Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index
DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences
Strassman, Rick (2001)
Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
Description: xxx + 358 pages.
Contents: Acknowledgments, introduction, Prologue: First Sessions, 22 chapters in 6 parts: Part 1. The Building Blocks, Part 2. Conception and Birth, Part 3. Set, Setting, and DMT, Part 4. The Sessions, Part 5. Taking Pause, Part 6. What Could and Might Be, epilogue, notes. about the author.
In 1990 I began the first new research in the United States in over twenty years on the effects of psychedelic, or hallucinogenic, drugs on humans. These studies investigated the effects of N, N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, on extremely short-acting and powerful psychedelic. During the project's five years, I administered approximately four hundred doses of DMT to sixty human volunteers. This research took place at the University of New Mexico's School of Medicine in Albuquerque, where I was a tenured Associate Professor of Psychiatry. (page xv)
The DMT project was founded on cutting-edge brain science, especially that which dealt with the psychopharmacology of serotonin. However, my own background, which included a decades-long relationship with a Zen Buddhist training monastery, powerfully affected how we prepared people for, and supervised, their drug sessions.
DMT: The Spirit Molecule reviews what we know about psychedelic drugs in general, and DMT in particular. It then traces the DMT research project from its earliest intimations through a maze of committees and review boards to its actual performance. (pages xv-xvi)
This approach will satisfy no one in every respect. There is intense friction between what we know intellectually, or even intuitively, and what we experience with the aid of DMT. As one of our volunteers exclaimed after his first high-dose session, "Wow! I never expected that!" Or as Dogen, a thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist teacher, said, "We must always be disturbed by the truth."
Enthusiasts of the psychedelic drug culture may dislike my conclusions: that DMT has no beneficial effects in and of itself; that rather, the context in which people take it is at least as important. Proponents of drug control may condemn what they read as encouragement to take psychedelic drugs and a glorification of the DMT experience. Practitioners and spokespersons of traditional religions may reject the suggestion that spiritual states can be accessed, and mystical information gained, through drugs. Those who have undergone "alien abduction," and their advocates, may interpret my suggestion that DMT is intimately involved in these events as a challenge to the "reality" of their experiences. Opponents and supporters of abortion rights may find fault with my proposal that a pineal DMT release at forty-nine days after conception marks the entrance of the spirit into the fetus. Brain researchers may object to the suggestion that DMT affects the brain's ability to receive information, rather than only generating those perceptions. They may also dismiss the proposal that DMT can allow our brains to perceive dark matter or parallel universes, realms of existence inhabited by conscious entities. (page xvii)
Prologue: First Sessions
This threshold to which Philip referred is what we now call the "psychedelic threshold" for DMT. You cross it when there is a separation of consciousness from the body and psychedelic effects completely replace the mind's normal contents. There is a sense of wonder or awe, and a feeling of undeniable certainty in the reality of the experience. This clearly had not occurred with 1 mg/kg intramuscular DMT. (page 5)
Chapter 1. Psychedelic Drugs: Science and Society
In 1948 researchers discovered that serotonin carried in the blood stream was responsible for contracting the muscles lining veins and arteries. This was vitally important in understanding how to control the bleeding process. The name for serotonin came from the Latin sero, "blood," and tonin, "tightening." (page 24)
Another problem was that psychedelics were becoming an embarrassing source of contention even within psychiatry itself. Biology-based psychiatrists had little patience with colleagues who "found religion" and touted the spiritual effects of these drugs. These latter researchers viewed their brain-only associates as narrow-minded and repressed. Psychiatry has never been especially comfortable with spiritual issues, and in fact, an entirely new division appeared in the field to contend with results from psychedelic research: the "transpersonal" area of theory and practice. Thus, at least some psychedelic researchers may have been quietly relieved that they no longer had to face many of the complex, contradictory, and confusing effects these drugs produced in their patients, themselves, and their colleagues. (page 29)
Chapter 2. What DMT Is
N, N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is the remarkable main character of this book. While chemically simple, the "spirit" molecule provides our consciousness access to the most amazing and unexpected visions, thoughts, and feelings. It throws open the door to worlds beyond our imagination.
DMT exists in all of our bodies and occurs throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. It is a part of the normal makeup of humans and other mammals; marine animals; grasses and peas; toads and frogs; mushrooms and molds; and barks, flowers, and roots. (page 42)
Another plant mixture, this one consumed as a beverage, seemed to produce similar effects at a slower pace. This brew also went by several names, including ayahuasca and yage. This drink inspired much rock art and paintings drawn on the walls of native shelters - what would be called "psychedelic" art today. (page 43)
However, the brain is where DMT exerts its most interesting effect. There, sites rich in these DMT-sensitive serotonin recpetors are involved in mood, perception, and thought. Although the brain denies access to most drugs and chemicals, it takes a particular and remarkable fancy to DMT. It is not stretching the truth to suggest that the brain "hungers" for it.
The brain is a highly sensitive organ, especially susceptible to toxins and metabolic imbalances. A nearly impenetrable shield, the blood-brain barrier, prevents unwelcome agents from leaving the blood and crossing the capillary walls into the brain tissue. This defense extends even to keeping out the complex carbohydrates and fats that other tissues use for energy. The brain burns instead only the purist form of fuel: simple sugar, or glucose.
However, a few essential molecules undergo "active transport" across the blood-brain barrier. Little specialized carrier molecules ferry them into the brain, a process that requires a significant amount of precious energy. In most cases, it is obvious why the brain activity transports particular compounds into its hallowed ground; amino acids required for maintaining brain proteins, for example, are allowed in.
Twenty-five years ago, Japanese scientists discovered that the brain actively transports DMT across the blood-brain barrier into its tissues. I know of no other psychedelic drug that the brain treats with such eagerness. This is a startling fact that we should keep in mind when we recall how readily biological psychiatrists dismissed a vital role for DMT in our lives. ...
In a way, DMT is "brain food," treated in a manner similar to how the brain handles glucose, its precious fuel source. It is part of a "high turnover" system: quick in, quick used. The brain actively transports DMT across its defense system and just as rapidly breaks it down. It is as if DMT is necessary for maintaining normal brain function. It is only when levels get too high for "normal" function do we start undergoing unusual experiences. (pages 52-53)
... "What is DMT doing in our bodies?" More specifically, let's [ask, "Why] do we make DMT in our bodies?"
My answer, "It is the spirit molecule." ...
A spirit molecule needs to elicit, with reasonable reliability, certain psychological states we consider "spiritual." These are feelings of extraordinary joy, timelessness, and a certainty that what we are experiencing is "more real than real." Such a substance may lead us to an acceptance of the coexistence of opposites, such as life and death, good and evil; a knowledge that consciousness continues after death; a deep understanding of the basic unity of all phenomena; and a sense of wisdom or love pervading all existence.
A spirit molecule also leads us to spiritual realms. These worlds usually are invisible to us and our instruments and are not accessible using our normal state of consciousness. However, just as likely as the theory that these worlds exist "only in our minds" is that they are, in reality "outside" of us and freestanding. If we simply change our brain's receiving abilities, we can apprehend and interact with them.
Furthermore, keep in mind that a spirit molecule is not spiritual in and of itself. It is a tool, or a vehicle. Think of it as a tugboat, a chariot, a scout on horseback, something to which we can hitch our consciousness. It pulls us into worlds known only to itself. We need to hold on tight, and we must be prepared, for spiritual realms include both heaven and hell, both fantasy and nightmare. While the spirit molecule's role may seem angelic, there is no guarantee it will not take us to the demonic.
Equally important is that DMT occurs in our bodies. We produce it naturally. Our brain seeks it out, pulls it in, and readily digests it. As an endogenous psychedelic, DMT may be involved in naturally occurring psychedelic states that have nothing to do with taking drugs, but whose similarities to drug-induced conditions are striking. While these states certainly can include psychosis, we must also include in our discussion conditions outside of mental illness. It may be upon endogenous DMT's wings that we experience other life-changing states of mind associated with birth, death and near-death, entity or alien contact experiences, and mystical/spiritual consciousness. ... (pages 54-55)
Chapter 3. The Pineal: Meet the Spirit Gland
The pineal gland contains the necessary building blocks to make DMT. For example, it possesses the highest levels of serotonin anywhere in the body, and serotonin is a critical precursor for pineal melatonin. The pineal also has the ability to convert serotonin to tryptamine, a critical step in DMT formation. (page 69)
All spiritual disciplines describe quite psychedelic accounts of the transformative experiences, whose attainment motivate their practice. Blinding white light, encounters with demonic and angelic entities, ecstatic emotions, timelessness, heavenly sounds, feelings of having died and being reborn, contacting a powerful and loving presence underlying all of reality - these experiences cut across all denominations. They also are characteristic of a fully psychedelic DMT experience. (page 73)
One of the most powerful reasons for my fascination with the pineal gland relates to its function in the life of the spirit. The importance and potential of this was brought home to me when, as a medical student in the mid-1970s, I learned of a startling coincidence involving the pineal gland and Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation. I cannot overemphasize how strong an impression this discovery made on me, and how it strengthened my research for a spiritual role for the pineal gland, and within it, the spirit molecule.
I already knew that the Tibetan Buddhist Book of the Dead teaches that it takes forty-nine days for the soul of the recently dead to "reincarnate." That is, seven weeks from the time of death of one person elapses until the life-force's "rebirth" into its next body. I remember very clearly, several years later, feeling the chill along my spine when, reading my textbook on human fetal development, I discovered this same forty-nine-day interval marking two landmark events in human embryo formation. It takes forty-nine days from conception for the first signs of the human pineal to appear. Forty-nine days is also when the fetus differentiates into male or female gender. Thus the soul's rebirth, the pineal, and the sexual organs all require forty-nine days before they manifest. (pages 81-82)
Chapter 10. Introduction to the Case Reports
Volunteers usually found the high dose caused an almost complete loss of control. They felt utterly helpless, incapacitated, unable to function or interact in the "real" world: "I felt like an infant, helpless, unable to do anything." DMT volunteers decided, at this point, they were happy to be in a hospital! Beyond their own loss of control, some volunteers felt another "intelligence" or "force" directing their minds in an interactive manner. This was especially common in case of contact with "beings." (page 149)
Chapter 15. Death and Dying
The morning of Carlos's 0.4 mg/kg dose, he was sweating and shaking when I entered the room. ...
He began chanting as I started giving him the drug. His chanting abruptly stopped halfway through the flush. He let out a big sigh at 2 minutes. He resumed chanting, more softly this time, at 3 1/2 minutes.
At 12 minutes he said,
Please remove my eyeshades.
Laura did so.
It was really quite special. I wasn't human for about three and a half minutes. This dose creates a level of stress that's unparalleled in the annals of Carlos's history.
He cleared his throat and said,
I met myself as the Creator.
"Creator of ...?
The Creator of all. I've had that realization before, but not at this level.
"One of our volunteers likes to say 'You can still be an atheist until 0.4.'"
This is true.
Carlos took a deep breath and began telling us what had happened. It was difficult to keep up with his rate of sharing his incredible story.
There was the sound of the entire universe, more like a hum. It was pervasive, overwhelming. I thought, "Holy moly, how did I get into this?" Things weren't right and were getting more wrong all the time. Then my ability to perceive as a human being winked out. There were no more emotions, because emotions only work up to a certain point.
I saw a man lying in a hospital room. He was naked with a person on either side of him, one female and one male. At first they didn't look like anybody I knew. They were perfect generic human beings. I recognized, in context, that they were me, you, and Laura. The way of knowing was totally different from this reality. I didn't know I was in a study of any kind.
There was something wrong with him. He was there to get better. The hospital was a healing center. What was wrong with him was death. The naked person was dead. What killed the person was the stress from the DMT. None of my guardians or protectors made an appearance. They were out of the loop.
He was healed, more than healed. He was reborn. He got cured from death, healed from death. And then he became the creator of a whole universe.
I gradually became more and more solid and moved toward my everyday presence. I watched the universe's creation down from fundamental mental energy to a vibratory rate to material things. I realized I was recreating the hospital and the room. As the world jelled more and more, I wanted to see it and asked to have the eyeshades taken off. I became fascinated with my fingers, like a newborn.
I've taught classes on how the universe is a construct of your own mind. And here it was happening. My attitude was different when I knew you were my creations. I felt as close to you as to my son and daughter.
I would have to say my experience was a classical death/rebirth experience. I had done it before, but never the same way as with DMT. It was spectacular in imagery, texture, and atmosphere and had incredible lighting and effects. Boil it down and it's very, very classic.
The [dose of] 0.2 [mg/kg] was harrowing - this was way beyond. I knew the boundary beyond life existed. I never thought I'd be there, though, at such an early age. It's one of those things that old men talk about, like "once I got there." It's just the wrong place and time. I expect these sorts of things in the mountains with my friends in a more ceremonial setting. (pages 230-231)
Chapter 16. Mystical States
One of the most compelling factors fueling my decision to make a career of psychedelic research was the similarity between high-dose psychedelic experiences and mystical experiences. Years later, it was these types of sessions I hoped to see, study, and understand in our New Mexico DMT volunteers. ...
In my early visits to the Zen Buddhist community at which I studied, I raised this question with many of the young American monks. Nearly everyone I asked as this training center answered that psychedelic drugs, especially LSD, first opened the doors to a new reality for them. It was the pursuit of stabilizing, strengthening, and broadening their initial psychedelic flash that led them to the discipline of a communal, meditation-based ascetic life. (pages 236-237)
... While I took notes, the report she wrote the next day does a better job of capturing what she experienced than does my shorthand.
Before you spoke the words, "Okay, we're done," there arose in me an energy so forceful that no words could describe it. It drove my heart. The swirl of color reminded me of the visual experience the day before, but multiplied a millionfold. I could only hold on, remembering not to fall off into the distracting light show. Then everything stopped! The darkness opened to light, and on the other side of space all was utterly still. Then the words "just because it is possible" emerged out of nothingness and filled me.
The great power sought to fill all possibilities. It was "amoral," but it was love, and it just was. There was no benevolent god, only this primordial power. All my ideas and beliefs seemed absurdly ridiculous. I never wanted to forget this. I was aware I could open my eyes and relate to those around me. But first I had to wait for all this to solidify, to allow the fullness of the experience to congeal, so I could bring it back to the others.
I wondered, "Why come back?" I was reluctant to open my eyes. When I did, the room seemed very bright, but otherwise just as I had left it. (pages 239-240)
DMT reproduces many of the features of an enlightenment experience, including timelessness; ineffability; coexistence of opposites; contact and merging with a supremely powerful, wise, and loving presence, sometimes experienced as a white light; the certainty that consciousness continues after death of the body; and a first-hand knowledge of the basic "facts" of creation and consciousness. (page 246)
Chapter 20. Stepping on Holy Toes
We gave and analyzed this new questionnaire, the Hallucinogen Rating Scale, or HRS, at the end of every DMT session for the entire project. The results were remarkable.
It is well-known in clinical psychopharmacology that a good questionnaire is more sensitive than any biological factor in assessing drug effects. In other words, a well-designed rating scale is better than measurements of blood pressure, heart rate, or hormone levels in distinguishing doses of a drug, or different types of drugs, from each other. I hoped that the HRS would follow in that tradition, and this it did without difficulty. We were better able to separate responses to various does of DMT, or the effects of combining DMT with other drugs, using HRS scores than by measuring changes in any biological variable, including all the cardiovascular and blood hormone data. However, it also validated the wisdom and strength of the Buddhist approach to mental states.
Clifford Qualls, Ph.D., the Research Center biostatistician, and I grouped together HRS questions using the "clinical cluster" or skandha method and compared this method of analysis to a large number of alternative purely statistical models. The Abhidarma's technique was a good as, if not superior to, ones developed solely upon mathematical considerations. Since the computer-derived classification of results was no better than the clinical cluster ones, and since using the skandhas made more sense intuitively, the Buddhist classification system won out. Other groups have since used the HRS and confirmed its usefulness in measuring other altered states of consciousness, drug-induced or otherwise. (pages 299-300)
And then the Fall 1996 issue of Tricycle, The Biddhist Review came out with my article calling for a discussioin of integrating psychedelics into Buddhist practice.
In that article I presented Elena's first high-dose session, which we've read in chapter 16, "Mystical States." Her experience served as an example of the type of spiritual breakthrough possible with DMT in someone open to them - that is, a person with a serious meditation practice, solid psychological mindedness, and a deep reverence and respect for drugs like DMT. I also raised the concern that isolated experiences, occurring without any sort of spiritual or therapeutic context, were not especially effective in producing long-term serious change in our volunteers. I therefore concluded with the following:
"I believe there are ways in which Buddhism and the psychedelic community might benefit from an open, frank exchange of ideas, practices, and ethics. For the psychedelic community, the ethical, disciplined structuring of life, experience, and the relationship provided by thousands of years of Buddhist communal tradition have much to offer. This well-developed tradition could infuse meaning and consistency into isolated, disjointed, and poorly integrated psychedelic experiences. The wisdom of the psychedelic experience, without the accompanying and necessary love and compassion cultivated in a daily practice, may otherwise be frittered away in an excess of narcissism and self-indulgence. While this is also possible within a Buddhist meditative tradition, it is less likely with the check and balances in place within a dynamic community of practitioners.
"On the other hand, dedicated Buddhist practitioners with little success in their meditation, but well along in moral and intellectual development, might benefit from a carefully timed, prepared, supervised, and followed-up psychedelic session to accelerate their practice. Psychedelics, if anything, provide a view. And a view, to one so inclined, can inspire the long hard work required to make that view a living reality." (pages 305-306)
Chapter 22. The Futures of Psychedelic Research
Understanding religious sensibilities in as deep, a manner as possible also is necessary for being fully supportive and understanding while supervising psychedelic sessions. This does not mean simply having spiritual or religious experiences oneself, with or without a psychedelic. Rather it ought to include training and background in religious sensibilities. Education in theology, ethics, and ritual additionally will help in empathizing with and understanding important aspects of the full psychedelic experience. (pages 337-338)
In addition to the treatment of clinical disorders, psychedelics could be used to enhance characteristics of our normal state of being, such as creativity, problem-solving abilities, spirituality, and so on. The research institute I envision will carefully and responsibly take the lead in such studies. This work may ultimately serve more people, and have greater overall impact, than strictly pathology-based therapy projects.
We are seeing an ever-increasing availability of relatively side-effect-free antidepressants, sexual performance enhancers, stimulants, and mood stabilizers. These new, easy-to-take chemical agents are forcing us to reevaluate the risks and benefits involved in making us better than average. Why not use psychedelics, too, for indications other than treating the sick? (page 340)
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