July 12, 2021

Meeting God: The Bond of Psychedelics & Religion

Meeting God: The Bond of Psychedelics & Religion

Sherry Walling - 0:00:00
People often describe their psychedelic experiences as spiritual, a mystical encounter with the divine, a meeting in the cosmos. Historically, many cultures and faith traditions have regarded plant medicines as sacred. But do they go together? Can faith or religion be innately connected to psychedelics? As psychedelics are entering the discourse of the Western medical world, we are starting to comprehend or at least scientifically investigate the connection between psychedelics and spirituality. Research teams at Johns Hopkins University and NYU have been investigating the effects of psilocybin on religious leaders.

Sherry Walling - 0:00:36
So, today we're talking to members of three different Abrahamic religions about how to integrate faith into psychedelic experience and vice versa. Perhaps most importantly, we explore the benefits and challenges of using psychedelics to get closer to the divine. Welcome to MIND CURIOUS, a podcast for those looking to explore the potential of psychedelic compounds. I'm your host, Dr. Sherry Walling. Before we dive in, a reminder that this podcast does not constitute medical advice.

Sherry Walling - 0:01:10
The perspectives of the guests are theirs alone. They don't represent me, my opinions, or those of our sponsor, Mind Cure Health. Today, we are talking to an Imam, an ordained reverend and a Jewish scholar about the use of psychedelics in relation to faith. My first guest is Fawad Kalsi, an imam at the Langley Islamic Center in British Columbia, Canada. In 2012, Fawad began battling chronic pancreatitis and the struggle nearly destroyed his life.

Sherry Walling - 0:01:45
He was prescribed opioid-based painkillers and fell into addiction and dependency. In order to beat the addiction, he used the natural psychedelic substance ibogaine derived from the Iboga plant. Research suggests that ibogaine can be immensely helpful in treating or even curing drug addiction. We'll talk more about Ibogaine and Fawad's story in a later episode of MIND CURIOUS. But today, we'll focus on Fawad's belief that ibogaine saved his life and also deepened his Islamic faith.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:02:31
I was born into the religion. I was taught the religion. I really never questioned why I believe what I believe. I was just told it's the perfect religion and I went on to boarding school and I studied and memorized and for me, God was always this textbook identity that I didn't really know and I just feared, and I believed in him but I realized God after going through this iboga journey. I've seen everything in that journey except God himself.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:03:00
I heard him. I felt him. I realized him.

Sherry Walling - 0:03:10
Like you've met him more personally for the first time?

Fawad Kalsi - 00:03:14
Yeah.

Sherry Walling - 00:03:15
Realized-- you realized him, that's such a poignant word.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:03:17
Yeah, I realized him. I can't undo that anymore. I know he exists. I realized him and there's nothing in the world anyone or anyone can do or say to take that away from me now. It's like, you know what, when you taste something sweet in your life and you taste something salty, it's not going to be undone.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:03:37
You know what sweet is and you know what salty is and so God went from, you know, a textbook identity in my mind to an actual identity. I realized him. I know who he is. I talked to him. I communicate with him now. I see all the benefits of what my faith was teaching me and it all started making sense.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:03:58
So, I describe it as going from a conservative orthodox-type Muslim to a Sufi Muslim. I went to, "Oh my God, there are no boundaries between the relationship that I can have with my creator, like I can just keep on climbing up this ladder and there are no boundaries." And it totally changed the way I've seen life, the way I've seen God and it was really because of this journey. And it was because I went through the experience of iboga. Before that, I was just following like a robot and preaching like a robot.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:04:31
But now, I actually-- when I preach as well, I give tangible examples and it was beautiful like some of the stuff that I learned in the journey when I shared it with my congregants, they are mind-blowing. They're just like this-- this is amazing. It just makes so much more sense when you're talking about and so yes, it totally changed my faith. I'm still a Muslim. I still believe in the oneness of God, but the relationship side is what completely changed.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:05:07
It's like God is a part of me. I am a part of God like you know, I came from God and like there's just there's verses in the Quran that you know I'd read and I kind of like, you know, just understood because of what I thought they meant but there's a verse in the Quran that says you came from God and you shall return to God. And so for me, it was like, "Okay, He created us and we're going to go back, we're gonna die one day." But for me now, that same verse means you came from God so you're a piece of this identity like you came from that cloth or that material or whatever it is and you shall return. You will go back to that same source, and so it's so much more deeper.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:05:51
Everything, even when I read the Quran, I'm like, "Oh my God." I'm blown away like this means something completely different from what I used to think it was, and so I've got this like secondary level of understanding now.

Sherry Walling - 0:06:07
You know many people across history and tradition have used psychedelics as a way of accessing the divine, using these medications as a form of spiritual experience. What are your thoughts on that if you were to encounter other Muslims who might say I want this deeper, richer experience of God, maybe I should use psychedelics as a way to help me access that?

Fawad Kalsi - 0:06:33
It's a great question. I would say that if God wants you to be exposed or he wants you to use psychedelics or whatever it may be out there, it will call you itself. You know, these things weren't created by someone other than God. If you believe in God, then you know that everything is connected. Everything was created by the same source. And so within that source, we, today, me and you, Sherry, we're connected somehow, and we're talking.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:07:08
So, we were called to each other and now we're speaking. And if that call happens, then just go with the flow and go with God's plan. Do I recommend people going and searching? I haven't until today recommended to any of my friends that they hear my spiritual journey and I see ibogaine is not just a joke. It's the hardest thing I ever did in my life and I felt like I was gone for 40 years.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:07:37
Time stops on ibogaine like there's no concept of time and so to come back and be here today is a huge blessing, but if it calls you to it or if there's a need like I might sense like or if there's addiction, people that have addictions, and there's a purpose behind and yeah, absolutely, go for it. There's something that you're trying to achieve. As far as the past, yes, there is historical evidence that even in our religion that there were dervishes and Sufi saints and scholars that did use plant medicines to reach a higher level of connection but it wasn't something that was occurring mainstream and because, again, I believe that it's something that if it's going to happen, it's going to call you and it's going to happen. You know the prophet, peace be upon him, told us that God has created a cure for every illness, sickness out there with the exception of death and so you need to go search for it. So, if you go search for it, you will find your solution and somehow that's what happened to me and my solution came from a tree root in West Africa. Yours might come from a blade of grass in Wyoming, somewhere, right?

Fawad Kalsi - 0:08:49
I don't know where yours might come from. So, that would be my recommendation to everyone is that if it calls you then go for it. Just go with the flow.

Sherry Walling - 0:09:09
Fawad didn't seek out psychedelics on his healing journey, but using ibogaine led him to a deep realization of God. My next guest was seeking a personal connection with God and decided to try using psychedelics in her search. Reverend Rita Powell is a chaplain for Harvard University's Episcopalian community. She is a former parish pastor; but after trying psilocybin, she decided to move outside the lines of structured Christianity. In 2016, Rita took part in a study about the effects of psilocybin and religious leaders at NYU.

Rita Powell - 0:09:49
So, I was a pastor at Trinity Church in Copley Square, which is a big church for the Episcopal Church, kind of all the urban church things, huge variety of people participating and I found that what I wanted most for the sort of spiritual health of my congregation was for people to have if not reliable constant access to the divine or to the transcendent, at least significant enough experiences of the kind of reality of let's call it the verticality of the dimensions of the world of the spirit. That's something our tradition knows of pretty well and yet is something for a variety of reasons has been problematized or minimized in terms of acceptable spiritual pursuit or practice. So, I've cultivated a number of different avenues to ecstatic practices, maybe it's a little grandiose, but sort of things like distance running or you know certain forms of intellectual inquiry or the arts, food, kind of sensory experiences can all be routes that we possess to discover. There's a bigger reality than we're used to accommodating, and so in the course of some sermon or other on this topic, I came across Michael Pollan's article The New Yorker, which just was important not just because it mentions the use of psilocybin in these clinical settings but because it precisely identified the way in which the mind creates its own borders, which it then thinks are real.

Sherry Walling - 0:11:25
In which the mind is defining reality...

Rita Powell - 0:11:27
Exactly.

Sherry Walling - 0:11:27
As we go.

Rita Powell - 0:11:29
Yes, and of course we have to, there are reasons for that, etc., but it's really important to not mistake the mind's constructed container for the container.

Sherry Walling - 00:11:40
Yeah.

Rita Powell - 00:11:40
And so this article was sort of saying, "Hey, this psilocybin is working in these clinical settings because and only because", it's just showing people that this container is not finite. Okay, so I was using that in my sermon to be like, "Hey, we have ways of reminding ourselves that the container that we make is not finite." But anyway, in the course of that article there was also the mention of the religious leaders study and I thought, "Hmmm"

Sherry Walling - 0:12:09
Well, that's interesting.

Rita Powell - 0:12:10
"Maybe that's for me." And so I applied and it took actually quite a while because, I mean, I'm in far lefty Christianity.

Sherry Walling - 0:12:20
But you still don't do drugs?

Rita Powell - 0:12:22
Yeah, especially not. You maybe could have done drugs in the past, that might be okay.

Sherry Walling - 00:12:29
Not currently though.

Rita Powell - 0:12:32
Right, and not to find God.

Sherry Walling - 0:12:34
Yeah.

Rita Powell - 0:12:37
Surely not. Surely not. That's just, you know, that goes against all the Protestant work ethic, you know.

Sherry Walling - 0:12:44
Right. Faith without works is dead.

Rita Powell - 0:12:47
Right.

Sherry Walling - 0:12:47
So, what was it like for you to sort of approach this process with this curiosity about what are the sort of constructed realities within my own mind? I hear you thinking about it very corporately but also you're going into this as one human individual who's undergoing an experience that transforms.

Rita Powell - 0:13:06
Yeah, well, and this is-- you know, this has been an interesting thing to tease out in terms of the different studies that-- there are the other clinical trials and then there's this one. It's what I've continued to meditate on or reflect on are two and there are many, but I'm just thinking about two different uses, applications of this medicine and one is really in the way that we think of medicine, like to solve a problem.

Sherry Walling - 0:13:33
To treat depression...

Rita Powell - 0:13:34
Yeah, to treat a thing.

Sherry Walling - 0:13:35
To help with trauma.

Rita Powell - 0:13:36
Exactly. And in that setting, you know, I could potentially add a kind of spiritual elements of being trapped in an enclosed material frame, that this seems like a potentially really productive intervention in. That's one sort of genre of its use in this setting from my perspective but the other is where I might, hopefully without sounding like totally arrogant, but where I would locate my inquiry, which is to say another use of this is sort of like assistance in mapping. So, if there really are kind of other worlds adjacent to this one that are real and that are not entirely simply visible that we at times in the human experience have had access to and have lost knowledge of, I find myself wondering if this is a medicine that can be used in a different kind of application, simply sort of exploration, recovery of knowledge, mapping of worlds which are not exactly the same as this one but are clearly related and interpenetrating to this one, and so that's a slightly different application.

Sherry Walling - 0:14:44
When Rita talks about the container, she's describing the boundaries that the mind imposes on itself. Often these boundaries are co-constructed by the surrounding culture, the superego, if you're familiar with that Freudian concept. The container implies that the mind is being limited or contained when it could expand and touch a higher plane. The church doesn't always endorse or encourage going beyond the parameters that serve as guide rails for the default assumptions that guide life and faith. It's interesting to me that Rita and Fawad have different interpretations of the question, should we and can we use psychedelics to get closer to the divine?

Sherry Walling - 0:15:21
Fawad wasn't primarily using ibogaine so he can access God, rather he asked God to help him with his drug addiction, and he thinks that ibogaine was the answer to his prayers. On the other hand, Rita was more intentional in her use of psychedelics to pursue getting closer, knowing God in a deeper way, and her journey didn't include the overwhelming feelings of connection and oneness that Fawad experienced. In fact, it was the opposite. When you talk with people about some of these experiences, often they're coming away with these big media spiritual ideas about oneness or you know, people will say things like, "Really at the core, all of it is love," which sounds like such sort of baby cheesy druggy talk but like also really profound and really kind of a universal idea in most of our religious traditions.

Rita Powell - 00:16:23
Yeah, and that is-- you know, my experience was pretty different from that and I really came to the experience with a lot of tools. I took a year. I was able to pray my way into it pretty significantly, and one of the things-- this is related, one of the things is I had heard so much of this like, "Oh, people have this experience of oneness or love", and I sort of rolled my eyes like I believe those things and I don't roll my eyes at those things but I don't need --

Sherry Walling - 00:16:56
I don't need to learn that lesson.

Rita Powell - 0:16:59
I don't need to learn that. I want to see something else right like I wanna see, I wanna know (inaudible) you know, my kind of intense prayer like I wanna see something, I wanna know something that I can't know otherwise and I'm one of the category who had really an experience of one could call it, an experience of the abyss or just a complete apophatic. I knew enough as the experience unfolded to sense that I was being invited into something by something fundamentally well disposed towards me. So, it wasn't dark or malevolent in my case, but it was an experience that suddenly was an experience of nothing.

Sherry Walling - 0:17:41
Of darkness, of emptiness.

Rita Powell - 0:17:43
Yeah, total nothing. That no one saw nothing, went nowhere. You know, I've since been reading a lot in the sort of medieval Islamic tradition like the Nicosia about the land of nowhere like as a state, as a kind of a no place place. So, that was my experience.

Sherry Walling - 0:18:05
Pardon the simplicity of this question, but what did that feel like to you?

Rita Powell - 0:18:09
It felt like it was some of the hardest work I've ever done. I felt like I had gone to the kind of extreme of my own limit. It was very exhausting. It felt hard and it felt exhausting. But it didn't feel scary or threatening because it just sort of felt like nothing. Even the feeling words they were when I could kind of come up from the experience like open my eyes and be like, "I am Rita in a body in a room", and then I could like, "Okay, bye." We go back on here as it were.

Rita Powell - 0:18:38
I mean, there are critical things to say about some of the modes and methods of the clinical trials but some of the framework is really sound. I had two people with me. I had a woman guide who I really trusted who had her hand on me the whole time. So, again, I had some way of being like perceiving safety so I could--

Sherry Walling - 00:18:58
I exist.

Rita Powell - 0:19:02
Yeah, I exist in a room with, you know, and so I think that permitted, that allowed some of the explorations of this kind of place beyond place in a way that myself understood was safe. I had some safety mechanisms in place, as safe as I can ever be.

Sherry Walling - 0:19:19
Did

Rita Powell - 0:19:19
it map for you on to

Sherry Walling - 0:19:22
the things that you knew and believed about the container beforehand? Because we have some of this language and the tradition like the dark night of the soul, or the valley of the shadow of death, like did any of that language or sense that maybe you'd had before land here?

Rita Powell - 0:19:39
I experienced just sort of going in the other direction, which is, I understood that I had an experience that was fundamentally sacred. I knew that. I sort of came out of it. I didn't know-- I had no idea really what to make of it but I knew that it was significant and that I knew that it was something I had to attend to and that began me on a journey of suddenly realizing that there is this whole apophatic tradition in Christianity, which I had not previously had any real contact with. So, it was actually sort of the experience then pulled me forward and back into my own tradition in a different way and that was kind of fun to be like, "Oh, there's a whole (inaudible) in here.

Sherry Walling - 0:20:20
There's a new like highway to walk out.

Rita Powell - 0:20:22
Exactly. Exactly, but I'm not alone. I'm inside something and maybe further inside something that I had previously been but it wasn't sort of simplistic but I was kind of thinking maybe I'd like-- I don't know, meet some characters like I thought maybe like, you know, Jesus or somebody would like...

Sherry Walling - 0:20:40
Show up, give you high five?

Rita Powell - 0:20:42
Something, you know (inaudible) but like no. So, in that sense I was kind of, at first, part of the reading of my experience was to say like, "Have I gone outside?" And if so, what does that mean? I mean, I do think it did make me somewhat aware that even the expansive container at its best of religion was still fundamentally a constructed container.

Sherry Walling - 0:21:07
Would you say a little bit about the apathetic tradition? That's not a tradition I'm familiar with. What does that mean? What you know?

Rita Powell - 0:21:15
Yeah, so I mean, yeah, I'm kind of a rookie at it myself. Right, so apophatic versus cataphatic. So, cataphatic being all the things you can say about God and apathetic being like nothing can be said like the tradition of talking and thinking about God and experiences of God that assert that God is beyond every name, every image, every idea, everything that we have, every reference that we have that God is actually beyond, behind, bigger than, underneath, and is fundamentally unknowable, unsayable in some way.

Sherry Walling - 0:21:52
Rita's experience in the land of nothing wasn't what she expected, but it did lead her down a new theological avenue. My next guest is also concerned with the way that psychedelic experiences can lead us to reinterpret our understanding of religion. Sam Shonkoff is an assistant professor of Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Unlike Rita and Fawad, I didn't speak to Sam about his own personal use of psychedelics, he approaches his topic from an academic historical perspective. I'd love to hear a little bit about your background and how you come to this conversation around psychedelics and spirituality, psychedelics, and religious conversation.

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:22:43
Yeah. So, I come to this conversation, first and foremost, as a scholar of religion. Some of the work that I do is on experiences that we tend to call mystical, different kinds of altered states of consciousness and awareness in religious life and spiritual practice and so from that perspective, I've been thinking very hard for years at this point about how we even begin to think about altered states of consciousness and the various chemical and ritual and textual techniques that human beings use to catalyze those different states and what that looks like. And so when thinking about psychedelics, you know, this has a lot of brain scientists and policymakers speaking about mystical states, religious experience, and that's the bread and butter of the field that I'm in. So, I think we have a lot to bring to the table and I'm interested in those conversations, also more specifically, I'm a scholar in Jewish studies and one of the main kind of field that I look at is a movement called Neo-Hasidism. Hasidism itself is a modern Eastern European born mystical movement in Jewish spirituality, and Neo-Hasidism is basically people who are not Hasidic Jews who nonetheless draw upon Hasidic sources, Hasidic practices or values for purposes of spiritual, cultural renewal and as it turns out in the American Neo-Hasidic context especially starting in the 1960s and beyond, actually psychedelics played a very significant role in the development of that movement. So, with my sort of historian hat on, I'm tracing that relationship and that's another thing that's brought me into contact with this field.

Sherry Walling - 0:24:49
How do you define or describe what you mean with the word mystical? Yeah, what's a mystical experience?

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:24:58
That is a fantastic question. I think the best place to begin an explanation of the mystical is to say I don't know because a lot of people have very particular concept of this thing called mysticism, and I think almost invariably the definitions that people would give tend to be limited and very culturally specific. I'll say what I mean by that. In the world of psychedelic studies for example and the sort of conventional discourses in that field, mystical experience tends to be defined according to particular categories that were shaped by people like William James, if it's a turn of the 19th to 20th centuries and Walter Stace, a scholar of the 1960s. These sort of older paradigm that emphasized the experience of ego dissolution, right like where our sense of being a separate self is dissolved into an experience of oneness, sometimes called a unitive experience.

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:26:09
These tend to be characterized as experiences that are really filled with pleasure, filled with joy, bliss, love. They're characterized as ineffable, so difficult to translate into language, to defying description in some ways. And so conventional understandings of the mystical experience tend to really be along those lines. As a scholar of religion though and as a historian, I'm interested in ways that that definition is super limited and very culturally specific, especially coming from a sort of Protestant framework that identifies an essence of religion as being separate from all the rituals, all the architectures of sacred spaces and really emphasizing you, the individual, right? The modern subject who is having this experience.

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:27:04
It's internal, it's perhaps intellectual or emotional but it's ultimately a sort of inner experience that's separate from all of the kind of unessential trappings of ritual and religious communities and institutions and so on. And so we get into tricky territory around psychedelics where it becomes in the kind of academic field and psychedelic studies that is just burgeoning right now. There is this really strong tendency to essentialize psychedelic experience as "mystical" and burying these sort of essential characteristics in ways that would honestly be unrecognizable to many of the say, indigenous communities who have been working with these medicines, these substances for centuries, operating with really different paradigms about what these experiences look like if thinking about them as personal experiences is even really the operative category to begin with, right? And actually, we enter this much more complicated and much more interesting and diverse landscape for thinking about what we tend to call, you know, mysticism.

Sherry Walling - 0:28:32
And even our framing of a spiritual experience is something that one entity has perhaps with a divine, but it is in most of our Western framework highly individualized, and so this idea that that framing of it is not really congruent or doesn't align necessarily with other cultural interpretations or historical interpretations of what a spiritual or mystical experience is.

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:28:58
Absolutely, and there's a kind of funny irony there that actually even when we're talking about ego dissolution and the disappearance of self.

Sherry Walling - 0:29:08
We're still in the middle of it.

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:29:11
Yeah, we're completely fixated on what happens to the self? What happens to the ego? And it makes me think of this Maria Sabina who is a really major revered medicine woman, a curandera in the indigenous Mexican tradition. She observed that when these white people from the United States started visiting her famously with Gordon Wasson and others who came in his wake, she said, you know, before they started coming like no one turned to mushroom just to seek God, like they were turning to these medicines for healing, for like particular ailments, for these sorts of practical purposes. And it was really these white gringos who started coming down and it was all about like their spiritual journey. It was all about their experience of God and it's just something that often like gets taken for granted in a lot of the conventional conversations happening that actually like spirituality and mysticism are far vaster than we tend to appreciate them.

Sherry Walling - 0:30:37
I'm curious though about this tradition that you speak of, the Neo-Hasidic tradition. I just don't know anything about that and so very curious about how that particular group of people and sort of their relationship with psychedelics that helps to develop this new adaptation of traditional practices.

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:30:58
Yeah, so that story, like any good story, it's hard precisely to locate the beginning of it, but I'd say our best bet for really the origin story of this relationship between psychedelics and Neo-Hasidism starts with a guy named Solomon Schechter who later changed his name to Solomon Schechter Shalomi drawing from shalom and solidarity with peace movements between Israelis and Palestinians. But at this moment, in the early 1960s, his name was Solomon Schechter; and at that time, he was still officially a Habad Hasad. He was a part of the Habad movement, a traditional Hasidic movement based in Brooklyn, New York. But he was already starting to kind of sniff spiritually beyond those boundaries and was interested in exploring other traditions, learning from other people. And one summer, actually while he was working at a conservative Jewish summer camp called Camp Ramah, he took a day and to make a long story short he went to go have his first LSD experience with a guy named Timothy Leary who is really at the forefront...

Sherry Walling - 00:32:15
I've heard that name before.

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 00:32:19
Yeah, it comes up here and there. At a sort of ashram in Massachusetts and Timothy Leary agreed to bring this cousin named Solomon on a journey with LSD and I've spent time in the Solomon Schechter archives at the University of Colorado Boulder and actually have the typed-up transcription of just the verbal trip report that Solomon gave about this experience and you can just see not only his life but the tradition of Hasidism and Neo-Hasidism just transforming in real-time under the influence of LSD. And so what we see here is that he came into this experience seeking a kind of religious illumination and one that was in harmony with the tradition that he came from. So, he brought clothing and ritual objects associated with the Sabbath with Shabbat. He brought audio records to play traditional Hasidic nigunim and traditional Hasidic music and melodies. He had his prayer book and his prayer paraphernalia for when dawn would come and it would be time for morning prayers and this was all he really thought to kind of integrate this into his experience and as he is tripping on LSD for the first time, we see him interpreting the experience itself in real-time through the prism of these stories.

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:33:55
So, one example of this is sometimes, especially as one is starting to peak on these substances, it can be terrifying. It can be really overwhelming, and he was having a moment like that, and he was seeing these kind of fiery demonic beings surrounding him and he was feeling afraid and he conjured up this this old Hasidic tale about (inaudible) an old sage from this tradition who is standing on the brink of hell and had this moment where he realized this can be the last mitzvah I performed, this can be the last like act of divine service that I can perform and so according to this story, (inaudible) like tightens his belt and jumps into the fiery depths and Solomon sort of channeled this story and he says, "right as I sort of took on that image of tightening my robe and jumping into whatever would come then all of those fiery demons kind of dissipate" and he opens up into this expansive luminous place of
peacefulness and so we see here ways in which he is-- he's drawing upon this tradition but also transforming that tradition in the process through this new experience and later when the sun rises and it's time for morning prayers, he talks about how he brings Timothy Leary along with him and takes out his tallit, his prayer shawl, and actually drapes it over the two of them together. He takes out his tefillin, this like traditional leather straps and boxes that one wears during Jewish prayer and he actually wraps it around both Timothy and him. So, they're actually bound to one another in this moment of prayer and he described what it is like for him to plunge into the traditional liturgy while still sort of in the afterglow to the coming down from this psychedelic experience and how he is just completely reinterpreting this language.

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:36:08
So, I'm going into like the texture details of this particular episode as what for me is just a really powerful example not only of the beginning of this relationship between what becomes Neo-Hasidism and Solomon is one of the really formative figures of that and psychedelics that is progressing through this day but also a kind of case study for thinking about the interplay between psychedelics and tradition, right? Like the tradition is refracted through psychedelic experience and psychedelic experience is refracted through the tradition and that's something that as a scholar of religion in this field of psychedelic studies that I and other colleagues of mine are really trying to draw attention to, right? Like, there's no transcultural, transhistorical universal experience that these substances will catalyze but actually people ideally, they bring their own set and setting to the table, right? They bring their own personal dispositions, their own life story, and their own spiritual traditions, or lack thereof to that encounter. And so I'm tracing that historically in Neo-Hasidism but also interested in just thinking about that more generally and cross-culturally.

Sherry Walling - 0:37:50
As Sam says, it's important to keep in mind that individuals of different backgrounds will experience psychedelics in different ways. Before we close, I check in again with each of our guests about how they expect their religious communities to react to the idea of using psychedelics in medical contexts as well as in pursuit of deeper spirituality.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:38:15
When I was going through what I went through, there was nothing in my community. There was no resources available. There's no support available, and so a lot of this kind of problems like withdrawals or people on drugs are kind of like swept up under the rug. They get labeled as possessions or someone is affected or has some illness or blah, blah, blah and the reality is, they're actually addicted and they're going through withdrawals and that's why they're shaking and that's why they're acting weird and lashing out at you. It's not a possession by the demons.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:38:40
And so, my goal was to break the stigma and say addictions are an illness. Okay? What God created, I don't call them drugs.

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:38:53
I called them plant medicines and so who decided that this plant is dangerous and this is not dangerous.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:38:59
So, that's what my message is that, 'Hey listen,

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:39:02
let's break the stigma and let's stop freaking out that it's a drug.

Fawad Kalsi - 0:39:06
It's a plant and treat it like a plant. And if it can help you, cure you, and help you in your life, then there's absolutely nothing wrong with that and I think God wants you to be healthy and happy because he loves you."

Sherry Walling - 0:39:21
Do you get pushed back in your community when you talked about this?

Fawad Kalsi - 0:39:25
Actually no, the community was really receptive. We started a roadshow, started going around all the Islamic centers and the mosques around the lower mainland and we were received with open arms. I was a speaker at these events and I would share my stories in imam and said that, "Hey, listen, I can be addicted too, so stop being so hard on your family members that are suffering as well and they made these choices." So, if someone like me can stand up in front of you and you look up to me and you listen to me but I went through the same thing then it can happen to any one of us and we got to treat it like illness and so that's how we started and we were welcomed with open arms and like you know a sigh of relief sort of occurred in the community collectively saying that, "Hey, holy, there's someone talking about this finally."

Sherry Walling - 0:40:18
When you think about the container of Christianity, where do you foresee the conversation being around psychedelics? Assuming that they, you know, are FDA approved and sort of roll out in the way that it looks like they will be. So, one is a form of medicine and two, you know there will always be the experiential spiritual seeking part of these substances. Are Christians ready for that? Please speak on behalf of all of them.

Rita Powell - 0:40:51
I feel fully empowered to do so.

Sherry Walling - 0:40:54
What's the conversation like?

Rita Powell - 00:40:56
I think the conversation is varied, but I have been surprised although maybe not too much, I've observed the disconnect between leadership in the church and people in the church on this issue. So, I find that people in the church are more likely to be open to and curious about how the use of psychedelics could be a value to their lives and I think again, we get into this kind of there are these different categories, so there's, you know, therapeutic intervention for a problem. And then there's kind of, you know, I don't train for a marathon because I'm intervening in a problem. I just-- it's-- I like doing it. It's fun. I experience the world more fully through that practice.

Rita Powell - 0:41:41
And so I think the kind of question is that permissible? Is it permissible to have a practice? Some form of cultivated practice around the use of these for an everyday Christian, I don't know, but I find that in the leadership the sort of sense of the pursuit of the transcendent is still really largely kind of strangely quite frowned upon and certainly...

Sherry Walling - 0:42:09
Stay in the lines, stay in the lines.

Rita Powell - 0:42:12
Yeah, and certainly with these that's true for-- that's-- I've noticed that seeking the transcendent has come to seem self-indulgent. (inaudible) quote. That's been quoted (inaudible) and that's not even talking psychedelics. I'm just talking like in one's prayer life or something. That's right. So then add psychedelics, no. No.

Rita Powell - 0:42:28
So, I-- from the leadership perspective, I feel there is a disconnect from leaders in the church and people in the church. Surprise, surprise.

Sherry Walling - 0:42:48
And what's the conversation like within the tradition? Because on one hand, you have the opportunity to utilize substances that can both deepen and illuminate and allow for this reinterpretation of the tradition and then on the other hand, you have substances that allow for the reinterpretation of tradition, which most traditions are not really up for a lot of reinterpretation. So, what's the the larger conversation in terms of how these substances are viewed?

Sam S.B. Shonkoff - 0:43:21
Yeah, it's interesting, for reasons that are hard to explain, the resistance to this in Judaism has been much less, I think, than in other traditions. Kind of like funny evidence of this is that Johns Hopkins University did this trial in their Psychedelic Research Center with religious leaders and they had a really like excessively easy time finding rabbis to volunteer for this, which was telling in itself there was like a disproportionately huge number of rabbis who were like, "Oh, pick me, pick me", but their selection criteria made it really difficult because it proved very hard for them to find rabbis who hadn't already had their own psychedelic experiences, like that ended up being one of the great challenges in terms of Jewish leaders and I think that actually is quite telling. I mean, one thing is that mind-altering substances are generally not prohibited in Jewish law in the way that they are, for example, in Islamic law and in terms of the threats and dangers of new interpretations of sources, I think that In Jewish tradition, that is the bread and butter of what we do, kind of even in the most like ultraconservative corners of the Jewish world, it's a fixture in theological discourse that the more you can kind of defamiliarize some deeply familiar canonical source, the more extraordinary like that moment of interpretation. There's this idea that when we have new perspectives on traditional source, we are letting the revelation of Mount Sinai continue to reverberate through the present moment. So, it's not to say that there's nonresistance and there are some debates happening in the Jewish world today about how appropriate it would be to incorporate these substances and experiences into Jewish practices, into Jewish communities, but I would say those debates are a little less heated in Jewish context than they are in many other religious contexts.

Sherry Walling - 0:45:56
It seems like to some extent there is openness or at least curiosity about psychedelics in each of these religious communities. But an enormous amount of variation will exist between traditions and between individuals. Do we seek out psychedelic journeys or wait for them to come to us? Do we realize God or experience nothing at all? These questions get at the very nature of what it means to be a person of faith and what role external substances might play in our mind's capacity to comprehend or access that which is beyond us.

Sherry Walling - 0:46:31
These are big questions to tackle and they're not easy. So, I want to thank my guests, Fawad Kalsi, Rita Powell, and Sam Shonkoff. The MINDCURE team is thinking a lot about religion and psychedelics this month. So, we have a number of blog articles and we'll have other podcast episodes that address some of these questions. To learn more about Mind Cure Health and the way that we're wrestling with these big topics within our culture, check out mindcure.com. Until then, be well. I'll be back in your ear next week.