Chapter 1. Setting the Stage
The Hebrew Bible prophet and the DMT volunteer
[Note: Footnotes are indicated by * in the text, and the footnote itself is in square brackets [ ] after the paragraph in which the * appears.]
In mid-6th century BCE Babylonia,* the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel experiences a vision that came upon him while he stood by the river’s shore. Ezekiel was among the exiles from Judea, the southern Kingdom of ancient Israel. They were in the early stages of a 70-year sojourn in their conquerors’ homeland after the latter destroyed Solomon’s Temple and the rest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. We know nothing about Ezekiel before his prophetic mission, which he carried out with relentless passion, both raging against his people for their role in Jerusalem’s downfall as well as offering hope for a future redemption. The Book of Ezekiel begins with his first vision:
[Footnote: Present-day Iraq.]
A stormy wind was coming from the north, a great cloud with flashing fire and a brilliance surrounding it;… and from its midst, a semblance of four living things…. They did not turn as they moved, each went in the direction of its face…. And as for the appearance of the living things, their appearance was like fiery coals, burning like the appearance of torches…. There was a brilliance to the fire, and from the fire went forth lightning…. Then I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of great waters…the sound of the words like the sound of a company…. I fell upon my face and I heard a voice speaking…. “Son of man, stand on your feet and I will speak to you.” (Ez 1:1-2:1).*
[Footnote: Refer to Appendix I for abbreviations of individual books from the Hebrew Bible. I use the convention of Book X:Y as referring to chapter X, verse Y in a particular book, such as Genesis, Exodus, and so on.]
Since Ezekiel’s time, medical science discovered and began to explore the visionary effects of the psychedelic drugs. These unique mind-altering compounds—of which LSD is the prototype—affect all facets of human consciousness in a relatively consistent manner. They modify perception, mood, thought processes, bodily sensations, and will. While these compounds were the object of a tremendous amount of medical-psychiatric research in the 1950s and 1960s, human studies ended with their widespread abuse in the 1970s. Despite a lack of ongoing human research, I had developed an interest in these compounds early in my career, in particular their relationship to religious experience.
DMT—short for dimethyltryptamine—is an endogenous psychedelic compound that living organisms synthesize within themselves. It occurs in hundreds if not thousands of plants, and in every mammal, including humans, that scientists have investigated. After years of preparation, I was fortunate in being able to initiate a human research project with DMT at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. This was the first study of its kind in the U.S. in a generation, and took place between 1990 and 1995. I describe these experiments and my findings in detail in DMT: The Spirit Molecule.
Let’s now read about how—two and a half millennia after Ezekiel and half-way around the world from Babylonia—one of the DMT volunteers into whom I intravenously injected DMT. Leo,* a psychologist in his mid-30’s, described his experience:
[Footnote: This volunteer’s pseudonym is “Saul” in The Spirit Molecule, but since Saul is also the name of a biblical personage, I changed his pseudonym to “Leo.” I describe in more detail individual volunteers’ backgrounds and personalities in The Spirit Molecule.]
Large crystalline prisms appeared, a wild display of lights shooting off into all directions…. My body felt cool and light. Was I about to faint?…. [M]y mind was completely full of some sort of sound, like the aftereffects of a large ringing bell…. Out of the raging colossal waterfall of flaming color expanding into my visual field, the roaring silence, and an unspeakable joy, they stepped, or rather, emerged. Welcoming, curious, they almost sang, “Now do you see?… Now do you see?” (pg 344).*
[Footnote: I refer to pages in The Spirit Molecule simply by inserting page numbers in parentheses.]
Both describe a “rush” of wind or physical lightness, a mind-filling auditory experience, emotions so powerful as to cause a falling down or near-faint, and the appearance of creatures emerging out of an amorphous dynamic background of preternaturally intense colors. We also note similarities in their descriptions of the authority and power of the spoken voice the men hear. What are we to make of these striking similarities? What do they mean? What are their implications, both theoretical and practical? Do Ezekiel’s and Seth’s visions consist of the same “stuff” and if not, how do they differ? In this book, I will address these and many other questions in presenting a model that will help bridge prophecy and the DMT experiences.
The Hebrew Bible defines the prophetic experience as the highest spiritual experience humans may attain. It consists of communicating with God and/or God’s angels. In a prophetic state one hears voices, sees visions, feels extraordinary emotions and physical sensations, and realizes novel and valuable insights of either a personal or collective nature. This definition of prophecy is much broader than the conventional one of foretelling or predicting. Prediction may occur in prophecy, but not always or even frequently. And one may accurately predict without having recourse to prophecy.
The model I will present in The Soul of Prophecy joins the prophetic and psychedelic experiences by proposing that their shared phenomenology reflects a shared biology. The common biological denominator is the presence of elevated levels of DMT in the brains of individuals in both states. In prophecy, I suggest that DMT levels rise endogenously and this mediates certain features of the experience. In my New Mexico research subjects, brain levels of DMT rose subsequent an injection of the pure compound into their bloodstream.
The implications of this model are twofold:
- The psychedelic drug experience may help facilitate and study prophecy; and
- The Hebrew Bible’s prophetic tradition may help understand and guide the contemporary psychedelic experience.*
[Footnote: Note that psychedelic experiences—with their unique constellation of perceptual, emotional, somatic, and other effects—may result from non-drug means. These include drumming, chanting, prolonged hyperventilation, fasting, sleep-deprivation, and so on. The extent to which any of these non-drug methods affect endogenous psychedelic chemistry is a critical research question.]
My model differs, however, from what we have now come to call “neurotheology,” the brain science of religious experience. Neurotheology is a bottom-up model which proposes that the brain generates religious states of consciousness. Certain practices or metabolic situations trigger a reflex, as it were, in the brain. This reflex occasions a subjective experience with spiritual properties. Certain biological and social benefits devolve from these experiences, and this is why we have them.
In this book, on the other hand, I take a top-down model, essentially religious or spiritual in orientation rather than essentially biological. I call it a “theoneurological” model, and suggest that the mechanisms existing in the brain are how God communicates with us. The brain is not generating those experiences for various evolutionary purposes; rather, God has designed and uses the brain as the agent for communicating with us. And that exchange is for God’s purposes, not for ours or society’s. Sometimes the prophetic experience may seemingly benefit us and some may seemingly not.
I do not intend this model to replace, but instead to complement, the neurotheological one. The theoneurological model provides a place at the table for those who wish to engage in rigorous discussions of the biology of spiritual experience from a theological perspective. Up until now, this perspective required sitting at the periphery of solely biological conversations. Here, I hope to balance the biology of theology with a theology of biology using the fulcrum of the prophetic state.
I began my psychedelic drug research hypothesizing that DMT administration would occasion states of consciousness with spiritual qualities; e.g., similar to mystical or near-death states. To the extent that this was the case, it would support a role for endogenous DMT in those non-drug states. While contemporary research models informed the design of the DMT project, I also brought to my studies specific spiritual expectations and models, primarily those growing out of decades of Zen Buddhist study and practice.
At the end of my research in 1995, I concluded that neither a Buddhist nor psychopharmacologic model fully explained my volunteers’ experiences. Two characteristics of the DMT state were responsible for this lack of fit. One was the overwhelming and unshakeable sense of the reality of those experiences. The other was their highly interactive and relational rather than mystical and unitive nature. As a result I began searching for other models both within and without the conventional scientific worldview. This search led me to the Hebrew Bible and its notion of prophecy.
Twenty years ago, if someone had suggested turning to the Hebrew Bible for an alternative model for the DMT experience, I probably would have laughed. It had been decades since I had any involvement in the Jewish tradition. More relevant, I had never considered the Hebrew Bible to be a source of insight into spiritual experience in general, and certainly not into the psychedelic experience in particular. However, in seeking the truest possible interpretation and application of my findings, the words of two of my original DMT mentors have continually pushed me towards whatever direction seemed most promising.
Daniel X. Freedman MD, one of the fathers of modern American psychiatry, liked to question the relevance of psychedelic drug studies using the refrain “If so, so what?” What does the psychedelic experience mean? Why should psychedelic drug effects concern us? What are they good for? The other mentor was Willis Harman Ph.D. an engineer by training as well as a seminal figure in the use of LSD for enhancing creativity. Amplifying the implication behind Dr. Freedman’s cryptic mantra, he challenged me one day, on a fateful walk along the central California coast, by asserting: “At the very least, we must enlarge the discussion about psychedelics.” Neither explicitly suggested looking at Hebrew Bible prophecy to help explicate the psychedelic drug experience. However, it is worth noting that Dr. Freedman had considered religion a more useful discipline than psychiatry in understanding and utilizing their effects.
At this point in my introductory comments, I wish to forestall specific misunderstandings that might arise from what I have so far stated. First, I am not proposing that Hebrew Bible personalities experienced prophecy by ingesting psychoactive plants or drugs. There is little, if any, evidence in the text for this hypothesis. More important, the presence of endogenous psychedelics militates against the necessity of establishing the use of exogenous substances.
Second, I am not a DMT zealot. We know more about DMT’s effects and biological mechanisms than about any other endogenous psychedelic substance. However, we have not yet characterized variations in endogenous DMT in any altered mental state, such as dreams, near-death states, or any type of spiritual experience. And while DMT’s effects resemble those of the prophetic state in some ways, they do not in others. Future research will continue to clarify the relative importance of DMT and/or other endogenous compounds in consciousness. I have selected DMT as the endogenous substance of interest in prophecy simply because of what I have discovered about its effects and how they overlap with those of prophecy.
Risks and benefits of amateur Hebrew Bible scholarship
This has been a more difficult book to write than The Spirit Molecule, one reason being the vastness of the literature on Hebrew Bible prophecy. While I have dedicated myself to an ever-deepening, mostly self-directed, course of Hebrew Bible study since 1998, I will never come as close to mastering the literature as I had mastered that of the psychedelic drugs. However, this is the nature of biblical exegesis.* While one never reaches its end, it demands as much rigor and thoroughness as we can muster.
[Footnote: Interpretation of text, especially Biblical.]
As a bible studies amateur—pursuing the field for love and not for money—I possess certain advantages that were unavailable while writing the DMT book. Here, I may speculate more freely, because I am not adhering to any institutional or philosophical credo. While I attempted to distinguish between fact and conjecture inThe Spirit Molecule, my scientific credentials and affiliations led a significant number of readers to assume the truth of many speculative ideas.* I hope my unaffiliated and non-credentialed status makes this less likely in this book. I am not writing as a representative of the clergy or of any particular school of religious or biblical thought.
[Footnote: For example, that elevations of endogenous DMT occur in non-drug induced altered states of consciousness like dreams and near-death states, that DMT and the pineal gland play a role in attaining “personhood” during fetal development, and others.]
While the bases of my present arguments derive from my and others’ scientific research, much of this book’s original content consists of viewing prophecy through the lens of theological and metaphysical rather than biological mechanisms. Rather than summarizing and synthesizing studies of brain physiology that relate to spiritual experiences, I wish to introduce a novel model in which God stands on a higher rung than does the brain when it comes to organizing principles.
Thus, there are fewer scientifically-generated data in this book than in The Spirit Molecule. The function of this book is to generate ideas encompassing a more telescopic than microscopic field of vision. Elucidating the specific brain areas and processes mediating spiritual experience is more a technical than a creative endeavor. It is simply a matter of time before we understand most of the relevant biological operations. However, my goal is to enlarge the discussion about what these brain processes have to say about how God constituted us as humans and what this means for our relationship with what we call the spiritual world.
Something with which everyone may disagree
The Soul of Prophecy represents a departure from the clinical and research communities I have inhabited for many years. It also enters into a field—biblical studies—that receives little attention, and not a little antagonism, from scientific and medical colleagues. Therefore, it is with some anxiety that I await responses from both the scientific/medical community whose objective rigor I now stand some distance from, and biblically-oriented religious/spiritual communities with which I have neither formal training nor affiliation. Paradoxically, taking my stand outside of both camps has made it easier for me to work on resolving apparent conflicts between the disciplines of theology and science. Thus I have tried to emphasize and build upon commonalities in methods, observations, theories, and goals relevant to both world views.
Nevertheless, the model I present is bound to raise objections from both scientific and religious communities. A theoneurological model requires that we take into account the God of the Hebrew Bible—a God who uses the brain as an agent rather than being a product of its physiology. This God is externally existent, essentially incomprehensible, possesses certain expectations for our beliefs and behaviors, and through the operation of cause and effect metes out consequences for how we live our lives. God’s nature and ways, while we may attain an allusive understanding of them, remain essentially elusive. This model at first blush may be unpalatable to a scientific reader.
Those with a primarily faith-based approach to the Hebrew Bible may bristle at what they consider a medicalization of a revered spiritual experience. Perhaps they will see my hypotheses interpreting away any validity to prophecy—“It’s just your brain on DMT.” This is certainly not my intention, and in fact, my intention is nearly the opposite. I am attempting to explicate how God and we relate to each other in the prophetic state at the interface of biology and metaphysics. This is far from positing that God is a phantom of our minds. Perhaps those of a religious bent will even find their faith stronger as a result of seriously considering the ideas in this book.
I also anticipate resistance from some in the psychedelic subculture because of its emphasis on a Western religious tradition that most have spurned. From its inception, the psychedelic subculture has struggled to balance hedonism with idealism, and it appears to me that over the last several decades, hedonism is by far the preeminent motivation for using these compounds. While psychotherapeutic use is popular among the medical research community and a smaller segment of the psychedelic one, we still lack a cogent Western spiritual model for the psychedelic drug experience. For those who do see potential spiritual benefits from these drugs’ effects, most are partial to Eastern religious or Latin American shamanic systems. They may resist the suggestion that the Hebrew Bible—particularly with its conception of God—could help their understanding and application of the spiritual properties of the psychedelic drug experience.
Whom this book is for
The more overtly spiritual, and less overtly scientific, considerations I present in this book may lose some prospective readers who found The Spirit Molecule of interest. However, I hope to broaden its appeal to additional readers. For example, many people are attracted to prophecy as a method of prediction, particularly within the context of apocalyptic “end of times” forecasting. Learning about the original broader meaning of prophecy and its deeper spiritual implications will provide a counterpoint to understanding it simply as divination or prognostication.
I am also addressing this book to those whose non-drug induced visionary experience has inspired them to find a suitable religious system outside of the Western mainstream. I receive many e-mails from such individuals who describe experiencing DMT-like states without ever partaking of the drug. Shamanic and Eastern religious models address these types of altered states directly, which is part of their appeal. The Hebrew Bible and its concept of prophecy, which many educated secular individuals have never studied, may provide a useful alternative framework by which to understand these types of experiences.
While the psychedelic community may object to the God- and Bible-oriented model of this book, they nevertheless are one of my target audiences. The psychedelic community possesses a relatively inchoate and inarticulate view of these drugs’ spiritual potential. Therefore, I wish to demonstrate to this group how the notion of Hebrew Bible prophecy—with its familiar vocabulary, concepts, and images—provides a viable, culturally and psychologically compatible alternative to shamanic and Eastern religious models.
The largest potential group of new readers for this book are those interested in its discussion of Hebrew Bible prophecy in the context of a novel science-based model. They may be approaching this material from the perspective of faith, science, atheism, agnosticism, or simply curiosity about a venerable experience that has exerted millennia of profound influence throughout the world. Parenthetically, because I developed my model of prophecy through the study of the medieval Jewish philosophers, if one gains an appreciation of these remarkable thinkers by virtue of reading this book, I will have accomplished a valuable goal.*
*[My exclusive attention to Hebrew Bible prophecy and its subsequent explication by Jewish thinkers is not a sign of disrespect for Islamic and Christian prophecy. It has taken me many years to begin to understand only the Hebrew Bible and Jewish views of prophecy. I hope to address Islamic and Christian prophecy in future editions.]
Organization of this book
In Part I, I review the motivations behind my DMT work, how I performed the project, its results, the problems those results raised for my preconceived notions, and how I began to search for additional models to explain my findings. Concluding that DMT led to an awareness of what we currently call spiritual levels of existence, I decided to seek answers using spiritual models, taking my search outside of conventional scientific explanations.
Part II discusses how I came to the Hebrew Bible’s model of prophetic experience as a way to understand the DMT effect in ways not available in either modern scientific systems, nor those of Buddhism or Latin American shamanism. Because many secular educated readers are so unfamiliar with the Hebrew Bible, this section includes introductory background material regarding the text’s structure and content, including its understand of God and of prophecy. Here I begin to recruit the assistance of the medieval Jewish philosophers, and introduce the reader to this cadre of writers and their metaphysical models.
Part III is the bulk of the book and in which I carefully compare and contrast the DMT and prophetic states. I rely upon my bedside notes of volunteers’ reports of their DMT experiences and the record of prophetic experiences in the Hebrew Bible as the raw material for this investigation. While the phenomenology of the two states is quite similar, differences arise with respect to the information each state contains—the prophetic message being much richer and more highly articulated. In this section I also begin discussing the notion of false prophecy, one that is extraordinarily relevant to the thesis of this book. That is, how do we know if our or others’ experiences are truly spiritual or simply self-serving?
Part IV addresses mechanisms of action—explanations for how the DMT and prophetic states either resemble each other or how they do not. Here I focus primarily on metaphysics rather than biology, attempting to explicate a metaphysics of prophecy as well as a metaphysics of the DMT state. I point out the strengths and weaknesses of any solely physical model, and in particular, one that relies overmuch on the presence and effects of DMT.
Part V raises the question of whether prophecy—as the Hebrew Bible understands it—exists in our present world. Critiquing the rabbinic notion of “the end of prophecy,” I suggest ways in which prophecy may or may not be our birthright. If it is our birthright, then certain suggestions for future studies and practices logically follow.
Sigmund Freud struggled to understand the Jewish religion and in particular, the mind of Moses its great prophet. The following excerpt from his Moses and Monotheism resonated with my own anxieties about writing The Soul of Prophecy and I’ll end this introduction with it:
At this point I expect to hear the reproach…that I have built up this edifice of conjectures with too great a certainty, for which no adequate grounds are to be found in the material itself. I think this reproach would be unjustified. I’ve already stressed the element of doubt in the introduction, put a query in front of the brackets, so to speak, and can therefore save myself the trouble of repeating it at each point inside the brackets.
DMT and The Soul of Prophecy is now on Amazon.com and the other major online retailers for pre-order. Or, you may preorder it from me below or from Inner Traditions to assure that you receive the first printing. If you order it from me, I will sign and inscribe the book.
- 1. Rick Strassman, DMT: The Spirit Molecule (Rochester Vt.: Park Street Press, 2001). Henceforth The Spirit Molecule.
2. See for example, Andrew Newberg, Why God Won’t Go Away (New York: Ballantine, 2002).
3. Daniel X. Freedman, “Hallucinogenic drug research. If so, so what?” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 24:407-415 (1986).
4. Robert Forte, Entheogens and the Future of Religion (San Francisco: Council on Spiritual Practices, 1997), 5.
5. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1939), 43.