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The Confessions of a Psychedelic Christian

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1. Holy River Isis!

It was a glorious summer’s day. I had done my finals and had finally escaped the academic prison that Cambridge had become. Sitting on the edge of a soggy sofa in a fashionably squalid student house in Oxford with my old pal Justin and his Wadham buddy James, listening to something weird on the record player, with no job prospects (I read English Literature) and no idea what to do with my life, a bag of weed on the table and a tab of acid in the palm of my hand, Wordsworth’s immortal line suddenly came to me: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”

We dropped the acid and went for a walk down to the river Isis. The sun beat down and Oxford sparkled with the optimism of youth. Justin and James were jabbering away about something vaguely interesting but inconsequential, and I leant them only half an ear. I was too much enjoying the sunshine to want to waste it in conversation. I also somehow knew that this was going to be a Big One, and my real focus was on my level of awareness and my surroundings, which I constantly scanned for clues that I was “coming up”.

We stopped at a small ornamental bridge over the river. The water was shallow where it gently lapped a small ramp, which emerged onto the bank, for no visible purpose. Justin and James were still deep in conversation. I gazed down at the water gently flowing beneath the bridge. The sun danced off the water in a thousand brilliant points of light. A posse of ducks slowly glided past, creating trails of impossibly intricate patterns as they broke up the reflected sunlight. I was mesmerised.

I tried to follow the dancing patterns of light, but it was too fast. All I could manage was a general impression, which, I realised, was all I ever saw. But today, I wanted to see more than a general impression. I wanted to see Reality. And the LSD would help me. But however much I tried to follow the flashing pattern, as the tiny points of light momentarily shone and disappeared, with others almost instantaneously taking their place, I just couldn’t keep up.

I was always one step behind. The time lapse between perception and brain processing was just long enough that I could see little more than a shimmering blur.

*

Then a voice in my head said, “Make your mind water”. So I did. I flowed with the water. Suddenly, I was in. I could see the individual points of light skipping over the water with tremendous speed, but I was with them. I could see them with perfect clarity. There was no gap between the water and my mind.

I stared with intense concentration and growing amazement. How long could I keep this up for? Was it bad for my eyes maybe? All sorts of shapes and images started to emerge from the dancing lights. I saw Cleopatra’s golden barge, followed by a bewildering palimpsest of Egyptian figures and symbols and mythical beasts. It was like a procession of the weird and the wonderful in glittering lights. Most of it, although perfectly clear and well-defined, I didn’t recognise at all.

After a while I got tired of this lightning fast game of cat and mouse, and let the shimmering light show go on unseen. I started to think about the nature of reality. It occurred to me that this was exactly what the pre-Socratic philosophers had done all those years ago. I thought about Thales, who famously said that, “the world is water”. I imagined him sitting gazing at the sun dancing on the water somewhere on the Aegean coast, just as I was doing now. I felt that our minds were somehow connected and that the two and a half millennia between us was no more than a temporary misunderstanding. I was seeing through his eyes, as he was seeing through mine.

We both understood in that timeless instant that we were gazing at the same water, and that the water never stopped. It had flowed and sparkled and shimmered and rippled and danced, creating an infinity of complex forms without end, since the time of Thales and long before, since the early dawn of the Earth itself. We looked away, exhausted, but the water just kept on moving, forever and ever. We could only witness an infinitesimal portion of its infinite being and becoming.

“The world is water”: all things come into being and disappear endlessly and ceaselessly, like the irrepressible dance of water in stream and river and sea. There is no end and no beginning to the infinite dance of forms. Everything is in motion, shifting and changing, combining and transforming. That’s why it’s impossible to step into the same river twice, as Heraclitus said. Everything is constantly in flux. There is no fixity, no stability, no permanence, no being. There is no being, only endless and eternal becoming.

I gazed at the shifting waters below me, sometimes catching the glint of the sun, sometimes not, shape-shifting, swirling, ebbing and flowing. I knew that I had been hallucinating. All of those beautiful forms and shapes I saw were nothing but a spectacular illusion created by my over-active imagination. It was all just an illusion. There was no Cleopatra’s barge. I just made it all up. I was high on acid, after all. But then again, didn’t I always do that anyway? Take the passing show as real? Mistake the appearance of things for the reality? Project my mind onto the world?

If this is all just an illusion, I thought, what is reality? Well, the water itself is real, even if the shapes projected onto it aren’t. Not the ever-changing surface, but the actual substance and depth of water below the surface is real. Underneath the glitter and spectacle of endless becoming on the surface was the constant and eternal being of the water, hidden from view but always there and always the same.

Then the simple but, at the time, extraordinary truth struck me like a bolt of lightning. The surface show is the water! The depths and the surface are aspects of one thing. It’s “not-two”. The surface show is not just an illusion: it’s the cosmic play, the dance of lila, of Reality itself. Being and Becoming are one and the same!

I have no idea how long I had been ruminating like this, staring at the abstract shapes of light and shade below me, but when I emerged from my philosophical reverie and looked up and around at the trees and sky laid out before me, I saw the world transformed. I had entered the “Pure Land”.

*

Everything was alive. Everything was on fire with overflowing life. It was just as Thomas Traherne described it: “The green trees when I saw them first … transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things”.

At the time I didn’t know Traherne, but I did know William Blake. I thought of that line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would be seen as it is, infinite.” Now, finally, after years of trying, I had broken through to the other side and everything was, indeed, infinite. This was the real thing, the Big One, a genuine, full-blown satori. So this was Enlightenment!

Time seemed to stop. I turned my head and saw a flower. The flower was so real, the looking was so real. Everything was so absolutely, unbelievably real. I remember thinking that that moment of looking at a flower was worth more than my whole life up to that point. My life had been nothing more than a long, hazy dream. But now I had woken up.

It was as if time had stopped, although things continued exactly as they had before. It was as if my mind had stopped, although I could still think. There was a special quality of stillness in my awareness that I had never experienced before. And I was not the person I had thought I was. The person I thought I was had vanished like a wisp of white cloud in a bright blue sky.

As I looked around me, with this strange, unfamiliar mixture of stillness and wonder, it was as though I was seeing the world for the first time. Traherne describes it perfectly:  “Eternity was manifest in the light of day, and something infinite behind everything appeared”.

I realised that this world that I was standing in was the same world that had always existed. All of the past history of the Earth seemed somehow contained in this present moment. I saw the miracle of existence, the miracle of life. And I myself was part of it. I wasn’t just a passive observer standing to one side of Reality. I was right in the middle of if it.

But I wasn’t just part of it, I was the most amazingly complex and conscious part of it. I myself was the growing tip of the consciousness of this beautiful planet. I myself was the culmination of billions of years of evolution. I wasn’t twenty-two at all. I was billions of years old!

I understood, in the core of my being, that I was the same as everything else. “At the water level”, I thought, “it’s all one”. The water, the trees, the bushes, plants, flowers, insects, animals, people, everything, everything was just a different form and manifestation of the same thing. At the water level, it was all the same. Everything had grown up out of the same “Earth stuff”, like different forms of the same body of water, different waves on the same sea. That’s what Thales meant.

Not only that, but one small part of all this Earth stuff saw and understood that it was all one: me. But I wasn’t “me” any more. I was just part of the one Earth. When I looked at the trees, it was as if the trees were looking at themselves. It was as if they could see themselves for the first time, as if they had woken up. It felt like the Earth itself was looking at itself through my eyes. Through “me”, the Earth had evolved to the point where it had become aware of itself. Not only had “I” woken up – so had everything.

*

There were a few houses beyond the trees on the other side of the river. There were fences and gardens. In a flash I saw the illusion of property. Everything was part of the Earth, and everything was mine, because they were all me. At first the fences and hedges offended me by their artificial parceling of the world, but then I realized that even the parceling and dividing, the houses and fences and gates, all of it was mine. The owner of the house and garden might believe that it belonged to him, but in fact it belonged to me and to everyone and everything, because it belonged to the Earth.

I was the Earth, but at the same time I was a human being. I was both the host and the guest. This was my home. At last, I felt like I truly belonged. I was filled with “oikophilia”, the love of home. Growing up, I had always felt like a bit of an outsider, at school, at uni, even at home with my family.

I never felt fully at home in England, my adoptive country, nor in Chile, my homeland. Now I felt that wherever I was, wherever I went, I would be completely at home, because I belonged here, on Earth. Nobody could tell me I was trespassing on their property, or that I had no right to be where I was, because this was my rightful home.

We walked on in silence. I knew that it was impossible to communicate what I was experiencing. I was transformed and the world was transformed, but actually everything was exactly the same, and just as it should be. I understood that this was “nothing special”, because it was just reality, and that as soon as I made it into something special, in my mind it would become other than reality, and therefore unreal, and then I would fall back into the mind’s dream of reality. So I kept my mouth shut. What could I possibly say anyway? I was afraid that if I started talking about it, I would lose it. Best to communicate through my actions and my simple presence.

Justin and James didn’t seem to notice anything at all. So much for my Enlightened presence! Would they have recognised Christ or Buddha? Probably not. Even without looking at their faces, I could tell that they were lost in their own dream world, believing that it was the real world. Everyone we passed as we walked along the river was dreaming too. I could see how everyone was basically sleepwalking through their own private dreams. Everyone was just pretending to be awake, by waking up for a split second every now and then, before falling back to sleep again. I felt a great surge of sadness and compassion, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

We approached a young woman sunbathing on the grass. From a distance she looked young and healthy and beautiful, but when she turned her face towards us, I saw that she was in fact full of corruption. Her outward appearance was just a disguise. I held her gaze and looked into her corrupted soul. She suddenly panicked, hastily gathered her things and ran off, scrambling desperately over a fence and disappearing across a field. “What the fuck was that all about?” said Justin. I said nothing.

Further on, we passed another bridge, this time an unsightly rusty old railway bridge, covered in graffiti. Justin and James were bemoaning Man’s desecration of the natural landscape.

They saw the bridge as an imposing iron structure rudely slammed over a delicate and fragile Earth. It must have represented for them the tragic environmental degradation of the planet by our insatiably greedy and destructive species. I shared the sentiment, but I didn’t see the bridge as they saw it. They presumably saw the bridge as solid and enduring and the trees as fragile and weak. Through the eyes of the Earth, however, the bridge barely existed. Nature was eternal. The Earth was eternal. But the bridge was nothing more than a passing twig on the river. It didn’t bother me in the slightest.

We paused by the brick wall, which was covered in graffiti. It was a mixture of ugly tags and obscenities. It seemed to me that the wall was the inside of someone’s skull. Every scratch and marking, every word and phrase, was a desperate attempt to make sense of the crazy world this human mind found themselves in. Desperation, anger and frustration were laid bare before me. I felt the raw pain of humanity, of human consciousness straining to understand. Amongst the chaos and confusion, one word jumped out at me. Someone had written just one word: “LOVE”. I couldn’t help but smile. They’d got there in the end!

We soon came to another bridge. It was intimidatingly high, but there were young teenage boys jumping off it into the water. I was amazed and impressed by their bravado. Suddenly, the water seemed welcomingly cool in the blazing heat of the sun. “Let’s have a swim!” I said. “What? Don’t be stupid.”

I waded in, fully clothed. Justin and James looked on from the bank with a mixture of worry and baffled amusement. So I splashed them. There was a young boy in the water who had just jumped off the bridge. Treading water, we exchanged a few words. He was friendly enough, but looked kind of naughty. There was an edge to him, an edge of “corruption”, just like I had seen in the young woman earlier. He couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old, and I could see a sweet childhood innocence mixed in with the corruption. Perhaps “experience” is a better word.

I became aware of his awareness. It seemed to come and go. One minute he was with me, the next he was somewhere else. He had disappeared into his mind. I remember thinking to myself, “but I’m still here”.

I could see how people came in and out of reality, in and out of the present. I also noticed the difference between children and adults. Children could meet me, so to speak, in the present, although they soon disappeared back into their minds. Adults, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, emerged from their minds at all. “But I’m still here”, I thought, as he swam off to join his mates.

I didn’t notice that the current had taken me downstream, far from the bridge and away from the bank. I tried to swim ashore, but the current was too strong. I wasn’t getting anywhere.

I stopped struggling for a moment and felt the weight of my clothes and my heavy sandals pulling me down. Like a bolt from the blue, I suddenly remembered that I was high on acid. Justin and James were nowhere to be seen. “I might drown”, I thought. It occurred to me that my beautiful dream of Enlightenment could well end up as the nightmare reality of a stupid drug-induced death. Had I seen too much? Was this the pay off? I thought I was invincible, like the apocryphal LSD casualties who jump out of windows believing they can fly, and reality was about to teach me the ultimate lesson in humility.

“What a shame” I thought. But I didn’t feel afraid. If I died now, I would die happy, because I had made it. I least I would die Enlightened! It just seemed a bit of a shame to die now, just when I had seen the light, but maybe that’s how it had to be.

Then I thought, “Well, I might as well make a bit of an effort”. So I kicked off and swam vigorously towards the shore. It turned out not to be so difficult after all, and I was soon climbing out, dripping wet, with one sandal somewhere at the bottom of the river. I stumbled up the bank to the path. I was quite attached to my sandals, which were new and quite stylish, with a metal ring in the middle, and I regretted the brief moment of panic when I kicked one off. But I was glad to be alive. I had sacrificed one sandal to the water, and now I sacrificed the other to the dusty earth. It felt very symbolic, a sacrifice to the elements in exchange for my life.

*

So it was that, barefoot, I walked aimlessly but purposively along the banks of the river Isis, like a wild prophet, half hoping to find my way back to the house, and half expecting to wander the world forever. I had various adventures along the way. I met the same naughty boys again, who were trying to haul an old boat into the river. It was like something out of Huckleberry Finn. I helped them carry it over and lower it down into the water, and it instantly sank.

As I walked along, I had a strange sensation, as though I were straddling two worlds, as though I was a time traveller from the distant past, or perhaps the distant future. At one point, I joined two young girls in their twenties, students maybe, who were having a picnic on the grass in the shade of tree, and got talking to them. I remember, absurdly, talking about Spike Milligan. I was a little surprised that they didn’t offer me any food or drink. After a while, although I had been faultlessly polite and charming (in my eyes anyway!), I sensed that they were beginning to feel a little uncomfortable randomly talking to a strange barefoot madman, so I said goodbye and went on my way.

I have no idea how I found my way back to the house, since I had no idea where it was or even what the address was, and this was a time before mobile phones, but I got there somehow. One of the housemates, a pretty black girl, whose name I forget, was there, but there was no sign of Justin or James. The kitchen was a horrible mess, with piles of dirty plates and pans everywhere. I poured myself a much needed glass of water and set to washing and cleaning until it was spotless. Then I went into the garden to commune with the plants. I was still in raptures. When the boys eventually returned, it was getting dark. They were visibly relieved to see me. They’d been looking for me for hours, apparently.

That night we all watched A Room with a View.  Every time a spliff came my way I politely refused. I didn’t need it. The film made complete sense, and I shed quiet, hot tears, which I managed to conceal in the semi-darkness. I went to bed in the early hours, exhausted but calmly elated. The next morning, I woke up with the mother of all hangovers, and my beatific vision was no more.