The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience by Robert Masters and Jean Houston

Originally published in 1966, this review of ‘The Varieties of the Psychedelic Experience: The Classic Guide to the Effects of LSD on the Human Psyche’ by Robert Masters and Jean Houston is written from the Park Street Press 2000 edition. The authors, husband and wife, were both founding members of the Human Potential Movement, psychedelic researchers and also co-authored the book ‘Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space’ together.

The psychedelic era began in the 1950s and ran through the early 1960s. It centred around psychiatric research with substances like LSD-25, mescaline (derived from the peyote cactus) and psilocybin (derived from Psilocybe mushrooms). During this period old hallucinogen models, the psychotomimetic for example, were tested and, as a result of both research and books like Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), changed the face of methodological approaches. Not only was the psychedelic approach developed but also the psycholytic, which was derived from psychoanalytic traditions. Interestingly, it was the efficacy of LSD in patients that help transform the old models into the new and The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience expounds these very findings from the prior fifteen years of research.

Indeed, this book was published at a pivotal moment (1966). Strict government controls over both the clinical use and popular use of numerous hallucinogens were being enacted. The result was the beginning of the end for this period of research and the adoption by the burgeoning counterculture of the LSD badge. The mass media was filled with negative horror stories and the self-appointed acid spokesperson Timothy Leary was doing little to appease government and public fears. However, this book was an attempt to keep the psychedelic approach within the clinical sphere of influence, even as Leary and poet Allen Ginsberg were determined to bring it to the masses.

“The dimensions of human fantasy life revealed here should, we think, have a liberating effect upon many persons who may find a greater degree of self-acceptance once they have understood what a complicated being is man and how many and varied are his ideas, imaginings and tendencies, in health as well as sickness. We hope that equally beneficial will be this first detailed presentation of a Western-orientated, non-mystical phenomenology and approach to the direction of the psychedelic session” (Masters 2000, 4).

The research presented in this book is based on over 15 combined years’ experience with LSD-25 and peyote, 206 drug sessions and interviews with 214 people who were either volunteers, psychotherapy patients, or who had taken the drug independently of the clinical model. The book then proceeds to examine the varieties of psychedelic experience within the contexts of various testimonies. For example, in the section dealing with ‘Experiencing the Body and Body Image’, one individual said: “The return to a human consciousness was by gradations but fairly rapid, bringing with it a kind of regret. I hadn’t been, if one may put it that way, very happy as a tiger; and yet, in some way I won’t try to define, I felt that the tiger represented some valid and essential aspect of what or who I am” (Masters 2000, 77). Other types of experience include experiencing other persons, the world of the nonhuman, psyche and symbols and religious and mystical experiences.

Overwhelmingly, the observations made by Masters and Houston can easily be found in earlier scientific papers and indeed, broadly speaking, Huxley’s cartographical analogy for the mind—with its areas of personal consciousness, collective unconscious and the “antipodes”—still held true for the grounding of these researchers (only with less emphasis on the transpersonal.) There was good reason for this because it was the mystical element that was as the heart of the popular psychedelic movement, and which had contributed to the tighter regulations on clinical research. A glut of books over the early years of the 1960s attempted to justify the psychiatric approaches—Constance A Newland’s My Self and I (1962) for example—but they had failed to stave off the Establishment turn on researchers. Yet, these experiences could not be totally ignored by the authors as they remained an important variety of experience.

“Out of our total of 206 subjects we believe that six have had this (introvertive mystical) experience. It is of interest to observe that those few subjects who attain to this level of mystical apprehension have in the course of their lives either actively sought the mystical experience in meditation and other spiritual disciplines or have for many years demonstrated a considerable interest in integral levels of consciousness” (Masters 2000, 307).

The republication of The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience in 2000 came at a very important time. Since then, the psychedelic renaissance has taken place and research has started sprouting up all over the world. The extent to which this scientific research will be important for our new generation remains to be seen, however, as practices and approaches have had to go back to basics to begin with (if only to appease touchy government agencies.) My instinct is that it will be returned to in due course when a thoroughly rejuvenated groundwork has been mapped. However, it remains an important cultural artefact that illuminates the objectives of the era brilliantly whilst also offering the general reader a great insight into the psychedelic experience.

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