The Psychedelic Rabbi and the Mystical Question

A psychedelic historical exploration of the mystical:

As psychedelic culture grows once again into a wave of epic proportions and a new generation explores this realm with all their youthful zest but in an age without the stigma and legals issues that once defined a separation between  “drug users” and citizens, then it is our duty as elders to find the common ground of experience and listen as they ask the eternal Mystical Question.  Is the psychedelic mystical experience real?    One largely unknown Rabbi who reshaped the psychedelic world from within, and answered this question with a resounding point so profound, the ripples have yet to be felt.  This is the story of psychedelics and the mystical experience.

Definition of mystical

1a : having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence : involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality the mystical experience of the Inner Light
2 : mysterious, unintelligible

Mystics seem to come in many forms, with a variety of perspectives.  The original Greek word mystikos: meaning “to conceal”  could also point to an initiate during a form of spiritual training.  This Greek word “mysterious”  is also connected with the inebriated altered states of the Eleusinian Mysteries and Dionysian cults.  The very word Mystery, certain types of sacrament and occult type behavior lay behind the lexicon.   European scholars expanded the term to include the secret traditions that have a common thread of ecstatic practice, like the Sufi Twirling Dervishes, Kabbalistic teachings, and Shamanic religious ecstasy.  

The simplest concept seems to be a union with God or a direct understanding of the hidden side of reality.   The stress is on “direct experience” and one that is not easily explained in language.    The mystical experience, is in itself one of union, as the individual disappears.   This places it squarely as a  “religious” experience, and one found throughout most of human history starting with the ancient tribal cultures.  

However separating the “mystic” from the matrix of religious ritual, scriptures, virtues and other aspects has been the problem for scholars with certain camps pointing towards the universal and others towards the individual.  In certain cultures there is a concentrated use of sacraments that contain highly potent chemicals affecting the human nervous system.   These “psychedelics” in traditional cultures posed as a sort of bridge allowing the spiritual leader to peer into the chaos and experience a mystical state for the sake of tribal needs. As western science pushed deep into the jungles looking for modern cures, it sought to understand how these “psychedelic compounds” could intimately change the course of people’s lives.

This interest in shamanism and the altered states of healing was the pull of early psychedelic research.  The jungle treks of anthropologists, botanists and experts uncovering the taboo ways of the ancients became public fodder in the 1950’s. There was  Richard Evan Schultes searching for chacruna in the amazon, Humphrey Osmond with his Mescaline research, Gordon Wasson hunting mushrooms and Ronald Sandison doing LSD therapy in England.  

Osmond would coin the term “psychedelic” using another Greek word relating to the soul/mind or psyche-manifesting.  He jokingly said once “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” and he would remain a lifelong supporter of the Native American Church and it’s right to use peyote.   The press would favorably cover these academic pursuits and provided an audience for these stories of tribal drug use in search of healing and the Sacred.  Scientists attempted to distill the essence of the experience into usable maps for personal healing.  

Timothy Leary, a prominent psychologist would later claim “Set and Setting” to be vital in the experience.   In the early years psychedelic use was legal and clinical with florescent lighting, office spaces and beeping machines.  One need not wonder with volunteers on high doses of LSD-25 that mental cracking wasn’t more common, but the scientists found success to the fanfare of the public and press, which meant alcoholic cures, psychiatric breakthroughs and to their surprise, people found God in the experience.

In those early years there were few psychedelic pioneers who stayed with the religious script, the most notable was Aldous Huxley, a well studied man who dabbled in taboo often with science fiction novels, parapsychology research and an interest in eastern religions.  His book “the Doors of Perception” would inspire a new generation moving into a 1960’s as a personal memoir of the way psychedelics reshaped his existence.  This was based on an experience in which Humphrey Osmond would administer a psychedelic (peyote) and become the world’s first “Harm Reduction” sitter.  

As a well known and popular writer he dabbled in several fronts, being involved with the Greenwich Village scene, Vendata Society, literary worlds and mingling with academic cultures.  He was an advocate of psychedelic research, friends with the Beat Poets, his book “Island” inspired the Brotherhood of Eternal love, and eventually the mystical seekers with his Perennial Philosophy.  It was his time with the Vendata Society that would inspire this religious excitement and equate the mystical experience as a universal one found in thousands of ways of knowing.  He would consume LSD on his deathbed, die with a smile on his face and twinkle in his eye.    In the early 1960’s he was in the Boston area with his finger prints there as an inspiration to a new crop of psychedelic enthusiasts and theologians who pushed the mystical question into uncharted territory starting early with a fan of his, a Hasidic Rabbi named Zalman Schachter.

More than twenty-five centuries have passed since that which has been called the Perennial Philosophy was first committed to writing; and in the course of those centuries it has found expression, now partial, now complete, now in this form, now in that, again and again…
…the Perennial Philosophy has spoken almost all the languages of Asia and Europe and has made use of the terminology and traditions of every one of the higher religions. But under all this confusion of tongues and myths, of local histories and particularist doctrines, there remains a Highest Common Factor, which is the Perennial Philosophy in what may be called its chemically pure state…
Aldous Huxley on the Perennial Philosophy

“Reb” Zalman Schuster is a little known name in the psychedelic world, but whose importance is the essence of the story.  Zalman was a curious but devoted religious man who was born in Europe and raised in a Vienna surrounded by scientific/psychological advancement.  His family were members of the Hasdic sect who practiced a form of orthodox Judaism with a mystical slant.   As a young vibrant intelligent young man in America he would enter the ministry with a specific goal of reaching out to the new young Jewish generation.  He read the Doors of Perception in 1958 and sought to experience something similar to the peyote trip Huxley wrote about.   He was curious that if one could have a mystical experience after ingesting a plant that he, as Rabbi from a mystic tradition must verify it for himself.  While in theology school at Boston University he maintained friendships with many interfaith personalities like Huston Smith, Thomas Merton and Walter Pahnke who was at the time just starting out as a grad student.  Zalman’s mystical views would inspire the young man based on interviews in which he claims to have presented his idea of a double blind Psychedelic experiment to Walter in the late 1950’s.   Zalman was unable to find a suitable psychedelic at that time and moved to Winnipeg to teach religion at the University of Manitoba, with an emphasis on youth outreach, but maintained a curious eye on the movements happening all around him.

I learned more about the brain and its possibilities and more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research in psychology. – Timothy Leary Ph.D

It was August of 1960 in a little Mexican town called Cuernavaca, a psychologist named Timothy Leary would consume psychedelic mushrooms for the first time and alter the course of his life.  Already a noted author and innovator in the field, Leary had just been hired by a long time friend to teach clinical psychology at Harvard University.  While there during an impressive 3 year run, he conducted many experiments with psilocybin containing mushrooms and was most known for his outreach to “turn on seekers” .   While these compounds were legal at the time and being used primarily by Psychologist and Scientists, it was the press he received that created a firestorm.  

One experiment was conducted in 1962 when student Walter Pahnke, aided by Leary would do the infamous “Good Friday” Experiment in the Marsh Chapel basement.  It was done quietly with 20 theology grad students who would each take one pill each, 10 capsules having psilocybin, 10 capsules a histamine.  They listened to the sermon upstairs from a pair of speakers while quietly experiencing religious immersion in the cold basement. 

The psilocybin fueled students, all 9 (one is a mystery)  would would then write about their experience.  A panel of religious experts later read a mixture of those accounts and common mystical ones from history and attempted to figure out which was which.  The panel was unable to discern a difference and in the minds of many, including Zalman, that was the proof needed.  Both right and left brainers had a hard time in 1963 with the idea that psychedelics could bring on a religious experience, it was considered blasphemy.   Leary would be fired from Harvard shortly after, the true reasons are lost in time.

Timothy Leary was a lost soul in 1963 and found himself at a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York.   Leary went seeking answers with what to do next.  He was worried about influencing the youth in negative ways and without an academic backdrop, how was one to explore the religious and psychological potentials of psychedelics? 

As Leary wandered around a scenic pond deep in thought, a happy and enthusiastic Zalman would approach him wearing thick black orthodox clothes in the middle of summer asking him endless questions about Psychedelics. Always one for direct experience and seldom without a small bottle of acid, a plan was formed and a “setting” was found for the men at the Ananda Ashram to intimately have a typtamine experience.  The next 24 hours would be formative for both parties and again this Rabbi would inspire a major mover in the psychedelic realms. For Zalman it shook his world to the core, he saw God in everything around him, he experienced past lives, getting lost in the light and the struggle of duality. 

Zalman prayed and found each word was “an entire cosmos of meaning”.  All the rituals he had done for a lifetime took on new meanings but he saw more, he saw the Game and decided then he wanted to play.    Leary experienced a unique trip with Zalman who reveled in rituals and religious zealotry during the hours of acid visions.  As things started to flow back to normal and the two men talked, Leary lamented about his own path forward.  This conversation as remembered by Zalman is a fairly interesting insight into how Leary perceived his mission.

Here is a person who is sort of suspect in the eyes of the world as not being a responsible person, member of the community. But he said, “You see what the problem is? How can we use this drug? Can you give it to students? Can you give this to kids? What is going to happen when kids are going to get into a car and they will want to drive, or one says he wants to walk on water.” So I said, “Who would do such a damn thing? This is beautiful, heaven….” “Well,” he says, “this is my worry.” And I said to him, “Tell me, what do you do with a guy who has bad karma? In other words, somebody who has all sorts of hells…?” And he says, “I don’t have that kind.” There were times when just by the fact that he touched my hand while I was tumbling, he gave me a great deal of reassurance. To be alone could be terrible, and that is perhaps the most dangerous aspect, inexperienced people taking it alone; you know, it’s important to have good people around. Good people never bring out bad karma in others. We went and had a couple of cigarettes outside. – From Reb Zalman’s trip report with Leary.

It was inspirational day and returned focus to the Psychologist in his mission to “turn on the world”.   Shortly after that “trip” Timothy Leary with Ralph Metzner would move to Hitchcock Estate in Milbrook, New York and write the Psychedelic Experience and usher the world into a psychedelic wave, combining Tibetan mystical history with technological terminology and create a unique Map of Consciousness.  

Zalman returned to Winnipeg and his own young congregation and drastically reformed own his faith with “new ways” over the next decade of experimentation and reformation.  Some changes he made included altering how women could participate, more inclusion for the young, non-jews, queer and allowing English to be used during traditional ceremonies.  He spoke often of Gaia Consciousness, healing the planet and having an interfaith perspective.   His influence on Liberal Judaism is an entire article of it’s own but he spoke openly about how that experience and other “trips” would alter the traditional aspects of his faith.  He would be forced because of these views  in 1966 out of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement after giving a lecture he titled “Kabbalah and LSD”.   Hired at Temple university as an authority on Jewish Mysticism, his views would find an audience with impressionable students at many universities.  He inspired the Renewal Movement with his constant commitment to discover the core aspects of the Jewish faith and leave wiggle room for innovation.   To read this trip report click here.  –  The Ecstatic Adventure by Reb Zalman

The most serious challenges to Judaism posed by modern thought and experience are to me game theory and psychedelic experience. Once I realize the game structure of my commitments, once I see how all my theologizing is just an elaborate death struggle between my soul and the God within her, or when I can undergo the deepest cosmic experience via some minuscule quantity of organic alkaloids or LSD, then the whole validity of my ontological assertions is in doubt. But game theory works the other way too. God too is playing a game of hide-and-seek with himself and me. The psychedelic experience can be not only a challenge, but also a support of my faith. After seeing what really happens at the point where all is one and where God-immanent surprises God-transcendent and they merge in cosmic laughter, I can also see Judaism in a new and amazing light. Reb Zalman Schachter

At the heart of the problem was when Zalman spoke of the mystical experience within the altered state.  The Scholars and Spiritual leaders of America could not believe that a drug could produce any spiritual inclinations.  How can it be real?  These are hallucinations we are told and to let religion handle the spiritual worlds.  Alan Watts would say the opposite after his clinical LSD experiences and write books popularizing the idea that they were mystical in nature but at the expense of his own academic career.    Alan Watts was a theologian, professor, public speaker and religious zealot, having dedicated his life to the exploration of faith, only he explored all faiths equally.   He describes having two significant mystical experiences before 1958, one is quoted below.  It has all the call signs of a typical one, with the feeling of unity, of the Nowness and the interconnection between all things.  Watts would seek out LSD in 58, first consuming  it in an “office space” with a Psychologist and then in a better, more suitable “setting”.  It confirmed many of his preconceived notions that he was able to explore and put into words.  He wrote that there are four characteristics of a mystical state.  The awareness of polarity, relativity, eternal energy and the slowing of time.  In the study of consciousness these elements can be indescribable and overlapping.   According to Watts, eastern cultures had no problem with the idea that “drugs” could bring you into these characteristics.   He described using psychedelics as a tool, like a telescope or telephone and the famous line to follow…… “Once you get the message, hang up the phone”, or simply stop doing the drugs so you can integrate these experiences.

The present seemed to become a kind of moving stillness, an eternal stream from which neither I nor anything could deviate. I saw that everything,. just as it is now, is IT—is the whole point of there being life and a universe. I saw that when the Upanishads said, “That art thou!” or “Al this world is Brahman,” they meant just exactly what they said. Each thing, each event, each experience in its inescapable nowness and in all its own particular individuality was precisely what it should be, and so much so that it acquired a divine authority and originality. It struck me with the fullest clarity that none of this depended on my seeing it to be so; that was the way things were, whether I understood it or not, and if I did not understand, that was IT too. — Alan Watts’s Mystical Experience

Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) who was also a Harvard psychologist (with Leary) would overlap the psychedelic experience with several religious paths in his book ‘Be Here Now’.   He relates that when it came to Ego-loss, he struggled through out the 1960’s with experiencing anything “beyond himself”.  In 1967 he traveled to India and met a guru named Neem Baba who twice consumed large doses of Alpert’s LSD, having no or little effect.  This is their conversation according to Alpert   “Have you got anything stronger?” I didn’t.

Then he said, “These medicines were used in Kullu Valley long ago. But yogis have lost that knowledge. They were used with fasting. Nobody knows now.  To take them with no effect, your mind must be firmly fixed on God. Others would be afraid to take.  Many saints would not take this.” And he left it at that.   When I asked him if I should take LSD again, he said, “It should not be taken in a hot climate. If you are in a place that is cool and peaceful, and you are alone and your mind is turned toward God, then you may take the yogi medicine.”   Richard Alpert would spend 3 weeks staring at a candle in a cave to have the mystical experience that would finally reshape his life and change him into the man named Ram Dass.   Zalman and Ram Dass remained lifetime friends and in his later years Ram Dass would return to an appreciation of the Judaism of his roots through the teachings of Reb Zalman.

Jewish Scholars would ask Reb Zalman in a pointed way, how can you say hallucinations are mystical?  For Zalman coming from a mystical Hasidim tradition he found that the experiences he has with “hard or soft psychedelics”  are simply that….. experiences.   What a psychedelic could show you was the eternity of NOW.  The interconnection and sense of unity is with us always.  He believed like Aldous Huxley that the Doors of perception are opened during a trip and like Alan Watts he understood these tools of consciousness are rooted within the ancient ways of tradition. What you bring to the table is HOW you experience the Mystical, or Hidden states of awareness.   Zalman would exclaim, who can say one isn’t having a direct communication with God?  

Common in the psychedelic experience is that same feeling of oneness, interconnection with everything in the Universe.  A feeling of overwhelming love and a sense that the reality muffles the “aliveness”  of all matter. Zalman would shift towards the notion that this planet was alive and consciousness was something that connected all living things into a sacred union guided by forces that are accessible by anyone with eyes to see.  This sense that Mother Earth needs our help and we could be the “white blood cells” of healing is a major theme that repeats with each successive generation finding the unity in psychedelics.

The second generation to follow this technological merging of spirituality and science is notably represented by Rick Strassman MD, the first doctor allowed by the US government to do studies on psychedelics in decades.   His study and book on DMT (the Spirit Molecule) would usher in a new era of research.  He wrote a new book last year book called DMT and the Soul of Prophecy as he sought a spiritual model for the experiences.  Unable to find an answers in science, he looked in the Hebrew Bible and discovered what he claims is a “prophetic state of consciousness and explains how it may share biological and metaphysical mechanisms with the DMT effect.”    

Strassman would claim that the pineal gland which produces DMT is the natural component by which both “self perpetuating” and “outer influence” states could be both mystical and chemical.  This return to his own Jewish roots as a result of his studies and the idea that science could finally prove the existence of God within the human brain has been one met with both praise and rejection.

Strassman reveals how Jewish metaphysics provides a top-down model for both the prophetic and DMT states, a model he calls “theoneurology.” Theoneurology bridges biology and spirituality by propsing that the Divine communicates with us using the brain, and DMT—whether naturally produced or ingested—is a critical factor in such visionary experience. This model provides a counterpoint to “neurotheology,” which proposes that altered brain function simply generates the impression of a Divine-human encounter.

In recent years Roland Griffiths Ph.D an “old school” researcher would again bring psilocybin back into the mystical question with a landmark 2006-2008 study.  The scientist would use 36 hallucinogen-naive volunteers with previous spiritual practices and give them a very high dose of psychedelics and asked them to focus on the experience and remain contemplative during the trip, afterwards offered them the newly revised  ‘Pahnke-Richards mystical experience questionnaire’, one designed to frame the experience in a measurable way.    The focus was on seven domains of mystical experiences like Internal unity, External unity, Transcendence of time and space, Ineffability/paradoxical, Noetic quality, Sense of sacredness and Deeply-felt positive mood.   22 of these volunteers had “complete mystical experiences”.

At this point came the center experience—I can’t even today describe it. It has no mythic tag. All the myths in concert together, each one flowing over into the next and they are all my self, which turns upon and against itself. The central figureground switch, the yes and the no. Life and death. All the revelations ever wrapped in ONE. I know and I know again, I recognize myself in all the masters and martyrs, in all the blasphemers, murderers and rapists, in all animate and inanimate beings, in my freedom and necessity, in all patterns and forms and in all the changes. I bear all the guilt for being and for making being and pain and pleasure and all the ecstasies of the I WANT, I WANT, I WANT, I have, I am, and all this now. I can’t suffer it, I want out, and no! I want to stay with it. No! I want to die. No! I want to live, to continue. Yes! I take upon myself all the consequences and I suffer them all. Later… behind the scenes a conference; so who’ll play villain and who the hero? The show must go on. Which role do you want? Make up your mind and I want to be me…. – Reb Zalman describing the peak experience on Acid

The characters mentioned in this historical exploration would all in some way shape the landscape of culture.  None had the classic signs of using “drugs”  or being subversive as characterized by a typical “war on drugs” propaganda.   Several were and remained lifelong scientists.   Huxley and Ram Dass would stay in the religious communities their psychedelic experiences help found.  Zalman would reform his own faith to reflect the changing face of culture and accept all seekers into the fold of religious interfaith union. 

As a leading expert in Jewish Mysticism.   Reb Zalman would remain open about his psychedelic experiences, talking about sacred weed, MDMA, and teaching the transformational tools of the ancients at the Naropa institue as the World Wisdom Chair.  He remained a respected Inter-faith educator and a well known Rabbi in the Progressive reform Judaism movements inspiring generations with ideas of making “the Old, New and the New, Sacred”.  Inspired by Judaism, Shamanism, Buddhism and Science, he was able to integrate these experiences into a lifetime of human spiritual potential.  If he says the psychedelic experience was mystical, and had a vast impact on his faith, who is anyone to say otherwise?

“All forms of religion are masks that the divine wears to communicate with us. Behind all religions there’s a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people.” —Rabi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi