Huston Smith: The Psychology of Religious Experience
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic this evening is the psychology of religious experience, and my guest tonight is one of America's great scholars of religious traditions, Dr. Huston Smith. Dr. Smith is a former professor of religion and psychology at MIT. He's the author of the great classic, Religions of Man, which has sold over two million copies, as well as six other books on psychology, religion, and philosophy, most recently one called Beyond the Post-Modern Mind. Welcome, Dr. Smith.
HUSTON SMITH, Ph.D.: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. Your background in religious studies and philosophy and psychology is very extensive, and the topic that we're going to discuss is so very broad in some ways; there are so many religions and they're so diverse. And yet ultimately they all seem to reflect the mind of man. Would you say that as a scholar of religion you've become a more religious person yourself?
SMITH: I certainly don't feel that I've become less religious, and I also feel that these studies have deepened and broadened my -- what? -- my beliefs. In that sense I guess one might say more religious. I think I might prefer to say perhaps a little more maturely religious, because I didn't have a strong religious bent from my adolescence on.
MISHLOVE: It's, I suppose, always a little delicate for a scholar, who is supposed to be objective, to study something as intense and passionate as religion can be.
SMITH: Well, some see it as a problem, but I've been fortunate that it's never been a conflict for me, because it seems to me that the opposite would be very difficult -- that if you were studying something you were not really in love with, or you felt that it could not bear the light of careful analysis and added information, now that would be a real tension, a real conflict. But it's been one of my blessings, I think, that I've been able to spend my professional life working on precisely what concerns me most.
MISHLOVE: My first encounter in a personal or a deep way with the psychology of religious experience came from, of course, reading William James's classic --
SMITH: A wonderful book.
MISHLOVE: -- in which he described his experiments with nitrous oxide and other drugs at the time.
SMITH: That's right, yes. Very courageous, adventuresome mind.
MISHLOVE: And also in the mid-sixties, reading a book by Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner called The Psychedelic Experience, in which they attempted to create the analogy between the pantheon of gods in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions with the dynamic forces working in the subconscious mind.
SMITH: Yes, yes. Well, that was a very interesting and indeed important -- what shall I say? -- happening of our time, because this correlation and connection, it's a very delicate one, as we all know. But between artificially induced paranormal experiences and ones that come naturally, they can have, and do at times have, a great deal in common.
MISHLOVE: An overlap, at least.
SMITH: A huge overlap. And the discovery of these substances -- actually a rediscovery, because knowledge of them goes back at least three thousand years, and perhaps much further than that -- but the fact that we now know how they work on the brain has opened this up as a field of study which it had not been before.
MISHLOVE: You were involved in some of the early work at that time.
SMITH: Well, actually I was right at the eye of the cyclone. That was 1960, and I was teaching at MIT, and I had arranged to have Aldous Huxley come on an endowed program which enabled luminaries in the humanities to come to MIT. So I was his host for the fall of 1960 at MIT, and of course he had written the book The Doors of Perception, which was one of the opening books in this area.
MISHLOVE: Describing his experiences with -- mescaline?
SMITH: Mescaline. Well, it just happened that that September, when Aldous Huxley arrived at MIT, was the exact month that Timothy Leary arrived at Harvard from Berkeley. And on the way -- you know the story; it's part of history now -- on his way, he took a vacation swing down into Mexico, and on the edge of a swimming pool one afternoon ingested -- what? -- seven mushrooms which opened up his mind in ways that totally startled, took him by surprise.
MISHLOVE: Psilocybin mushrooms, I presume.
SMITH: That's right, that's right. He had arrived at Harvard with a blank check. He was a research professor, had accepted an appointment as research professor in the Center for Personality Study, and he could pick his subject, whatever he wanted to work on. And the moment he had that experience, he was of course absolutely fascinated and mystified by how mushrooms could cause that kind of impact upon his mind, but he didn't know what to do with it. But he had read Huxley's book. So I actually had a part in getting the two of them together, and it's true, for that fall the three of us were very much in the ring in this matter.
MISHLOVE: This was at a time, of course, when these drugs were perfectly legal.
SMITH: Not only legal, but this was respectable. It was research at Harvard University. One of the first things that Leary did was to mount an open study in which people would simply report their experiences, but he found so many of those experiences had a mystical cast to them that he began reaching out for someone who might know something about mysticism. And that's where he tapped me and involved me in the project.
MISHLOVE: You had been studying mysticism long before this, I presume.
SMITH: That's true, right.
MISHLOVE: Had you thought about the relationship between mysticism and drugs prior to your encounters with Leary and Huxley?
SMITH: Well, only academically, in that I had read descriptions, also Huxley's in The Doors of Perception, and as he points out there, phenomenologically, which is to say descriptively, if you match descriptions of the experience, they are indistinguishable. I actually conducted an experiment on that in which I took snippets or paragraphs from classic mystical experiences, and then descriptions of experiences under the psychedelics which were mystical. Of course not all experiences under those have that character, but those that did. And then I shuffled them up and gave them to people who were knowledgeable about mysticism, and asked them to sort them in what they thought --
MISHLOVE: Which came from the real mystics and which came from the drug users.
SMITH: Exactly. And there was no reliability in their predictions.
MISHLOVE: That sounds similar to a more recent piece of work I know Lawrence LeShan did, where he took statements of mystics and statements of physicists and compared them, and they seemed almost indistinguishable as well.
SMITH: That's right. I'd like to add one other thing. So phenomenologically, which again means simply descriptively, one cannot tell the difference. But I think I would want to say that that's not the only dimension, because religion is not simply an experience; religion is a way of life. And experiences come and go, but quality of life is what religion is concerned with. So one has to ask also, not only do they feel the same, but is their impact on the life the same?
MISHLOVE: Well, I think especially now that we can look back after twenty years from the original psychedelic experiments of that type, you can see distinct differences between psychedelic cults and real deep religious traditions.
SMITH: That's right. So I think it's important that, having touched on this subject, we not leave the impression that the two are identical in every respect. Simply descriptively they are indistinguishable.
MISHLOVE: What about the original insight that Leary seemed to have in The Psychedelic Experience that the gods really do exist within us? I think what he was saying in effect is that the pantheons of gods from the ancient pantheistic religions are real active forces, even of a paranormal variety, within our own minds, even if we're Jews or Christians.
SMITH: Yes. Well, that's another very interesting development in our time -- that in the religions of the West, up to this point divine forces have been imaged externally from the self. But when one comes to think of it, when one talks about things of the spirit geography falls away, because the spirit is not bound by space and time, and therefore the distinction between out there and in here, which in our everyday life is very important -- once one modulates to matters of the spirit this whole framework of space and time and matter sort of drops away. What we are now coming to see is that this talk about out there has a certain naturalness, but also certain limitation. One can just as easily turn the tables and talk about the divine within. If I can put it one other way: when one looks out upon the world, value terms -- that is, what is good, are imaged as up there. The gods --
SMITH: Heaven; and the gods are on the mountaintops, and angels always sing on high. They don't sing out of the depths, the bowels of the earth. But when we introspect -- and by the way that imagery is natural, because sun and rain come from on high too -- but when we turn our attention inward and introspect, then we reach for the other kind of imagery, of depth. You know, we talk about profound and deep thought. All this is leading up to the fact that in point of fact this distinction between out there and in here is artificial and only metaphorical when we're talking about things of the spirit. And now I think in our time -- this is one of the changes -- having worked in imagery of the divine being out there, now there is a move towards realizing or exploring ways in which the same reality can be discovered within oneself.
MISHLOVE: Another related notion, I think, is the one originally developed by Durkheim, the French sociologist, in which he suggests that religions are really representations of the group mind of a society, and that the god of each culture is an embodiment of what he called the group mind. He almost described that in ways that seemed quite paranormal to me, when you begin talking about group mind -- something like a Jungian collective unconscious.
SMITH: Well, again, I think it's very useful. For one thing, we are too much given to the notion that the mind is simply attached to the brain, and therefore because the brain has a given geographical locus, then the mind must too. But I remember in a weekend conference down in Tucson a few years ago with Gregory Bateson, he posed to the psychologists Rollo May, Carl Rogers -- all those people were there -- he said, "Where is your mind?" And it sort of took everybody aback. But what he was leading up to is it's quite wrong to think of the mind as lodged inside this skin-encapsulated ego, as Alan Watts used to call it -- that the mind reaches out as far as one's environment extends, in Bateson's notion.
MISHLOVE: And of course we can always go back to the argument of Bishop Berkeley that the entire physical universe, that everything we experience -- your TV sets, for example -- exist only in your mind.
MISHLOVE: There's no other way to identify them.
SMITH: And we talk about ecology of nature now, but the ecology of mind, we're just beginning to get used to that idea. And yet it's an experience. One can walk into the room, and in current terminology, feel vibrations. You can sometimes feel like a wall of anger or hostility, but one can also sense an ambiance of peace, and now the physicists are realizing that physical phenomena really float on networks and webs of relationship. So we're only now coming to see that our minds too derive, they sort of factor out and congeal out of a psychic medium that Durkheim, I think, was quite right in identifying.
MISHLOVE: You know, I notice though in contemporary religions, particularly amongst the evangelistic Christians who are experiencing such a revival, they're very concerned about certain errors that people fall into -- you know, the notion that one might identify oneself with God in an egotistical way. How do you feel about that?
SMITH: Well, I think they've got a point. I mean, if someone comes along and says, "I am God," it's perfectly reasonable to ask, "Well, your behavior doesn't exactly exemplify that fact." God by definition is perfect, and what human being can make that claim? So I think the ministers that you refer to have a good point, but it doesn't annul the concept of the divine within, which remains valid. The distinction can come, even if we think of the divine within, as Hinduism puts it, and they have been perhaps the most explicit of all the great traditions in saying that ultimately, in the final analysis, in their terminology, Atman is Brahman. Atman is the God within, and Brahman is the God without. But then they deal with the point you're raising by saying, well, a lantern may have a functioning light within it, but it may be coated not only with dust and soot, but in egregious cases with mud, to the point where that light does not shine through at all. So both things are true, but both need to be said in the same breath. Namely, I believe that it is true that in the final analysis we are divine and are God, but we should immediately acknowledge how caked and coated we are with dross that conceals that divinity, and it's, one's tempted to say, an endless quest to clean the surface, to let the light shine through.
MISHLOVE: We were discussing earlier in the program some of your experiences with some of the very primitive peoples, such as the aborigines in Australia, in their I suppose naive native religions, their having a real sense of contact with this level of reality.
SMITH: Well, they do, in two ways, Australian aborigines. One is that they distinguish between our everyday experience and what they call the dreaming. The dreaming is another level of experience, in which they participate in the life of their ancestors, and indeed the creation of the world, in I suppose we might call it a trancelike state, but that doesn't quite do it, because even in the midst of their ordinary life, half of their mind, you might say, is still on or in this dreaming state. But then there's another way in which they're in touch with it, and this has to do with parapsychology as we know the word -- telepathy, specifically. I was in Australia, basically giving a series of lectures at all the universities there, but using my spare time to come in touch with the aborigines, and so I sought out at every university the anthropologists who introduced me and put me in touch with them. And I did not in that entire swing meet an anthropologist who was not convinced that the aborigines had telepathic powers. They simply told me story after story, when they would be with them, and suddenly one of the persons would say, "I must go back to the tribe; so and so has died."
MISHLOVE: That's a strong statement coming from anthropologists, who tend to be quite skeptical.
SMITH: That's right. Their theory was, insofar as they had a theory, the presumption was that these are normal human powers, but like any power it can atrophy if unused, and also can be short-circuited if our conceptual mind doubts that it is real.
MISHLOVE: So would you say there are some religious traditions that encourage the development and the cultivation of the psychic side of human beings more than others?
SMITH: Well, it's interesting. I'll put it the other way, slightly differently. That is to say that most of them believe that these powers are there and that they do increase as spiritual advancement occurs. However, they also warn against it, and say if you make this the goal, why, you're settling for too little. And also there are some dangers; for one thing, this is treacherous water where one is not totally benign, but also there's a strong temptation, as these siddhis, as the Indians call them --
SMITH: Powers, yes. As powers become available to you, people's heads get turned, and they become egotistic in their abilities. And so in that way it can be counter-productive to the spiritual quest. So the greatest teachers are quite unanimous in saying they come, but pay no attention to them.
MISHLOVE: But aren't there traditions -- the shamanistic tradition, the Tantric tradition -- which really do emphasize these powers?
SMITH: That is certainly so. Now, I guess I tipped my hand a little bit in excluding them from the most profound spiritual masters.
MISHLOVE: Perhaps you do have some preferences.
SMITH: Well, shamanism is immensely fascinating, and extremely important in the history of religion. But sanctity one does not associate with shamans. They have immense power, and it can be misused as well as used. I think on balance it's been used. So I value them, but they're neither -- what shall I say? -- saints nor philosophers.
MISHLOVE: Well, perhaps we might liken the psychic abilities in this sense to musical ability, or any other natural talent that could be used in different ways. And some religions cultivate music, I suppose, more than others.
SMITH: That's right, that's right. Most shamans are very much linked with the people, in helping them with practical problems of life. But the aspect of religion that has to do with virtues and compassion and loving-kindness, now, this kind of thing is when I speak of profundity, getting into those waters. The shamans, that's not their forte. They have a different role.
MISHLOVE: Well, as our program is beginning to wind up, I wonder if you could comment on two things. One is a little bit more on how your exploration of religions has affected you personally, and perhaps we can tie it to our viewing audience a little bit. Is there some message that you would have for those people who would be viewing us right now, in terms of what your studies might convey to them?
SMITH: Yes. Well, like any term religion can be defined as one wishes, and if one links it to institutions, I think religious institutions are indispensable, but they're clearly a mixed bag, and we've had the wars of religions; but I tend to think this is the nature of institutions and people in the aggregate. What government has a clean or perfect record, you know?
MISHLOVE: We're running out of time.
SMITH: In one sentence. But I think if one takes a basic religious world view, this is not only important but it's true, and we need to keep our ears open to those truths.
MISHLOVE: In spite of those problems. Dr. Smith, it's been a real pleasure having you with me today. Thank you very much.