ALBERT HOFMANN (1906 – 2008)


Suddenly, the familiar view of our surroundings is transformed in a strange, delightful, and alarming way: it appears to us in a new light, takes on a special meaning. Such experiences can be as light and fleeting as breath of air, or it can imprint itself deeply upon our minds.                                             – Albert Hofmann

Many things happen in the laboratories, observatories, and research centers of the world each and every day.  Some of them affect  human history in direct and indirect ways. Let us consider one example of this. Albert Hofmann  was initially planning to study Latin at the university, but later switched to chemistry, with particular interest in plant chemistry. With his degree from the  University of Zürich he got a job at the Sandoz Labs in Basel. Here he came to study the fungus called ergot for pharmaceutical purposes. In this work he discovered the structure of the nuclei of of medicinal plants. On 16 November 1938 he synthesized what later came to be known as lysergic acid. 

Some five years later, on 19 April 1943 Hofmann swallowed  0.5 cc of a solution of diethylamide tartrate. He began to feel dizzy and anxious, and he experienced visual distortions. He had symptoms  of paralysis along with an uncontrollable  desire to laugh.  From 6 to 8 p.m. that evening he had “a very severe crisis.” He recorded all this meticulously thus: “Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms….. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk… She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask. Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being…. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa… I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time.” A few days later He took 250 micrograms of the ominous substance known as Lysergic acid diethylamide.

In various combinations carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, give rise to hundreds of thousands of compounds that  add much splendor and wonder in the terrestrial world. One of them is C20H25N3O, more popularly known as LSD. Hofmann’s tinkering with LSD has had  unexpected impacts on our attitudes to religion. It suggested a chemical basis for  mystical and spiritual experiences reported over the ages by countless individuals in all traditions and cultures. In doing this, it unwittingly trivialized what has generally been regarded as genuine and lofty incursions into dimensions of transcendental reality, and  reduced mysticism to hallucinations induced by alterations in brain chemistry. One began to view religious visions of the great saints and prophets of the ages  as   having been induced by the ingestion of unusual plants or herbs. It gave a different picture of what is common  in some traditions:  periodic sniffing of certain substances  for getting a religious high. The burning of incense in worship modes is probably a vestige of this practice.

The airplane made alchemical and yogic reports of teleportation within reach of all and sundry, and telephone and television did the same for clairaudience and clairvoyance. Likewise, Hofmann’s experience showed that by ingesting a drug, even sinners and students can get some of the effects like seeing God that used to be achieved only after years of spiritual discipline.

This led to more experiments with other chemicals, and to the rediscovery of plants and leaves  that give people easy access to psychedelic space. Thinkers like Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley instigated millions to a drug-based culture with the related cacophony in large gatherings. I once attended a lecture by Timothy Leary at a university where he was preaching to students his philosophy of “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”  Electric lights were turned off and only candle light flickered. I asked Leary at the end of the lecture if there a difference between the light from the two sources. He simply said, “The atmosphere,” which I thought was hot air, and threw no light on my question. The students who were turned on by his talk tuned in to music of high decibel and dropped out of school.

The brilliant thinker and writer Aldous Huxley wrote his classic Doors of Perception in which he argued that hallucinogens reveal to the human mind new dimensions of reality and instigate creativity. In the book Heaven and Hell he popularized the idea that drugs lead to spiritual insights and revelations. He died from euthanasia when his wife injected a dose of LSD into his body afflicted with cancer.

His books replaced the Bible for college-educated drug users. Thus it was that the drug gurus unleashed a pop-religion that transported  many to   realms beyond humdrum world  of work and service, fun and friendship. But drugs culture has also  has wasted away  the lives of countless people, young and old, in numb and mindless states. Drug-based culture turned against lay authority, and has had harmless effects on standard attire and haircut.  

 What the promoters of  consciousness-altering chemicals don’t seem to realize is that traditional spirituality is generally a positive unitive experience, creating feelings of oneness with the Cosmic Whole and flashes of ecstasy. Seekers of chemical spirituality often look pathetic to those confined to normal Reality, They become lethal when they get behind the steering wheel of a car, and often need help   in clinics and hospitals from normal people. Furthermore, drug culture has also gaiven rise to street gangs  and violent crimes.  Hallucinogenic botany has taken away precious land from  nutritive vegetation.  Albert Hofmann did not foresee any of this.

In this context it may be recalled that Transcendental Meditation techniques popularized by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (notwithstanding the ill-repute spread by his disenchanted Beatle-disciples) saved thousands of people from drug addiction and transformed their lives along more fulfilling channel.

July 6, 2016

 

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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