In the spring and summer of 2017, I was invited to sit on a couch, get comfortable, and take a little blue pill containing a very high dose of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in “magic” mushrooms. I was participating in a study conducted by the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Johns Hopkins University, exploring the nature of consciousness and mystical experiences. The study brought together clergy for a profound psychedelic journey in a setting supported by expertly trained guides.* Even two years later, I am still integrating what I learned and experienced, and how those experiences have guided my personal, professional, and spiritual life.
As an Orthodox rabbi, I turn to Jewish exegesis and philosophy to ground my experiences and propel my inquiries. I began to think about the notion of “na’aseh v’nishma,” “we will do and we will hear,” and how several mystical and Hasidic traditions employ this phrase to explore the process of approaching, achieving, and integrating mystical unification, an experience in which a person has a direct encounter with the Divine.
One powerful example is found in the seminal work of the Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), Likutei Moharan, where he states, “…every person must proceed from level to level and from world to world, until they merit each time to attain a higher aspect of ‘we will do and we will hear,’ so that every time for them the aspect of ‘we will hear,’ the aspect of the hidden…, will become the aspect of ‘we will do,’ the aspect of the revealed…, until they come to the primal beginning point of Creation, which is the beginning of Emanation.” (22:10)
Here, Rebbe Nachman is describing a process of spiritual discovery. At first, we encounter a rung of existence that is hidden from us (“we will hear”). It is an encounter with the Divine mystery. But eventually, we arrive at a state of understanding, and the mystery itself becomes a revealed realization that we can put into practice in our waking life (“we will do”). While Rebbe Nachman prescribes the tools of Torah study and prayer as the primary methods of achieving these states, psychedelic researchers speak of a parallel process of “integration” — the conscious and intentional activity over time of reflecting upon and making meaning of the insights occasioned during one’s time on the couch.
Ever since my experience at Johns Hopkins, I’ve been wondering how these experiences and psychedelic research as a whole might help us rediscover sources of healing and spiritual attunement aligned with Jewish tradition.Though difficult to describe — especially experiences of the ineffable that are almost beyond rational comprehension — I will try to articulate some of the peak spiritual and mystical encounters I had while under the influence.
The whole of my first journey was near-blissful. Blindfolded, I lay on a wide couch. The six-hour session began with swirls and patterns of the whole palette of colors — specks, lines, spirals, waves, pulsing clusters, images, works of art, shifting one into the next at a high rate of speed. The only “Jewish” moment of this first trip happened in front of a massive oak tree, where I watched a flow of illuminated energy course from a long branch on its right side to its left, phasing from red to blue. I understood the imagery as polar points of the kabbalistic “Tree of Life,” with its 10 symbolic branches, teaching me directly how the energies of chesed, boundless compassion, and gevurah, the constricting force of limitation and boundaries, require careful, constant balance and integration. After many more tears, insights, and images, the psilocybin wore off, and I returned to normal consciousness.
Having responded to my first dose so well, the research team determined that I could handle a higher dose for my second experience, two months later. Rather than lights, colors, and feelings of connection and gratitude, I felt as though I were in a pitch-black hatch with no reference points, no imagery, and no way out. I felt no fear, but rather deep boredom. How long was this going to last? All I remembered was that I had to pay that parking ticket today and asked one of my guides to remind me after the session. This memory sparked a question: When given the option to pay now or pay later, why do I mostly choose to pay later? Either way I will have to pay! When it was all over, I was terribly disappointed, upset that I may have done something wrong that resulted in a less fantastic experience.
Two years later, I can say that these two sessions, taken together, were a direct, personal encounter with immanence and transcendence. My first session was a journey through the world of phenomena — light and color, relationships, emotion, and apprehension — the world of immanence. It is where laundry gets done and dinner gets made, where Sukkot happens, where people are born and pass away. My second session was a journey into transcendence, beyond polarities and causality, to a place, as the writer Stanislav Grof describes, “pregnant with all of existence.” (The Adventure of Self-Discovery) My inability to make sense of what I was experiencing was not because of personal defect or shortcoming, but because it was my first contact with what Rebbe Nachman called “the primal point of Creation,” a point of origin that precedes the familiar forms and structures of the world as we know it. Without having had the time, space, and support of my guides to help me seek out deeper significance of each experience on their own and in concert, I may never have come to this deeply moving insight. But with time to reflect, write a “trip report,” and talk about my experiences with trusted friends, the nishma — hearing the mystery of what these things mean — has become apparent. Opening to the na’aseh, the lived and applied expressions, is the work of my everyday balancing of intimacy and withdrawal — the relationship I have with my wife and daughter, my work as a community rabbi, my engagement with and escape from my own body. A new nishma arises: What do these substances mean for the future of Jewish spirituality and religion?
If the cultural forecasters are correct, the use of psychedelic drugs in clinical settings will eventually become a norm for psychotherapeutic treatments as well as for personal and communal self-exploration of mystical states of awareness. Navigating that exploration will depend not only on scientific data but also on how open we are to inhabiting altered states of consciousness and garnering authoritative insights into our lives that can effect healing and transformation. Before this major cultural shift occurs, we should acquaint ourselves with and draw upon the maps of non-ordinary states that Jewish sages and mystics have developed throughout the generations.
As more research about the applications of these substances for psychotherapeutic therapies and sacred encounters emerges from respected research facilities around the world, I hope we might seek out and experiment with the Jewish ideas and practices that touch and heal the deepest parts of our psyches and spirits. Our noble mystical tradition, by and large, remains in the storehouses, waiting to be shared and flow freely.
*For more information about these experiments, see _How to Change Your Min__d_ by Michael Pollan.
Rabbi Zac Kamenetz lives in Berkeley, Calif., with his wife and daughter. He is the director of Jewish Living and Learning at the JCC of San Francisco, the codirector of Beloved Berkeley, and the executive producer of the Shefa Podcast Network. Connect with him at belovedberkeley.org. He appreciates the generous guidance of Rabbi Ami Silver in writing this essay.