I shared this account in my introductory paper about mysticism, but I think it should be shared as a stand-alone post as well. This is because it is so stunningly similar in many respects to Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision.
Clark Heinrich is an American author from California, born in 1945. As Wikipedia notes, he specializes in comparative religion, ethno-botany, yoga, and Western mysticism. In 1977, at about the age of 32, he consumed a natural fungus known as Amanita muscaria, a species of mushroom that many have probably seen before in various places. This fungus contains the psychoactive compound called muscimol, and is classified as a poisonous toxin.
This compound can often cause significant changes in the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain such as gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), causing stimulation and relaxation of neural activity in various parts of the brain. Subjectively, this can cause significant changes in one’s perception of reality and profound altered states of consciousness.
He later recorded his experience on that occasion:
Before another thought could arise in my mind, in the midst of a great darkness and a great silence, the heavens opened above my head. In an instant, I was flooded with light from above, light of the utmost whiteness and splendor, that quickly dissolved everything in its glory. The bliss I had experienced prior to this new revelation now paled to insignificance in an immensity of light that was also the purest love. As the truth of the situation dawned on me, the word “FATHER” resounded in this heaven of light and I was taken up and absorbed by the unspeakable Godhead. No longer separate, there was neither an enjoyer nor a thing enjoyed; there was union. (Hearing the word “father” may well have been due to my having read from the Bible shortly beforehand; the objectless light, however, was pure, formless, sexless God—of that I have no doubt.)
This is a big claim to make, I know, and the reader may wish to add “suffers from delusions of grandeur” to my other sins. Yet, even if this experience existed nowhere but within my own mind and has no reality outside of it, which is quite possibly the case, still it remains the single most important “inner event” of my life. Nothing at all can be accurately compared to it, yet one feels compelled to make an attempt, however vain.
Some have asked me if this experience could have been “merely” a hallucination and therefore, by implication, unreal. I am forced to answer with a comparison: next to this state, ordinary reality is like a bad imitation, a knockoff, a cheap parlor trick in a grimy hotel, an eternally baited trap for the mind and senses. The Gnostics had this much right: we’re trapped in bodies and we can’t see our way out. The day-to-day reality we perceive is not an independent reality. It’s all done with mirrors.
I have no idea how long I was in that glorious state because time does not exist there, just as there is no “there” there. I came back to my senses in the morning as I awoke to find myself flat on my back on the hard wood floor. In utter amazement, I reviewed the events of the night just passed. Nearly as incredible as the experience I’d had was the fact that I was still on earth in a human body. Even though I had experienced something for which countless others had spent their whole lives searching and not often finding, in my immaturity I felt cheated. What kind of God, I reasoned in my best anthropomorphic fashion, would lift a person to a state like that only to drop him right back into the dark and cruel world, without so much as a fare-thee-well?
(Source: Clark Heinrich, “Heaven and Hell,” in Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances, J. Harold Ellens, ed., 295, and elsewhere. The Amanita muscaria is iconic in popular culture because of its diverse and lengthy history. Some researchers believe that this mushroom may be the divine Soma drink referred to in the ancient Rig Veda sacred texts of India.)
Some similarities to Joseph Smith’s First Vision seem to include:
- Read in the Bible shortly beforehand
- Being in a great psychological darkness
- Suddenly seeing a heavenly vision
- Perceiving a very bright light
- One is enveloped, flooded, surrounded by this light
- The light comes from above
- This light was gloriously white and bright
- It seems the light will dissolve everything around in its glory
- Feeling bliss and great joy
- Feeling a great love
- Hearing from a “Father” or the word “Father”
- Feeling like one is taken away, that one’s mind is caught away from one’s surroundings, perhaps not “in the body”
- Feeling absorbed in the heavenly space
- Sensing that one is perceiving the Godhead
- Knowing without a doubt that the light was of God
- Thinking that one would be dismissed for making such grandiose claims
- Being one of the most important events of one’s life
- Failing to be able to describe it adequately, to compare it with any other human experience, defying description, indescribable
- And yet one attempts to describe it anyway
- Thinking it may have been a dream, vision, or hallucination
- Knowing that it was absolutely real, perhaps even more real than ordinary reality
- Seeming to “find one’s self” or “come to one’s self”
- Finding one’s self lying on the ground on one’s back
- Afterwards eventually feeling as if God had perhaps deserted one, or condemned one in the world
Of course, there are elements of this account that are different than Joseph Smith’s account too, such as:
- It doesn’t seem that he had been praying
- Did not see two persons in the light
- Did not have a conversation with anyone
- Thought that the God light was formless and sexless
- Knew that the experience had most likely taken place within his own mind and nowhere else
But the elephant in the room is most likely that Heinrich consumed a psychoactive substance prior to his vision, a type of so-called “magic mushroom” or psychedelic. There is little evidence that Joseph consumed anything out of the ordinary such as this prior to his experience, and I don’t think he would have had to.
This perhaps is the most taboo thing in the world to many people. It is wrong-headed to many to think that someone could ingest something that would allow them to come into contact with God. We think it simply can’t be possible that these two could have encountered the same God having been introduced in such vastly different ways.
This post is not the place to discuss it, but I think that sincere reasoned open discussion is needed, and I think open-minded Mormons are perhaps well-equipped to have it, considering accounts such as this one. Suffice it for now, do I think that Joseph and Clark could have encountered the same Deity through these seemingly disparate means? Could a chemical substance, even a natural compound from organic tissue out of the ground of the Earth, when consumed change a human’s perception of reality so much as to be able to see and know the real true God? My short answer is yes.