The connection between psychedelics and philosophy isn’t made too often, despite the fact that there are multitudinous ways in which the psychedelic experience can relate to, challenge, contextualise, and add weight to various philosophical ideas and theories. There is, however, a definite history to the philosophy of psychedelics, with writers such as William James and Aldous Huxley famously writing about the experience. More contemporary thinkers who have explored the role of psychedelics in philosophy include Nicolas Langlitz, Thomas Metzinger, Peter Sjöstedt-H, and Patrick Lundborg. The particular subject that I would like to focus in this essay – that I believe is a recurring feature of psychedelics deserving more attention – is the experience of the sublime.
Sjöstedt-H, in his book Noumenautics (2015), writes: “Psychedelic phenomenology [the study of the psychedelic experience] can be an experience of inhuman aesthetic heights which embraces the sublime and the beautiful…” In aesthetics, the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty, taste, and art, the notion of ‘the sublime’ is often distinguished from the concept and experience of ‘beauty’. This essay will aim to underscore what this distinction consists of exactly, as well as describe – and defend the value of – the experience of the sublime occasioned by psychedelics.
What is the Sublime?
One of the key defining features of the sublime, setting it apart from the beautiful, is the quality of greatness. In On the Sublime, a treatise on aesthetics thought to have been written in the 1st century AD, the author (unknown, but referred to as Longinus) argues that “the first and most important source of sublimity [is] the power of forming great conceptions.” Longinus focuses on the sublime in the context of rhetoric, literature, the visual arts, architecture, and theatre, as that which elevates itself “above the ordinary”. In the treatise, the term used to denote the sublime is hypsos, from the root hypso, which means “aloft”, “height”, or “on high”. For Longinus, hypsos is “the sublime in one single thought” and “the echo of greatness in spirit”, and the root word is vital, as it emphasises the state of elevation that is central to the sublime. The author also advances five sources of sublimity: “great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement.”
In the treatise, Longinus states that hypsos produces an experience of transcendence (the idea of elevation here helps to get this across), leading to states of ecstasy, wonder, and astonishment, rather than the inferior experience of charm and pleasure that comes from the “merely persuasive and pleasant” (as Robert Doran notes in The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant, this differentiation “prefigures the modern contrast between the “mere” pleasure of the beautiful and the intense feeling produced by the sublime, which borders on pain.”) At the heart of the experience of the sublime, for Longinus, is also the feeling of being overwhelmed, as it involves “invincible power and force” that “get the better of every hearer”.
British writers like John Dennis and Joseph Addison would later take an interest in the aesthetic quality of the sublime, echoing Longinus’ synonymisation of the sublime with greatness, but adding that the sublime was of a paradoxical nature, stressing that greatness elicited not just positive feelings. Fear was also involved in the experience. Dennis, in his work Miscellanies (1693), details his experience of journeying across the Alps. Prior to this trip, he considered the beauty of nature as a “delight that is consistent with reason”, but after traversing the imposing, majestic Alps, he remarked that his pleasurable experience of nature was “mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair”. For contained in the greatness of the sublime is also the sense that one has become small, vulnerable, in danger, and subject to powers and forces greater than oneself.
In a range of artistic styles – including Baroque, Romantic, Victorian, modern, and contemporary – we can see representations of this admixture of wonder and terror, often relying on natural landscapes and scenes to achieve this quality. Here it would also be helpful to note that the sublime and awe (a feeling of reverence and amazement mixed with fear) are more or less equivalent, as the philosopher Robert Clewis argues – and so both concepts can be used interchangeably.
Addison made similar comments to those of Dennis in Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, an account of his experiences during the Grand Tour, which he began in 1699 (the Grand Tour was a customary, cultural trip through Europe that upper-class young men undertook – as an educational rite of passage – in the 17th and 18th centuries). In his travel writing, he stated, paradoxically, that “The Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror”. In these British writers, we see that the sublime arises from the external, natural world, rather than from rhetoric, which marks a distinction between Longinus’ and, for instance, Addison’s views on the sublime.
In The Spectator, Addison uses the term ‘great’ to refer to what we would call the sublime, and it is worth reiterating that this quality and related qualities – such as vastness, largeness, immensity, and unboundedness – are what sets apart the sublime from the beautiful. In this way, an object of art could be beautiful but not great and, therefore, not sublime. Another crucial figure in the philosophy of the sublime was Edmund Burke, who extolled his aesthetic views in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).
In his treatise, Burke would echo Dennis’ position that the sublime engenders a feeling of horror. For example, in his analysis of the sublime, Burke states: “Another source of the sublime is infinity;…[i]nfinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime.” Interestingly, though, the concept of infinity does not have to be exclusively experienced in the perception of the natural world (such as gazing into a star-filled sky) or by considering the possible limitlessness of the universe; infinity can also delightfully horrify us in a purely conceptual way or in an artificial way, such as in videos of fractal zooming. (The relationship between infinity, the sublime, and the psychedelic experience will be developed later in this essay.)
For Burke, the sublime is more important and more valuable than the beautiful, although, unlike writers before him, his conception of the sublime was largely based on negative emotions. This is also diametrically opposed to modern-day usages of the term ‘sublime’; when we describe food or music as sublime, for instance, we are saying that it is sensually pleasurable. Whereas for Burke, the sublime’s “strongest emotion is an emotion of distress” and “no pleasure from a positive cause belongs to it”. He argues:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.
The sublime may be experienced in the face of a turbulent, raging storm or some kind of natural catastrophe. Burke quotes a plethora of literary sources to underline his conception of the sublime, with one example being the second book of Paradise Lost (1667), where John Milton portrays the journey of the fallen angels in Hell: “…through many a dark and dreary vale They passed, and many a region dolorous, O’er many a frozen, many a fiery alp, Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death, A universe of death…”
Critics of Burke may claim that his views on the sublime are somewhat masochistic, in that he is placing a high value on an experience that is a great source of fear and terror. Indeed, in terms of psychedelic phenomenology, we find that the sublime can be experienced – as distinct from beauty – in a contrary way to Burke’s conception of it (although perhaps also being consistent with it at times, too).
In his treatise, Burke defines the sublime as that which overwhelms us and impacts us with irresistible force. Astonishment is the concomitant feeling of the sublime, which he juxtaposes with the supposed weaker feelings of admiration, reverence, and respect. Ultimately behind all experiences of the sublime, however, is terror. You will remember that Burke reiterated the paradoxicality of the sublime, emphasised by writers like Dennis and Addison. The sublime is also an experience of delight (the kind we experience when a pain or threat ceases or is removed; it is “a pleasure that retains something of the effect of the pain experienced”, to quote Doran, and Burke regarded such delight as more intense than positive pleasure since he believed pain is more intense than pleasure).
But to experience this terror and delight simultaneously, Burke maintained, we need some distance from the source of the sublime. The sublime requires that we have “an idea of pain and danger, without actually being in such circumstances.” As a case in point, this could involve watching a violent storm from a safe distance. This kind of sublime experience, according to Burke, can lead to “tranquillity shadowed with horror”, stipulating that “when danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible”.
Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Judgment (1790), calls the sublime that “which is absolutely great”, noting that beauty “is connected with the form of the object” and dependent on “boundaries”, while the sublime “is to be found in a formless object” and represented by “limitlessness”. Kant goes on to explicate his ideas on the sublime, drawing a distinction between the ‘mathematical sublime’ (concerned with things that have a great magnitude, such as size, height, or depth) and the ‘dynamically sublime’ (concerned with things that have a magnitude of force greater than our will, with examples given by Kant including overhanging cliffs, thunder clouds, volcanoes, and hurricanes).
For the purposes of this discussion, it’s worth noting that, in the words of Kant, “the concept of the sublime in nature is far from being as important and rich in consequences as that of its beauty” and that the “theory of the sublime is a mere appendix to the aesthetic judging of the purposiveness of nature,” opinions which counteract the supreme importance that Burke placed on the sublime and, I would argue, undermine the rich value to be unearthed in psychedelic sublimity. Aligned with Burke, though, Kant said dynamically sublime objects are more attractive the more fear-inducing they are, “as long as we find ourselves in safety”. Kant similarly points to the paradoxical essence of the sublime by describing it as an experience in which “the mind is not merely attracted to the object, but is always reciprocally repelled by it”.
In terms of the mathematical sublime, Kant believes that the sublime arises “through the inadequacy of even the greatest effort of our imagination to estimate an object’s magnitude”. We might try to imagine the size of a galaxy or the size of the universe but our senses and imagination truly cannot take in this immensity. We simply cannot comprehend such natural objects as complete in a single image in our minds. And Kant argues that pushing our senses to the limits of their powers in this way is central to the experience of the sublime.
Perhaps one of the best representations of the sublime in film that illustrate these ideas can be found in Sunshine (2007), which is about a group of astronauts sent on a mission to reignite the dying Sun and save humanity from mass extinction. The spaceship is able to safely approach the Sun by reflecting the rays with a huge circular mirror. One of the most enticing aspects of the film is the ability of the crew to gaze at the sun, in an observation room located behind the giant mirror, but only at extremely low intensities, so as not to damage one’s retinas. Searle, the crew’s psychiatrist, becomes obsessed with the Sun, spending hours looking at it in the observation room each day, gradually lowering the protection filter. At 3.1% of the sun’s actual intensity, the crew can look at the Sun for 30 seconds, after which irreversible damage would occur. Thus, here we have greatness beyond comprehension and physical capability, a mark of the sublime. Searle finds the brightness of the sun overwhelming, yet as he tells his fellow crew members during dinner: “It’s invigorating, like taking a shower in light. You lose yourself a little.” From the safety of the observation room, you would be able to gaze at the Sun and experience a state of fascination mixed with terror, this feeling of being overwhelmed by the brilliance, size, and detail of the celestial body.
Arthur Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation (1818), argued that there are objects or phenomena that bear “a hostile relation to the human will in general (as it presents itself in its objecthood, the human body) and oppose it, threatening it with a superior power that suppresses all resistance, or reducing it to nothing with its immense size.” These phenomena are so vast and potent that they can overwhelm you or reduce your existence to an insignificant speck of dust. Schopenhauer’s examples of such phenomena include desert landscapes, cascades, and the starry night sky. Yet sublime pleasure can arise in the face of these landscapes and phenomena when you calmly contemplate them in spite of their threatening nature.
For both Kant and Schopenhauer, the sublime involves the use of cognitive faculties. According to Kant, the sublime comes from the feeling that our faculty of reason makes us superior to nature, as well as the recognition of our independence from nature, due to our autonomous moral agency; while for Schopenhauer, the sublime likewise follows an intellectual reflection about our relationship to nature, although it doesn’t depend on a feeling of superiority to – or independence from – nature. For both, measuring ourselves against the greatness or power of the natural world and realising our vulnerability and insignificance in the face of nature is often involved in the experience of the sublime. Burke, in contrast, posited that the sublime is based on an immediate emotional reaction. Sandra Shapshay, associate professor of philosophy at Indiana University, refers to Burke’s description as the ‘thin sublime’ since it “is not a highly intellectual aesthetic response”, whereas she describes Kant and Schopenhauer’s version as the ‘thick sublime’, as it encapsulates such a response.
Schopenhauer follows Kant’s distinction between the mathematical and the dynamical sublime, distinguished by the threat they pose to the human will. When the threat is psychological, then the sublimity is mathematical, while if the threat is physical, then the sublimity is dynamical. Moreover, sublimity occurs in degrees for Schopenhauer, with increases in the magnitude of the threat correlating to increases in the degree of the sublime. This is encapsulated in Sunshine, where the crew experience increasing levels of terror the closer they approach the sun and suffer nightmares in which they are inexorably drawn towards the surface of the brilliant star, waking up distraught at the moment of collision. In referencing a high degree of the mathematical sublime (or the felt vastness of nature), Schopenhauer writes:
When we lose ourselves in the contemplation of the infinite extent of the world in space and time…then we feel ourselves reduced to nothing, feel ourselves as individuals, as living bodies, as transient appearances of the will, like drops in the ocean, fading away, melting away into nothing. But at the same time…our immediate consciousness [is] that all these worlds really exist only in our representation…The magnitude of the world, which we used to find unsettling, is now settled securely within ourselves…it appears only as the felt consciousness that we are, in some sense (that only philosophy makes clear), one with the world, and thus not brought down, but rather elevated, by its immensity.
Shapshay points out that the experience of the sublime, for Schopenhauer, involves an oscillation between feeling insignificant relative to the spatial and temporal vastness of the universe and feeling elevated by two thoughts: firstly, as thinking subjects, we create our own representation of the world, and secondly, we are unified with the vastness of the natural world – and this is an exalting realisation, instead of an oppressive one.
To experience the sublime in the face of threatening, fearful, or overwhelming landscapes and natural phenomena, Schopenhauer asserts that an individual must acknowledge the fearfulness and vastness of the object in question and then “consciously turn away” from the object, acting against one’s will. In a state of will-less contemplation of such objects, Schopenhauer argued you would experience a “state of elevation” (the sublime). Contrasting the beautiful with the sublime, Schopenhauer says the beautiful is completely pleasurable, whereas the sublime is mixed with pain. Furthermore, in the experience of the sublime, you are liberating both your intellect and your perception from the service of the human will (the blind, unconscious drive for self-preservation) and this is accompanied by the feeling of “exaltation”.
In The Sublime in Schopenhauer’s Philosophy, Bart Vandenabeele takes issue with Shapshay’s argument that the thick sublime is more profound than the non-cognitive, affective arousal that characterises the thin sublime simply because the former has a cognitive and scientific basis to it. Vandenabeele rebuts this position by saying it turns “the sublime into an overly intellective experience”, adding that “reflection upon humanity and nature can be a valuable consequence of the experience of the sublime, and the sublime may lead to deep metaphysical insights, but these are not (necessarily) part of the aesthetic experience itself.”
With these preceding philosophical positions and discussions in tow, let’s turn now to how these ideas on the sublime relate to the psychedelic experience. This relationship also diverges from the philosophies of Burke, Kant, and Schopenhauer, as they were focused on the sublime as occasioned by natural phenomena and intellectual reflection; yet we can additionally describe the sublime in a way that is not (exclusively) based on nature or rational thought. Indeed, psychedelic phenomenology can be accompanied by the experience of the sublime in other (and perhaps more profound) ways.
Experiencing the Sublime Through Psychedelics
Beginning with the quality of greatness intrinsic to the sublime, we can certainly see this as a repeating feature of the psychedelic experience. Interestingly, during the psychedelic experience, the ordinary can rapidly morph into the extraordinary, becoming great when before it was entirely absent of greatness, devoid of interest, taken for granted, and merely a backdrop in one’s life. Huxley, in recounting his experience with 400 mg of mescaline in The Doors of Perception (1954), communicates this transformation of regular existence into psychedelic sublimity:
I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.
In an exchange of letters in 1956, Huxley and the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond (who supervised Huxley’s mescaline experience) were suggesting to each other a possible new term that would accurately classify this group of substances we now call psychedelics. Osmond suggested the term ‘psychedelic’, originating from the Greek words psyche (meaning ‘mind’ or ‘soul’) and delein (meaning ‘to manifest’); thus psychedelic means ‘mind-manifesting’. Huxley’s alternative term, which, as history reveals, never took off, was ‘phanerothyme’, based on the Greek words phaneroin (meaning ‘visible’) and thymos (meaning ‘soul’), so in conjunction mean ‘visible soul’.
Along with their coinages, each provided a rhyme to encapsulate the nature of psychedelics. Osmond said, “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic”. We can, however, supplement this phrase by adding that psychedelics can allow you to experience these extreme states of mind at the same time, or oscillate quite rapidly between such states within a single journey, which is why psychedelics lend themselves to sublimity. As a case in point, one may experience the dissolution of their ego and simultaneously panic and feel euphoric in the midst of this death of the self, or swing from panic to euphoria.
Huxley’s alternative psychedelic-inspired rhyme was: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme”. It’s not clear here if Huxley is using ‘sublime’ in the philosophical sense or the colloquial sense – but we can nonetheless take it to mean the former and his rhyme still holds true. Psychedelics can lead to an experience of the sublime and, moreover, these substances conjure up such an experience out of the mundane, everyday reality we inhabit, and not out of the causes of sublimity that previous philosophers had placed importance on (e.g. rhetoric and the arts for Longinus and the majesty of nature for later thinkers such as Addison, Burke, Kant, and Schopenhauer). As Huxley discovered, the sight of a flower arrangement under the influence of psychedelics can become sublime, which rings true for many of those who venture into psychedelic states of mind.
However, could you not repudiate this claim by stating that what Huxley and other explorers experience is not sublimity – for there is no essential greatness to the flower arrangement – but is instead a heightened experience of the beautiful? It’s an interesting point. Just as Schopenhauer describes degrees of the sublime, can we not also invoke degrees of other aesthetic qualities, such as the ugly and the beautiful? Based on certain features of the aesthetic object in question, and the quality of perception and level of refined taste present in us, we can postulate that during the psychedelic experience, at least when euphorically perceiving the ordinary world, we are experiencing extreme beauty. Conversely, when dysphorically perceiving mundane objects and environments, we could say that we are experiencing extreme ugliness.
Nonetheless, drawing on the other notable features of the sublime, we can counteract this argument by recognising that the psychedelic experience is also often overwhelming. Longinus, Burke, Kant, and Schopenhauer were keen to identify this feeling of being overwhelmed as one quality that distinguishes the sublime from the beautiful. For instance, during the psychedelic experience, normally ordinary objects – especially natural objects like plants, flowers, trees, and clouds – can become so intensely alive, energetic, and dynamic that they overwhelm the senses and the emotions. While it is true that degrees of beauty can be amplified during the psychedelic experience, if the altered state is altered enough, then the beautiful may turn into the sublime. One’s subjective feeling can shift from tranquillity, fascination, and curiosity into turbulence, amazement, and shock.
In a state of psychedelic sublimity, watching the clouds move and shift across the sky can be a truly astonishing experience. This is because anything with a fractal structure (such as clouds) will have that fractality amplified by psychedelics. Clouds, then, can change from slowly billowing and slightly fractal objects of perception into intensely explosive, kaleidoscopic, fractalising patterns. Such an experience can be simultaneously wondrous and also ‘too much’, a sensory overload, with one’s field of perception imbued with a power that may elicit fear, uncertainty, and uneasiness. A psychedelic experience of this nature seems to fulfil another criterion of sublimity: the paradoxical marriage of wonder and fear.
The fractalisation of ordinary objects and landscapes is not the only way in which fractals feature in the psychedelic experience. One can also hallucinate such geometry, so that fractal patterns become superimposed on the walls, the ground, or burst with aliveness and colour behind closed eyelids. In this way, fractal visuals aren’t suffused with ordinary objects, but rather the geometry is hallucinatory: the patterns do not depend on external stimulus. They can appear with eyes closed, in the absence of any object of perception. This is an intriguing and unique aspect of psychedelic sublimity, as it means you can experience the sublime based entirely on changes to your internal world. You do not have to watch volcanic eruptions from a safe distance or survey gargantuan, snow-capped mountains to get a taste of the sublime; you can dwell in this subjective experience in the comfort of your own home.
On the subject of fractal hallucinations, the psychedelic researcher Robin Carhart-Harris has posited that these images are projections of one’s very own fractal brain structure. It’s “as if the brain is revealing itself to itself”, he said. This would mean, then, that if this psychedelic phenomenology is leading to the experience of sublimity, then it is the perception of oneself – rather than impressive external objects and landscapes – that fill one with awe.
What’s more, in non-ordinary states of consciousness, we can feel awe, not just in relation to the ordinary or from the phenomena arising from ourselves, but also in response to fundamental concepts, such as existence, being, and awareness in and of themselves. There can be a pure feeling of existence, being, and awareness that lends itself to the feeling of awe, of both wonder and terror. Under the influence of psychedelics, one may also come face to face with the nature of the human condition, such as one’s absolute freedom.
In Being and Nothingness (1943), the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre laid out his existentialist views and famously stated that “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Sartre believed that “existence precedes essence”, that we exist and then we can choose our essence. The actions we take, which mould us into who we become, are unavoidably our responsibility, in spite of all the other powerful forces in our childhood and in the world that influence us. Sartre said that the infinite choices available to us lead to the “anguish of freedom”.
Similarly, in The Concept of Anxiety (1844), the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously referred to anxiety as the “dizziness of freedom”. Kierkegaard claimed that the freedom we have to do something and the endless possibilities of choice available to us trigger a feeling of dread. For instance, Kierkegaard asks us to imagine a man standing on a cliff or tall building. He acknowledges that there is a natural fear of falling, but says another reason why he may feel anxious being at a great height is because of the dizzying realisation that he could jump and end his life if he so chooses. This is the freedom that all of us possess.
Yet while Sartre and Kierkegaard describe human freedom in terms such as “anguish” and “anxiety”, there is, undoubtedly, a positive element in realising the nature of our freedom, for it means we have the sole capacity to define ourselves, as well as our happiness. This responsibility is an innate burden of human existence. But it is liberating and uplifting too. I would, therefore, argue that realising this fact about life can lead to the experience of the sublime since the realisation can simultaneously instil a sense of anguish, anxiety, and dread, as well as wonder, amazement, and individual empowerment. But while we might be able to abstractly understand Sartre and Kierkegaard’s views on human freedom when reading their work and strongly believe what they say, it may require a visceral, direct, and subjectively felt experience of one’s ultimate freedom in order for sublimity – awe mixed with terror – to arise. And psychedelics, for many users, trigger such a shift in perspective, where, whether you like it or not, you come face to face with the human condition. There is a greatness, power, and overwhelming aspect to ourselves that existentialism underscores but which many of us are blind to in normal, ordinary consciousness.
Schopenhauer maintained that we experience the sublime when we, as finite beings, come into contact with the infinite, such as in the contemplation of the infinite nature of space and time. In the psychedelic experience, we can experience a high degree of the mathematically sublime in the visions of blooming fractals that pervade the visual field or internally, behind closed eyes. Immersed in these visions, the patterns you see have no end. They have infinite self-similarity, complexity, and depth. Witnessing this infinity in action can – as Schopenhauer argued in the case of contemplating infinity – make you feel insignificant in your limitedness. To be engulfed by such visions of infinity would, arguably, entail even greater degrees of sublimity; stronger feelings of both wonder and fear in the face of the infinite.
In a previous discussion on the quality of experiential richness and the perception of time, I suggested that the continual unfolding and forever-ness of fractal visions might be one reason why the psychedelic experience involves a sense of eternity. Deep in a trance of fractal visions, there is no end to the level of detail that can be revealed, which intimates a sense of infinite time, for theoretically, you can keep tumbling down the fractal patterns forever. It is one thing to contemplate infinite time, as Schopenhauer suggests; it’s quite another thing to have a visceral subjective sense of infinite time. Furthermore, it’s not necessary to experience infinite geometry to feel that time is infinite. The psychedelic experience can distort time in such a way that an individual feels time to be infinite (here we can state that ‘eternity’ and ‘infinite time’ are equivalent, both meaning that which ‘lasts forever’, and so the terms can be used interchangeably). During a psychedelic experience, an individual might feel that the journey lasts forever or that a single moment is eternal.
In A Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant argued that time, like space, is an a priori sensible intuition – a mental construct existing prior to experience – that orders our experience of the phenomenal world. Time is not an inherent aspect of reality. Thus, if psychedelics can perturb this mental construct in the appropriate way, then you can lose the regular perception of the flow of time and instead be granted the felt experience of eternity. And in the presence of eternity or infinite time, you can experience the sublime, in the way that Kant and Schopenhauer describe when one confronts the mathematically sublime. From Kant’s perspective, the sublime does not involve a sense of timelessness, of time standing still, but this can be a feature of the psychedelic experience, with time appearing to stop or freeze, becoming non-existent or meaningless, or with experiences happening ‘outside time’. In spite of Kant’s views, we might still afford a quality of sublimity to this psychedelic phenomenology, as this sense of timelessness can evoke the various features of the sublime already outlined, such as paradoxical emotions and the feeling of being overwhelmed.
Another way in which you can experience the sublime during a psychedelic experience is in the encounter with what many people term ‘the divine’. Clewis calls this the transcendent sublime, the kind elicited by religious experiences, contrasting it with what he terms the immanent sublime, sublimity stimulated by a vast or powerful object. One of the most illuminating books on the experience of the divine is The Idea of the Holy (1917), written by the German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto. In it, he introduces the idea of the numinous (derived from the Latin numen, meaning ‘divine power’). This concept, while apparently etymologically similar, is distinct from Kant’s noumenon, which stands for the unknowable reality of an object – the ‘thing-in-itself’ as Kant called it – that underlies our perception of that object. The numinous, according to Otto, refers to the experience of the holy, the divine, the “wholly other” that is – so he argues – at the basis of all religions.
The manner in which Otto describes the numinous is palpably close to the previous delineations of the sublime and, indeed, we could certainly ascribe sublimity to the experience of the divine that Otto is concerned with and which often manifests in the psychedelic experience. The numinous and the sublime may be closely related but they are different and separate categories, a point that Otto himself stressed. Nevertheless, I posit that the strong similarities between these two concepts, which Otto accepts in The Idea of the Holy, give us sufficient reason to introduce Otto’s ideas in this discussion on the sublime. Furthermore, given their qualitative resemblances, the experience of the sublime can turn into the experience of the numinous, and vice versa. And based on a broad definition of the sublime and certain interpretations of the numinous, both concepts become even closer in their similarities.
Otto states that the numinous is a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” It “presents itself as ganz Andere, wholly other, a condition absolutely sui generis and incomparable whereby the human being finds himself utterly abashed.” Sui generis means the numinous is in a class by itself and thus unique. The numinous is also irreducible and these combined features of sui generis and irreducibility, Otto argued, meant that the numinous cannot be defined in terms of other concepts and experiences (which makes the numinous an ineffable experience); instead, you have to be “guided and led on by consideration and discussion of the matter through the ways of his own mind, until he reach the point at which ‘the numinous’ in him perforce begins to stir… In other words, our X cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mind.”
Otto maintained that this conception of ‘the holy’ was starkly different from the idea of the holy entailing moral perfection. The numinous is a mysterious feeling that lies outside the spheres of rational thinking and morality. It is a characteristic of the religious experience that Otto believed to be a priori: “The facts of the numinous consciousness point…therefore to a hidden substantive force, from which the religious ideas and feelings are formed, which lies in the mind independently of sense experience.” In clarifying this point, Otto refers to a passage from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience:
It is as if there were in human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call “something there” more deep and more general than any of the special and particular “senses” by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.
The divine reality, a mind-independent reality, is disclosed directly in the numinous feeling. The philosopher Mark Wynn supposes that this affective response – the numinous – can present the divine reality to the individual because of its distinctive phenomenological character, for the experience of the numinous is unequivocally unlike any other human experience. Otto also opined that you do not have to believe in divinity to experience the numinous. It was his belief that there is an innate capacity in humans to experience the numinous. Anyone can potentially have this religious experience, but it does need to be evoked or brought into consciousness in some manner (such as through the use of psychedelics).
We can put aside the questions of precisely how or why the numinous arises or what Otto means exactly when he says the object of the numinous is “outside of the self” (see this paper by Henning Nörenberg and this paper by M. Iqbal Afaqi which discuss the latter), as these topics warrant their own separate discussion. For the relevance of this essay, it’s worth focusing on the elements of the numinous that align it with the sublime. Otto writes that while the numinous “may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship,” it may also “become hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.” And so here we have a description of the numinous that bears a similarity to the sublime, for the numinous involves an emotional response of being overwhelmed in the face of that which is far greater than oneself. The writer C.S. Lewis elucidated the experience of the numinous in his book The Problem of Pain (1940):
Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room,” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words “Under it my genius is rebuked.” This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.
In this description, we see too parallels with the previous philosophical expositions of the sublime. In the numinous, we can highlight the experience of a profound “disturbance”, “wonder”, “a sense of shrinking”, “and a sense of inadequacy”, all common elements of the sublime, although C.S. Lewis underscores here that the feeling of awe – or the sublime – is what is elicited by the numinous, which is the object. In any case, in Otto’s threefold aspects of the numinous, we can find further similarities with the sublime. He notes that the numinous is a “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (a fearful and fascinating mystery), a mystery before which the individual feels both terror and fascination, a sense of being both repelled and attracted. This paradoxical quality of the numinous is the same mixing of opposites that we have seen as characteristic of the sublime. The numinous is mysterium because it is ‘wholly other’, unlike anything we have ever experienced or will experience. In Otto’s words, the mystery of the numinous causes in us a “blank wonder, an astonishment that strikes us dumb, amazement absolute.”
The numinous is mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinosum at the same time. It is a mysterium tremendum (a terrifying mystery) because the wholly other fills us with dread; we shudder at the overpowering nature of the wholly other, we are terrified of its absolute unapproachability, might, and majesty. Otto spoke of the “wrath” of God and an intense sense of “energy” and “urgency” when describing this fearful aspect of the numinous. He thought of the mysterium tremendum as a “consuming fire”, a phrase referring to God’s nature taken from the Book of Hebrews in the Bible.
Curiously, we can see how the numinous seems to match the qualities of the Sun: unapproachable, able to consume us with fire and destroy us, and supremely majestic. It is, of course, no coincidence that the Sun was worshipped and conceptualised as a deity in myriad cultures throughout recorded history. In The Idea of the Holy, Otto also said that the numinous involves what he called ‘creature-feeling’, which is “the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme and above all creatures.”
Searle in Sunshine likewise experiences the sense of his nothingness following long periods of staring at the Sun: “Remember, Capa, we’re just stardust”. This ties in quite nicely with, for instance, Kant and Schopenhauer’s account of the sublime as the measuring of our little selves against the forces of nature, against the “apparent all-powerfulness of nature”, as Kant puts it, which parallels the sense of omnipotence of the divine that Otto is referring to, which many people encounter during religious experiences, including those instantiated by psychedelics. Face to face with the mysterium tremendum, Otto says that the soul “held speechless, trembles inwardly to the farthest fibre of its being[;]…it implies that the mysterious is beginning to loom before the mind, to touch the feelings.” He adds that the tremendum involves a shuddering “more than ‘natural’, ordinary fear” and a “feeling [of] horror in the real sense of the word”.
Co-existing with the mysterium tremendum is the mysterium fascinosum (the fascinating mystery), which has a potent charm and attractiveness, in spite of the fear, dread, and terror also engendered. This is because the divine also appears as merciful and lovable. The numinous attracts and allures us with an irresistible force. When an individual completely contacts the divine, Otto pinpoints this as an “exuberant” level of fascination, a mystical “moment”.
Captain Kaneda, in Sunshine, experiences something similar, in his unwavering fascination with the mystery and power of the Sun. After embarking on a spacewalk with Capa to repair damages to the craft, Kaneda realises the task will take longer than expected and so sends Capa back to the ship while he finishes the repair. He, unfortunately, does not have time to return to the safety of the craft before the Sun comes into view, obliterating him in the process. Accepting his fate, he turns to face the Sun coming into view, allowing him to get a glimpse of it, up close, without any protection. The prospect is simply too enticing to resist. As the roaring light and heat of the sun approaches and begins to envelop Kaneda, he becomes petrified and immobile. Searle asks him from inside the ship, “Kaneda! What do you see?” There is no response. Kaneda perhaps saw what no living thing could imagine seeing. Applying Otto’s thought to this deeply moving part of the film, we can say Kaneda was stunned into silence and stupor by the majesty of the sun, and by its annihilating power.
Huxley was himself strongly influenced by Otto, especially in terms of the idea that the numinous lies at the heart of all religions, which Huxley echoed in his defence of the perennial philosophy, a perspective in the philosophy of religion which states that all of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions, throughout history, share a single, universal truth or origin. Huxley gave a definition of this view in his book The Perennial Philosophy (1945):
The metaphysic that recognises a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being — the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions. A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago, and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe.
In The Doors of Perception, Huxley also makes reference to Otto’s notion of the mysterium tremendum:
The literature of religious experience abounds in references to the pains and terrors overwhelming those who have come, too suddenly, face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendum. In theological language, this fear is due to the in-compatibility between man’s egotism and the divine purity, between man’s self-aggravated separateness and the infinity of God.
Huxley said that he was “not so foolish as to equate what happens under the influence of mescalin or of any other drug, prepared or in the future preparable, with the realization of the end and ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision.” (In Christian theology, the beatific vision means seeing God face to face; it is direct communication with God that brings ultimate happiness.) Of course, we can debate whether a psychedelic experience can ever genuinely count as enlightenment or the beatific vision, but we can certainly find personal accounts of psychedelic experiences that tie into Otto’s concept of the numinous, which is a more religious or spiritual version of sublimity. Take, for example, this individual’s mind-shattering experience with the potent psychedelic DMT:
I began to weep like I never have in my life. The sobbing tears of pure, total bliss ripped themselves from me like a jet passing the speed of sound and tearing the sky to shreds. I thought I would fairly break like a twig from such light filling my being. It was more than I could have ever imagined… the beauty, the power. It filled me and sang with every molecule of my body, every facet of my mind, every piece of my soul. All were in perfect harmony, and for a single moment I knew true, undeniable divinity.
In many people’s intense psychedelic experiences, there are encounters with this unimaginably powerful divinity. Whether you want to think of psychedelics as ‘turning on’ the God part of the brain (stimulating the neural correlates of religious experience) or altering one’s consciousness so that it can tune into an objective divine reality, the quality of the experience itself is what matters, and whether it can appropriately be referred to as the sublime. After all, many people’s experience of the divine in the psychedelic state correlates with the phenomenology described by Otto.
In one study comparing “God encounter experiences” occasioned by psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT with those experiences occurring naturally, one-third of participants rated their encounter with the divine “as among the 5 most psychologically challenging experiences of their lives, with about 15% indicating that it was the single most psychologically challenging experience of their lifetime.” Most participants reported that their contact and communication with this divine other was the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experience of their lives and consistently said it had attributes such as consciousness, benevolence, intelligence, sacredness, eternality, and omniscience (all-knowingness). But this doesn’t mean the experience was wholly positive or blissful. As the researchers point out:
That such experiences may be both attractive and extremely difficult is consistent with the classic description of the dual nature of encounters with ‘the holy’ both as “mysterium tremendum” (referring to its awfulness and absolute overpoweringness) and “mysterium fascinans” (referring to its fascinating and attractive nature) by the theologian Rudolf Otto. Likewise, that psychedelic experiences can involve both positive emotion including transcendence as well as highly distressing feelings such as fear and insanity have been well-documented.
Indeed, meeting divinity under the influence of psychedelics can be a truly overwhelming and astonishing experience. The titanic presence and sheer power of the divine can bring you to your knees, blind you with radiant light, and leave you utterly shaken to the core. There is an emotional quality like that associated with Kaneda’s direct view of the Sun, except there is no risk of physical death. Like in Otto’s picture of the numinous, there can be a feeling of being insignificant, nothing, and completely vulnerable.
The divine might be felt as infinite love and knowledge, as an eternal and omnipotent (all-powerful) being, and while this can – on the one hand – be an ecstatic encounter, it can also be somewhat traumatic and distressing. Such an experience is, after all, of a qualitative nature so far beyond the normal realm of experiences. There is an extremity of qualities and traits (e.g. presence, power, knowing, benevolence) in the divine that no concepts or words can properly convey. This kind of sublimity is, therefore, ineffable – and this is a defining feature of the mystical experience, according to thinkers such as William James and the psychiatrist Walter Pahnke.
One work of fiction in which we find similar descriptions to the numinous is Olaf Stapledon’s sci-fi book Star Maker (1937), which tells the story of a nameless, human narrator who details his journey of leaving his body and travelling through the vastness of the cosmos. The narrator visits other planets, civilisations, stars, and galaxies, with his journey culminating in a mystical encounter with the creator of the universe, the ‘Star Maker’. This part of the book definitely parallels the numinous and the sublime of the psychedelic experience and so it’s worthwhile highlighting the author’s descriptions of this “supreme moment of the cosmos”.
Firstly, the narrator experiences this divine presence as part of himself but also as distinctly separate from him: “…as a being indeed other than my conscious self, objective to my vision, yet as in the depth of my own nature; as indeed, myself, though infinitely more than myself.” Both the otherness and infinite nature of the Star Maker are significant qualities that people will similarly ascribe to the divine presence made manifest in the psychedelic experience. Just as Kant and Schopenhauer assert that the sublime follows the idea of the infinite, in either the mathematical or dynamic sublime, so too will this unique feeling arise in the context of psychedelic-induced divinity.
In expressing the exceptional power of the Star Maker, Stapledon compares this “infinite spirit” to “an overwhelmingly brilliant point, a star, a sun more powerful than all suns together.” Many people who take psychedelics report this kind of astonishing brightness and intensity of presence. There is this blinding, brilliant light that is perceived as divine, as radiating divine qualities. And this light is overwhelming, which is a core characteristic of both the numinous and the sublime. In addition, Stapledon stresses the ineffability of the meeting with the Star Maker: “Barren, barren and trivial are these words. But not barren the experience.”
The experience of the numinous and the sublime induced by psychedelics are, likewise, inexpressible in nature, although this indescribability seems even more pronounced in the case of the numinous since there really is no reference point that helps to describe it (at least in the case of psychedelic sublimity, one can refer to other cases of the sublime, such as those experienced in nature, that may go some way in illustrating the essence of the experience).
Is there, however, not some vital difference between psychedelic-induced sublimity and mystical experiences, and the non-drug-induced equivalents? This question has certainly led to some disagreements. The philosopher Walter Terence Stace and religious studies scholar Huston Smith, for instance, advanced ‘the principle of causal indifference’, which states that if two experiences are phenomenologically identical, then we cannot conclude that one of them is genuine and the other one not. They defended this principle in response to the claim that drug-occasioned experiences cannot be genuine religious experiences.
Indeed, it is quite clear now – based on a wealth of peer-reviewed research and abundant anecdotal reports – that psychedelic-induced mystical experiences are as authentic as those experiences induced in other ways, such as in the near-death experience, meditation, fasting, prayer, or during a spontaneous shift in consciousness. As the researchers conducting the study on encounters with God found, the “descriptive details, interpretation, and consequences” of both naturally occurring experiences and psychedelic-induced experiences are “markedly similar”. Furthermore, with Stace and Smith’s principle in mind, I argue there is every reason to suppose that psychedelic-induced sublimity is as genuine as any other experience of sublimity.
When thinking about the connection between psychedelics and the sublime, we should keep in mind that psychedelics are magnifiers – they magnify whatever emotional state an individual is in or they stimulate emotional states that are indubitably more intense than they normally are in waking, consensus reality. One may experience profound bliss and ecstasy instead of happiness and joy, as well as the negative counterparts: extreme levels of despair and dread instead of mere pessimism and sadness.
Yet if psychedelics are the great magnifiers of mental phenomena, we may suppose that psychedelic sublimity could be of a greater magnitude than non-psychedelic sublimity. Say that you experience the sublime in the way exemplified by Addison, Burke, Kant, and Schopenhauer, but that you are also under the influence of a psychedelic like LSD or psilocybin. You might be watching an avalanche, hiking in the mountains, looking up at the star-filled night sky, contemplating infinity or eternity, but in a state of mind altered by psychedelics, you could experience the sublime to a degree far beyond that imagined by these philosophers. This would be consistent with Schopenhauer’s assertion that the sublime is experienced in degrees.
Consider another example, the ‘overview effect’: the awe that astronauts feel when viewing Earth – in its entirety – from outer space. A team of researchers delved into this phenomenon and its life-changing effects in a fascinating 2016 study titled The Overview Effect: Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight. Based on astronauts’ subjective accounts of this rare experience, the awe involved is unlike any other. NASA astronaut Kathryn D commented that “…no amount of prior study and or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe…this inspires”.
The authors behind the study suggest that the experience of awe featured in the overview effect is not just explained by perceptual vastness, but by the view of the Earth as a giant, incredibly detailed celestial object, surrounded by black, infinite space. In addition to this perception, the researchers argue that the notion of conceptual vastness is present. When looked at in its totality, astronauts consistently think about humanity as a whole and that “unlike the Grand Canyon, for example, the planet has an incredibly rich and broad context of meanings when viewed from above.” The researchers add that “the tendency is, quite literally, to think in global terms, and that the ability to behold all at once the entire domain in which these human themes reside contributes to the overwhelming sense of awe.”
The astronomer Carl Sagan similarly conveyed this vastness of meaning in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994): “On it [Earth] everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” Now imagine that an astronaut was to experience the perceptual and conceptual vastness of the Earth and accompanying awe, but was under the influence of LSD or psilocybin; we can expect that he or she would experience even greater emotional heights. You might suppose that this is a fanciful and unrealistic thought experience. It is extremely unlikely that a trained astronaut would ever think of dosing themselves in outer space (although it’s not out of the question). Nevertheless, we can more realistically imagine a future of space tourism where untrained and wealthy ordinary people board a commercial spacecraft offering the overview effect and decide (for who’s to stop them) to take a dose of a psychedelic. This would, theoretically, magnify the experience of the sublime in a way that has never been done before.
Research on Awe and the Value of Psychedelic-Induced Sublimity
Evidence from a plethora of studies has demonstrated that the experience of awe – or the sublime – results in all kinds of physiological, psychological, and social effects. On the physiological side of things, awe is accompanied by ‘goosebumps’, the sensation of chills, and changes in heart rate, skin conductance, facial movements, and posture. These coincide with the emotional state of awe.
In line with philosophers such as Burke and Kant, studies in neuroscience have shown that the sublime is not fear exactly since the brain activity observed during the experience of awe does not look the same as the activity you would see in a person experiencing fear, pain, or threat. This is because, as Burke and Kant theorised, the object of the sublime is vast and powerful but we, nevertheless, feel safe in coming into contact with it, as we may be physically at a safe distance (i.e. watching a hurricane from afar). Clewis and a team of psychologists have put forward three reasons why this should (partly) be a pleasurable experience. The three sources of pleasure are: “the expansion of the imagination; belonging to a whole larger than us; and the rising above everyday affairs.”
Scientific research has, however, also contradicted some philosophising about the sublime. As a case in point, a 2014 study from Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki, published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, found that a person experiencing awe is focused on the external world, with awareness drawn away from oneself (brain regions dealing with self-awareness are deactivated). There is a felt sense of being part of something bigger, such as the vast object of the sublime or even the universe or nature as a whole. This contrasts with the Kantian perspective, which says the sublime is an experience based on recognising the superior power of one’s own reason in the face of the magnitude or power of nature. For Kant, the sublime explicitly involves self-awareness, whereas what actually seems to be happening in the brain suggests otherwise. Ishizu and Zeki’s fMRI brain scans conducted on those experiencing the sublime also revealed that – this time again in line with Kant’s thinking – the imagination is activated. The science is thus in partial agreement with Kant’s aesthetics.
The psychological effects of the experience of awe include the ‘small self’ (the feeling of being small or insignificant relative to one’s surroundings); increased humility; cognitive accommodation (a term developed by psychologist Jean Piaget, describing what occurs when new experiences change one’s worldview); the sense that time is plentiful; increased connectedness (to other people and humanity as a whole); improvements in positive mood, well-being, and life satisfaction; decreased materialism; increased spiritual or religious feelings; and an embracement of scientific thinking and learning. Many psychological changes are clearly going on then when an individual is in a state of sublimity. What’s perhaps most vital about these psychological studies, though, is they underscore that these positive changes are lasting; the experience of the sublime has long-term effects on the personality and well-being of the individual.
There are also pro-social effects associated with the experience of awe, such as greater levels of kindness and generosity. For example, individuals who have experienced awe are more willing to help others (which researchers hypothesise may partly come from the psychological sense of time being more plentiful and, therefore, more available for others). Awe has moreover been linked to increases in scores of agreeableness, perspective-taking, and empathy. These pro-social effects, researchers note, could additionally be related to the experience of the ‘small self’ during an experience of awe – as this can encourage people to focus less on themselves.
Clewis says that, despite these psychological findings, he is “ambivalent about whether we should see awe as involving a kind of epiphany” and warns against the tendency to define awe as a life-changing and transformative experience. He asserts that this “seems to raise the bar too high, rendering awe too rare, even too significant.” It might be better, Clewis suggests, “to see the sublime/awe as Burke and Kant did: as a rich experience running parallel to beauty, but still aesthetic and imaginative, as beauty is.” It is, of course, understandable why we would want to resist referring to sublimity as an epiphanous, monumental experience with radical implications for one’s personal growth (this would more accurately centre on the numinous, which brings into focus an important difference between the transcendent sublime and immanent sublime).
To supplement Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the sublime occurring in degrees, the ripple effects of the sublime may exist in degrees too, with psychological and pro-social effects being short-term, medium-term, or long-term, along with differences in the magnitude of the effects (small, medium, or large). Contrary to Clewis’ argument, however, it is clear from the available body of evidence that awe has the capacity to lead to life-altering, positive changes in the individual. We could say that this tendency of the emotional experience depends on certain factors, such as the type of awe, and how it’s experienced, interpreted, integrated, applied, and so forth and so on. Awe, it turns out, is quite a nuanced and complex emotion.
When looking at most of the research on awe, there is no mention of psychedelic-induced awe, so how do we know that the findings equally translate to the psychedelic experience? Well, the first point of consideration is that there is some research that has examined awe in the context of psychedelics specifically. For example, a paper published in the International Review of Psychiatry suggests that the “classic psychedelic-occasioned mystical experience is characterized by profound awe”. Peter Hendricks, the paper’s author and a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama, believes awe may be a critical emotional component of the psychedelic experience, one that helps to foster compassion, empathy, and overall well-being. Furthermore, by applying Stace and Smith’s principle of causal indifference, we can suppose that the subjective quality of awe is what causes life-altering changes. It doesn’t matter what causes the experience. So whether the experience takes place in the Himalayas or in a room while on LSD, the lasting positive effects may be the same.
A final point to make, or at least reiterate in a more research-based context, is that there is a dark side to the sublime. A team of researchers published a 2017 paper that explores the negative aspect of awe, which they say had rarely been emphasised by previous research, despite the fact that philosophers have long pointed to the fear, terror, and dread that are central to this emotional experience. These researchers did, indeed, find that there is a more negative variation of awe that arises when an individual is confronted with vast, threatening stimuli (e.g. tornadoes, a terrorist attack, a wrathful god) and that “people experience this type of awe with regularity.”
Another important result from this study was that this “threat-based variant of awe” differed from other, more positive types of awe in terms of “underlying appraisals, subjective experience, physiological correlates, and consequences for well-being.” Threat-based awe experiences feature a greater degree of fear and increased sympathetic autonomic arousal (which contributes to the fight-or-flight response to a perceived danger or threat). Positive awe, in contrast, is associated with increased parasympathetic arousal (the part of the autonomic nervous system that helps to calm the body down). Positive awe leads to improvements in well-being, whereas negative awe does not, with the latter being explained by increases in the individual’s feeling of powerlessness.
This distinction between positive awe and negative awe may seem to muddy the definition of the sublime that various philosophers have worked on. However, the burgeoning research on awe is just further proof that we should be wary about narrowly defining the sublime. It is, after all, a highly dynamic and complicated emotion, often varying in degree in quality and intensity. To further illustrate this point, it is clear that many psychedelic experiences can involve negative rather than positive awe. You will recall that Otto’s concept of the numinous featured the mysterium tremendum, such as the will, power, and presence of a wrathful God, which inspires trembling, shuddering, and a feeling of being overpowered and overwhelmed. Such terror is also mixed with wonder and positive feelings. Yet, based on the sublime’s multifarious nature, we should grant that the different qualities of the numinous or the sublime don’t always appear in equal measure.
In psychedelic-induced divinity or sublimity, for instance, there aren’t equal parts fear with equal parts fascination. There are varying degrees. Hence, in a state of psychedelic sublimity, there can be a preponderance of the negative aspects of awe: fear, terror, dread, anxiety, and powerlessness. In the numinous occasioned by psychedelics, the divine may be perceived as predominantly terrifying, as a malignant or evil presence. Many people who have negative DMT experiences will often report encounters with evil or demonic entities, rather than the loving – yet still overwhelming – entities encountered during positive experiences. It is, indeed, certainly possible to come face-to-face with a “wholly other” that is wholly malevolent and during and after such a psychedelic experience, there may be no improvements in positive well-being; instead, there could be a worsening of well-being. Such experiences can entail terror and panic of the sort that, if not dealt with in the appropriate manner, can lead to lasting, negative repercussions.
Moreover, the negative awe of the psychedelic state does not have to concern itself with a being or presence greater than oneself. The negative awe may relate to the visionary or visual aspect of the experience (such as being in a chaotic or threatening space or helplessly floating in the cosmic void), as well as the cognitive aspects (such as the contemplation of infinity or eternity), with either inspiring more terror than elation. Such psychedelic phenomenology may rightly be classified as awe, in the negative sense, but unlike the way in which awe is usually framed by psychologists (in a positive sense), these distressing psychedelic journeys can lead to negative short-term effects on well-being. In the worst-case scenario, these negative effects can persist longer, although any disturbances in well-being, personality, and functioning are subject to remedy, through proper integration, guidance, and support.
There is great value to be gained from psychedelic-induced sublimity. But given how much this phenomenon can vary, any individual using a psychedelic would be wise to have the experience in the optimal setting and in the right kind of mindset. This would include, if possible, having a psychedelic experience while under the supervision of a guide. In this scenario, even if one did quickly get into a panic-ridden state of negative awe, a guide (or even just someone you trust) could help you to steer the experience in the other direction, allowing you to swing towards a more balanced kind of awe or positive awe.
When used sensibly and in thoughtful contexts, psychedelics may more reliably lead to the experience of the sublime that is most conducive to overall well-being and enduring positive changes. Of course, given the illicit status of most psychedelics in most of the world, it isn’t possible for people to have their psychedelic experience supervised by a trained therapist (unless they enlist in a research study or seek out an underground guide). Many other people will simply be put off psychedelics by their illegal or stigmatised status. This is a disappointing fact we have to contend with, for as we know, the experience of the sublime or the numinous under the influence of psychedelics can be one of the most profound and life-changing experiences available to us.
But the tide is slowly turning. We are in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance, with exciting research being published all the time on the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, along with the increasing assimilation of psychedelics into mainstream culture. Robin Carhart-Harris, head of Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, believes psilocybin-assisted therapy could be legalised in the next five years or possibly even sooner. When legally available as a therapeutic treatment or as regulated, commercially available products, psychedelics will give more people the opportunity to experience the sublime and reap the benefits that this entails.