I Tried Getting 'High' on Drugless Psychedelic Alternatives in the Suburbs
John Lennon swore by them. Do the drug-free mental and breathwork exercises in "Mind Games" hold up?
The center for suburban enlightenment. Photo: David Kordahl
I picked up Ayush and Lucas at 6 PM. We rode out together from the university to my house in the suburbs near Mesa, Arizona. After we ate, I put the dog in the backyard and began our experiment. If all went as planned, we were only a few minutes away from a drug-free high.
What happened next probably shouldn't be called an experiment, since we broke with Mind Games (1972) guidance from the start. This was the guidance passed down from Robert Masters and Jean Houston, a husband-wife team who did LSD research in the 1960s. Their first book together, based on that research, was The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, but after LSD was made illegal in the US in the late 60s Masters and Houston developed Mind Games as a drugless psychedelic alternative.
These activities went on to have a wide and influential fanbase, from Hillary Clinton to John Lennon.
Some fans admit Mind Games isn't a very good John Lennon record. The book Lennon named it after is weirdly intriguing though. Mind Games isn't an outsider's book. It's pitched toward middlebrow professionals who just want to experience some cosmic connections on the weekend. Mind Games promised to lead its users into unknown arenas of consciousness using only the untapped possibilities of their brains. But it had conditions.
Children and animals were supposed to be banned, but Charlie—my dog, now outside—yapped sporadically throughout our session. What's more, I had no guarantee of future sessions, so despite Mind Games' introductory mandate to proceed in the given order, I simply chose two (relatively) self-contained exercises from the beginning of the book.
Which made this basically the opposite of a controlled experiment. More like a sloppy demo. A proof of concept. A study to see if the subject was worth our study. Could the drug-free Mind Games techniques still work?
I've read physics textbooks, so I was able to press on. Mind Games reveals its secrets only gradually.
First we tried the "Alice Game" (Book 1, Exercise 3). "Feel yourself," I crooned, "to be extremely relaxed now." After telling Ayush and Lucas how heavy they felt, I reversed course and told them that they felt weightless, and then, "pleasurably now," that they had regained their usual weights. At which point I told them that they were becoming smaller and smaller, "as Alice did when she drank from the bottle labelled DRINK ME," shrinking down to six inches tall. "Feel that, explore it."
Was it working? Their eyes were closed; they weren't talking. Then, at my command, they grew tall like trees, then became the wind in the trees, then coalesced into human bodies again.
I asked Ayush and Lucas to awaken.
If I'm honest, this story is actually about a way to become not only John Lennon without ever leaving the suburbs, but also Jim Morrison, Aldous Huxley, William Blake, and probably, somewhere farther down the line, the prophet Ezekiel.
My impression is that the route to psychic expansion for most level-headed Americans is to go in for the LSD and psilocybin mushrooms first, and then later, maybe, if there's a real need, to read up on the theory. Only as needed. But I've always gone into adulthood ass-backward—so I started with Ezekiel.
Ezekiel, of course, was the Old Testament writer who saw dry bones get up and dance, who saw angels riding a fiery sky chariot, and so on. Growing up as I did squarely in the Bible Belt, I thought these visions sounded rad and decided I would be a prophet when I grew up.
By the time I reached high school, understandable doubts about that career path had presented themselves. However, I knew by then about Art, which seemed like a reasonable alternative. I knew The Doors named themselves after The Doors of Perception, a long essay by Aldous Huxley describing how tripping balls on mescaline showed him the world as the great artists had seen it—like William Blake, for instance, who talked to angels in his garden. Naturally, I assumed that once I left home, I would probably find my own fiery angels to chase.
Which didn't happen. In fact, almost the opposite.
At college, I didn't get along too well with campus artistes, and ended up on an entirely other route toward enlightenment in the physics department. I'm now 29 years old, married, living in the suburbs with a mortgage and a dog in the backyard. I'm still un-drugged, and working on my physics Ph.D. (I also know I'm not smart enough to burn up too many neurons and still do physics, which I deploy here as another excuse.)
"Chantin' mantras, servin' pretzels."
The suburbs are deep wells of malaise and unexpressed longing, places where the outward lack of novelty creates an inward craving for it. So I read the back cover of a blue paperback at a library book sale as a cause for hope: "Mind Games is a how-to book of mental exercises for achieving altered states of consciousness without the use of drugs or mysticism." Add in a Joseph Campbell blurb and an intriguing subtitle ("The Guide to Inner Space"), and I had reason enough for a $1 purchase.
It wasn't until a web search at home that I discovered the John Lennon connection, that this was indeed the inspiration for his 1973 album Mind Games. Interesting, I thought. But listening to the title track, Lennon's lyrics—e.g., "chantin' the mantra / Peace on Earth," or, worse, "some kinda druid dudes / lifting the veil"—seemed pretty unpromising.
Mind Games the book sat untouched on my shelf for a few years after that.
But a few weeks ago, during a session of tedious coding, I rediscovered Mind Games. From the first page: "Those who play these games should become more imaginative, more creative, more fully able to gain access to their capacities and to use their capacities productively." I could use that, I thought.
The writers, the husband-wife team of Robert Masters and Jean Houston, emphasized that their games were the "products of research." (Robert Masters has since died. Jean Houston is still around, age 78, appearing regularly at seminars with titles like "Time Travel 101" and "Everyday Life in the Quantum Field.") This research revealed that it was possible for the "average person is able to play, and to benefit from playing."
My curiosity piqued, I turned the page.
It turns out that reading Mind Games is a slog, but not for the reasons you might guess. The games themselves are imaginative and interesting. Mostly it's hard to read because it's just a series of instructions narrated in a style whose frequent repetitions made my eyelids grow heavier, heavier, heavier, now feeling very heavy… But that was exactly the point.
I've read physics textbooks, so I was able to press on. Mind Games reveals its secrets only gradually. The volume is split into four "books," each of which has 14-18 activities, numbered in the order they're intended to be played. The activities are structured in a widening gyre, with activities frequently replaying earlier ones at increased levels of difficulty or "depth."
The intro to each cycle restates that it's "essential that the mind games be played in the order given." By the end I could see why. If you start out by attempting to summon a group spirit, or by enacting trance-state glossolalia (fans of Benny Hinn would call this "speaking in tongues"), it probably won't go too well. But this is the virtue of the step-by-step analysis. Mind Games rewrites wisdom literature as a sort of cognitive-behavioral therapy, subbing out set meanings for clearly prescribed actions.
For boring suburbanites, the biggest hurdle to Mind Games immersion may be finding players. Who would I recruit? Neighborhood Mormons? Residents of the halfway house next door?
Obviously, I could just offer my grad school friends pizza.
The "Alice Game" now complete, Ayush and Lucas opened their eyes.
Both men are in their mid-20s; Lucas originally hails from Brazil, Ayush from India. None of our American colleagues wanted to join our Mind Games session, which isn't especially surprising. Quantum mechanics notwithstanding, physicists tend to have a low tolerance for mysticism—not that any of us here were excepted from this trend. Last week, Lucas told me he wanted to be hypnotized just to prove it was BS.
"So—?" I encouraged them.
"Nothing," Lucas said.
"I didn't really have time to imagine what you were saying," Ayush offered, suggesting that perhaps it would be easier to imagine these things if I would just slow down.
A confirmed dud. My fault. Try again.
After barely dipping a toe, I had to admit our excursion had approximately the intensity of a beginner yoga session—minus any of the stretching.
Our second try was considerably more successful. This time we attempted not a proper exercise, but an interstitial text that outlined one route of possible entrée to altered states of consciousness (ASCs, as the book calls them, or, more poetically, full stop—trance). This started with an injunction to breathe slowly while counting every breath. To make sure my timing was now correct, I counted silently along with my brethren and felt a heaviness settle over me.
To further this heaviness, we jointly imagined that we were holding pens ("very heavy" pens), and with these pens we wrote our names on the left side of an imagined lined paper, and the world trance on the same line to the right. We did this over and over, allowing this imaginary act—name then trance, name then trance—to become, for lack of a better word, hypnotic. Name → trance was soon replaced by repetitions of deeper → trance, which, after a span, was replaced by deeper → deeper → deeper → deeper.
I was reading the text and monitoring my guests, but a pall had fallen. Charlie was barking outside, but she couldn't cut through it. We were instructed to stop writing: "And you will just sit there waiting as if in a kind of bubble outside of space and time, a kind of comfortable little eternity that you will wait in, very restfully for a little while."
The room was still. I waited and rested for a little while. Then I read the end script and counted back from twenty. We all opened our eyes—at first groggy, unsure.
"I'm still booting," said Lucas.
"I was going somewhere else," Ayush noted. "Thoughts were going…deeper."
Deeper. We all agreed we had experienced a welcome increase in focus, but it was tough to draw any sweeping conclusions. After barely dipping a toe, I had to admit our excursion had approximately the intensity of a beginner yoga session—minus any of the stretching. Still, having gone this far, I wanted to maintain my pose as a journalist and offered up a question.
"On a scale of one to ten," I asked, "how hard would be to convince people to try Mind Games?"
Ayush: "It wouldn't be that hard, dependent on the people." Academics, he granted, might demonstrate a certain reluctance. But the common people? They'd likely have no problem.
Lucas: "I would say…five." That was his last word on the matter.
Driving the physicists back to their apartments, I realized I'd estimated a significantly higher difficulty of finding fellow travelers. Then again, I knew about the rigors of the later Mind Games. It's one thing, after all, to count silently and feel calm, and quite another to practice visualizing entities before you with your eyes open (Book 3, Exercise 10). While fasting in a self-induced trance (Book 3, Exercise 3).
I left out a big thing, earlier, when I jumped from the Bible Belt to Science Guy: the part where I lived in constant negotiations with Almighty God, where I cowered in constant terror of His wrath. I left out the part where every moment was an altered state. I left out the part, later, when I stopped believing and the world lost its aura of holiness. It's necessary for me to mention this if my final take on Mind Games is going to make sense. I need this much to explain why I'm impressed, and why I'm—yes—reluctant to continue.
With all these exercises, it's clear that something is happening. But the science behind them isn't very clear. If we don't yet fully understand how sleep works, it's hard to say how we can expect to understand other ASCs.
I am impressed, though, with the way Mind Games repackages mystical breakthrough as a question of mental health—as a neurological issue, a skill to be practiced and improved. I'm impressed by the way each of the books is structured as a pathway, with the first leading to the adoption of a personal symbol; the second to the summoning of a group consciousness; the third, with a rite of fasting and isolation, to picturing one's own corpse and deciding what one hopes to accomplish before then; and the fourth, with a symbolic death/rebirth, to becoming one's true self.
At the same time, I'm not sure that I—or many other suburbanites—want any of that.
I know what it's like to be beset with a mythic heaviness, imbued, as they say, with a holy fire. And as far as I can tell, it's no way to live a happy life. Suburban-style happiness involves far more modest pleasures—dog-walking, bulk strawberries from Costco, prestige television. Some 230 years ago, Kant defined enlightenment as mankind's emergence from a self-imposed immaturity. What I don't know is if the denuded suburban consciousness is an example of modern maturity, or if we're simply children, adopting a different sort of waking hell.
Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.