I watched a movie on Netflix the other night titled “The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors” which profiled the work of visionary artist Alex Grey (link at end of blog). Gray has long been associated with the “New Age” movement due to the subject matter of his art and his long-time use of hallucinogenic drugs. His most famous work is “The Sacred Mirrors,” a series of 21 life-size paintings which show, in an x-ray like presentation, the interplay of multiple layers of reality from the biological to the cosmic.
I had had an art book by Gray years ago and remembered being fascinated by the subject matter but somewhat uneasy at the anatomical realism he used for the body. I am a squeamish person when it comes to blood and guts – perhaps unwilling to acknowledge the mortality of the body and the fear that engenders. But this documentary reminded me of his extraordinary ‘vision’ of man’s spiritual nature and its possibilities.
So I went to the Amazon website to check out his books and read various readers’ comments. Almost without exception, his books were awarded five stars and comments by readers were full of superlatives – with one notable exception. Someone wrote, “I can’t give it five stars because the author takes drugs and writes about it.” Would silence have been preferable and made the art more acceptable, I wondered?
When Gray spoke of taking LSD (and other drugs), he said he took the drug ‘sacramentally,’ not for purposes of recreation. This is the same position held by (I think) the Native American Church whose members ingest psilocybin mushrooms for visions. Tribal shamans routinely take drugs in their ceremonies.
Drugs, visions, spirituality, religion – thorny issues, indeed! Does a vision experienced through the use of a drug have the same weight, value, ‘purity’ as a vision experienced, say through 20+ years of hard-won privation and meditation, for example; or through a serendipitous grace granted to someone who never prayed?
In other words, is taking drugs cheating? Is the vision a ‘reward’ for good behavior? Doesn’t that smack of the Protestant ethic of hard work and devil’s workshops? And if it is based on hard work, self-denial and sacrifice, how much and how long?
This was a personal conundrum for me many years ago. The koan of my early life was “Who am I and why am I here.” It had propelled my spiritual search from the age of 12. By the time I was 27, in spite of extensive reading, discussion and exploration, I was no closer to the answer.
Then one night, as I was returning home from a friend’s house, I drove down a country road in rural Pennsylvania. There were no street lights and no moon but the black sky was blazing with stars. I looked up and suddenly my mind stopped running that spinning wheel of internal dialogue. I could hardly breathe and when a stray word or thought came to mind, I brushed it aside, preferring this blessed silence.
I knew who I was and why I was here. The words/vision/understanding came to me that I was a single cell in a great cosmic body called God and this little cell was located not in His heart or His mind or in some other noble place, but in His little finger – a humble and modest position. I had no great purpose or mission to fulfill. God simply wanted to experience Life through me and I was here to be joyful.
As this realization came to me, I felt a kind of ball of energy in my stomach that rose through my body, passed my heart and throat, and rushed out of my mouth heading to the stars overhead. That’s where I belonged, I understood. That’s where Home was! I was flooded with an incredible joy. How simple it all was. I didn’t have to be anybody or prove anything or go anywhere. Everything was perfect just as it was. I was filled with light and gratitude.
That was forty years ago and I have reminded myself many times of the wisdom of that experience. But before I had that insight, I had smoked a joint with my friend. Did that ‘taint’ the experience in some way? Had I cheated and if so, had this cheating invalidated the insight? Was a vision that didn’t come through traditional ‘religious’ channels true? Was a vision that wasn’t brought about by suffering, deprivation or meditation real?
Personal visions, especially ones that are assisted by drugs, are considered dangerous – so much so that the taking of such drugs is criminalized. In this, the Church and the State are in agreement. Religion is a business, a corporation of sorts, with a hierarchy, mission and work force. Drugs can present serious competition by their indifference to established authority.
Religion usually considers visions as private territory – like a franchise, and disallow any but the original founder visionary experiences. Mystics and saints have had a terrible track record with organized religion and frequently have not only been considered trespassers on sacred ground but often the very embodiment of evil for daring to claim any private access to divinity. Might this be because once someone has vision, they are less willing to accept another’s truth as their own; they might become insubordinate or even unmanageable.
If taking drugs was the ‘easy’ way to enlightenment, would that make a person less holy, less wise, less compassionate, less creative as a result? Or, can drugs, by allowing a glimpse of the multi-verse that physicists are now describing, debunking and debating, add new dimensions to life and assist on the evolutionary journey? To ask the question is to know the answer.