Reflections of a Peyote Eater

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The images pass in sequence, or spread liquidly. A plain of green undergoes an endless expansion. Strangely, my skull has expanded over the visual images; I become aware by means of a visual concrete (but not a cognitive or abstract) mental process that what I see is within my brain, and the model for this concept is my brow encompassing the room under its arch. The green plain cleaves, and the cleavage is as endless as the plain. This frightens me, which in turn triggers ornate runs of questions. I wonder if I am showing a schizophrenic tendency. (My preconceptions are imposing themselves on the experience, for I have read that peyote can induce schizophrenia.) Two types of thought clash in my mind as visual concepts are shattered by recurrent spear-thrusts of verbal interpretation. The sweep of vision places the verbal thoughts in such a petty and disruptive role that I can stand back and laugh at the stream of words crossing my brain, but the source of these words seems to be part of a dark abscess which I must someday lance. Under all this thought lies a fear of psychosis which has its roots in the knowledge of a history of mental disorders in my mother's family. I am surprised this fear has taken hold of me so firmly, and I recognize it clearly in an image of a grey area swarming with angry, white spots. Although I know my present state to be temporary, the doubts – “Have I gone mad?” “Will I be the way I am now forever?” – cannot be altogether eliminated. My thoughts are divided: anxiety is verbal, beauty and delight visual. The nagging voice drones on around the visions, but I can view it as an event occurring in my brain. It is no longer central, and I have moved past it, the light in the room comes from a fire, and the colors are of consummate gold. The flow of color in the fire spreads out into the oceans of rhythmic gold and yellow and red. I have never seen such colors before. The words “gold” and “red” are only the vaguest symbols of the reality; writing of these colors, I find my language inadequate – just as much so as an aborigine placed aboard an airplane would find his in describing the experience to his tribe.

This is a partial description in retrospect of my first experience with peyote. During the course of the intoxication, I felt nausea and fear, and when it was over I had no desire to repeat it, although my memories of the evening were not unpleasant on the whole. For ten hours I had experienced a richness of thought I had not known existed. The visual images that induced or illustrated (it is impossible to say which) the abstract verbal patterns were so powerful that they eclipse words. For the first time I understood what the verb ”to see” meant, yet at the same time I had no further need to use the word. If thought is roughly defined as generalization deduced from example, then thought under peyote is unnecessary, for one can hop from example to example, skipping the superfluous generalizations. And thinking in images is more meaningful than thinking in words. One experience with peyote taught me a new technique of thought, and perhaps more important, increased my understanding of myself. At first “I” was the spectator of gorgeous color, the “I” being a continuous verbal dialogue. Later, however, “I” became the images bothered the endless voice which prattled on and on. This may have been the result of the drugs releasing my vision so that the sudden increase in intensity of perception temporarily dwarfed and flooded the rest of my consciousness; in any case, the insights have been useful, and I now think of the experience as having been educational rather than simply interesting or exciting.
The circumstances under which I took the drug had a great deal to do with these reactions. I was on a Montana Indian reservation with Indians belonging to the Native American Church. The Indians gathered in a house at night, and after drinking a repellent broth of peyote button boiled in water, sat quietly until the next morning. Occasionally they would chant or pray, singly or in unison. Their experience was of a different sort than mine for such obvious reasons as extreme differences in the traditions of our two cultures, and for less obvious reasons such as the Indians' complete familiarity with the drug and their consequent lack of anxiety about the experience. The Indians have developed a definite mystique around peyote which includes an unshakable faith in the drug's curative powers. I was incapable of sharing in the bonds which united the Indians and consequently was most apprehensive. Fortunately, the Indians provided a congenial, unhurried atmosphere that put me more at ease Under less friendly circumstances my experience might have been disastrous.
For the Indians the experience can have real depth beyond the immediacy of the period of intoxication. Living in a world which is hostile to nearly all of their traditions and values, American Indians are forced to turn inward on themselves. Their traditional logic solves for them most of the problems of survival that confront me: getting a job, working efficiently, being successful. These Indians, for instance, have no word for time in their native language (several of the older Indians who took part in the peyote ritual spoke no English), and have no concept of individual enterprise. When the Government induced a lumber company to build a processing plant on the reservation, Indians participating in the project would work for just two or three days, quit, and not come back until they needed money. This does not imply that Indians are lazy or demoralized; it simply demonstrates a cultural view of the concepts “work” and “success” different from our own. These Indians, pushed onto the Great Plains by the expansion of the European settlement on the east coast, developed a rigid, communal society in which private ownership was almost non-existent. As nomads, they had no concern for territory; the plains were large enough to accommodate all the tribes, and warfare became merely a ritual of honor. The effect of this life has been to produce a society in which survival depends on group action, and in which each individual must fit smoothly into the workings of the community. After defeat by the United States in the Indian Wars of the 1870s, the tribe was moved to the Oklahoma Indian Territory, and it was in Oklahoma that these Indians leaned to eat peyote. At the very moment when the entire traditional fabric of the tribe was rendered useless, peyote was first used. In this culture, which had demanded stylized patterns of personal relationships and group action, and which suddenly found all real meaning gone from these patterns, the peyote provided a new level of experience at which tribal unity could still be imposed.

pp. 63-65 The Harvard Review by Chase Mellen III (1963)

The Harvard Review