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Jesse’s curiosity about psychedelics was first piqued during a drug education unit in his high school science class. This particular class of drugs was neither physically nor psychologically addictive, he was told (correctly); his teacher went on to describe the drugs’ effects, including shifts in consciousness and visual perception that Jesse found intriguing. “I could sense there was even more here than they were telling us,” he recalled. “So I made a mental note.” But he would not be ready to see for himself what psychedelics were all about until much later. Why? He answered in the third person: “A closeted gay kid might be afraid of what might come out if he let his guard down.”

In his twenties, while working at Bell Labs, Jesse fell in with a group of friends in Baltimore who decided, in a most deliberate way, to experiment with psychedelics. Someone would always remain “close to ground level” in case anyone needed help or the doorbell rang, and doses escalated gradually. It was during one of these Saturday afternoon experiments, in an apartment in Baltimore, that Jesse, twenty-five years old and having ingested a high dose of LSD, had a powerful “non-dual experience” that would prove transformative. I asked him to describe it, and after some hemming and hawing—“I hope you’ll bracket what is sensitive”—he gingerly proceeded to tell the story.

“I was lying on my back underneath a ficus tree,” he recalls. “I knew it was going to be a strong experience. And the point came where the little I still was just started slipping away. I lost all awareness of being on the floor in an apartment in Baltimore; I couldn’t tell if my eyes were opened or closed. What opened up before me was, for lack of a better word, a space, but not our ordinary concept of space, just the pure awareness of a realm without form and void of content. And into that realm came a celestial entity, which was the emergence of the physical world. It was like the big bang, but without the boom or the blinding light. It was the birth of the physical universe. In one sense it was dramatic—maybe the most important thing that ever occurred in the history of the world—yet it just sort of happened.”

I asked him where he was in all this.

“I was a diffusely located observer. I was coextensive with this emergence.” Here I let him know he was losing me. Long pause. “I’m hesitating because the words are an awkward fit; words seem too constraining.” Ineffability is of course a hallmark of the mystical experience. “The awareness transcends any particular sensory modality,” he explained, unhelpfully. Was it scary? “There was no terror, only fascination and awe.” Pause. “Um, maybe a little fear.”

From here on, Jesse watched (or whatever you call it) the birth of . . . everything, in the unfolding of an epic sequence beginning with the appearance of cosmic dust leading to the creation of the stars and then the solar systems, followed by the emergence of life and from there the arrival of “what we call humans,” then the acquisition of language and the unfolding of awareness, “all the way up to one’s self, here in this room, surrounded by my friends. I had come all the way back to right where I was. How much clock time had elapsed? I had no idea.

“What stands out most for me is the quality of the awareness I experienced, something entirely distinct from what I’ve come to regard as Bob. How does this expanded awareness fit into the scope of things? To the extent I regard the experience as veridical—and about that I’m still not sure—it tells me that consciousness is primary to the physical universe. In fact, it precedes it.” Did he now believe consciousness exists outside the brain? He’s not certain. “But to go from being very sure that the opposite is true”—that consciousness is the product of our gray matter—“to be unsure is an immense shift.” I asked him if he agreed with something I’d read the Dalai Lama had said, that the idea that brains create consciousness—an idea accepted without question by most scientists—“is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact.”

“Bingo,” Jesse said. “And for someone with my orientation”—agnostic, enamored of science—“that changes everything.”

• • • HERE’S WHAT I DON’T GET about an experience like Bob Jesse’s: Why in the world would you ever credit it at all? I didn’t understand why you wouldn’t simply file it under “interesting dream” or “drug-induced fantasy.” But along with the feeling of ineffability, the conviction that some profound objective truth has been disclosed to you is a hallmark of the mystical experience, regardless of whether it has been occasioned by a drug, meditation, fasting, flagellation, or sensory deprivation. William James gave a name to this conviction: the noetic quality. People feel they have been let in on a deep secret of the universe, and they cannot be shaken from that conviction. As James wrote, “Dreams cannot stand this test.” No doubt this is why some of the people who have such an experience go on to found religions, changing the course of history or, in a great many more cases, the course of their own lives. “No doubt” is the key.

I can think of a couple of ways to account for such a phenomenon, neither entirely satisfying. The most straightforward and yet hardest to accept explanation is that it’s simply true: the altered state of consciousness has opened the person up to a truth that the rest of us, imprisoned in ordinary waking consciousness, simply cannot see. Science has trouble with this interpretation, however, because, whatever the perception is, it can’t be verified by its customary tools. It’s an anecdotal report, in effect, and so has no value. Science has little interest in, and tolerance for, the testimony of the individual; in this it is, curiously, much like an organized religion, which has a big problem crediting direct revelation too. But it’s worth pointing out that there are cases where science has no choice but to rely on individual testimony—as in the study of subjective consciousness, which is inaccessible to our scientific tools and so can only be described by the person experiencing it. Here phenomenology is the all-important data. However, this is not the case when ascertaining truths about the world outside our heads.

The problem with crediting mystical experiences is precisely that they often seem to erase the distinction between inside and outside, in the way that Bob Jesse’s “diffuse awareness” seemed to be his but also to exist outside him. This points to the second possible explanation for the noetic sense: when our sense of a subjective “I” disintegrates, as it often does in a high-dose psychedelic experience (as well as in meditation by experienced meditators), it becomes impossible to distinguish between what is subjectively and objectively true. What’s left to do the doubting if not your I?

• • • IN THE YEARS following that first powerful psychedelic journey, Bob Jesse had a series of other experiences that shifted the course of his life. Living in San Francisco in the early 1990s, he got involved in the rave scene and discovered that the “collective effervescence” of the best all-night dance parties, with or without psychedelic “materials,” could also dissolve the “subject-object duality” and open up new spiritual vistas. He began to explore various spiritual traditions, from Buddhism to Quakerism to meditation, and found his priorities in life gradually shifting. “It began to occur to me that spending time in this area might actually be far more important and far more fulfilling than what I had been doing” as a computer engineer.

While on a sabbatical from Oracle (he would leave for good in 1995), Jesse set up a nonprofit called the Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP), with the aim of “making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people.” The website downplays the organization’s interest in promoting entheogens—Bob Jesse’s preferred term for psychedelics—but does describe its mission in suggestive terms: “to identify and develop approaches to primary religious experience that can be used safely and effectively.” The website (csp.org) offers an excellent bibliography of psychedelic research and regular updates on the work under way at Johns Hopkins. CSP would also play a role in supporting the UDV lawsuit that resulted in the 2006 Supreme Court decision.

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