#5126 – Beginner’s Mind, Sy Safransky On God, LSD, And The Magazine He Founded

#5126 – Beginner’s Mind, Sy Safransky On God, LSD, And The Magazine He Founded

December, 30, 2013 – Editor:Gloria Lee

The end of the year is often a time to pause and
reflect on the past year, to remember those we lost,
perhaps to marvel that we are still here. When my Sun
Magazine came, it was a look back at their beginning
and a reflection on their 40th Anniversary. Wow, now
there’s a milestone I won’t be around for if The
Nonduality Highlights lasts that long. But we are close
to 20 years of knowing some friends from the early
days. Considering the vagaries of the internet where
people and trends come and go like comets, there’s a
core of stability formed by about 25 people who were
there in the first e-groups and still maintain a
presence in these pages. So many discussions, so many
teachers, so many experiences, but in the end it’s
these relationships that are our foundation, our family
of origin. So I was reading the reflections of this Sun
Magazine editor, which he titled “Beginner’s Mind”
and find that their origins were quite spiritual for
lack of a better word, and I was struck by his
forthright, open way of describing their history.
Ram Dass was one of his first teachers. He even came
to Chapel Hill to give talks that were fundraisers for
The Sun. Twice.

Beginner’s Mind

Sy Safransky On God, LSD, And The Magazine He Founded

by Gillian Kendall

Kendall: When asked how The Sun began, you usually
talk about your experiences as a New York City
journalist. But more recently, at a Sun writing retreat,
you talked about an lsd trip that changed your way of
thinking.

Safransky: I said that I never would have started The
Sun were it not for lsd. I don’t usually talk about that,
because I think some readers might be dismayed to
hear it. But I also believe it’s important to honor our
teachers, regardless of the form they take, and for me
lsd was an extraordinary teacher. It was a key to a
door I didn’t even know existed — and once I opened
that door, in my midtwenties, I was irrevocably
changed. I’ve often referred to being The Sun’s editor
and publisher as “my spiritual path disguised as a desk
job.” But the very notion of being on a “spiritual path”
was foreign to me before I did lsd. As Ram Dass,
another of my teachers, said, “I didn’t have one whiff
of God until I took psychedelics.”

I’d been raised Jewish but wasn’t observant. I prided
myself on being a hardheaded realist who scoffed at
religion and didn’t do drugs. But in 1969, when I was
traveling in Europe, I met a German hippie who handed
me some lsd. He promised that it would “make
everything beautiful.” I carried it around for months,
unsure whether to try it or throw it away.

When I finally took it, what happened was beyond
“beautiful.” The boundaries between myself and the
world began to dissolve. And I realized, not just in my
head but in every cell of my body, that the plants and
the trees and the clouds and the birds weren’t
separate from me or from each other. Somehow we
were connected. And instead of being frightened by
this, I felt a great sense of relief, as if I’d finally
stumbled upon a truth that had eluded me all my life. I
knew I was on lsd, but I also knew I was seeing
something clearly for the first time.

I also remember sitting with my eyes closed,
transfixed by an endless stream of vivid and intricate
images. I intuitively understood these complex symbols
as if they were some kind of code — about myself,
about my past, about the nature of reality. Then, after
what seemed like hours, I opened my eyes, glanced at
my watch, and stared in disbelief: only five minutes
had gone by. I took off the watch that afternoon and
left it off. It wasn’t until I started The Sun several
years later that I put it back on. I had deadlines to
meet, after all.

But what I remember most about that day was that my
heart opened in a way it never had before. I felt a
powerful and all-encompassing love, not for anyone or
anything in particular but for all of creation. And the
next time I did lsd, a few months later, I felt that
unconditional love again. I felt it every time I did lsd.
I also saw more clearly that behind our seemingly
separate bodies and personalities we share one
consciousness. And, over time, I realized that if I was
willing to leave a little more of “Sy” at the door, if you
will, I’d experience myself as part of something far
more interesting: everything that wasn’t me. Then, on
one trip, I no longer had a choice about how much of
“Sy” to leave behind. I was “gone, gone beyond, gone
beyond beyond,” as the Buddhists say. And when I
finally came back from that place where “I” no longer
seemed to exist, when I was back in my body and back
in my more-or-less-rightful mind, the love coursing
through me was exponentially more powerful and more
expansive than ever before. And I knew with absolute
certainty that all I wanted to do from then on was to
serve others. And I knew, too, that the best way to do
this was never to announce it; that if you wear your
spiritual heart on your sleeve, even though it might
come from good intentions, it will inevitably create a
sense of separation between yourself and another
person.

Kendall: Why have you been hesitant to discuss this?

Safransky: I’ve been hesitant because there’s a lot of
misinformation about lsd in this culture.
Unfortunately, many people have a tendency to lump
all illegal drugs together, making no distinction
between addictive substances like heroin or cocaine or
methamphetamines, for example, and hallucinogens like
lsd. In any event, for me lsd wasn’t a recreational
drug. Usually I was alone when I did it, and I
approached it as a kind of religious sacrament. I do
feel obliged to mention that not every trip was a
positive experience. I found my way into some hell
realms, too, that I’d never want to revisit. And, though
I think lsd’s dangers have been exaggerated, I don’t
advocate anyone taking it. I’m also not suggesting that
tripping is a prerequisite for getting a taste
of a transcendent reality. There are other, probably
better, ways to get there. But before I did lsd, I
didn’t even know there was a there to get to. So I’m
grateful for that glimpse.

Having said all that, it’s possible that I’m totally
wrong about this, and that lsd really screwed me up.
Maybe it turned a serious and levelheaded young
journalist into a muddle-headed fool willing to take
wild risks, like starting a magazine with no idea what
the hell he was doing.

Kendall: When did you stop taking lsd, and why?

Safransky: I haven’t done lsd in many years. I don’t
miss it. Neither do I regret having done it. Eventually
I realized that lsd was like a helicopter that dropped
you at the top of a mountain, so you could take in the
view without having made the climb. But the helicopter
was on a tight schedule; it picked you up twelve hours
later to bring you back down. If I wanted to keep
experiencing that connection to everything and
everyone, I could either do lsd all the time, which
didn’t seem like an ideal strategy, or devote myself to
some kind of spiritual practice — in other words,
climb the mountain one step at a time. So I started
meditating. I took up yoga. I began reading books with
hard-to-pronounce names like the Tao Te Ching and the
Bhagavad-Gita.

Then something else happened that had a lot to do with
how the magazine would evolve. In the summer of 1972
my son, Joshua, was born prematurely and lived only
three days.

It was the most painful, disorienting loss of my life.
For a long time afterward I saw no reason to get out
of bed, or talk to anyone, or do anything. I was as
incapable of comforting my grieving wife as I was of
finding any comfort in those holy books on the shelf.
It was the first test of my nascent spirituality — and
anything I’d learned while tripping, anything I’d
underlined in my anthologies of Eastern wisdom, made
about as much sense to me as a loose shutter banging in
the wind.

A few months after Joshua died, my wife, Judy, and I
split up, the intentional community we’d moved to
North Carolina to join fell apart, and my father was
diagnosed with terminal cancer. By the time I put out
the first issue of The Sun in January 1974, my zeal
for mysticism and altered states of consciousness had
been tempered by the realization that meditating in
the morning and yakking about God late into the night
provided no immunity from life’s bruising surprises.
But I must say that grieving these losses did deepen
my compassion for others. I think that a
tried-and-true way to become more compassionate is
to suffer plenty yourself. It may leave you embittered
and cynical for a while, but, ideally, it will open your
heart, and once your heart is open, it’s easier to
empathize with someone else’s brokenness.

I decided early on that The Sun would never ignore
how unbelievably challenging life can be. Each time I
slipped up in those first few years by publishing
pie-in-the-sky theology and loose talk about
enlightenment, I increased my efforts to make The Sun
more down-to-earth and less self-consciously spiritual.

Besides, I’ve never wanted The Sun to be easy to
pigeonhole. When people first pick it up, I want them
to be unsure what it is. I don’t want them to be able to
slap a label on it, especially the label “spiritual.”
Labels are ok on spice jars, but not on The Sun.

Kendall: Even after having read it for twenty years,
some of us don’t know what The Sun is.

Safransky: That’s ok. We don’t know what anything is,
really. Everything is mysterious, so why not a magazine
that honors the mystery?

interview continues:

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