It is difficult to know where to begin this story since it may be tainted in the eyes of many, as it was for me for a long time because the experience was facilitated by marijuana. Nevertheless, this and related experiences, both prior to and afterward, raised for me a profound question about what we call ‘reality.’ So, there are really three stories here: one about the specific experiences I will describe, one about the legitimacy of perceptions experienced under the influence of a drug and thirdly, how to know what is ‘real’ and what is not.
I don’t recognize myself as a person prone to drug use. After one draw on a cigarette as a college freshman, I was cured of smoking tobacco. As a young man, I drank in a limited way in college and for a few years afterward, but I found I did not like the loss of control, getting dizzy, and the hangover. Limited experiments on and off, over my life, continually reaffirm my body’s dislike of alcohol. I have always been concerned with clarity of mind. Without control over my mind, who would I be? This is the reason why I never risked truly mind-altering drugs like LSD or psilocybin despite a driving desire to explore hidden ‘realities.’
I was first offered ‘marijuana’ at age 24 but experienced nothing from its use. A year later, I accepted another offer and ‘found’ myself split in two. I sensed, ‘I’ was floating near the ceiling on the other side of the room and simultaneously looking back on myself on the couch. I experienced panic and pleaded with companions sitting next to me to hold my arms so I could be reassured that I still had a connection to my body and could get back into it. Bewildered, since none of them were experiencing anything disturbing, they complied, and a few moments later, the strange experience ended, and I found myself securely back in my body. This experience subsequently triggered panic reactions to any sudden, strange alteration in my sensorium. Later, as a young psychologist, I recognized the nature and source of this conditioned anxiety reaction and, using then new psycho-therapeutic methods for treating panic attacks, I was able to cure myself of this response. As a result, I stayed away from marijuana for a number of years.
In my late thirties, a mild form of home-grown cannabis was popular among the group of young professionals, like myself, living in rural Maine. I decided to try it again, this time with pleasant results. My senses became more acute, and my intuition sharpened. It seemed to facilitate deeper understandings and perceptions which did not disappear when the drug effects wore off, but rather began to accumulate as data for a different approach to my burning question about the nature of reality and consciousness. I began to wonder about how the introduction of a few molecules could produce mind altering effects and whether the impressions experienced in this altered state had validity. After considerable pondering on this question, a new perspective opened for me.
All my ‘experiences’ are experienced in my mind. All the sensory input from the world around me is not really experienced at their source “out there” where they appear to be, but rather are created in my brain by the incoming electrical signals from my outer senses. These signals stimulate different molecules natural to my body, leading to changes in state and experience. I was inside my mind, experiencing these reconstructed images, sounds, smells, sensations for my viewing, like a movie. This was what I had been using, like almost everyone, for the standard of “reality.” My assumption was that only experiences originating from my outer-directed senses were “real’. But then the reasoning shifted, and the following thoughts began to flow.
I dream at night. That is a fact. I see people and scenery. I have conversations (by telepathy!) with the people in my dreams. I have experiences, some wonderful, some terrifying, most banal. Sometimes these dreams are stories that are coherent, often very intelligently constructed, sometimes very funny, sometimes truly profound, and inspirational. Mostly, they seem to be bits and pieces of scenes and themes that were spliced out from their main source and thrown together randomly for a meaningless presentation to my inner eye. Another part of me seemed dedicated to producing and directing nightmares, stories of worry, or repeated re-viewing of humiliating circumstances. Both themes brought with them real sensations of pleasure or fear. Sometimes the sensations were more intense than any experienced in waking life. Sometimes the intense sensation was one I never experienced in waking life, such as the experience of flying in my dreams. Yet I believed that dreams were only dreams, not ‘real.’
But wait a minute. When dreaming, I am having the experience of dreaming! I can often remember parts of these experiences on awakening, and some of them, I have remembered all of my life. I had heard some people say that a dream changed the course of their life. At first, I could think of no experience of mine with that effect. But on further reflection, I recalled dreams that had meaning and message for me. I recalled the feelings of awe and eternity that accompanied some ‘big’ dreams. I remembered the strange experience of waking up inside a dream and being able to influence the direction of the dream just by thinking about it. These night-time “experiences” had profound effect over time on how and what I thought about the mystery of myself.
So, the fact that we dream is a fact! The fact that other people report the kinds of experiences I have with dreaming is a fact. The fact that some dreams are vastly intelligent, organized, informative is a fact. The fact that people have been reporting their dreams going back to the beginning of recorded culture is a fact. Therefore, it is a fact that there is an experience shared by all people forever and all time. The dream experience has a power to shape events in the waking world. History has recorded these stories. That is also a fact. How could I deny an aspect of what is Real to a timeless, universal event of such mystery and power? Obviously, our consciousness is not only sensitive to information coming through the sense organs from the outside, but it is also open to information coming from…? The phrase “deeper inside” comes to mind.
I then reflected on the phenomenon we call “daydreaming.” I realized that my daydreaming is dreaming … during the day! Unlike night dreams, I often created and directed my daytime dreams to entertain and amuse myself when bored. Most of the time, I myself did not intentionally set up the daydream, but rather I found myself inside it, totally absorbed as voyeur and sometimes director. Sometimes I realized I was in the daydream and other times not until I “snapped out of it” and my attention suddenly returned to the world around me It was like going to a movie to have my emotions manipulated, but not realizing I had been dreaming until I ‘woke’ out of the dream into the ‘reality’ of the sense-based world.
In one of my lucid night-dreams, there appeared a woman from many years in my past. She had been the wife of a fellow graduate student. Over thirty years had gone by on the day she called me to say she was in my hometown and would like to say hello. Truthfully, she had never crossed my mind in all those years, and initially, I didn’t recognize her name. I don’t remember it now. We met for coffee, exchanged stories, and said goodbye, never to be in contact again. That night, she appeared in a lucid dream. Knowing I was dreaming and could change the storyline to have experiences I wished, I realized I could turn the dream sexual for my amusement. I did so, and it was. On awakening and for almost the next 24 hours, she was in my mind accompanied by feelings that would be normal when thinking about a lover.
The power of this really caught my attention. Were dreams somehow ‘real worlds’? After all, the ‘world,’ which I experience outside myself, is actually experienced inside my mind. My conditioned thinking and reacting, my assumptions and expectations filter and distort my interpretation, and sometimes even my perceptions, of parts of the ‘world’ outside, those primarily having to do with relationships. I was actually already ‘creating’ a ‘world’ consisting of my beliefs and assumptions and conditioned responses and believing it was the actual ‘reality’ of my life.
Was I giving ‘life,’ albeit briefly, to these ‘people’ and ‘places’ in my dreams and daydreams? Was I responsible for what happened in this other world I was experiencing inside my brain? I vowed at that point never again to interfere in a lucid dream but rather just watch and allow to happen whatever happened. Now, many years later, I am trying to practice this non-interference in my waking life. This learning from that lucid dream, both forecast and changed, over time, the direction in my inner search. Now, that is a powerful reality!
Not at that earlier point in time, but now, writing the following two paragraphs as a much older man, I am recalling my experiences with “Déjà vu” and one of several mystical dreams. It is interesting to me that, only now, as I write, do I recognize the connection of the next set of memories to this question of the nature of reality. It feels like these unusual, ‘unreal’ experiences, have been scattered in memory, separated from each other so that the whole pattern has taken years to piece together…and is still coalescing. But I include a couple of them here, as they have returned in memory while I recount this theme, and so they feel to me to be part of this body of experience and reasoning.
I vividly recall my first experience of “Déjà vu” sometime in my early teens. I had drawn a picture of a desert landscape and brought it into the kitchen to show my parents. As I approached them, I realized that this moment had happened before! Either I had dreamt it, or it had actually occurred before! If I had dreamt it as a premonition, I could in no way sense if the dream was recent or ancient. It felt like both. I was stunned. I started to stammer that this moment had happened before. They, of course, looked at me blankly. I stopped talking and retreated into myself in bafflement. A short while later, it happened again as I was cutting into a honeydew melon. Again, I burst out in amazement. Again, they looked at me blankly. Again, I retreated into myself.
Off and on for the next twenty years or so, this type of experience would repeat, but rarely with such intensity. Once, about ten years later, I experienced “Déjà vu” in a restaurant in Fort Collins, Colorado, with my female companion and her three children. We were making my first trip across the country. I had never been to the West before or in this form of a domestic relationship. Nevertheless, I was re-experiencing this moment in all its details. At other times I would try to change the course of the experience to grab control. Either whatever change I introduced instantly became part of the repeating experience, or the experience would end at that moment. Again, I decided to try not to interfere but only experience the event. Never frequent, the experiences became more and more rare, and weaker in intensity, as I aged. If I taste a flicker of them at this late time in life, I just smile.
I am now, as I write this, also connecting one of my first dreams, sometime between 2 and 4 years of age. I was viewing a field of crisscrossing lines retreating into infinity. The experience of depth was palpable. The lines were interlaced like a spider web, but all the lines were straight, not curved. There were two diametrically opposite sensations in me.
On the one hand, I had the feeling of being crushed to oblivion (perhaps the source of my claustrophobia to this day) while simultaneously experiencing infinite expansion and freedom! At that young age, I did not possess that vocabulary, but I understood the feelings and the paradox, nevertheless. Then, sometime later, the exact same dream occurred again! Only twice in my life have I remembered a repeating dream. A therapist once suggested it was a memory of birth. I prefer to wonder if it is a memory of the moment of conception. To this day, the feeling and impression of that dream is with me. How do I fit that experience into a view of reality as limited to the material world outside?
So, years ago, when I was first pondering this question, I brought my body of reasoning back to the question of my experiences with marijuana. Although never having the more profound alterations in perception reported with powerful hallucinogens, I know that people sharing these experiences, as well as early medical research before the government shut down the academic exploration of these drugs, confirmed that these were sometimes life altering events, just as were the visions of saints and mystics left to us in our literature and histories. I reasoned that my experiences were as valid a ‘reality’ as all inner experiences. Whether their meaning is interpreted correctly or not is no different than the problem of correct and incorrect interpreted meaning about the outside world of other people and events. But the fact that they are real, ‘legitimate’ experiences with enormous power makes them an aspect of a larger Reality worthy of no less attention and exploration than the world outside.
The event which set this piece of writing in motion occurred in the late 1980s. A tragedy had occurred. At that time, our family belonged to a Unitarian-Universalist Church and were socially friendly with two other couples. Our children played together. Then the eldest son of one of the couples was killed while on his bicycle, by an automobile. While his parents grieved privately with their family, the two remaining couples went to the ocean to ponder and share our sadness, our fear, and our relief (and guilt about our relief) that this had not happened to us. The other husband offered to share a ‘joint’ with me, and I accepted. The effect was profound and life lasting. To this day, the impression is clear, but words have not yet been found to accurately represent my experience. I will try again as best I can.
I ‘saw’ the people with me, the sand, the ocean, the sky, as projections on a ‘screen.’ My companions were talking and moving. They had dimensionality for themselves, but as ‘projections’ onto this screen, they seemed two-dimensional to me, certainly lacking the additional dimension I was experiencing behind the ‘screen.’ I saw that they were not aware that they were projections. I realized that their pain and fear were being expressed by their projections. Experiencing myself as behind/inside the screen, watching my own projection along with theirs, I knew that the suffering was on the level of the screen, not behind it! I also knew I could not convey this to them. I realized that I was experiencing this from a ‘place’ simultaneously ‘outside’ the level of the screen but also ‘inside’ that level of ordinary reality. I still think of this ‘place’ as the dimension of ‘Inside/Outside.’ It seemed that the infinite level from where the material universe of stars, planets, and galaxies originated is connected to the infinite world where sub-atomic particles come from, in the deepest sub-structure of this material universe. Somehow, they felt like the same ‘place.’ And that felt like the place of my true home, not the projected world on the screen.
Then something even stranger occurred. It is so strange and inexplicable that I hesitate to include it here in an already very strange story I am trying to reconcile with a larger understanding of what we can think of as Reality. But there is no sense in starting without finishing the whole event.
I looked toward the horizon. Hanging just above where the sky and ocean met, maybe at 10-20 degrees elevation, was a gigantic object (assuming it was at the horizon). To this day, I try to see it in my mind’s eye, but I cannot accurately describe it. It gleamed like metallic polished bronze. It brought to mind an ancient weapon or sculpted religious object. There was a slight-enough sense of familiarity to bring those two associations to mind, but neither was accurate or particularly useful. I had no reference for what I was looking at either then or now so many years later.
A few years ago, I was watching a documentary which presented images found on ancient pictographs around the planet. The presenter in the film was comparing those stone age images both to other symbols from the pantheistic age of the old gods and also to shapes formed when plasma is compressed by electro-magnetic fields. My body reacted with a surge of ‘electrifying’ energy in response to these images. Immediately the remembrance of what I ‘saw’ at the ocean’s edge came back into memory. Were they the same? Was there just similarity enough to evoke the emotional memory of the event? The presenter described this image as what the ancients called the “Cosmic Thunderbolt.” This archetypal symbol of the power of the ancient gods, immediately resonated in me, bringing back the image of what I ‘saw’ at the ocean’s horizon many years before. Recently, I have seen some images of ancient Egyptian religious objects which had the same taste of similarity. I do not know what to make of this, and I don’t try to intellectually force an explanation. I leave the experience alone in memory to remain whatever it was, without speculating about it from my ordinary mind.
Adding to the significance of this experience for me is the fact that as time has gone by, this experience has turned out to be a preview of “coming attractions.” The ‘taste’ of this ‘outside/inside’ place has occurred again and again, most unrelated to the assistance of marijuana, bringing with it a sense that the door occasionally opens into a Reality beyond the world of my senses and the ordinary experience of what I used to call ‘myself.’
It was one of these experiences a few years later that led me directly to the Gurdjieff Fourth Way Work and changed my life in ways I could have never imagined. A few years after this mind-bending experience, I stopped using marijuana for over thirty years. I was now convinced that the doorway that occasionally opened with the drug’s assistance was a short cut to another ‘reality’ that lives side by side with or interpenetrates our ‘normal’ sense of things. But I also felt that having received this confirmation that my search was not in vain, I needed to find my way to this other ‘world’ on my own, without the help of this stimulant. Today, after nearly forty-five years as a psychotherapist and twenty years of psychotherapy as a patient, twelve of them in Jungian analysis and now, four decades of Fourth Way practice, I feel I have achieved that long-sought goal.
However, the mystery of how any of this happens remains. My initial question of whether the mind-altering effects of certain plants, gases, or other substances are “real,” has now been joined by another. Neurological research has confirmed that all our experiences and reactions are facilitated by fluctuating molecular activity in our blood and nervous system. The basis of all our “instinctive” and conditioned ‘feelings’ and reactions are the result of hormones and neurotransmitters regulated by our Autonomic Nervous System. If someone says something that my personality reacts to because it was interpreted as ‘insulting,’ the resulting surge in stress hormones will control my reaction. If my interpretation is different, for example, if I am not ‘sensitive’ to that remark due to my historical experiences, I may interpret it as a jest. Then a different hormonal reaction occurs in my nervous system, and I laugh. My sense of “reality” is always influenced by chemicals produced in my own body. Why should these experiences be considered more ‘real’ than those experienced from other inner sources such as dreams, intuitions, ‘visions’?
An experience experienced is an experience. The validation is in the word roots:
“Experience (n.) late 14c., “observation as the source of knowledge; actual observation; an event which has affected one,” from Old French esperience “experiment, proof, experience” (13c.), from Latin experientia “a trial, proof, experiment; knowledge gained by repeated trials,” from experientem.”
Among the Webster dictionary definitions of this concept are several which imply that if the word “event” is recognized to mean anything subjectively experienced, then internal ‘events’ must be included as part of a person’s reality:
“Something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through; the conscious events that make up an individual life the events that make up the conscious past of a community or the act or process of directly perceiving events or reality.”
The interpretation of the meaning of an experience is a different question. This second question of the interpretation is another journey. Perhaps the most helpful advice I received in this regard was given to me by William Segal, a long-time practitioner of inner search through art, Zen, and Gurdjieff’s teaching. I was fortunate to have dinner at his home one night when I was in my early fifties. After dinner, I asked for a private conversation and related my experience on the beach. I was aware, at the time, of two levels of motivation in doing so. I was searching for confirmation that what I had experienced was a different level of reality. At the same time, I saw an aspect of my personality that wanted recognition for its achievement. Both were present and entangled but clearly discernible to me as of different natures. Because of the second, lower, level of motivation, I did not mention the few inhalations of marijuana in my story. At that time, I did not want it delegitimized by the potentially contaminating fact.
He listened attentively and was quiet for a while after I spoke. I recall the essence of his reply in this way. To paraphrase the essence of his reply, he said, “When we have been meditating, and sincerely working for self-understanding for a long while, sometimes interesting and unexpected experiences may occur. It is best not to try to analyze the experience because this can only bring the question down to the level of our ordinary mind and its library of what it has previously heard and read. If the experience is truly novel, there are no pre-existing associations connected with it. If the experience has validity, that meaning will appear on its own, in its own time, when we are ready to understand”. I have followed this advice ever since and confirmed for myself that the process of ‘understanding’ comes on its own when conditions are right. If the experience remains in memory, but without understanding, then the time has not yet come for its meaning to be revealed.
“Soul receive from soul that knowledge, therefore not by book nor from tongue.
If knowledge of mysteries come after emptiness of mind, that is illumination of heart.”
Mevlana Jelalu’ddin Rumi
 This experience is described in detail in the essay entitled The Call.