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Jim Duke | Author

Space Cowboy

My choice of coursework through college was even more random and wandering than the rest of my life. If I followed any sort of pattern at all, it would have been the alphabetical order of the class syllabus catalog, which might explain why I finally wound up with a degree in Zoology.

I spent a good deal of time in the 'A' section, taking astronomy at University of Texas, largely so that I could check out the famous McDonald Observatory, which I never got to because of my overbearing interest in campus wildlife. I studied some biology, chemistry, dendrology and ecology, but mostly skimmed through the alphabet fairly quickly. Until I got to the P's. Then I got hung up for an undetermined period, possibly permanently, especially with the silent P's; psychology, psychedelics and psilocybin.

I had experimented with psychedelics even before I had dropped out of high school, mostly for fun and partying purposes, but began becoming progressively more interested in serious, 'practical' applications of these drugs. Reading Carlos Castaneda, I started believing I could learn to 'mind travel' to the extent that, if so desired, I could, for example, pop up in a mirror in a friend's house across the country merely to surprise them. I also thought I might learn to fly and shape shift. I had great expectations.

Upon learning that my father was dying of terminal cancer when I was in my early twenties, I became obsessed with the hereafter and began using psychedelics as a medium to explore any possible afterlife. I read works by Dr. Moody, Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert), Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe and anyone else working with psychedelics and/or life after death. I took psychology classes and became interested in deep meditation practices and anything that showed potential to transcend normal states of consciousness. I wrote a term paper titled "The Effects of Psilocybin on the Process of Self-actualization through Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs" using myself as a guinea pig.

It was during this effort toward self-actualization that I started taking extremely large doses of psilocybin alone out on the ranch. Tripping alone was nothing new to me and I had developed a large tolerance to psychedelics through overuse in many situations. A favorite activity in my early years was to sit alone in a corner of an unfamiliar bar while tripping my ass off. Sitting there alone, I would tune into as many different conversations as possible at surrounding tables. Appearing to be completely absorbed in peeling the labels off my Lone Star beer bottles, I would become totally immersed in the many little soap operas playing out all around me.

In my pursuit of self-actualization, I assumed I could gloss over some of the earlier steps, such as self-esteem, relationships and love, which Maslow considered necessary prior to advancing up in the hierarchy of development. Without any evidence to support it, I always assumed that I was smarter and more capable than most folks and thus able to skip straight to the end product, especially with the help of unlimited shrooms. Surely self-actualization could be no more challenging than mind travel or shape shifting, which I still considered a possibility. And many of Maslow's necessary earlier steps were completely beyond my grasp. This was especially true of relationships and love. I was orbiting so far from conventional society that nobody could understand or relate to me. While I might easily have fallen in love several times a week, it may have been with just another woman that I had watched from a distance and never even spoken to. It wouldn't have been nearly so easy to fall in love with me. I simply wasn't present most of the time.

My 'studies' came to a peak one hot summer night out on the ranch. Nature was exceptionally noisy that evening with cicadas screaming in the background sounding like sirens in European movies, "WEEEOOOOWEEEOOOOWEEEOOOO!", while tree toads maintained a continual laughter in the foreground with a descending scale of "erererererer erererererer erererererer". My efforts at self-actualization had become more of an effort to merely find myself, which seemed an obvious first step if I wanted to actualized that self. The seeking of self, self-identification, or whatever one wishes to call it, was a popular theme with the hippie movement of those days and probably a common aspect of growing up in any age. But it's not something that anyone should get too caught up with in a seriously altered state of mind.

I found myself unable to find myself. The harder I tried, the more elusive I became. Pursuing myself harder and harder without success was pushing me into a state of panic! Where was I?! Who could I be that was so awful that I couldn't reveal myself even to myself?! The tree toads laughed ererereererer and the cicadas screamed WEEEOOOWEEEOOOWEEEOOO! The whole world was imploding with the urgency of my dilemma. The laughing and screaming became louder and louder so that I could no longer hear my own thoughts! My thoughts! That's where I could find myself! I tried to shut out the screaming and laughter of my surroundings and listen to my thoughts. There's one! Gone before I could catch it. Another! Gone! I started chasing my thoughts frantically, convinced that I was disappearing right before my very own eyes. It was something difficult to describe, but I felt as though I was mentally jumping backwards trying to catch myself in front of myself before I could move.

I suddenly realized that I was curled up and hyperventilating. With this realization came the awareness that I was having this realization, that something, someone, was watching this entire scene, and was watching it with a calm detachment. I knew then that this detached observer, narrator, or however it can be described, was me. I had been there all along, just calmly watching the chaos. I realized that my brain, which I had always assumed to be, or at least to contain, the whole of 'me', was merely another part of my body. The thoughts I'd been chasing were no more than byproducts of my brain's function, like CO2 from my lungs. The 'me' I'd been looking for was something entirely different, not even located in my body, but somewhere removed.

I developed a whole new sense of being at that moment and came up with my own philosophy on existence. It's basically the opposite of Descartes's "I think therefore I am". My philosophy could be called "I think I am not". This is based on my theory that I am the only thing I can perceive that is not real. In other words, everything I can perceive in my surroundings can be scientifically described except for myself. Everything can be weighed and measured, quantified and qualified, except me. I, the essence of myself, is the only thing I can perceive that cannot be defined or in any way be evaluated by science.

As crazy as the whole freak out situation had been, it was also very reassuring in the most basic sort of way. I think I pushed myself as far over the brink as possible and found a security there. I've never really suffered any sort of 'panic attack' since. As things get crazier around me, I tend to become calmer and more deliberate, contrary to my otherwise excitable nature. This has been especially valuable when flying (in a plane) where maintaining a level head can be critical. A flight instructor once told me that the best advice for pilots was written on a mayonnaise jar. Unfortunately, they have changed the labeling on mayonnaise jars over the last few decades, but they used to state "Keep cool but do not freeze." I still believe that's some of the best advice possible, not only for flying, but life in general.