VI. Psychedelics


“People don’t understand the powers that are built into their own nervous system. People don’t use it. Somebody said ‘hey you use only ten percent of your brain’, well, they’re not wrong, I’ll tell you. But how do you get at the other 90%? Now that’s where these things come from… I thought, well, peyote and psychedelics–they mostly come from plants, even LSD is like a lot of things you find in plants, although a little bit different; we’ll probably find [LSD] one day in some obscure plant…”

The night was early but it had been a long day out of his usual routines and comfort zones, and Bear was showing signs of irritability. The soundmen and technical crew were the ones who were feeling the rough side of his tongue when someone swivelled a stage light around and shone it on him, and he started freaking out:

“Please don’t shine that light in my face, I asked you not to…” he said in that strange, wound-up, nasally voice of his, channelled through his one remaining vocal cord. “Take it away… do not point that thing at me now, now I’m telling you… Can you understand I don’t want to be lit up like a balloon… People will … think I want to be a celebrity and want my autograph or something… I’m just another person being like you..”

Bear’s second talk was patchy, so is complemented here with his words to earlier commentators on the subject of psychedelics and their chemical origins. In conversation with Bruce Eisner, Bear elucidated more on this important cornerstone of his psychedelic theory:

Ergot contains many natural, highly psychedelic alkaloids. Iso-ergine is one of them, hydroxy-methyl-lysergamide is another one, and in fact, is considered nearly identical to LSD in effect. Albert Hofmann told me so himself. They believe that it was this derivative contained in extracts of c.paspalum that was used in the Eleusian Mysteries.

I believe that they will find a plant which contains the exact diethylamide of lysergic acid in natural form. In alkaline alcoholic medium the isomers of the amines of lysergic acid will reach an equilibrium. This equilibrium will be a certain percentage of the iso compound, and a certain percentage of the normal compound. Of all the compounds listed experimentally by Hoffman, LSD has the highest ratio of active to inactive isomers in the equilibrated mixture, it runs 88-12. Of all the compounds, and it lists about 20 of them, it has the highest ratio of active to inactive. This means that nature favours the active form of LSD over the inactive by a considerable margin.

With a planet that has literally hundreds of thousands of species of animals and plants yet to be discovered, you cannot definitively say that this compound does not naturally occur. I mean, how long ago was it that they thought that ergot alkaloids only existed in various forms of fungus? When they discovered them in morning glory seeds, people thought there’s got to be contamination in the laboratory, there’s something wrong here. The fact of the matter is that there are probably hundreds of extremely powerful psychedelic plants that are just not yet known to modern science.

In all the psychedelic literature it is the scientists that have focused on the chemicals themselves, and apart from the indigenous cosmovisions that ascribe a relationship with the spirits in the plants (as with madre ayahuasca in Peru, for example), there has been little Western appreciation of the reason that nature produces these substances in significant amounts across uncounted vegetal carriers. Bear believed that nature secretes psychoactive substances–essentially as chemical activators for the human species.

We’ve got hormones in our body, we’ve got hormones that develop us as we grow up. We’ve got sex hormones, there’s emotional hormones, we’ve got all kinds of hormones. And maybe the [psychedelics] are hormones, but they’re extra-corporal. They’re planetary hormones, the plants, who interact with us in the mental sphere that is this biosphere, Gaia or whatever you want to call it.

And they know what we need.

I mean, I’ll tell you something. You tell a cannabis plant what you want and she’ll give it to you. And old time growers, you can always tell, no matter what strain they’re growing, you’ll know. Oh, that’s Bob Brown’s weed–I know that. In California the old growers–you always knew whose strains you got because it reflected the person who was growing it–because the plant was in his head all the time. Plants ARE in your head. They have nothing to protect themselves. They’re in constant union with the manifesting energy that’s creating this wonderful universe and this beautiful planet that we live on.

Bear told David Gans that “my experiences with plants through psychedelics lead me to believe … it’s an extension of my alchemical belief. The basic tenet of alchemy is that the universe is mental. There’s a being which is nothing but mind, pure mind. And all that we experience is a creation of this mind according to the rules of nature, physics and chemistry and so for attraction and repulsion, polarity, all these things, it’s still mental. And since everything in the universe is mental because it is the mentation of the being which is mental, everything has to use the same kind of mentality. All consciousness relates, it is the same. So the plant shouldn’t have any trouble being able to communicate mentally with any other living thing, whether that be a man, a dog, a plant, or anything else, because all thought has to be of the same nature. It’s all manifested by it.”

Up on the stage at EGA 2009, the spotlight was removed and Bear segued back into his lecture, picking up the psychedelic thread again:

… [Now] the psychedelics… Actually, they get into your nervous system like a hormone and they’re causing a kind of development. Now we don’t know because they’ve made the things illegal; they’ve made people fearful of using them and you have to hide them, you have to hide yourself, and that warps and distorts the experience. They’re not getting natural development.

We did experience that [in the 60s] but we didn’t give a shit–for one thing it wasn’t illegal when I was taking it. It wasn’t illegal in a way that it was probably illegal to make aspirin without a license. What are they going to put you in jail for, a few milligrams of something? The whole thing’s gone nutty. Nutty. Drug laws are ruining this planet and they’ve destroyed the world’s economy. Look what they’re doing to our community. Everyone’s afraid to do this, to grow pot, afraid to talk about it. That’s bullshit. Those are human rights. You can take anything you want. It’s supposed to be a free society.

A free society is just that–free. But that doesn’t mean you have no responsibilities. You’re definitely responsible for more. Society has rules and behaviour that have to be observed–that’s what makes us a group. Otherwise were a mob, or there’s chaos. I don’t see anything wrong with that–you can’t get drunk and crash into people and get away with it. Your behaviour–whether you’re drunk or sober, high or not–is your responsibility. And a responsible member of the community is supposed to do that. If you can’t handle something, you shouldn’t take it. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you can’t handle gambling you shouldn’t gamble. If you put poker machines on every corner, why they’re going to destroy the neighborhood and the community.

I knew the laws were nonsense when I discovered pot in 1963. There was no pot in public school in 1953. I was 29 years old before I smoked dope. And I said this is illegal? Why? I still don’t know. We used to do this weird thing–and this is the one thing that kinda set the keynote for the ––

Will someone please turn these bloody spotlights away from me and I don’t want to have to say this again! … I’m gonna get up and walk away, okay. What does it take? You don’t listen to me. What am I here for? Why’d you bring me here if you don’t want to listen to me? I’ve lived a long time and I’ve learned a few things.

         You guys are just kids–I’m 75 fucking years old, man!

         [crowd cheers]

I’ll tell you something–it don’t get easier, and people listen to you less. You’ve been there and done that and you know, hey, that’s not a good idea–and so he laughs at it–what do you know, man?

I wanna share it with you, but I do expect a little respect–so don’t shine the bloody spotlight in my eyes again. Three times I have to say that there’s something wrong with that. You’re not listening. Maybe they’re too high. You smoke too much dope you guys. You’re working, you’re not playing. You can’t be stoned all the time because then there’s no stone because you’re high and that’s your stone …

So [with psychedelics] I think we’re throwing away something the planet has sent to help us for many years, and that has developed along with us, and is important. That’s what these plants are. They don’t turn us into God. They turn us into something else. It’s another step of some sort in our evolutionary process. 

The planet, through the plants and the psychedelic drugs, has given us the planetary hormone to do that. Nothing else makes sense.

Deer eat cannabis like it was lettuce. [The psychoactive affect] can’t be to protect it–the resin doesn’t protect the plant from anything, in fact, a lot of animals eat it because it makes them crazy… A guy named Ronald Segel [a California-based psycho-pharmacologist] wrote a book about this [Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances] and every animal that he studied liked to get high. One way or another they want to change their relationship with the universe and their experience, to alter their perception. To get stoned one way or another…

The interesting thing about the drive to intoxication is that nature has designed it so that it is primarily the carnivores that get high, Bear believed. He based his theory largely on the work of an Indian doctor from 1860 who studied cannabis, which was at that time a widely-used herb throughout the country. The doctor found that herbivores like goats, rabbits and sheep were virtually unaffected by the plant, but the carnivores like cats and dogs were hit hard.

Bear deepened this theory by pointing out that marijuana grown in the wild will eventually lose its psychoactive effect after a few generations, and that it seems to be only the plants that are specifically cultivated by man that remain mind-altering. “The cannabis plant seems to specifically produce its resin to intoxicate man in a pleasant fashion so that the man is now interested in the plant,” he told David Gans. “This plant has latched on to producing a substance that is so pleasant for the man that he will care for the plant, propagate it, etc.

For instance, all of the Mexican stuff, the big sativa plants, they grow really tall, sixteen feet, twenty feet, and it grows in the same style as the hemp that’s grown for fibre. Obviously it’s derived from the early hemp plantations established in Mexico by the Spanish settlers. Because you’ve got to have hemp: it makes rope, it makes twine, it makes cloth, your ships have got to have it. So one of the first things that any colonial group … in fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if hemp seeds weren’t always carried on ships for that reason. Suppose you got shipwrecked, well at least you had a chance if you had the hemp seed to grow yourself some rope. 

So hemp, at least, was a very early cultivar. And it just went off into the woods with the Indians and over 400 years or so they’ve simply selected it to do what they wanted. And what they wanted was to get very stoned.

So the grass is extremely strong. It’s funny because the nature of the high is such that if the seeds are allowed to go for several years before they’re planted they become weaker and weaker and weaker. They’ll still grow a plant but you end up back with a plant that doesn’t do anything. They lose the psychedelic thing. They’ll still grow a plant and do everything it’s supposed to do, but it tends to become hermaphrodite. A hermaphrodite was the original form of the plant … The separation of male and female is something that man has imposed on it. The exemplification of the psychedelic properties of the intoxicating resin is something that man selects for. And the plant knows. The plant is conscious of the man.

And this relationship must also exist between man and the cactus, between man and the fungus, all the plants which we know, the shamanistic plants with psychedelic properties. All I believe, do it to get the man high. Not as a protection against something. Because there’s other things besides man that eat peyote. There’s a lot of insects that eat them up. There’s lots of things that eat up pot plants. Lots of things eat up mushrooms–even deadly poisonous mushrooms are eaten quite frequently by insects and things. So any specific so-called defense seems to be an illusion.

As Bear said online in 2006, 

The truth no vegan can ever accept is that ALL forms of life, whether plant fungus or animal are conscious. 

It is just that we animals are unable to communicate or ‘hear’ the consciousness of plants. Plants on the other hand seem quite able to do so with both other plants and animal in remarkable fashions. There is an orchid that not only looks exactly like a female bumble bee, but also smells like one, leading the males to attempt to couple with the blossom and in process getting the two pollen-masses (pollinia) stuck on their heads. The can’t copulate with the flower of course, but then visit another blossom and deposits the load of pollen in a further vain attempt to mate. Since a plant cannot see or smell (or can it?), how could this ever have come about?”

If nature could regulate the carnivores with cultivars like cannabis, forming deep symbiotic relationships, it could do it with psychoactives and entheogens that it secreted all across the planet, wherever humans are found. And if the humans wouldn’t go back to the garden, that higher intelligence could theoretically bring the garden to them, en masse, via the laboratory–if it wanted to. If the need was there. Bear had a theory about that, too, of course, and it was connected to his ideas on alchemy, consciousness and the alchemical “All is Mind” that pervades existence.

In conversation with Tim Leary back in the 60s, as reported in The Politics of Ecstasy, Bear said:

Oh, man, how beautifully it all fits together. Dig, the first atomic fission occurred in December 1942 … The Van Allen Belt is a thick blanket of electronic activity protecting the planet. What is the earth? A core of molten metals covered by a thin layer of soft, vulnerable, organic tissue. Life nibbling away, nibbling away at the rock beneath. All life on this planet is a delicate network unified. Each living form feeding on the others. And being eaten. The Van Allen Belt is the higher intelligence protecting earth from lethal solar radiation, and it’s in touch with every form of living intelligence on the earth–vegetable, animal, human.

Now dig. The Supreme Intelligence sees that man has rediscovered atomic energy. Wow! We gotta stop those cats before they disrupt the whole living network. The only thing that DNA fears is radiation. That’s why the Van Allen belt is there.

OK, now get this. Four months after the first fission, Hofmann accidentally, ha ha, resdiscovers LSD, which is now psychoactive … Hofmann first synthesized LSD in 1938 and nothing happens, and then in 1943, three months after atomic energy is released, he puts his finger on lysergic acid and gets flipped out? What happened? Did Hofmann suddenly get careless? Or had LSD suddenly been changed into a psychedelic chemical? Competent chemists just don’t change their handling of compounds. Hofmann’s techniques are standard.

Now dig. The atomic fission in December 1942 changed the whole system of energy in this solar system. The higher intelligence decides to make a few simple changes in the electronic structure of some atoms, and zap! We have LSD, an incredibly powerful substance that is the exact antidote to atomic energy. People take LSD and flash! They get the message and start putting things back in harmony with the great design. 

Stop war! Wear flowers! Conservation! Turning on people to LSD is the precise and only way to keep war from blowing up the whole system.

It was an alchemical transformation that satisfied the Kybalion’s principles of polarity and rhythm. Nature, or the animating intelligence–whether it be from within or without its all the same, really–regulates the frequencies and if needed dips into the minds of men to seed the ideas and connections, or so Bear, and others like writer Aldous Huxley and poet Gerald Heard hypothesized. Heard went as far as remarking that “LSD was simply God’s way of saving man from the bomb.”

The case for higher intervention with LSD is part of the psychedelic folklore, but it does show up some historical discrepancies that make you wonder. It starts, as all good psychedelic stories start, at the beginning, with the creator. In the lab. Hofmann and the 25th batch of lysergic acid:

On the afternoon of April 16, 1943, while preparing derivatives of lysergic acid I had to leave my lab suddenly. I felt something was happening to me. Whatever I imagined came into my mind as images. It was a horror trip and I felt like the end was nigh. I thought that this was the end. But in the morning I felt re-invigorated, as if new life was entering my body–it was a wonderful feeling. It was impossible to describe how wonderful this experience was … I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.

Hofmann, LSD: My Problem Child, 1983.

Hofmann says he had a ‘strange presentiment’ to re-examine this chemical, first synthesized five years earlier then left on the shelf when animal tests proved inconclusive. “LSD came to me–I didn’t look for it. LSD wanted to be found, it wanted to tell me something. If I had worked 100% safely and taken all proper precautions then we would not be here today. So sometimes it pays not to be perfect!” Hofmann joked at his 100th birthday symposium in Basel, Switzerland, in 2006.

An essay by John Beresford on the Albert Hofmann Foundation’s website, clarfifies the matter even further: Hofmann “had what he called a ‘Vorgefühl’. The usual English word for this is “presentiment”, but the German word suggests something stronger than the laid-back “presentiment”. Something was telling Hofmann to retrace his steps and perform a new synthesis of the discarded molecule, LSD-25. It had to be that molecule and not one of the others consigned to the ‘useless’ pile. Hofmann does not remember what he was doing when the ‘presentiment’ came over him. He won’t say if it came in a dream, or if he was in a state of unusual lucidity.”

Dr David Nichols, chemist and pharmacologist, professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Purdue University in Indiana and one of a handful of modern government-sponsored researchers into serotonin and other mind altering drugs, seems to agree. At the MindStates IV LSD panel discussion, held in May, 2003, Nichols said:

On April 16, 1943, when Albert Hofmann accidentally ingested LSD, he ingested at least … 50 to 75 micrograms … Now, how many people believe that the effects of a 50-75 microgram dose of LSD would only have lasted two hours? … How can we formulate a hypothesis consistent with this observation? We need to consider a few things.

…Even though the pharmacologist at Sandoz was probably a friend of Albert’s, can you imagine this chemist coming down the hall and saying, “You know, I made this compound five years ago, out of this whole series, and there’s this one compound, LSD-25, that you said was uninteresting... but you must have missed something. I just have this ‘peculiar presentiment,’ this strange hunch that you missed something.’ You’re going to look at Albert and say, ‘You know, really, I’m an expert in pharmacology Albert. We tested it very well.’

The Germans and the Swiss are very precise chemists, and pharmacologists, and scientists. There wouldn’t have been any question about this being somehow mis-analyzed the first time.

This is another interesting point. Why the 25th? We know that only the 25th in the series was active. Any other compound that he made–and I’ve made many of them, we’ve tested many of them–none of the others approach LSD, either in its sophistication or in its potency. Only the 25th. And this is unusual. In pharmacology often you have a regular series. If we think of things like DOB, and DOI, there’s a kind of regular progression. They all fit into a kind of subgenus. And LSD doesn’t. We don’t call the other members of the series Albert made as LSD something or other, but if we had LSD-23, 24 and 26, they would all be one-tenth the activity of LSD-25. Peculiar presentiment indeed!

As I’ve said, Swiss and German chemists have a reputation–today and back then–for being absolutely meticulous. If we had gone into Albert’s lab at Sandoz in 1943, we would probably have found everything in its place, organized in an obsessively neat manner. No dirty glassware, no trash on the floor, meticulous. How in the world did a meticulous Swiss chemist get 50 to 75 micrograms or more of LSD into his body? We don’t know…

The other fact we need to think about is when Albert was a child, he had a spontaneous mystical experience. Now depending on whether you’re a psychologist or a psychiatrist or whatever, we could say that Albert had a predisposition to altered states of consciousness.

Indeed, Hofmann revealed in Basel, in 2006 that: “I had my first mind expansion as a child, but I didn’t tell anyone. But it was so beautiful. I never forgot it.” Hofmann spent a lot of time alone, down by the pond or playing around the ruins of a castle nearby his home in Baden, a small Swiss town. His experiences with nature were as intense as his relations with people, and sometimes, out there in the deep woods, he would spontaneously enter into transcendental states of consciousness. The light would get brighter, richer and deeper; sounds would intensify as the young boy-mystic felt a one-ness with Creation... “And I wondered,” he said, this hundred-year old man. “Is this the secret that the adults know, that they don’t tell the children?

Hofmann was sensitive to the soul of the world, and he was well placed in the lab to receive a nudge from on high. Bear went further than Nichols, suggesting that nature herself caused LSD-25 to become psychoactive on April 16, 1943, where previously it was inert.

Now think about that for a minute. If true, and if the War on Drugs somehow eradicated every single psychoactive plant on the planet simultaneously, then nature would–to preserve the balance–no doubt switch on another plant or fruit, say, for the sake of illustration, the humble tomato.

 Because nature and the animating intelligence behind her wants the humans to get high. And connected back to the Gaian matrix, to the garden…

If Hofmann birthed LSD, Bear was sure as hell the one to seed it, just like that orchid and the bee pollinating for the greater interspecies good, and the hippies pollinating the change of consciousness across America–and the world. It’s a whole systems theory that includes the role of humans in the Gaian mix, that sees the synergy and interdependence of all species in the energetic organism that is the web of life.

“We shouldn’t have to hide taking psychedelics–it’s our God-given right,” Bear said that balmy summer Sunday night up on stage in his second EGA presentation. “They say entheogens [reveal] a ‘God within’, well God gave you the right to take the entheogen in the first place! Let’s be reasonable about this: you either have a free society or you have a control leash. And these guys want to control every fucking thing you do. And it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

The War on Drugs is quite simply a war on consciousness and on people’s God-given right to alter it, Bear believed. If the planet herself created these substances, intending them to form relationships with humans–and many of these psychoactive plants have very old relationships with us, according to neuroscience, fitting like keys into the chemical locks of the human brain that have evolved to host them–than who are we to buck the natural order?

Ironically, whilst entheogens most definitely catalyze a psychedelic reaction in humans, these substances have recently been proven to merely open the abilities we have innate within ourselves all along–just like the cosmic scuttlebut suggested in the 60s.

Using the latest functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scientists have shown that psilocybin actually acts as a reducing valve for the mind-at-large, as Huxley called it. Amanda Feilding, Director of the UK-based Beckley Foundation, told The Guardian in the U.K. in February, 2012 that:

The team looked at the brains of subjects as they received an intravenous dose of psilocybin, a psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms … The research in PNAS showed that psilocybin decreased blood flow to specific regions of the brain that act as “connector hubs”, where information converges and from where it is disseminated. In the paper, we suggest that these hubs normally facilitate efficient communication between brain regions by filtering out the majority of input in order to avoid over-stimulation and confusion. But the hubs also constrain brain activity by forcing traffic to use a limited number of well-worn routes. Psilocybin appears to lift some of these constraints, allowing a freer and more fluid state of consciousness.

Bear had similar theories about LSD, as he told Eisner in 1998: “I may be right or I may be wrong, I don’t know, but it was always my opinion that LSD itself wasn’t the active material, that it was simply a catalyst/agent that caused your body to release something that actually did the job. That was the reason why you couldn’t take it several days in a row, because you had to recharge this ‘body-battery’ or capacitor that you were discharging. The reason that the intensity was proportional to the amount, was that the larger amounts caused a rapid and more complete discharge of the stored material.”

Writing on his website, Bear furthermore said:

I always trusted what happened on acid. Everything that happens to you on acid is real. Everything you see is real, everything you experience is real, everything you think about is real. The thing about it is, that a lot of the stuff you see is not stuff you see when you’re straight, because when you’re straight you’re limited. The acid removes the “filters” and lets the noise through. That “noise” is as real a part of the universe as the other part that you do allow to pass through, it just hasn’t been important for you. That’s a survival issue, we discard a lot of sensory information to make our daily lives simpler. When you open those floodgates and let it all pass, you let in a lot of stuff that’s as real, and often more interesting than the stuff you usually let through. The patterns that you see when stoned, for instance, are an artifact of the way the nerves in your eyes are arranged and mapped into the brain. Beautiful noise!

Bear may have been aware of results in the scientific literature from the 1950s and 60s which showed that LSD gathered in the liver, spleen and kidneys, but only .01% of the chemical actually makes it to the brain itself, where it is metabolized after only twenty minutes–some time before the actual affects are even felt by the body.

“Now they used to call psychedelics’ psychomimetics’,” Bear said in his third lecture at EGA At Melbourne University in 2009:

But they aren’t that, anymore than they’re entheogens. I don’t think they “create gods within” or duplicate schizophrenia, or bi-polar as they call it these days. I think [psychedelics] actually let go of the filters and they turn up the gain. So if you’re a good guy you become a really good guy. And for someone like Charles Manson...

I used to know a Hell’s Angel and he would say to me, ‘Oh, I just love to get in a fight when I’m on acid’. And I’m thinking that the last thing I want to do is get in a fight when I’m on acid, and everybody I knew felt the same way. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘the other guy’s moving in slow motion, it’s easy.’ And that’s his nature–he loves to fight. The Hell’s Angels got into fights with each other all the time, just cause they loved to fight. They never washed their blue jeans–what do you expect?! But some of those people were the most psychedelic people I’ve ever met. I met them at Kesey’s.

And Kesey, boy, once they discovered Kesey and the acid... It just opened ’em up. They were these guys who were right on the edge of society anyway. If you gave them a little booze they just went somewhere else. And in the end they wore uniforms, they had rules, and they were just like cops. Except... if cops are like dogs, Hell’s Angels were like wolves. The cops are the same kind, but you were much more likely to be choked by an Angel than a cop.

Up on stage, Bear shakes his head and fiddles with his earpiece. “Why don’t people think about this? Am I the only person that sees this stuff?” he says, straining into the mic with the geam of righteousness in his eyes. “That’s a curse of some sort, isn’t it? Like the curse of the immortal in Troy … I wouldn’t like to feel that I was sitting up here telling stories and you’re thinking, ‘oh, what the fuck’s that old guy talking about?’ That’s boring, get lost. Who cares?”

This is an extract from the free, non-commercial biography, White Lightning, available for PDF download here.

Bear Owsley’s writings can still be found on his website:

Support The Owsley Stanley Foundation – a 501c(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of “Bear’s Sonic Journals,” Owsley’s archive of more than 1,300 live concert soundboard recordings from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s here: