Christopher M. Bache, Ph.D. is an accomplished teacher as well as researcher in “the philosophical implications of non-ordinary states of consciousness, particularly psychedelic states.” He will be the keynote speaker of the upcoming Pacifica Conference, “Accessing the ineffable: Depth Psychology, Religious Experience, and the Further Reaches of Consciousness,” on June 19, 2021. Click here for more information. I’m delighted to find out more about his research and the conference.
Angela: The title of the workshop is “Accessing the Ineffable.” And your talk will be on “LSD and the Mind of the Universe: The Challenges and Blessings of an Extreme Psychedelic Journey.” How has LSD helped you to access the ineffable, or as you say in the book, allowed you to journey “into a unified field of consciousness that underlies all physical existence”? How did you first get involved, and are you glad you took the trip?
Chris: Yes, I’m very glad I took this journey, though I also want to say that it was the most demanding undertaking of my life.
I began my psychedelic work in 1979 when I was 30 years old. I was just out of graduate school from Brown University where I had trained as a philosopher of religion, finishing my studies as an atheistically-inclined agnostic. I was looking for where to take my research next when I read Stan Grof’s Realms of the Human Unconscious. I immediately saw the relevance of his work to the core questions I had been trained to pursue as a philosopher–whether life has meaning or purpose, whether human beings survive death, and whether there is a conscious intelligence operating in the universe. I saw that with the advent of psychedelics, the deepest contributions to my discipline would be made by persons writing out of an experiential basis, not just an intellectual basis, and I felt a deep calling to do this work. (My Saturn Return marked a number of seminal transitions in my life: from student to professor, from book learning to experiential learning, from agnosticism to psychedelic initiation.)
I had not done psychedelics before this. Far from it. I had grown up in a middle-class Catholic family in Mississippi, entered the seminary in high school, and studied theology at the University of Notre Dame, New Testament criticism at Cambridge University, and philosophy of religion at Brown. I was about as conventional as you can get, but I also had a passionate desire to explore larger philosophical questions. Using the amplifying effects of LSD to enter the deeper dimensions of consciousness felt like a coherent extension of the philosophical and theological lineages I had internalized in graduate school.
So I began what would become a 20 year psychedelic journey–73 high-dose LSD sessions carried out between 1979 and 1999 following protocols set out by Grof. This regimen generated a repeating spiral of death and rebirth that initiated me into successively deeper levels of what I experienced to be the Creative Intelligence of our universe. These levels were so varied that they cannot be easily summarized. It was “a unified field of consciousness that underlies all physical existence,” true, but it was also much more than this.
My journey took me into vast tracts of time that I called Deep Time, and in other sessions beyond time altogether. It took me into archetypal dimensions of reality and then beyond archetypal reality. It brought me Home to the source of my existence and then opened me to deeper and deeper dimensions of Home. It was a passionate love affair with the universe that after fifteen years brought me into the hyper-clarity of Diamond Luminosity.
Though all this sounds grand, and it was, the cost of these initiations was dear. My sessions repeatedly crushed me, dismembered me, and destroyed me in order to give me access to these extremely subtle and vast domains.
Angela: What are Stanislav Grof’s protocols that you refer to? Is there a particular mindset that one should bring to this work?
Chris: Stan set out his protocols for low and high dose LSD therapy in his book LSD Psychotherapy. These include: careful attention to set and setting, working with a sitter in a protected environment with no outside interruptions, lying down with eyeshades and headphones, and listening to music that has been carefully selected to pace the stages of opening and closing. The protocol for high dose sessions is less interactive than for low dose sessions, with the sitter relating to the subject primarily through the music.
My sessions always began in the morning and lasted all day. I started with a period of yoga and meditation, and later certain Vajrayana Buddhist practices. I wrote up every session within 24 hours, going to great lengths to make sure that my account was as complete and accurate as possible. I think the standardization of the procedures that I used in my sessions—same sitter, same set and setting, same medicine and dose, same location, and same recording process—contributed to the stability and continuity of my visionary experience.
After three introductory sessions, I worked at high dose levels in all my sessions (500-600 mcg), which is a regimen that I don’t recommend. You pay a price for driving your system this hard, and it took all my resources to manage what emerged in my sessions. If I were to start this journey over again, I would be gentler with myself.
Because working at these high levels is extremely demanding, this regimen is not suitable for many people. In addition to the usual screening criteria discussed in the psychedelic literature, additional precautions should be taken. Working at these levels becomes less a therapeutic enterprise and more an intense journey of cosmic exploration. Accordingly, it requires something of an explorer’s constitution—a capacity to withstand conditions that are highly stressful, extremely disorienting, and deeply ambiguous. In addition, one’s life circumstances and support systems must be strong enough to support such an undertaking.
Angela: Psychedelics are beginning to be taken seriously in clinical settings today as part of a treatment protocol for patients with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and persons facing a terminal diagnosis. How do you envision LSD as a future tool of therapeutic work? What gifts has it brought you in your own healing?
Chris: First, let me say that I am not a psychologist or a clinician, so I watch these developments from the sidelines. That said, I am very excited by the work being done with psychedelics at our universities and medical institutions. Psychedelics are earning their way back into our culture through their value as therapeutic catalysts. This is an important development, but it is only the first step. Healing the wounds of the personal unconscious is the gateway to engaging still deeper dimensions of consciousness. As our experience of these deeper dimensions increases, it will change many of our perceptions—about life, our universe, and psychedelic healing itself.
Before I describe the gifts of healing that I received in my journey, I want to emphasize that I did this work not as a clinician but as a philosopher. My primary goal was not healing but cosmological exploration. Even so, I received many healings at different levels of consciousness as my journey deepened. Some of these healings took place at the personal level of consciousness and are easily understood by psychodynamic theory. Others took place at the soul level, where I confronted and integrated various disturbances that had taken place in previous lifetimes. Then there were healings that took place at still deeper levels of consciousness where “healing” transitioned to spiritual discovery. There is a profound existential healing that occurs when one finds one’s way back to the source of one’s existence, a spiritual realignment that reaches to the core of one’s being.
There were also collective dimensions to some of these healings, where individual healing spontaneously opened to healing some aspect of humanity as a whole. Because existence is unified at the start, when our awareness opens to the subtle level of consciousness, we sometimes spontaneously open to wounds carried in the collective unconscious of our species. When this happens, collective healing and collective awakening become the natural focus of our work.
I think we are still in the early stages of appreciating the depth and breadth of the healing that psychedelics can facilitate.
Angela: We are in the middle of a time period in the United States where much of what we see on television regarding the pandemic and politics might seem like “a bad trip.” How does your experience with LSD and psychoactive drugs, journeying into the mind of the universe, guide you to negotiate a world where “real life” seems so surreal and nightmarish?
Chris: When one has taken the proper precautions and created a safe container for one’s psychedelic practice, we can completely trust what emerges in our sessions, however inscrutable it may be at the time. My experience has been that when terrifying and painful experiences emerge in my sessions, they are always a meaningful part of a larger process that serves my psychological and spiritual development. They may be the painful uncovering of an old wound or a death-rebirth process that is breaking me down to allow me to enter deeper states of consciousness I cannot enter in my present form. I learned that in a therapeutic context, a “bad trip” is actually a good trip, because it means we are shedding something from our past that will open us to a new and richer future. I believe that the same principle applies to life itself.
One of the surprises of my psychedelic journey was the large role that the evolution of humanity played in it. It was a theme that returned again and again through the years, eventually becoming the meta-narrative of my entire journey, and even my entire incarnation. Reduced to its essence, this visionary narrative was that humanity is rapidly approaching a turning point in its long evolutionary journey, a bifurcation point that will trigger a profound spiritual awakening in our species. This transformational process represents a true “before and after” event of historic proportions that will precipitate a permanent shift in the architecture of the collective psyche.
But just as the spiritual awakening of an individual is preceded by a period of intense purification that strips them of everything that is keeping them small, a collective spiritual awakening of our species will require that humanity goes through a period of intense collective purification. I experienced humanity entering a time of profound crisis in which we will be stripped of what we consider the normal and necessary conditions of our lives. It will be a time of deep collapse, a global systems crisis that appeared to be triggered by a series of ecological disasters. The world as we know it is falling apart.
But I was also shown that from this ordeal will emerge a transformed humanity that embodies new values we forge within ourselves in our time of greatest peril. In essence, our collective suffering will initiate us into the truth of Oneness as we awaken to our deep interdependence in the unified fabric of being. From this global crisis will emerge not only a higher ethic of justice and compassion but a transformed human nature. Humanity is giving birth to the Future Human. The Diamond Soul is emerging from our long reincarnational history.
It is not possible in a few paragraphs to do justice to the enormity of what I experienced in these visions. I introduce them simply to explain what my sessions have taught me about negotiating the challenges we are presently facing. Just as pain always serves a deeper purpose in our psychedelic sessions, I believe the same is true in our outer lives, though you have to look very deep to be able to see this. I believe we are entering an exceptionally difficult period of history, a true “dark night of our collective soul.” But from this collective crisis Nature is drawing forth a higher form of humanity. We are being purified of the collective karma of a world built by the ego, which for all its beauty is a divided reality that has created a divided world. This is a time that calls us to engage the enormous challenges we are facing with heroic resolve. These challenges are not a punishment but a purification that holds great promise for us, both individually and collectively.
Angela: LSD was not legal in the United States when you did your work. What was it like conducting research that had to be kept hidden?
Chris: It was manageable but not easy. I knew that my silence was the price I would have to pay to do this work, but I did not appreciate in the beginning how burdensome this silence would become. When you do deep psychedelic work in a culture that is hostile to psychedelics or even just naive about them, you inevitably separate yourself from your friends and neighbors. Because it is not possible to share this important part of your life with them, your relationships grow thinner. You can enter into their world, but they cannot enter into yours. Living in a psychedelic closet is just as damaging to your soul as living in any other closet where you have to hide the truth of your being.
Because of our culture’s restrictive laws around psychedelics, I could not bring my visionary experiences back into my world. I integrated my sessions as best I could, but my integration, like the work itself, was private and hidden. Though I kept myself whole in my personal life, I was not allowed to be whole in my public life, and if you are not whole in your public life, can you ever be truly whole?
This silence became particularly difficult in my professional life. I love teaching. I love learning new things and sharing this learning with others. At my university, however, I had to keep silent about the most philosophically significant experiences of my life. To know firsthand the truths that psychedelic exploration can reveal but not be able to share these insights with my students became very painful to me.
In this respect, writing LSD and the Mind of the Universe has been a healing experience for me because in it I have brought the public and private sides of my life back together and become whole once again. Sharing my psychedelic journey with others has allowed me to complete my work as a philosopher and in the process has deepened this work. There is a saying from the Navajo: “When you put a thing in order, and give it a name, and you are all in accord, it becomes.” By telling my story, by giving it a name and owning my experience, something new has been set in motion. My experiences are beginning to live in me differently than before. It feels like my session memories have come together to form a greater living whole within me. The inside and outside of my life are moving toward a new synthesis.
Angela: I know of medicine traditions working with plants that refer to the spirit of the plant being their teacher or their guide. In the case of LSD, we are talking about something made in a laboratory that does not have hundreds of years in a healing tradition for a particular culture or people. Do you have a sense of a spirit being present in your many experiences with LSD, or did it simply unlock knowledge and understanding that was already present inside you?
Chris: The experiences that opened in my sessions went far beyond any knowledge I had accumulated in my life and were orchestrated by a consciousness that showed itself to be without boundaries of any kind. If not “a spirit,” it was certainly Spirit in a broader sense. But let me speak to the difference your question points to between psychedelics that are found in nature vs. those that are synthesized in a laboratory.
In general, I don’t place a lot of significance in this distinction. Some, but not a lot. I do, however, think that there is a distinction to be made between psychedelics that human beings have been working with for a very long time and those that are new to us. This may correlate with the organic / synthetic distinction, but it’s not the same and the mechanisms are different.
I believe that the experiences people have when they take a given psychedelic accumulate over time and come to form a kind of living memory around it, something like Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic fields. The longer human beings work with a given substance, the stronger this field becomes. Substances that have been used for thousands of years have stronger experiential fields than substances that have been used for only a few decades.
I think that when we take a psychedelic, the experiences we have are influenced by more than just the biochemistry of the psychedelic interacting with our neurophysiology. It is also influenced by the living memory field that surrounds this psychedelic. This is how I understand someone who has never travelled to the Amazon taking ayahuasca in Brooklyn and suddenly having a powerful encounter with an anaconda. They may have programmed this experience into their session through their expectations, of course, but I think it is also likely that their experience in the ayahuasca state was influenced by ayahuasca’s long history in the Amazon where anacondas abound and have become part of the inner architecture of the ayahuasca encounter.
I think these fields may also shape the feeling we have of encountering the “spirit” of a psychedelic plant when we take it. I’m not discounting the idea that plants have spiritual presences associated with them, but I’m suggesting that our experience of these presences will be colored by our collective history with this plant. The issue is not primarily organic vs. synthetic. It is the history of humanity’s experience with this substance. This approach meshes well with Jorge Ferrer’s arguments for a “participatory cosmology,” the idea that our spiritual experiences are not simply encounters with pre-existing spiritual beings but are cocreated events.
LSD is a new psychedelic with a comparatively short history. A few decades are nothing compared to the thousands of years that mushrooms have been used. Accordingly, I think LSD has a weaker experiential field surrounding it, which may be why many people have reported that LSD feels “cleaner” than organic psychedelics and has “less baggage” associated with it. In addition to this difference in its age, LSD tends to be “high altitude” psychedelic that pushes the cosmological ceiling. By contrast, psilocybin tends to be a more “body-grounded” psychedelic that activates deeply personal insights. They both tap into the living intelligence of our universe but do so at different levels. I would not say that one is more spiritual than the other. I would say that they tap into different levels of Spirit.
Angela: The conference brings together an eclectic group of scholars, Professor William Barnard is currently researching the Santo Daime tradition, Deirdre Barrett, who is a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, Kelly Bulkeley, whose research focuses on dreams, Yvonne Chireau, who researches the historical intersections of magic, religion, and cultural discourses on Voodoo, and those are just to name a few of the scholars. What are you most looking forward to in terms of the intersection of these diverse vantage points investigating the “imaginative inter-play between two mysterious agents–“consciousness” and the expansive potentialities of a non-local “unconscious”?
Chris: New ideas emerge at the intersection of traditions. I am really looking forward to learning from each of these explorers and seeing how their experiences compare to mine and one another’s. This is a special opportunity to share our perspectives and cross-fertilize our disciplines. It’s going to be a very interesting day.
Accessing the Ineffable: Depth Psychology, Religious Experience, and the Further Reaches of Consciousness event is taking place June 2021. For more information and to register, visit our website https://retreat.pacifica.edu/accessing-the-ineffable/
Christopher M. Bache, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in the department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Youngstown State University where he taught for 33 years. He is also adjunct faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Emeritus Fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and on the Advisory Council of Grof Legacy Training. Chris’ passion has been the study of the philosophical implications of nonordinary states of consciousness, particularly psychedelic states. An award-winning teacher and international speaker, Chris has written four books: Lifecycles – a study of reincarnation in light of contemporary consciousness research; Dark Night, Early Dawn – a pioneering work in psychedelic philosophy and collective consciousness; The Living Classroom – an exploration of collective fields of consciousness in teaching; and LSD and the Mind of the Universe – the story of his 20-year journey with LSD.
Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.