Nov 06 2011

The Seeker: A Psychedelic Suburban Youth Doesn’t Find It Tripping. An Interview with Peter Bebergal



“Psychedelic music  functions as tool for exploring all the myriad aspects of the psychedelic experience; the bliss, the dread, the melancholy of coming down, and the joy of having felt as though you have glimpsed the infinite.”


I could have quibbled with Peter Bebergal about the purpose and value of psychedelic drugs and psychedelic culture, but I decided to just let him share his experience and views.

Bebergal has written a deeply personal and very moving story about seeking god and transcendence through psychedelic drugs and mysticism in the cosmic desert that was late ‘70s/early ‘80s suburban youth culture.  Too Much To Dream: a psychedelic american boyhood takes us from the innocence of a young pothead learning mystic secrets from a likely schizophrenic old tripster while working at his job in the mall through happy acid flashes and big bummers; through hanging with ‘80s punks in Boston, and eventually through hard drug addiction and finally sobriety. All the while, Bebergal seeks spiritual satisfaction and understanding.

Bebergal also encloses satisfying bits of psychedelic history and a manifest love for psychedelic music that will make you want to punch up Sid Barrett on Pandora and absorb all the influences.

RU SIRIUS:  Yours is a very interior story of psychedelic seeking, despite some cultural referents.  My experience – in turning 18 in 1970 – was more like, “Oh yeah.  I caught a glimpse of the infinite divine again last night.  That’s cool… but on with the revolution!”   I wonder if the focus on finding god is peculiar to you or peculiar to the times you found yourself coming of age in.

PETER BEBERGAL: My generation was certainly lacking a cohesive counterculture. Even the punks couldn’t agree on what we were actually fighting for. The only thing we knew for sure was that the hippies failed. Charles Manson and Kent State were the ubiquitous images of the sixties when I was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s. Along with these dark shadows was a restless spiritual need. The aquarian age never materialized and the normative Judeo/Christian teachings felt hypocritical and empty. There were no teachers, no gurus, no grown ups we felt we could really trust. For many, myself included, this resulted in an overreaching for meaning. Looking for spiritual insight, it was impossible not to find yourself browsing through the Occult/New Age section of the bookstore. What was there but more overreaching?… a kind of schizophrenic brew; Carlos Castaneda, The Tao of Physics, the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck, and Chariots of the Gods.

Nevertheless, I also think there is something peculiar to the makeup of the addict/alcoholic, an underlying feeling of disconnection and loneliness; a deep need for divine communion of some kind. Sadly it often results in desperation towards self-destruction. So this combined with my generation’s own lack of social/spiritual authenticity meant I was essentially doomed.

RU:  It strikes me that psychedelics are both an enhancer and distorter of
pattern recognition.  It’s like once the mind becomes too conscious and too obsessive about pattern recognition, it becomes delusional.

PB:  This is probably the most succinct way of putting it I have heard. It’s essentially what we see happen with Phillip K. Dick. It’s part of the reason why no matter how non-addicting psychedelics might be from a chemical point-of-view, the capacity for the human mind to compulsively search for the same connection/insight over and over again is boundless. This same phenomena can be seen with a certain kind of occultism. Hermeticism can become an exercise in endless connection making and it’s amazing how even the most thoughtful occultists can become conspiracy theorists overnight. Psychedelics, and other forms of non-ordinary consciousness, can readily show that there is more to the human mind, and possibly the universe, than we can perceive normally, but when we lose the ability to critically distance ourselves from these experiences, the danger for delusion is great.

RU:  Could you say something about what your peak experience was with psychedelics… and then… without it?

PB:  Sadly, despite my best efforts, I never had what I call a peak experience with psychedelics. They always seemed just out of reach. I would have glimpses, moments where I could literally feel certain doorways open, but they would snap shut if I tried to walk over the threshold. During one trip I felt deeply connected to the woods I was in. It was an autumn day and the leaves rose up and applauded, winking and dancing all around me. I felt a spirit of the world moving around me and I was ready for a true communion, but of course some giggling friend I was with took me out of the reverie. I was trapped in the suburbs. The holy places for me were the copse of trees adjacent to the golf course or a rooftop overlooking the train tracks. But for whatever reason they did not signify deeply enough, and I was always looking around the corner of my experiences for something deeper.

Without psychedelics, I have had what I could call essential peak experiences, but they were more about immanence than transcendence; watching my mother die in the arms of my father as the cancer took her. I felt the spirit of the universe descend into the room that night and I believe I experienced a profound state of non-ordinary consciousness, brought on by the amazing chemistry of deep sadness and wonder. Similarly watching my son being born, and then in even more subtle moments, as when a giant blue heron flew along the window of a train as I looked out.

RU:  It always struck me as interesting that psychedelics can be used as a cure for addiction and yet — in a certain percentage of trippers — it seems to bring out the addictive personality.  How would you describe that seeming contradiction or odd contrast?

PB:  When used a cure, psychedelics are administered in a very specific context by a therapist or within a ritual context as in the Native American Church who use peyote and see a dramatic decrease of alcoholism. I cannot imagine someone getting to the other side of their addiction self-dosing and tripping on their own, but you never know. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous used LSD after meeting Humphrey Osmond who believed that LSD could induce states akin to delerium tremems and possibly scare alcoholics away from booze. But Wilson saw another potential, a way of bringing about a spiritual experience that he believed was essential for a drunk hoping to get sober. He eventually had to give up the experiments for the overall good of AA, and later was said to have remarked that even though he had deep insights on LSD, that he also discovered there was no escaping from himself. Real recovery was going to have to be a slower, more deliberate process after all.

RU: Throughout the book you talk about a love for psychedelic rock music, which could only have emerged from the street use of psychedelic drugs, even if some who play it didn’t – or don’t imbibe.  What would you say about what this music evokes and do you feel some ambiguity about your love for it?

PB: Music has become one of the most important sources I have for experiencing and recreating current and past altered states. Psychedelic music in particular functions as tool for exploring all the myriad aspects of the psychedelic experience; the bliss, the dread, the melancholy of coming down, and the joy of having felt as though you have glimpsed the infinite. Music is capable of containing so much and it’s the best “language” I know for expressing the psychedelic experience.

It was music that started me on the path of writing this book. I found myself collecting psychedelic music again and uncovering an entirely new generation of artists working with these tropes. From the psych folk of Woods, Blithe Sons, and United Bible Studies to the dangerous stoner rock of Black Mountain to the transcendent groove of White Rainbow. And all these artists are doing something remarkable. They are, for the most part, looking inward, towards a more immanent and pantheistic notion of divinity at least musically if not personally.

As for ambiguity, I only wish that I had the sense to listen to more Stooges and Soft Machine than all that bloody Syd Barrett when I was a kid.

RU:  You remain interested in the psychedelic movement even though you feel you can’t risk taking them yourself.  What do you hope for people today who take psychedelic drugs in a way that is conscious of set and setting and so forth?

PB: I have come to believe in the absolute necessity of ritual and community, whether it’s the Native American Church or your local OTO lodge. However you can find it, try to access a group of people that share your spiritual/psychological sensibilities and that hopefully have a few seasoned elders and teachers. This is not to say there aren’t those that can handle the solitary journey, but I still think however one can position oneself into a larger context with its own myths and symbols can only be a good thing.

But more importantly I hope that those who use these drugs will see them not as a path but as doorway towards a spiritual/conscious way of life. As Alan Watts is often quoted as saying, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.”

RU:  Was it difficult writing this personally revealing book and do you hear from other American suburbanites who resonate with your experience?

PB: Writing this book was a challenge because it forced me to do away with how I had continued to romanticize my past and at the same time see that I was not unique, that I was just a kid doing the best I could during a time of great spiritual and social confusion. Being predisposed to addiction made my experience a little more dramatic than some, but in the end, I was a teenager trying to negotiate something very human that had revealed itself to me at an early age in a very intense way; there is meaning to be found beyond the conventional, beyond the mainstream. I am so glad I learned this. I have kept it close to my heart my whole life. Despite it all, I am glad to be one of the freaks.

I have some very nice conversations with others who identified with this journey, and who also see that while drugs can reveal some interesting and important things, at the end of the day we must trudge a road without special aid, with merely our own malleable and precious consciousness and that music, art, meditation, a little fasting here and there, and people to share our stories with is a path that can take us to places we never could have imagined.