Fear of awakening

In his recent book, Sacred Knowledge, William Richards considers the broadening revival of psychedelic research from his perspective of fifty years. Early in his career he worked at Johns Hopkins with Walter Pahnke and Stan Grof and more recently with Roland Griffiths.

Richards begins his chapter “Fear of Awakening” with a quote from Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Von Schelling, a German philosopher of the early nineteenth century, who presaged elements of both psychoanalytic theory and existentialism.

Schelling said: “The philosopher who knows his calling is the physician who … seeks to heal with gentle, slow hand the deep wounds of human consciousness. The restoration is all the more difficult since most people do not want to be healed at all and, like, unhappy patients, raise an unruly outcry if one even approaches their wounds.” Schelling’s idea predated the psychoanalytic theory of resistance by almost 100 years.

Schelling also considered the metaphysical question: Why is there anything at all? Why not nothing? This articulation eventually gave rise to the central issue of existentialism – the notion that one’s existence is the result of one’s acts of choice.

Taken together, these reflections suggest that the reason we resist focusing our attention on ourselves is because the possibility of nothingness is terrifying to contemplate.

In his chapter Richards writes: “One reliable effect of visionary and mystical states of consciousness is that they awaken us once again to more fully experience awe. Instead of taking life for granted as we perform our routines in everyday existence, suddenly the very fact that we are at all may seem like a miracle…. Much as we like to affirm our independence in everyday life, it remains true that, when we eventually find ourselves lying on our deathbeds, we all have to come to terms with an ultimate dependency on realities far greater than our egos.”