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The metaphysics of laughing gas



The Anaesthetic Revelation of Nitrous Oxide inspired James's famous "filmiest of screens" that separates our commonsense dualistic world from a far vaster realm, a realm of profoundest metaphysical insight that lies just beyond it. But for James, reluctant guide to enlightenment that he was, that screen became a solid border wall.
The metaphysics of laughing gas
William James, Nitrous Oxide and Fatalism
7th September 2022 cite
Jonathan Bricklin | Jonathan Bricklin is author of The Illusion of of Will, Self, and Time:
William James' s Reluctant Guide to Enlightenment (SUNY Press) and Sciousness. He is a
Program Consultant for Eastover, and a Founding Member of the Society for Consciousness
1,556 words
Read time: approx. 8 mins
Laughing gas, nitrous oxide, NOS… whatever you like to call it, this gas
gets a lot of bad press in the contemporary world. Like all things, with
incorrect use it indeed can be dangerous. However, whether it be in the
dentist’s chair, in the hospital after a broken bone or while giving birth, or
at a music festival with a balloon in hand, the experiences afforded by
laughing gas are familiar to most of us. The American philosopher, William
James, was also familiar. He too saw “the ultimate secret and explanation
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of existence… revealed.” However, he came to view this revelation as
horrifying, writes Jonathan Bricklin.
William James, the father of transpersonal psychology, took laughing gas,
aka nitrous oxide, in search of a revelation. According to Benjamin Paul
Blood, the author of “The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of
Philosophy,” the gas provided a “fixed impression” that “the ultimate secret
and explanation of existence stands revealed…as finite knowledge never
has and never could reveal it.” As it turned out, James did experience this
ultimate secret, and accepted it as a “genuine metaphysical revelation.”
It’s hiding in plain sight in what may well be the most quoted passage from
his Varieties of Religious Experience:
“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is
but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by
the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely
different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but
apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their
“All their completeness” is where it’s hiding. James’s famous “filmiest of
screens” was conceived in response to a specific “thrillingly intense
metaphysical insight” that he saw as the “keynote” of his nitrous oxide
trance. Trance literally means “to cross beyond." And crossing beyond this
specific “filmiest of screens” brought James to a form of consciousness
unlike any other: “consciousness in all its completeness." He described
this completeness as follows: “The mind sees all logical relations of being
with an apparent subtlety and instantaneity to which its normal
consciousness offers no parallel.”
Up to a point, James felt consciousness in all its
completeness as rapturous, “living in the midst of
infinity” (literally without bounds)
The poet Robert Southey called the nitrous oxide trance “the atmosphere
of heaven." To appreciate how such atmosphere might apply to
“consciousness in all its completeness” consider the heavenly music of
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Mozart. In his Principles of Psychology, James quotes Mozart’s method of
composing, with bits and pieces coming together until…
“at last I see the whole of it at a single glance in my mind, as if it were a
beautiful painting or a handsome human being; in which way I do not hear
it in my imagination at all as a succession— the way it must come later—
but all at once, as it were. It is a rare feast! All the inventing and making
goes on in me as in a beautiful strong dream. But the best of all is the
hearing of it all at once.”
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James, as it turned out, found a reason not to appreciate it. But first let’s
highlight what he did appreciate. They are all significant contributions to
his radical non-dual insights.
Up to a point, James felt consciousness in all its completeness as
rapturous, “living in the midst of infinity” (literally without bounds).
Somewhat like the ego dissolution in alcoholic inebriation, he mused, “only
a thousandfold enhanced,” multiplying (or rather dividing) him into “spirit
become its own object,” an “intense bewilderment, with nothing particular
left to be bewildered at save the bewilderment itself.” This bewilderment
might well be the source of his “confession” in the Principles of
Psychology that “the moment I become metaphysical . . . I find the notion
of some sort of an anima mundi [world soul] thinking in all of us to be a
more promising hypothesis, in spite of all its difficulties, than that of a lot of
absolutely individual souls.” And it surely played a role in his promotion of
non-dual sciousness (consciousness without consciousness of self) as
prime reality, “leaving who the knower really is wide open.” Sciousness is
"a simple that” before it is “doubled” into “a state of mind,” and “a reality
intended thereby." Just think of a sunset before you say “how beautiful."
And it can be experienced on either side of the screen. James even
brought a word back from the other side of his screen that describes it
perfectly: “onsense.”
James felt rapture, too, in “the reconciliation of opposites,” and the illusion
of real differences and “so-called contradictions.” This revelation even may
have led him to his understanding that the very feeling of “I” was a by-
product of the interplay between feelings of welcoming and opposing.
As Xenos Clark expressed it to James: “The truth is
that we travel on a journey that was accomplished
before we set out.”
But when he glimpsed that the sense of completeness suggested his "I"
had no role whatsoever to play in all this reconciliation, he balked. Blood
viewed the anaesthetic revelation as so complete that it was “prior to and
deeper than manifestation or form.” And that priority very much included
the future. As Blood’s co-revelationist Xenos Clark expressed it to James:
“The truth is that we travel on a journey that was accomplished before we
set out.” James detested the possibility of having no possibility. (He
nonetheless felt obligated to share it in the Varieties, albeit in a footnote.)
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It is one thing to believe that the future can be seen. Anaesthetic gas’s
prodding of that prowess may well go back to naturally arising ethylene
inhaled by the Pythian Oracle. And beyond the significant advances in
clinical precognitive testing, there are startling anecdotal accounts
accessible online. (Paul Stamets’ psilocybin-induced precognition and
David Booth’s well-documented precognitive dream come to mind.) It is
quite another thing, though, to say that everything you encounter “has
been always there,” as the chemist Sir William Ramsay reported from his
anaesthetic trance. And the moment the entranced James sensed the
completeness of consciousness might be that complete, that it entailed
“ineluctable fate,” his “rapture” turned instantly to “horror,” “the strongest
emotion I have ever experienced.” It was not until the last year of his life
that James allowed publicly that the anaesthetic revelation of
“consciousness already there, waiting to be uncovered” might indeed be
“veridical reality.”
Anaesthetized patients, returning from the other side of the filmiest screen,
routinely glimpsed a nondual illumination of being “existence in general”.
And the origin of James’s so-called neutral monism directly links to his
own emergence from anaesthesia; immediately after sharing it in the
Principles, he starts challenging the presumptions of dualism. But there is
a vast difference between emerging from the other side of the screen with
a glimpse of consciousness in all its completeness and feeling trapped
inside a changeless totality “whose parts have no loose play." “I always
get a hint of the mystery when the clock stops by itself,” Blood wrote
James. James did not take the hint. He did not want to conceive of
consciousness in all its completeness as in any way changeless. He even
created a vivid caricature that has facilitated many others in rejecting that
degree of completeness. With his nitrous oxide descent from rapture to
horror very much in mind, he was the first to match the word “block” to the
word “universe”—actually, in its first appearance, “the absolute block." In a
later appearance, perhaps fearing “absolute” was not up to the job of
suggesting total change suppression, he upped it to “iron block.”
The caricature in such an absolute, iron block universe is that it implies
complete stasis, even though there can be no concept of stasis without
change, and vice versa. And the reason Blood and Clark could see
consciousness in all its completeness as rapture, where James saw
horror, was that they never lost sight of that. The clock stopping by itself is
just a reminder that what might seem like a ceaseless flow of movement is
actually a succession of static moments. Both Clark and Blood agreed,
and agreed emphatically, that such successively arising moments of
“already there” content is the key to the Anaesthetic Revelation,
reinforcing its “cosmic indifferentism” as ultimate realization. Blood called it
the Supreme Genius of Being, “where the glory is not what it does but
what it is”.
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Brian Quass
Like almost every other scientist and philosopher today, Jonathan reckons without the Drug War. He discusses the effects
of laughing gas but fails to even note by way of disclaimer that modern science is actually forbidden from investigating the
On this side of the screen, it is mostly intuited by meditators, who access
the gap between thoughts that reinforces the impersonally arising
succession of the Revelation. As Krishnamurti puts it: “…though the
response, the movement of thought, seems so swift, there are gaps, there
are intervals between thoughts. Between two thoughts there is a period of
silence which is not related to the thought process.”
Brain scans, as it turns out, help confirm the link between the Revelation
and meditation. The scans of Zen monks’ brains show the wider Theta
waves that you would expect for those accessing the gap between
thoughts. So when we read the startling report from anaesthesiologists
that “Nitrous oxide has control over the brain in ways no other drug does,”
and find out that the change is widening brain waves, we need not rush to
criminalize it. In fact, we might even seek to protect it.
Jonathan Bricklin
7th September 2022 cite
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