Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist often called the "father of LSD," died last Tuesday. He was 102.
Hofmann discovered lysergic acid diethylamide-25 in 1938 while studying the ergot fungus. Five years later, some of the chemical seeped onto a finger and he had his first "trip," an experience that duplicated a childhood epiphany in which he said he felt "at one with nature."
Hofmann, who took hundreds of doses of the drug during his lifetime, regarded LSD as a sacrament by which people could discover their place in nature. The synthetic version was originally marketed for use with people in psychotherapy.
LSD was banned in 1966 when it became popular among the rebellious young. Its principal apostle was Harvard professor Timothy Leary, whose advice to "turn on, tune in, drop out" became the rallying cry of the psychedelic era. Although people as varied as actor Cary Grant and writer Aldous Huxley praised the drug, there were also reports of people jumping out of windows. Further, overuse of the drug was said to destroy mental health.
I never did a lot of LSD, having a hypochondriac's undue respect for "medicine" and feeling that my mind was spinning in another galaxy anyway. I assumed I would be among those whom the drug transformed into a gurgling fulltime mental patient.
But I did the drug maybe six times. My first trip was in the gardens of the governor's palace in Williamsburg, Va. I described it in a column a few years back:
"I was lying on the ground, looking up at the trees and griping to my companion that nothing was happening. Suddenly, I heard an alarm and fell into a swirling map of vibrating turquoise, blue and gold vortices – each a door to another world. What actually happened: A peacock roosting in a tree had shrieked, flown to the ground and thrown open his tail. I had dissolved into what religions describe as the purely blissful foundation of existence."
I certainly have no regret for that experience and those that followed. I might say, though, that the people with whom I dropped acid did regard it as a ritual experience, not the recreational one that it's become with usually much lower doses today.
I never made much of my LSD trips until the late '80s when I enrolled in a three-week workshop called STAR in California (where I later worked several years). Part of that experience was two sessions of Holotropic Breathwork, a substitute for the LSD trip developed by Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist who did much of the early research in psychedelic psychotherapy.
The experience involves rapid breathing over the course of at least two hours while evocative music plays. I did many subsequent sessions of breathwork and use it in workshops I conduct. Although it does not produce the same intensity as LSD, it has the advantage of giving the participant control over his experience through regulation of the breath. If the trip goes bad, you can turn it off.
Grof's research resulted in a fascinating map of the psyche based on birth trauma. I am more interested in the way the psychedelic experience serves as a portal to imaginal reality. Hofmann himself observed this, and, later in life agreed that there are less radical means of glimpsing the "other" reality: "meditation, dance, music, fasting."
In penetrating imaginal reality, we apprehend not only life's underlying sense of interdependence, but the spontaneous and consistent way that deeper reality expresses itself – in dreamlike images, usually personified ones. We are accustomed to regarding these images – the dog or parent in a dream, the mammoth peacock in the tree – as distortions of reality or hallucinatory products of our own mind, not as autonomous expressions that visit us.
But the evidence of the spontaneous eruption of imaginal objects and beings is common. One of the stranger ones, observed for decades, is the appearance of flying saucers or visitations by aliens. Of course, these are not "real" in the sense that the table at which I sit is real, although they seem quite real to thousands of people who have no context for understanding their appearance as imaginal beings that have nothing to do with mental health.
In the psychedelic experience, one may play with this aspect of psychic reality. Like the information confided in a dream, what is gleaned through the intentional opening to the imaginal is usually surprising, new and much more deeply felt than in a purely verbal, analytical experience.
It's a shame that Hofmann and those he inspired were not able to continue scientific research into LSD, but they have furnished us a roadmap.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.