The New Alchemy: Alan Watts on altered states of consciousness and enlightenment

Alan Watts

I recently read a fantastic essay by Alan Watts, "The New Alchemy," in which my favorite philosophical entertainer compares the effects of hallucinogenic drugs to spiritual enlightenment. This is a terrific topic for Watts and I was thrilled to stumble upon it.

For one thing, mystical experience seems altogether too easy when it simply comes out of a bottle, and is thus available to people who have done nothing to deserve it, who have neither fasted nor prayed nor practiced yoga. For another, the claim seems to imply that-spiritual insight is after all only a matter of body chemistry involving a total reduction of the spiritual to the material. These are serious considerations, even though one may be convinced that in the long run the difficulty is found to rest upon semantic confusion as to the definitions of "spiritual" and "material."

However, it should be pointed out that there is nothing new or disreputable in the idea that spiritual insight Is an undeserved gift of divine grace, often conveyed through such material or sacramental means as the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the mass.

"The New Alchemy" is an essay published in Watt's collection This Is It: and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience, which explores how the mystical relates to everyday life. In The New Alchemy, Watts recounts his experiences taking acid as part of a research experiment. Watts was asked to determine if the state of mind engendered by hallucinogens equated to the state of mind attained with spiritual enlightenment. As I read the paper, I can hear Watts laughing: "The whole experience was vastly entertaining and interesting, but as yet nothing like any mystical experience that I had had before. "

Watts' short paper provides one of the best descriptions of what a hallucinogen like LSD or peyote does to the mind. Watts discusses how, like any tool, when used in a controlled manner these drugs can provide for interesting and enlightening experiences. He is also clear people not prepared to use a tool can get hurt by it.

I have not, personally, experienced spiritual enlightenment.

The New Alchemy, by Alan Watts

This Is It: and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience