Mushrooms For Lunch
WRITTEN BY TIMOTHY LEARY – 1960
… George [Littwin] began to talk about the literature on visionary states and asked me if I had read Aldous Huxley’s books on mescaline, ‘Doors Of Perception’ and ‘Heaven And Hell’, and when I said I hadn’t he rushed down the hall to his office and brought them back. Small, thin rectangles. I stuck them in my jacket pockets.
The final issue was the big one. Where would we get the mushrooms? Someone had told me that the Public Health Service had succeeded in synthesising the mushrooms and I said I’d write the Washington and try to check on that lead. Gerhart [Braun] back in Mexico had told me that he’d continue the search for Juana the witch and if he found her he’d get a large supply and send some up to me. And Frank Barron back in Berkeley had told me that the people at the University of Mexico had cultivated mushrooms and maybe we could get some from them.
That night I read Huxley. And then I read those two books again. And again. It was all there. All my vision. And more too. Huxley had taken mescaline in a garden and shucked off the mind and awakened to eternity.
About a week later someone at a party told me that Aldous Huxley was spending the fall in town and that sounded like a good omen, so I sat down and wrote him a letter.
Two days later, during one of our planning conferences, Mr Huxley telephoned to say he was interested and lunch was arranged.
Aldous Huxley was staying in a new M.I.T. apartment overlooking the Charles River. He answered the bell – tall, pale, frail – joined me, and we drove to the Harvard Faculty Club. He read the menu slowly through his magnifying glass. I asked him if he wanted soup and he asked what kind and I looked at the menu and it was mushroom soup so we laughed and we had mushrooms for lunch.
Aldous Huxley: stooped, towering, gray Buddha. A wise and good man. Head like a multi-lingual encyclopaedia. Voice elegant and chuckling except when the pitch rose in momentary amused indignation about over-population or the pomposity of psychiatrists.
We talked about how to study and use the consciousness-expanding drugs and we clicked along agreeably on the do’s and not-to-do’s. We would avoid the behaviourist approach to others’ awareness. Avoid labelling or depersonalising the subject. We should not impose our own jargon or our own experimental games on others. We were not out to discover new laws, which is to say, to discover the redundant implications of our own premises. We were not to be limited by the pathological point of view. We were not to interpret ecstacy as mania, or calm serenity as catatonia; we were not to diagnose Buddha as a detached schizoid; nor Christ as an exhibitionistic masochist; nor the mystic experience as a symptom; nor the visionary state as a model psychosis. Aldous Huxley, chuckling away with compassionate humour at human folly.
And with such erudition! Moving back and forth in history, quoting the mystics. Wordsworth. Plotinus. The Areopagite. William James. Ranging from the esoteric past, back to the biochemical present: Humphrey Osmond curing alcoholics in Saskatchewan with LSD; Keith Ditman’s plans to clean out Skid Row in Los Angeles with LSD; Roger Heim taking his bag of Mexican mushrooms to the Parisian chemists who couldn’t isolate the active ingredient, and then going to Albert Hofmann the great Swiss, who did it and called it psilocybin. They had sent the pills back to the curandera in Oaxaca state and she tried them and had divinatory visions and was happy that her practise could now be a year-round and not restrained to three raining mushroom months.
Aldous Huxley was shrewdly aware of the political complications and the expected opposition from the Murugans, the name he gave to power people in his novel, ‘Island’.
Dope… Murugan was telling me about the fungi that are used here as a source of dope.
What’s the name?… Answer, practically everything… Murugan calls it dope and feels about it all the disapproval that, by conditioned reflex, the dirty word evokes. We on the contrary, give the stuff good names – the moksha – medicine, the reality-revealer, the truth-and-beauty pill. And we know, by direct experience, that the good names are deserved. Whereas our young friend here has no first-hand knowledge of the stuff and can’t be persuaded even to give it a try. For him, it’s dope and dope is something that, by definition, no decent person ever indulges in.
Aldous Huxley advised and counselled and joked and told stories and we listend and our research project was shaped accordingly. Huxley offered to sit in on our planning meetings and was ready to take mushrooms with us when the research was under way.
From these meetings grew the design for a naturalistic pilot study, in which the subjects would be treated like astronauts – carefully prepared, briefed with all available facts, and then expected to run their own spacecraft, make their own observations, and report back to ground control. Our subjects were not passive patients but hero-explorers.
During the weeks of October and November 1960 there were many meetings to plan the research. Aldous Huxley would come and listen and then close his eyes and detach himself from the scene and go into his controlled meditation trance, which was unnerving to some of the Harvard people who equate consciousness with talk, and then he would open his eyes and make a diamond-pure comment…