The following essay is excerpted from The Ketamine Papers, edited by Phil Wolfson, MD, and Glenn Hartelius, PhD, published by MAPS.
In the fall of 1972 I was introduced to the strangest psychoactive substance I have ever experienced in the 50 years of my consciousness research. The effects of this compound are so extraordinary that they stand out even in the group of psychedelics, drugs for which the German pharmacologist Louis Lewin coined the term “phantastica.” This substance was ketamine.
The person who brought the remarkable psychoactive properties of ketamine to the attention of our staff at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center was Salvador Roquet, a controversial Mexican psychiatrist known for his wild experimentation with psychedelics. Roquet used to conduct session with large groups of people, to whom he administered a variety of psychoactive substances (LSD, psilocybin, peyote, datura, and others) while exposing them to movies with shocking aggressive and sexual content. His intention was to induce in his clients profound experiences of ego death followed by psychospiritual rebirth. The purpose of his visit in Baltimore was to participate in our LSD training program for professionals.
Ketamine was discovered by Cal Stevens of Wayne State University in 1961. It has the reputation of being an unusually safe anesthetic because it has minimal suppressive effects on circulation, breathing, and the cough reflex. It gained great popularity among medical personnel as an anesthetic that was heavily used on the battlefields of Vietnam. Today, ketamine continues in widespread use as an anesthetic and analgesic in human and veterinary practices despite what has been termed “the ketamine-induced emergence syndrome,” which some patients have reported as they awakened from surgery. In other words, these are the same effects as when given deliberately at subanesthetic doses to elicit psychedelic experiences.
Those members of our staff who had heard about ketamine before Roquet’s visit knew that it was a substance used as a general anesthetic and had heard about the “emergence syndrome” as an untoward complication of ketamine administration that was sometimes treated by administration of tranquilizers. In his presentation to our staff, Roquet introduced an entirely new perspective; he explained that the “emergence syndrome” was not a side effect of ketamine, but part of its fascinating principal effect. Ketamine was a “dissociative anesthetic,” and its mechanism of action was radically different from commonly used anesthetics, other than nitrous oxide. At subanesthetic doses, administration of this substance did not lead to loss of consciousness, but to a dose-related progressive reduction of sensory awareness of the body. He helped us to understand that as anesthesia wore off, patients were experiencing fantastic voyages through a wide range of other realities—extraterrestrial civilizations and parallel universes, the astrophysical world and the micro-world, the animal, botanical, and mineral kingdoms, other countries and historical periods, and archetypal domains of various cultures. This was the nature of the unbidden and confusing emergence effect that patients were not prepared to experience coming out of anesthesia. In contrast, Roquet’s clients, who had not taken ketamine as an anesthetic but as a therapeutic agent and a vehicle for philosophical and spiritual quest, had profound mystical experiences, and many of them believed that they had encountered God. Some of them were also convinced that they had visited the bardo, the intermediate realm between incarnations, and claimed that they had lost fear of death.
For several members of our staff, including myself, Roquet’s lecture generated intense curiosity and a strong desire to have a personal experience with ketamine. Roquet happened to have with him an adequate supply of the substance and offered to conduct training sessions with those of us who were interested. Our personal experiences fully confirmed Salvador’s report. Ketamine clearly was a fascinating substance that was of great interest to anybody seriously interested in consciousness research. Although its effects were very different from LSD, there was no doubt that it was an important contribution to the armamentarium of psychedelic substances. The astonishing nature of ketamine experiences required lying down and journeying for periods of time without much interpersonal contact or ability to be in sensory contact with external reality because the sensory modalities were very diminished—particularly the visual, proprioceptive and tactile.
Over the years, I continued my personal experimentation with ketamine and did not cease to be astounded by the extraordinary nature of the experiences and the profound insights that they provided concerning the relationship between consciousness, the human psyche, and matter. The effects of ketamine have always been utterly unpredictable, even in the broadest sense. In my experimentation with other psychedelics, I usually had at least a rough idea where I was in my self-exploration and what might come (biographical exploration, reliving of birth, archetypal experiences, etc.). The ketamine experiences were like visits to a Cosmic Disneyland; I never knew what might come, what the “ride” would be about. And the experiences covered a wide range from the most sublime and astonishing to the completely banal and trivial. I will give at least a few examples to illustrate what I mean.
A good point of departure is ketamine’s great potential to mediate astral projection. Some of these experiences are fairly straightforward, others have certain features that are bizarre and absurd, as we will see from the following examples. One evening I took ketamine in our house in Big Sur at a time when we were conducting one of our monthlong seminars at Esalen. At one point during this session, I realized that the experience had taken me to the Big House, a part of Esalen about a mile from our house, where all the group activities of the monthlong seminar took place. I saw in great detail several of the group members involved in social interaction. The next day I was able to verify the accuracy of my perception. But at the time when I was witnessing these events, I experienced myself as a pillow in the corner of the room in the Big House, my body image taking on completely the shape of this object. On another occasion, I had a similar experience, only even more extraordinary, since this time Christina shared it with me. In the middle of a joint ketamine session we were having in the bedroom of our Big Sur house, I found myself suddenly in the Esalen bath and realized that I had become a wet towel hanging over the railing overlooking the ocean. From this perspective, I was able to witness in detail what was happening there and correctly identify the people who were in the bath at that time. Toward the end of the session, I described this bizarre episode to Christina and was astounded to find out that she had exactly the same experience. The following morning, we were able to verify the accuracy of our joint experience by talking with the people involved.
As the above examples indicate, one of the extraordinary and characteristic aspects of the ketamine experience is the surprising possibility to identify experientially with various material objects and processes that we ordinarily consider unconscious because they are inorganic and we associate consciousness with higher forms of life. And yet, experiences of this kind are very frequent in ketamine sessions, and when they happen, they seem very authentic and convincing. They make it easy to understand the animistic worldview of many native cultures, according to which, not only all animals and plants, but the sun and the stars, the oceans, the mountains and rivers, and other parts of inorganic nature are all conscious.
Among my many memorable experiences of this kind were identification with the consciousness of the ocean, of the desert, of granite, of an atomic reactor in a submarine under the Arctic ice, of a metal bridge crossed by heavy trucks, of wooden stakes being driven into the earth by hits of giant mallets, of burning candles, of the fire at the end of a torch, of precious stones, and of gold. My list includes even identification with a ski boot on the foot of a cross-country skier, attached to a ski and experiencing all the shifting tensions associated with the movements involved. Equally frequent are experiences of identification with various other life forms. In one of my ketamine sessions, I became a tadpole undergoing a metamorphosis into a frog, and in another one, a giant silverback gorilla claiming his territory.
On several occasions, this mechanism provided for me extraordinary insights into the world of dolphins and whales. An additional example was what seemed to be absolutely authentic and believable experiential identification with a caterpillar building a cocoon and dissolving into amorphous liquid from which then emerged the form of a butterfly.
A particularly impressive experience of this kind was becoming a Venus flytrap, a carnivorous plant in the process of catching and digesting a fly, complete with gustatory perceptions that my human imagination could not possibly have conjured up.
The above examples of fantastic experiences contrast sharply with several of my ketamine sessions that were absolutely trivial and outright boring. I spent them by seeing endless images of brick walls, cement surfaces, and asphalt streets in the suburbs of a large city, or displays of ugly fluorescent colors, questioning why I had ever taken this substance. There was a period in my life when I had several consecutive ketamine sessions that were so horrible and disgusting that I was determined never to take the substance again. They revolved around the problem of fossil fuels and the curse they represent for life on our planet. Here is the account of one of these sessions:
The atmosphere was dark, heavy, and ominous. It seemed to be toxic and poisonous in a chemical sense, but also dangerous and evil in the metaphysical sense. Initially, I experienced it on the outside, as part of my environment, but gradually it took over and I actually became it. It took me a while to realize that I had become petroleum, filling enormously large cavities in the earth. While I was experiencing identification with petroleum as physical material, including its penetrating smell, I realized that I was also an evil metaphysical or archetypal entity of unimaginable proportions. I was flooded with fascinating insights, combining chemistry, geology, biology, psychology, mythology, history, economy, and politics. I suddenly understood something that I had never thought about before. Petroleum is fat of biological origin that got mineralized; it meant that it had escaped the mandatory cycle of death and rebirth, the recycling that the rest of the living matter is subjected to. However, the element of death was not eliminated in this process, it was only delayed. The destructive Plutonic potential of death continues to exist in petroleum in a latent form as a monstrous time bomb awaiting its opportunity to be released into the world.
While experiencing what I felt was consciousness of petroleum, I saw the death intrinsic to it manifesting as the evil and killing resulting from the greed of those who seek the astronomical profits that it offers. I witnessed countless scenes of political intrigues, economic scams, and diplomatic shenanigans motivated by petrodollars. I saw countless victims of wars fought for oil laid on the sacrificial altar of this evil entity. It was not difficult to follow the chain of events to a future world war for the dwindling resources of a substance that had become vital for the survival and prosperity of the industrialized countries. It became clear to me that it was essential for the future of the planet to reorient the economy to solar energy and other renewable resources. The linear policy of plundering the limited deposits of fossil fuels and turning them into toxic waste and industrial pollution was so fundamentally wrong that I could not understand that economists and politicians did not see it. This shortsighted policy was obviously totally incompatible with the cosmic order and with the nature of life, which is cyclical. While the exploitation of fossil fuels was understandable in the historical context of the Industrial Revolution, its continuation once its fatal trajectory was recognized seemed suicidal, murderous, and criminal.
In a long series of hideous and most unpleasant experiences, I was taken through states of consciousness related to the chemical industry based on petroleum. Using the name of the famous German chemical industrial complex, I referred to these experiences as IG Farben consciousness. It was an endless sequence of states of mind that had the quality of aniline dyes, organic solvents, herbicides, pesticides, and toxic gases, all hostile to life.
Beside the experiences related to various industrial poisons per se, I also identified with the states of consciousness associated with the exposure of various life forms to petroleum products. I became every Jew who had died in the Nazi gas chambers, every sprayed ant and cockroach, every fly caught in the sticky goo of the flytraps, and every plant dying under the influence of the herbicides. And beyond all that lurked the highly possible ominous future of all life on the planet—death by industrial pollution.
It was an incredible lesson. I emerged from the session with deep ecological awareness and a clear sense as to which direction the economic and political development had to take should life on our planet survive.
The series of sessions exploring the pitfalls of the industrial age, like this one, brought me to the point when I decided not to have any more ketamine experiences. But the session that was supposed to be my last attempt at ketamine self-exploration took me to the other side of the spectrum. It was so ecstatic and extraordinary that I decided to keep this door open. Here is a brief account of this experience:
I had a sense of the presence of many of my friends with whom I share interest in transpersonal psychology, values, and a certain direction or purpose in life. I did not see them, but was somehow strongly perceiving their presence through some extrasensory channels. We were going through a complex process of identifying areas of agreements and differences among us, trying to eliminate friction points by an almost alchemical process of dissolving and neutralizing. At a certain point, it seemed that we succeeded in creating a completely unified network, one entity with a clear purpose and no inner contradiction.
And then this collective organism became what I called “Spaceship in Consciousness.” We initiated a movement that combined the element of spatial flight with an abstract representation of consciousness evolution. The movement was becoming faster and faster, until it reached what seemed to be some absolute limit, something like what speed of light is in the Einsteinian universe. We felt that it was possible to push beyond this limit, but that the result would be completely unpredictable and potentially dangerous. In the highly adventurous spirit that characterizes this group of our friends, we decided to go ahead and face the Unknown.
We succeeded to push beyond the limit, and the experience shifted dimensions in a way that is difficult to describe. Instead of moving through space and time, there seemed to be immense extension of consciousness. Time stopped and we entered a state that I identified as consciousness of amber. This seemed to make a lot of sense, since amber is a material representation of a situation in which time is frozen. It is a mineralized organic substance (resin), and various life forms, such as plants and insects, are preserved in it unchanged for millions of years.
What followed seemed to be a process of purification, through which any references to organic life were eliminated. The experience became crystal clear and incredibly beautiful. It seemed that we were inside of a giant diamond; countless subtle lattices intersecting in a liquid medium of incredible purity were exploding into all the colors of the spectrum. It seemed that it contained all the information about life and nature in an absolutely pure, abstract, and infinitely condensed form, like the ultimate computer. It seemed very relevant that diamond is pure carbon, an element on which all life is based, and that it originates in conditions of extreme temperatures and pressures.
All the other properties of diamond seemed to point to its metaphysical significance—its luster, beauty, transparence, permanence, exchangeability, and the capacity to separate white light into a rich spectrum of colors. I felt that I understood why Tibetan Buddhism is referred to as Vajrayana, the Diamond vehicle. The only way I could adequately describe this ecstatic rapture was to call it “diamond consciousness.” This state seemed to contain all the creative energy and intelligence of the universe existing as pure consciousness beyond space and time.
I was floating in this energy as a dimensionless point of consciousness, maintaining some sense of individual identity, yet being completely dissolved and one with all of it. I was aware of the presence of my friends who had made the journey with me; they were also completely formless, mere dimensionless points. I felt that we had reached the state of ultimate fulfillment, the source of existence and our final destination, as close to Heaven as I could imagine.
What I have described above were just a few examples of my experiences with the strangest and most extraordinary psychoactive substance I have ever come across. Another property of ketamine deserves notice in this context. Christina and I have taken ketamine on several occasions in foreign countries—in Peru, Brazil, India, and Bali—and discovered that the experiences connected us to the archetypal worlds associated with these cultures, with their mythologies, with the psyche of their people, with their artifacts, and their art.