On Psychedelics & Space


Let my inspiration flow
In token lines suggesting rhythm
That will not forsake me
Till my tale is told and done.

–Robert Hunter, from Terrapin Station, by the Grateful Dead

So, I was trying to think of what to write about next here at The Owl Journal, specifically with an eye toward taking a break from wrestling with my existential homestretch, and for several days I stared at a blank screen and failed to land upon an attractive idea. Then, this morning, I came upon this video in my Twitter feed, and…

Holy Moly!

The earth moved, my heart burst open, and suddenly I knew exactly what I wanted to write about.

We Are Stardust

In my memoir, I, Too, Heard The Owl, I made no secret of my predilection for the cultural revolution [lowercase, that is, I’m no Maoist!] of the late 1960s thru early-to-mid 1970s, though I’d state here that I personally date the origins of this revolution to the Beat Generation of the mid-to-late 1950s.

Over my 55 years, I’ve discovered much to love and appreciate in various other periods of history. In the visual arts, for instance, I’m quite enamored of painters from the Impressionist thru Cubist movements. But nothing has gone quite as deep for me as the literature and music from the politically turbulent time into which I was born, a time when it seemed, to me anyway, that the so-called radical lifestyle choices that millions of young and older adults were making might very well have been a proportional response to the turmoil, and therefore somehow rational.

While I can save some time and effort defending what I’ll call the Beat/Hippie Movement by simply pointing to an excellent essay, In Defense of Hippies, by Danny Goldberg from October 2011 in Dissent MagazineGoldberg’s piece, a reaction to anti-hippie rhetoric that surfaced in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, doesn’t quite cover the ground I have in mind here.

The most common critiques I’ve fielded from people who wanted to challenge me on my love of the Beat/Hippie Movement, have been presented by the detractors as a tidy but simplistic feedback loop:

  1. THE DRUGS!!!

The hysteria over drug use — while war ravaged southeast Asia, while tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were dying in Vietnam, while Jim Crow and lynching made the lives of African Americans a living hell, while major leaders, white and black, John and Bobby, Martin and Malcom, were being assassinated — was and still is utterly ridiculous.

Preparing For Liftoff

As I mentioned specifically in Chapter 16 of my memoir, there’s been a recent explosion of media attention on psychedelics, driven by research showing the promising potential LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and other psychedelics hold for helping people suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, etc., for whom all other available treatments have failed.

Meanwhile, a whole new generation of spiritual seekers are embracing mind-altering substances and experiences, and many have adopted a term to describe themselves that dates back to the previous psychedelic revolution: Psychonaut.

The more I’ve thought about the term psychonaut, the more I find the inferred analogy to space exploration to be the perfect framework for defending the Beat/Hippie Movement.

Sacrifice & Tragedy

I’d be egregiously dishonest if I didn’t admit that I’ve mourned the loss of numerous artists who have died as a result of excessive drug and alcohol use, or that I’ve often found it sad when I think of all the great music that might have been had they survived and continued to produce.

However, what usually gets lost in discussions of this topic is that drug use wasn’t actually more prevalent and widespread during the Beat/Hippie Movement.

From Gallup.com:

The 1960s brought us tie-dye, sit-ins and fears of large-scale drug use. Hippies smoked marijuana, kids in ghettos pushed heroin, and Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor, urged the world to try LSD. In popular imagination, the 1960s were the heyday of illegal drug use — but historical data indicate they probably weren’t. In fact, surveys show that drug abuse was comparably rare, as was accurate information about the effects of illegal drugs. In a 1969 Gallup poll, only 4% of American adults said they had tried marijuana. Thirty-four percent said they didn’t know the effects of marijuana, but 43% thought it was used by many or some high school kids.

The inconvenient truth for critics of the Beat/Hippie Movement is that people have abused alcohol and drugs in all walks of life throughout human history.

Here’s a little exercise: From the following list of common reasons why people use drugs and alcohol, rate each reason on a scale of 1-10, where 1 = a positive connotation, and 10 = a negative connotation.

  • Dulling physical and/or emotional pain
  • Having fun
  • Summoning the will to commit violence
  • Stirring the pot of creative juices
  • Coping with discrimination and oppression
  • Seeking spiritual enlightenment

Consider the psychonauts-astronauts analogy, then. Was the decision by so many — to heed Timothy Leary’s suggestion to Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out, to courageously buck the prevailing conservative values of the day in order to explore altered states of consciousness and alternative lifestyles, to live by a creed of peace, love, beauty, and transcendence, knowing that great mysteries would be encountered and challenges, maybe even dangers, faced — was this really all that different than the early astronauts’ decision to have themselves strapped to a chair inside a tin can atop a massive rocket pointed toward outer space, where they were violently hurled?

Via History.com (my emphasis added in bold):

A half-century ago, NASA was preparing feverishly for a moon landing in a race against the former Soviet Union. The non-stop campaign of testing and launches was also a race against time—specifically to honor slain president John F. Kennedy’s 1961 pledge for the country to land a spacecraft on the moon (and return safely) before the end of the decade.

America would meet that challenge on July 20, 1969, but the effort would be built on sacrifice and tragedy. Some eight astronauts and astronaut candidates died in airplane crashes or vehicle tests, many other NASA ground crew and workers perished during accidents, while dozens of test pilots died in the decades leading up to Apollo.

Long Live The Age of Aquarius

The Beat/Hippie movement, propelled in part by adventurous psychonauts, did seem, for a time, capable of tearing down oppressive barriers like racism and sexism. When I watch that video above, of the all-female rock band Fanny, led by two Filipino sisters, on a German TV show, the following words come to mind:

  • liberation
  • soul
  • beauty
  • passion
  • equality
  • multiculturalism
  • courage
  • exploration

And yes, there’s a wave of sadness that follows. For all the gains made to diversify the white-male dominated music industry, despite Tina, Joni, Janis, and Grace, Jimi, Sly Stone, and Bob Marley, just to name a few, nothing resembling true equity has been achieved 50 years later…yet.

Still, there was hope. Still, I’d rather align myself with idealistic dreamers rather than cynical naysayers any day. I’ve never understood people who passionately argue that a future of peaceful equality and prosperity for all is impossible. Imagine if the people who have turned stories of a grim future into a multibillion dollar Dystopian Fiction Industrial Complex were to embrace the possibility of hope and transcendence?


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