Video: Between Sacred & Profane: Psychedelic Culture, Drug Spiritualities, and Contemporary America

June 2, 2021
Fractal Illusion art
This conversation took place May 6, 2021.

As part of the “Psychedelics and the Future of Religion” series, Dr. J. Christian Greer hosted a discussion panel with Dr. Erik Davis and Dr. Gary Laderman, focusing on the intersection of psychedelic culture, sacred drugs, and the modern American zeitgeist.

In their wide-ranging conversation, this distinguished panel of addressed spiritualities centered on psychoactive substances, the material culture of psychedelia, and the potential role humanities scholars could play in the current wave of clinical research on psychedelics.

Full Transcript:


CHARLES STANG: Good evening, everyone. My name is Charles Stang, and I'm the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to the final event in our year-long 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. Don't worry, the series will continue next year. So we look forward to more conversations, such as this in the fall semester.

And 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. And so I will keep my remarks very brief so there will be time for Q&A and discussion among the three panelists. So this evening's event will be a conversation led by Dr. J. Christian Greer. Christian is a postdoctoral fellow here at CSWR. He received his PhD in Western esotericism from the history of hermetic philosophy department at the University of Amsterdam.

His research addresses the social history of new religious movements in the Anglo American world, the formation of religious counterculture and the popularization of esotericism in the digital age. Christian will be hosting this evening's discussion with Dr. Erik Davis and Professor Gary Laderman, focusing on the intersection of psychedelic culture, sacred drugs and the modern American zeitgeist.

Erik Davis is an author, scholar and award-winning journalist behind the groundbreaking study of psychedelic culture in technology, TechGnosis. And more recently, High Weirdness, Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the Seventies. Professor Gary Laderman is the Goodrich C White professor of American religious history and cultures at Emory University, and the author of many books on American religion, including his recent book, Don't Think About Death, A Memoir on Mortality.

He has an upcoming book on the drugs Americans hold sacred, including psychedelics, but also caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and pharmaceuticals. So in their wide ranging conversation, these distinguished panelists will address spiritualities centered on psychoactive substances, the material culture of psychedelia and the potential role humanities scholars might play in the current wave of clinical research on psychedelics.

So I will soon disappear from your screen only to reappear when we transition to the Q&A portion. So once again, welcome Erik and Gary. Thank you so much for joining us. And Christian, over to you.

CHRISTIAN GREER: So in this iteration of the Psychedelics in Future of Religion series, I will be in discussion with two scholars whose expertise perfectly matches today's somewhat expansive topic, psychedelic culture between sacred and profane. Now, before we dive into this conversation though, I'd like to establish a framework that will help us structure our discussion.

As you may know, this is the final event in what has been a wonderfully successful year-long series of dialogues, and in some senses, trialogues, that have illuminated the most pressing, and if I may be so bold, fascinating aspects of psychedelism in contemporary America as well as points beyond. It is my intention now in this distinguished panel discussion to revisit some of the most salient questions raised over the course of this series.

That said, I am absotootly certain that we will trespass into domains further afield, weirder and perhaps even more provocative. Now, let's get on to some of the questions. At the start of the series we were fortunate enough to have Dr. Roland Griffiths join us. Director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

He presented his evidence suggesting that psilocybin has the capacity to occasion mystical experiences provided certain mindsets and settings have been accounted for. This feature of his research is undoubtedly impressive and it's certainly turned a lot of heads, yet it's also somewhat problematic. Now let me be frank here.

It seems as though the medical community has only recently discovered what psychedelicists have claimed for more than 70 years. This knowledge that psychedelics may occasion mystical experience dates back at least to the Good Friday Experiment conducted by Timothy Leary and company at Boston University's Marsh Chapel in 1962. It could even date a little bit further back to the 1850s with Fitz Hugh Ludlow's, The Hasheesh Eater.

OK, OK, that's fine. But in the intervening years-- let's say between 1962 and now-- scholars of religion have moved well beyond the essentialized. And I suspect perennialist views of mystical experience, particularly those employed in Doctor Roland Griffiths's his experiments with psilocybin.

So my first question pertains to what I perceive as a lack of transdisciplinary collaboration between the biomedical experts in the psychedelic renaissance of today and scholars of humanities and religious studies in particular. Now, I know Erik has presented at more than a few of these psychedelic renaissance conferences. Why? Because I've seen him do it! And they're always very edifying. So I will pose the first question to him.

Erik, my friend, how can we explain this intellectual gap that stands between experts in the biosciences investigating the therapeutic mechanisms of psilocybin and we scholars in the humanities and religious studies in particular? That's my first question, how do we explain it? Second question, what do we gain by bridging it?

ERIK DAVIS: Thanks for that question, Christian. And I'm really happy to be here, it's fun too. I've been really enjoying the series and I've thought about this problem a lot. I had the opportunity-- when I met Roland in a fairly informal situation in Baltimore in a crazy bohemian household, and that was all I was ready to ask in this experience. So I just kind of like cannoned it his way. I said, Look, look!

Your assessment of mystical experience rests on a set of questionnaires that have been developed within a certain framework that's historicized and we can locate in the middle of the 20th century that have these perennialist things. We can talk about stace, et cetera, et cetera. And this has really come under a lot of very interesting critical sort of processing-- if you will-- since then.

And there was a weird kind of like vague flutter in his eyes as if there was some kind of intuition that the question was worth just not really engaging. And he just said, Well, I don't really understand. We understand mystical experience, blah, blah, blah. And so I had a kind of visceral intuitive sense of the gap. Now to explain it, one answer is a boring if sad one which is just the general crisis of the humanities not only as an institutional force, some of which it owes itself some blame for, but also just the shift of our society, et cetera, et cetera.

And most of us kind of can plug in this particular issue in that larger framework. But I think there's something else going on that's more interesting and that is that you can think about one of the tensions between bioscience and the humanities as around this issue of constructivism. So the biosciences have to, at some level, be invested in the idea of objectivity and their ability to articulate the objectivity from the outside.

Whereas as humanists, we're used to thinking of things as being constructed over time and this leads to some of what I believe are the excesses of contemporary social constructivism. I'm not that kind of constructivist. I'm more of a latourian style where the models and processes, technologies, even nature itself is a kind of constructed sort of process. So it's not about just saying, Oh, we're all just telling the story socially. So that's sort of a general issue. If you look at the history of psychiatric syndromes, what do we see?

We see a constantly changing object of knowledge which has new symptomology, new explanatory regimes, new drug regimens associated with it over the last 100 and 150 years. Does that mean there's nothing there that's like schizophrenia? Of course not. Does that mean that schizophrenia is a moving target? It changes its expression as we change our models of it? Absolutely! To me, that's historically obvious and a hard-headed objective scientist should recognize that.

So that's just a general issue when we're dealing with-- let's call it the biology of consciousness or the biology of experiential phenomenology. But these matters are particularly heightened with psychedelics. Why? Because, as you've alluded to already, the issue is set and setting. My narratives, my expectations, as well as the queues and tales that are embedded in my environment, which is both the physical environment I'm in and the social matrix I'm in, those things actively produce and shape the phenomenology of any given trip.

That means that even if we can objectively measure mystical experience according to a six point survey based on the work of William Stace in 1950, whatever it was-- even if that thing is objectively true, the fact that I go into an experience with that as an expectation, not to mention being loaded with this idea that comes through contemporary psychedelic research and clinical research, especially that if I have a balls out unity experience, I'm going to get the goods.

Those are ideas that I'm bringing in to my psychedelic experience, which then in turn produce part of its phenomenology. Not all of it, but a good part of it. So that whole strange loop, which even a hardhead like Sasha Shulgin-- who was very much a scientist, very much invested in scientific processes, objectivism, et cetera, et cetera.-- said, Look, you can't really do psychedelic science without breaking down the objective-subjective boundary and starting to play in a different way.

And my belief is that that "I believe" fact, that absolute condition that we cannot escape from is terribly threatening biosciences for reasons that are both-- in terms of their training and their worldview, but also institutionally. Their capacity to have the authority to state facts, et cetera, et cetera. And then letting in that looping constructivism into the back door is just very threatening.

But unless we start talking more, I'm afraid that we're at a bit of an impasse. And I don't think it's the humanities people that are maintaining the impasse, at least the ones whose critiques I'm most sort of familiar and interested in.

GARY LADERMAN: Me? Should I go? Yeah. I have a couple of comments. But first, I'm just really very honored to be here. I've heard some good things about Harvard, so this is a real [INAUDIBLE]. And certainly this series is absolutely fantastic, cutting edge. I don't know who came up with it, but it's rocking and rolling and it's where the field needs to go, I think.

Or one of the areas. So this is just great to be a part of, although, I don't know if I'm one of the distinguished panelists that keeps getting mentioned. Just a couple of comments, mysticism and the mystical experience-- yeah, I mean, it's so boring. Please, we've been there and let's find a new language and a way to talk about this.

So I have mixed feelings in a sense, because Roland Griffiths and Johns Hopkins is going to legitimize psychedelics. They're going to bring psychedelics and help the mainstream. And I think that's good and it should be interesting you know just to watch that unfold. The other thing too is just that I'm more positive about some of the kind of transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary work that can take place between people in humanities and people in sciences, for sure.

And it's being done in ways I think that are more sophisticated. I haven't met Roland Griffiths so I don't know if I ever will. But you know then some of what they're doing there around religion, and I'm thinking, of course, in some sense of the contemplative studies and sciences initiatives that are going on that are happening at Emory, that are happening at the University of Wisconsin Madison where there are interesting ways that humanities scholars and particularly those in religion are working closely with people who are trying to get a more scientific sense of what kind of impact meditation and certain kinds of contemplative practices can have.

That's beautiful. I love it. I'm trying to do something with a medical doctor at Emory Medical School who is a palliative care MD. And we've started up our own sacred drug salon at Emory that has just attracted people across the units, public health, social sciences, religion.

It's really rich and so that richness, I think, is something we often don't get in our own little discipline. So this effort to break out of it is great. For me, as someone who studies religion, that ain't where the religion is. What's religious is the study. What's religious, forgetting about set and setting, is the ritual activity that's going on around these scientific studies.

What's religious or is the sort of authority structures that are in place that help people to sort of make sense of their lives and their experiences. And so I'm there completely with how is this particular scale going to somehow capture some kind of internal experience for a person. And again, what purpose does that serve?

I'm a durkheimian through and through. I could care less about what happens inside of an individual during a subjective experience. It's more of the kind of social, cultural work that's going on, particularly in this conversation around the psychedelic scientific studies. And for me, it's like let's flip the bird a little bit-- not flip the bird, but let's-- I don't want to flip the bird at anyone. Flip the script. And what's really religious are the scientists.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Wow. Gary, that's really interesting. And I'm thinking, though, that as a member of some of these psychedelic science communities, I'm often asked to present papers at conferences. I will admit to feeling like the odd man out, as though the 70 years of vernacular research is like a sideshow. And the reason for that is, I think, on our shoulders as humanities scholars because I don't think we've done a good enough job of on working the drug war epistemology.

The fact that the term, hippie, is still used obscures the very important research on psychedelic experimenters that have worked underground. And so I think it's we have to do-- as humanities scholars, we have to do a better job of explaining what it is we research. And I think by doing that, we would invite the biosciences into it and say, Oh, wow. Shuglin, that is a very interesting scientist who was working there and not just looking at all of the last 70 years of acid dropping as hippie bullshit.

So in some respects it falls on our shoulders. And I think, really to be more specific, it's about un-working the drug war epistemology that would have us confused drugs for drugs for drugs, if you know what I'm saying there. And so I really don't want to put the onus on bioscience people, I would like to think what can we do, and that's one aspect. Another thing is in another way, I don't blame them. I mean there was a good few decades where scholars in the religions were deconstructing everything they could get their hands on.

We were disassembling everything. And so maybe we had the real bioscientists show up and be like, Oh, I can't wait to go to this panel on mystical experience. They come out of the panel and be like, Ah, it turns out there's no mystical experience. Turns out I can't do my experiment anymore. Let me go to this other panel, see what they say about-- Ah, it turns out hippies don't exist. So yeah, I can understand the ways in which we, as scholars could adapt to a changing landscape.

And really I have to say that when I first saw all of the hullabaloo and fanfare over the psychedelic renaissance, I felt precious and I felt like why didn't I get their party? Like, I've been doing this stuff for years and I never get invited, blah blah, blah. And I really ultimately thought, No, this is an opportunity to really create something special within the Academy, which is an honest attempt to forge transdisciplinary-- because interdisciplinarity used to be such a buzz word but it doesn't mean anything anymore.

This is an opportunity to actually do something that could involve experts from across different fields, and to me, that would be a game changer. That would really, I think, revitalize the humanities, especially at a time when we tend to be really suffering. Again, my two cents there.

ERIK DAVIS: Yeah, I think that that's definitely opening up, again, to speak more positively as Gary has. And I think it will, as the complexities of psychedelic experience individually, socially, culturally become more evident as it becomes mainstream. And I think that the role of religion, religious professionals, contemplative professionals is going to increase in relationship to that.

And I think that's a very healthy thing in the way that the existing sort of infrastructure of religion as the discourse and even as a profession-- though that's not the heart and soul of the matter, it does kind of balance out the medicalization which is going to continue to be extremely strong because of capital really and the mental health crisis that people are seeing solutions to.

So I'm very much expect that the kinds of conversations that this series has broached are going to continue vis-a-vie religion as a framework. And then I believe we will see the emergence of kind of psychedelic chaplains who function in the chaplaincy mode rather than in the clinical mode. And I think that that will start to not only provide the opportunity for the kind of real transdisciplinary work that you're talking about-- because let's just make it really clear, drugs are transdisciplinary.

They are transdisciplinary. The object itself splinters and fragments and is multifaceted in itself. So we're always going to be undermined, even more than other topics. I mean, everything's like this ultimately, but this specific zone demands-- this is why I think that Dale Tindall's books, his pharmaco series are just some of my favorite books about psychoactives in general. They are filled with voices, there's poetry, there's pharmacology, there's history, there's political rants, there's personal stories.

I mean, there's this kind of need for a kaleidoscopic approach and I'm using that seriously. So that's really groovy. But the other thing that I think might come along with that, which would also be interesting from a religious studies point of view, particularly after this sort of festival of nihilistic deconstruction that you're talking about, is the opportunity to return to a sort of nuanced, pragmatic, open-ended and informed comparative operation where multiple frameworks are going to be part of the picture.

So here's one concrete example. As we're going forward with medicalization, with the renaissance, with clinical research, there is also a appropriately louder and louder call from indigenous activists and indigenous supporters to include, and acknowledge, and affirm their role in the construction or the telling of the tale of psychedelics. Not just because of some historical debt, but because these are living traditions.

And the thing is if you go and talk to an ayahuasca or if you go and talk to someone in mazatec land working with magic mushrooms, if you talk to even peyote folks who have a Christian framework, it's not mystical experience. In fact, in some of these zones, it's really different. It's polytheistic, it's multiple, it's confrontational, it has so many different flavors.

And so our insistence on this kind of fuddy duddy category not only gets us locked into some problems, but it really makes us hard to hear the real range of possible experiences, possible religious tales, possible relationships to ritual and religious expertise.

GARY LADERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I know you have other things Christian, but I'll jump in for a quick second to say, again, it ain't just about drugs. For us, it's about religion and what we need to do not about deconstructing, but we've got to blow up the category of religion and really try to expand how we understand it because as a framework, it's flawed.

Part of my pedagogy is to confuse the hell out of students. I think we've got to confuse people about religion as much as possible for them, for us to see how inescapable it is, even in medicalization, in that process. So I love the discussion around religion and it's comparable and as Erik was saying with drugs, it can mean so many different things.

And I think that is a teaching moment for all of us, especially because we live in a crazy fucking world where religion can be out of hand as well as a great source of comfort and meaning. And so it's a lot more confusing than we think. And the religious aspects of psychedelics, as we will see, is going to go way beyond the psychedelic chaplaincy for sure.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Yeah, one thing that really caught my attention was within some of the scientific dimensions of the psychedelic renaissance , what they're really pining for are innovative means of what they call a container. What's the container in which they should administer these? And though there's a lot of really innovative stuff, it really doesn't extend further than the clinic, and the patient, and the doctor administering the drug. And I have to say that I think that humanities scholars, particularly those that focus on psychedelics, could introduce them to the vernacular culture of psychedelic experience, which has been predominantly over the last few decades, mass concerts.

I'm thinking of the Grateful Dead, probably the longest prolonged experiment in psychedelic transformation. So I think the Grateful Dead have a lot to add to this conversation, but not just live music, outdoors, being friends, but I think with respect to just this practical question of the container with which these therapeutic experiences are happening, I think there's a lot to add there. Also, just as a scholar of religion, I can say that I try to encourage my students to think of mystical experience, if we have to think of it as category, as far from uniform.

Often, if we look at the record, they're horrifying, and awful, and humiliating, and isolating, and very rarely I think scholars encounter mystical experiences that are angels and trumpets, and love and light. In fact, they tend to be pretty dark, and confusing, and maybe even permanently so for better or worse in a lot of ways.

ERIK DAVIS: Well, I mean, at that point I think is a really key one, it's one of the most important ones to my mind is what do we do with the shadow work or whatever, even to call it that is to invoke a certain therapeutic regimen. What do we do with the dark side of psychedelic experience? And that includes both the fact that a certain percentage of people are going to have a horrible experience, which may actually last for a while. That's in the dice roll. You can maybe weed them out a little bit, but not entirely, so that's there.

But more generally is, how do we think about and talk about the difficult passages. And one of the sort of-- you can see it as a kind of Achilles heel if you're being sort of conflict, they are competitive about the situation. But one of the, I, think symptoms of this sort of repression in the clinical framework is the weakness of their language around the dark side.

So if you read between the lines, and sometimes explicitly, it's clear that many clinicians working in the zone believe that if you do it right, you're going to avoid most of that stuff. Or it's just going to be difficult material that comes up to be processed. And from a religious point of view or religious studies kind of point of view, I'm like, OK, yeah. Difficult stuff, family things, a little trauma here and there.

What about the slavering demons? What about the insanity? What about the degree of cosmic revelation that you are just not up for but now-- uh-oh-- have no choice but to swallow? That stuff is no joke. And you can sort of like-- what do we do with it? How do we put it somewhere? Is it healing? It's got to be healing, it's a healing journey, embrace the shadows. Well, sometimes maybe you don't want to embrace the shadows. I can't say.

Your ayahuasca is not going to tell you to shake hands with every demon who comes along. They're shaking the rattle and get that thing out of here. So it's not easy. The question of the demon is, in a way, the entrance to some very complicated questions psychologically, religiously, even ontologically, that we're not going to get within the clinical framework. And I think that that's a really important part of this conversation and I'm glad you brought up the fact that mystical experiences like that or records that we associate with mystical experience.

GARY LADERMAN: Right. Well, I mean, I just would second that. I think that trying to sort of, as you say, weed out some of the more negative stories and aspects of these experiences is really setting up a certain kind of bias. That's not just within the scientific community, but also in the public, this is like that's the narrative we're getting, is these are going to be positive.

And as you're saying, for sure [INAUDIBLE] it's all within a very therapeutic framework not just to articulate, but to try to understand. And that's leaving out a significant aspect of the psychedelic experience for many people. Again, I would reiterate it's the same with religion. We have the narrative of religion as being positive in general, sort of positive for individuals, you're healthier, you live longer, or that religion is the solution.

And, if I may, the dark side that is constant with religion is kind of again sort of pushed to the side. And so it's a similar way of thinking, or pattern that is tied into what can be quite profound transformational experiences. What do you do with those? Who's the authority to go to help you process or make sense of those experiences?

CHRISTIAN GREER: Exactly. And I think that there's been a lot of research on that. I'm thinking of just the psychedelic theologians, , so to speak like Aldous Huxley, Philip K Dick, Robert Anton Wilson, these characters have gone into that a great deal. In fact, I was wondering if you could say a little bit about them. These are characters that you've looked at and what they might offer.

ERIK DAVIS: Yeah, well, I mean, what I was trying to do with High Weirdness in a way, was to expand the framework of the sort of experimenters, scientists, students, scholars of this stuff through looking at people who kind of put their own experience, their own minds on the line, threw themselves into it. Intellectuals who dove into the deep end of the pool of psychedelics.

So Philip K Dick is a slightly different character because you'd have to say he's a non-neurotypical guy. And he didn't actually take psychedelics that often, and in a way, hit the psychedelic quality of his vision is, in some ways, more singular to him and his literary project. But looking at Terence McKenna and Robert Anton Wilson both, the point was to sort of show what happens to people who are intellectually sophisticated, capable of critical and even skepticism, including skepticism about their own experience, that is the ability to go through a profound and powerful experience.

And at least later, if not during it, go, Well, this is partly something that I'm making up. And yet, it's also very much a meaning event that you're encountering. What happens when people like that go deep and go far? And how do they lose the path? How did they regain the path? How do they make meaning out of this experience?

And how, essentially, do they also sort of celebrate that loopy constructivist quality of the experience when what they're bringing in is, in part, ceding the experience that then takes them farther than they anticipated? What do you do then? Have you lost the plot? Are you are you entering into a relationship with madness? And I do think that as part of this kind of conversation about the shadow side or the dark side of psychedelic experience or religion for that matter.

Another thing that sort of is like lurking, another elephant in the corner is madness. Now we know that when LSD is first invented, they were like, we've got to sell this stuff. It's so powerful, we can make money. We can help people. What do we do? Well, it's a psychotic memetic. It's like psychosis, so we can understand psychosis better and understand our psychotic patients better through using this and exploring it. And at some point, we realize that's a really insufficient account of it and maybe even a harmful one to some extent.

But since that time, there has been a general tendency within the underground and within clinical research to kind of like avoid the psychotic dimensions that are opened up with this, both in terms of momentary experience, one's own loss of the plot, and even the occasional casualty, or maybe even not so occasional, a casualty that emerges on the other end.

What do we do about that? How do we rethink about madness? And I feel like at this point in society, when things are breaking down, when mental health is a major factor, when people are discovering new syndromes and new problems within themselves as everything begins to unravel, that we're sort of set up for a new, more complex, more nuanced, in some sense more humanities-driven approach to think about madness.

And I use madness intentionally to not just use a medical term, not just to say psychosis, or schizophrenia, or even paranoia, but to gesture towards this huge, long currents within human culture that has a lot to do with religion, has a lot to do with psychology, has a lot to do with the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves individually. And that is also in some sense broached by certainly the issue of intense psychedelic experience.

Not to say that people should go mad or enjoy that, or that it's a groovy thing to do. But it's sort of part of the picture. And one of the things about these characters is that they were doing what they were doing without a net. They didn't have a shaman, they didn't have a supportive psychedelic community exactly. They had a bunch of freaks around them who were also going on their own trips. So it's also a cautionary tale, but if we don't read and absorb the cautions of the cautionary tales, I think we're going to ignore some of the hairier edges of the phenomenon we're looking at.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Definitely. Gary, do you have something to add?

GARY LADERMAN: Well, no. I mean, it just got me thinking quickly that just the way-- again, how are we programmed? Where do we look for sources of meaning, and understanding, and madness, mystical experience? It's generally historically been religion that has helped people make sense of those experiences. And now we have other sources of authority, places where people can make sacred sense of some of these experiences and the figures you're talking about for sure had a huge influence on popular culture.

And there are all kinds, as we know, of musicians, other forms media of popular culture, films, literature, music, that speak to what you're talking about. That becomes one avenue where it's not just the individual artist who's working out their own experience, but it is shaping a whole cultural sensibility around drugs and their effects, and even like those authors that you write about are like so, , in many ways subversive and influential simultaneously.

So I mean, I love to see that side. Forget about the doctors, forget about the shamans. Where are people turning to think about these deep kind of existential experiences, realities that are inescapable?

CHRISTIAN GREER: Gary, that really is precisely the point I wanted to drive out here. And pivoting a little bit, I'd like to pivot to the focus of this lecture, which is psychedelics between sacred and profane. Now Gary, I know that you have done a lot of work on the way in which some drugs are perceived as sacred and others as profane. I mean, most interestingly of all, you don't confine your research into sacred drugs to psychedelics. You look at pharmaceuticals, you look at alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, sugar, isn't it? Now, I'm wondering how you do that. Could you explain the way in which you see how drugs blur the line between these categories?

GARY LADERMAN: Well, yeah, sure. We have another hour or two. I don't know how I'm working it out, I find it fascinating. And because in both directions, we've got to rethink religion and we've got to rethink drugs. And it is quite, on the one hand, very playful to be thinking across those terms. And on the other hand it's, I think, totally irrelevant. I mean, the book I'm writing is really going to push the point that in America, drugs are the source of religious life and sacred meaning.

And I mean, psychoactive, mood altering, consciousness-altering drugs that are across the spectrum from whatever-- coffee in the morning to tripping on LSD. Now that, obviously, is complicated. I'm not just talking about this is what Christians do or this is what Jews do. It really is trying to make a more anthropological argument about the embeddedness and the connections between spirituality and these kinds of substances that can alter our perceptions.

So comparatively and historically, there's all kinds of evidence that this is across the board, a part of human culture and human history. I don't think that goes away as we enter the modern period and as we move through the horrid period of colonialism and empire building, of the ways in which many of these products become the backbone of so many modern nations.

So it's what we're all saying, it's very thick, it's hard to sort through all of that. But coffee remains religious for some people. Coffee before Columbus and the Americans or wherever, has a certain kind of sacred quality that we see again and again. In America, we can talk about the coffee shop or the rituals around your morning coffee, what it provides for you. I don't want to go on and on. I can let my hair down though on this one.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Yeah, there you go!

GARY LADERMAN: Here you go. All right, so-- right on. Well, talk about hippies. So yeah, I mean, it's like-- and just quickly the kind of conceptual frame-- I hate that word now-- is I'm really working with one of my mentors at University of California, Santa Barbara, Cathy Albanese, who in her introduction to American religious history book talked about religion in the spectrum between ordinary religion and extraordinary religion.

And there are ways in which drugs provide us with both the ordinary sort of cultural stability that we need in terms of just living our lives and how we participate in culture, there's a kind of ordering there that is, I think, found in coffee, and smoking a cigarette, and taking a hit. It's not about some mystical experience. It's in what else does religion do? It comforts, it calms us down, it gives us a better sense of ourselves.

Drugs do all that now for most of us. And then, of, course I have to deal with addiction, which is also totally tied up with religious kinds of understandings, and perspectives, and responses. So even when you start talking about addiction-- though I agree with Carl Hart and his work that argues we overdo the kind of dangers of addiction around drugs, they're still there and real.

And again, I think, data for religious studies. The pharmaceuticals, maybe someone will ask a question about that because most people resist the idea that pharmaceuticals or prescription drugs can be religious in any sense. But man, oh man, you bet. And then last thing I like to play with too is like to go get flippen, is religion a drug?


GARY LADERMAN: Can we be addicted to religion? And just think in those terms and whatever, we're not just bringing in marks or not. You can see the ways in which they both function similarly. And that's what I'm trying to get at and speculate on. Before the pandemic hit, I was out in Amsterdam visiting Christian, that's where we met and that was quite the time and you helped me a lot as I was just kind of getting started on this project.

So I'm talking about America, but I think we can think more globally about these connections between spirituality, religious life, many, many levels and drug consumption.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Now Erik, I know you focused on this exact issue in your current research, in which you are looking at the material culture of psychedelicism and LSD blotter acid in particular. Now, I was curious to see how you would draw those lines between sacred and profane because you have the material culture to do so in front of you.

ERIK DAVIS: Yeah, no. It's a great question. I thought a lot about it and I'll do a little theoretical backstop and invoke a no-longer-cool figure on religious studies just for fun, which is [INAUDIBLE]. And one of the reasons that he gets slagged is that he kind of has this sort of ontological divide between sacred and profane. Indeed, our tendency to want to use this term is partly due to the enormous influence that his ideas had decades ago in the history of religion and just in culture in general.

He's a very popular influential writer. And so he's been attacked for essentialism and his attempt to kind of create a new sort of religiosity that can push back against the horrors of modernity et cetera, et cetera. But there's an interesting feature in his vision, which is he talks about how, yes, the tension between the sacred and profane is essentially ontological. The sacred is another order. But he insists that the sacred can manifest in anything.

That is, there's an element of contingency of mere facticity in the manifestation of the sacred in our social reality, according him. And he focuses in particular on what he calls a paradox of the idol. The paradox of the idol is that the idol can be sacred, can be surrounded with-- if you want to think in sort of overused, old school anthrophological terms, taboos, and other sorts of ritual rules.

But at the same time it's just a hunk of wood that some guy put a nail into because that's what his job is. And so the idol is kind of sitting there to remind us of another thing that I think is very important for psychedelics and particularly for LSD, which is that, yes, there's the tension between the sacred and the profane. But there is those places, contingent, changing, moving in society where the sacred and profane are held together in tension.

So and that is in a way a different mode of the sacred, a mode that doesn't allow you to sort of simply put the profane at bay. Instead, it puts you back into the conundrum that that distinction is always being made and remade, and yet it has a kind of dynamic to it. So this is very much the way-- this is very evident in the history of LSD blotters. So LSD is really interesting in this way because it doesn't have a sacred backstory. I mean you can dig back and say, OK, maybe there was air god in the [INAUDIBLE], Eleusinian Mysteries, and dah dah dah dah.

OK, but basically it's invented by a pharmaceutical corporation in the middle of World War II. It emerges as a completely profane molecule that gets distributed through global supply chains bla bla bla bla bla. And yet somewhere along the way, it becomes sort of sacred. Oh, wait. Very misty. Actually, incredibly powerful. Central to the emergence of alternative countercultural religiosity.

And the more and more we understand the history of it, the more and more central it is, it's the force behind huge decades, generations of alternative religion. But it is like one of these idols and you really see that in the in the blotter art. In the images that are used to put the pieces of paper that become the cheapest and easiest way to distribute LSD.

Not the most noble, not the ones that are the most appropriate for the material because it degrades, its greasy, it's in your pocket, it's very material, it's very pulpy. In fact, it's literally pulp, so it has that earthy grounded crass quality that signifies the profane. And indeed, if you look at the imagery, a lot of it is very goofy, it's drawn from popular culture, it's ripped off from comic books or from advertising.

You've got Mickey Mouse, you have Superman, you have a lot images that sort of celebrate their profane quality. , And yet simultaneously you have religious icons. You have images of beauty, you have Buddhas, you have Ganesha, you have these sort of figures that remind you-- wink wink-- that this is never just about the profane.

Or rather, that the sacred, like some kind of Mobius strip is wrapped into the profane, and that that's the heart of the mystery. That's what the LSD religiosity is. It's not some other realm necessarily of sacred transcendence, but is an introduction to the twisted nature of the sacred and the profane that continues to unroll throughout modernity. Because in a way, that's like the best we get as modern. We're not going to be able to reconstruct some old idea of the transcendent realm.

It didn't work then, it killed people. Like, let's not do that. But let's also not just go, yeah, the sacred is just a concept, whatever. Instead, it's a looping, twisting, funny, wink wink, kind of quality that's very clear within LSD culture in particular, which is one of the reasons I think LSD culture remains really central even though it's not as important to the contemporary clinical research discussion in many ways.

So that's my thought, but I'd love to hear like-- Gary has been looking at this stuff and I'm totally psyched about your book, Gary. There's been some versions of some of the stuff before, but we're still waiting for this, with that breadth, not just psychedelics. With caffeine, with-- Xanax is holy to me, man. I don't know about you, I never leave home without it.

GARY LADERMAN: That's what I'm talking about. Funny, but true. But I love-- that's great too, the material elements that really kind of confuse our categories. Excellent.

ERIK DAVIS: Yeah. Confuse our categories.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Well, I mean, going back to something Gary said about a more capacious idea of religion, Erik you got me thinking the question for many of these scholars is not, what does the study of religion tell us about psychedelics? But, what do psychedelics tell us about the study of religion? I mean, I love this idea that Mickey Mouse is a more potent religious icon lump sum than Christ on the cross. What does that tell us? I mean, the idea that a while ago Erik, in fact, you put me up on a very interesting museum, the Museum of Illegal Images, which was this San Francisco-based collection of LSD blotter acid.

That I'm not even sure if it was legal to go there, I mean it was very gray area. But when I was there, I marveled over how the balance or imbalance between religious iconography and comic book iconography. Felix the Cat, Pink Panther, all of the Disney characters were far more prevalent on the blotter acid than Ganesha, Buddha and those things.

And then that got me thinking, we're dealing with a new religiosity that is so unfamiliar to the traditional forms of religion that it's been marginalized. However, if we're willing to say, no, this is religion because they say it, it forces us to open the door to so many new fascinating topics that could really rejuvenate the field. But one that I really have gone down to was humor. Humor in religion is-- what? I mean religion can be funny? No way. If we're willing to turn the telescope around or if we're willing to use a different instrument, I think we can open up so many new vital areas that will really make the study of drugs a potent force, not only in the field of religious studies, but across the humanities art history, whatever, et cetera.


ERIK DAVIS: Yeah, absolutely. The question of humor, super key and that was partly why I referred to that wink wink quality, that there's a trickster dimension to the thing, to use as sort of a familiar archetype, that points to our inability to resolve any condition into a perfectly profane register or a perfectly sacred one.


ERIK DAVIS: And that that then becomes part of the religiosity. Very much true of like a Grateful Dead concert. Yes, you can describe it in religious terms, ritualistically, people are pursuing ecstasy, they're having transcendent visions, sure. But you spend an hour there and you realize there's this whole sarcastic satirical side to it that's very amused about the whole situation.

Which arguably tends towards a certain kind of nihilism, which I wouldn't even disagree with necessarily. But it's really just tang within a larger field of feelings and thoughts around the kind of slipperiness of these ecstatic experiences. And that writing that is part of what this emerging religiosity I think is about.

GARY LADERMAN: And I would also add that-- and if I'm following along with you-- that's why like the humor, the kind of irony, that self-awareness, I'm very suspicious of what people report about their religions. I'm so against like surveys and I think people are religious in ways that they don't even understand. And that's again, this is part of that what are we doing as scholars of religion? I mean, I've done my acid back in the day.

I think that whether or not anyone has tripped, that you can still make the case. I think it's very clear once you start putting out the evidence. Look at the ways in which pharmaceutical companies defined health and are arguing and providing you with your true or better self and so on. And then it's like, again, with students, they get it as I try to confuse them and bring them along on these things.

But in the general public and even back to the mystical experience metric, it's like, I don't trust what they're saying about their experience. But that may be me, especially around religion, I'm just really suspicious of what people say, how they describe the ways they're religious and then what they're really doing.

ERIK DAVIS: Yeah, I think this is maybe taking a slightly different direction but I feel like it's been shadowing our conversation a lot is the sort of parallel story of the introduction of contemplative practices and meditation to both the sciences and the humanities. And we see the same kinds of dynamics. So in a way, you can get a clearer, less romanticized, less archetypally overwhelming picture of the same problem by looking at the contemplative sciences, including the way in which they are religious for some and very much non-religious for others.

There are supremely secular forms of very far out meditation at this point that are completely uninterested in anything religious, and yet the way they function and dah dah dah. It's like listening to Sam-- I was just listening to Sam Harris yesterday, this arch rationalist talking about Dzogchen and I'm like, this is really weird. This is where we are. We're at a place in history where this conjunction is completely not just possible, but productive.

That actually makes spaces emerge. And so I think that is an interesting parallel for us as we're looking at psychedelic humanities and psychedelic science to sort of gauge some of the dynamics and the processes, and even the connections. I mean, I think, one feature of at least one approach to contemplative sciences is that there is, even in a scientific framework, space for interimpiricism for value of people who have practiced for a very long time to report states and stages that could then be correlated with, say, objective measures.

But you kind of trust that there are contemplative experts who can navigate the field. And I think that, to some degree, that's a very valid gesture and to a good degree. Something similar is available in psychedelics, but we're just starting it. It's some kind of interempiricism, which is probably what I liked about the '70s guys I wrote about is, even though they were crazy, wild guys, they were also empiricists in a lot of ways. They were really looking at technical elements of their experience.

Not just medicalizing and not just turning them into sacred data either. So I feel like there's a lot to be thought about in terms of the conjunction with the situation of the more respectable contemplative sciences in today's Sciences and humanities.

CHRISTIAN GREER: And on this note, I would just like to add as a historian of psychedelic culture, the people who claim it's a religious thing seem to be in the minority. The majority of people who take psychedelics and have four-eyed experiences, talk about them as for-eyed experiences because their idea of religion is the thing that happens on Sunday in church. And so it really begs for-- I mean, in my view, it's the most exciting game in town these days, is researching psychedelic culture because it forces us as scholars to really be a bit more flexible.

I think the key example here is Ken Kesey who was like, Don't acid as a sacrament, it's not as funny. I thought that in his view, it was more religious than religion because religion was inauthentic. And what was happening when you took acid was more because it was all the wonder, and amazement, and sublime experiences, plus a little bit of irony, and humor, and, self reflexivity and taking the cork out. And really, the texture of it was so much more thick that in his mind religion was outmoded and not even the appropriate way to discuss it.

So when I talk to my students, I'm like, Listen, OK, you won't get jobs, O promise if you focus on this, but you'll have a great time-- maybe you will, I don't know. But you'll have a great time because it begs for a flexible approach that I think really makes the humanities a really exciting place to be. Well, on that note, I think we should pivot to the Q&A, which is popping off. If possible, Charlie, can I ask you to come back into--


GARY LADERMAN: hey, hey.


CHARLES STANG: Wow. OK, team what a thrilling conversation so far. I've got all kinds of questions but I feel as if I should cede the floor to the participants so--

CHRISTIAN GREER: No, wait, Charlie. Come on--

CHARLES STANG: No, no, no.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Are you sure?

CHARLES STANG: Trust me, I'll get one or two in there. There's some of these that are just too juicy not to dig into. But here's a question that goes back to-- may have been actually Erik's opening comments and it's about set and setting. This is a question I'm going to read it out loud here. What's the concrete data or study basis upon which the suggestibility critique of perennial mysticism is made?

In other words, has anyone studied what expectations or messaging psychedelic volunteer subjects have heard or are holding as compared to their actual experience in the session. Or is this a cultural high altitude assumption of the imaginative sea we are in? Maybe I'll just riff on that very briefly.

Anyone who's seen the kind of set and setting of the Johns Hopkins clinical room news will have questions about the religious iconography, the musical playlist, everything about it strikes me, as Gary said earlier, as deeply religious, top to bottom. But in any case, I think this question is at you, Erik. And maybe all of you have thoughts on this, but has there been studies on that suggestibility?

ERIK DAVIS: There's a lot of studies on suggestibility. But in terms of actually looking at expectations set and setting in a rigorous, reproducible kind of way, I don't think so. Maybe it's there or there are elements of it. So in that sense, you could say, hey, what are you guys talking about? How do we know that there are invariant features. And I do think there are some invariant features. I want to insist that I don't believe-- again, it's not just the social to constructivist's cartoon of like, Oh, no. We're just making the whole thing up. No, it's more than that.

But on the other hand, I think that you can look at the ways in which things have been set up historically. And as a historian, it's pretty obvious that something like this is going on. But it doesn't have the "studies show" density to it. But perhaps other people on the panel know about stuff that I don't know about.

GARY LADERMAN: As you're saying, I don't think there are yet those studies which are likely coming. They make a lot of sense. But the other way to look at it is where it's going. And certainly we've been reading about some of the efforts to patent how you do the guiding. And that too, however the pharmaceutical companies take over all this is one thing, but then even those kinds of questions where, well, can you-- whatever, copyright, patent a certain process, certain kind of way of helping someone trip. Again, that's going to be quite a fascinating battle ground.

ERIK DAVIS: The playlist alone is a fascinating thing to think about because one of the things I like about the playlist as a problem is that it shows that there's no way out in a very clear way. It's like because you either have a playlist or you don't. And if you don't, it's silence, maybe with things beeping if you're in a lab. And so no, no, no. Let's not do that. Let's have a playlist. OK, well, which playlist? Where does that come from? What are our ideas about it?

So the classical playlist that is preferred by many folks that was originally kind of crafted by Bill Richards is larded with expectations and associations [INAUDIBLE]. So it's totally inappropriate for a lot of people, they don't like that stuff. So OK, well, let's do another playlist based on your preferences. Well, aren't we just in the loop again? So there's no way out of that wiggly line between objective and subjective in terms of developing studies that would show that set and setting actually work because the studies themselves are participating in the loop. So it's like, Ah! It's like bubble gum on your hands, you can't get out of the thing.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Erik, here I'd have to mention the new book by Ido Hartogsohn, I think it's called, American Trip.

ERIK DAVIS: American Trip.

CHRISTIAN GREER: I think some of the best research on this is going to come from that book.

ERIK DAVIS: That's true.

CHRISTIAN GREER: I should also mention that the playlist that I've scanned through seemed extremely alienating to me, I have to say. And this would be the virtue of more scholars of-- I hate to keep returning to the Grateful Dead, but there's something involved in that spontaneous journey that you take with a band, belting out extremely loud music that allows you to surrender in a way that a playlist might not. I mean, what if a song came on, you're like, hey, could you skip it? I mean, I know I'm like having an experience but just-- next, next, next track please.

CHARLES STANG: Here's a comment and a question from Ted Hand who's been pretty active on the Q&A here. Ted, here's the first comment, which I think you will resonate with, Christian. Ted says, In some ways I'm nearly as uncomfortable with the chaplaincy model as I am with the medicalization model. Still feels like a lot of the important work with psychedelics will still need to be carried on underground or in weirder theoretical spaces.

Now, I know you three all will have strong views on that and I have a lot of sympathy with that comment. Question to follow. Erik, have you heard about this research where they are getting the therapeutic antidepression depression benefits from psilocybin by using another drug to turn off the trip receptor? I don't know what that refers to. Is this an indication that maybe we really can dispense with the dark side of the psychoactive element?

So that again raises-- and by the way that's a huge issue in the Q&A, people are very taken with this question of what about the marginalization or full abandonment or banishment of the dark side of psychedelic work? Any of you can take that up.

GARY LADERMAN: Christian you want to go?

CHRISTIAN GREER: No, it was directed at Erik, I've got to take a swing man, it's your question.

ERIK DAVIS: I don't know about that particular study, I do know of similar work that was done with ketamine where they were trying to take away the psychoactivity of it. And we're under the assumption that the medically beneficial aspects of it were still communicable. That you didn't need the trip, you didn't need some kind of meaning event in order for it to work. Which is, of course, a very materialist or pharmacological way of thinking about efficacy, which, as humanities people, we're always going to be like,

Well, wait a second. But in terms of that particular study, I don't know. It's actually going to be interesting to see, almost like there's a kind of race for people to sort of legitimize psychedelic experience, including the scary things that come up, versus people who were like no, no, no That's too messy. Let's just skip it and go and produce a new drug that's going to have that kind of efficacy.

And I think we're going to see-- in fact, we already see everyone trying to do everything because there's so much capital involved. But it really does raise this interesting question about what is the value of consciousness experience in a medicalised context? It's really unclear.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Here, Erik, I would just like to say that I was daydreaming a few days ago, and this was the daydream. What if all of this research suggesting extremely groundbreaking effects is a little bit premature? What if the psychedelic renaissance is more light than fire? And just yesterday, in fact, I saw a study in the New England Journal of Medicine about this latest psilocybin trial that did not indicate that magic mushrooms are more effective than SSRIs.

And so that got me thinking about, all right, well, how do we prepare, as scholars in this field in the humanities, for when the hype around the psychedelic renaissance dies? Or if it doesn't deliver the goods. I was curious. Gary, Erik, have you thought about what happens after? After the band goes home?

GARY LADERMAN: Exactly, the rain's coming. Wash everything away. I disagree. I think it's going to go big. We're talking about wellness and a whole kind of cultural fixation on kind of psychological well-being and this is going to be a sacrament. It's going to be an important substance that will be available for people. And as the studies show-- many studies show-- they can be quite effective and can do more than just cure the depression.

And certainly there's a wide range of things happening for people who are taking this. And we're in that loop that Erik is talking about. We're in this medicalization moment-- not a moment, but a culture. But we are in a kind of psychedelic moment that, I think, as you're saying, there's this convergence where-- I don't know. Everyone I know wants to take psychedelics and there's so much interest and across the board. And it's becoming legal in these different places.

And the question's right on, I mean, forgetting about the more institutional kind of religious setting, psychedelic chaplaincy, or maybe there, of course, rabbis who have taken LSD and tripped, and all kinds of different religious folks. But that's one of the potential settings the medical kind of therapeutic is the other. But that ain't all and that's kind of where I'm drawn, is the recreational.

We've got the illegal, medical use, there's recreational is my sweet spot and it's like that's where a lot of the religious-- well, religious action is everywhere, but I think it's like that zone is where I'd be particularly interested to see what kind of generativity there is around [INAUDIBLE].

CHRISTIAN GREER: I mean [INAUDIBLE] that, Gary. I have to say that the term, recreational marijuana, I consider drug war humbug. I really do. Because if you look at the history of people who have smoked dope, recreation was not what they were saying they were doing. Often you hear these funny words like getting high, which is a fun way of talking about transcendence. Literally, stairway to heaven, Jacob's ladder, that's what you're doing, you're getting high. So yeah, I see what you're saying. Erik, what do you think?

ERIK DAVIS: Just I disagree that there won't-- a lot of the interesting stuff is going to be happening in these less formalized zones and it will continue to be that way. And I think that that's going to give us all more stuff to chew on. And a part of what we're reflecting right now is a moment when the hype is extreme and when these new narratives are coming forward, and they're tied in with huge industries and with a tremendous desire for that people have to have something else happen.

Even just to not have any-- like a non-boring day, a guaranteed non-boring day where my usual crap doesn't come up. Something else is coming up, what a great treat that would be. And in terms of is this a passing fad? I think it is important to look at the history of psychiatric medicine and to recognize that when there are new regimens that come in, there's usually a utopian splash. And in fact, it's part of the religiosity that Gary's talking about.

So to a degree, that will happen here. But I also agree with Gary that it's not going to stop, it's just going to get more complex, probably just because it's fun. So like wait, if I can go and get a medicalized experience I'm going to have this thing? And I'm like, Wow! That was a lot better than TV or going to the gym. Great! Yeah, I'm feeling better, doc! I think the inherent pleasures and interest of the materials will carry them beyond whatever failings they have in certain kinds of measures of efficacy.

The cat's out of the bag. Given the mental health problem, given that we haven't anything cool since Prozac, and that wasn't even very cool, some version of this is going to happen. I agree with gray on that.

CHARLES STANG: Maybe I can take the moment then to reflect back to you all some of the things that I thought were most interesting that you've brought up and then try to weave that into a question. So I want to just underscore something Gary said early on, which is that there's, I think, a lamentable emphasis on the religious lens being focused on the experience alone as opposed to all the concentric circles of rituals, practices that constitute the psychedelic world.

And we were obviously talking about the kind of set and setting around what's happening in these clinical environments. But even the study of psychedelia seems, to me, a strangely-- its own kind of weird esoteric priesthood that we're all implicated in. Another feature that Erik brought up, which was madness, which is very interesting because of course so much of the renaissance today is predicated on precisely being able to relieve people of mental illness, that category.

And it's hard to argue with that. We have an epidemic of depression and addiction. If something could provide relief from that. But on the other hand, I think you bring up this fact that what we tend to call mental illness is a medicalized version of a deep abiding dimension of human reality which you're calling madness. And what is it about our dance with that that's important to keep it in play?

Obviously, that transitions nicely into the point you've all made about the dark side of the work. So if you imagine a spectrum here on a kind of functional understanding of psychedelics, a psychedelic can do this for you or can save you from addiction. If you could have that functionality without the trip, you didn't have the journey, great. Simpler mechanism. And then at the other end there's this sense of like, no, this is actually some sort of exploratory-- yeah, some sort of exploratory function.

And function is maybe the wrong word. It might be more about reality than function. And there, the details of the story, and especially reckoning with the dark self, is absolutely inalienable to the process. So a number of questions have come up about why do you all think the dark side of psychedelia is being banished. Is it just a kind of glossy American fascination with solutions and functionality?

Or is there something else going on? I think that's definitely going on. Yeah, I, myself, am really, really bothered by this because as a number of you have already mentioned, I'm a historian of what you might call mysticism. Mystical experience in the historical archive is not all about unitive union with a loving single being. I mean, first of all, the fact that we have what we mean by classifying these experiences as mystical is complicated.

But challenging experiences harrowing, horrifying, the idea of abandonment, and that this is a terrain. And that maybe you're not just to have one experience, but these are related to one another. And that you have to learn how to navigate these. That all make sense if you're in a long-standing community of discernment where there are people who have had these experiences, who know the terrain, who can help you navigate it.

But I feel as if that is very often being cut out as just sort of like an unfortunate, almost like a biological-- like an unfortunate product of the fact that we have bodies. Oh, sometimes you're going to have these bad reactions to it. But the real thing you're looking for is this. I think that needs to be resisted on every level. So anyway, I don't know if that resolved into a question in the end, but I'm trying to kind of sum up some themes I heard from you all.

ERIK DAVIS: No, I mean, I think you answered your own question there. And even though Gary's on the panel here, I think it has to do with something that we have not mentioned. Somehow we made it this far without mentioning, which is death. And that if there is--

GARY LADERMAN: I was just about to.


ERIK DAVIS: If there is a whatever-- I mean, if there is a death practice that we can take on, it is large dosed psychedelics. No question about it. In that zone, losing your mind, abandonment, profound cosmic solitude, confrontation with demons, with your own evil. All of that stuff, it's all part of this sort of [? Bardo ?] run through.

And whether or not that becomes helpful after the moment of death, who knows? Does that become helpful leading up to death? My anecdotal impression of knowing deep psychedelic people as they die, go through the death process, is that they, , almost to a person have a leg up if not a couple legs up, and a third eye open. There's some kind of residue of confrontation.

And here, recognized that we're not talking about unity of experience, we're talking about confrontation, we're talking about reaching down into yourself to the last remaining life force to be able to withstand some of this experience you're talking about rather than just like collapsing. And so that's a whole big dynamic there. And I'm confident that these things will become more part of the picture as the inevitable connection between psychedelic chaplaincy, and death, and boomers, and psychedelics.

They're going to be mashing. We're going to see death psychedelic practice. We're going to be seeing all sorts of forms of palliative care that are in relationship to these experiences. And then I think along those lines, the capacity to discover sources, , even within these harrowing experiences becomes more available as a story, as a technique, as a logic, even as something that we learn more and more about how to do because that's all you're going to have.


I've got to hand it over to Gary here because I'm just going to shut up, but I think that's a really important factor.

GARY LADERMAN: Well, I mean, you're right on. And it's just that to go on and on, that there is a sense in which being honest with these drug experiences-- they are mixed. And they do try to encapsulate and help capture all of the different aspects of being human, from ecstasy to greatest fears. And those, I'm agreeing, need to be a part of the narratives, the ways in which we study and think about them.

And not discount but [INAUDIBLE] again it's part of the package that can be transformation, even the dark stuff. I mean, just because there is the potential for that, that doesn't mean well, let's forget this is a potential therapeutic intervention. Somehow we have to integrate and it's just-- I won't even start with death, but I just had my death and dying class before this one and we had just a super wonderful person who's palliative care doctor MD, his name is Bruce BJ Miller.

Some of you know him, probably. I don't know if you know him, Erik. He's out in the Bay Area, but he's quite a special guy. But he ran the San Francisco hospice Zen Center and [INAUDIBLE] a number of great conversations with him. But part of his take around end of life palliative care is the ways in which we don't integrate death into our lives like we do want, I don't know if it's the American way, I wouldn't say that.

But this sort of sense of death is out there and helping someone else. And certainly these psychedelic studies, some of them, are as Erik was suggesting anecdotally are trying to argue that, in fact, tripping in some ways and under some conditions can alleviate the fear of death. Can help people to integrate the reality of death not just because they're going to die in a few months, but even as a younger person who may not think about death so much.

The experience can be so profound, overwhelming. It may be hard and difficult in some ways, but still there is an outcome, and there are long-term consequences of these experiences that there too, we haven't really kind of fully studied over the long run how these experiences can impact people's views. But I think they all tie into what we think of traditionally as religious questions, existential questions.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Here, an anecdote is worth mentioning, which is the original psychedelic theologian Aldous Huxley, asked his wife for an intravenous injection of LSD on his deathbed. And he believed that was the way to go. And going on into the future, he was not the only one. Timothy Leary wrote a book called Design for Death, where he lays out his belief that the psychedelic experience at its core is death and rebirth. And by virtue of having experienced it so many times, he was capable of surrendering at the end. He had learned what he called the yoga of psychedelics. And, in his view, that yoga was a letting go. And so I think that has a lot to say.

GARY LADERMAN: Yeah. I think when teaching some of this, we're talking about it a lot more these days, is that there's this strong, deep and growing interest in what potentially can come from taking different kinds-- for now let's talk about psychedelics. And these kinds of encounters with more of the so-called dark side are pretty often left out, as we're saying. But finding the interest in death particularly is pretty strong among people who, again, just sort of are curious about what is the trip and what happens, and can this be helpful?

CHARLES STANG: I wonder if I can crowdsource a question I have with you three. And as we're wrapping up this series, which I think has been a wild success, we've had a really good series of conversation. We have not covered everything and I have heard from people who are frustrated that we haven't covered certain topics, and I share their frustration in some cases. Some cases it's topics I hadn't thought of, some cases it's topics I have thought but I couldn't get the right configuration of people together.

We're going to continue this, I mean, the momentum has been pretty amazing, and the enthusiasm around it. And no deans have yet in got on my case about it yet. So I want to ask you three while you're here, what would you like to see this series tackle that it hasn't?

ERIK DAVIS: I can think of something that's come up a few times in different ways. Christian talking about the Grateful Dead, talking about the playlist, is really going deeper into music. And there are very articulate DJs out there who understand very much how to architect a night-long psychedelic ritual, that have very sensitive, sensible ways of thinking about dynamics, rate of attack, et cetera, et cetera.

There's a whole history here too of different ways that psychedelics and also sometimes images have been used. So I think maybe one thing is to sort of uncover some of these history-- like Christian was referring to-- of using sound and visuals in order to construct a kind of experience or experiential chamber, and the different tactics that people have had.

For example, roquette in the 1970s was totally wild, extreme, horror images, loud bashing music. I mean, it was full on. And was that a good idea? I don't know. Were people traumatized? Probably sometimes. But that's just like one modality and then you have these modes. So there's a whole way of looking at the popular, at the recreational where we draw out its protocols and practices in an historical fashion that's linked to this question about the relationship of particularly music to the energetic psychoactive phenomenology that goes on in individual and collective bodies.

So I would definitely want to pull some of that stuff out because I think it's there but people aren't really looking at it in the way that I would think a series like this could look at.

CHARLES STANG: That's a great idea.

GARY LADERMAN: Yeah. I know that's exactly, my first thought was the popular culture angle and really trying to explore that. Certainly from what's come up in this session, is the negative. How do we address and bring to the surface some alternative narratives about what these experiences can do? And then how could I not say certainly something on psychedelics and death?


GARY LADERMAN: Would Probably draw quite a crowd and really all kinds of people can speak about.

CHARLES STANG: Great. Yeah. Well, Gary maybe we'll have you back to talk about that. Christian, how about you? I mean, you and I have been in conversation all year about this so I--

CHRISTIAN GREER: I think we did it Charlie! I think we did it!


GARY LADERMAN: It's great. It's super, super [? serious. ?]

CHRISTIAN GREER: I have to say that I have been so enthusiastic, and happy, and proud, and puzzled throughout the whole series. I never thought something this could happen frankly. And the fact that it not only happened, but people seem to be liking it is-- I'm in heaven. Though if I had to add one or two things. One, I'm absolutely crazy for material culture. So I would love to see I guess folk studies, what people were wearing.

Maybe some people who could talk about the history of travel in psychedelics, how it's opened up different pilgrimage sites like a globalized view of psychedelics. So trace it all over to India, to Afghanistan, to here, to France. Also, some debate perhaps. Sometimes I feel like I'm in an echo chamber about people who have certain opinions about psychedelics and their benefits. And I think that it could be very productive to hear people who don't share those views.

CHARLES STANG: Well, now, to be fair, I did give Brian [INAUDIBLE]


Brian's a friend, but I really did go after Brian, but--

GARY LADERMAN: That was legendary.

CHARLES STANG: I also gave Roland a little trouble too. So it hasn't just been flowers and sunshine. I'm sorry, Gary, what were you saying? You were raising your hand, I didn't--

GARY LADERMAN: No, no. I was saying that was a legendary performance.


No, no. Great, it really is.

CHARLES STANG: Wonderful. Well, yeah, I mean, there are other things I would like to-- I mean, Christian and I have talked about this a bit, the kind of narrative as is reflected in this panel, like there's four white guys talking about psychedelia and that is a perennial issue. And we're still struggling to break open the history and bring in other voices.

And obviously, Erik mentioned indigenous voices, and not just as a kind of gesture to the history, but actual representatives from living traditions who have views on this renaissance and all the struggles that they've been through. So that's definitely on the horizon. And I think getting us a little bit out of the American envelope would be good too.

So I think those are horizons I'll be exploring in the coming months. But we're out of time and I want to just say first of all, thank you for indulging me in that crown sourcing. I felt like it was appropriate at the end of the year. So Erik, Gary, Christian, thank you so much for doing this and I hope that we can enlist you in future shenanigans around psychedelics and the future of religion.

And actually, I know I will be following up with each of you in coming months around some of these very topics you suggested. Like I don't know any psychedelic DJ's, but I bet, Erik, you know lots of them. I'm in New England. I don't know. It's not exactly my bread and butter. But one thing I do want to say is questions started streaming in. We will share with all three panelists all the questions and comment.

And it's not by any means expected that you will respond to these, but we always like to share it so that you know what kind of questions and comments your remarks generated, so they don't just go into the oblivion. OK, so I'll sign off here and say, once again, thank you, and I look forward to resuming this series in September. So enjoy the summer months. OK.

CHRISTIAN GREER: Thanks a lot, guys. Thanks, Gary. Thanks, Charlie. Thanks, Erik.

GARY LADERMAN: Thank you so much really.