In this episode of Vital Psychedelic Conversations, Johanna interviews Daan Keiman, MA: Buddhist, Psychedelic Chaplain, and Co-Founder of the psychedelic think-and-practice tank, Communitas Collective Foundation; Aura Ahuvia: Rabbi who served five years as President of the ALEPH (Alliance for Jewish Renewal) Board and is now the Founder of Psychedelic Rabbi; and Josh Harper: Consciousness Medicine Guide who works with Ligare, a Christian Psychedelic Society.
They dig deep into the intersection of psychedelics and spirituality, focusing largely on the concept of psychedelic chaplaincy: how they each define it and how spiritual caregivers are uniquely positioned to be of service to those coming out of powerful and unexplainable mystical experiences (whether they be psychedelic or not). They discuss why being grounded in a spiritual tradition is important, but how it’s often more important to be open to mystery and exploring that which is complex and difficult, even if that means someone questioning if their religion is truly right for them anymore.
Each tell their stories of struggling with and eventually embracing their religion and how psychedelics and spirituality became part of their lives, and discuss much more: Psychedelics in religious history and the slow embrace of mysticism in today’s renaissance; the importance of truly listening to individuals’ experiences and not dismissing life-changing experiences as ‘drug-induced’; how practice (no matter what kind) is a huge benefit of religion; and the need to eventually de-center psychedelics from the narrative – that the shared experience of coming together in community and asking big questions is where the healing truly lies.
“My approach personally to working with people outside of my Jewish tradition is to know that on the one hand, I am grounded in my own tradition, but on the other hand, I carry it lightly into that space because I’m aware that our connection in that moment is going to be: We are two fellow humans and there is no need for that which grounds me to be that which grounds somebody else.” -Aura
“The vocation of the church is to see people healed and whole, but it seems like the church is more interested in defending its own version of the truth than to see the healing and wholeness of people. And for any Christian Pastors or leaders out there who are listening to this, it’s very likely that you will have people in your congregations who are coming to you with these experiences, and you have the opportunity to listen to them, regardless of your own personal feelings of psychedelics. You have the opportunity to listen, to welcome them in. And I believe that the church, with that kind of openness, can be a great place for integration.” -Josh “I think it can become potentially harmful, especially in the long run, if we start to see these places where people can come kind of exist over time; if the only way we have access to this is because we’re going to take a psychedelic substance. And I think the sooner we de-center psychedelics, the less risk we have, thinking that it’s about the experiences, and the more we start to realize it’s about the relationships that we maintain. And it’s not about the shared religion, it’s not about the shared experience, it’s about the fact that, as humans, we come together and ask ourselves: What does it mean to be alive right now? And in asking it in a community, we’re also partly living that answer.” -Daan
In this episode of Vital Psychedelic Conversations, David speaks with two current Vital students: Certified Depth Hypnosis Practitioner and Founder and Executive Director of Zoo Labs, Vinitha Watson, CHT; and artist and outdoorsman with decades of experience in bodywork, structural integration, and Vipassana meditation: Judson Frost.
They talk about their personal paths: Watson’s work educating musicians about the music business and their value with Zoo Labs and Frost’s work as an artist; as well as how their experience as parents has grounded them, and how they found Vital. They discuss the importance of integration, having a process, and recognizing how long that can take; being adequately prepared and learning mindfulness skills ahead of a journey; and bringing courage to the space (and as the space-holder, encouragement). They talk about how they hold space, and how one needs to view integration from a spiritually-open perspective to enable people to find their own meanings behind what they experienced.
They discuss how Watson uses a combination of hypnotherapy, transpersonal psychology, and buddhism to create a slowed down mystical experience; how hypnotherapy can benefit a psychedelic experience; bodywork and how we can’t view the mind and body separately; and more. And since they’re nearing the end of their Vital experience, they discuss what they’ve gotten out of it, and reflect on something they didn’t expect: a collective feeling of regenerative healing inside their Vital community.
“There is a lot of harm that can be done when there’s no space for integration. As much as we may feel that it’s alleviating our pain, there has to be space in between to really look at the material, to look at the symbols of our psyches, and to really be able to get this intimate understanding of the symbols of our psyches and what they’re telling us. And so, I think it’s such a special place to go into integration after a psychedelic journey, and to really have a process and someone holding that space for you.” -Vinitha
“The first thing I bring to a space (and I encourage other people to bring to the space) is courage, and that bravery and that ability to kind of face the unknown, and face our fears and still move forward into them. I feel [that] to encourage someone is really important; like support and encourage them to take a step towards something they feel uncomfortable with. …We don’t usually have that support to really face that and to learn from it.” -Judson
“Thinking about culture and how a lot of it is in this disembodied state, and what the result is is disease, is pain, is sorrow. I think that’s why psychedelics and altered states are just so important, because it just gives you a state to come back to yourself, and a doorway in.” -Vinitha
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.”
This sequel to their fascinating discussion about shadow work earlier this year focuses on dreams, as Amara, while dreaming that she was having an acid trip and coming to the realization that dreams and LSD may be sending her to the same place, is researching the similarities between the odd worlds of dreams and psychedelic experiences: Is it the same place? Do the dreams we have after psychedelic experiences continue those visions and ‘Aha!’ moments? Can they answer questions for us (the concept of “sleep on it”)? Does dream analysis result in a greater feeling of integration? Can we use the dreams we have before experiences to help guide the experience itself?
The conversation goes a lot of places: the many aspects of Jungian psychology; the fluidity of Indigenous perspectives around visible and invisible worlds; how Jung wrote “The Red Book”; the concept of eros and reclaiming our relationship with aliveness; how nature is in constant equilibrium (as are we); how to build a relationship with your dreams; how to work with symbols in dreams; and much more. Ultimately, this episode is about the clash between the conscious and unconscious, the willed and the incidental, and waking life and other realities, and dream analysis and integration work is really tracking vitality in the human psyche: what is alive in us and how does it want to live out in our beings? What makes us come alive? Can our dreams tell us?
“I was inside my dream, analyzing my dream, and having the phenomenological experience of being on LSD, and it was like, ‘Holy shit, is this the same place?’” -Mackenzie
“When you sit with a dream image that maybe scares you or that you avoid: When you sit with it long enough for its purpose to be revealed, it’s like, ‘Man, cool, thank you for sending me that image.’ And you can start to trust that there’s something larger inside of you that has your back. And that level of trust, that level of existential secure attachment (is what I’ve been calling it lately) is un-fuck-with-able. Nobody can take that from you. Once you have that, you’re good. All the chaos can happen around you, but you’ve got something inside of you that nobody can touch.” -Mackenzie
“These are all experiences with the numinous. The numinous wears all the shapes. It’s only our human hubris that searches for it in particular shapes. If we kind of quiet that hubris a little bit and let the self, let the numinous talk in its own language for a second, we can all be humbled to see how vast its language is and how it can find us even in the most ridiculous images.” -Ido
“When we have these experiences, when we’re given this content from our unconscious, it’s an invitation to join the family, to join the life that is living through all things. And that to me, is just really, really hopeful, and I think it’s why I’m so inspired and passionate about psychedelics, is the possibility of them to alleviate that nihilistic thought pattern that says ‘I’m alone in this world.’ When we really, really feel into what’s happening for us, it’s collective. We’re in a collective experience, constantly, all the time. And that’s really beautiful and healing.” -Mackenzie
In this episode, Joe interviews Louie Schwartzberg: renowned filmmaker known for the award-winning documentary, “Fantastic Fungi”; and now, director of the new film, “Gratitude Revealed.”
He talks about his path to photography and filmmaking and how psychedelics were a huge inspiration – how his techniques of slowing down, speeding up, and zooming in were ways to capture the invisible aspects of reality – that which is “too slow, too fast, too small, and too vast for the human eye,” but is always there. He discusses the premiere of “Fantastic Fungi” and the waves it spread through the psychedelic space; The Louie Channel, his new streaming channel that will feature all his work in 4k and the work of other curated artists and friends; and the clinical trial he’s involved in to see if participants have better results in the treatment of their alcohol use disorder by watching his imagery set to music on an 80-inch screen while on psilocybin – research that hopefully leads to the concept of being able to prescribe images and music to people based on specific criteria.
He discusses his new film, “Gratitude Revealed,” which explores the power of gratitude: making it a daily practice (and especially a post-psychedelic integration practice), how resilience is one of the best benefits from practicing gratitude, and how easy it is to stop a rumination spiral by simply finding something to be grateful for. He also talks about the blessing of being a photographer and always thinking of beauty; how psychedelics make people more environmentally conscious; tripping with parents; how a shared love of nature could be the bridge between opposing sides; and how the best way to deal with the climate crisis is to start in your own yard.
“We’re talking about psychedelics on your podcast, but the truth is, I think the imagery I want to create for your community, this community, is exactly the same as I would do for a four-year-old or a five-year-old. How beautiful is that? It’s about wonder and awe. It’s about being open-minded.” “The politicians, they understand how to press that fear button. They go right to the cultural differences and press the abortion button or the gun thing or whatever it might be, and all the lies and all that. I don’t want to even spend another second talking about that, other than [to say] we have to be conscious that pressing the fear button is easy to do because that’s survival, and you get an immediate reaction. The films I’m trying to make and what we’re discussing here is making people laugh, making people cry, making people fall in love. That takes a little more talent than pointing a gun at you. …Beauty and love and gratitude is the emotional energy we can employ to overcome fear.”
“It’s a great tool. It’s not like we have to practice meditation, become a Yogi for like ten years or 20 years of practice. It’s something you can do immediately. It’s not like a meditation thing that you have to become an expert in. It’s like, how easy is it just to ask yourself in the moment: what can I be grateful for? Pretty easy.”
In this episode – with the 2024 edition of Vital announced and applications officially open – we’re launching another series of Vital Psychedelic Conversations, with David hosting Jasmine Virdi: Vital instructor, writer, educator, and activist who works at Synergetic Press and volunteers for Fireside Project; and Tabata Gerk: Vital student, psychotherapist, and facilitator.
As always, they discuss what they think the most vital conversation should be right now, largely expressing concerns over the medicalization of psychedelics and the idea of a ‘traumadelic culture,’ where psychedelics are often only seen as healers of trauma and not doorways to mysticism and new ideas. And they point out another concern: the romanticization of Indigenous culture and not recognizing that these are contemporary cultures that are affected by the same Western, capitalist paradigms that affect us all.
They also discuss the concept of epistemic injustice and needing to respect other ways of knowing; hyper-individualism and why we became so reductionist as a society; the role of money (who defines the problem and the solution?); concerns over who decides who is allowed to use these substances; the power of small steps of change; and, through talking about Gerk’s recent Amazonian ayahuasca experience, they dig into what it is about these experiences and surrounding communities that make them so special. Could we take some of that and effectively incorporate it into our Western models?
“In this day and age that we exist in, I think there’s a medicalization of psychedelics, and they’re really kind of honed in on for their ability to treat different mental health and behavioral disorders. And I think that they’re so much more than that.” -Jasmine
“I think that there’s a lot of romanticization of Indigenous cultures as well, and through that, there can be an active erasure of those cultures. Indigenous cultures have been evolving alongside Western, industrial, globalist culture, so they’re not peoples who are stuck in time, and I think that the Western mind, a lot of people want to perceive those cultures as kind of like, ‘Oh, they kept something pure, and we’re going to go back to these people because they have this purity that they’ve maintained over time.’ It’s like perpetuating this idea of ‘the noble savage.’ I think that Indigenous people also are contemporary, so I think it’s really important to recognize that. …These cultures have problems, these cultures are evolving, and these cultures are influenced by modern Western, industrialized, globalist culture, [and] capitalism as well.” -Jasmine
“Plant medicine was one of the things that brought me healing there. We have three ayahuasca ceremonies, we have Kambo ceremony. But it was not only that. Everything that I saw, every conversation that I have with them was a part of the healing I received there. Not to mystify the Indigenous community, [but] their healing doesn’t come only from plant medicine. It comes from daily basis. It comes from the way they work, they relate. They are connected on a daily basis.” -Tabata
In this episode, David interviews East Forest: Portland, OR-based producer, podcaster, ceremony guide, and musician, specializing in ambient, electronic, contemporary classical, and indie pop music largely to guide listeners through deep journeys.
Forest discusses his live performances and influences; how his music pairs with journeys and specific psychedelics; the difference in the connection and vibe from a live performance vs. a recording; the difference between single-artist music created specifically for sessions vs. Spotify playlists; the inhumanity of generative music; his Journey Space online music and journey platform; and the challenges of making money in a time when music is more prevalent than ever, but also more in-the-background and diluted.
He talks a lot about sound itself: the role of rhythm and sound in communication and personal transformation; how richer overtones and increased layers of sound increase effects; research into very low pulsating tones, and how more synthesized sound and the growth of AI has created a yearning for more authentic, imperfect sounds.
His newest album was just released August 18: “Music For The Deck of The Titanic,” an homage to the musicians who spent their last few hours playing songs for passengers amidst the chaos and tragedy – an album Forest sees as an offering to the chaotic moment we’re all in.
“I’m trying to make music that is intended to come directly into the foreground and pass the foreground into the place where you merge with the music, and the music becomes the sonic architecture by which you are having an experience inside, and perhaps become it, synesthetically. So I want to go way beyond it being in the background. I actually want it to be even more than a guide. It’s almost like you synthesize with it as one: like who’s guiding who? There can be a magic to those experiences that’s far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in anything else in life, and that’s really the North Star that I want to be in service to. I don’t think, even, that that’s something that I can concoct or conceive totally. It’s more opening myself up to some kind of magic that’s way beyond anything I could decide.”
“What I love about humans’ creativity is the fact that we can be creative and we can celebrate that by making things like art. When I’m surprised by art is the best feeling. And so giving people support to create: as of now, we can’t beat that. You’re just asking yourself: how far can we go in this celebration and in this experience? I have never experienced a generative experience that’s even anywhere close to where we can go with one person sharing their humanity in a way that’s beautiful. If it’s innovative, even better.”
In this episode, David interviews Dr. Gabrielle Lehigh: Co-Founder and Managing Director of Psychedelic Grad, a web-based community serving as an educational and career hub for up-and-coming psychedelic professionals; and the host of the related podcast, “Curious to Serious,” where she speaks with students and professionals about the path they took to land in the psychedelic field.
Lehigh recently earned her Ph.D. with research on something not many are looking at: the stories behind powerful and transformative psychedelic experiences specifically at music events, based on 38 interviews and over 500 surveys mostly collected at day-long festivals in the southern United States. While the goal was largely data collection in support of the clear potential for therapeutic benefit in using psychedelics in recreational settings (as many of us who have experienced this can attest), she was surprised to learn how many people still blindly trust dealers; how much festival security can affect safety; how the community often makes more of a difference than the music itself; and how many parallels exist between colder clinical models of psychedelic-assisted therapy and the completely open festival experience.
She discusses how she found her way from environmental justice to psychedelics; what people are most looking for on Psychedelic Grad; why she chose to use the word “transformative” in her research; what music she has had her best experiences with; why psychonauts shouldn’t forget about Pink Floyd; and much more.
“I went to my advisor at the time and I said, ‘Listen, I want to change the direction that I’ve been going in.’ I’m like, ‘I either want to study the anthropology of space colonization,’ (which is so out there) ‘or I want to study psychedelics.’ And my advisor was like, ‘Neither one of those is anywhere near what you were studying before. What happened?’”
“I can be somewhat frustrated sometimes when, from the clinical setting, there’s this idea that recreational use has no benefit for people, because I’ve seen it from other people’s experiences, [and] there have been experiences that I’ve had in those types of recreational settings that have been incredibly beneficial for me. Even when I started taking psychedelics, even though I was taking them at home; it wasn’t clinical, it wasn’t medical, it wasn’t necessarily therapeutic as defined by ‘therapeutic,’ so it was still considered recreational. So I was just really frustrated in seeing repeated notions that recreational isn’t necessarily beneficial. And so I set out to be like: well, if it’s not beneficial, then maybe we should go check it out and see what’s really going on.”
“When we think about the clinical setting, when we look at the MAPS protocol and everything, music is a part of it. But in the interviews, people talked about the value of live music. There’s something special and something unique about music being created in the moment, and you, as a spectator, are part of the creation of that music, and there’s something really special going on there. …It’s the music, and it’s not just the music as the music, it’s this live production of the music. There’s some type of magic in it.”
In this episode, Kyle interviews the Reverend Dr. Brian Rajcok, Lead Pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Avon, Connecticut, who recently completed his Ph.D. in pastoral counseling.
Rajcok dives into the intersection of spirituality, religion, mysticism, and how psychedelics bring these topics together, discussing a transformative peyote ceremony and the awe-inspiring moments of surrender, connection, and divine presence that left a lasting impact on him and deepened his connection to God. And he talks about his recently completed dissertation that was inspired by it all: “The Lived Experience of Professional Mental Health Clinicians With Spiritually Significant Psychedelic Experiences,” which he created to gauge the relationship between religious spiritual commitment, tolerance, and multicultural counselor competency. He shares stories from the study and reflections on how these experiences have changed the way involved clinicians work.
And he discusses much more in the realm of psychedelics and religion: why he pursued pastoral counseling and how psychedelics come into play; the balance between tradition and reason and spiritual commitment and tolerance; the legal and regulatory considerations of religious psychedelic use; the concept of a faith quadrilateral; the need for psychedelic experiences in counseling training programs; the big question of ‘when is it religion and when is it mental health care?’; and how the future of psychedelic spirituality could be humanity’s biggest evolution.
“There were moments in the night where I felt like I was looking at the fire, having a feeling of being in Hell. And then there was this shift of when I said, ‘Okay, if I’m in Hell, accept that.’ And then I accepted that, and then there was this total emotional shift to like, ‘Wow, now I’m in Heaven!’ It was just this beautiful experience of accepting the worst, and then once that work was done, it shifted into this beautiful experience. That was a very profound moment for me.”
“People who are more religiously committed tend to have a reputation for being less tolerant, and people who are the most tolerant tend to have a reputation of being the least committed. But I think that what we see from people who have (whether it’s psychedelic experiences or naturally occurring) mystical experiences, there’s a level of religious spiritual commitment and tolerance at the same time that increases. So that was one thing that I wanted to explore.”
“That was another really profound one: people who experienced different spirit guides; experiences of the divine; encounters with deceased relatives was another one; there was someone who was not a Christian who had an experience with Jesus. So there’s a lot of these profound encounters. …And they’re so healing that it’s obvious that there’s something good going on here. It’s not just your imagination running wild, there’s a real [connection] to the spirit realm or to whatever other dimensions of reality, and it’s such a mystery, but it’s clear that there’s something real going on.”
In this episode, David interviews Dr. Rosalind Watts: famed clinical psychologist, former clinical lead on Imperial College London’s first Psilocybin for Depression trial, and Founder of ACER Integration.
She discusses the awakening she had after having a child; her work at Imperial College and realizing the importance of staying in touch with patients; the challenges of balancing her work with being a mother; her ACER integration model and the interconnectedness of trees in a forest; how the Watts Connectedness Scale works (and David fills it out); and how much the outside-the-hype surrounding pieces matter – the therapy, the therapeutic relationship, the lessons learned, and the work done to integrate it all.
And she talks about another moment of awakening, at last year’s Psych Summit conference, where capitalism’s obsession with profit-over-care frameworks and “magic bullet” and “brain reset” narratives was on full display, which fully enforced what she hopes for in the future: a world where we embrace non-clinical, ceremonial, and nature-based practices; with healing centers (psychedelic and non); supportive communities; infrastructure around conflict resolution and restorative justice; and a shift towards collectivism and collaboration – and how that all starts by finding our psychedelic elders.
“I’m a tourist. I’m listening, I’m learning, but I know that I don’t have deep roots and that there are people that do. So it ties into that thing about finding the elders: as we find our elders for conflict resolution and for therapy and for healing and for psychedelic healing, I also hope we find the elders who are deeply rooted in Indigenous traditions, from Indigenous traditions all over the world, and that they can teach us and teach me, if they will, those stories and those ways, and that then, my daughter: if she can learn through her life, she can grow up with it in a way that I didn’t – so she can have deep roots in that tradition.”
“When we’re on the riverbank and we’ve had our cup of tea and we’ve warmed by the fire, we can look upstream and think: all the people that are coming down the river, what might they need? And then we can kind of run and chuck them the blankets or a chocolate biscuit or the things that they might need, or just shout to them and say, ‘Hey, you’re doing great. It’s crazy out there, there’s a riverbank soon. You can come and sit and join us.’ So it’s like, it’s also about thinking of what’s next for us, but also thinking of all the people that are coming and how we can support each other on the rapids as well.”
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).
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