Amid the so-called psychedelic “renaissance” in science, researchers at Johns Hopkins University, New York University, and elsewhere report that they can occasion “mystical-type experiences” among trial volunteers being treated for depression, addiction, end-of-life anxiety, and other conditions.
Many studies correlate the strength of this experience with the therapeutic outcome. Other recent studies administer psychedelics to religious professionals without a clear therapeutic aim. In this case, an experience that might be assumed to be accessible to religious clergy through non-chemical means is administered within a “secular” biomedical framework.
This panel brought together two psilocybin clinical trial participants, Rachael Petersen (Visiting Fellow, CSWR) and Rita Powell (Harvard Episcopalian Chaplain) in dialogue with the historian of religions Jeffrey J. Kripal (Rice University) to explore issue raised by these contemporary psychedelic trials: namely, what happens when the clinical becomes religious and the religious becomes clinical? How are religion, mysticism, and spirituality invoked, studied, and understood within psychedelic clinical contexts? What unspoken ontological and theological claims are at work?
[CALMING GUITAR MUSIC PLAYING]
Hi. My name's Charles Stang. I'm the Director at the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to this panel discussion on "Medicalizing Mysticism-- Religion in Contemporary Psychedelic Trials." This is the second event in our yearlong series on psychedelics and the future of religion, co-sponsored by our friends at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and generously supported by the Riverstyx Foundation.
Thank you for registering in advance for this webinar. When we last checked, we had over 500 people registered. The next event in the series will take place on November 18 from 5 to 6:30 PM Eastern Standard Time, and it's entitled "Sisters of the Psychedelic Revolution-- A Conversation with Leni Sinclair and Genie Parker." That event will soon be up on our events page. But as always, the best way to keep abreast of this series, and everything else we do at the center, is to join our mailing list.
We have an hour and a half together, so I'll keep my remarks brief. Tonight's panel follows closely on the heels of our first event, a lecture by Roland Griffiths from John Hopkins University, on psilocybin and mystical experience. Roland is one of the leading figures in what is often called the second wave of scientific research into psychedelics. The video of Roland's lecture is now up on the center's website, but I'm going to highlight some of his points in order to help contextualize this evening's panel.
Roland's research suggests that the intensity of quote, unquote, "mystical-type experiences" induced by psychedelics in a clinical setting is predictive of positive therapeutic outcomes for conditions as diverse as addiction, anxiety, and depression. The entire clinical container, including the dose, the so-called set and setting-- which includes the physical environment, the guides, the preparation, the posture-- which in this case is lying down with eyeshades on, listening to a very carefully curated musical playlist-- this entire clinical container is designed to increase the likelihood of a very specific type of experience-- a positive, unitive experience with a conscious and loving source.
And this is what is labeled the paradigmatic mystical-type experience. The research reports that people rate these psychedelically-induced experiences as among the most spiritually significant and personally meaningful in their lives.
Now, those of you who were with us in September may recall that I pushed Roland on some of these points. As an historian of religion, and specifically of mystical theology, I fear that there is a flattening of the complicated terrain of mystical experience at work in some of this research-- a kind of selection bias for a certain kind of experience-- namely, a unitive and positive one, to the exclusion of other experiences.
And I fear that this selection bias skews the results. I don't know that it skews the results or the research relevant to therapeutic outcomes. I do know that it skews the understanding of what mysticism is, and the full depth and diversity in the archive of mystical experiences.
But today, it's not my job to ask these and other sorts of questions. It's the job of the three people we've invited-- Rachael Petersen, Rita Powell, and Jeff Kripal. Rachael and Rita will be speaking out of their own experiences in these trials at Johns Hopkins and NYU, respectively. Jeff, in turn, will be asking questions from the perspective of the history of religion and the history of mysticism. All three will be reflecting both very appreciatively and critically on these contemporary trials, and the conceptual framework behind them.
Now, longer bios for our three guests can be found on our website. Very briefly, let me introduce them. Rachael Petersen is a writer, an environmental consultant, and a Psychedelics and Religion Program Director for the River Six-- I'm sorry-- the Riverstyx Foundation. She's also a Visiting Fellow here at the center. The Reverend Rita Powell is an Episcopal priest currently serving as the Episcopal chaplain at Harvard, and is working on her MFA in poetry. And Jeff Kripal is the Associate Dean of the Faculty and Graduate Programs in the School of the Humanities, and the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University. He's also the Associate Director of the Center for Theory and Research, and the Chair of the Board at the Esalen Institute.
So without further ado, please join me in welcoming our three panelists, and thanking them for their time. Rachael, I believe you're first. You'll be getting us started. So I want to invite all of our panelists to unmute and start their video.
Great. Thank you so much, Charlie. It's such an honor to be part of this series, and part of the center. And I am beyond thrilled to be speaking alongside my colleagues and friends, Rita and Jeff, today.
So in 2018, as Charlie mentioned, I participated in the Johns Hopkins clinical trial using psilocybin to treat major depression. The train ride to Baltimore then, for me, was short. It was about 40 minutes from my Washington, D.C. Apartment.
But the nearly 16-year journey that led me there was long. Perhaps it began around age 12, as I lie on the floor crying for days, watching Texas thunderstorms come and go through closed blinds, feeling nothing at all. Or when my thoughts suddenly stopped the dance of the world with their stuckness. Or when good things began to roll off my back like water, but the bad gathered in my pockets like heavy stones.
Of course, the doctors assured my parents that depression was not a crisis. It was an equation, and medications would balance my brain. Combinations were tested, and doses increased, and therapy marked the passing of years. And I managed periods of success and joy, even, but no SSRI or psychoanalysis managed to touch what I describe as a deeper substrate of despair.
There's common wisdom in the psychedelic community that these experiences are ineffable. But I find despair to be just as challenging to grasp, and as profound and mysterious. There's a dark kind of gnosis to it, an authority with which it forecloses on all possibility other than itself.
Perhaps this is why I dedicated my career to the ways that humanity forecloses on possibility through climate change and habitat destruction. On some level, I think I felt comforted that the temptation to end my own life was not out of step with a society that I viewed as intent on compulsive self-harm.
Desperate for relief, I didn't think twice when my good friend, who was a medical student at Hopkins, told me about Roland's study. I had never done drugs, though, because I was too afraid to give free rein to a mind that I'd come to regard as a saboteur and a traitor. But I spent many appointments getting to know and trust my two wonderful guides. And when they asked me about my hope for participating, I think I simply said, something other than despair.
The day of my first session, I brought a small, potted plant into the session room, and I wore an ivory necklace of a polar bear, which had been gifted to me during fieldwork in the Arctic. I brought pictures of lovers and beloved, and my two wonderful guides had prepared me to trust and let go and be open. And I was told that if I felt like I was going crazy, to let myself go crazy, and that if I felt like I was going to die, to let myself die.
The many things that I experienced over those first six hours really defy retelling. Among them, I became one with nature, only to become one with its ongoing decimation. And I wept with a depth of grief and guilt unknown in my waking life. Wild with pain, I asked nothing in particular, what is there after this? And my experience broke open into an abiding force that permeated existence. Something-- rather, an ultimate nothing that felt infinite and furiously important-- a nothing that seemed to somehow exist before the trip began, and felt like it endured long after the trip ended.
When Roland asked me if I still considered myself an atheist, the question didn't surprise me as much as my sudden inability to answer. Why, for the first time in my life, was I reaching for a word like God?
That first trip could have lasted me a lifetime, but just seven days later, I was back for a higher, second dose, as designated in the protocol. My second experience seemed to reveal a completely-- just completely different dimensions of what felt like reality, and were challenging in ways I still struggle to talk about.
This time, confronted with something that felt like undeniable grace, a small kernel of doubt lodged in my chest. And it grew into a boulder-- a boulder of acute anxiety that persisted for months, and I sometimes still carry today. But perhaps this is no less of a religious experience than the first. Because, after all, does not honest reckoning with profound doubt deepen faith?
After the trial, I felt blessedly condemned to life, but terrifyingly unsure how to live. My psychiatrist had no clue what to make of my newfound religious outlook. And without a firm and living faith of my own, I found myself thrust into a somewhat embarrassing choose-your-own-religion adventure, seeking texts and practices and community to scaffold my changed worldview.
What am I to make of the fact that the most profound of spiritual experience of my life-- let's call it a conversion-- occurred during clinical research for a treatment that may soon be widely available, and that I may not be alone in this? What does it mean to live in a time when neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and therapists are becoming the mainstream authority of these experiences? What does this therapeutic paradigm allow us to ask about psychedelics, and about ourselves?
A year after the trial, a New York Times reporter called me to ask about psilocybin as a depression treatment. And when I answered the phone, he impatiently asked, "Well, did it work?"
And I hesitated, because I felt like he had hurled an old, familiar, two-dimensional question into my now very three-dimensional world. And I told him that my life was richer. It had-- to use Charles Taylor's term-- a greater fullness. But my path had been complex and disruptive, even.
And when my depression reemerged-- and it did-- it wasn't that it had gotten any smaller, but rather, that the space around it had grown much bigger. And somehow, being held by that blessed, blank space compelled me to hold my own suffering, and others', in new ways. He paused, and then quipped, "So I guess it didn't work."
The conversation reminded me of the 1966 book by Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, where he argues that we now live in the age of-- of course, in his terms-- psychological man, where our ultimate point of reference has become the individual self, and our ultimate goal is individual self-betterment. And in this shadow, perhaps it's no surprise that the most urgent question, and the most well-resourced question, that we are asking of these medicines is, do they work?
This is what the FDA wants to know. And certainly, so did I. Of course, people in profound suffering deserve to know they can find relief.
It's worth emphasizing, I think, that psychedelics are-- the experiences are vastly diverse, and deeply impressionable by set and setting. And I think it is that vast diversity that allows for many competing paradigms of self to flourish. But the mainstream paradigms reinforce the idea that suffering begins and ends in the brain, or in the mind, which might just be an epiphenomenon of brain.
Many people find this materialist paradigms adequate, and I once did. But I have come to regard psychedelics not merely as neuroscientific objects, or even therapeutic tools, but as what I call ontological insurgents-- by which I mean agitators that can facilitate direct experiential encounters with other forms of reality.
What happens when we enter an experience asking, will this work? And our surprise to leave it asking, what is real? What happens when we approach psychedelics demanding something of them-- fix my brain, mend my mind-- but emerge to find instead, perhaps to our horror, that they demand something of us? What happens when we must surrender the language of "I feel" for the vocabulary of "I know"?
And what do we do with experiences that do not simply improve the self, or erase suffering, but might radically transfigure the self, and what it means to suffer? And who might be best positioned to help us make sense of it all?
The scholar Evelyn Underhill has said that mysticism is perhaps the most abused word in the English language. And maybe she would balk at the way that even so-called God encounters are often reduced to their therapeutic potential-- a breathtakingly transactional posture towards the divine, which creates a sort of tautology, whereby the mystical is therapeutic because the therapeutic is mystical.
This is perhaps most evident, as Charlie referenced, in the narrow definition of mysticism in trials, whereby to have a complete mystical experience, one must necessarily have a positive, concurrent mood. Still, psychedelic researchers attempt to equate trips with non-drug mystical experiences based on their phenomenology. Is what a patient in a trial seeking a cure for alcoholism through LSD-- is it functionally indistinguishable from what Saul encountered on the road to Damascus?
Of course, I find this line of inquiry rather boring, almost most of all because it ignores the radically different posture that each has. Gautama Buddha did not seek to attain enlightenment so he could quit smoking, and Teresa d'Avila did not want to meet God so she could be more productive at a crushing job. God is not a self-help hack, or as a recent popular psychedelic book put it, a cosmic surgeon who erases depression and anxiety.
William James said transcendent experiences should be judged by their fruits and not by their roots. And yet, I find this metaphor deeply problematic, not least of which because between roots and fruits, there are stems and pollinators and soil underneath-- an ecosystem that enables something to come into fullness. In short, there is reciprocity, and care, and obligation, and sacrifice. And these are sustained relational commitments that I believe that religious traditions, perhaps more than therapy, have things to teach us about.
As Huston Smith said, "Though psychedelics can clearly catalyze profound religious experiences, it's less clear they can lead to transformed religious lives." Of course, none of this would have resonated with me before the trial, which is exactly the point. The irony is that a clinical container facilitated an experience that seemed to lay bare the very limitations of that same container. Some days, I think psychedelics healed me by not healing me at all, which may just mean that they made me more comfortable with paradox.
And this is what ontological insurgency has meant for me-- making peace with what I previously would have held as a logically unacceptable view of reality-- a view of reality which brought me, in some part, to HDS last November, to an event at the center. I met a man there, a Quaker and a novelist who would become my partner-- which, of course, I didn't know then. But as we walked for miles that afternoon across Longfellow Bridge, we swapped war stories of fleeing the divine, contemplating consolation and desolation.
And when he turned to me and asked if I believe in God, I said that I believed that there are things of ultimate importance that transcend ordinary waking consciousness, things that resist my apprehension, but demand my commitment nonetheless. And I guess I'd call that mystery. "Big M or little m?" he asked. The whole point, I said, is that I don't know.
And in that humble commitment to unknowing, not in the hubris of despair, that is where I now make my home. So, thank you, and I think I will pass it off to Rita.
Thank you, Rachael, for sharing that story. And I can't wait to ask you some questions about what you've shared. And good afternoon, and thank all of you who are watching for giving me the chance to share my story about my involvement with psychedelics and the future of religion.
In the spring of 2016, I was a participant in NYU's clinical trial with psilocybin and religious professionals. And I'd like to tell you how I got there, and then a little bit about what I experienced and what I think I may have learned from it.
From the beginning of my involvement with Christianity, I feel like I've already been interested in the future of religion, meaning I'm curious about new and unusual possibilities for church. I came into religion through a variety of physical experiences that brought me into contact with what I will call divine presence in the material world-- things like sports, and music, and texts, and the arts. I had come to learn that there is more to the world than meets the ordinary waking eye.
And I got into Christianity because I heard in the words of Jesus and Paul an insistence that our worlds needed to be cracked open to that very divine presence. So I found the story of incarnation to be wildly compelling account of how the sensory experience can become a home to the fullness of time, and what-- energy, spirit-- were left to the word like God. The idea that God dwells in our bodies is something that should, and can, radically change how we experience our bodies, and therefore, the rest of the world.
And now as a pastor, I'm entrusted with the care of souls, as the old phrase goes. And so I am invested in the spiritual health of my community, as well as in the wider culture. And you don't have to be very clever to see pervasive spiritual sickness all around us, in both church and culture-- both in external events that we're familiar with-- destruction of our world, violent racism-- as well as internal versions-- profound alienation from our bodies and from others, and a distorted relationship to time.
And these spiritual sicknesses are perpetuated because we are trapped in a small reality that we have created, and from which we don't know how to get out. And finding a way out of a limited view and into the expansive infinite of God is a matter of urgency for our spiritual health-- literally, according to Jesus, a matter of life and death.
Now, there are many embodied ways to discover and seek direct knowledge of God. I've already mentioned that was my on-ramp-- yoga, the arts, cooking, living in a monastery-- I mean, you name it-- reading religious texts. These are lots of practices that can crack someone out of a limited sense of self in the world. And I have learned and taught these arts wherever I have served, because I really believe that direct access to the transcendent is a necessary component for our individual and collective spiritual health and healing.
Michael Pollan's article in The New Yorker in the spring of 2015 about psychedelics gave me just a new vocabulary for describing this pattern of spiritual sickness-- neurological default mode network, in which a limited world view is literally circumscribed by our brain, and from which it is hard to break out. And Pollan's report of the clinical trials using psilocybin showed that this substance allowed people to crack out of it, to glimpse something bigger, and to have a mystical experience-- a direct experience of God-- with a single does. And their lives were reoriented by that experience.
This is exactly what I knew as a priest and a pastor-- precisely what I wished for my community-- to have this direct experience of the transcendent, and thus find release from destructive patterns of self-imposed limits. But to use psychedelics? Mainstream Protestant Christianity, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, does not look favorably on drug use, and certainly not from its clergy. It's viewed as a cheat, a shortcut, and maybe doesn't even really deliver the divine, but some kind of chemical fantasy.
But now I was curious. And in the course of the article, I noticed a mention of a study about to begin-- a study with religious professionals. And I wondered if that might be for me.
Well, more than a year passed after I'd signed up, in a moment of earnest excitement, before I could actually have the experience. And so I had a lot of time to second-guess myself, and a lot of time to pray about and prepare for the experience.
Tony Bossis, one of my guides, attempted to prepare me for the experience by giving me a survey of the mystical psychedelic canon. So he gave me Aldous Huxley and Huston Smith. And I read, and I was both intrigued and unsatisfied. It all seemed to kind of swirl around a rather thin perennialism that didn't do justice to the complexity or depth of the religious landscape, as I had come to experience it.
Tony kept trying to reassure me that experiences of psilocybin were good, and beautiful, and unitive. But this only increased my doubt. It seemed like kind of sloppy, hippie stuff about love and harmony. And anyways, I didn't need-- I didn't need drugs to know about love and harmony and God's presence in the world. And was it really plausible that God-- like the real God-- could speak to me inside of a clinical room at Bellevue Hospital?
I couldn't talk about this with people. I've already mentioned, it doesn't look good for a woman of the cloth to be engaged in such a sordid pursuit. My husband, mother, and best friend were all skeptical of the premise, both of psilocybin as a means to encounter the divine, and of the format. Taking mushrooms in a hospital room seems like a recipe for a nightmare, was my mom's observation.
But as I prayed and discerned over the months, I kept improbably feeling and sensing that, in fact, God had something to show me in this experience. And I decided to trust that.
I approached the big day of my experience as a shaman going somewhere for my tribe. So I, like Rachael, thought a lot about that. I wrapped myself in my sacred shawl, and I carried this eagle feather made from a buffalo rib, given to me by the people I served in South Dakota. And the shawl and the eagle feather are attire for sacred dance. And the eagle feather made of bone carried across my chest would protect me from harm, in whatever realms I journeyed.
I sang a song as I took this medicine-- a song to the one who is in and above and under all things.
[SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE]
I lay on the couch, closed my eyes, and began to hear the carefully curated playlist of largely Christian music-- Lauridsen's "O magnum mysterium," and selections from the Brahms and Fauré requiems, that engage the mystery and the agony of death, and illustrated the promise of divine presence throughout.
And I began to weep. I wept for my children, whom I could not protect from the sorrow of existence. I wept for the ways in which my best loves tether me to the physical world.
Then I got to a point where I had to take off the headphones, stop the music, and I found I was in a place with no light. There was the feeling of some sort of tunnel ahead of me, and from within that, the sense of something like a hand extended to me, as if in invitation to dance. All you gotta do is say yes, as the song goes. And I said yes.
And from that moment, it was as if the plug was pulled. I entered a space of nothing. There was no space to enter. I saw no one. I was nowhere. There was neither color, nor its absence. There was no form, or its absence. There was not fear. There was not joy. There was not revelation. There was nothing.
At some point, I came back. I was filled with deep exhaustion. I was unable to open my eyes, which felt like they had melted shut. I felt a huge, crushing weight on my chest, constriction in my throat. I needed to hold the hand of my guide, Holly, and I needed all of my training in breath work to stay integrated.
I felt as though I had done something heroic-- maybe the hardest thing I had done in my life. I felt like I had been somewhere at the furthest limit of human capacity.
In the weeks and months after the experience, I was filled with questions. Where had I gone? I knew the encounter felt holy, but why did I? Why was I certain of that?
And what did the experience tell me about what I thought I knew of God? Why hadn't I met Christ? Did that mean I was outside of Christianity? Had I died in some way? Was that a preview of absolute emptiness of the other side?
That summer, as I pondered these things, I met Professor Charlie Stang. In my time at seminary, I only looked for the transcendent through the sensory world. I didn't get into the mystics, because they all seemed very world-hating. And I never crossed the path of the apophatic God, beyond all category and description. Honestly, I hadn't even really heard that word.
And Charlie gave me access to the riches of that tradition, which allowed me to examine my own experience from within a whole company of ancestors. Turns out this experience did not put me outside of Christianity, but rather more deeply inside. And a whole new realm of my tradition was given to me. Scholarship on the complexity and nuance of the landscape and meaning of mystical experience became my means of therapeutic integration and exploration of this mystical, psychedelic experience.
So what I'm left with is this. It seems like there's at least two categories of experience occasioned by psilocybin, which could be of value for revitalization of institutional Christianity. The first is this simple, therapeutic use to crack someone out of this limited default mode. And this second type of experience-- exploratory use to chart both new and previously known realms available to us in the mystical register, in the more-than-the-physical register. For the development and evolution of our human and divine life.
And the second thing I'm left with is that scholarship of mysticism is a vital part of exploring and mapping the terrain of this more-than-material world, and a very necessary companion to any credible and robust inquiry into a productive application of psychedelic use within institutional Christianity. I'm very curious to see what we can do with all of this. Thank you.
So thank you, Charlie, Rachael, and Rita. It's a pleasure. I have to begin by admitting I feel like the warm-up band for the Beatles. But I'm going after the Beatles, which means I'm a warm-down band. So please-- please put up with me here.
I'm going to put five thoughts on the table that hopefully we can talk about. I think they're all implied in both of your stories, but I think they can address the study of religion pretty bluntly, actually, which is kind of my goal.
The first point I want to call the scandal of optimism. Rachael, you spoke of an abiding force that permeated existence-- something which was, in fact, an ultimate nothing. It felt infinite conscious and furiously important. You also spoke of things of ultimate importance. However, when you went across the river and tried to speak to one of the representatives of the study of religion, Steven Katz, about your experience, he essentially reduced it to brain chemistry and to context, which, of course, is what the study of mysticism often does today with these kinds of experiences.
So I just want to-- I want to point that out. There's something ultimately depressive about the study of religion as it exists today. And I think these kinds of states work against that.
Recognizing that the archive of mystical literature is extremely diverse and complicated, as Charlie has pointed out, I want to ask if not some degree of sameness or similarity is optimistic, finally, and a kind of pure contextualism is ultimately depressive, if not actually nihilistic. Why do we reject the optimism and celebrate the depression? That's really what I want to ask the study of religion.
My own vote here, which I'll put on the table, is what Charlie has called an apophatic anthropology. It's a vision of the human that can recognize both our radical cultural and psychological differences, and an unspeakable shared nothingness, emptiness, or ground. But also, of course, the extremely complicated ways in which this ground of consciousness manifests in a human body brain, which can be terrifying, or blissful, or both.
Point number two is a historical and theological point. It's very quick. I just want to point out that the history of monotheism and magical panpsychisms in the Americas is a violent, if not actually genocidal, one. Mainstream Christianity sees drugs here just as the Spanish missionaries saw the psychoactive plants-- as demonic. It's the same theological reaction in admittedly very different modes.
Point number three is a moral point-- or more technically, an amoral point. I want to reflect off of Rachael's reflections on James's "fruits, not roots." I would reverse that. Roots, not fruits.
I want to question our desire to reject roots, even when they do not produce fruits. This is where I get, frankly, crabby. We are always reducing the religious to the social. We are always reducing the mystical to the moral. Huston Smith's "traits, not states" is a perfect example of this moralism.
Here, in this conversation, we are talking about reducing the mystical to the therapeutic, or the pharmaceutical to, quote, "what works," unquote. I doubt very much that this is the most adequate way to approach the subject of psychedelic experience. I suspect that psychedelic experiences often, not always, function as revelations about the nature of reality itself, and our place in and as it. Reality does not speak English, and I doubt very much it is ethical or moral in any simple sense.
My own position is a version of Rachael's ontological insurgency. And I stand with Rita against one of her interlocutors who wrote, or said, "I think transcendence is self-indulgent."
Point number four is a philosophical point. I really believe that our reactions all boiled down to our unconscious position on the relationship between mind and matter. It is my own position that everything hinges, or should hinge, on our metaphysical or ontological assumptions about this interface. What most people are assuming is what we call, in the philosophy of mind, the production model, or epiphenomenalism. It essentially sees mind or consciousness as a product of brain, full stop.
The opposite of this-- or not the opposite, but the other end of the spectrum here-- is what we call the reduction filter or transmission model, which is actually the model that William James was proposing over 100 years ago. This model sees the body and the brain as filters, or reducers, or transmitters of consciousness, but not as the producers of the same. This latter model implies that the body-brain is a highly evolved receptor or smartphone, and is not the Wi-Fi itself, to use a modern metaphor.
Point number five, my last point, is a pedagogical point. I was really struck by how Rita described finding Charlie, and how Charlie guided her through the history of mystical and apophatic literature, and how this helped to integrate this psychedelic experience. I'm also struck by the fact that Rachael is at the Center for the Study of World Religions right now.
I think this is a really good example of how the study of religion could help so much here, but only if it moves beyond its total contextualism and materialist metaphysical commitments. And I'll end there.
Wonderful. My hope is that at this point, we switch the view to gallery, so that you all who are joining us can see the four of us, because we're going to try to have a bit of a conversation before we open it up to questions. So first of all, let me thank Rachael, Rita, Jeff-- it's such a pleasure to have you with us. And thank you for your very candid and insightful comments.
I suppose I should throw it back to Rachael and Rita first, and see if either of you would like to respond to Jeff's five points.
I think the thing that strikes me that I'd love to hear you speak to, Rita, is you had a pretty ambitious call just now for the revitalization of institutional Christianity through the facilitation of these experiences, and that up against Jeff's point about how institutionalized Christianity largely, arguably, can view these things as still demonic, what needs to happen? Is it possible? How have you brought your experience to bear? How has it changed your ministry, your theology, if at all? And what path forward do you see?
Well, this is sort of the beginning of that for me, in terms of really, really even daring-- it's even taken a few years to even dare to think that positively about the prospect. So I, first of all, take the note from Jeff about a kind of pervasive-- I don't know if I'll call it depressivism-- but just a stance of critique is certainly much easier than anything constructive. So to dare to be even a little constructive already feels like something kind of risky.
I'm also going to answer by tying into Jeff, what you were saying, in terms of a kind of reduction of religion into the social, and the mystical into the moral. That's an excellent way of describing what I experience.
And the church has accepted that as well, such that before we even get to psychedelics, I think that the call for the church to reinvest in the transcendent already is-- requires a kind of recalibrating the paradigm a little bit, precisely because of those two moves. I think that the church has-- in its most wonderful desire to take seriously loving one another, and community-- has taken the social, the community, and made it the entire container.
And also, this question that you reference-- these things are all linked. This question from your Times reporter of "does it work?"-- that's also a sort of symptom of a spiritually sick culture that just wants to know, that doesn't even-- the question of discovering the limits of reality-- like no one's even-- no one wants that, because what is that even gonna do for anyone? And because we, all three of us, can say, well, I can't guarantee you that's going to do something for you, but why is that the only bar for any kind of inquiry or pursuit? How did we get to such a reduced view?
So I think in the case of institutional Christianity, simply restoring a push for the discovery of the transcendent for its own sake feels like a piece of work. Now, of course, this is where the things go together, as you said, Rachael, because you were like, well, if the conversation before the experience, I would have been much less invested in. But after having an experience, suddenly the interest and curiosity and discovering the limits of reality as we know it increase.
So a little bit of good old chicken and the egg. I'm not sure-- should we reintroduce psychedelics into the church? Reintroduce. Introduce psychedelics into the church and just in massive, every way we can, all the forms, try to occasion as many mystical experiences as possible and see what happens? Maybe.
I doubt that's gonna happen immediately, but-- so in terms of concrete strategy, yeah. Check back in a few months. I don't know. I'm hoping maybe we'll learn something today. Maybe we'll learn something over the course of this year.
Yeah. This conflation of the mystical with the moral is-- vexes me. After my experience, because I work in climate change, many people kind of asked me, well, don't you see a there there? If we get more people to do psychedelics, won't they suddenly wake up to climate change, and do something about it?
And to be quite frank, I resist this narrative, and I've written about this pretty polemically, because I don't think you come out of a trip knowing right from wrong, let alone if a carbon tax is preferable to a cap and trade system, right? There's so many steps between an experience, an ethic, a politic, right, and an action.
And I mean, I don't mean to feed into the depressivism here, but the counterfactuals are so striking that this-- it makes this argument completely moot. I mean, there are ritual uses of psychedelics in far right communities, and neo-Nazi communities, that have been reported on by folks like Brian Pace at Psymposia and others.
So I hear you, Jeff. I don't want to feed into that. But I think that the counterfactual-- but also, that the depressivism reinforces the fact that there is no-- there is no moral content to these experiences.
But you still see that language creep in. Even to the end of some of these papers-- these scientific papers-- the conclusion will be, this is good for depression and anxiety, and may also be vital for the human race. You know? So I think there's this just kind of a natural tug towards that assumption that is not borne out by evidence.
Well, I'm even-- I mean, I'm certainly falling prey to it, in the sense that part of what I'm saying as a justification for exploring it. One level-- you know, I've said there's these sort of two levels-- and one level really is about spiritual health, where I do feel that the human person without access to the transcendent is a radically limited human person.
That doesn't mean that a person with access to the transcendent is a functioning adult, making moral decisions and changing the shape of economics in our country. No, I don't see a direct line there. And I do think that's a hard-- that's a strange thing to have to fight against, in some ways.
Can I jump in for a moment, and think out loud about the origin of this functional impulse, or the desire to make the mystical moral? And I think, actually, no one's written more incisively about that than Jeff. It's a consistent theme in his work.
I think some are probably inclined to think that that moral, or even functional, reflex is the result of a late modern capitalist and therapeutic culture that may have amplified it. But it goes back much, much deeper than that. It's absolutely at the core of history of religion.
There is a abiding anxiety that, what we're calling here, mystics are-- to borrow Rachael's terms-- insurgents. And their relentless commitment to reality compromises ethics, and the sorts of normal human commitments that religions are largely about legislating and regulating.
So these sets of experiences, the practices that solicit them, have sat uncomfortably in the history of religious communities for as long as we've had things like religious communities, and these mystical insurgents. And again, that's nothing-- I don't think that's a particularly revolutionary observation to make about the history of religion. But before we lay it all at the feet of late capitalism, this thing goes way back. OK, Jeff, you ought to respond.
I just want to underline that, Charlie. In the West, sort of the Christian West, I think this is framed as this debate between faith and works. Right? And the active life or the contemplative life. I mean, there are different ways that this is played out.
In India, which is the culture I know the most about that's non-West, it's karma, and whether liberation or ultimate reality has anything to do with karma. And in fact, if you need action to get to the absolute, it's not the absolute, because you've caused it. You've created it. It's a product.
And so different civilizations have thought through this issue, I think, in very sophisticated ways, but we're kind of religiously blind, I think, today. Or we've just forgotten all of these debates, which I think would be really helpful.
Yeah. Funny, I totally was going to lay this at the foot of the late-consumer capitalism. So, look, I just-- I learned something in this panel right now. That's amazing! Yay!
Go ahead, Rita.
No, but it's funny because even saying something like-- and I'm thinking about, having just been reading this week about Symeon the Stylite, right, and a model of-- some model, in some periods of time, where you have extremist holy people, or shamans, or-- so that there are-- maybe at some points, it seems like, yeah, fine. Nobody wants everybody looking, searching for the absolute, because that would just be disruptive, and we don't know what would happen.
But it seems like, at least, some curiosity or belief that somebody should be encountering the absolute, as opposed to now, where I don't think people think there's an absolute, and that if there was one, that there'd be any value in finding that. That feels like a shift. Maybe that's not really a shift. But that seems like a problem.
And to name a development that I think is reflective of that, very recently there was an announcement-- there's a DARPA-funded study to look into "tripless trips." And I'm speaking way out of my depth. I don't understand how that would work. But basically, the idea is that psychedelic experiences are entirely in the brain, and all we need to do is remove the subjective phenomenon. And you can still get whatever sort of neurological reset will still benefit your depression or anxiety.
But I kind of want to lay that at the feet of late liberal capitalism. I mean, the military is funding it, for God's sake, right? It's too unwieldy to meet the divine. It's too unwieldy to reckon with the absolute. So all we need to do is just shake up the brain.
In fact, there's a really kind of, I find, a frustrating paper that was written by a philosopher named Chris Letheby, who's Australian. And he argues that it's-- he says it's epistemologically irresponsible to come out of a psychedelic trip believing in some sort of new, ultimate truth.
And I think that kind of labeling beliefs out of this experience as irresponsible is reflective of a kind of late liberal logic that's like, you need to be productive. You can't reckon with things that will distract you. And the same sort of logic that's leading towards tripless trips-- you don't need a subjective experience. Just reset your brain.
Now, Rachael, can I ask-- oh, sorry, go ahead, Charlie. Can I ask a question, or you have one?
I just want to ask, because we've been talking about religion. And you said something, really-- you said a lot of elegant things. But one of the things you talked about was, what does it mean to have had this experience in a container which doesn't have, really, vocabulary or capacity to handle the complexity of the experience? But the way that you put it was being-- you wouldn't have been able to have the experience without that container, but that the container laid bare the limits of the container.
So I would be curious to hear you reflect, possibly, on-- because we've just done a handy job problematizing these things potentially living inside of religion. There's a whole bunch of problems with that, potentially. But what do you think about-- do you think that there is-- could there be a more robust way of them existing inside the therapeutic model? Or do you think that's kind of a trap? Or what do you think about that?
Good question. And I guess, to be fair, I do feel compelled to name a few names of people that are really-- being really thoughtful about how to stretch the psychotherapeutic paradigm to reckon with these experiences. I think Daan Keiman at Synthesis, Rosalind Watts at Imperial-- now at Synthesis, as well as CIIS.
I mean, there are people-- like the transpersonal psychology folks, right? But they are still operating in a paradigm that points back to self. And you see this even in the language of integration. I was told, you need to integrate this experience into your life. And I was like, wait, I just encountered an ultimate reality. Wouldn't that imply that I need to integrate myself into it?
[LAUGHTER, INTERPOSING VOICES]
So I-- yeah. To your point, Rita, it feels like I'm-- I would be venturing a constructive kind of agenda that I don't necessarily have laid out yet. But I think there needs to be an off-ramp, right? Right now, the religious community and the psychedelic community aren't really talking that much, right? And it's easy for them to point to each other and be like, stop messing around.
So what-- for me, like I said, it was a kind of choose-your-own-adventure thing. But if there were more of an off-ramp in both communities where we recognize that people can walk away with a new kind of metaphysics, I think that off-ramp might facilitate better integration. But, Charlie?
Yeah. Can I jump in about the question of reality, and specifically, I guess, its singularity, or its alleged singularity? The thing that-- one of the things that struck me listening to you two about these trials is that the focus on the source, right-- this encountering the source-- strikes me as a particularly-- I was gonna say monotheistic way of thinking about encountering reality. But more specifically, a monotheism that has stripped away all the mediating entities between a soul and a mind and the ultimate source, right?
So it's essentially-- it's a kind of stripped down, Protestant view of what it means. The only experience that might matter is an experience with the Godhead, whereas other forms of Christianity, and certainly other traditions, are much more interested in the space between us and the source, and all the things you might meet along the way, and why, so that verticality itself can get flattened in these accounts.
And that leads me to another question to which I owe-- I have also got questions coming in by my-- via text. And that is, so, reality doesn't need to be singular, even if the source of reality might be singular. Reality doesn't need to be singular.
Our experiences on psychedelics, therefore, don't need to conform to some template. But furthermore, these psychedelics-- again, imperfect category-- themselves are diverse, and they have different flavors, so to speak. Maybe that's a terrible way of putting it. But they induce different things differently for people.
So I don't mean to just kind of fall back on the classic scholarly, oh, it's complicated and it's diverse. But I feel like if we are talking about the skillful navigation of this landscape-- the landscape-- the three-dimensional topography depends on the plurality of reality, and the plurality of means of access to that reality, which these psychedelics seem to offer.
And I'm wondering if that resonates with any part of your experience. I'm asking that of Rita and Rachael, but also to Jeff, thinking about how this feels, how this resonates with you in the history of religion.
I can say, I was surprised. I was sort of expecting more characters, as it were, so more of a kind of intermediate land in this experience. So that's just to say that for me, that was not the experience I was expecting. So I don't know, totally, what to say about that.
But to your point about having multiple points of access from within the psychedelics, I think there is some discussion out there about how to use even that word. So right now, that word is coded to a number of different kinds of substances that we might explore. But what would happen if we could use that word more broadly?
So other kinds of practices and experiences, as I mentioned, which also deliver different kinds of intermediate experiences, or realms, feels really important to me, to-- again, if we're talking about actual terrain, if the image is something like, OK, limited worldview or reductive materialism is like a house that we're in, and step one is to realize you can go outside the house, and there's an outdoors. And now you can just be like, oh, cool, there's an outdoors, and then go back in. But you at least know that there's an outside.
But another task might be to say, oh, my god, there's a whole terrain there. And that whole terrain, you get to by different ways, and is worth knowing its different-- yeah, its different geography. So I think just continued emphasis, not on just simple diversity for the sake of it, but for the knowledge of it, makes a ton of sense to me.
I do want to get to Q&A, because there's some very good questions coming through. But before I do that, Jeff, Rachael, anything you want to say?
Well, Charlie, I just want to say, I think we're really good at tracing and affirming differences. And I think we're really bad at tracing and affirming similarities or commons. And so I'm just trying to play the devil's advocate there with the field.
And I'll also point out that this transmission, or this filter model, that James was pushing, and that I'm pushing now, has no trouble with all those differences. Of course they're all different, because the filter's always culturally conditioned in a different way. Of course.
But there's still a Wi-Fi there. There's still this panpsychic, magical world of life out there that is interacting with this body and this brain in really extraordinary ways, when we ingest these molecules.
And please-- I mean, we all know this, but the psychedelic community is just suffused with a kind of simple perennialism. So I'm not proposing that. I'm proposing we keep these things in balance. We do both.
OK. Rachael, anything? Or can I go to a question?
Let's go on. Let's go on to questions.
OK. It's 5 o'clock. We've got half an hour left, folks. I'd like to get some of these excellent questions out.
This one is for Rita. It's from Lisa Jarnot, who will be giving a lecture here, actually, in December, if I'm not mistaken. Hi, Lisa. Thank you for joining us.
She says, I'm wondering if we can introduce pneumatology into this conversation. Rita, what you're talking about regarding dosing the church is something that seems to already happen in Black Pentecostal churches, by the presence of the Holy Spirit. So I'm curious about the politics of race in this, how this kind of magic is not only read as demonic by white Western culture, but also as dangerous, insofar as it disrupts traditional ecclesial logical power. So are there particular traditions that need to be dosed, and others that are already well-dosed? Anyway, you take the point.
That is an amazing and excellent point. The different kinds of resistance to-- that certainly, that I experienced in my tradition-- to the pursuit of the transcendent in different ways might point to a particular category of ethnic church community that might be in a particular meaning of said dosing.
I think that that's a fair point, that people who-- we can also say, as we know, that the patterns that we're inscribed in, and have trouble breaking out of culturally, are particularly seductive to those who are-- more or less, seem to be thriving in them. So whiteness and power and privilege and gender come into that, such that the more that you're already sort of pushed, crushed, et cetera by the paradigm, the easier it is for you to really want to crack out of it, whereas if you're relatively comfortable in it, the imperative to crack out is less strong. So that's an excellent-- an excellent thought.
Jeff, Rachael, you want to say anything in response to that, or--
I just think that of course there's a racial, or even racist dimension here. I mean, I'm thinking Yvonne Chireau's work in a book called Black Magic. And you know, she's playing off this common English phrase, "black magic." And she's talking about conjuring traditions that come out of Africa, and flow into these African-American traditions, and how they're literally demonized by the churches.
And so I think this is part of this European, Christian demonization of Indigenous, and in this case African, traditions. I have no doubt about that.
Well, and of course, right, that the way that it's coming into-- in this so-called second psychedelic Renaissance, the way that it's sort of coming in, it's made acceptable, as long as it's delivered precisely through this paradigm of dominant culture, as opposed to looking at where people are using substances, as you already mentioned, in different kinds of communities all over the world, and certainly all over this country. So that's a good point.
You know, the other place this comes up big time is in the present use of ayahuasca in retreats down in Latin America, and what the relationship is between these Indigenous communities that some sense originated these brews, and the North American individuals, often white, who are coming down and paying money to imbibe or take the tea. And now of course, the tea's up in North America, often carried by Brazilians or Latin Americans themselves. So it's complicated. It's a really complicated question.
Well, here's somewhat-- a question from another familiar name-- a similar vein. It's Stephen Finley. Hello, Stephen.
He writes, "Rachael and Rita, you both speak of the psychedelics as enabling an experience with the quote unquote, 'real,' which is transcendent, but which you both understood very differently. How might you account for the sameness and difference in your experience with psilocybin? And what, if anything, did these experiences do to your lived category of gender, and perhaps race?"
Before I throw it over to you two, I actually was quite struck by the fact that you both spoke of nothingness. So I was quite struck by the similarity in your two accounts, rather than the differences. But in any case, perhaps either or both of you could respond to Stephen.
So, yeah. I would actually agree with you, Charlie. What I was struck by when I first met Rita, and being part of this group, is the fact that I had what I now understand to be a kind of apophatic experience, although I have never had exposure to that type of language before. And actually, I think the thing I want to point out-- and this gets to your earlier point, Charlie, about different substances doing different things, or different-- the same substances doing different things at different times-- my second experience, honestly, felt like a totally different realm of reality than the first that I experienced.
I was completely drug-naive, and I kind of just assumed, well, you know, it was linear. One dose did this. A higher dose will do more of this.
But my second experience-- the reality felt much more-- it was transcendent, but it was closer to Earth. It was closer down. It wasn't the source. It was a mediator of the source.
And I think what's so interesting about these experiences is that they have this more-real-than-real quality that you end up-- you always kind of are falling after the experience, trying to apply some type of, in my case, some type of theology to explain it.
And in terms of what it did to my own sense of subjectivity, I mean, I will say-- in the deepest throes of depression, I think there's a kind of accidental narcissism, where you're so convinced that you are uniquely bad and uniquely cast out of the earth. And so I think-- I hate to fall into the perennialist sort of logic here, but there was a kind of refreshingly-- refreshing blowing away of that type of narcissism, and turning inward, and a kind of toxic subjectivity, and a kind of solipsism to my depression.
And I don't mean to say that we're all one, and my race and my gender don't matter. But in my particular case, and that particular pathology of thought that I had, that I was so unique and uniquely bad, actually, I think what the experience did was kind of blow away some of that narcissism and solipsism. But Rita, maybe I'll pass it to you.
Well, I-- for me, one of the interesting things as the experience progressed was having to reckon with the fact that I was not-- as I said, most of my previous experiences of the transcendent were very outward-focused, were very sensory perception-focused. And this was one where my eyes were closed the whole time. So at the end of it, I had to sort of sit up and realize that whatever this thing was that I had encountered was literally inside my body somehow. So both totally out, but had somehow taken place in my body.
And I can say that as a female clergyperson, I'm aware all the time that I'm reckoning with a whole construction that is layered against me, even when it's giving me a smile, that there is a kind of implicit hostility to that sense of truly believing that the sacred could be inside the body of a woman is still, for me, something fairly revelatory.
And I think that even for me, the encounter with my own maternity, my children, and taking that seriously as a site from which I can know something about the divine, is also-- was also somewhat innovative for me. So that's a really personal answer. And-- but that's what I'd say about that.
Another question for-- the questions are coming in hot. And I just want to let everyone know who's asking a question, obviously, there are 45 questions in my queue right now. We're not going to get to all those. We will pass these questions on to the panelists. I can't promise they're going to write you all, but know that your comment or question will be seen by all the panelists after the event.
OK. Here's another question for Rita and Rachael. Well, maybe it's just for Rachael, but Rita, I think you may want to weigh in on it, too.
Jeff McMahon, thank you for your question. "Rachael used the word 'ineffable.' Would any of you say that you found a way to describe your experience that doesn't diminish it somewhat, to fit the limitations of language?"
And in the protocol, they-- at least at Hopkins, I don't know about your experience, Rita-- they ask you to write a trip report immediately following the experience. And I view it as such a double-edged sword. In some ways, I'm so grateful to have that document to refer to. But in other ways, I do find that it locked me into language, and locked me into ways of describing the experience. I mean, I even kind of pulled quotes from it in my remarks today.
So there's a kind of way in which the encoding of the experience in language that early, and that firmly, that becomes the referent, I think, as opposed to the experience itself. I don't know, Rita, if you would agree with that. But I'm glad I have it, rather than not. Language is imperfect, but I'll use it. And yet, it's endured in a kind of ossified, I think, and flattened way, because I did write about it so quickly.
And I can say, yeah. I mean, this is the first time I've shared that experience in any kind of public setting, and yeah. The language falls-- sometimes, language actually can open right into the heart of reality. And this was a case where I feel like the language does not successfully do that, necessarily.
But I will also say that the utter lack of anything like language in the experience, in my own case, led to-- Charlie mentioned I'm pursuing an MFA in poetry-- led, in my case, to a kind of linguistic fountain, as a result of this encounter with something utterly beyond words.
OK. Good. That's what I was hoping to surface in Rita's case. Sorry, Rachael, I didn't mean to talk over you. Just to underscore that in your case, Rita, one of the ways you have lived with and managed this experience is in and through language.
So Jeff's question-- Jeff McMahon's question-- can be extended. You yourself have become a kind of linguistic fountain, plus you have turned to the mystical archive and found that the mystics-- the so-called mystics-- are also linguistic fountains, right?
So there's this question of, well, even if it is felt-- even if the language is felt to be inadequate or just somehow diminished, what function does the language serve, for either the experiencer or those who are reading these words, right?
Go ahead, Rachael. I know we both have something to say.
No, I actually-- two things really quickly. Actually, for a while, when people would ask me, what were you like before versus after? For a while, I actually did that only through gesture. I said, before, I was like this-- holding on-- and after, I'm like this. For a while, I just refused to use language beyond what I wrote in my trip report.
So actually, there was a kind of embodied-- and truly, I felt that. I actually felt like I could breathe easier, and I didn't want to explain that through anything other than gesture. But yeah. And to your point-- I mean, I'm not pursuing an MFA, but Rita knows, because we're in a writing group together-- I'm writing a lot more than I was.
So I think even though the-- language doesn't open me up to the experience. The experience has opened me up to language, I think, in new ways. Yeah. Yeah.
Yeah. I can agree with that. And also, Rachael, something you describe really well from your experience was the way in which you felt like you had encountered something that then had-- that then you were accountable to, in some way.
And I feel that is another component of the linguistic or descriptive function in response to the experience, is that you have some sense-- and I think in my case, it's sort of simple-- again, in this simple, exploratory sense. Like, hey, I just saw a thing, and I need to tell you about it. I need to report on that. I need to-- I need for that to actually-- I need to actually share that, or communicate that somehow. That feels like a part of it, too.
So none of us have written as many words as Jeff Kripal. I'm certain of that. I'm looking at Jeff's books up there. I know how many he's written. And I just want to say-- Jeff, I hope I'm not being inappropriate, but you yourself have tied your writerly life, and this, at times, what you felt as a kind of almost manic pace of writing, to a particular-- let's call it mystical experience, not, as far as I know, induced through any psychedelic.
So we have here a mystical writer among us. So Jeff, I don't know if you want to say anything in response to that idea of language and its-- in the wake of such an experience.
Well, that-- just that that's very kind of you, and accurate. I mean, this has been an obsession of mine, is the relationship between altered states and literary or scholarly productivity. And I-- you know, my second book was actually about the mystical experiences of scholars of mysticism. And my argument was what essentially generated their writing was their own mystical experiences. And then I also have written extensively about people's paranormal experiences, and how they get tied to their literary output.
So I think writers in particular-- professional writers in particular-- know this. Real writing, or real creativity, is when you step aside and something flows through you, essentially, which is a kind of humble, mystical state. So I just want to underline that. I just think that's absolutely right. There's a kind of-- "literary fountain" here is a great expression.
Which might-- again, not-- please don't accuse me of slipping into functionalism. But that might also be another-- something we might point to as-- without being-- without having overly linear value, but to say that if these-- if access to these states can provide access to that kind of writing and thinking, that does seem like another important part of the human experience and evolution, to want to increase and amplify and encourage.
Well, this gets to Bob Jesse's whole shtick, which is using psychedelics for the-- he says the betterment of well people. Which, again, betterment? I question, again, as a functional word. But I do think there's a multi-- there's a rich enrichment, or a multi-dimensionality there.
And there are people looking at creativity in what they call "healthy normals," which is my favorite term ever. Because who is healthy and normal these days? If you're healthy and normal, you're not paying attention. But yeah. There are trials and research in that vein. But I still think that the betterment language falls in, perhaps, to some of the functionalism that we're talking against.
Yeah, Jeff. Go ahead.
Yeah. I just want to say, too-- I think what's behind this literary reduction is the desire to rewrite reality. There's a very clear sense after a mystical experience that what people think is real is not real. And the reason they think it's real is because the way they use language.
Language is the ultimate duping mechanism. But because it's the duping mechanism, you can also use language against itself, and you can literally rewrite reality, or people's experience of reality. So I think that's actually the key here, and what you're all doing.
I sounded ambitious for trying to align to spiritual Christianity.
No, I think that's a great bridge-- that's a great point, Jeff. And I think one of the things we want to avoid is the idea that the only line-- that the only chronology here is you have an experience and then you write about it. Writing is actually itself a really weird, mystical practice that induces crazy experiences.
So is reading. So is reading.
Oh, and reading-- maybe more, actually. Reading is one bizarro, magical practice that we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking is completely quotidian. Right? But the idea that we can scratch something down on paper, and then someone can pick that up, and summon a world-- it's a strange, as Jeff knows, a kind of like-- it's a magic, telepathic, occult science that we do all the time. And we have completely lost track of how weird it is.
OK. So that's my point. We are nearing the end here. And I wonder if we can-- I feel like this has been fun, but I feel like we need to come back to some of the more quotidian questions, one of which is-- I want to underscore, or ask, I suppose-- it's not that we four are against positive outcomes-- positive therapeutic outcomes, right? I have not been through these trials, but I take very seriously what Rachael has said about the profound effect this has had in your life. And I imagine there are many people watching, and many more besides, who have had similar outcomes.
Such outcomes are amazing. I take our point to be a reframing of what these experiences point to more broadly, and the reality behind them. And that reality cannot be-- well, frankly, reduced to good outcomes, right? Reality, I do not think is about what we're calling good outcomes. I--
I hope not.
No, I hope not. Good. I just want to make that point clear for our friends. My goodness, we have an amazing amount of questions.
All right. Here's one from Bill Donius, who's known to us from the Esalen community. Bill has asked, "Do you believe the sessions were progressive?" By which he means, do you think that subsequent sessions would have taken you to deeper places, or a higher consciousness? Or is this a kind of terminal practice? What's been your experience?
Well, Rita, you should speak to this, since you turned down a second opportunity.
Yeah. In my-- the framework of my study was that you were supposed to have an experience, and then a month later-- which is a little bit more generous than a week-- but a month later, you're supposed to have a second experience. And I-- after that one, I was like, absolutely no. I just went to the limit of human being. I'm not-- I do not want to do that again, and I do not want to do any variation of that. No.
I will say, just to be-- just to-- because we're all friends here, and we're being honest about things that are weird in reality, I will say, as you get the sense from my story, I threw off the shackles of caring about the framework of the study. I mean, I didn't go in there for any clinical reason. I just-- I wanted to try the-- I wanted to see what the experience was like.
And a month later-- and I came to believe that, in fact, what I will call God, actually was able to work through that framework. I really believe that. So I turned down the second experience.
But a month later, I went to visit my friend in the jungle in Colombia. And I got onto the plane, and I clicked in my seat belt, and I suddenly realized, holy shit. This is the second trip. Somehow, I didn't get out of the second trip. I just-- this one isn't happening with psychedelics.
And sure enough, I had a super-weird jungle odyssey, basically, which-- I don't know what point that proves, except that was-- that felt like a second chapter that was influenced by the first.
And in my case, actually, there was a long time that I-- for a long time, I wouldn't speak about my second experience, because it was challenging. And to be quite frank, it can be difficult when you're in a therapeutic setting, and you want so bad for it to work. You almost feel like the bad student, like you didn't have a good trip.
But it wasn't like my second one counteracted the first one. It was more just augmented my world. As I said, the first experience, I had this kind of connection to this sort of ultimate nothingness. And then my second experience was more of this goodness or grace that felt closer to the Earth, but yet for some reason, I felt the need to profoundly doubt. And that kind of doubt precipitated a really profound panic that was quite somatic, and that I grappled with for a while.
And unfortunately, even in the psychedelic community-- there's a survey they did on challenging experiences. And the message out of that survey was, even the bad ones are good, right? There's still this-- you get the trip you need, not the trip you want. It's here to teach you something, and you're going to be a more functional, productive person if you can just work through that. And that's true for some people.
But for others, you're not going to be functional after a really bad trip. So in my case, it felt like they were operating with different kind of physics. They weren't necessarily progressive, I think, in the way that the question is asking about. But there was a widening. It seemed like a widening, fuller accounting of reality, albeit a difficult accounting.
Here's one last question I'd like to get out on the table. And it's, in some sense, a critical question for all of us. I mean critical in the sense of important, but also critical of this panel. So I think it's important to get it out. It's from Nicole McCormick. Thank you, Nicole.
She writes, "One of the things I've been sitting with for a long while is how much this type of experience so often seems to be limited to the privileged in our society." This struck me reading Michael Pollan's book, in this panel, and in the clinical shadowing I've done in a psychedelics therapy clinic." So Nicole has some experience with these worlds.
"If this medicine can have such a transformative effect on people, but needs to be administered by an extensive care team to tend to any issues that may come up during a session, what's the future of this type of therapy beyond the, quote unquote, 'bettering of the well?'"
Yeah, I think-- one of the things-- the questions, I think, that is on all of our minds is the way in which-- is the question of what is the right container, and for what reason? And I think this question, the question of access, is a huge question and concern with the current framework.
Now, I don't know-- again, I don't know what other containers would feel as well-cared for, and yet not be stuck in that trap. I don't know what increasing access would look like. I think, from my standpoint as far as something like religion and the church, you have the possibility-- if it lives somewhere like the church, if there is a way to incorporate that, you have some possibility of thinking really significantly about access from that perspective, but not necessarily with easy or immediate success.
I mean, I think it's an excellent-- I think it's a really serious point and question. I don't know. What do you guys think?
Well, so this kind of goes back to my point about monotheism and the Indigenous traditions. I mean, the truth is is a lot of these psychedelic substances originated with Indigenous cultures. And in Latin America, for example, ayahuasca is essentially the health care system in Brazil-- in the Amazonian basin, and has probably been so for hundreds of years.
I think what the issue is here, though, with the hospitals and these trials is, frankly, legal. They're trying to get the legal prohibition raised. And the conviction is the only way to do that in society, at this point, is to prove some pharmaceutical or some therapeutic use.
So I understand that. I think it's a practical-- I think it's a practical, legal strategy. I don't know if there's a better one, frankly, at the moment. But I hear the criticism, and I think it's spot on.
This, by the way, was-- just one more thing. This was the debate by the way, between Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley back in the '60s. Leary was like, let's give it to everyone, let's throw it out on the streets. Everybody will be trippin' and we'll change society.
And Huxley was like, hold on, Tim. If you do that, the law is going to crash down on your head. And we're going to get this amazing kickback, socially and politically and legally. So Huxley was actually arguing for a kind of academic and medical elitism, and Leary was arguing for a psychedelic populism.
And of course, the latter won out. And pretty much exactly what Huxley was worried about happened. And that's what the researchers today are worried about, I think, is that history-- that legal history.
But I think-- Charlie, is this fair to say, that as we've talked about the various components of this conversation, which is taking place over the course of the whole year at the center, these questions we understand to really need their-- absolutely, a kind of-- moments of their own, to really untangle and unpack and think about these questions.
So that's-- you're right that that's not-- we're not reflecting that question in ourselves here today. We're sort of tackling something adjacent to that. But that is absolutely a real-- a whole set of questions, and a topic that I know we're planning on addressing later in the series.
Rachael, did you want to say anything?
Well, I don't mean to be coy or oblique with this question. But I just-- it feels remiss not to mention the moment we're in. Rates of anxiety, suicide, and depression have spiked under the pandemic. And even before then, Americans were walking on a tightrope. We live in a society where we believe that people don't deserve access to health care, where you have to work your butt off to make a living wage, where people don't have affordable family care.
So part of me is like, the most important thing we can do for mental health is fix our society, and not propagate the psychedelic narrative of, your suffering begins and ends in your brain. But regardless of that, these medicines are going to be legalized. And I think, as Rita mentioned, I think the people on this panel are not the smartest, or the most involved in this question about equity. But I do believe it's paramount.
And my worst nightmare is that not only will we not fix society, but these will become expensive boutique drugs for people who can afford them. And hopefully that won't happen. But we'll explore that more in depth, I'm sure, soon.
Yeah. Good. OK. So I think-- it's 5:28. I, for one, feel pretty wiped out by this, and I wasn't even one of the panelists. So I think we should wrap up.
And I want to thank-- we still have over 200 people with us, which is amazing. Thank you all for sticking with us to the end.
As Rita said, this is just one event in a series, a yearlong series that is evolving. With every event, we're learning what the next one needs to be. So we're thinking ahead maybe two or three events.
So I will go through all these questions myself. I'll share them with the panelists. And your comments and questions will help us deepen our inquiry.
So again, the next event is November 18. It's called "Sisters of the Psychedelic Renaissance." And I think, among other things, we'll be thinking about what that term "psychedelic" means, and whether it's always and only limited to certain substances. What do we really mean by mind-revealing?
So in any case, that will be the next event. It's on November 18, 5:00 to 6:30. Future events I'll announce, but I can tell you we'll definitely have things on psychedelics in the ancient world, psychedelics among African-American traditions-- many more. So stay tuned.
Thank you, Rachael, Rita, Jeff. Always a pleasure to be in conversation with you. And not every panel is this lively or as fun as this one. So thank you and good night, and see you at the next event.
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