cicero credited “the ancient Mystery enacted at Eleusis as the essential impetus for the evolution of humankind’s rise from savagery to civilized modes of life.”
Ruck concurs. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “It makes you live with more hope and die a better death. The motif is that you die and are then reborn.” This, in keeping with the myth of Persephone’s return from Hades and the resurrection of life in spring. “As a psychological event it was an ego death.” What happens, he said, is that “you meet a deity, face-to-face.”
The source of the mysteries is what Ruck refers to as the empyrean, “a deity beyond deity, it is the reservoir of every life that has ever been lived, the home of all souls that ever were incarnated, and if you believe in incarnation, the fire descends from the empyrean into the individual entrapment of matter and then when you die it goes back to that reservoir.”
In the book The Road to Eleusis, co-written by Ruck and Albert Hofmann, the Swiss researcher who discovered LSD, Hofmann referred to a similar state, unio mystica, in which the individual finds a “healing experience of totality.”
Hofmann also noted that while Christian liturgy worships a God enthroned in heaven, at Eleusis the emphasis was on a transformation of the individual, “a visionary experience of the ground of being” that converted the subjects into mystical initiates.
Still, you cannot abide permanently in that expanded, exalted state. It wears off and your mind inevitably retreats toward its original moorings. Yet you know what you experienced, if only as a dim shadow of its original glory. This realization is not unlike that of Plato’s cave, and perhaps for good reason, as Plato was an initiate of Eleusis. Words have always been an inadequate means of conveying all of this, I think, so it is probably better that you figure it out for yourself. I’ll leave it there.
Mike Millard, a veteran journalist with roots in the Pacific Northwest, has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, wire agencies and websites, worked in Asia for more than two decades and traveled widely in Europe as well. Love in the Time of Trump is his third book.
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