Albert Hofmann was the greatest alchemist of our time. He was a scientist who, through his most famous discovery, crossed the bridge from the world of science into the spiritual realm, transforming social and political culture in his wake. He was both rationalist and mystic, chemist and visionary, and in this transcendence of traditional dualities we find his true essence. He often spoke of how his mysterious elixir found him, and in that statement we find a clue to his all-encompassing worldview.
The discovery of LSD in April 1943 was made by chance, but in Hofmann’s mind also by synchronicity. In boyhood, he had experienced inexplicable, spontaneous transfigurations of nature while walking in the woods, which spurred him to investigate the nature of matter, through chemistry. Whilst researching ergot, and its potential impact on blood circulation, he “accidentally” discovered a chemical key, that unlocked a pathway to a profoundly altered state of consciousness, offering the potential for great insights into the workings of the mind, and the unity of the cosmos.
Experiencing its power and its dangers at first hand, Hofmann understood that LSD, if used correctly, and with care, could be a telescope into human consciousness. In later research, he realized that the molecule had virtually the same chemical structure as those in plants used as sacraments for thousands of years by many highly-evolved cultures around the world. He was also the first chemist to isolate the psychoactive compounds psilocybine, and psilocine, found in “magic” mushrooms, and the psychoactive ergoline derivatives found in morning glory seeds.
Following its discovery, LSD was acclaimed as a wonder-drug in psychiatry, accelerating access to psychological trauma, and speeding up and deepening the healing process. It also had a profound effect on how science viewed the mind, changing the dominant view of mental illness from the psychoanalytical model to one based on brain chemistry, and the role of neurotransmitters.
The LSD experience resembled looking through a microscope, and becoming aware of a different reality—a manifest, mystical totality, normally filtered out, and hidden from view in ordinary states of consciousness. LSD catalyzed a new era of consciousness expansion, and caused dramatic changes in perception of both the inner and the outer worlds. Significantly, the experience could be remembered, and therefore it changed how people thought about themselves, and about reality itself. Some viewed its discovery as a spiritual antidote to the atom bomb, which was simultaneously moving towards its appearance on the world stage. The emergence of LSD revived the mystical traditions linking the ancient Greeks of Eleusis, to the enlightened East, and to other cultures, which understood the essential relevance of inner illumination. However, two decades after his discovery, Hofmann witnessed with alarm his elixir’s escape from the safe confines of artistic and therapeutic circles, to become a hugely popular and mass-consumed street drug—his “wonder child” transformed into his “problem child” that gave this book its title.
The legacy of LSD is as controversial as it is profound, and its effects on science, technology, politics, art, and music can hardly be overestimated. It provided the spark to light the flame of the new, more loosely connected “Aquarian Age.” Many creative pioneers of the era claim to have made their breakthroughs either under the influence of LSD, or as the result of insights gained from it. The technological innovations that grew into Silicon Valley and the IT revolution are prime examples of this.
Fundamentally, LSD triggered an altered state of conscious awareness, allowing people to throw off conceptual shackles, and to see beyond the conformity and materialism of their conditioning, thereby facilitating the birth of the counterculture—from which new outlooks evolved, as well as seismic shifts in spirituality, health, music, and popular culture.
Harvard-professor-turned-Pied-Piper Timothy Leary, emerged as a messianic guru, and the mass consumption of psychedelics, that he advocated, led to LSD’s prohibition in 1967, to the War on Drugs, and to the complete shutdown of all therapeutic use and scientific research involving the substance.
These negative developments were not to Albert Hofmann’s liking. He was amazed that LSD had been adopted as the drug of choice by the mass counterculture, but once the genie was out of the bottle, the world could never be the same again.
LSD had provided a glimpse behind the veil, allowing initiates to perceive the posturing of the ego and the absurdity and pomp of many hierarchical structures. Most importantly, the prohibition and continuing taboo status of LSD prevented the value and true potential of this elixir being fully explored and harnessed.
Nearly half a century after its prohibition, research into the psychedelics is cautiously resuming, despite official reluctance, and LSD may in time be accorded its rightful pre-eminence as a therapeutic, cognitive, and spiritual catalyst. Albert Hofmann’s deepest wish was that LSD become the modern successor to the potion, itself derived from ergot, used in the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most sacred ritual of the Graeco-Roman world, which inspired the greatest thinkers of the classical age— and hence, through their ideas, our Western civilization.
Perhaps a measure of transcendental awareness may help counterbalance the excesses of our myopic, materialist, technologically-driven worldview, and avert the ideological, ecological, and spiritual nemesis which looms ahead.
In the words of Humphry Osmond, who coined the term psychedelic (meaning mind-manifesting ): “I believe that psychedelics provide a chance, perhaps only a slender one, for Homo faber, the cunning, ruthless, foolhardy, pleasure-greedy toolmaker, to merge into that other creature whose presence we have so rashly presumed, Homo sapiens, the wise, the understanding, the compassionate, in whose fourfold vision art, politics, science and religion are one.”
– Amanda Feilding
Translated by Jonathan Ott.
Edited by Amanda Feilding.
Co-published by Beckley Foundation Press and Oxford University Press.
Psilocybin for Depression
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