When Albert Hofmann accidentally stumbled upon the powerful mind-altering properties of lysergic acid (LSD) on April 19th, 1943 –a day that is now celebrated worldwide as ‘Bicycle Day’ in commemoration of Hofmann’s historic psychedelic commute after he had ingested 250 micrograms of the ergot compound he was studying (what we would now call “a heroic dose”)– he had no way of knowing the kind of cultural revolution his serendipitous discovery was about to unleash. In truth, Zandos (the Swiss pharmaceutical company he worked for) didn’t quite know what to do with this new substance either, which was initially marketed as a psychotomimetic and sent to any professional psychiatrist that requested it, in the hope that it would help therapists experience for themselves the kind of psychotic breakdowns their own patients were going through, albeit for a brief and controlled manner.
In time scientists would come to understand the altered states of consciousness triggered by psychoactive compounds such a LSD, mescaline or ketamine had less to do with schizoid behavior, and more to do with the visionary trances of religious mystics –transcendent experiences which could not only reveal to the mind the esoteric symbols of the subconscious (hence the name “psychedelic” which means “mind-manifesting”) but perhaps even offer glimpses of events with validity in consensual reality… as we shall explore in this little article.
And if ‘Acid’ wasn’t enough to earn dear Albert an encumbered place in the Psychedelic Pantheon –and in the hearts of all Deadheads— he was also the first chemist to synthetize psilocybin in 1958. This too was produced by Sandoz and shipped to reputed universities interested in using it for serious psychological studies. One of those academicians experimenting with it was one Timothy Leary, who was still a reputable psychology professor at Harvard but had already tried magic mushrooms during a family holiday in Cuernavaca, México. Leary was so impressed by that first trip –he was forever a changed man according to his book High Priest— he decided to conduct guided sessions with psilocybin back in the States and was looking for participants (Harvard’s management reluctantly acquiesced, a sign of how drugs were still years away of becoming the ‘boogeyman’ of Western culture).
One of those people eager to join in was Stanley Krippner. Stanley’s name might not be as easily recognizable as those of his many colleagues in the fields of parapsychology, but he’s one of the few credentialed researchers who is highly respected by both the ‘woo-woo’ crowd and the über-skeptics: he’s a renowned authority in Shamanism who’s lectured in dozens of countries; his study in dream telepathy at the Maimonides Institute has been cited in numerable scientific papers; he met María Sabina, the Mazatec indigenous ‘curandera’ who first revealed the secret of the mushroom ceremonies to Westerners; he was a friend of Rolling Thunder, the controversial Medicine Man who was a very famous figure of the 60’s counterculture –but has also been accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ and being a ‘plastic shaman’ by more traditional Native Americans; and he was also a close friend of all the members of The Grateful Dead, joining them in many tours and marijuana smoking sessions.
But back in the early 1961 Stanley was just a young teacher at Penn State University, when he first saw Timothy Leary at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, where he explained the particulars of his psilocybin experiments as part of a panel with the psychologist Frank Barron, the British-born historian Gerald Heard and the famous beatnik writer William Burroughs. “Psychedelic drugs open the door to the Magic Theater,” Leary said to an enthralled and over-crowded audience, “and the stages and dramas you encounter depend on what you are looking for, your state of mind when you begin, and the condition of your traveling companions.” Stanley was very curious in experiencing that ‘Magic Theater’ for himself, so he wrote a letter asking to be one of the research participants in the psilocybin studies, even though he wasn’t a Harvard member himself –Stanley’s plan was to convince Stephen Klineberg (a friend of his who was a doctoral student in the Harvard department of social relations) to join in the study, and once in he would ask permission to tag along with him.
Krippner was just the kind of person Leary was looking for, so in April of 1962 after a personal interview and the review of Stanley’s medical report, he was welcomed into the study and also invited to a dinner party the faculty was throwing in honor of Alan Watts. Stanley was more than happy to attend for he was a big admirer of Watts, already a much celebrated philosopher and lecturer of Eastern mysticism; but unfortunately for poor Stanley, during that evening he ate something that didn’t agree with him and became violently ill the night before he and Steve Klineberg were supposed to take the orientation session with Leary’s assistants. “I don’t think you’re in any mood to take psilocybin tonight” Steve cautioned his sick friend, but Stanley was determined not to miss this opportunity, and asked Steve to drag his sorry (and vomiting) ass to the private apartment where the session would be held half an hour early, so Leary’s graduate students wouldn’t suspect anything, and after they left room Stanley rushed to the restroom to puke his guts out. Steve once again asked him to desist, but Stanley was determined to soldier on.
At 5:30 pm both Steve and Stanley were given 30 milligrams of pure Sandoz psilocybin at the hands of Leary, who then left the apartment in order to attend an appointment with state medical officials that were already starting to get very uncomfortable with the psychedelic experiments performed by the man who years later would be called ‘Public Enemy #1’ by the Nixon administration. The two assistants were also given a smaller dose, and would serve as guides to the novice psychonauts.
By 5:57, according to Krippner’s own recollection of the event in the essay Music to Eat Mushrooms By, he closed his eyes and “saw a kaleidoscopic vision of colorful shapes and swirls. I opened my eyes to find the room vibrating with brilliant colors.”
My fingers were tingling and my limbs were trembling. I closed my eyes again and visualized a giant mushroom spreading over me like a magical umbrella. A spiral of letters, words and numbers blew away in a tornado; apparently I had been stripped of my verbal ability and was left with a concrete world of sense, feeling and direct impressions.
Stanley, instantly cured of his previous stomach discomfort, was now delighted by the onslaught of new sensory responses catalyzed by the psychoactive compound. He was given an apple to eat and felt the process of chewing and swallowing the sweet pulp as if in slow motion. He went to the kitchen and tasted some of the spices kept at the cupboard, and returned to the living room relishing the fabric of the sofa, the texture of the carpet floor, and the softness of the sweater –and breasts– of one of the guides (this were the 60’s, people). His hearing had also been heightened by the psilocybin, and Stanley found himself enraptured by the sound of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that was playing on the stereo, while beautiful geometric patterns kept flowing into his mind. One could hardly wish for a more perfect introduction into the world of psychedelics.
Soon the imagery became more concrete, and Stanley was whisked away into the court of Kublai Khan, where he observed the rich embroidery of the clothes worn by the royal courtiers. The exotic locale then morphed into a giant concert auditorium designed with the same kind of arabesque structures present in Buckminster Fuller’s work. The hall turned into Versailles, where Stanley saw Benjamin Franklin regaling the French monarchs with his witty charm. France was transmogrified into Spain, and classical music gave way to the wild rhythms of gypsy guitars –the turntable had changed the record and was now playing Flamenco, and now in his mind’s eye Stanley saw a black-haired Spanish dancer throwing roses into the air, which exploded like firecrackers.
The hallucinogenic scenery kept changing into different places and historical figures: Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, showing his newest invention; Edgar Allan Poe at Baltimore, mourning the death of his young bride. From Maryland Stanley was transported to the nation’s capital and found himself inside the White House looking at a bust of Lincoln. The stern features of the Great Emancipator began to darken, and Stanley noticed a gun at the base of the statue:
[S]omeone whispered, “He was shot. The president was shot.” A wisp of smoke rose from the gun and curled into the air.
Lincoln’s features slowly faded away and those of John F. Kennedy took their place. The wisp of smoke was still emerging from the gun and the voice repeated, “He was shot. The president was shot.” My eyes were filled with tears.
Wiping my eyes, I visualized a chaotic, turbulent sea; my three companions and I were on a small boat, trying to remain afloat. We came upon a gigantic figure standing waist deep on the churning waters. He smiled a sad smile, filled with compassion, concern, and love.
Was this the image of God? Was He caught in the storm as well? Perhaps nobody could change our course, alter our situation, or provide us with security. However, we could all express compassion, concern, and love –and in so doing that, partake in divinity.
Stanley opened his eyes. The imaginal effects of the psilocybin had apparently receded, although he still found himself ‘high’ the next day, when he went to visit some friends in New York who took him to a stage play. Before leaving the apartment where the psychedelic session had been held, he telephoned Leary and made special emphasis on the Lincoln/Kennedy sequence. Whether Leary found any special meaning on his ‘vision’, Stanley doesn’t say in his essay; but 19 months later, when JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, a lot of his friends thought he had had a true precognition.
To Krippner’s own credit, he tried to find ‘rational’ explanations to this ‘chemically-induced clairvoyance’. He explains in the essay that when he was very young he studied the lives of presidents, and was aware of the ’20-year-cycle’ –also known as the Tecumseh curse— that seemed to show up every time a U.S. president dies in office (president Ronald Reagan, who was shot by John Warnock Hinckley Jr., is said to mark the ‘end’ of the curse), so perhaps –he theorized– his unconscious mind was aware of the fact that Kennedy’s term coincided with the deadly loop. He mentions Jung’s synchronicity theory in order to view the presidential cycle not as a series of discrete events, but as a single archetypal event –like an archipelago of small, apparently-separate islands that in reality form one single reef below the water.
An interesting idea, although it fails to explains the many peculiar coincidences shared between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, which were brought to the attention of the public after the 35th president was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963 by [insert favorite conspiracy here] –the fact that both were killed by a gunshot wound, just like Stanley ‘foretold’ it, being obviously the most important one.
Who knows, maybe after the Bay of Pigs incident and the rising social tensions starting to bubble in the Southern states, Stanley’s unconscious was projecting his non-verbalized fears that Kennedy’s presidency had a high probability of ending in tragedy, just like Lincoln’s did. Or maybe we just need to entertain the possibility that psychedelics can open the human mind to the reception of valuable information that is not mere trickery of the ‘Magic Theater’. Maybe not just any mind, but one properly prepared to receive the information via high education and a special set of circumstances (the fact that Stanley was vomiting the night prior to his psilocybin trip is particularly interesting, because it resembles the ‘purging’ of Ayahuasca ceremonies); and maybe not just any kind of information, but in the case of ‘future events’ those that have such cultural and social impacts they have a higher chance to create a powerful ‘ripple effect’ in the fabric of Space/Time.
In any case, from that moment on Stanley became thoroughly convinced of the incredible potential of psychedelics, when used under the adequate set and settings. He first discussed his remarkable psilocybin experience in August of 1963 (yes, BEFORE Kennedy died) in a paper titled Consciousness Expansion and the Extensional World, at the International General Semantics Conference in NYU. At 86 of age he continues to this day working, teaching and giving lectures all over the world. And, with any luck, he’ll still be around to see what Timothy Leary didn’t: the day when these ‘mind-manifesting’ substances will stop being proscribed, and will be fully recognized as what they always were –a gift.