Huston Smith's introduction to entheogens took place while he was participating in a study at Harvard University's Center for Personality Research in 1961. Professor Timothy Leary, who would later be dismissed for his experiments with LSD, was conducting tests to determine if mescaline, psilocybin, or LSD could change behavior in prisoners and alcoholics. In the first chapter of his new book, "Cleansing the Doors of Perception," Smith recounts the intense religious awe he felt after taking mescaline--a psychedelic drug--under Leary's direction and in the presence of a psychiatrist. Smith ends the book with his explanation of why drugs have not become his path to enlightenment.

Why, when I count several of my entheogen experiences as being among the most important of my life, have I no desire to repeat them? On occasion I have gone so far as to rank them with family and world travel in what they have contributed to my understanding of things, yet it has been decades since I have taken an entheogen, and if someone were to offer me today a substance that (with no risk of producing a bummer) was guaranteed to carry me into the Clear Light of the Void and within 15 minutes return me to normal with no adverse side effects, I would decline. Why?

Half my answer lies in the healthy respect I have for the awe entheogens engender; in Gordon Wasson's blunt assertion in the frontispiece of this book, "ecstasy is not fun." I understand Meister Eckhart completely when he says that "in joy and terror the Son is born" (emphasis mine). I speak only for myself, of course, but if I am honest I have to say (and age may figure in this) that I am afraid of the entheogens. I will take them again if need be, as I did with peyote, but the reasons would have to be compelling.

The second half of my answer is that I have other things to do. This may sound like a limp excuse for foregoing ecstasy, so I will invoke the Buddhist doctrine of the Six Realms of Existence to explain the force it has for me.

Metaphysically, that doctrine posits six kinds of beings and the realms they inhabit. (The doctrine can also be read psychologically as six states of mind that human beings keep recycling, but I will stick to its metaphysical reading.) The two populations that are relevant here are the demi-gods, who are always happy, and human beings, whose lot is harder but who are actually the best off of the six kinds of beings because they alone possess free will with its power to change things. (The four I haven't mentioned are instinct-ridden animals, fiercely envious jealous gods, insatiably greedy hungry ghosts, and hell beings who are ravaged by rage.) Blissed out on Cloud Nine, the demi-gods are still subject to time, which means that sooner or later their holidays will end and they will find themselves back in the form of life from which they were granted temporary leaves. Only the human state opens onto nirvana, which is why one of the three things that Buddhists give thanks for each day is that they have been born into a human body.

I will not try to separate what is literal from what is figurative in this account; only its moral teaching interests me here for supporting my second reason for having no desire to revisit the entheogens. The Sufis speak of three ways to know fire. Through hearsay, by seeing its flames, and by being burned by those flames. Had I not been burned by the totally Real, I would still be seeking it as knights sought the Grail and moths seek the flame. As it is, it seems prudent to "work for the night is coming," as a familiar hymn advises. Alan Watts put the point more directly: "When you get the message, hang up the phone."

The downside of swearing off is, of course, the danger that the Reality that trumps everything while it is in full view will fade into a memory. The problem besets all epiphanies [as in] the psalmist's lament, "restore unto me the joy of my salvation." ...

The question comes down to which experiences we should try to keep in place as beacon lights to guide us and which we should let lapse. The intensity of the experience doesn't give us the answer, as this final personal anecdote of the book bears out.

When the first UFO craze swept America in the 1950s, I was teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, where the president of McDonnell Aircraft gave Chancellor Arthur Compton a grant to convene a conference on Science and Human Responsibility. Having headed the team of physicists at the University of Chicago that produced the first chain reaction of splitting atoms, Compton was able to attract world-class scientists of the order of Werner Heisenberg to the conference. I was enlisted to manage arrangements and produce a record of the event.

On the evening of the conference I was in my dean's office reviewing the checklist of things to be done. He was speaking, when suddenly, midway through a sentence, a look of horror swept over his face and he plunged for the window behind me. I whirled to follow him, at which point my account becomes embarrassingly corny because what we saw fit the UFO stereotype so exactly. Five illuminated saucers were sweeping in a semicircle across the leaden clouds of the late November evening sky--astonishingly close to our window, it seemed. They were moving so fast that they were out of sight almost before we saw them. We bolted into his secretary's office hoping to follow them from her window, but they were gone.

Without exchanging a look, we retraced our steps and resumed our chairs in his office, where we sat in total silence without looking at each other for about five minutes. The reason I am telling this story is for what we experienced in those minutes. We felt shaken to our foundations. Finally, the dean bestirred himself, looked at me, and said, "Well, Huston: I'm a dean and you're in religion; they'll never believe us." We went our respective ways and never mentioned the matter again.

In its immediate force, that experience rivals that of the entheogens, but, unlike the latter, it had no lasting impact, the obvious reason being that I don't believe in invading extraterrestrials. That disbelief leaves me suspecting that a naturalistic explanation for what we saw exists, even though I don't know what it might be--an aircraft's wings that were reflecting rays from the setting sun, perhaps? What the account points up is the way our basic beliefs adjudicate what we make of our experiences, a point the Victorian poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox captures beautifully in the following quatrain:

One ship driving east and another drives west
By the self-same gale that blows,
'Tis the set of the sail, and not the gale,
That determines the way she goes.

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