Fall 1969 to Spring 1970, Age 18
Living in Whitchurch Road was like trekking through sticky mud again: one foot down, feel it sucked into the depths and then fight to pull the other foot out of the gluey mess. Cardiff was the same dreary city, full of dreary people. In the house, family members had shifted places—Dilly gone to London, John entrenched in the front room, Toody out with his friends and Dad hiding in the garden—but nothing had really changed. The house was dark and damp, the atmosphere deadening. Adding Mother to the mix made it worse.
Dad was Dad. After three years of disregard, he gave me one of his stiff hugs and everything was relegated to the past. He didn’t ask what I’d done in Ireland; I didn’t explain why I was angry. What was the use of complaining or confronting—his three years of disregard and my nasty letters were not topics of conversation. How could I stay angry with him? His ability to avoid and forget were so ingrained and so easy to understand. Could I blame him for abandoning Mother when I wanted to do the same?
With Mother in the house, Dad was tense and edgy. For the most part, she held back from her nastier attacks. She’d stopped drinking, so there were not so many massive rows. Instead, a dark cloud settled over the household, a feeling of impending doom that drove everyone apart, sending each person in retreat to separate worlds.
Since leaving St. Luke’s, Mother was getting stronger—no angel of death in sight—but she still looked pale and pinched. After the first weeks, she ventured out of her darkened room clad in an open-hanging dressing gown to fix a cup of coffee. Every now and then, she put together a simple evening meal, but mostly she stayed in bed, demanding service from those within earshot—a spider at the center of her web.
Occasionally, I made a flying visit to empty her piss-pot or bring her a warm drink, but mostly kept out of her way. John ignored her; Dad was in hiding so it was left to Toody to pick up the slack—in training to be Mother’s prime attendant. He still slept in our old bedroom, but we hardly crossed paths. A virtual phantom, he was mostly away, his attention firmly fixed out of the house. Neither of us made much effort to reconnect.
My domain was the upstairs front bedroom: John’s old room. The room evoked an unsettling memory of Jamillah sprawled on the bed, so I shifted the furniture around and painted the walls white. Across the longest wall, I wrote a Zen quote in big black letters: THINK THE THOUGHT OF NO THOUGHT. The koan was pretentious but captured my imagination and reminded me of my growing spiritual ambition. I wanted my room bright and monastic in contrast to John’s dingy Xanadu downstairs.
John’s presence permeated the house. Pungent smells of incense or dope emanating from under his door. The thump, thump, thump of his stereo—Captain Beefheart, King Crimson, Dr. John the Night Tripper—shook the floor. Dilly’s old room had transformed into a psychedelic den: the black ceiling was littered with red craters and hanging spaceships; random sexy pictures plastered the walls; mattresses and garish blankets lay strewn across the floor. In the dim red light, you could make out a silent broken television flickering with distorted images high in one corner.
John worked as a welder during the week, but his secret identity was Dr. John the Drug Dealer. While completing his welding apprenticeship, he’d studied the finer points of drug distribution from the master, Sonny Ahyee, Dilly’s ex-boyfriend. Now with a network of suppliers and customers, Dr. John’s business was quietly humming along. Many evenings he disappeared on his motorbike to some distant town to collect supplies.
We fell into an uneasy camaraderie. In the evenings before his friends arrived, I visited his den; he’d roll a joint and offer me a draw. I didn’t like the feeling of dull idiocy of MJ, so no dope for me—but that didn’t stop me listening to his wild stories.
“Last night was freaky, weirdest thing ever! I was riding home on the back roads—avoiding the cops. I came over a hill on my motorbike and right in front of me was a gigantic fire-breathing dragon with its jaws open, galloping towards me. It had red eyes and golden scales and big black wings. I nearly had a heart attack!” John was captivating when he told a tall tale.
“Know what it was?” He paused for effect. “The sun rising through the morning mists!” He laughed his big laugh.
“What were you on?” I asked, half seriously.
“Oh, a little bit of this and that—you know, speed mostly. I hadn’t slept for a couple of days.” He lit up a cigarette.
“You’re crazy, John. You need to be careful.”
“Hey, I’m fine. I was collecting some totally amazing acid from the maker. Best there is, really pure. You’ve got to try it—it’ll blow your mind.”
He gave a big grin and fixed me with his bright blue eyes. “C’mon, you know you want to. It won’t cost; it’s a freebie.”
He went to his drawer and pulled out a plastic bag full of miniature pills and shook one into his palm: a tiny light blue hexagon.
“See, it’s perfect and it hasn’t been cut or anything.”
“How long does it last?” The pill looked innocuous and I wondered if I could take it after work.
“It’s really powerful—lasts about six hours, maybe longer.” He thought a moment. “How about you and me on Friday night; no one else? We’ll have the weekend to recover. It’ll be a gas.”
I’d heard stories from Veronica about the wonders of LSD and how it expanded your mind. Maybe I could escape from my dreary life for a little while.
“It’s safe, isn’t it?”
“Don’t worry—it’s amazing!”
On Friday, after the household settled, John set up everything: records on the turntable, TV picture distorted, plenty of nibbles and drinks—he was a thoughtful drug host. We swallowed the little blue pills and settled down to listen to his rock music.
“How long before it starts working?”
John was rolling himself a couple of joints for later. “Just relax. It takes a while.”
One of those mumbled Led Zeppelin tracks was playing on his stereo and gradually I began to sense the music, an intricate interweaving of sounds and meaning, captivating and fascinating. Patterns began to flow across the walls—brilliant oversize flowers and swirling paisley—dancing in rhythm to the beat. Even the jagged static on the broken TV was mesmerizing. Disembodied heads magically popped on and off the screen—totally hilarious.
John was far away on a distant continent, his face expanding and contracting, gnarled and ancient, fresh and innocent as if I saw into his soul. Time flowed like ocean waves—long slow rollers breaking against the shore, swaying and churning my body and mind.
I came down just as dawn was breaking; John and I went outside to feel the breeze stirring the hair on our arms. Then I took myself to bed and slept fitfully until suppertime.
When I awoke, the universe had shifted. The psychedelic sights and sound were all in my mind yet they remained unquestionably real. There’d been moments when I felt filled to the brim with everything and knew I was exactly where I needed to be. At a different time, I’d sensed a demon at the rim of my vision, a malevolent presence waiting to drag me into the pit of Hell. The light and the dark, the splendor and the paranoia, the clarity and the befuddlement—they were all part of me, reflections of the unknown depths of my mind.
The first trip was a distraction from my humdrum life, a step out of my narrow self, but it taught me a useful lesson. If my mind was weak and unprepared, LSD might sweep me into some Hellish psychic space. If I took it seriously with intention, it could help me discover dimensions of my inner world. I decided to take LSD once a month: enough to learn what I needed but also time to recover and reflect.
For the next trip John invited a couple of his friends to join us. Early on I felt their spiky energy plucking me down; it blocked my ability to roam around in my inner landscape. I took myself upstairs to my cool, empty bedroom and in solitude, drifted off into boundless space.
My mind filled with wonders: I wondered about those wonders, questioned my endless questions until I found myself speeding through a tunnel of limitless impressions that spiraled outward toward the unknown. Beneath it all was a profound meaning—a meaning I could sense but never quite capture.
A month later, I popped a pill before taking a long train journey to London. This was a trial, an experiment in self-control. Could I cope with a trip while tripping? Could I restrain the paranoia scurrying around my brain? My mission was to appear normal and act normally despite inhabiting a separate reality.
Sitting across from strangers on a rattling train, I doubted whether I was on a train at all: maybe it was an intricate delusion. After an intense inner struggle, I discovered a knack of self-control, calming the nightmare flow that compelled faces of other travelers to melt and deform. I stiffened my will, got a grip on my mind and the unruly perceptions slackened and became manageable.
Arriving at Paddington station, I’d forgotten how to cross the street or catch a bus. Veronica’s flat near Portobello Road was in a far distant universe, but an inner voice spoke to me: Don’t think, let go; everything will be OK. I surrendered and without striving or effort, magically arrived at Veronica’s flat.
She ushered me in with a look of surprise; with no phone I couldn’t let her know I was coming. I said I was tripping so she settled me onto the sofa with a cup of tea. There, safe and comfortable, my soul relaxed. I’d survived the test with body and mind intact. It hadn’t been enjoyable, but then it wasn’t meant to be. That trip was a purposeful ordeal that taught me how to get a grip on my worst fears.
Not long before I left Cardiff, John got hold of pure Mescaline, the same stuff Aldous Huxley wrote about in The Doors of Perception. In one of his generous moods, John invited Dad and me to join him on an intense inner journey.
Mescaline was rare and special, not like LSD. A purified substance extracted from the sacred peyote button, ingesting it was more ritual than recreation. If we could suppress the urge to vomit, Mescalito the peyote spirit might guide our inner visions. He appeared in visions as a prickly cactus figure or a radiant white light.
John had recently moved out of the house, so the three of us gathered in his sparsely furnished new apartment to swallow the large off-white mescaline capsules. Sitting on cushions on the floor of an empty room, there was no music, no intrusive noises. After an initial bout of nausea, I slipped into a peaceful space suffused with an all-encompassing brilliance. Indifferent to anything except the luminosity, ordinary events receded far into the distance, insignificant and unimportant. The universe was Light and I was a tiny portion of that Light. Coming down after 6 hours felt like a wistful letting go of a realm far more real than reality.
The following day, Dad and I were sitting around the dining room table after supper. Surprisingly, he started a conversation about his mescaline experience. He’d also experienced a bright white light streaming out from behind his head; it reminded him of his youth while skiing in Norway. In those days there were no groomed trails, so he’d trekked miles up the snowy mountains with otter skins bound to his skis. On the long swooping runs down the slopes, sunlight reflecting off pristine snow had the same clarity and brilliance.
I was about to get up from the table when Dad cleared his throat, a signal he wanted to say something.
“How are things at work?” he asked.
“OK, I suppose. Mindless really.”
I was working a dead-end job as an unskilled manual laborer on a new hospital construction site. The pay was good, but the conditions were harsh: long hours with overtime, freezing temperatures and annoyingly crude co-workers.
“You can’t keep working on the buildings. You’re 18; you’ve got to think about your future.” He hesitated. “What about school?”
“I’m not going back to school, Dad. I’m done with A Levels.” A kind of formless nausea welled up inside me.
“OK, all right,” he said in a pacifying voice. “What do you want to do then?”
“I don’t know. I hate Cardiff and Wales.” Am unexpected pang of homesickness hit me. “I want to go back to Ireland.” That was the only place I felt a sense of belonging.
Dad sighed and went silent for a long moment.
“All right, let me think. I’ve an old school friend from Winchester, Chris Morsehead. He lives somewhere near Dublin. I haven’t spoken to him in years but I think I’ve still got his address. I’ll get in touch; he might know of something.”
A bolt from the blue! So weird to think Dad had a friend, let alone someone from his school days and someone in Ireland. But then of course, he’d lived in Ireland for years—I’d never thought of that.
A couple of weeks later, Dad got a friendly reply from Christopher Morsehead. There was an opening as a junior salesman in his office at the Metal Box Company. If I was interested, I could go to Dublin and work in the office for a month’s trial. A hidden door had opened and all I had to do was walk through and see what was on the other side.
Drugs and Reality
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”
I took mind-altering drugs six times over a period of six months; that was enough and I’ve never needed to repeat the experience. Those few months marked an intense time of experimentation and inner exploration. I discovered parts of my self I didn’t know existed, extending my psychic horizons into the unknown. Taking LSD untied psychic knots and helped me glimpse unseen realities beyond the veil of the ordinary.
A lifetime later, what is my current attitude to drug-induced experiences? The answer is complicated. With the boundless change in social and legal attitudes, with all the research on the benefits for psychological health, if I were starting my career again I would certainly train in the use of mind-altering substances in therapy. This is an exciting new frontier in the mental health field.
However, like all social fashions and fads, we have to discriminate and not mindlessly swallow the magic bullet. Western medicine is in love with chemicals. Will psychedelics become the next best drug, another means to chemically adjust our hearts and minds like anti-depressants, tranquilizers, opioids, mood stabilizers and sleeping pills?
These medicines have their place: they provide relief from misery. They also blunt our perceptions and take the hard edge off inner and outer experiences. Short-term solutions, they should not be alternatives to working through and resolving our troubled relationship with the world and ourselves. That is the hard work of psychotherapy and inner exploration.
Used with discernment, understanding their powerful benefits and limitations, psychedelics have powerfully mind-expanding possibilities. Michael Pollan in his book, How to Change your Mind, constantly emphasizes the influence of set and setting on drug-induced experiences. Set is our conscious and unconscious mental, emotional and psychic preparedness—our expectations and intention for how the drug affects us. Setting is the physical and personal environment in which we partake of the substance. Only if we create the appropriate set and setting are we likely to receive psychological benefits from psychedelic experiences. 
Because I had a mind-set focused on self-awareness and spirituality, it was more likely I have those kinds of experiences. John wanted enjoyment, distraction and entertainment; that is what the drugs gave him. In a literal sense, these substances are not mind-altering, they are mind-amplifying: we get what we expect and are psychically prepared for.
Whenever I think of the effects of LSD or mushrooms, specific images come to mind. Imagine we live in a room lit by one ordinary somewhat dim light bulb. It feels normal, familiar and we think of it as the whole world.
That’s how our ordinary ego consciousness works: it is severely limited. The ego filters out most perceptions, sensations and experiences unnecessary for survival and daily functioning. As Aldous Huxley puts it in his classic essay, The Doors of Perception, “To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and the nervous system.”
Then we ingest a psychedelic substance. An undiscovered inner window unlatches and is flung open. The room is bathed in light, every object brilliant and vibrant, no longer shadowed with gloom. We see and feel brand new sensations, are fascinated and mesmerized by the objects around us. That is the common effect of ‘hallucinogens’.
A few of us move on from the objects, drawn toward the light. So we gaze out the window. At first the ever-flowing patterns are mystifying and incomprehensible. Gradually, we realize this is an unbounded landscape in which all beings are connected to the essence of life itself. It is an epiphany, an experience of the ineffable nature of reality, a metanoia that shifts our psychological center of gravity.
Then the drug effect wanes. The window closes and we are back in the dim constricted room of ego consciousness. We’ve learned there is more to life than we thought, but there’s a catch. Drugs opened the window; they let us glimpse an expanded reality, but they did not show us the door. We are still trapped in the dreary room of the ego.
That’s what I realized during those intense months: I’d seen the illuminated landscape but I had to find my own way out. Drugs gave me a glimpse of spiritual possibilities. My task was to realize and fulfill those possibilities.
Throughout the ages, certain human beings have discovered doorways leading to expanded awareness. Every religion and spiritual practice originates from the profound and mystical experiences of particular individuals. These illuminated souls experience transcendence and try to point the way to the rest of us. They are our spiritual guides and mentors.
Unfortunately, many of us are trapped in ego-consciousness, unacquainted with our own inner Selves, so we mistake the conventional for the transcendent. We construct belief systems that shroud spirituality in a cloak of sticky materialism. Much of what passes for religion or New Age belief reinforces ego-consciousness rather than mystical awareness.
The inner essence, the profound spiritual practices at the heart of every religion should lead us across the threshold into an illuminated inner landscape. Spiritual experience extends far beyond the known; it is always unexpected and often overwhelming. Sadly, religious doctrine clings to the familiar and helps kees us imprisoned in the dark room of the ego.
On my spiritual journey, drug-induced visions had their function and purpose; then I lost interest. As we grow up, we abandon our favorite toys, objects that were a source of comfort, imagination and amusement. Playing with those toys was an important preparation for life, but was never meant to be an alternative to living.
Psychedelics help us envision the limitless life of the spirit but they are not that life—a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon. To live fully—to experience all aspects of our being—we have to do the hard work of polishing our hearts and minds. The grime of the world and the imperfections of the ego constantly dull our inner selves. Only when it is bright and clear, can it reflect the radiance of reality.
The spiritual life is real—not the result of ego or drug-induced hallucinations.
Forgiving Our Parents
“Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.”
Dad took psychedelics—what a surprise! Marijuana or even alcohol seemed more his style: drugs of escape rather than challenge. While I was away in Ireland, something must have changed.
That conversation about mescaline was the first time I peeked a little way into his inner world. Like all sons, I needed to understand my father and how to relate to him. I knew intuitively he was prone to strong upswellings of emotions; I sensed he cared for us children (though the word ‘love’ was never spoken), but I had no idea what it felt like to be him. A crab in his protective shell, he was ready to scuttle away into a safe crevice at the first sign of emotional threat. It was hard to get to know my father.
The quote above from Oscar Wilde says it all. We love and judge our parents without really knowing who they are. Only if we understand and accept them as human beings can we offer them absolution for their flaws and mistakes. However, we have to be mindful: forgiveness is not the same as condoning or excusing the damage they’ve done. That is a different issue. Our assignment is to recognize how we’ve been harmed and helped by our parents and work to forgive them—and it takes a lot of work.
We are born idolizing our parents, gripped by the powerful archetypes of Mother and Father. As a child I remember seeing my father standing in the garden at the Lodge—a massive, muscular giant with a big square beard—a Biblical prophet, a being of immense power. He knew everything, could do anything and he kept me safe. In that moment, I witnessed the archetype in my Dad: he was the Great Father, the Gardener and the Maker.
I had a parallel experience when my father was in his eighties. He was sitting peacefully in the sun on our deck and I saw and sensed two superimposed images: the frail, flawed figure of my personal dad and the numinous, creative energy of the archetypal Father. Dad had tried to step into the giant shoes of the Father, but they were too big for him. Every father falls short to some extent; every father disappoints his children. In my youth, I’d judged Dad and found him wanting. In his old age, before he died at age 99, I knew he’d tried; I accepted and forgave him.
Of course, it was easier to pardon my father’s shortcomings than my mother’s careless abandonment; he didn’t desert us. When one parent is a dead loss, we cling tightly to the parent who is not quite so terrible. In contrast to my bad mother, my father was always seen as ‘the good one’. He let me down, but using his Old Boys network, he got me back to Ireland where I belonged. To some extent, that made up for his unconscious negligence.
Dad bequeathed me many things, but the most problematic was his inability to deal with the world. Fathers are meant to teach and guide, to model courage and effectiveness. As mediators of masculine energy, they show their sons how to be resourceful, how to be successful, how to make a difference in the world. Dad was stuck in his career and useless at making and managing money. He was a hero in World War II, but he could hardly navigate the demands of ordinary material and social reality. His haven was the garden; his friends were plants.
As I age, I see my father in the mirror. My voice sounds like his and I find myself automatically mimicking some of his mannerisms. He is in me—genetically and psychically. Much as I’ve struggled with his inheritance, many of his traits have become treasures.
Like Dad, I am obsessed with my garden. It is constant nourishment for my soul and plants respond to me. Like him, I have never been interested in making money so I’m astonished and filled with gratitude for all my material blessings. Given a choice, I avoid too many people and retreat to our home in the mountains where I experience hours of peace and quiet.
He may not have been the best father, but towards the latter years of his life he grew richer in spirit and proved that even a constricted soul can expand and grow. Like me, he was a flawed human being; what else can I do but forgive him?
 Huxley, Aldous (1954). The Doors of Perception. Harper & Row, New York
 Pollan, Michael (2018). How to Change your Mind, Penguin Press.
 Huxley, Aldous (1954). Ibid. P. 23.