Albert Hofmann, who in 1938 synthesized the LSD molecule and in 1943 discovered its psychedelic (manifesting the psyche within/out) properties, died yesterday at the age of 102.
He was struck by the coincidence of mankind having encountered LSD at the same time as the atomic bomb was developed, and felt that it could serve as a spiritual antidote to the tendencies the bomb represented. After several decades of research into psychotherapy and states of consciousness, LSD use started becoming widespread, affecting a generation of arts, science, politics, and religion. Hofmann wrote a book, LSD, My Problem Child (online version), and commented “I believe that if people would learn to use LSD’s vision-inducing capability more wisely, under suitable conditions, in medical practice and in conjunction with meditation, then in the future this problem child could become a wonderchild.”
Albert Hofmann’s career, and even his road to discovering LSD, was guided by some remarkable experiences of wonder he had as a child. He recounts:
There are experiences that most of us are hesitant to speak about, because they do not conform to everyday reality and defy rational explanation. These are not particular external occurrences, but rather events of our inner lives, which are generally dismissed as figments of the imagination and barred from our memory. Suddenly, the familiar view of our surroundings is transformed in a strange, delightful, or alarming way: it appears to us in a new light, takes on a special meaning. Such an experience can be as light and fleeting as a breath of air, or it can imprint itself deeply upon our minds.
One enchantment of that kind, which I experienced in childhood, has remained remarkably vivid in my memory ever since. It happened on a May morning—I have forgotten the year—but I can still point to the exact spot where it occurred, on a forest path on Martinsberg above Baden, Switzerland. As I strolled through the freshly greened woods filled with bird song and lit up by the morning sun, all at once everything appeared in an uncommonly clear light. Was this something I had simply failed to notice before? Was I suddenly discovering the spring forest as it actually looked? It shone with the most beautiful radiance, speaking to the heart, as though it wanted to encompass me in its majesty. I was filled with an indescribable sensation of joy, oneness, and blissful security.
I have no idea how long I stood there spellbound. But I recall the anxious concern I felt as the radiance slowly dissolved and I hiked on: how could a vision that was so real and convincing, so directly and deeply felt—how could it end so soon? And how could I tell anyone about it, as my overflowing joy compelled me to do, since I knew there were no words to describe what I had seen? It seemed strange that I, as a child, had seen something so marvelous, something that adults obviously did not perceive – for I had never heard them mention it.
While still a child, I experienced several more of these deeply euphoric moments on my rambles through forest and meadow. It was these experiences that shaped the main outlines of my world view and convinced me of the existence of a miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality that was hidden from everyday sight.
Unexpectedly—though scarcely by chance—much later, in middle age, a link was established between my profession and these visionary experiences from childhood. Because I wanted to gain insight into the structure and essence of matter, I became a research chemist. Intrigued by the plant world since early childhood, I chose to specialize in research on the constituents of medicinal plants. In the course of this career I was led to the psychoactive, hallucination-causing substances, which under certain conditions can evoke visionary states similar to the spontaneous experiences just described. The most important of these hallucinogenic substances has come to be known as LSD.
The scarcely by chance link came about in 1943 when a “peculiar presentiment” led him to re-investigate the molecule he had first synthesized five years earlier. Somehow he accidentally absorbed a small quantity of it, experienced an altered state of consciousness, and, “immediately, I recognized it as the same experience I had had as a child”. A few days later, on April 19th (now known as Bicycle Day), he deliberately ingested what he thought would be a tiny dose, 250 micrograms, but which turned out to have a profound, even life-changing, effect.
The forest clearing experience Hofmann describes is a familiar theme in European culture, stories, and myth, and has correspondences with Eastern notions of kami and drala. The German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger describes language itself as the Clearing of Being. Many people have been led to tangible insight into the roots of both Eastern and Western experiences and practices of the sacred and of the mind/self/world mutuality through this molecule.
Deep bow in the direction of Albert Hofmann and of that forest clearing.