Strange IndiaStrange India

My undrugged mind, to borrow a witticism from J. L. Austin, delivers to me a world of “medium-sized dry goods” and little else. My drugged mind delivers to me spirits or djinni or angels or I don’t know what to call them. It presents to me trees that are brothers and clouds that are old friends and cracks in the walls that spell out warm messages from solicitous invisible beings and infinite swarms of lives, all swirling and pulsating around me. Which is correct? I honestly don’t know anymore. My colleagues will tell me they know, but I don’t think they do either.

just as i was able to re-find my fraternity with the pine tree unaided by psychedelics, so too can a person work their way unaided to a point of view on the world in which it is teeming with infinite other points of view. This is, broadly, the philosophical view of my greatest intellectual hero, the 17th-century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (who was, among other things, a pioneer of computer science). Almost certainly too much of a square ever to have tried any of the fungal supplements that abound in the landscapes of northern Germany, Leibniz nonetheless was able to arrive at the conclusion that the only meaningful sense of the verb “to be,” as he put it, is “to have something analogous to the ‘I.’” That is, there is no world but the community of subjects, some of them human but most of them something else entirely.

Leibniz was not, to say the least, a deviant weirdo. As for me, it is only at the moment I decided to take the risk of falling in with the deviant weirdos, of moving with the wrong crowd and losing my place in the guild of philosophers, that I came to believe he is probably right about things. A true genius, he seems to have got there unaided. But we all do the best we can, each according to our capacities.

I am likely fortunate to live, most of the time, in a jurisdiction where none of the relevant substances are permitted by law, and so to be able to indulge my curiosity only punctually. There are many experiences I have not yet had—of DMT, for example, which I am told is the most potent of all in showing us the variety of species of beings that ordinarily remain hidden. (If you are a clinical researcher in such matters and would like a volunteer for your experiments, hit me up.)

In any case, I suspect I have already found what I was looking for: some new knowledge, and at least a bit of equanimity. While I remain as uncertain as ever about the ultimate structure of the world, I also have new inclinations, and new sympathies, toward accounts of it that had previously struck me as altogether off the table. That widening is itself a sort of newfound knowledge, even if it contains no new certainties. As to equanimity, there really is nothing like a sharp experience of the illusoriness of time to make a person less anguished by the brevity and apparent senselessness of what we experience as our temporal sojourn. And there really is no more comforting feeling than to arrive at an awareness of the pervasive and dense presence of other beings like oneself—or at least to arrive in a state that seems to attest to the existence of such beings.

The world is not what it seems—that’s for sure. Even if any positive determinations about how it actually is would automatically become new varieties of mere seeming, it is good and edifying to explore the alternatives to our standard account. The great mistake of the psychedelic gurus of old was to mistake the mode of perception that drugs afforded them for a sort of revelation, which is really just to trade one dogmatism, that of common-sense “realism,” for another.

I do not know what the world is, nor what is “keeping the stars apart,” to borrow an evocative line from E. E. Cummings. But mind-altering substances have helped me, at a fairly desperate point in my life, to dwell in that uncertainty with greater ease, to “own it,” as they say, and no longer to feel so dreadfully apart from the stars.

This article appears in the April 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

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