Monday, May 01, 2006

The Absurdity of Getting High and Having a Mystical Experience

In Lila, Pirsig quotes approvingly a section of text that says that, when you get high, “The intellect is drawn to the analysis of complex realities or transcendental questions.” (39)

This is possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, probably written while the person was high. People aren’t naturally drawn to “analyze” “complex realities” or “transcendental questions.” What happens when you get stoned or trip balls is that you have a focus problem. It is often said that you focus much more intensely on a subject when you’re high. Again, that’s what stoners think. When you’re high, you don’t focus better, you have trouble unfocusing. The difference is that an intense focus implies you are thinking and analyzing a subject intently, well, and deeply. The problem when you’re high is that you can’t unfocus on a subject once you get latched onto it. This doesn’t mean you’re analyzing with great skill and acuity, it just means all you can think about are bananas. Add to this the fact that your memory has about 10 seconds on it, and you can think about bananas until the sun comes up. But just because you did doesn’t mean you discovered anything significant about bananas, or that your mind was opened up to new possibilities about bananas, or that you analyzed the hell out of bananas. It just means you were hungry.

Unfocusing may sometimes infuse you with good ideas about where to re-focus. It can provide insight. But I think its pretty far off from thinking that going shrooming is the beginning of enlightenment. Is shrooming fun? Sure. Can it provide new insight? Sure. But saying that shrooming gives you a whole new experience of things is pretty trivial when you consider that doing anything new gives you a whole new experience, one that may or may not yield insight and wisdom. There's nothing special about peyote experiences, it is just one way to expand your experience base. Sometimes its good to unfocus. Sometimes it just gives you some pretty terrible ideas (like you've transcended space and time and entered another realm of being).


  1. What about how drugs can effect perception, and perception is our way of experiencing the world? So if the keyboard I'm typing on turns to mush while I'm on LSD and instead of typing "I'd like a drink of water" I type "lik ov drik watof" -- maybe the typed jibberish doesn't represent new insight, but the experience cannot be replicated without the drug?

    Just a thought (from a guy who hasn't had an LSD trip).

  2. Well, yeah, that's part of my point. Doing drugs does give you an experience that can't be replicated without the drugs, but so does eating a banana give you an experience that can't be replicated without eating a banana.

    This little post was more flip than anything, but one of the broader points that it implicitly attacks (or that I would like to attack) is the idea of perception being linked intimately with knowledge or wisdom. That's what I think gets some philosophers in trouble. It is one thing to say that perception is the way we experience reality. That's trivial when it comes to insight and knowledge because, as you pointed out, mistyping "I'd like a drink of water" doesn't seem to yield any insight or knowledge.

    What gets philosophers in trouble is when they disjoin our "perception" or "experience" from "the world" or "reality". Doing that gives us the idea that reality is a constant that our variable perception tries to hook up with. This is what gives us the idea that drugs, by altering our perception and showing how unstable it is, can unlock reality--thus the impetus for the kind of enlightenment talk I want to make fun of. They think that if we can drain away our perception, we can experience reality nakedly, thus gaining knowledge, insight, and wisdom. But there's no assurance of that. I think the mistake of these kinds of philosophers is using ocular metaphors for knowledge--that we "see" the true, so screwing up our sight is going to tell us something about truth. I think that's a dead end.

  3. AnonymousJuly 05, 2006

    Pirsig was definately not one to think of reality as something fixed that individuals "try to hook up with" i think he defined reality as the sum of all the invented concepts and symbols that had been thought up already. The struggle was not to conform or hook up with this reality, but to think outside of it, sometimes with the aid of drugs... or bananas i suppose in order to find instances of quality, which is something fixed and not thought of by man. actually something that we will never completely explain because to explain it in our terms is to denegrate it. That might not make him sound any less insane to you, and I have only read zen and the art, but feel like from it I gained a different perspective, through that perspective gained new insights, and analyzed things differently. good guy, lots of great stuff to say. i am not going to boil him down here, and i wanted to ask that you don't either- at least not in a single quote.
    my 2 pesos,

  4. AnonymousJuly 05, 2006

    came to the site through some researcha nd didn't realize how extensively you have covered Pirsig. Still having a hard time understanding the thread i am responding to though in light of that. anyway, keep up the good work, the world needs more people that have been trained to think critically.
    good luck,

  5. Max,

    Yeah, as I said to Casey, this post wasn't really as serious as many of my other attempts to get a handle on Pirsig. I agree with you that Pirsig "was definitely not one to think of reality as something fixed", but part of my explorations of Pirsig have been to see how well he succeeds in doing what he does and doesn't want to do. I don't think some of the things Pirsig says quite work well with some of the other things.

    Pirsig wants us to "think outside the box", but I think some of his philosophical explorations of how this works are less than great. The main posts concerned with this have been (well, they're all concerned with it, but these are the most concentrated) Language, SOM, and the Pathos of Distance and DQ as Pre-Intellectual Experience. My most concentrated attempt to interpret Pirsig with more than a single quote is in an essay on Philosophologology, which is a study of Pirsig's coined word "philosophology" in Lila.

    ZMM is my favorite of Pirsig's writings. Sometimes one might get the impression from my writings that I don't like Pirsig, but that's not true. I think Pirsig was full of insight and ambition, but over the years of thinking and writing about him, I've come to think that not all of the things he's said work out. One of those things is the sentiment that you also expressed: that we could "denigrate" Quality. I think that's a kind of pathos we can do without.

  6. AnonymousJuly 17, 2006

    >>when you get high, “The intellect is drawn to the analysis of complex realities or transcendental questions.”

    On its face I see nothing wrong with this quote. The intellect sure is drawn to the analysis of complex realities etc. under such circumstances. It's just that the analysis isn't very good and the analyzer, when high, has an inflated sense of his output. I can remember back in college - jeez I wasn't even high on anything except maybe beer - having all night philosophy bull sessions with some friends and thinking how incredibly smart we were. Waking around noon the next day, all I could remember was that we had solved all kinds of shit. Trouble was I couldn't remember anything tangible about either the solutions or, get this, even the problems. Why didn't I write anything down last night? All those insights are now lost to future generations! What an awful shame! Right.

    This is a little like ZMM, isn't it? A man has incredible insights. Forgets them when he gets electricity sent through his brain. Goes on a quest to puzzle his ideas back together again. In the end we realize his ideas don't make much sense and are saddened to see that the man hasn't drawn the same conclusion.

    On a different note: I didn't read all the way to the bottom of your page. I just scrolled there. Rather than a cookie I think I'll take some CheeseWiz on a Ritz, if I still qualify.

  7. Hey Glenn,

    Well, clearly I still reserve more esteem for Pirsig's writings in the end than you do, but yeah, you've pretty much nailed what I don't like about that section. I've had the same experience as you.

    On your different note: did you know that you're the only one that's ever bitten into my food references? And you do it so consistently. I'm sorry to say, though, that the only cookie you'll be getting is the one attached to your computer from my website (and its the same one everyone gets, whether or not they reach the bottom or not).

  8. AnonymousJuly 29, 2006

    Thought you might be interested in this:
    All the experiences are self described 'spiritual experiences' which I don't think you dispute can occur with drugs.

    The interesting thing is that the experiences are described as "one of the most meaningful and spiritually significant events in their life, on a par with the birth of a child or the death of a parent." This seems to imply that the experiences are significantly more affecting than eating a banana.

    I see your point that simply tampering with perception does not assuredly lead to insight/knowledge. I think this study gives a basis for the argument that taking mushrooms gives you a significantly better chance of altering perception in such a way to lead to insight/knowledge than does eating a banana or spinning around until you get dizzy.



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