Journal of Religion and Health

, Volume 30, Issue 3, pp 215–236 | Cite as

Mysticism and psychedelics: The case of the dark night

  • Christopher M. Bache


This study uses a model of consciousness derived from LSD-assisted psychotherapy to illumine an enigmatic set of painful experiences that occur on the mystic's path known in Western circles as the “dark night.” It argues that the dark night experiences described in John of the Cross's classic workDark Night of the Soul can be conceptualized in terms of Stanislav Grofs category of “perinatal experience.” The discussion examines the implications of this reconceptualization in three areas: (1) our understanding and evaluation of mysticism, (2) assessing LSD's potential for fostering genuine spirituality, and (3) reassessing the ancient claim that the capacity to experience transcendental states of being is innate.


Painful Experience Dark Night Transcendental State Night Experience Western Circle 
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  1. 1.
    The principal psychedelics discussed were LSD-25, mescalin, and psilocybin. In this paper I am concerned only with LSD, though the psychoactive properties of each are sufficiently close to allow some degree of generalization. I do not intend to address the latest generation of psychedelics and would not want the arguments developed here to be applied to them without further study.Google Scholar
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    Two points: First, though this conception of the spiritual path draws heavily on Eastern sources, I believe that if it were elaborated more completely and with adequate philosophical nuance, it would do justice to the experiences of the great Western mystics as well. See Goldstein, J.,The Experience of Insight. Santa Cruz, Cal., Unity Press, 1976; John of the Cross,Dark Night of the Soul (1584), A. Pears, trans. and ed. Garden City, N.Y., Image Books, 1959;Ascent of Mt. Carmel (1584), A. Pears, trans. and ed. Garden City, N.Y., Image Books, 1973; Mann, R.,The Light of Consciousness: Explorations in Transpersonal Psychology. Albany, N.Y., SUNY Press, 1984; Ajaya,op. cit.; Rama, S.,et al., Yoga and Psychotherapy. Honesdale, Pa., The Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, 1976; Teresa of Avila,The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1565), A. Pears, trans. and ed. Garden City, N.Y., Image Books, 1960;Interior Castle (1577), A. Pears, trans. and ed. Garden City, N.Y., Image Books, 1961; Thera, N.,The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. New York, Sam Weiser, 1962. On fasting, see Shelton, H.,The Science and Fine Art of Fasting. Chicago, Natural Hygiene Press, 1978. Second, while the emphasis here is on the purifying rather than integrative function of the psyche, this is not to deny that integration takes place nor to undervalue the importance of integration in the unfolding wholeness. Nevertheless, I am convinced that an integrative model alone is insufficient to explain the dynamics of the spiritual path.Google Scholar
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    Grof,LSD Psychotherapy, op. cit., Chapter 4.Google Scholar
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    By way of comparison, it is worth noting that Aldous Huxley, whose bookThe Doors of Perception initiated the early debate, took psychedelics a total of only ten times in his life (Huxley, A.,Moksha. Horwitz, M., and Palmer, C., eds. Los Angeles, J. P. Tarcher, 1977, p. 188) and in much lower doses than are commonly used in high-dose psychedelic therapy (25–100 micrograms in comparison to 300–600 micrograms).Google Scholar
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    Grof,LSD Psychotherapy, op. cit., p. 64; see also pp. 64–71, andRealms, op. cit., Chapter 3.Google Scholar
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    John of the Cross,Dark Night, op. cit., p. 61.Google Scholar
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    John of the Cross,Dark Night, op. cit., p. 96. This parallels Grof's observation that many pathologies construed by psychodynamic theory to be purely biographical in nature are in fact rooted in perinatal and even transpersonal levels of consciousness. Hence, these problems will not be completely resolved until their “transbiographical” sources are uncovered and worked through. (Grof,Beyond the Brain, op. cit., p. 199ff).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 61.Google Scholar
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    John describes the various sufferings of the passive night of spirit in Book II, Chapters 4–8, from which this description is mainly abstracted. The intimate nature of the correspondence with the experiences of LSD subjects, however, can be fully appreciated only by comparing the original text to the many autobiographical accounts quoted in Grof, especially Grof,Realms, op. cit., Chapter 4.Google Scholar
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    John of the Cross,Dark Night, op. cit., p. 93.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 106.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 104.Google Scholar
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    Teresa of Avila,Life, op. cit., pp. 301–302.Google Scholar
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    John of the Cross,Dark Night, op. cit., pp. 107–108.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 150. Compare with this Grofs description of ego-death quoted above.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., Chapters 10 and 11.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 187.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 111. I strongly suspect that this image of release from prison is more than just a metaphor borrowed from John's nine-month imprisonment in Toledo. The decompression and liberation it conveys are typical of BPM IV experience.Google Scholar
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    John of the Cross,Canticle, pp. 316–317. I am indebted to Alice Pempel for this reference and for many insights contained in her interesting discussion of John of the Cross in her unpublished dissertation from Fordham University, “Altered States of Consciousness and Mystical Experience: An Anatomy of Inner Space,” 1978.Google Scholar
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    John of the Cross,Dark Night, op. cit., pp. 112–113.Google Scholar
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    Grof,Realms, op. cit., p. 186ff.Google Scholar
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    John of the Cross,Ascent, op. cit., pp. 314–315.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 325; also p. 326.Google Scholar
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    Grof,LSD Psychotherapy, op. cit., p. 279; see also pp. 287–295.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 185–198, 192–194.Google Scholar
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    op. cit..Google Scholar
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    Grof,The Adventure of Self-Discovery, op. cit., p. 36. My emphasis.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Institutes of Religion and Health 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher M. Bache
    • 1
  1. 1.Youngstown State University in YoungstownOhio

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