Experimental Mysticism:

The History and Science of Psychedelic Research

Experimental Mysticism explores the claim that psychedelic substances like psilocybin (or “magic mushrooms”) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD, also known as “acid”) can facilitate a bonafide mystical or religious experience. We survey the uncommon cultural history and science of psychedelic research and mysticism from ancient times up until to the present “psychedelic renaissance.”

This course draws inspiration from the legacy of the American composer and music theorist John Cage, who taught at the New School for Social Research for ten years between 1950 and 1960. During his tenure, Cage enacted an innovative pedagogy that put education squarely in the service of creative transformation and interdisciplinary expression. His class on Experimental Composition is widely regarded as the intellectual incubator for Allan Kaprow’s avant-garde Happenings and George Brecht’s novel concept of the Event Score for the Fluxus movement in art. We aspire to cultivate a similar such atmosphere of creative transformation and expression. Cage was somewhat of mystic himself who sought wisdom in Buddhism after reading Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy (a comparative study of mysticism). Students in this course will also read writings by Huxley as well as seminal Buddhist mystics. (Interestingly, Cage was also an amateur mycologist who taught a course on Mushroom Identification at The New School.)  

In addition to weekly readings and film screenings, students design their own experimental projects of mystical inquiry. Project Psychonaut is a semester-long enterprise that entails both library research and ethnographic fieldwork of a particular individual or “psychonaut” from the rich annals of psychedelic cultural history. This project culminates with a final paper and a TED style lecture or interdisciplinary art presentation to the class. Students also have the opportunity to expand their psychedelic education through the program of training offered by visiting fellow Dr. Katherine MacLean.

 

Buddhism and Cognitive Science

This course is designed to explore and critically evaluate the central concepts and theories that are at the intersection between Buddhism and cognitive science. Students will examine seminal books and articles from the fields of social and clinical psychology, moral philosophy, phenomenology, neuroscience, and Buddhist studies. This course will touch on themes within those disciplines such as: intersubjectivity, the empathy-altruism hypothesis, the nature of self and other, meditation, and the application of experimental methods to study of human emotions and behavior. In addition to the traditional course requirements (i.e. exams and papers), students will have the opportunity to experiment with various meditation techniques in class. This course is recommended for students with at least one LREL or LPSY course. 

Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy

Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy, popularly known as “Lit Hum,” offers students the opportunity to engage in intensive study and discussion of some of the most significant texts of Western culture. An interdepartmental staff of professorial and preceptorial faculty meets with groups of approximately twenty-two students four hours a week to discuss texts by, among others, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Vergil, Augustine, Dante, Boccaccio, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Austen, Dostoyevsky, and Woolf, as well as Hebrew scripture and New Testament writings. The objective of the course is to consider particular conceptions of what it means to be human and to consider the place of such conceptions in the development of critical thought.