Mysticism Sacred and Profane by Robert Charles Zaehner

Originally published in 1957 ‘Mysticism Sacred and Profane – An Inquiry into some Varieties of Praeternatural Experience’ was written by Robert Charles Zaehner (1913-1974). The basis of the book is a refutation of Aldous Huxley’s claim that mescaline is able to produce a mystical experience in those who use the drug; set against a wider religious discussion. At the time of writing the book Zaehner was the Oxford University Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, a post he held until his death.

When Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) he was the not the first to raise the question of a philosophical and psychospiritual dimension in the use of certain drugs; to attain, in his words, a praeternatural experience. He was, however, the catalyst for the debate during the first wave of psychedelia in the 1950s and 1960s. Huxley took into account a number of influences when he penciled the discursive territory of the psychospiritual in his texts but it was in the responses to his work that the psychedelic territory took its contemporary form. Robert Charles Zaehner’s Mysticism Sacred and Profane (1957) was one of these responses.

Principally, Zaehner says that the praeternatural experience is not typical of mescaline; taking the drug is no guarantee of the psychospiritual and, indeed, is unable to produce the highest ‘theistic’ mystical experience (he is a Roman Catholic). He includes the account of his own mescaline experience, along with two others, in the appendices to demonstrate this. Huxley’s mistake lies, we are told, in his monist approach to the mystical experience, which takes all the accounts of mystics in the past to be of a single nature, consequentially equating his own experience with theirs. Zaehner challenges Huxley’s “assumption that his experience had religious significance” (Zaehner 1957, xiv), by essentially saying that Huxley was predisposed to understanding it psychospiritually and that, furthermore, the ancient accounts of mystics could not all be understood as being an atypical nature mysticism.

Broadly speaking then, there are three ways with which Zaehner constructs his argument. Firstly: Zaehner believed that Huxley was predisposed to believing in a universal, psychospiritual mysticism, which could be assessed through mescaline, for a number of reasons. In part, because of the work of previous writer-researchers, like the psychologist William James who had speculated on the mystical drug experience, thus presetting a potential tone; Huxley’s philosophia perrenis (which he outlined in The Perrenial Philosophy (1945)), which led him to believe that if the drug could in fact produce a religious experience, it would therefore be akin to all other mystical experiences; and, lastly, Huxley’s own intellectual and psychological character is examined and portrayed as an ‘introverted introvert’. As one who seeked to escape the world of the everyday to a place quite possibly offered by mescaline. For Zaehner, all these elements predisposed Huxley to the experience he describes in the text and was, therefore, deluding himself.

Secondly, Zaehner examined the context under which both he and Huxley had been given mescaline; namely under the auspices of doctors working around the psychotomimetic (psychosis mimicking) understanding of the drug (Huxley with Humphry Osmond, Zaehner with Osmond’s partner John Smythies). Bearing in mind the philosophia perrenis, therefore, “by a mystical experience Huxley seems to understand not only the experiences of all the recognized mystics, but experiences such as his own under the influence of mescaline; and, since he is honest, he would be forces to add, the experiences of madness” (Zaehner 1957, 27). For Zaehner, who seems to be slightly oblivious to Huxley’s own explanations on the connection, this underscores that it was not in fact an actual mystical experience; rather something of a different/lower calibre.

The third way Zaehner constructs his argument, and which makes up the bulk of the text, is through various philosophical cross-examinations of previous mystics, confining his analysis to “praeternatural experiences in which sense perception and discursive thought are transcended in an immediate apperception of a unity or union which is apprehended as lying beyond and transcending the multiplicity of the world as we know it” (Zaehner 1957, 199). These accounts come from traditions as diverse as Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu. Often Zaehner approaches their experiences by using Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious: “[Jung] is not concerned with the God of any theology but with the God-archetype as he finds it in his patients” (Zaehner 1957, 202). Zaehner’s intention is to describe a difference in the psychological make-up of the mystics, therefore underlying the non-monistic understanding of the mystical experience.

Furthermore, Zaehner, a Catholic, seeked to explain his position through a theistic standpoint; the existence of a personal and active God: “It is an unbridgeable gulf between all those who see God as incomparably greater than oneself, though He is, at the same time, the root and ground of one’s being, and those who maintain that soul and God are one and the same and that all else is pure illusion” (Zaehner 1957, 204). As such, however, he was not wholly dismissing the nature mystic in his assessment, but instead developed a heirarchy of experiences within the mystical tradition dependent on individual, religious understandings. However, there is, in the end, very little place for the mescaline-inspired psychospirituality that, for Zaehner, is merely mimicking the real thing.

What Huxley’s critics, like Zaehner, failed to understand was that Huxley was not simply thrusting a psychospiritual dimension atop the psychotomimetic; he was outlining a different way of understanding the efficacy of the drug. One in which the effects of mescaline could be understood in terms wider than simply its chemical affect; it was highly interrelated with the frame of the user’s mind, the context and environment of their experience, and the intention with which it was approached. The effect of the drug could be shaped externally to particular constructs; implying a creative element in its efficacy. Zaehner actually reveals this in his analysis, but rather than understanding it as a potential for the drug, it is ascribed to the delusion of the author. Had he taken the text, not as a determining effectual fixation, but as an exploration into the potentiality of the antipodes, he may well have had a different tone.

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3 Responses

  1. Bill Booker says:

    The floor should always be open to everyone, pro and con the psychedelics debate, so Zaehner, his voice sounding a little dated (especially regarding ‘organised religion’) among the more recent opinionists, is as entitled to make his contribution as anyone else.

    It’s more than doubtful that he could have been on the same wavelength as, or seen eye to eye with, Huxley, Jung, Hesse at al.

    With his RC background, it seems, in your own words, ‘…in LSD [read “mescaline”], you will find what you’re looking for’, that Zaehner did just that.

    Nevertheless, a valid contribution.

  2. Lambi says:

    Important point, Zaehner fully acknowleges the validity of Native American religious use of peyote. He even tries mescaline himself and visits a cathedral. The Catholic Church today recognizes South American Christian religious groups that use ayahuasca.

    In the book, Zaehner makes a distinction between nature mysticism (to him, a lesser variety) and theistic mysticism (to him, the best, most true variety). He constantly uses double-standards when describing these two forms of mysticism, criticizing nature mystics for one behavior, but then praising or excusing theistic mystics for the same thing (for example, making apparently illogical or unorthodox statements, saying “All is One” or “I am God”).

    Zaehner spends a great deal of time discussing the danger for a mystic to fall either into mania or depression. Even though he notes that theistic Sufi mystics warn about these mental traps, he pretends that the danger is primarily for nature mystics.

    It’s frustrating that Zaehner does not seem to have much insight into his clear personal bias towards theistic, sans-psychedelic mysticism.

  3. Bill Booker says:

    Lambi: Yes, that’s an important point. I want to say his obvious bias puts into question everything else he says, but, hell, he’s free to say whatever he wants, and we’re free to deduce what we will from that.

    Surely in his nature v theistic mysticism he’s splitting hairs: take nature mysticism to its conclusion and you arrive at the same place as theistic (with or without a godhead). The root of mysticism is common ground to all, the trappings of various ‘ways’ feature the superficial differences based on philosophical, cultural or just plain aesthetic preferences.

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