We recently squeezed our way into Morbid Anatomy‘s sold-out lecture “Psychedelics & Death” presented by Dr. Neal Goldsmith, a New York City-based psychotherapist who practices what he calls “psychedelic-inspired therapy.” He’s also the author of Psychedelic Healing. Until recently this topic might have seemed fit only for people with Alex Grey posters on their dorm room wall and aging hippies. And of course radical artists, like Melanie Bonajo, who are concerned with the ways in which ayahuasca could maybe be reasonably adapted into Western society.
But with legitimate institutions reviving research into psychedelics like LSD and a newfound enthusiasm for their potential applicability in fields as disparate as therapy, hospice, even drug addiction treatment, the lecture seemed very much in-tune with the here and now. And certainly less out-there than the other fascinating talks organized by the Gowanus-based oddities museum and esoteric interest club.
Morbid Anatomy isn’t the only institution with their finger on the pulse regarding a psychedelic renaissance. (Two more psychedelics-related events happened last night, including a book launch for Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics). Psychedelics are hardly mainstream just yet, but they might be headed that way. Dr. Goldsmith isn’t surprised at all by the change in attitude and sees much of what we’re “discovering” as simply uncovering of what was already there. “The ancients knew their pharmacopia,” he said at the lecture. “In the West, we’re reinventing the wheel of psychedelic practice.”
Though he’s an advocate for psychedelics and open about his own use of the substances, Dr. Goldsmith made clear that it’s not as if he’s dropping blotter tabs onto his patients’ tongues, though he did say that psychotherapy is certainly made easier with psychedelics. “I tell my patients that if they’re going to take psychedelics, come to therapy the day after,” Dr. Goldsmith said to appreciative laughter.
His lecture focused mostly on a brief history of psychedelics, different cultural conceptions of these substances, descriptions of a variety of substances (ayahuasca, LSD-25, psilocybin, even MDMA), the role of psychedelics in a progressive type of neonaturalism, and how psychedelics can help with spiritual development and self-actualization. Certainly psychedelics can help people resolve existential crises and aid the dying in realizing acceptance, but the “death” in “Psychedelics & Death” referred mostly to the inevitable death of the human race and also to Dr. Goldsmith’s assertion that psychedelics may be of some help in addressing larger societal problems like climate change.
We won’t reveal too much, since Dr. Goldsmith is hosting a few more iterations of the same lecture throughout the summer and will be appearing at Morbid Anatomy’s one-year anniversary party, the Festival of Arcane Knowledge (more details on that soon). But here’s a conversation we had with Dr. Goldsmith in which we got a better feel for how he ended up dropping and dosing, and he explained some of the major ideas behind his work.
Well, I started to take them again. I graduated high school in 1969, so when I went to college that was when I started taking psychedelics. Great Neck, Long Island is quite knowledgeable and upper middle class, so when I was in 10th grade, it was 1966 and LSD was still legal. So some of my friends who had older brothers and sisters who were hippies and they had pure LSD in sugar cubes. One drop of liquid is like 1,000 micrograms, one milligram. So these kids were taking eight times the clinical dose and sitting in high school through the day or cutting class and going into the city. But I never did that stuff, I was too scared.
But by my freshman year of college, I did take psychedelics and it was mostly intellectual fun and games. I faded out after college, I think 22 or 23 was the last trip I took until I was about 40. I was reintroduced to psychedelics through MDMA, though MDMA is not really a psychedelic. I took it and it was a trip though, it had a beginning, middle, and end. I was so amazed, I remembered how intense psychedelics were and then I decided I was going to take some acid. That was the anecdote I mentioned at the meeting. It’s really been about LSD and mushrooms for me since then.
It wasn’t recreational at all, it was very therapeutic. I was around 40, I was having my midlife crisis, I was eventually going to be divorced from my then-wife. That was a very difficult process of waking up and realigning with my true self and psychedelics helped that process a lot. My purpose of taking LSD for the first time in over twenty years was to find out if I’d become an asshole. I was 40, maybe a little over, I had a mortgage, I had a wife, I had a great job as a social psychologist working corporate.
But still I was very middle class and very tied up to the hilt with a mortgage and shit like that and I was itching, I wanted to see if I’d sold out. I don’t know what I would have done if I was tripping and found out I was a total asshole, but that was not the case because I found a place of love and acceptance instead. So it was definitely therapeutic, it was definitely self-administered, there was no therapist involved.
Though I was in couples therapy with my ex, and it was really, really helpful to have a trip the day before and then go into therapy and try to remember stuff about my childhood and my mommy and stuff like that.
Everybody comes out natural as a baby and then adopts the self-defense strategy called personality, The task of adulthood is to recognize that what you did as a baby and to wake up to this unconscious, hidden, pain relief, love maximization, defense mechanism that we create when we’re children. That’s the task of adulthood, to become aware of it.
And once you do, it’s like, ‘Really, what am I scared of?’ It’s not annihilating. I don’t have to depend on personality anymore. Thank you baby, for saving us, but you’re retired, I don’t need your hyper vigilance anymore.
There’s this Star Trek episode where they’re flying through space and they get attacked by this planet. So they go into orbit to see what’s going on and the planet won’t communicate with them, so finally they beam down to the headquarters of the planet and they find there’s no people anywhere. So Spock goes into the computer room and says, ‘This planet has been unpopulated for over a million years, but the defense mechanism of the planet that was set up for the planet by the people who lived here is self-repairing.’ It’s an automatic machine. So it’s been going on for a million years attacking the space ships that fly by for no reason, the people are gone. So he turned off the system and retired the defense mechanisms that were no longer needed and they left the planet.
So that’s kind of what personality is like, it’s a defense mechanism that’s still in place that’s no longer necessary. It’s pretty simple, but man is it hard to see it. That’s what psychotherapy is about, or should be about and that’s what psychedelics are about as an aid to psychotherapy. Psychedelics are an illuminating process, it triggers serotonin, which is the I-Thou sort of neurotransmitter that triggers the noticing-boundaries, noticing-dualities kind of thinking. It’s like a miner’s helmet, so whatever you’re looking at is illuminated. You look at the environment, you understand how nature is whole and how ecology is so important to the planet. You see the mechanisms.
Not all tribes are the same, some of them take it and just sit around and get high all day. I’m not sure if that’s the result of a post-Colombian twisting of their natural setting. But there are also societies where everyone takes it on a regular basis or even during rites of passage moments in their lives.
Sometimes it’s only done by a shaman, and the people of the tribe don’t do it anymore. That’s a later degradation of an earlier practice where the entire tribe goes into an ecstatic trance and it’s a bonding kind of thing, almost like a rave might be in some ways. That’s one of the reasons why kids do raves these days, to replicates these earlier human systems that nourished our hearts.
So the need for transformation and change in roles in life as you grow older is facilitated by a ritual that you hold and also psychedelics, because they aren’t just illuminating agents, but they’re also loosening agents. In the tribal setting, everyone is involved in the ritual— your mother, your father, the tribal priest, the chief– and you go through this loosing process and you emerge into a new template, adulthood.
If there wasn’t something there holding it in place, it will go naturally back to the old configuration. So what holds the bricks in place in the new configuration is the tribe’s norms and culture and all the expectations of the adults around you. You’re not throwing a little tiny spear at cockroaches, you’re throwing a full spear, you’re hunting.
In Western society, when we loosen the bricks and reconfigure, when Monday morning rolls around and there’s no tribe, there’s no ritual, your wife doesn’t know, your boss doesn’t know the new arrangement, and they’re all treating you the old way, and by Friday you’re back to the same old ways again. What holds those bricks in place in Western society is daily meditation or some sort of spiritual practice.
It’s so easy to find your soul during trips that people resist, they’re not ready for it. Sometimes it takes 15 more years of psychoanalysis before they’d be ready to deal with it. But nonetheless, if you’re prepared for the experience and what it entails, then you can open up to it and release, breathe, and stay calm and receptive and surrender. Then you’ll see, and you’ll be calm because it’s you, it’s just the deepest part of you.
Is there an optimal way or time? A dose, probably. The tribal peoples know through trial and error experimentation over generations. They’ve learned certain practices and the dose, the amount, the ritual setting. Lysergides are uterine dilators so they tend to have an abortive affect, so if you take LSD when you’re pregnant you can induce an abortion. That’s actually why Albert Hofmann was researching LSD and lysergides, because he was looking for things that were dilators.
If it wasn’t for the serotonin system inside you, LSD would be inert. It works by masking or triggering or mimicking the action of a neurotransmitter. All the procedural therapeutic stuff we’ve come up with in the West about psychedelics is really a rediscovering of tribal wisdom about safety and knowledge and participation in the community, follow-up and meditation. It would be to our benefit to actually go and harvest the wisdom of psychedelic practice as we try and figure out how to do it here in the West in a clinical setting or in a divinity school type setting perhaps. Or even publicly for that matter, permit it through training institutes and things like that.
Well the most important application are MDMA for PTSD and psilocybin for end-of-life anxiety, but it’s much bigger than that actually. Application areas are a reflection of the bigger change the psychedelics cause in society. In preagricultural societies— what I talked about in the lecture– that world, that kind of way of looking at things, that animistic way of looking at the world, that there was the spirit world and the finite world, where they would apologize to the tree before chopping it down. That kind of world view needs to be adopted again. Now obviously we can’t go back and say, ‘I’m going to apologize to the tree god,’ because we’ve had Descartes, we’ve become incredibly analytical, we’ve deconstructed everything. And now we’re just in deconstruction and post-modernism, actually we’re in post-post modernism which is the reintegration of our view of the environment as sacred and the universe and our place in it. But it’s not religious, it’s not spiritual.
Fundamentally the universe is quantum mechanical, it’s full of patterned energy. So, the scientific worldview and the spiritual or superstitious view are the same, we’ve been looking at the same thing. Now we live to 96, but we’re miserable. The answer isn’t to go back down the spiral, to primitivism, like Bin Laden would have it, but by spiraling forward, up the circle and coming full circle around to exactly where we were in the tribal setting, but one level up now, with our eyes open, Buddhist style. Being aware of our environment and being integrated into it again. It’s a hard-won wholeness now, a Cartesian split wholeness. Not an unsplit wholeness.
You know, I’m a Western, middle-class, middle-aged, neurotic person, I’m certainly subject to my culture and my timeframe. So I don’t know actually what the answer is. But all of a sudden everything is screwed up now on the planet because of our species, so I look to nature and what pre-modern people have done, how they’ve handled themselves and lastly I look to the current tribal peoples who are unaffected or minimally contacted.
If you have a natural environment then the use of psychedelics will probably be more associated with rites of passage rather than every day for everyone or intervening as a clinical fix for treating some problem. If you’re in a society like ours, post-industrial, pollution, not very natural, then you find people having more problems and needing psychotherapy.
I’m not sure how many people in a functioning, healthy, stable tribal environment are going to need to see a psychotherapist. But now the environment is out of wack, so now you might say that we require psychotherapy or medication in order to wake up enough to use psychedelics in a more beautiful, general spiritual way. Once you’ve had psychotherapy and maybe some psychedelics in there you begin to open up and calm down, release and surrender, all those wonderful ways of being. When you come to coalesce around that consciousness, you still need, I believe, some sort of ongoing spiritual, psychedelic practice. In that context, it’s not therapeutic and remedial, it’s proactive and forward thinking. It’s not detangling you from the sticky history of your past, it’s helping you to reach forward toward the sun to grow like a plant.
It’s like going down into the basement. It’s bad if you triple lock the door and never go down there, but if you go down there with a flashlight and take a look and realize it’s just the basement, not the scary catacombs you though it to be as a kid, you can clean it up, put a pool table down there, inhabit that area and make it part of your whole house.
“Psychedelics & Death,” a lecture by Dr. Neal Goldsmith will be held Friday, July 10 (8pm) and Friday, August 7 (8pm) at Morbid Anatomy. Also catch Dr. Goldsmith at Morbid Anatomy’s “Festival of Arcane Knowledge,” Saturday July 18th.