Rick Strassman, MD Interview with Martin W. Ball, Ph.D. - PART 2
Rick Strassman, MD Interview with Martin W. Ball, Ph.D. - PART 1
TOKEN ROCK EDITORS NOTE:
This is the second part of a two-part article. The piece is a transcription of an interview conducted by Martin W. Ball, Ph.D. with Rick Strassman, MD, regarding his extensive study of the use of the psychedelic drug, Ayahuasca, and its effects on the brain and in particular the effects of DMT on the Pineal Gland. Strassman also discusses the psychedelic experience, social acceptance of such research, and his perspective of the psychedelic experience's relationship to spirituality. The interview transcription is continued below...
MB - Something that seems to be a central and reoccurring them that runs through your discussion of a lot of this is really looking at the question of mysticism or spiritual states of consciousness or visionary states of consciousness, and of course you do raise in your book the controversy between what we can consider mainstream religious practitioners who tend to look down on the use of visionary medicines as being authentic spiritual experiences, at least within Western tradition, but certainly you're asking the larger questions of how this relates to spiritual experience. What is your view on that?
RS - It's not any clearer than when I set out on this work. An interesting aspect of my involvement with the Zen community that I was with for over 20 years - I was a lay member - I was never a monk - I was ordained as a lay member and I ran a meditation group that was affiliated with the main temple - I never shaved my head and donned robes though and never got an Asian name, but I went up there fairly regularly, and frequently, and underwent lay ordination and was entrusted with teaching meditation and Zen for a couple of decades. So in the beginning of my relationship with the monastery - I was in my early 20's, as were most of the monks who were there at the time, and every chance I got I would take one of the monks aside and ask them if they had taken LSD, and if they had, how important their LSD experience was in their decision to enter a monastic lifestyle. At the time, this was probably 1974 that I started to spend time at the monastery and be friends with the monks, I'd say at least 3/4, maybe 80-90% of the monks had an LSD experience, and the vast majority of them, probably every one of them, felt that their LSD experience was their first glimpse that there was another way of looking at reality.
In Buddhism, that's what's called bodhicitta, which is the thought of enlightenment, which, for a lot of Buddhist thinkers, is the most important step on the road to enlightenment - the realization that enlightenment exists and is possible to experience. So strictly speaking, for almost everyone - 3/4's of the monks at that particular temple who had had an LSD experience - their first entry into the enlightenment stream of life was through an LSD experience. So that validated in a lot of ways my thinking of the similarities and overlap and the relevance of the psychedelic experience to a spiritual lifestyle and a spiritual worldview and a spiritual way of interacting with people and with things.
I described some of the ins and outs of my relationship with the monastery over the years and pretty much as long as I kept the level of discussion and discourse just between me and a monk, and they for sure all chatted together about the laymen and laywomen who had come through for workshops and retreats and made sure that everybody was on track - so I'm sure that they were talking about my interests in psychedelics and the role that they play in spiritual growth. So I got quite a bit of explicit encouragement over the years from these monks who had taken LSD and were climbing the hierarchy of the monastic organization. But it was only when I was actually starting to put the rubber to the road in doing my studies and both speaking and writing publicly about the association between the psychedelic experience and the spiritual life and practice, that the monastery started getting the jitters and for a number of reasons had to disavow any relationship between the two and any relationship between me and them. So that was a fairly good example of even an Eastern religion, which ostensibly puts more faith in the truth than in orthodoxy or any dogma, being faced with the public relations fallout that might be associated with any linking of their organization and me promulgating psychedelics as a possible way to work on one's spiritual life.
I certainly, at the time, never suggested that psychedelics were a replacement for spiritual practice. On the contrary, I think that one of the things that you can get from the psychedelic experience is a view - a glimpse, and that's what the monks and I had been talking about all these years, was how you got your first glimpse and then you worked on it every day, 24 hours a day. But those kinds of subtle distinctions were lost in the heat of the argument over whether there is a role for psychedelics within Buddhist practice. It was disappointing - it wasn't that surprising. This sort of break with the Buddhist community occurred in 1996 and I haven't really had anything to do with them since. I still do meditate on my black cushion, but I turned in my small piece of cloth that demarcated my membership as a lay Buddhist. I returned that to the mother temple a couple of years after the split.
But as the result - there's always a silver lining - the fact that I lost one religious community forced me to start re-examining my own spiritual roots, which are Jewish in nature. So for the last 10 or 12 years I've embarked on a fairly rigorous course of self-directed study of Hebrew texts and commentary and scriptures and have found that in a lot of ways they've augmented and filled in a lot of the gaps I had been struggling with in regard to a real spiritual view that could incorporate both a psychedelic experience and a religious experience. So I've been just starting to formulate the ways in which I can describe that in a sense that is intelligible and compatible with a more Western worldview of a more religious and psychedelic sensibility.
I've been circling around the Old Testament idea of the prophetic state of consciousness, which I think in some ways can allow for an incorporation of the psychedelic state - though there are a lot of dissimilarities - but probably more importantly is the information that comes in the psychedelic state. I think one of the pitfalls that the contemporary use of psychedelics is suffering from is that there isn't a culturally relevant framework in which to take home and incorporate the lessons of the psychedelic experience. A lot of it is, 'Oh wow! That's the most amazing experience of my life and now I see that all is One,' but that isn't really the prophetic viewpoint. The prophetic viewpoint is that there is information that is experienced in these exalted states and so what is that information?
So there's a huge amount of material in the first handful of books of the Hebrew bible, but especially in the prophetic books such as Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. A fair number of them underwent incredible psychedelic visions on one hand, and on the other hand they really did a lot of teaching about what they felt and heard and thought and saw under the effect of that altered state of consciousness. And what they bring back isn't all that exalted - ethical teachings and moral teachings and a view of God and of history that isn't especially unique or far-out, but it's quite Western and as a result, it takes a lot of swallowing of bitter pills by most Westerners to get past their visceral aversion to looking at the Bible as a sacred text. There are probably more people in the psychedelic community that have read the Bhagavad Gita and the Buddhist sutras than have read the Bible. And that's cool, but it's kind of crazy too because the answers to how you incorporate and how you live under the umbrella of a psychedelic worldview or through a lens that's compatible with our Western worldview is kind of right beneath our noses. It's a powerful book, obviously. Look at the course of world history as it's been driven by this vision of the Bible, especially of the Hebrew bible and all the prophets and Israel as the chosen ones, the Ten Commandments, and the Red Sea and Abraham and all that - you know, there's a tremendous amount of information there that is accessible, though it's pretty dense and it's fairly obfuscated by the efforts of the clergy and the rabbis, as it were. But it's still there, and the first step is to review what's in the Bible as a means of trying to articulate a psychedelic type of vision that is informed in the West. You know, we're not shamans. We didn't spend our infancy and childhood and adolescence and adulthood in the jungle and you know, we're not Buddhists or Asians or Indians or Japanese, we're not Native Americans. We're people who emerged from the matrix of the Bible, more or less.
People talk about a Judeo-Christian worldview, but I think it's more Jewish, because Judaism is the root from which both Christianity and Islam grew, so I think that's our worldview. And to just reject it out of hand without knowing about it I think is a mistake, because there are quite a number people out there in power, both governmental and other power, who are familiar with what's written in the Bible, and if the psychedelic community is not, I think our ignorance hurts us in a couple of ways. For one, we can't counter some of the crazy, fundamentalistic interpretations of the text, but on the other hand, we aren't able to take advantage of what's there to live a psychedelically informed type of life in a culturally relevant way for us. I don't think that we have to reinvent the wheel, but we do have to return to our origins a little bit more intently, critically and passionately.
MB - So I notice on your bookshelf here, which we are sitting next to, you do have a copy of Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy by Clark Heinrich where he talks a little bit in this book about looking at some of the prophets form the Old Testament as actually being mushroom hunters and gathers. He makes an argument for Moses and the Ten Commandments, the burning bush, and looking at all that as actually relating to amanita mushrooms.
RS- I think those are fairly strong and well-reasoned arguments, but I think rather than looking for some external source of the psychedelic experience, once again we have them under our noses. All of us are always making DMT at all times, so I don't think it's actually necessary to take in something from the outside that will cause the psychedelic experience - we've got the machinery in our brains already. I think even more remarkable than the effects or presence of mushrooms or acacia plants as being responsible for the visions of the prophets, a more prudent explanation, is that there may be some role of naturally occurring DMT or comparable psychedelics as mediating those types of phenomena.
MB - I also wanted to ask if you have any thoughts on the preponderance of DMT in nature. It seems kind of surprising that it is in so many different species of plants and it seems to be everywhere, to some extent, and it's also inside us. Do you think that this is just part of our evolution and our physical bodies developing neurotransmitters and whatnot, that we're taking in these influences from the plants that we might be encountering or eating? It seems kind of odd that we have the chemical both within us and it's in so many plants.
RS - I can speculate regarding that, but I think the person who really articulates that vision or some of the ideas behind that even better is Denis McKenna, and actually we've got a really fantastic interview with him for the DMT documentary that's in the works, which I hope will come out, maybe next year, if all goes well. I asked him that exact question - what do you think is going on with DMT being a ubiquitous as it is? I think a simple-minded answer, but one that fits the bill as well as anything, is that the presence of DMT is a shared conduit, in a way. It's the medium through which individuals or species that contain it are able to relate to each other.
It's a fairly common phenomenon when people take DMT, or any strong psychedelic for that matter, that they're able to understand the consciousness of animals and plants to a much greater extent than they ever were before. It isn't quite the case that you take DMT and you understand a rock or a couch or a stove (though some people do). It's a little more common of a phenomenon that people seem to describe a deeper level of empathy and consciousness sharing and communication with particular sorts of animals or plants. So it could be that DMT is the matrix through which we can maybe communicate with other beings that also contain DMT. It wouldn't necessarily be through the spoken language. It would be maybe more telepathic or empathic or visual or visceral, emotional kinds of content, but compelling and real content nonetheless.
MB - I suppose in one sense we can say that it allows for interspecies communication on this level, but on the prophetic level, allows for communication beyond our immediate physical reality as well.
RS - That could be. I think it's really strange that everyone isn't studying DMT. Everybody ought to be studying DMT - I mean, what's going on here? We have this incredibly weird chemical in our brains that seems to allow inter-species communication and seems to allow the reliable and reproducible entry into a spiritual state, it's a naturally occurring chemical - our brains make it, our lungs make it, our red blood cells make it, it lasts a half hour, you can infuse it into people for a few hours at a time and it retains its psychedelic potency, so it's almost like this spigot or valve that you can just turn on and open to some kind of consensus reality and observationally agreed upon way of looking at things or anybody at any time, so that's a question that I think about all the time. Why isn't everybody looking into this? Which you may want to counter with the same question - 'so why aren't YOU looking at it?'
In some ways, that brings us to the end of the book, my DMT book, which if you read between the lines, it was clearly the case that I was in over my head. I had a tiger by the tail and I might hurt somebody or hurt myself and it was just too complicated, so I took a break. I had to work through things on my personal level, on the level of my spiritual development, and had to go back to the drawing board and reintegrate myself into my Jewish roots and learn about the Bible and the Hebrew language and the prophets and really start to get a handle on what seemed to be a spiritual level of reality - angels, demons, God, the afterlife and non-corporeal levels of existence and the way in which they interact with the physical level of existence - and I also had to make a living.
So it's been 12 years, almost 13 now, that I gave my last dose of anything to anybody. I'm feeling like I'm more in a position to renew the research, so that's why myself and a couple of colleagues put together the Cottonwood Research Foundation in the last year to renew studies with psychedelics, especially the psychedelic plants in a more humane and larger-view perspective of what these plants and drugs are able to provide access to, both in terms of information and their human properties, those kinds of things. We're just getting off the ground. We have a little bit of money in the bank and I'll be taking a vacation for a month or so after I complete my contract at a local clinic here. Then when I return this late summer, I'll be hitting the ground running to try and do some more fundraising and developing some proposals for grants. I'm also collaborating with a group right now up in Seattle trying to get an Ayahuasca study off the ground.
So I think this time around, I want to be helpful rather than clever, which was kind of the approach I was taking with the first series of studies. I was being clever in as much as I wanted to give people DMT and describe its effects and understand the brain chemistry going on behind it, but I was a little too hands-off. I was pretending that I wasn't interested in what the effects were other than just kind of knowing what they were. But I think that it's more important to apply those effects and to be helpful rather than just gaining some information, which was sort of my approach, for lack of a better reason.
But I was constrained by the model though. It was the government and it was a grant for brain chemistry and psychopharmacology and I couldn't have gotten anywhere without using that kind of model, but I opened up the door to get this new wave of American research up and running. But it's been kind of slow, so that's another reason that I opened up the Cottonwood. The pace of psychedelic research in the US has been quite slow since I left the field in ‘95 and seems as though it can use some re-energizing and reorienting away from the strictly scientific model. Clearly we're not going to be going off the deep end, but we're going to try and enlarge the questions that we try to address using the scientific model. It won't be strictly limited to brain chemistry and psychopharmacology.
MB - Obviously with Ayahuasca it would again be looking at DMT. Is there a reason other than that why you are interested in looking at Ayahuasca?
RS - Well, there's a whole lot of information out there about the effects and properties of Ayahuasca, and the reports that I've been hearing is that it is the mother of all healers, so I think that any plant that has that kind of reputation is worth studying. Up in this part of the world and in northern New Mexico, there is a huge problem with alcoholism and other substances being abused. There's a couple of centers in Latin America using Ayahuasca to treat substance dependence and there's a slowly increasing number of reports in the scientific literature as well that seem to confirm the impression that lots of substance abusers are able to stop abusing once they've undergone a number of sessions with Ayahuasca, so that's a natural set of studies that would be easy to do and wouldn't be hard to get funding and approval for, just because of the nature the problem is quite so pressing.
And it is DMT, and I like DMT. I made my career out of it, and it's a plant, so it's not quite as harsh an experience. It's a little gentler, someways, than a pure extracted powder that you inject into somebody's veins. There's a tremendous amount of information about Ayahuasca in the non-psychiatric literature - in the anthropological literature and religious literature, indigenous literature and the oral traditions, so I think that it's possible to utilize some of those sources of information that are at least ostensibly external to the scientific worldview, at least at this time in our history.
MB - Of course, recently in the past couple years we did have the study by Johns Hopkins University that looked at psilocybin that, not surprisingly, came back and said that something like 60% of participants described their experience as being deeply mystical, deeply spiritual, and the most significant experiences of their lives. I wondered if you had any thoughts on their study?
RS - It's a great study. It was quite well done and their control situation and actual implementation of the study was impeccable. On the other hand, it was basically a repeat of a comparable study that was done at Harvard University of giving psilocybin to divinity students and a large number of them also described results comparable to the ones that just came out of the Hopkins study. I think in some ways, comparable to the study I was doing with DMT, the Hopkins psilocybin mysticism study was kind of going back to basics, to, number one, establish that you can do these kinds of experiments in a safe manner, and number two, at least in terms of the Hopkins study, that you can induce positively valenced subjective experiences. I think that the next step is to be creative and start to apply some of these potentially beneficial effects in a healing and therapeutic manner. I understand the Hopkins group is interested in doing some substance abuse work, specifically with psilocybin, so I think the more therapeutic work is done, the better. I think that when you're working in a strictly university setting that your explanatory models are a bit more constrained than if you were working in a free-standing institution like Cottonwood is going to be. I don't think that they'll be quite able to talk about p-values and statistical power in quite the same breath that they can talk about spirits and plants and the natives and angels and helping beings and those kinds of things. We wouldn't be using those terms and models in any of our scientific work, but I think we'll be freer to discuss those explanatory models in our more speculative models of what might be going. In the best of all possible worlds, we'd like to have Cottonwood be an institution of higher learning that kind of revolves around the psychedelic experience. So we would apply every relevant discipline that has an interest in the psychedelic state, which would include anthropology and religion and shamanism, psychology, cognitive sciences, psycho-pharmacology and therapeutics, let alone just from the pure psychiatric point of view.
I think both levels of discourse have to take place. The university is a more appropriate institution for certain levels of discourse, but I think there needs to be a really explicit and overt role of a spiritual worldview in any full discussion of the psychedelic experience and its relevance to growth and healing and creativity. When you're in a university setting, you have to be much more circumspect in those disciplines that you might bring to bear on the discussion.
MB - So it really sounds like you're trying to open up the paradigm here and move it out of the scientific reductionistic model, or at least scientific explanation of things and genuinely acknowledge that, look, there really is something going here that is opening people up to different levels of spiritual experience and perception, whatever that may be, and really is affecting people's lives.
RS - Psychiatry is a relatively recent invention, and these drugs and plants have been used for a long time before there was even a word 'psychiatry,' so I think that there are other people and cultures that know a lot more about the effects of these plants than we do. To pretend that's not the case or to hold ourselves out as having a more advanced or superior view or any kind of hegemony over the knowledge of what kinds of experiences these kinds of plants can bring on, I think the term is hubris, is a little far fetched that we can't learn from other cultures and traditions that have been around a lot longer than we have and have a lot more experience in the trial and error process of the scientific method using the tools that were and still are at their disposal for using these plants and their effects on our consciousness.
MB - It sounds like this could also potentially have a large impact on culture. For one, from a legal perspective, looking at these scientific studies and things like the UDV or Santo Daime making court cases for their legal right to use Ayahuasca, but could also potentially have broader effects within culture itself, that if we have people like yourself studying the spiritual effects of these plants and visionary medicines, it could perhaps change other people's attitudes and their openness to what the potential of these plants might really be.
RS - I don't think that we're going to come to the answers either through science or through religion. I think it's going to be some kind of hybrid. Science is a bit too constrained in the model building, and most religions are too constrained through the maintenance of their institution at the expense of the truth. As a rule, if you can establish the veracity of your findings through science, it's believed. It isn't excluded necessarily because someone disagrees with your findings. So I think it will require some kind of hybrid of scientific religion or spiritual science to be able to take into account the entire range of the phenomenon, the ethical implications that's available and also maintain the peer review and the cross-checking of your findings that occurs within the scientific model. Yeah - so it's pretty out there. It's kind of a large view and if I get one half of one percent done before I die, I'll feel pretty good about that.
MB - Do you think society is ready for that?
RS - I don't know . . . I'll find out . . . It could be . . . I mean, people are hungry, and they're lost. We're not doing so well as a species. People are taking psychedelics. I think as a means of living their life, science falls pretty short, but as a means of taking into account reality, religion falls pretty short. So I think people are looking, but they don't know quite where to look. If we can begin developing Cottonwood where these things can be looked at carefully and experiments can be designed and explanatory models are offered that take into account the entire range of possibilities of what is going on, then we might make some headway into establishing a new kind of hybrid model.
MB - What can those of us out there in the psychedelic community do to support this kind of work and research, and specifically, what can we do to support the Cottonwood Research Foundation?
RS - If you go onto the website for Cottonwood (www.cottonwoodresearch.org), you'll see the projects that we're beginning to work on, and we'll give you the opportunity to donate, so tell your friends and family and try and spread the word. We need money. Obviously, any research projects take lots of funding and time, and the more time I have to work on things, the more I'll do them. I'll be giving up my clinic job at the end of this summer and after I return from being gone for about a month, I'll be working on Cottonwood more in a bald-faced appeal for my own support. The more money I can bring in for operating expenses, the more time I can devote to Cottonwood. We don't need much in the way of local volunteers right now. Once we get our coffers a little more plentiful, we'll be able to hire some staff. Ultimately, we're going to need some land, some buildings, some medical staff, a psychiatrist, a nurse, people who are keen on this work and are willing to devote themselves to it, so a few really large grants would help. A lot of small donations would help. It's a very long-range goal. The more funding we get, the more quickly we'll be able to start implementing some things. I have a contractor friend who's beginning to draw up some sketches and designs for the research suite with a couple of research rooms and a lab and a kitchen and a lobby and those kinds of things. Once that's firmed up, I'll be posting those to the web site. It's pretty young and inchoate now. I'm a patient person - obviously I wouldn't have gotten my research on DMT done if I weren't - so I've got plenty of time to work on it, and even if I didn't, it's got to be started off in the way that I would like it to turn out.
I think that one of the problems with our University of New Mexico work with DMT was that I felt like it was important to get this work started no matter what it took to get it started in the US and I was willing to do that. But I think as a result of just doing whatever had to be done to get my funding and my permits in order, I kind of painted myself into both a conceptual and practical corner. This time around I don't feel like I have much to prove. I've done the DMT work, I've written a couple of books. I feel as though I've left a good legacy behind. Other people have taken the baton and run their own studies, so I think that in respect to the Cottonwood, I would want to begin it the way that I would ultimately like it to turn out. If it never manifests in that particular way, then that's fine - it's obviously not meant to be at this time. And if we can get the funding to do it in a way that I think it needs to be done and do it right, then great - we'll go ahead and get started.
MB - So in the ideal world, where would you like to start a study on Ayahuasca, if everything could fall into place nicely?
RS - The first thing is to start giving Ayahuasca to people in this country, and that could occur anywhere. There's a group up in Seattle that's beginning that, though it isn't clear how quickly they'll be able to get started. But that could occur here in New Mexico or anywhere in the US, as long as somebody starts giving people Ayahuasca in at least a relatively humane setting. Obviously the more humane and attentive it is to the non-psychiatric aspects of the setting, the better. In terms of the treatment center, the obvious thing I'd like to do, living in New Mexico with the rampant alcoholism and other substance abuse problems we have here, is to have that kind of a protocol locally. But it would need to be in a conducive environment and that's the only way that I would be giving people drugs or psychedelics again, in a compassionate and humane setting.
MB - One last thing that I'd like to touch on is you mentioned in your new co-authored book that you have a chapter that basically gives some advice for those who would personally venture out on this journey. I wondered if you could just touch on a couple of the ideas that you've expressed in there.
RS - I'm quite pleased with that chapter. It's called 'Preparing for the Journey.' It's a fairly long-range view of getting ready for any kind of psychedelic experience. It takes into account the psychological work and preparation one needs to undergo to establish some kind of discipline, either psychological and/or spiritual to try and understand yourself and your motivations as well as you can. And I do spend a lot of time in that chapter emphasizing the importance of intent - to clarify over and over again what your intent is to undergo a psychedelic experience. The more you know of your intent, the more you'll be able to do the necessarily preliminary work to get the most out of the amplification of your normal mental and spiritual faculties through which these substances work. For example, if your intent is to work on psychological sorts of issues, if you can spend some time in psychotherapy first with a psychotherapist that you like and you trust and think is helpful. You can do a lot of the legwork that would make it easier to make the most out of your psychedelic experience. And it may even turn out to be the case that you don't need to have the experience if you've gotten what you need out of the psychological work. If you're interested a mystical experience, it's a helpful thing to educate yourself on the literature of mystical states, especially if you can find something within your own tradition, and do some work and study with a master within that tradition. So the preparation can extend for months or even years before the actual trip.
I also discuss some of the more proximate kinds of planning that one can do, such as deciding if you're going to be tripping alone or with a group. If with a group, is there going to be a leader? Are you going to be alone or have someone with you? What kinds of preparations are you going to have in case you get sick or if someone panics or gets confused? Issues of staying nearby, when to drive - those kinds of immediate things that you want to make certain you've looked after. Getting enough sleep, are you feeling healthy? Are you especially stressed out or jet-lagged? Taking care of business like taking out the garbage, even taking care of your will, if you're old and you have some concerns that you may die - which, you know, isn't very common, but it can happen. You certainly can, at some point in a big trip, experience some fear of dying or be convinced that you have died. Taking care of every possible problem that you can anticipate, and making sure that you are steering the trip in anticipation of a good trip to optimize the kinds of effects that you have. And also ancillary instruments such as writing tools or art supplies, those kinds of things. I also spend time at the end of the chapter talking about integration issues and how to deal with adverse effects such as panic, depression, or anxiety, those kinds of things.
MB - And what was the name of the book again?
RS - It's called Inner Paths to Outer Space. It's published by Inner Traditions, the same group that did the DMT book and it is on Amazon and Barnes and Nobel, and tell your local bookstore to carry it if they don't already.
MB - And it has a beautiful cover, so I do encourage everybody to check it out, and we're very lucky to have the original art piece here in the house that we're able to look at and it really is fantastic. I'm looking forward to seeing what else is in the book - it looks like a very good one. Thank you very much for your time.
RS - You're very welcome. I hope it was helpful.
Rick Strassman, MD Interview with Martin W. Ball, Ph.D. - PART 1