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Zen, Psychedelics and Prophecy
A scientist discovers a higher reality.
Dr. Rick Strassman of the University of New Mexico ran the first federally sanctioned experiments with a psychedelic since the 1970s. He subsequently developed a fascination with what he perceives as an overlap of the psychedelic experience with the states of consciousness described by the Hebrew prophets.
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We're in the midst of a renaissance of the use of psychedelic drugs. Are these drugs just trips, just manifestations of a stimulated brain, or is there something deeper to it, and people are actually managing to tap into a higher reality? Well, my next guest researched that and has a lot to say about it. Join us right now for that topic and more on Beyond Belief.
Adam Jacobs (AJ): Hi, Dr. Strassmann. It's great to have you here. Thank you. And I find this topic to be enormously interesting and something that really seems to be on people's minds these days, and I'm really excited to be able to discuss them with you. You are a researcher who has picked up, it seems to me, on the mantle of what was sort of dropped in the sixties and early seventies. And there was, of course, at one time a big interest in psychedelics. I think that became unpopular for a variety of reasons, and it seems to me, based on the popular literature that I'm seeing is, that we're sort of having a bit of a renaissance of openness to these kinds of experiences and things that they can teach us and ways that they can help us, so on and so forth. My first question for you is about the word psychedelic itself. You point out in your book that it means “mind disclosing,” which I thought was a very interesting term and a great term. So apparently, it's some kind of key to unlock hidden resources, subconscious contents of the mind, I guess, that everyone would want to know, including myself, is what is being unlocked real or illusory in some fashion?
Rick Strassman (RS): Yeah, so the term psychedelic, yeah, it can mean either mind-manifesting or mind-disclosing, and I prefer that term over more constrained definitions or terms. Psychedelic was a popular term back in the day because of the belief that psychedelics mimicked naturally occurring psychosis. Hallucinogenic was the popular medical legal term for many years. It's a bit constrained as well, though, because people don't necessarily uniformly experience visions or voices. And also, it makes you have to consider what is a hallucination after all? Is it real, or is it illusory, as you're alluding to? And also, hallucinogen kind of disparages the effect. It makes them kind of pathological.
And there's another term which has become increasingly popular, entheogen, which is which kind of ties into mystic mimetic. It conflates the spiritual properties or spiritual characteristics of this state with naturally occurring spiritual experiences. So the location of the visions and the voices, if those occur, or just the feeling of being immersed in an alternate reality. Is that being generated by the drug? Is it your brain on drugs, or are you actually perceiving another level of reality which you weren't able to before because of the receiving ability of the brain being altered? And I don't think you can really tell. I think more generic explanation or understanding is that psychedelics reveal things which were previously invisible. And those in your own mind, are they in the outside levels of reality or some combination thereof?
AJ: It's interesting, and I guess we'll get more into this as we go, but the reason that people use it often is because they want to have some kind of what we call a spiritual experience. And when they do have those, there do seem to be certain commonalities to them. You do point out a lot of these in your book, the feeling of oneness, of connectedness to the universe, or whatever you might describe it as the connection to spiritual beings, a feeling of love. There do seem to be commonalities, but would you say that why should it be that you take this mind-altering substance and it produces those effects as opposed to any others I knew? I do know there's also something called a bad trip. Are those just as likely to occur, or when people alter their minds, their brains with these substances, are they more likely to have those earlier kinds of experiences that I mentioned?
RS: Well, the ultimate outcome of any experience on psychedelic drugs is the drug itself—the dose, obviously, but just as important as what is called the set and the setting. The set is who you are at the time you experienced the drug, your mental state, your physical state, your previous experiences with psychedelics or none of your intention, your hopes, and your fears about what you're going to undergo in your spiritual practice. Are you meditating regularly? Do you study scripture? The other important element is what is called a setting which is the environment in which you trip. So that could be indoors or outdoors. It is also the social and the cultural context and the people that you're tripping around, are they friends? Are they foes? Are they strangers? Are they loved ones? What do they expect hope for in fear, just like you do? So depending, I mean, you could be borderline schizophrenic and taking amphetamines and being homeless and being totally stressed out, and you take some LSD, for example, and it's a very bad experience. Or you could be somebody that's been living at a monastery for 15 years, completely steeped in the tradition. The experiences are placed in the context of the larger tradition. They confirm the tradition's teachings rather than being the goal of any particular practice. And there are other disciples of your teachers there. So that's quite conducive to a more positive outcome.
AJ: You mentioned this term, which I'd never heard before, which is Theoneurology. And my understanding is that that is an idea that the brain is the agent through which God communicates with humans, which is fascinating. And I do think, at least from my vantage point, there are certain Kabbalistic teachings, mystical teachings that certainly seem to indicate that that's the case. But I'd like to ask you, as a scientist, why do you assert that? How do we know, or why would we think that that's the case?
RS: Well, my proposing that isn't quite as a scientist; it's more as a theologian or somebody that's got a foot in both worlds; the reigning paradigm of the biology of spiritual experiences is what's called neurotheology. And so that proposes the brain is the center of it all. There's certain things like drugs, meditation, prayer, fasting, sleep deprivation; those kinds of things are stimuli that trigger a brain reflex, which produces certain changes in consciousness which are described after the fact as spiritual. Some of the qualities you described the feeling of oneness, ecstasy, out-of-body travel, those kinds of things. And the reason the brain is configured that way is for evolutionary purposes you might be if you have those experiences, you might be more empathic, more creative, more compassionate, perceive things more accurately in the outside world. So that is kind of the model of your brain on drugs. If you trip, it gives you the impression of communicating with God. And well, in my study of Hebrew biblical prophecy and especially of Maimonides, I ended up turning that model on its head and developed an alternative one which is called TheoNeurology, which is a top-down approach rather than a bottom-up approach. And it proposes that the brain is configured in such a manner as to be able to provide a channel of communication between humans and God.
So it isn't because of an evolutionary advantageous reasoning which proposes this. It's more of God teaching us certain things, some of which you may have no evolutionary advantage whatsoever. For example, mixing of wool and of linen is prohibited. What's the evolutionary advantage of that? The red heifer, kashrut, all those things. So it expands the notion of what is spiritual; it is only spiritual from the perspective of a human-centered point of view, but more of a God-centered one.
AJ: Have you seen this Ted talk called My Stroke of Insights with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor? So if anyone out there has not seen it, it's one of the most popular TED talks that they have on their website. You can go and see it. And it's 18 minutes of what I think is an enormously engaging experience that this woman had where she basically lost the function of her left brain and got to, she's a brain researcher, got to experience the world through the right brain only, and to see what that was actually like. And her description of it is, again, what I would describe as extremely spiritual. In other words, without the filter of the left brain, which is more analytical, the more mathematical controlling the thought patterns, it seemed like she was free to expand, so to speak, and encompass much more of the universe.
And my question for you is could it be from your scientific or your theological background that the brain is actually the blockage itself? In other words, yes, it allows us to function and exist in this plane of reality, let's call it, but really what it's doing is blocking out most of ultimate reality, allowing us to only navigate within a very narrow band of it. Is that possible that if Dr. Taylor lost half of her brain and had this totally expansive vision that, so to speak, if we had no brain, we would be fully immersed in it? Not because we'd be dead, which would be true, but because we would be able to see much more clearly. Does anything resonate with you in that?
RS: Well, yeah. I mean, without a brain, we'd be, I mean, who knows what that would be like? Yeah, so well; if you listen carefully to her presentation, especially in the beginning stages of her stroke, it really sounds a lot like a DMT experience. Things become pixelated. That was the most striking first hint that I got, that perhaps naturally occurring DMT is involved. So one of the most interesting things about DMT, which is the compound I used to study, is it's produced in quite high concentrations in the mammalian brain, and concentrations increase in the visual cortex at the time of death in rodents. So the DMT experience is extremely visual, is out of body, it's quite emotional, it's quite profound. And the fact that concentrations of DMT are comparable to those of serotonin and of dopamine indicates that perhaps there's a DMT neurotransmitter system in the mammalian brain, which you would have to wonder what is it doing there?
Why is the brain making high levels of naturally occurring psychedelic substance? So I think that gets to your question about the filtering mechanism of the brain or the filtering function of the brain could be that our everyday consensus reality is the result of a narrow band of ongoing DMT secretion, which keep things, which keeps things within the normal channel, so to speak. And when concentrations increase for any number of reasons, things then become psychedelic, for the lack of a better word. And in conditions where there's low levels of DMT, perhaps this is all speculative at this point. We don't anything other than the dying brain increasing levels of DMT, but it could be with low levels of DMT, things are flat depressed kind of. So I think the whole question of the normal function of brain DMT is just beginning to be studied. There's a group in Ann Arbor that's looking at levels of DMT and dream sleep in rodents. So our concentration is increased when you're dreaming,
AJ: Right? And it strikes me that these are all moments experiences that people have in which spiritually minded people would say the veil is thinner, sleep-altered states of consciousness, meditation, prayer, all the things that you mentioned thin out that barrier. And I'm just wondering aloud if that's not what's going on. I guess I'm interested in distinguishing between whether it's a chemical illusion, in which case I would be largely disappointed, even though I know it might have some clinical benefits, versus whether it actually is affording us a window into something much grander. But that, I guess, remains to be seen.
RS: Well, the analogy of thinning of the veil is appropriate, but what is it a veil between? Is it between us and a spiritual world, or is it or between our normal everyday consciousness and our unconscious or our subconscious? So that is where the issue of peer review becomes important. Are you just talking to yourself, or are you talking to somebody else? And that ultimately leads to the notion of prophecy and of false prophecy. How do you distinguish between the two?
AJ: Yes. And it seems to me that the answer to that question is pretty important, however, you slice it, they both have their implications. But let me ask you, were a student of Zen Buddhism as I understand it for about 20 years. But later, you concluded that you thought that the D T research that you were doing was more closely aligned with the prophecies listed in the Hebrew Bible than apparently than they do in Buddhist scripture. How did you come to that realization? Tell me if I'm, maybe I'm saying it wrong but is that correct, and how did you come to that conclusion?
RS: Yeah, it's pretty complicated, but I'll do my best. I started off studying Zen Buddhism. So I was an undergraduate at Stanford in the early seventies, and psychedelics were everywhere. And Buddhism was just beginning to be studied academically as a result of the monks immolating themselves in Vietnam in protest. So the Defense Department started to fund departments on the Buddhist studies all around the country, kind of an ironic twist. And one of the freshly minted PhDs ended up at Stanford, and I took her class on Indian Buddhism, and I was enthralled. It was the closest thing I had ever come across that captured the essence of the psychedelic experience. So it strengthened my belief that there was some intimate relationship between psychedelic states and Buddhist practice.
So I spent a couple of years wandering through the wastelands of American Buddhism and finally ended up at a zen temple up in Mount Shasta, California. And I was depressed. I dropped outta medical school. I was kind of a mess and, say, saved my life basically. And I was extremely indebted, and I became a serious student and practitioner over the next 20 years or so. So the ultimate goal of Zen Buddhism, not Tibetan Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism, is what's called the Satori Enlightenment experience. And if you read the heart sutra, that experience or that state is without form feeling, consciousness, perception, or volition it; it's empty. It's the manifestation of what's called emptiness in Buddhism.
So that was my spiritual scaffolding, the platform that I entered my DMT studies with. And most of my volunteers also shared that point of view because most of them were interested in eastern religions and were meditating. So am I expecting the pharmacology of DMT, if it was inherently spiritual or was capable of producing spiritual states would be a Zen Buddhist kensho enlightenment experience. And it was anything, but it was full of content. There were beings, there were visions, there were voices there were all kinds of interactions. The personality was maintained, even strengthened. There was space, there was time distorted, but still, there was space, and there was time. So it was quite different than the Kensho experience that both I and most of the volunteers expected. So I had to go back to the drawing board for a spiritual model, at least from that perspective which was consistent with the DMT experience and the Buddhist model, or at least the Zen Kensho model was not consistent with my data.
At the same time, I was being discouraged from continuing my studies by the Buddhist organization for a number of complicated reasons, most of which were political as opposed to truth-oriented. That gave me the opportunity to return to studying Judaism. And as I was going through Tanach, I became impressed with what I ended up calling prophetic experience, which isn't prophecy as commonly understood as foretelling or predicting, but it encompasses any spiritual experience undergone by any character in the text. The nameless soldier that has a dream predicting the victory of Israel or Moses on Mount Sinai is any spiritual experience. And in theGuide of the Perplexed Mamainides articulates 10 levels of prophetic experience, some of which are just courage, inspiration, the ability to teach. So with an expanded definition of the prophetic experience, I began to compare the DMT state with the prophetic state, and phenomenologically descriptively, the visions and the voices, the emotions, the effects on the body were quite similar. So I mean, you have a comparison multi-point comparison in the book.
AJ: And by the way, just mentioning the book, it's called DMT and the Soul of Prophecy. I recommend people go and check it out, and this is one of several books you have on this topic, and there does seem to be a great many similarities. I would also say that there's a great many similarities to near-death experience. And a number of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Jeffrey Long on that topic, and I asked him about this. He was very discouraging about making any kind of comparison between near-death experiences and DMT experiences. In fact, he has writings on his website that discouraged them, and he encouraged the listeners to go to a website called Erowid, which describes a lot of people's DMT experience. And so I went to the website, and some of them do have this, the transcendent prophetic sort of qualities that you're talking about, but a lot of them are, I would just say are, just weird.
And one of them stuck out in my mind, this guy who got himself naked and felt that his mission was to kill giant spiders roaming around in his home, sort of the classic bad trip stuff that I've heard about in the past. And he was using that as evidence to say, look if these two experiences are nothing alike, and by the way, I understand that you are comparison, you're comparing prophecy and DMT and not too near that experience, but I wonder if you have any reaction to his discouragement and any answer to why some of these accounts just seem to be so out in left field.
Well, there was a study that came out of England a few years ago comparing different drug effects with reports of the NDE, not in the same individual, but in different groups of people. Those that have used a number of drugs questionnaire scores and those that have had a spontaneous NDE. And of all of the drugs that were compared, DMT had the strongest overlap with the naturally occurring NDE. A French study a few months later and did the same thing and found that ketamine produced the most similar phenomenology to the N E. There's a lot of weird DMT stories out there but look at Ezekiel's vision. I mean, that's pretty weird.
AJ: It is. And it’s the next thing I wrote down. Can I read it to you?
RS: Sure. But one more thing, concentrations of DMT increase in visual cortex in the dying rodent brain. So I think up until now or up until this point, the best candidate for a brain substance which mediates at least some characteristics of the N E is DMT.
AJ: Right. So, of course, he would agree, he disagrees, and he has his reasons. And it's interesting, and I think, again, it's critical for researchers to try to pin down what's what. And I think that's an ongoing endeavor. And when I'm anxiously watching how that's all going to come out. But Ezekiel, who is a famous biblical prophet, opens up his prophecy with certainly a very odd-sounding description of whatever he's experiencing. And I just wrote down a snippet of it. It says A stormy wind was coming from the north, a great cloud with flashing fire surrounding it. And from the fire went forth lightning. Then I heard the sound of their wings, like the sound of great waters. Okay, so let's hold that for one second. And in the book you also compare, it's actually right at the beginning, page two to three, a person named Leo, who's a DMT user who has something very similar sounding who goes and says, large crystalline prisms appeared a wild display of light shooting off into all directions.
My mind was completely full of some sort of sound, like the aftereffects of a large ringing bell out of the raging colossal waterfall of flaming color expanding into my visual field. The roaring silence and an unspeakable joy emerged, welcoming, curious. They almost sang. Now, do you see, so first of all, I love the way you wrote that. It's very compelling. Okay, so I guess the question on the table is, are we suggesting that Ezekiel had some kind of drug-induced experience, or is Leo having a spiritual kind of experience in the vein of Ezekiel?
RS: Well, I think there's a couple of key differences between Ezekiel's experiences in those that occurred in the mind of Leo. One is the reason for the, well, let's see. Well, to the extent that Ezekiel's visions were DMT, it supports the belief or the assertion that naturally occurring DMT was mediating those DMT effects in Ezekiel's mind at the time. But the key question is why were his levels of DMT elevated and as compared to the levels of DMT in Leo's mind? So the Theoneurological approach to spiritual experience is that the bestow of the prophetic state upon Ezekiel was initiated by God. The effect of that communication, the downflow, the emanation on Ezekiel's brain was to elevate levels of DMT, which then were kind of the currency which resulted in the visions and the voices. So the visions and the voices were though containing divine information because the stimulus for those brain changes in Ezekiel came from above. They came from God. They contained a specific message which was intended to be understood and communicated to the larger community. In the case of Leo, it was elevated levels of DMT from below. So even though the imagery resembled that of prophecy, the thing which initiated it and the information as well was a lot more personal rather than cosmic, so to speak.
AJ: And that's interesting. Do you find in the cases that you survey that there is a futuristic prophetic state that people go into? Are people making predictions, or furthermore, are they accessing levels of information that they should not be able to in normative states, meaning? Well, for instance, there are famous mosaic prophecies. The Jews will be exiled off of their land, and they will also return back to their land, those which ostensibly have occurred. And even in the book of Ezekiel, there's a prophecy of the rebuilding of the third temple that hasn't come to pass, but at least he says it's going to do with your patients and your subjects, I guess you would call them ever here, I know that this is going to take place and that it does. Or I know that across the world, this was happening, and this person said this to this person, and this happened, and it really did.
RS: Right. Yeah. The whole issue of foretelling. But one thing before I forget you were mentioning the importance of is, for example, DMT elevated in the near-death experience. And I think it's important to take the next step in that thinking. For example, if DMT is elevated when you die, then would that recommend the use of DMT as a dry run for the dying experience? So there are practical applications for understanding the mechanisms. Yeah. Okay. Well, the issue of foretelling predicting and this conflation with the definition or the term prophecy, in a way, is an artifact of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for prophet. The Greeks were interested in altered states as a means of defining or for telling the future. And so they translated Navi or Nevuah with the Greek word, which means to see ahead.
So it's an artifact. Navi itself means to interpret or to be a spokesperson for or to be an interpreter or translator, well, not a translator, but an interpreter or a spokesperson. So there are a lot of prophetic experiences when you use the term generically, which do not involve for telling or prediction like you mentioned earlier. It could be courage, it could be inspiration, could be the ability to teach. So prediction isn't necessary for the definition of prophecy and the whole notion of predictions. There's short-term predictions. Like Samuel telling Saul he's going to find the lost livestock that occurs within the next few hours, let's say if there's longer term, the next few months, let's say or in the next few years, there's predictions which occur within the span of a few thousand years, like the exile and the return. And there's predictions about the end of days, the Messianic era.
So predictions are kind of tricky. I wouldn't hang my hat on predictions. False prophets can predict as well, but they would say, let us serve other gods. And it's quite clear, and Deuteronomy Moses says if the prediction comes true, but they say other things than what's in scripture, one God and the golden rule, they’re false prophets. So you could be a true prophet and either not predict, or your predictions may not come true. You could be a false prophet, and your predictions come true. So I think that the prediction thing is rather complicated; weren't a lot of predictions that occurred in my volunteers. I'm thinking of one person in particular that was accompanied in his DMT state by a bee about three to four feet tall that was showing him around. And this bee showed him these hive-like apartments where everybody was living in these hexagonal spaces, and they'd be set to my volunteer; this is where your future lies.
But as I think about it, that may have been the only specific prediction which emerged in my study, but how do you predict? There's this notion of Aristotle’s, which Maimonides is borrowed and expanded on of the active intellect, which is the lowest of the spheres, which is the repository for information which occurred in the past is occurring at the present, and all possible outcomes in the future. And when one experiences prophecy, depending on the level, one approaches or conflates with or fuses with or cleaves to the information or the content of the active intellect. And because the active intellect contains all potential future outcomes, theoretically, that where may be where the prophet derives that information from about the future.
AJ: Could be, and that would be fascinating by itself. And it gets my juices sort of up and wanting to know more about it and understand how it happens. Obviously, there's a lot of in Judaic writings about how prophets achieve their prophecy, from music to in meditative poses and various interesting ways that I think that we know relatively little about and probably would benefit from knowing more about. But I think I have time for one more question. Maybe I'll sneak in two. But Michael Polin, the food writer has, written a book a few years ago called How to Change Your Mind. He also suggests that the new science of psychedelics can help us with fear of death, addiction, depression, and as well as achieving transcendence, whatever that means for people. And he profiles an NYU cancer patient named Dina, and she said, it says about her that she began an ender, her, I don't know even how to pronounce it…
AJ: Psilocybin experience as an avowed atheist during the climax of a journey that extinguished her fear of death. She described being bathed in God's love, and yet she emerged with her atheism intact. How could one hold these warring ideas in the same brain? So I am just curious your reaction to that experience. You're bathed in God's love, and still, there's no God. What do you suppose that means?
RS: Well, the whole notion of psychedelics being intrinsically spiritual, they generate God from within, I think, speaks to the importance of what we were talking about earlier, which is the crucial roles of set and setting. And your set, your personality, who you are, includes the unconscious and the subconscious. All because you don't consciously believe in God does not mean that you don't believe in God unconsciously or that you yearn for God, you wish for God, you wish there were God, you wish you had a relationship with God, and you don't. And as a result, you're an atheist. So psychedelics are mind manifesting. They amplify what's in your mind, which can also include the unconscious. So I think in the case of an atheist who sees God or feels God or witnesses God under psychedelics, it isn't that the drug contains a God or generates God from within. It's a psychedelic experience. Things which were invisible before are made manifest are revealed, including the unconscious, which in this person's case may have been the wish for or the kind of ambiguous or ambivalent belief in God, her still being an atheist. I mean, I'd have to talk to her myself and see what she means.
AJ: Last question. Are you, as a researcher, allowed to experiment on yourself?
RS: Well, generally, in the US, that's been discouraged, and I think as because of drugs run wild back in the heyday of even psychedelic research, the experimenters and the research subjects were becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from each other. The Europeans have always said that the scientists must go first to establish safety and to be able to provide informed consent to prospective volunteers. That's just beginning to break into the American research seen once again with MDMA if you're going to be an MDMA therapist, you need to have experience with MDMA. So that's approved now by FDA, and it's on going set of studies. I've had plenty of my own psychedelic experience, and I mean wouldn't have spent two years battling the government to get permission and funding if I was not convinced that this was the gold mine or the holy grail of consciousness studies. So, but those experiences occurred. I'm outside of the research Setting.
AJ: Would you be able to, in the two and a half minutes that we have left, would you be able to share one insight that you gleaned from having one of those experiences?
Well, I've collected most of my experiences, and hopefully, my next book will be an accounting of those. Well, to lighten up our discussion a bit, I went to a party at Scripps College or in Pitzer College as an undergraduate and took mushrooms, and they were serving fried chicken for dinner. And I could not stop laughing. I was pointing at the fried chicken, and I said, you're going to eat that. You're going to eat fried chicken. And I just laughed and laughed and laughed for about an hour. Everybody was coming in to look at me and say, what's the matter with Rick? Why is he laughing at the fried chicken? So that's a bit of levity to another <laugh>. Profound discussion.
AJ: I had a lot of friends in college who laughed as you did, and there was always something sort of fun about that. But I'm glad that what you're doing and other researchers giving people the opportunity to use these chemicals in a way that at very least seems to be able to help their lives be better, and at most, maybe is giving them a window into a much higher plane of reality. And all that remains to be seen in more detail. But thank you so much for taking the time to be here. I really enjoyed speaking with you. And for the viewers, please take a moment to subscribe and share the content which helps us and helps you to stay abreast of all the great stuff that we have coming up. It's been a real pleasure. Thank you all for being here.
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