[Originally published (without links or images) in The Society of Consciousness Studies Continuum, Number 9, October 2022]
Despite being given only 1 week and 1500 words, I jumped at the offer of the Institute of Art and Ideas to write an essay entitled “The Metaphysics of Laughing Gas” (a/k/a nitrous oxide). Far from a laughing matter to William James,
he is on very public record (the Gifford Lectures, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience) asserting the capacity of nitrous oxide to “stimulate the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree.” The essay was published last month.
Another reason, though, that I was eager to write about nitrous oxide was the opportunity it provided to introduce into this widely popular intellectual forum the controversial philosophy-professor-turned-mystic Osho.
But that introduction will have to wait; my Editor deemed that Osho’s notoriety as a rascal guru superseded his value as a laughing gas metaphysician. However, since Osho — whose 647 books, all transcriptions of profoundly inspired talks, make him the most prolific author of all time — has yet to be introduced into our own forum, I thought it worth sharing why I believe his engagement with nitrous oxide gives us an essential insight for engaging him.
It begins with appreciating what nitrous oxide has in common with Osho’s most persistent teaching: meditation.
The Gap Between Thoughts
“Nitrous oxide,” according to anesthesiology research at MIT, “has control over the brain in ways no other drug does.” The control is its inducement of delta waves, the slowest amplitude brain waves — waves mostly associated with infancy and non-REM sleep. Slow and wide theta waves detected in Buddhist meditation practitioners have been shown to correlate with the slowed-down meditation experience of a gap between thoughts.
Krishnamurti depicts this gap — called “bardo” in Tibetan Buddhism — as “a period of silence … not related to the thought process,” a silent gap that is always there, even if it goes undetected by “the movement of thought” that “seems so swift.”
The poet Basho, following an intensive two-year Zen retreat, created a form of poetry, haiku, to highlight the gap:
Frog jumps in
Sound of the water
Whether or not the even wider, slower delta waves may correlate with wider gaps, the detection of gaps themselves is a fundamental “revelation” of nitrous oxide. Benjamin Paul Blood,
author of “The Anaesthetic Revelation,” the pamphlet that inspired James to experiment with nitrous oxide, and Blood’s co-revelationist, Xenos Clark, agreed on the essence of the revelation: “Succession is the thing.”
Consciousness as succession (defined by the OED as “the coming of one thing … after another”) might seem counter to James’s prime realization of consciousness as a continuous “stream,” but in the same text, The Principles of Psychology, that he introduced his famous stream metaphor, James had laid the ground for its revision, by endorsing what his “goldmine of insights,” Shadworth Hodgson, had identified as “the minimum of assumption” of consciousness: not an uninterrupted stream, but “a sequence of differents.” Moreover, the year before he died, James explicitly evolved his consciousness metaphor from a stream to a succession, writing “all our sensible experience, as we get them immediately … change by discrete pulses of perception.”
And gap-filled succession, rather than steady streaming, is more than just the insight of nitrous oxide imbibers, Buddhist meditators, or philosophers with keen introspective insight. As neuropsychologist Jason Brown points out, succession underlies even the most seemingly steady, continuous states of consciousness, such as when we gaze on a still, solid object. For, writes Brown, “in order for an object to exist as a ‘solid,’ it must recur over successive durations. This is true for all perceptions, though it is more emphatic in some modalities than others. It may not be obvious that a tree, like any visual object, must be perceived over a succession of occasions for it to be perceived at all.”
Succession also informs the sibling relationship between consciousness and light. As Einstein wrote, in the sentence that astrophysicist John Gribbin called the true beginning of the quantum revolution, “The energy of a beam of light emanating from a certain point is not distributed continuously in an ever increasing volume, but is made up of a finite number of indivisible quanta of energy that are absorbed or emitted only as wholes.”
All of which is to say that anyone who seems to be continuously accessing the gap between thoughts, may indeed be accessing an ultimate revelation.
Watch any of Osho’s hundreds of videos on YouTube and you will see someone who seems to have this access, who moment-by-moment seems to be emerging from stillness, from wide silent gaps — a meditative silence that, he says, is “not just absence of worry” but “presence of ecstasy.” And Osho’s prime teaching about meditation is precisely its capacity to deepen awareness of these gaps. As he puts it: “If you relax utterly and remain aware, then there are no holds, no hindrances, but gaps. The gaps are immense. You can use them as stepping stones to God.” No wonder, then, that he affirmed nitrous oxide as providing the same “view from the peaks” as meditation.
But the view from the peaks does not, apparently, guarantee clear vision in the valley.
What might be called the gist of the metaphysics of nitrous oxide is what Blood identified as “the Supreme genius” of being, whose “glory is not what it does but what it is.” Not a future-directed doing but what an entranced James himself experienced as a “nunc stans” (a standing now). In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James quotes the memorable nunc stans phrases of both Blood and his co-Revelationist Xenos Clark. Clark: “the ‘now’ keeps exfoliating out of itself, yet never escapes.” Blood: “The One remains, the many change and pass.”
Absent the restless commute between past and future — what I have called “the temporal landscape that the I reverberates as” — Osho’s consciousness seems to be emerging (exfoliating?) moment by moment, from an unfathomable nunc stans depth of being, a depth that Blood identified with the nitrous oxide revelation and characterized as follows: “Our consciousness, even as it glows, is a helpless projection from an alien energy, bottomless in its regard, utterly unqualified to declare or to determine anything as necessary, and therefore wholly incompetent to radical explanation.”
Society, however, does not cohere around individuals who experience consciousness in this way. Society is composed of individuals whose ongoing consciousness is felt to arise not from a bottomless, alien energy, but from a familiar mix of body, mind, and emotions; necessaries abound, even radical explanations. But for someone like Osho, who feels himself rooted in bottomless arising Being — what he calls both “the beyond” and “existence itself” — rules, apparently, matter little if generated by those who are also “part of the beyond but … have forgotten [their] roots.” And the depth of this not mattering can be breathtaking, as his nitrous oxide provider — his personal dentist and devotee Swami Devageet — relates in his fascinating memoir Osho: The First Buddha in the Dental Chair.
It’s hard to imagine behavior more “determined as necessary” than what is asked of us as patients in a dental chair, where we assume a role similar to a bound and gagged prisoner. But such a severe social stricture may prove particularly challenging for someone sourcing from “the beyond”. Why else would Osho, with his dentist operating a highspeed drill in his mouth, suddenly start to speak, damaging his tongue? The only explanation Osho offered his shocked devotee dentist was: “I speak when I need to speak. I do not choose. Existence is speaking through me. ‘Now’ is always my time.” And presumably it was this same “existence itself” that, in a subsequent session, prompted him to close his mouth “now” on the drill at full speed, this time causing a hole to be drilled into the root of a tooth. No explanation was given for that catastrophe.
At the very least, it seems that “the supreme genius” of being does not guarantee intelligent doing; nor vice versa. Sadhguru, for example, whose spiritual wisdom now also pervades the internet, is a paragon of intelligent doing — especially in his highly effective environmental initiatives; and I watch his videos regularly. But there is no trace of his emerging moment by moment from the gap between thoughts as there is with Osho.
So while Osho may well have provided more illuminating and detailed answers to spiritual questions than anyone ever, details in his controversial life pose a question of their own: Can ongoing spiritual illumination — enlightenment even — contribute to calamity? Is leela that playful?