This interview was conducted to mark the release of Dr. Rick Strassman’s new book, DMT and the Soul of Prophecy: A New Science of Spiritual Revelation in the Hebrew Bible, published by Park Street Press.
Jeff: Rick, can you tell us a bit about why you wrote this book? Your work, of course, is well known and celebrated through your first book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule. But this book seems like a ‘return to roots,’ as it were. Can you speak in particular to that?
Rick: I was left with a handful of difficult questions at the end of my DMT research in 1995. And I felt I had only partially worked them through in the process of writing DMT: The Spirit Molecule in 2000. It seemed to me that all of these questions would resolve themselves if I could only find the proper model or models that could help me understand the DMT effect. By the expression “the DMT effect,” I mean both the fact of DMT’s existence as well as its effects. What is the nature of the world that DMT reveals? How does it do it? Why does DMT exist in our bodies? What is the value of entering into the DMT state; that is, are we or the world any better off for having visited it?
There is a very useful book written by an early 15th century scholar, Joseph Albo, called The Book of Principles. The Hebrew word he uses which is translated as “principles” could also be translated as “roots.” This in the sense of “fundamentals.” In my case, this searching for fundamentals or roots relates to my search for a cogent model by which one could understand and integrate or utilize the DMT experience. It also refers to my deciding to return to my own roots in the Jewish spiritual tradition in order to search for that model.
It is the latter move I am most interested in exploring with you. As you know, it was the Asian religions—and especially their often heterodox Tantric traditions—that became the privileged framework for receiving and translating psychedelic states in the 1960s and 70. This is patently obvious if one looks closely at, say, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, or his integration of the Hindu Tantra and Tantric Buddhism with western science in his utopian “spiritual testament” and final novel Island. One also thinks here of so many of the early Hindu and Buddhist references of Timothy Leary. I mean, they were “talking chakras” (that is, Tantric yoga) and attempting to use The Tibetan Book of the Dead (which was originally a Tantric meditation manual) to guide and make sense of their psychedelic trips. Seen historically, then, your move in this new book is quite a radical break with these earlier choices.
I am, by the way, not privileging one comparative strategy over the other. I am simply asking you to think out loud with us about how psychedelic states have been received in American culture through various religious lenses or prisms, and why you have chosen the prophetic states of the Hebrew Bible now.
The psychedelic drugs and Eastern religious meditation practices both entered Western culture in a big way in the 1960s. They arrived at the right time and in the right place to catalyze and reinforce the release of pent-up frustration with what appeared to be the mass conformity growing out of the strange mélange of post-World War II celebratory and survival mode. It was a time to reject the familiar and embrace the novel and exotic, to break out of old patterns of behavior and belief. It would have been highly inconsistent for those using, lauding, and promulgating the psychedelic drug state to have turned to the familiar as a means of understanding and integrating their effects. Mainstream Western religious traditions weren’t ready nor equipped, by and large, to accept these experiences and welcome into their fold those who’d had them.
Buddhism, on the other hand, spoke freely about altered states of consciousness resulting from meditation, and as these altered states being key to the religious sensibilities contained in their doctrines. And the contents and significance of the psychedelic drug and meditative experience demonstrated significant overlap. At the very least, the initial flash of the potential of enlightenment is very common in the psychedelic state and drew many to the Buddhist (and other Eastern religious) tradition.
In addition, those from the East teaching Buddhism were careful to distance themselves from elements of their tradition that smacked of Biblical religious sensibilities, at least in the beginning: things such as the presence of God, the requirements for ethical and moral behavior, praying to intermediaries, the reality of spiritual worlds. They generally (and this is especially the case with Zen Buddhist teachers) taught a sanitized psychologized version of the religion. Academics bought into this mindset by emphasizing similarities between Buddhist ‘philosophy’ and ‘psychology’ and the psychedelic drug state. In particular, the emphasis on the formless, imageless, content-free, unitive merging with ‘emptiness’ in the Buddhist enlightenment experience became the goal and attractor of the psychedelic drug experience.
Academics could probe what they called religious experience and reject—more or less consciously—their own religious backgrounds, thus avoiding many of the uncomfortable, conflicted, and less-than-savory aspects of their own traditions. Their own biases thus began affecting the drug experiences of those whom they studied—something we see replaying itself in this new wave of research. The psychedelic drugs powerfully enhance suggestibility, and if one is coached and prepared to have a unitive, mystical, formless, image-free state, it’s more likely they will. That’s the beauty of DMT in some ways—it’s such a pure pharmacological effect, that any preparation or biases are moot.
I don’t believe longer acting drugs’ effects are as immune to the influence of suggestion. This is apparent in the fact that both I and the vast majority of volunteers expected an enlightenment-like state, but only one of nearly 60 volunteers had that kind of experience. I was as complicit with this approach as anyone, but my DMT data forced me to reassess these assumptions. Two primary factors played a role. One was the absolute conviction of the reality basis of what my volunteers apprehended in the DMT state. It was not an hallucination, a dream, or similar to any previous psychedelic drug experience. They couldn’t accept any models that viewed what they had witnessed as anything other than what it appeared to be: a free-standing, objective, external alternate level of reality as real or more so than everyday reality. While the “brain on drugs” model was not outright rejected, it was accepted only with the caveat that the newly reconfigured brain was now able to see this objective external that it was incapable of so doing before. The DMT world was revealed, not generated.
That is a beautiful way to put it: the hidden world was ‘revealed, not generated.’ That, of course, is a major move, as I think most assume, on some level at least, that these experiences are generated by the brain, that is, that they are ‘hallucinations’ of some sort—mere projections of a hopped up brain. This same move from illusory neurological production to real revelation, of course, is what Huxley was getting at in The Doors of Perception. Drawing on earlier authors like Henri Bergson, he suggested that the mescaline was not ‘producing’ this encounter with the real. The mescaline rather was suppressing the brain-filter and letting it in. Again, a key move. Okay, so what was the second factor?
The second factor was the highly interactive nature of the experience. The sense of self was maintained, perhaps even to a greater extent than normal. The DMT world was full of content, in particular ‘beings’ of great power, intelligence, will, and sentience with whom the volunteers exchanged all manner of currency—emotional, intellectual, physical.
I considered scientific models attempting to explicate previously invisible worlds from the vantage point of the DMT state –in particular, its revealing a previously invisible layer of reality. However, the scientific models—dark matter, parallel universes—didn’t address the second element of what one might consider the hallmarks of the spiritual worlds; that is, their being ‘highly significant.’ Neither did they address why things were configured that way; e.g., why didn’t DMT cause one to grow an extra nose instead of what it does occasion? Finally, scientific models aren’t especially designed to answer the ‘if so, so what?’ question—i.e., what is the value of entering into these previously invisible realms? Say we learned how to generate limitless energy. Nevertheless, as a result, are we kinder, more generous, pay attention to each other better in conversations? And if they did reveal such information, how would that differ from what we already have had handed down to us from the major religious traditions of our own?
I decided to hone in instead on religious traditions, since they concern themselves with these issues concerning invisible worlds—why we’re configured to access them, and what they’re good for. Buddhism wasn’t ideal because the DMT experiences and that of the enlightened state are so different. In addition, Buddhism doesn’t attribute an objective reality basis to what one perceives during visions. Latin American shamanism does attribute a reality basis to the contents of the visions, but its ethical-moral shortcomings are so rife. While Western religious traditions have fallen far short in these regards, you’d hope any new model would at least not be a step backward. Finally, both the Buddhist and Latin American shamanic traditions are ostensibly God-less, something that would prevent them from ultimately making significant headway into the mainstream Western culture. Affecting as many people as possible with good new ideas is important to me and thus any attempt would need to be framed in familiar terms and consistent with fundamental beliefs.
I started reading the Hebrew Bible for several reasons, in the spirit of returning to my roots. Once I did, the notion of a prophetic state began pressing on me. By ‘prophecy,’ I mean any spiritual experience recounted in the Hebrew Bible, either by canonical figures (Ezekiel, Isaiah, et. al.) or by nameless faceless figures who simply encounter an angel or God, have a veridical dream, experience inspiration. ‘Prophecy’ as ‘foretelling’ or ‘predicting’ is an artifact of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for prophet, which is navi. The Hebrew word root of navi means “to utter, interpret, communicate, intermediate.” On the other hand, because of the Greek concern with spiritual experience as a means of predicting, or ‘divining, they translated navi as prophetes—“one who speaks before (as in, anteriorly to something happening).
The first two things that struck me about the prophetic state were its highly interactive nature as well as its acceptance by the experient and the larger culture as being as real, if not more real, than everyday reality. These were right in line with the DMT effect. Only later did the superiority of the prophetic model begin to appear; that is, the richness of the prophetic message, its informational content, relative to that of the DMT or any other psychedelic drug experience.”
Divination, as in ‘foretelling the future,’ is one of the most common ritual practices on the planet. Some version of it can be found in almost any religious complex. As a species, we seem very interested in the future, no doubt for adaptive, survival and flourishing reasons. But do you think it’s more than that? I mean, do you think DMT states or prophetic states sometimes actually ‘see’ the future, as in an empirical precognition? Put more bluntly, what do you do in the book and in your own personal beliefs with the common paranormal effects of some psychedelic plants and substances?
I’ve taken the stance of the medievalists regarding this issue, too. They believe that God knows the future, but that knowledge doesn’t affect it. Free will continues to exist. But “knowledge” with respect to God isn’t something that’s comparable to our knowledge. In God’s case, His knowledge extends to all possible outcomes of the present—that’s not something we can ever hope to attain. At the same time, we need to use some term to express the “information” that God’s “mind” contains, and “knowledge” is more accurate an expression than, say, “ignorance.” This is what the medievalists refer to as the homonymous use of language – it’s a close enough approximation and serves to militate against plainly wrong ideas, such as God being ignorant.
The medievalists believe that the information one receives in the prophetic state comes from God directly, or indirectly, through what they call the Active Intellect. This latter notion is part of their system of ‘emanation’ or ‘overflow,’ which accommodates the belief that an incorporeal God doesn’t directly affect a corporeal world and thus intermediaries serve this function. These intermediaries are physical ‘spheres’ which are ‘moved’ by spiritual forces, intermediaries, or angels. The Active Intellect is the lowest celestial sphere, mediating divine overflow to the earth and its contents.
In either case, the information attained in prophecy is directly or indirectly divine; it draws upon a repository of information that contains all possible future outcomes. Thus, to the extent that one is accessing and able to interpret the information received in a prophetic state, s/he may be able to specific outcomes resulting from particular sets of circumstances.
However, one can ‘predict the future’ without recourse to prophecy or other spiritual experiences. One can predict based on reasoning, such as in the case of weather forecasting. There are ‘self-fulfilling’ predictions, where the prediction affects the future. There are intuitive predictions – one ‘feels’ that things will go in this direction rather than that one – the medievalists wouldn’t call this prophecy because the person’s intellect isn’t playing a significant role in the reception of the information, something upon which they lay a lot of emphasis.
It seems then that the psychedelic state, when it does involve divination or foretelling, might do so based on any of the above mechanisms. Since the vast majority, if not all, psychedelic states are not prophetic, I’d venture that the way in which those forecasts appear are not divine. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong – on the contrary, sometimes they come to pass; but that doesn’t mean they’re prophetic.
‘Miracles,’ or what appear to be abrogations of natural laws, are a related phenomenon. Sometimes a miracle is pre-determined and the prophet predicts when it will occur, whereas the observers conflate his/her prediction with his/her causing the event. At other times, the medievalists suggest that a prophet can affect the laws of nature due to his/her knowledge of and/or resonance with those things that created and sustain such laws. This begins entering into questions of magic: black and white, manipulation of nature, contracts with unholy forces, and so on—activities that the medievalists (at least the non-Kabbalistic ones) do their best to steer clear of. They avoid teaching about these activities because they are so prone to misuse and abuse and rarely benefit either their subjects or objects. They are what the Eastern religious traditions refer to as siddhis – paranormal powers – which are not the goal of true religious training. They may or may not appear as side effects of training, but ought not to be the primary focus. I mean, would you give a child a nuclear reactor to play with? And what does a truly pious person need a nuclear reactor for?
I understand that this is the standard religious response to paranormal powers. I hear it all time from my Buddhist and Hindu colleagues and friends, for example. But I have never really bought it. The truth is that the same traditions that go on and on about the dangers of siddhis or miraculous powers also go on and on about how their saints and mystics had all of these siddhis and miraculous powers. I am also of the opinion that most paranormal powers are basically about mind-over-matter interactions and thus function as early signs of some sort of ‘non-dual’ minded matter or mattered mind goal. In short, they are all about some deeper strata of reality that is neither mind nor matter but beyond, above, or below both. They are thus deeply significant and are by no means tangential or simply temptations.
Very different doctrinal rules are in place in the western monotheisms, but similar patterns can easily be found. Take the New Testament. Miracles there are ‘signs’ of God’s presence and power. They establish and ‘prove’ Jesus’s divinity. Later, in Paul’s letter, they give witness to the gifts of the Spirit and nurture the early Jewish Christian communities. They are extremely important, if also, of course, somewhat unruly, as we see in the letters of Paul.
I personally think that there are two reasons that such powers and miracles are brushed aside as dangerous or unimportant in the standard religious lines. The first reason is moral or doctrinal, namely, that such phenomena seldom follow the lines and rules of the ‘right’ faith. There are miracles and powers in every religion and in every sort of person, after all, so what exactly are they ‘proving or ‘signs’ of? Certainly not the exclusive truth of Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism or Latin American shamanism, or any other religion. The second reason is theological and involves the fact that such powers are not necessarily ‘of God’ but may well be ‘of human nature.’ Put differently, they strongly suggest, to me anyway, that ‘gods’ are in some sense divinized human beings. That is, these capacities divinize human nature, which is a big no-no in many (not all) religions. But that is another very complex conversation for another day.
Miracles occur in the Hebrew Bible. And in Deuteronomy, God tells Moses, when discussing the issue of true vs false prophets, that one who makes a prediction (which, if it materializes, is a miracle) and it doesn’t come about, that person is a false prophet. On the other hand, another part of Deuteronomy includes a prohibition from following (and indeed, the directive to kill) someone who encourages idolatry, even if that person performs a miracle. Most true prophets in the Hebrew Bible never perform miracles. And while the Hebrew Bible never describes a false prophet performing a miracle, that must have been an issue or else the particular case would not have come up in the dialog between Moses and God.
In a manner of speaking, miracles are low-level, intended to impress the common-folk. I would much rather bask in God’s radiance, understand the nature of God and His providence, than being able to perform miraculous feats. ‘When starving, pray for God’s mercy, not for [the miraculous appearance of] food,’ as the saying goes.
In contrast to the New Testament’s treatment of Jesus, the Hebrew Bible never conflates the performance of miracles by a (true) prophet as proof of that prophet’s divine status. Prophets are humans with a special relationship with God. They have both earned that relationship through being qualified, and granted–as a result of that qualification and the exigencies of the time/place–God’s grace.
In the Hebrew Bible, in the case of a true prophet, there’s nothing anti-‘right faith’ about performing miracles. The prophets, as God’s spokesmen/envoys, explicitly perform miracles on God’s behest, at God’s command, by God’s wishes, for God’s purposes, and so on. Even, for example, Elisha unleashing the she-bear on the children who mocked him for his being bald could be seen as him simply following through on God’s precepts to not ridicule those in positions of secular and religious authority since that authority is part of the system that God established for the optimal function of society. It wasn’t his own pride, but upholding God’s sovereignty and honor, that led to this action.
Miracles are all about the ‘right faith,’ of course, when we get to the Hebrew passages about putting sorceresses and mediums to death. I understand that the prophets have the ‘right faith.’ That’s why their teachings were preserved as scripture and those of the others were not. Hence my doubts and questions here. But let’s move on.
My last question involves something else, something more basic. It involves a conversation I once had with Benny Shanon at Esalen. Benny came to a symposium I was helping to host there. We talked about a number of things, but one of them I will never forget is something he also confesses in The Antipodes of the Mind, his beautiful book on the phenomenology and psychology of ayahuasca. Benny told me that when he ‘went into the forest’ he was an atheist, but when he came out he was not. It is also very apparent from his book that he understood and experienced many of his ayahuasca experiences in classic Jewish scriptural terms: the Garden, the Glory of the Lord, the prophetic visions of Isaiah, and so on. So here is my double question. Do you see your work in this new book as in any way related to Benny’s? And how has it changed your belief in, or non-belief in, what your tradition calls ‘God’?
My understanding of Benny’s conclusions is that ayahuasca only enhances the function of the mind, in particular, the imaginative function, where the visions and voices are contained. In fact, during our interview for the DMT documentary—which unfortunately, didn’t make the final cut—he concluded that ayahuasca is a mind-manifesting agent, rather than one that discloses the existence of an independent, free-standing, external spiritual level of reality, more-or-less independent of our own minds. We did that interview in 2007, as I recall, so if you met with him after that time, he may have modified his conclusions.
As I occasionally find myself blurting out, ‘I believe in and love God.’ I’ve reached the point that Maimonides refers to as realizing that God’s existence is more of a certainty thing than my own existence. Or as one of my former patients and I concluded at the end of one particularly theology-oriented session, ‘How can one not believe in God?’
I would never have imagined myself saying or believing those things before, during, or right after my DMT studies. I knew the truth inherent in the Buddhist notions of cause and effect, caught glimpses of emptiness, compassion, and impermanence. I prayed to the Buddhas and patriarchs for their mercy, strength, wisdom, and dug deep into Dogen, Bankei, and their compatriots. I founded and helped run a Zen meditation group, was ordained as a layman in the order, married at the monastery, taught Zen meditation, wrote papers and spoke about Buddhist meditation.
I was 20 years old one summer day in 1972, watching the sun set from my dorm room, when I vowed to do psychedelic drug research. I knew then that I would use psychopharmacology, Buddhism, and psychoanalytic models in my approach to explicating and utilizing the psychedelic drug effect. But the results of my DMT studies, the goal of nearly 25 years of preparation, study, training, research, and practice showed me that those models were inadequate for fully encompassing the DMT state. I was as surprised as anyone that the Hebrew Bible provided such a good model.
One thing led to the other, and I fell in love with the Hebrew Bible, its world view, its notion of prophecy, and its expositors. I was forced to learn about God, as the text ascribes to God the creation and maintenance of the natural and moral laws by which our minds and bodies are able to access prophecy. It also teaches that God is the source of the prophetic experience, its originator, the final arbiter of who attains it, the source of the information prophecy contains, the explicator of that message, and as in our previous discussion of miracles provides proof of a prophet’s legitimacy.
Who is this God? What is Its nature, how does It operate in the world, how does one live in accordance with Its wisdom, love, power, will, and so on? These never were academic questions. Nor were they questions that I had to face as being a member of a religious institution. Rather, they were solely personal, experiential, not one-step removed, even though I was led to them by the one-step-removed world of clinical research.
I’ve probably gone on longer than I ought to have. But I wish to give as full an account as I can regarding the evolution of my approach to the psychedelic drug experience as I can. It’s not been a static approach and some might see my current focus as, on one hand anti-scientific and zealous, and on the other, as blasphemous. I like to think instead that I’ve left no stone unturned in trying to answer questions regarding the meaning and message of the psychedelic experience.
I am honored to be some small part of your conversations, Rick. Thanks for doing this!
“My pleasure. To be continued.”