Background

Nicholas Saunders

Nicholas Saunders

In Search of the Ultimate High had an unusual beginning. It was largely based on an idea by Nicholas Saunders, social entrepreneur (he set up Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, London) and author of Alternative London, E for Ecstasy and Ecstasy Reconsidered. You can find out more about Nicholas on his page at the Vaults of Erowid.

He and his wife Anja undertook much of the fieldwork research for the book in 1997 before Nicholas’s death in a car accident in South Africa in February 1998.

The book was then completed by Anja and by Michelle, who had been doing desk research for the book in Neal’s Yard in 1997. Here is the original ‘work-in-progress’ website Nicholas and Michelle started in 1997. The book published by Random House’s Rider imprint in 2000.

A decade later the book was out of print and the rights had reverted to the authors. The decision to create this new, 10th anniversary edition was an easy one – while much has changed in the world, the core of this book remains as valid and useful to seekers in the 21st century as ever it did in the 20th. And now, through the internet, we can now open it up to everyone.

Anja’s introduction to In Search of the Ultimate High explains more about the inspiration for the book and Nicholas’s life:

Where did the idea come from?

This book is largely based on an idea by Nicholas Saunders, who died in a car accident in Feburary 1998. He was a man who had always come up with new ideas, from writing a book called Alternative London in the 1970s to setting up a dozen alternative businesses in Neal’s Yard, London in the 1980s to getting involved in the dance scene and writing several informative books on the drug Ecstasy in the 1990s. Nicholas had been walking around with the idea for a “spiritual book”, as we called it in passing, for a while. After his success with his Ecstasy books a monk suggested that he write one about the spiritual aspects of drug taking. He was not quite sure if he was the right person to write such a book. Although brought up as a Catholic, he had left religion a long time ago and felt it was not for him. Neither was he convinced that there was a whole book in it, or even that the subject would have enough appeal to people. I was quite keen on it, though. I do not belong to any religious group either, but my work in healing has connected me to a world that is not restricted to my day-to-day reality. I feel there are parts of me that extend beyond my ego and my life is influenced by forces greater than myself. Is that a spiritual belief? The word itself is off-putting, since it evokes so many images relating to weird ritual practices or people losing their connection with reality. Nicholas and I both hated that kind of thing, but were curious about the part of life that is more than just what is in front of us. Nicholas had been using psychoactives for longer, and more frequently, than I had, but the exploration of altered states of consciousness had been of interest to both of us long before we met. I thought that writing the book could provide another meeting ground for us, and Nicholas envisaged some great travels together researching the book.

And great adventures we shared, inner and outer journeys. We met many interesting people, from sorcerer shamans, drunk and surrounded by parts of the human skeleton, to the most gentle open-hearted people who welcomed us as part of their own family. Our relationship grew and intensified beyond measure in the last two years through embracing the search for the ultimate high. This did not mean spacing out together, but the seeking of an exquisite quality of life: to experience and to understand it as well as to share as much of it as we could in our day-to-day life. Of course we had many dull days and the travelling was not anything like as romantic as we had imagined at first. Spending hours stuck in airports or searching for days in a town for a Mike who was supposedly a great healer was not very exciting. The inner journeys are not for the faint-hearted and, at times, we were frightened and struggling together, but the way we used psychoactives did help us to deepen our love.

The lead up

It is remarkable how Nicholas’s own life story illustrates the different phases in society that led up to the current interest in spirituality and the use of drugs as part of this.

Nicholas was in many ways a classic hippie. He came from a well-to-do family, had a good education, went to university and was all set up for a respectable career. He took LSD in the 1960s and, like so many, saw there was more to life than he had been led to believe. Through his LSD experience he became aware of an aspect of life that went beyond the material world. An appetite for the mystical was born as well as a spiritual longing, which was still there when I met him years later.

Nicholas wrote this about his LSD experience:

“I first took LSD in the mid-Sixties while I was an engineering student. I dropped out of college, travelled overland to India and explored a variety of mystical paths. An observer might well assume that I was yet another sheep following the prevailing fashion, yet for me the experience was profound and my motives sincere.

My first exploration of LSD was to be a scientific observation, so I equipped myself with an observer, notebook and stopwatch; but nothing happened as I had been sold a dud. This may have been a blessing in disguise as next time I was far more relaxed as I took it while visiting two fellow students, and when nothing happened half an hour later, casually took another.

The first thing I noticed was that things seemed different out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to face them, all was normal. My caring friends kept asking how I felt, and after a while I found I was looking down on them; not only as though from physically above them but also I felt that their questions were, well, trivial. So much so that I felt it pointless to answer, and instead I allowed myself to become absorbed in more important things: in this case, the weave of the bedspread. I was fascinated watching each thread weaving its way over and under in superb rhythm and with great significance and beauty, a beauty that I knew was always there: it was simply ignored by insensitive people such as my friends, and by myself before then. I was enjoying myself enormously. I felt freed from the restraints of normal life, free to do anything I wanted. I knew that I had the power to fly or create or destroy just by willing it, but to do so would have been to test myself and that would have implied doubt, and as I had no doubt I was content to bask in the glory of my power. But the most important lesson of the experience was the certain knowledge that this consciousness was on a higher level and provided not just a different, but a broader perspective than normal. I saw my world for the first time in all its glory as though my previous view of it had lacked reality, like watching television.

The event was profoundly important for me, and certainly changed my life in spite of the fact that I found it impossible to describe or even remember with any clarity. The immediate effect was to destroy the ambitions and values I had been brought up with. We were insignificant and our lives so absurdly short that nothing was worth doing: anyone who was enthusiastic about anything was either blind to the truth or kidding themselves to avoid facing it. This made me dissatisfied and determined to find something meaningful in life, hence I got involved with one mystical group after another.”

The 1960s generated an interest in Eastern religions and alternative spiritual practices on a unprecedented scale. In many circles it became the most common thing to sit in the lotus position, sing Krishna mantras, meditate on emptiness or surround oneself with pictures of the Maharishi. The sometimes very unearthly quest for spirit was enhanced by the sweet fragrance of incense, little bells and various drugs. Not everyone managed to come out of this period unscarred, but those who did often still speak fondly of a time when life was uniquely expanding or deepening. At that time Nicholas included in his chapter on drugs in Alternative London (a guide to “surviving and thriving” in London of the 1970s) the following extract from Alice in Wonderland, which illustrates the enquiring state of mind which prevailed at the time:

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I – I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.

“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”

Questions about the meaning of life, and who we are, have always been asked but, in contrast to the 1960s, we entered a time in the late 1970s and the 1980s where it felt as if material concern prevailed. Maybe the “way-out” concepts of the 1960s needed to ground themselves, and Nicholas did this with the development of a community of businesses in Neal’s Yard in London. These were set up with ideological principles in mind and all were financially successful. However, as time went on, the ideology faded and he found himself in a somewhat depressed state. Like so many people he started once again to ask the questions: “What is it all for? Is this all there is to life? Where has the dream gone? What is the dream anyway?”, existential questions that have led many back to the spiritual quest.

The second wave

The end of the 1980s produced a second wave of people who were looking for more in life than simply material reward. Unemployment and social divisions had left many disillusioned. Whilst the churches emptied, new age ideas were thriving. The desire to explore different ways of thinking and living led many to creative visualisation, meditation, positive thinking, complementary medicine, ecology and holistic living. Those who had left religion did not seem to have abandoned a search for spirit. The religious middle men, like priests and gurus, became less popular, but there was an increased desire to have a direct personal connection with God or the Source or the Spirit, however one wants to name it. The use of mind-altering substances was once again seen as a path to fulfilment.

With the more widespread use of Ecstasy (MDMA), Britain saw, in 1988, the “second summer of love”. The rave movement took off. A whole new spiritual imagery appeared in clubs, much of it drawn from shamanic roots. The music and the names of many bands and tracks directly referred to the shamanic cultures of the Americas. Whereas in the 1960s the Eastern religions were the centre of attention, now the native American Indians were the inspiration. The rave awakened a sense of tribal belonging. The vast numbers of people, often in big open spaces, the beat of the music, trance dancing, and the open heart connection that Ecstasy brings about, gave people a renewed sense of connectedness with each other. There was a revived interest in ritual. “A secular society does not train people in ritual experience. The rave brings some of that back,” as Professor Roger Griffin puts it.4

Nicholas was also part of this movement. He took Ecstasy in 1988 and he always said it changed his life, and for the better:

“When we got off the train I took deep breaths; the air felt wonderful and I realised that I was simply allowing myself to enjoy what had always been there. I looked back and saw that what I had come to accept as my normal state over the past few years was actually a mild depression. For me the experience was just the tonic I needed; ever since, I have felt more positive and healthy…

…I turned up at midnight just as the E I had taken was coming on. I got into dancing in my usual rather self-conscious way, keeping an eye on what other people were doing and well aware that I was thirty years older than nearly everybody else. Then, imperceptibly, I gradually relaxed, melted into it and knew I was part of it all. There was nothing I might do that would jar because everyone else was simply being themselves, as though they were celebrating their freedom from the constraints and neuroses of society. Although everyone was separately celebrating in their own space, when I looked around I would easily make eye contact – no one was hiding behind a mask. There was virtually no conversation or body contact except for the occasional short hug, but I experienced a feeling of belonging to the group, a kind of uplifting religious experience of unity that I have only felt once before, when I was part of a community (Christiania) that was threatened with closure. It was as though we belonged to an exclusive tribe bonded by some shared understanding, yet full membership was mine for the £10 ticket and £15 tablet.

Nicholas decided he wanted to know more about Ecstasy and found that the media were not giving unbiased, or even correct, information. His philosophy in life had always been that adults should be able to make their own choices about what they do with their lives and in order to do so it is important to have access to objective information. So he set out to find out what MDMA was really all about and self-published three books on the subject. New technologies, especially the growth of the internet, were also at the forefront of this second wave, and Nicholas involved himself in this area when he set up the internet site ecstasy.org, which became the most respected site on the subject in the world, with over three million visits a year.

What is the search for the ultimate high?

There seems to be an inherent longing in people to make sense of, to give sense to, to deeply sense life. To be alive. This state, once experienced, is so profound – as we can see from the accounts in this book – that it at once brings us to the centre of all that is life as well as expands our states of consciousness to embrace the vastness of life. The psychoactives teach us of the world beyond ourselves and at the same time show us the depth within us. They can bring us awareness and promote an awakening.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you

don’t go back to sleep

you must ask for what you really want

don’t go back to sleep

people walk back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch

The door is round and open

don’t go back to sleep

(Rumi)

Psychoactives can wake us up to the world beyond. Is this world really beyond? Time and space seem to lose their meaning in altered states of consciousness. Linear time is no longer there: there is no sense of “now is life” and “later is death”; no sense of “I am here on earth and cut off from life and souls in other dimensions”. There is a connection to other realities which often seem more real than what we experience in our daily material world. Plato gave us the image of life on earth as living in a cave. All we see are shadows. When we get outside, in the bright light, we see things as they really are. Traditions that do not push death away, in the way that we do in the West, tell us that this is what we experience after we die. The image of the all-illuminating light is a common theme in many spiritual traditions.

It seems to me that the search for the ultimate high involves dying and being reborn. It involves learning about our shadows and our light. It involves facing fears of the unknown and letting go of what does not stand the test of space and time. The practice of letting go of matter and being reborn into spirit. Breathing out and breathing in.

It fascinates me that Nicholas died while searching for the ultimate high. Researching this book, he was on his way to a ritual with a special guide, which he hoped would make sense of many of his previous experiences with psychoactives. He was in the happiest time of his life, he wasn’t confused, and he had no desire to escape. He died in a car accident in 1998, no substances involved. An accident. He died instantly, in Free State near Kroonstad in a place about which Nelson Mandela said: “When I visit there, nothing can shut me in. My heart can roam as far as the horizons.”

In 1996 Nicholas had a peak experience. He wrote:

“After my first psychedelic trip, I had an even more profound experience on LSD. The setting was perfect: I was with Anja out in the country in a beautiful secluded place on a perfect summer’s day. We had made love and were in love, felt calm, relaxed and open to one another. At one point I felt that I was able to let go completely, like never before, and the result was to allow my ‘essence’ to flow out and to rejoin its source. It was like ‘coming home’ but far more so. It was incredibly ‘right’ and joyful and I wept with joy.

We were camping, and that night I stayed awake, savouring the experience and trying to keep it in mind without using words to describe it. I valued the experience so much that I did not want to describe it in words that might debase it, so I tried hard to think of ways of identifying what happened so that I could recall it, yet without using words with a connotation, like ‘soul’.

I also contemplated the experience, and it felt ‘natural’ in that I felt sure that this was something essentially human, and that it had been experienced by people of all cultures throughout time. In fact, I had the insight that mankind invented religions in order to provide an explanation, or framework, for such experiences, so as to give them validity in our normal consciousness. That is what religions are for, and why people believe in them. I saw how my experience related to the Christian teachings of everlasting life, with God in the other realm of consciousness and Jesus as the link between realms of consciousness.”

When he died, would he have recognised the lessons previously taught in this peak experience? Was he able to “let go of matter and allow his essence to rejoin its source”?

I feel sad that he is not here in body, but somehow manage to feel a happiness when I think of him.

I don’t know where he is, but my own experience of life, and the medicine teachers I have had, taught me that there is more than the material reality, visible in daily life.

life is eternal

and love is immortal

and death is an horizon

and what is an horizon, but the limit of our view?

Psychoactive substances have truly helped many to explore the limits of their views.