The Sky Filled With Teeth, and I Laughed
When experiencing the divine turned sour, my best comfort was absurdity
In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt draws a bright line between awe at nature, psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin, and man’s experience (whether religious or secular) of the divine.
Something about the vastness and beauty of nature makes the self feel small and insignificant, and anything that shrinks the self creates an opportunity for spiritual experience.
Drugs that create an altered mental state have an obvious usefulness in marking off sacred experiences…. But there is something special about the phenethylamines — the drug class that includes LSD and psilocybin. Drugs in this class… are unmatched in their ability to induce massive alterations of perception and emotion that sometimes feel, even to secular users, like contact with divinity, and that cause people to feel afterwards that they’ve been transformed.
If my first (and so far only) experience with psilocybin mushrooms was an encounter with the divine, I found I didn’t like it much.
I was at an entrepreneurship and leadership retreat at the planned town of Arcosanti in the Sonoran desert. I was lying on a bedroll looking at the stars, waiting for the mushrooms to kick in. This wasn’t precisely an official part of the retreat, but considering that the three other men with me were also attendees, it wasn’t precisely not part of the retreat either.
I’ve always found the star-filled night sky to be a crucial access point to something, if not necessarily divine, at least transcendent. Haidt quotes Darwin and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but the quote that always comes to my mind is from Tolkien.
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
When I was young I thought of the stars as God’s creation, but the experience of gazing up at them never got less powerful after I made the journey to atheism. Contemplating the vastness of scale they represent — as near to infinite as makes no difference from a human perspective — is at once humbling and comforting. They are above and apart from our petty human concerns, but still part of the same universe, the same material and energetic and gravitational continuum as our little world.
Five billion years after our existence has ended, the stars will still be as beautiful as they were five billion years before our existence began.
No matter how badly we screw things up down here, in a larger cosmic sense, everything is always more or less okay.
Haidt describes an experiment by Walter Pahnke in which two groups — one dosed with psilocybin, the other with an active placebo — listened to a Good Friday mass. The control group had a relatively unremarkable experience. The experimental group had a transcendent one:
Pahnke interviewed them after the drug wore off, and again a week later, and again six months later. He found that most of the people in the psilocybin group reported most of the nine features of mystical experience he had set out to measure. The strongest and most consistent effects included feelings of unity with the universe, transcendence of time and space, joy, a difficulty putting the experience into words, and a feeling of having been changed for the better. Many reported seeing beautiful colors and patterns and having profound feelings of ecstasy, fear, and awe.
As the psilocybin mushrooms kicked in, the significance of the stars above me shifted. It wasn’t truly a visual hallucination; I was aware that the points of light above me hadn’t moved. But the patterns I saw in them — the constellations where my ancestors saw animals and warriors and women — had changed.
I saw a sky full of sharp, gnashing teeth.
I felt a rising existential dread. The stars I’d always turned to for comfort now seemed alien and hostile.
I didn’t sweat or cry out or weep or panic, the way “bad trips” are depicted in media.
I laughed at the absurdity of seeing teeth where I knew there were only stars. I laughed at the dread I was feeling, a dread that existed only in my mind, not in the stars above me. That dread was absurd, and as I laughed at it, it subsided. The comfort I’d felt from the stars before was no less absurd, so I laughed at that too.
I didn’t laugh loudly or hysterically, just chuckled softly to myself.
The gnashing teeth above me didn’t go away, but the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach did. I found that I didn’t care to sit under that sky any longer, so I excused myself to my companions, rose up, walked inside my cabin, and went to sleep.