Recorded shortly after a week-long philosophy and breathwork conference which they both attended, they mostly dig into the challenging philosophical concepts of Alfred North Whitehead: how everything is made up of a feeling; how everything is relational and we all feel each other’s experiences; how Whitehead defined occasions and how moments of experience are accessing the totality of the past; and how neurology and the mind-brain interaction impacts human experience. This analysis leads to a lot of questions: Is the past constantly present, in that it is an active influencer on all our actions? When we relive a past event, where does that live in our minds vs. bodies? Are we tapping into a universal storehouse of past events, or are we tapping into past lives (or into others past lives)? When we sense that someone is looking at us, what is that?
He also discusses his realization that the experiential element of non-ordinary states of consciousness was the most important; his entry point into breathwork; why breathwork creates a perfect atmosphere for conversation; reincarnation and the idea of being reincarnated into other dimensions; the concept of objective immortality and how ripple effects from a single moment continue onward; and the fallacy of misplaced concreteness and psychoid experiences: Are they real beyond our psyche?
“One of the key moments for my studies was [when] I was tripping, walking through this room. Suddenly, I had this vision of three overlapping circles of psychology, philosophy, and religion, and in the middle was an experiential center that was all of them, where the experience of these questions and mysticism and psychological insight were sort of all flooding in there. And I thought: Wow, this is the insight people are talking about. I’ve got to find out what this is about.”
“Whitehead has a book called Religion in the Making and he says religious experience, a mystical experience is interesting and part of the picture, but you can’t build an entire religion or philosophy based on extraordinary experience of a few great men. But I think with psychedelics, opening up these realms to millions of people; it creates a much better foundation for doing something like that.”
“Everything’s alive, and I think we need to feel that again and to feel the depth dimensions that psychedelics reveal. …I think when we don’t feel the aliveness around us, we don’t feel alive.”
Through studying ancient Zoroastrian writings and 2,000 year-old Chinese texts in search of compounds and formulations forgotten by history, Etminan and Lu co-founded drug discovery company VCENNA in 2019 to use extraction technology to isolate these compounds. This led to an understanding of the health properties behind beta-carbolines, which led to their nootropic company, Magi Ancestral Supplements. They talk about the early days and experimenting on themselves, how beta-carbolines create dream-like states, and how their research sent each of them further into their own heritage, and asking themselves: How do we remember what our ancestors knew?
They discuss espand, haoma, Syrian rue, and how common Syrian rue is in both Iranian culture and psychedelic history; what is a drug vs. what is a supplement; common threads they’ve seen across different cultures and how we may be repeating some of their mistakes; Etminan’s recent ayahuasca experience with the Santo Daime church; and of course, some of Magi Ancestral Supplements’ products and their expected effects – from deep meditation to lucid dreaming to even mild hallucinations. You can get 10% off any product using code PT10 here.
“The journey started with basically experimenting with different alkaloid’s extracts. So we were able to extract these compounds from different plants. Specifically, the journey started with just doing some experimentation with psilocybin, looking into what are those alkaloids inside the psilocybin mushroom. And then basically, this story took us into our own heritage and trying to see what other plants are psychoactives but they’re less studied in the West.” -Shauheen
“This terminology you put between what is a supplement, what is a drug, what is food; even going back to what Andrew Weil talks about here, like, is caffeine a drug? Is nicotine a drug? …These words that we apply to what is a drug vs. what is a supplement are fairly arbitrary. We give the label of something as being a drug just because it’s gone through the medical establishment of a thousand people have tested it and based upon the evaluation of a guy wearing a white lab coat with a diploma on the wall, he said that more than 65% of them (or vs. those who were given a placebo) had a positive response, and therefore I can call it a drug now instead of a supplement and you can make a medical claim. But you know, the plants, the compounds: They don’t really care what we call them.” -Jon
“I am not very fascinated about psychedelics in general; I’m fascinated about the effect of psychedelics on human consciousness, because we are really behind our capacity, and I would love to see that we come together with good intention in a way that we can pave that way for fostering something that is serving everybody rather than just a group of people.” -Shauheen
As of this recording, van der Kolk was publishing his last paper and closing down his laboratory, so he looks back on his past: being part of the group who put together the first PTSD diagnosis in the 80s; the early days of psychedelic research and how he discouraged Rick Doblin and Michael Mithoefer from pursuing MDMA research; how the DSM has no scientific validity and was never meant for the diagnosing it’s being used for; how science wasn’t seeing the whole picture and pushing us mindlessly from medication to medication; and how trauma research has evolved over the years as society learned more about how the mind actually works.
He discusses the struggle to validate “softer” sciences; the impracticality and price of the MAPS protocol and the need for more group and sitter/experiencer frameworks; the efficacy of psychodrama and how that plays out in group sessions; his interest in using the Rorschach test more; how rolfing helped him; the problem with diagnosis and people becoming their illnesses; bodywork, somatic literacy, and how disconnected most people are from their bodies; and how, in all the healing frameworks he’s explored, he has never seen anything work as profoundly as psychedelic-assisted therapy.
“I have quite a few friends who are sort of major scientists. And I asked my friends, ‘So, did you take acid also in college?’ All my friends said, ‘Yes, I did.’ And I say, ‘So, how do you think it affected you?’ And my friends generally say, ‘Well, I think it really accounts from my having become a good scientist, because I got to appreciate that the reality that I hold inside of myself is just a small fragment of the overall reality that is.’”
“It was really very gratifying for me to be part of a psychedelic team the past 10 years or so, where we got to see the astounding transformations that people go through on psychedelics – more than anything else that I’ve seen in my career, and I’ve studied many different methods. I’ve studied other things that also turned out to be quite helpful like EMDR and Internal Family Systems therapy and theater and yoga, but the transformations on psychedelics were really astonishing and made me really hopeful that we may enter a much more complex era of thinking about mental functioning.”
“It’s delicate, but we keep running away from it. But the reality is that if you really feel upset, getting a hug from somebody who loves you makes all the difference in the world, of course. That’s still our primary way in which we feel calm. And touch by other people may also scare the shit out of you and send you into a tailspin. So doing that right is very delicate and fraught with danger, but that doesn’t mean we can just keep running away from it.”
In this episode of Vital Psychedelic Conversations, David interviews Erika Dyck: Vital instructor, historian, professor, author, and editor of the new book, Expanding Mindscapes: A Global History of Psychedelics; and Jono Remington-Hobbs: graduate of the first cohort of Vital, coach, facilitator, and now, Co-Founder of Kaizn, an experiential wellness company with a strong focus on community, creating a feeling of safety, and modern rites of passage.
They talk a lot about rites of passage and how they create liminal spaces to reflect on the deeper questions we need to ponder but our culture doesn’t allow time for. They talk about how categorization took us away from tradition; how so much of what we get out of these experiences isn’t related to psychedelics at all; why we struggle with connection in the digital age; the power of community as medicine and recognizing a kinship in others; and why we need to integrate our heads and hearts and live more heart-led lives.
They also dive into why cultures have always sought out non-ordinary states of consciousness; how our current state of needing to make sense of a chaotic world is similar to the mindstate of the 60s; psychedelics’ success in palliative care; coaching and why it should be attached to therapy; the creation of the word “psychedelic”; flow states and discovering the intrinsic calling we all have; and the Vital question that starts the podcast out: Are psychedelics the future, or will psychedelics just bring about a different way to think about the future?
“I keep sort of wrestling with this question about whether the future of psychedelics is really about psychedelics or whether psychedelics are a tool for unlocking a different kind of future. …And to me, that’s really an exciting possibility for what this psychedelic renaissance holds: that it’s an opportunity to really take stock of what we want to revive about the past, whether it is psychedelic or not. It might be something more sacred, it might be a kind of humanity or a kind of way of thinking, that focusing on psychedelics allows us to think differently about how we want to organize those thoughts, those actions. And I think it’s a really exciting opportunity to invest in this kind of renaissance moment, to really blend these historical impulses with an opportunity to think about a different future.” -Erika
“The role of community with psychedelics: I think that we can occasionally get a little bit lost that it’s the psychedelics, the medicine. And the more I’m seeing is that the medicine is community and psychedelics are the implementation tool of that medicine.” -Jono
“Tolerance is a word that comes to mind as you were talking. I think that one of my hopes is that (and it doesn’t have to be everybody taking psychedelics) it can be just tolerance towards difference. I think psychedelics can help us to come into a place where we can appreciate that diversity is a strength, that difference is a strength, that sameness isn’t necessarily the strength or the goal that we should be striving towards.” -Erika
“[Psychedelics] are an offsetting of an eternal balance between these two hemispheres. And we’ve gone so far one way with this worldview where we are also gamified by what we do. The amount of information that I know because an algorithm wants me to know; it terrifies me when I actually think about it, but on the other side, the amount of wisdom …that’s available from us, from these experiences that we’re having that help guide us back to this other way of being gives me radical hope – radical, radical hope that things haven’t gone too far. It’s just the pendulum has swung very far one way, and I think psychedelics are some of the momentum to take us back the other way and back to ourselves, each other, and Mother Nature.” -Jono
He tells his personal story and how his first psychedelic experience felt like a homecoming; discusses his Rebel Wisdom media platform, where, through interviews, he tried to make sense of social upheavals and conflicts through a more flexible, psychedelic way of thinking; and digs deep into the Greek concepts of Moloch and Kairos: how Moloch represents the winner-take-all, race to the bottom, sacrifice-your-values-to-appease-the-system game playing we all get stuck in, and Kairos represents the openness that comes from psychedelics – the transitional, seize-the-moment opportunities we need to take advantage of. And he discusses much more: the power of dialectic inquiry; the corporatization of psychedelics and how we’re really in a psychedelic enlightenment; how the medicalization of psychedelics is like a Trojan horse; and the concept of technology (and specifically the internet) mirroring the switching between realms that we think is so rare in psychedelics – aren’t we doing that every time we look at our phones?
Beiner was recently part of Imperial College London’s initial trials on intravenous, extended-state DMT, testing correct dosages and speeds for the pump. He describes the details of the study, how he thought they were messing with him at first, and what he saw in his experiences: an outer space-like world of gigantic planet-like entities, and how a massive Spider Queen entity taught him about intimacy and how our metaphysical and personal worlds aren’t separate at all.
“There’s a particularly psychedelic way of thinking in my view. …I would define it as a flexibility in how we think and a looseness and a creativity and a playfulness with how we approach the world that psychedelics can open up in us. And I think that’s so deeply needed right now. So my hope is to kind of combine that ethos together with a lot of very practically important, interesting, sociological, psychological, scientific, and metaphysical insights, and use all of that to write a book that hopefully gives people new lenses in which to make sense of the world and psychedelics.”
“The process of speaking to the truth of your lived experience in the moment is deeply transformative. And it’s also, in my experience and I think the experience of many people, it’s what psychedelics encourage us to do: They encourage us to be with the truth of our experience and go into what we’ve been hiding from and avoiding, and feel it – feel the truth of what’s actually going on. And that is so, so powerful culturally because so many of our cultural shadows and our polarization and our ‘at each other’s throats’ and our ideological fixations come from these unsaid things. So there’s so many practices, psychedelics included, that can open us up into the truth of what’s going on. And I think that is just the most transformative practice or approach that there is that I’m aware of.”
In this episode, Joe interviews Ethan Nadelmann: author, speaker, Founder and former Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance, host of the PSYCHOACTIVE podcast, and one of the leading voices in drug policy reform and harm reduction.
Nadelmann shares his journey from Princeton University to founding Drug Policy Alliance, to working with George Soros, encouraging Gary Johnson to push cannabis legalization, and interacting with prominent figures like Milton Friedman and Grover Norquist. He explores the motivations behind the drug war, the massive growth of incarcerations it led to, why the US spread its war on drugs abroad even when it went against our best interests, and, thankfully, the progress made in fighting the drug war – particularly with cannabis and psychedelics.
And he discusses much more: the banning of drug testing kits; the damages of our slow learning curve against the idea of a safe supply; the risks of under-prescribing opioids for people who actually need them; how libertarians, the right, and left are all starting to become against the drug war for the same reasons; why cigarette smokers should all switch to vaping; the concept of needing to pass a test at the pharmacy to prove you understand (and won’t abuse) medication; and some strong arguments for decriminalization as an incremental step. And he asks some pretty important questions that we can all simmer on for a bit: how do we find a balance between helping people and not opening the rest of society up to harm? How do we challenge abuse in a way that doesn’t hurt future harm reduction efforts? And how do we incentivize people into acting in their own best interests?
“The drug war resulted in the unnecessary arrests of tens of millions of Americans, the unnecessary incarceration of millions of Americans (oftentimes for very long periods of time), hundreds of thousands of people dying in this country with HIV/AIDS unnecessarily, tens of thousands dying of overdose unnecessarily. That was the drug war.”
“If I could snap my fingers and all of the 30, 35 million American cigarette smokers in the country today, or all of the 1.1 billion smokers around the world were to suddenly stop smoking cigarettes, and all of them were to take up vaping (the e cigarettes); …it would represent one of the greatest advances in public health in U.S. and global history, because the risks of smoking are so dramatically, dramatically greater than the risks of consuming nicotine in non-combustible forms.”
“You look at people pursuing that type of legal course of action where they claim it’s about helping bring attention, but in fact it’s having exactly the opposite results. Yes, it’s important to fix these things, but the methods and ways you go about it are incredibly important. It’s just like the same thing when you had that case involving the therapist in the MAPS training program who did stuff that was sexually inappropriate, etc. And on the one hand, you definitely need people to bring attention to that, and more credit to them for bringing attention to those abuses. On the other hand, one has to have the basic realization that that happens in all areas of psychotherapy. You can’t eliminate this stuff. It’s human nature, it’s humankind. You can minimize the incidence of it, you can bring attentions to the abuses, but make sure that what you’re advocating as the fix is not leading to doing more harm.”
When you realize that you’re not who you thought you were, the spiritual leader Ram Dass used to say, the path to enlightenment begins. This is also the beginning of the journey for LGBTQIA+ people.
In either case, self-realization can be prompted by psychedelics. But that transition is a scary one: whether it’s your ego or the gender and sexual orientation you were assigned at birth, it requires the death of the person you’ve known. Ultimately, you break through into a place of beauty, truth, and love. But there’s usually a period of kicking and screaming first, trying to hold on as the known slips through your fingers.
For queer and gender-diverse people, it often isn’t safe to express or connect with who we are, so we learn to suppress this knowledge even from ourselves. Denying one’s authenticity causes trauma that can manifest as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. But LGBTQIA+ researchers, therapists, users, and underground practitioners are finding that psychedelic therapy has immense potential to help their communities heal from internalized queer- and transphobia.
Lxo, a London-based artist and research curator experimented with various medicines in art school when their queer, trans*, and non-binary identities began to surface, deposited by a repressive, religious upbringing and persisting through more than five years of talk therapy.
“Then I did one [dose] of s-ketamine, and something burst forward from the past, like a memory bubble” they say. “I was able to forgive and heal… the version of me that was really crying out for help.”
There Is No “Post-Trauma”
For queer and gender-diverse people, there is no “post-trauma,” says Dr. Jae Sevelius, a clinical psychologist and Professor of Medical Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. Rather, it’s ongoing, and “It’s not just about experiencing violence, it’s about experiencing violence because of who you are.”
Most mainstream therapies, however, treat trauma as an isolated incident. “[In the West,] we don’t have great approaches to offer people,” Sevelius says. “We have medicines that can treat the symptoms… but talk therapies for trauma… can be really challenging, [with] very high dropout and [low] success rates.”
What’s more, these frameworks aren’t built to support the queer experience. On the contrary, they’re often the very sources of the trauma they aim to treat. Homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1973; being transgender, until 2012. These links persist today, with gender-diverse people being required to undergo psychiatric evaluation before receiving supportive healthcare—assuming this is even an option.
I’ve experienced this firsthand: celebrating diagnoses that pathologize your identity because it means you can actually get the care you need, reinforcing cognitive dissonance and negative self-beliefs. It breeds mistrust among queer and especially gender-diverse people, especially those with intersecting underrepresented identities, such as BIPOC and sex workers, who face additional systemic barriers and are most impacted by the drug war.
Patients often have to educate their therapists and doctors in culturally relevant care, emotional labor that can be life-threatening. Even worse, queer and gender-diverse communities have been subjected to so-called conversion therapy, inhumane “treatments” that try to turn people cisgendered and straight, still legal in many places. Methods of administration have included electroconvulsive therapy — and psychedelics.
The fact that substances known as truth agents could be used as tools of oppression speaks to the influence of set and setting – and, perhaps even more, of institutions like medicine, psychotherapy, and the university system, where outcomes must align with conclusions that satisfy funding sources.
Today, the barriers to both gender-affirming treatment and psychedelic healing remain immense. Part of the problem is that LGBTQIA+ people are underrepresented on both sides of psychedelic therapy and research, as well as the sciences more broadly, and largely feel unwelcome in all these arenas.
“We need to recognize that there are specific needs between different people within the community, and those needs arise from systemic failures,” says Alfredo Carpineti, a queer astrophysicist and founder of UK charity Pride in STEM.
Research both reflects and creates the world, as psychologist and Yale researcher Terence Ching and others have observed. Psychedelic clinical trials and research studies don’t even gather data on sexual orientation and gender identity, so there is no way to know how psychedelic therapy impacts LGBTQIA+ communities, yet the message this sends to them is clear.
Existing studies and trials are not designed to capture or accommodate queer experiences, typically using cis-het, male-female therapist dyads that are meant to mimic hetero-normative parenting frameworks. Additionally, therapists are not trained to handle complex gender and sexuality issues that may come up during sessions.
Misgendering or failing to affirm someone’s identity can be particularly wounding, Sevelius warns. Those designing studies need to ask who is training and recruiting the therapists, and where they’re recruiting participants. A study on MDMA therapy for gender-diverse populations that they contributed to found current protocols lacking, calling for explicitly gender-affirming treatment and safer, more inclusive settings.
“I get requests all the time from trans and gender-diverse people asking me how they can be included in clinical trials. And I have to say, I don’t feel comfortable referring people,” Sevelius says. “Psychedelics create a very vulnerable psychological state. When you don’t know whether the therapists are really competent to be working with our communities, it’s very likely someone will get re-traumatized.”
Psychedelic research also needs to more rigorously capture demographic data about sexual and gender identity, but most organizations don’t have the resources, Ching says. Still, it’s crucial to recruit and train more LGBTQIA+ researchers and therapists to support straight ones in building queer-inclusive clinical spaces.
“There are many ways to improve access,” Ching says. “Rethink your eligibility criteria [and] do more than put up fliers. Go to queer organizations, talk to people, … do a town hall. Tell them what PTSD is and actually get savvy with the fact that sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia can lead to it.”
You’re Not Who You Thought You Were
Saoirse* spent five years in the military police, presenting masculine as a means of survival. Struggling with “decades of suppression and depression as well as PTSD from growing up in cis-het society and from the military,” she had already done a decade’s worth of talk therapy through the VA, cognitive processing therapy (CPT; a cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD), and couples counseling. Then she participated in an ayahuasca ceremony.
“Having a safe space to explore my beingness… within a [sacred container and] Peruvian Amazonian lineage… was the key for me in discovering my true essence,” she says. “The masculine persona… dropped away. The other women gathered around me in a group hug, and I felt my true self seen, held, and celebrated for the first time.”
During his own MDMA therapy session, Ching was visited by otherworldly animal entities that helped him reconcile his queer and Asian-American identities, which he describes as “a profound experience of unshackling myself from the confines of internalized homophobia.”
Dee Adams, a research program manager at Johns Hopkins University who studies the impact of psychedelic therapy on gender-diverse people, says, “Psychedelics unlock[ed] those pieces of me that I… didn’t have the courage in mundane reality to approach or be aware of. I don’t know of any [other] medicines that can… be directly attributed to that initial ‘aha’ moment.”
Psilocybin and LSD have huge potential in triggering these insights, Sevelius says, as they’re known to break stuck patterns. MDMA is effective for identity-based trauma because it increases self-compassion and empathy, they add, and can improve gender resiliency when combined with affirming care. Along with a New York-based clinical partner, they’re also developing the first ketamine-assisted group therapy study created by and for trans and gender-diverse people.
Yet the relief goes beyond clinical symptoms. In her ayahuasca journeys, Saoirse connected with not only her own femininity but the feminine archetype, transmitted through the spirit of her mother, who was dying of a brain tumor.
“Spirit gifted me with an experience of the female pain body… and all the feminine has held for the masculine throughout the ages,” she says, including “the damage the masculine has done to itself… in committing violence. I was shown the breadth of our journey as souls through lifetimes and the beautiful and terrible dance of the human story.”
She also experienced reconciling with her mother’s spirit from her painful first coming-out, something antidepressants and talk therapy could never provide. “Healing does not occur in the mind,” Saoirse says. “Especially [when] healing core wounds with identity and gender identity, [it] takes place in the heart, … in belonging, and sacred witnessing of our stories, held in the eyes of love.”
The cure is increasing affirmation while reducing reliance on external validation; psychedelic therapy, they explain, can do both. Affirmation comes from therapists and the sense of connection to larger, mystical forces; the medicines help people validate their own being.
But deconstructing and reconstructing your self-concept is a monumental task; often an entire life’s work. With any psychedelic journey, but especially for LGBTQIA+ users, support before, during, and after the session is essential. Shortcomings of the current clinical framework — not to mention the dubious legal status of most medicines — means many may be better-served by shamanic, Indigenous, and underground providers, something queer researchers confirm.
“Even as a scientist, I don’t necessarily always advocate that the clinical trial is better,” Ching says. “There are some ways of knowing, like gray literature [research published outside formal academic channels] or having your own personal experience, that might be more beneficial than reading it in a scientific journal.”
For Adams, the approaches go hand in hand. Psychotherapy and prescription medication might be additional tools people use for ongoing support after psychedelics bring them the initial realization.
Peer-support networks can be incredibly helpful, providing that essential component for healing: affirmation. Groups such as the Queer Psychedelic Society and Transadelic connect LGBTQIA+ people who use psychedelics through messaging platforms and integration circles. Many trans and gender-diverse people, in particular, find connecting with like-minded others crucial.
“There was a time when our culture was celebrating queerness, but [you had to be] a specific type of queer. I think people are still having and perpetuating that trauma,” says Transadelic member Casey*. “I don’t seek out queer spaces. But I’m really grateful for this one.”
For Saoirse, “hav[ing] my transition journey of self-discovery held… within a conscious spiritual community… has made all the difference for my self-acceptance, self-love, self-confidence, and my quality of life.”
A Queer Medicine
The links between psychedelics, queer culture, and esotericism trace back to spiritual traditions and early LGBTQIA+ rights movements. In the 1960s and ’70s, groups such as the Cockettes and Radical Faeries challenged social norms and blurred counter-cultural boundaries, sprinkled with consciousness-expanding practices.
In fact, the Pride flag was conceived of during an acid trip in the era when the 60’s hippie culture began yielding to ’70s club culture, and queer people found community and catharsis on the dance floor using MDMA and LSD. The myriad colors reflecting off the mirrored disco ball inspired the flag’s late creator, Gilbert Baker, as a symbol that could replace the former logo, the upside-down pink triangle reclaimed from the Nazis.
In the psychedelic state, “the dissolution of ego boundaries becomes the dissolution of binary categories,” Lxo observes, and integration “begins to connect and unify them, bringing all the various different energies, even seemingly binary ones like masculine and feminine, into a kind of relation.”
It’s crucial for the clinical establishment to understand that queer and transness isn’t something that needs to be cured — and tying treatment to disorders and diagnoses echoes of the pathologized past. Sevelius says the focus should be healing past wounds while building coping strategies for facing continual trauma. Meanwhile, Ching wants to see psychedelic therapy “targeted to identity-affirmation processes… fostering the wellbeing and actualization of queer folks.
“Psychedelics have the power to shift the way we see and experience the world, including ourselves, remembering who we were before a traumatized culture had its way with us. As Ching says, “I know I was born this way, but it took MDMA to show it to me, to accept the emotional truth, … and live my life according[ly].”
Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the source.*
There are a great many tales to be told about the countercultural years of the 1960s, but the story of tripping Rabbis whose psychedelic exploration contributed to a great Jewish Renewal isn’t found in many history books.
While the world was shaken by the Vietnam War and the ongoing Cold War, the counterculture represented a rise of a new consciousness expressed in forms of music, art, drugs, and civil disobedience. In a collective rise against the ‘American dream’ utopia built by their parents, the young generation sought to find alternatives to materialist and conservative values. For them, the counterculture was a strike of anti-establishment, in an egalitarian spirit emphasizing the value of human relationships and the individual’s quest for meaning in life.
Drugs like LSD, cannabis, and mescaline became increasingly common with renowned academics, authors and poets of the era. But they weren’t the only cultural leaders exploring the power of mind-altering substances; while the world watched Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), Aldous Huxley, and Allen Ginsberg encourage the new generation to turn on, tune in, and drop out, a few radical rabbis were quietly exploring the use of psychedelics to get closer to God, and revive age-old mystical traditions.
I was inspired to investigate the connection between liberal Jewish movements and psychedelics after encountering the article ‘Psychedelics and Kabbalah,’published in the Jewish youth magazine Response (1968) by Itzik Lodzer. Lodzer was revealed to be a pseudonym for Arthur Green, the now well-established Jewish scholar, rabbi, and influential figure in the establishment of liberal Jewish practices (for the remainder of this article, Lodzer will be referred to as Arthur Green). One of Green’s contributions was Havurat Shalom, an experimental community embracing Jewish libertarianism and alternative religious values. Through Havurat Shalom, Green met another unconventional rabbi: Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, now also commonly referred to as ‘Reb Zalman,’ founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Schachter-Shalomi became the leading figure for the Jewish liberation theology, and his influence for the entire Jewish community is monumental.
Both Green and Schachter-Shalomi referred to psychedelics as tools to shed light onto forgotten mystical traditions. The Jewish Renewal movement was an epiphany of that realization, and strove to reinvigorate stagnant traditions by reinventing modern Judaism through Kabbalistic, Hasidic, and musical practices. The lives of these two rabbis, their encounters with psychedelic drugs, and the paths these experiences led them on, are remarkable examples of how psychedelic drugs were an integral part of reinventing Jewish theology.
From their stories we can conjecture that psychedelics were a factor in influencing certain powerful, liberal Jewish ideologies, as well as helping their users to experience Jewish mystical theology in a new light.
The Psychedelic Experience and the Kabbalah
Kabbalah is Hebrew for ‘receiving’. It encompasses a set of teachings generally distinguished from the ‘traditional’ Jewish doctrine. The term came into use in 13th century Spain, where a group of Jewish esoterics and mystics began to separate themselves from the regular Jewish practitioners. To this day, hundreds of modern Kabbalah centers have opened up all around the United States and Europe and many well-known celebrities with (and without) Jewish heritage have picked up the practice of this mystical tradition.
In the 1968 Jewish Review Response, Green draws a parallel between his psychedelic experience and the teachings of the Kabbalah. For him, the foundation of the Kabbalist teachings became vividly real during his encounter with LSD. This is also the likely reason why he chose to write about a topic which, even during the period when LSD was legal, was considered contentious for the traditional Jewish community. Green analyzed parts of the psychedelic experience corresponding to Kabbalist teachings. Many of the elements recognized today as classic psychedelic trip experiences, represented vivid manifestations of Green’s own belief system.
“That which I thought was all terribly real just a few seconds ago now seems to be a part of a great dramatic role-playing situation, a cosmic comedy which this ‘me’ has to play out for the benefit of the audience,” he said.
In Kabbalah the only ‘true’ unchanging reality is the Ein Sof, ‘the Upper Reality,’ our ways of perceiving that reality are under constant change. For Green, psychedelics opened the illusionary nature of unchanging reality and of his own self. He wrote: “Seen from beyond, however, world and ego are but aspects of the same illusion. From God’s point of view, only God can be real.”
The Paradox of Change
The second aspect Green brought forth is the paradox of the fundamental change of everything about God, the simultaneous fundamental constancy of God, and the circular coexistence of impermanence and permanence: “All is becoming moving. I blink my eyes and seem to reopen them to an entirely new universe. One terribly different from that which existed a moment ago […] If there is a ‘God’ we have discovered through psychedelics, He is the One within the many; the changeless constant in a world of change.”
God’s Gender – Maybe Not Male After All?
Having strongly experienced a feminine presence during his trip, Green questioned the prevailing Judeo-Christian assumptions of God as male, underlying that ‘the father of the heavens’ only makes sense in a context where there is also ‘the mother.’ He argued that Judaism today has become trapped by the stationary image of God as a father figure. Subsequently, the Jewish Renewal movement has been especially focused on the revival of the female Goddess. For Green, the two sides of God were as attainable for ‘contemporary trippers,’ as they had been for the mystics of the past.
Discovering God’s Fluid Essence
Typically, descriptions of divinity in Kabbalistic writings are inconsistent and fully metaphorical. Green observed the parallel of the flow of beautiful images during his trip and the fluid Kabbalist descriptions of the nature of divinity, but warned against any static statements defining God. He argued that only symbolic and metaphorical descriptions could come close to the truth. Although the process in which the voyager creates a metaphor to describe the flow of images and information can be enjoyable, he warned against taking one’s own imagery too seriously:
“Indeed, this is one of the great ‘pastime’ of people under the influence of psychedelics: the construction of elaborate and often beautiful systems of imagery which momentarily seem to contain all the meaning of life or the secrets of all the universe, only to push beyond them moments later, leaving their remains as desolate as the ruins of a child’s castle in the sand. No metaphor is permanent, one can always ascend another rung and look down on the silliness of what appeared to be a revelation just minutes before.”
Exploring God’s Authentic Nature
What Green referred to as the “deepest, simplest and most radical insight of the psychedelic consciousness” concerns the authentic nature of God. He wrote: “This insight has been so terribly frightening to the Jewish consciousness, so bizarre in terms of the biblical background of all Jewish faith, that even the mystics who knew it well, generally fled from fully spelling it out.”All reality is at one with the Divine, and therefore every human, Jewish or not, is a part of God’s divine nature, he posited. According to Green, the very sanity of the Western civilization lies in the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, to separate between God and humans. Now that this fantasy had been shattered for the young Green, the rest of his life was bound to change. “If God and man are truly one … what has all the game been for?” he questioned.
Green’s testimony of his first psychedelic voyage is a remarkable historical account of how psychedelics can operate on the consciousness of a deeply religious individual. Green’s understanding of Kabbalah provided a strong framework through which the experience could fluidly mature, and although he voiced his concerns of autonomous explorations of God through psychopharmacology, he also believed both the psychedelic and mystical consciousness can be compatible.
In his 2016 biography, Hasidism for Tomorrow, he still states that taking LSD was an important step for his understanding of Hasidic and Kabbalistic philosophies. Such states would be achievable without the substances, he says, but acknowledges taking drugs and spontaneous mystical experiences as parallel processes.
The question arises: will the revolutionary qualities of the Jewish Renewal movement prove lasting, or will Judaism shake off Liberal influences and continue its static path? Just as the Jewish Renewal movement is often seen as a minor influence on a small current, the counterculture movement is often viewed as a failed attempt of revolution, as utopia slowly sinking into disappointment. Both Green and Schachter-Shalomi held their experiences with psychedelics as major influential points in their lives. As the research on psychedelic drugs and neurotheology continues to advance, perhaps the liberation theologies of a number of religions can be understood in a completely novel way.
According to Shalom Goldman, a professor of religion and Middle Eastern studies, the impact of the Jewish Renewal movement has left a permanent mark on contemporary Jewish life.
“Schachter-Shalomi’s Jewish Renewal still remains small in comparison to the larger Jewish denominations, but its influence is wide,” he said. “And many of those influenced would be quite surprised to read that in a way, it started with LSD.”
Editor’s note: this article is an adapted version of the essay, Tripping Rabbis: The Impact of Psychedelic Consciousness in the Revival of Jewish Mystical Tradition during the 1960s Counterculture Movement, by Johanna Hilla-Maria Sopanen, originally published in Psychedelic Press Volume XXI (2017).
In this episode, David interviews Alex Belser, Ph.D.: clinical scientist; author; licensed psychologist; Co-Investigator for a psilocybin and OCD study at Yale University; and co-creator of the EMBARK approach, a new model of psychedelic-assisted therapy that focuses on six clinical domains that typically arise during psychedelic experiences.
Belser talks about the concurrent emergence of the psychedelic and queer communities; the need to research the effects of transphobia and homophobia in psychedelic work (as well as the internalized phobias often realized during an experience); why it’s more important than ever to talk about the psychedelic space’s dark past with conversion therapy; why the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire needs to be updated; the idea of queer people being boundary walkers; recreating the Good Friday Experiment, the immense importance of long-form interviews and other forms of qualitative research, the power of love and community, and the question: how does anyone not want to change after a powerful psychedelic experience?
“When we talk about MK-Ultra and we talk about the abuses of boundary transgressions and sexual transgressions, we also need to be talking about how psychedelics have been used to harm people through conversion therapy and how they have repeatedly been used in this way. If we don’t look to our past and what’s happening currently, then I don’t think we’re ever going to have a truly integral reckoning with how we carry these medicines in ethical ways.”
“I spoke with an Orthodox Priest who said, ‘Before, I used to give sermons to my congregation and I would talk about God’s justice: the justice of the lord.’ And now, after taking psychedelics (he had a really powerful experience), he says, ‘All I want to talk about is God’s love.’”
“[The EMBARK model is] open architecture. It’s multidimensional, but it allows for the therapist to bring in their existing skill sets, and it allows for a patient-centered approach to what might actually emerge or arise, because I don’t think there’s one path for psychedelic healing. What we see are multiple trajectories, and we needed to build a comprehensive theoretical framework for psychotherapy that allows for different expressions of that for different people.”
“I don’t think psychedelics are a panacea or cure-all, but I think that they help us experiment with different ways of being together, and it doesn’t have to be one way. That’s what I’ve learned; it really does not have to be one way, and it does not have to be the old way.”
In this episode, Joe interviews Priyanka Wali, MD: board-certified practicing physician in Internal Medicine, MAPS-trained psychedelic facilitator, comedian, and co-host (with Sean Hayes of “Will & Grace” fame) of the HypochondriActor podcast, where they discuss interesting medical issues in a funny (and hopefully uplifting) way.
She talks about recognizing and protecting the humanity of healthcare professionals, and how medical school is creating a cycle of hurt people trying to help other hurt people. She believes we need to become more holistic, especially in embracing Indigenous ways of thinking, as their frameworks may be the only way to explain phenomena with which Western science can’t yet come to terms.
They talk a lot about ancient psychedelic use: the use of a soma described in the Rigveda; Egyptian culture and mushrooms observed in statues; Plato; the work of Brian Muraresku and Graham Hancock; and Vedic chants, Kashmiri Bhajans, and how singing (especially in a group) can be especially healing to the nervous system. And as Wali experienced first-hand the Kashmiri Pandit genocide of 1990, she discusses how much colonialism has changed cultures, and how much our cycles of oppression relate to our collective inability to experience pain and fear.
They discuss the psychological impact of living through major catastrophes; the special and hard-to-describe feeling of returning to your home (especially in a world changed by colonization and constant conflict); the sad case of Ignaz Semmelweis and hand washing; ghosts of Japan’s 2011 tsunami, the concept of ‘future primitive,’ and more.
“We’re only thinking about it from a certain perspective. And this is where you think about principles of colonization come in: looking at things only from one perspective. If you start to bring in Indigenous systems [and] Indigenous ways of looking at data, then suddenly, we do actually have ways to account for these other phenomenon that can’t be objectively tabulated.”
“In traditional Kashmiri culture, it was routine to gather together and sing together. We humans: we’re supposed to gather around the fire and dance and chant. There’s actually something very healing for our bodies. And let’s not forget how our nervous systems regulate with each other, so being physically together as a group, as a collective, singing, using our bodies: it’s actually very healing for the nervous system. We need more of that.”
“I think the next shift in consciousness is recognizing that we experience fear as part of the human experience, but we can choose not to give into it. We can be with it, we can allow it to be there, we can even honor it, but we don’t have to act on it. And we can, instead, choose the path of peace or love, or not even choose those paths, but just choose not to do anything with the fear; choose not to oppress someone, judge someone, lash it out, [or] numb it. …Unless we, in the present day, begin to start being with our fear, we will continue to perpetuate these cycles of oppression.”
In this episode, on the eve of Bicycle Day, Victoria and Kyle interview two long-standing icons of visionary psychedelic art: Alex and Allyson Grey.
They talk about the LSD trip that saved Alex’s life, connected him to Allyson, inspired his art, and even made him change his name; his decades-in-the-making “Sacred Mirrors” project of 21 7-foot tall pieces depicting the complex layers of human existence; the interconnectedness of life; the history of psychedelic art; how imagination and non-ordinary states help us connect with the divine; and the value of art in conveying the mystical experience.
Alex and Allyson are the Co-Founders of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, an interspiritual church/retreat center in upstate New York that, after years of work, is debuting Entheon: an art sanctuary and psychedelic reliquary featuring much of their art and work from favorite artists, a shrine to Tool (who Alex has worked with for most of their career), and a collection of relics from psychedelic legends that includes Albert Hofmann’s glasses, art signed by Stan Grof and the Shulgins, and even Timothy Leary’s ashes. Entheon opens on June 3, on the anniversary of the first acid trip the Greys took together, which gave them a framework for understanding life and an inspiration for art they still follow to this day.
And in honor of Bicycle Day, Alex talks about two pieces dedicated to Albert Hofmann, and continues his Bicycle Day tradition of reading a statement Hofmann made a year before he passed about psychedelics being the “absolute highest importance to consciousness change.” In celebration of Albert Hofmann and the gift he gave us, and with inspiration from the incredibly complex and beautiful art Alex and Allyson create, have a happy, safe, and creative Bicycle Day!
“I hadn’t had any insight that would prove to me any kind of spiritual reality was really there, even though I was making art. And I think from my perspective now: hey, if you’re being creative, you’re evidence. The creative spirit is what birthed the universe, and you’re an expression here and now of it. You’re evolving on that wavefront of reality that is binding time together and our beings together.” -Alex “We could see the vast vista of fountains and drains of everyone, and every being and thing in the universe was interconnected and made of light, and in that, I think we felt connected rather than disconnected. We felt like we were individual and independent, but also interconnected with all beings and things. [It] makes you feel like there’s some importance to yourself, that you really are necessary in the web of the eternal.” -Allyson “You’re making love with the divine in the mystical experience, in the divine imagination. That’s where the small self meets the larger self and becomes no self. So I think that the mystical experience is the cornerstone of the sacred traditions, and the artistic sacred traditions as well.” -Alex
“It took me right outside of my miserable psychodrama self and immediately, I got a psychic swirlie to show me the way. So that was a confirmation, and all my prayers basically were answered in that, and I got to meet the love of my life, really, because of it. So we’re very thankful, and it’s one of the reasons why we’ve always loved celebrating Bicycle Day.” -Alex
In this episode, Joe interviews Graham Hancock: legendary bestselling author and writer and presenter of the new Netflix docuseries, “Ancient Apocalypse,” where he travels the world looking for evidence of lost civilizations likely much more advanced than historians previously believed.
Hancock talks about his early books and how ayahuasca influenced his writing; the similarities in cave art and the common link of altered states of consciousness; how integral these states likely were toward the creation of early religion (especially Christianity); how much the annihilation of religious traditions has hidden history; why his and Rupert Sheldrake’s Tedx talks were originally taken offline; new understandings of Neanderthals’ intelligence and creativity; the Quetzalcóatl; and the concept of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis: could there have been an advanced civilization 12,800 years ago that we’re just starting to comprehend? Could it have been Atlantis?
He discusses the conflict with mystery and archaeology’s obsession with scientism and materialist reductionism – that we keep trying to force everything into little boxes of approved science and have lost our imaginations and openness to possibility, especially when you realize how often narratives are built based on interpretations of data rather than facts (since the farther back we go, evidence becomes harder to come by). He believes science needs humility, a willingness to listen to Indigenous history, and a much more open mind when it comes to altered states of consciousness: “I’m convinced we’re missing something important from our past, and if we don’t look for it, we won’t find it.
Hancock has just announced that he will be a speaker at UK’s Breaking Convention, April 20 – 22 at the University of Exeter, and some of the PT team will be there too! To save 10% off tickets, use code PSYCHTODAYBC10 at checkout.
“I think there’s a huge amount of genuine mystery in the past, and there’s an attempt by archaeologists to explain away that mystery, …to just drain the past of mystery and to leave nothing there except dry facts (supposed facts) as archaeologists claim, but which, when you dig deep enough, you find are actually interpretations of limited data sets. I don’t know why archaeologists just want the past to be so boring. …Of course there’s a need for rigor and discipline, but there’s also a need for imagination and openness of mind when it comes to interpreting our collective past.”
“Those paintings included the same geometric patterns and the same therianthropic entities construed in slightly different ways, but clearly the same kind of encounter is being documented in the cave art from 30 or 40 thousand years ago and is being documented by shamans in the Amazon rainforest today. And what’s the common factor? The common factor is altered states of consciousness.”
“With extended release DMT, volunteers are going into the DMT state for an hour and they’re making remarkably homogeneous reports about entity encounters and about the space in which they encounter those entities. One reasonable supposition has to be: there are many possibilities for this, but when people from all over the world see the same things [and] have the same encounters in the same sort of space, you have to consider the possibility that that space is real in some way that our science doesn’t recognize.”
“Psychedelics and experiences in altered states of consciousness have actually been foundational and fundamental to human culture, and by pretending that they’re not, as we’ve been doing for the last 50 years, we’re making a huge mistake. We have to change that outlook and welcome and embrace what these gifts of the universe have to give us.”