Spiritual Growth with Entheogens by Thomas B. Roberts (Ed)
Originally published in 2001 under the title ‘Psychoactive Sacramentals: Essays on Entheogens and Religion’ this 2012 edition, titled ‘Spiritual Growth with Entheogens: Psychoactive Sacramentals and Human Transformation’ has been issued by Park Street Press. Its editor, Thomas B. Roberts, is professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University and a former visiting scientist at Johns Hopkins. He has previously written ‘Psychedelic Horizons’ and co-edited ‘Psychedelic Medicine’.
There is a diverse selection of chapters/essays, numbering twenty-five, which make up this collection: Spiritual Growth with Entheogens: Psychoactive Sacramentals and Human Transformation. Contributors come from a number of backgrounds including scientific researchers, scholars and spiritual teachers and the combined force of their perspectives gives an intricate yet very readable account of entheogens. The word ‘entheogen’ means to ‘generate God within’ and was coined in the 1970s. The implicit religiosity of the term was, in one respect, an attempt to overcome the hedonistic connotations that the word ‘psychedelic’ had picked up during the late 1960s; in another, a description of a specific experience that one might elicit from the drugs/plants in question e.g. LSD or peyote.
The history of the word entheogen, however, is intrinsically linked to Humphry Osmond’s psychedelic so far as the spiritual element was already part of cultural milieu of the 1950/60s thanks to Aldous Huxley. Indeed, in terms of Western research and ‘psychospirituality’, it can be tapped back even further to at least William James’s Varieties of the Religious Experience (1902). The complexity of what is entheogenic then, is reflected in the wide-ranging backgrounds and approaches of this book’s contributors and the extent to which the spiritual reading has become increasingly sanctified; while still retaining a strong connection with psychiatrics and the early uses of the term psychedelic.
“Our minds are larger, more complex, and capable of a wider range of experience and thinking than we usually realize. Many of these neglected thoughts and experiences occur in states of consciousness other than our usual awake state, and entheogens are one among many ways to explore this new (or rediscovered) territory” – Thomas B. Roberts (Roberts 2012, 264)
A number of the chapters give a great sense of continuity that stretches between the 1960s psychedelic heyday and today, most notably by Huston Smith and Rick Doblin. Smith’s famous article Do Drugs have Religious Import? (1964) was originally published in The Journal of Philosophy; in Spiritual Growth with Entheogens he provides a thirty-five year retrospect. Having been initiated to entheogens by Timothy Leary, with psilocybin, Smith is adamant that they provide the religious experience within a wider spiritual context; for Smith this was thirty years of jnanic work. Leary’s role and influence on the entheogenic thread cannot be underestimated. Rick Doblin includes a chapter doing a follow-up study on Walter Pahnke’s Good Friday Experiment that was supervised by Leary, which is both critical of their methodology but yet sympathetic to the aims and results. This is mirrored in a number of other chapters that centre around this experiment; including one by the Rev. Mike Young, who had been an original subject at Marsh Chapel.
Aside, however, from the obvious and direct attempts to generate God within, there is also the use of entheogens as part of psychiatric, psychoanalytic and transpersonal practise, which takes the drugs out of a research context and places them within a personal growth one. Chapters from the likes of Stanislav Grof, Ann Shulgin and Myron Stolaroff attempt to demonstrate the applicability of entheogens within a medico-legal context that could provide a useful tool within the social. Stolaroff’s chapter, for example, is called A Protocol for a Sacramental Service, and in it writes: “This chapter relates the wisdom gathered from the supervised, structured use of various entheogens before the substances were made illegal” (Roberts 2012, 179) and goes on to describe a high dose protocol for a novice user. Sound practise is, without doubt, a safe and, moreover, a necessary endeavour in order to elicit this certain type of experience. However, within this book, one is able to discern a tension between safe practise and the fear of/tendency toward institutionalisation, or organised religion. As Grof writes:
“Spirituality involves a special kind of relationship between the individual and the cosmos and is, in its essence, a personal and private affair… Once a religion becomes organized, it often completely loses the connection with its spiritual source and becomes a secular institution that exploits human spiritual needs without satisfying them “ – Stanislav Grof (Roberts 2012, 54)
In conclusion, Spiritual Growth with Entheogens: Psychoactive Sacramentals and Human Transformation broadly straddles two major themes. Firstly, the book takes into account the historical, legal and medical implication of entheogen research and potential, giving a broadly spiritually perspective on all these elements. Secondly, the collection of chapters provide an avenue of understanding that verges on ‘self-help’ without, of course, losing sight of the necessity of a controlled setting. Indeed, had the legal situation surrounding entheogens been different then one could perhaps have seen the book leaning even heavier on this side. Overall, it is a great introduction to the practise and framework of understanding entheogen use and will be very useful to novices and those who just wish to learn more about this still burgeoning area.