Into The Upside Down
Yesterday I had a remarkable conversation with a stranger I will call Nicky. He is an Orthodox Christian, an accomplished professional who contacted me through a mutual friend, about a journalistic question. After we finished that discussion, I told him about my new book project, and as he sounded like an intelligent and well-connected believer, asked him for his advice.
He was excited to hear about the book, and said he believes that I am anticipating the next big religious/spiritual leap in American culture. He said that a huge concern he has about it all is that people — especially the young — will begin to turn to psychedelics (LSD, DMT, and so forth) in search of re-enchantment, and numinous experiences. He lives on the West Coast, and is seeing a lot of this already.
Nicky’s view is that most of these people are not hallucinating (in the sense of imagining things that do not exist), but in fact are entering into spiritual realms that are usually closed to humans in our normal state. He told me that the state of research on DMT (the active chemical ingredient in ayahuasca, and a far more powerful hallucinogen than LSD) has actually progressed quite far. Researchers, he said, have discovered that when they put test subjects into the DMT state, they can do it via a DMT drip, which allows them to control the subjects’ experience. To put it plainly, they can send these subjects into this other world, and keep them there to explore. If you are thinking about the Upside Down from Stranger Things, you are thinking like me.
Nicky’s opinion is that most of these drug users are connecting with actual entities that exist on another plane — and that these entities are demonic, or demon-adjacent. The churches in America, he said, are not remotely ready for what is about to hit them as use of these drugs becomes normative among seekers. Nicky said he hopes my next book will in some way take up this question, if only to warn people away from these drugs. As he put it: “These drugs open up people to experiences and hostile entities that they are in no way capable of handling. It would be like taking somebody from their suburban couch and dropping them off in the middle of the Amazon, and telling them they have to survive.”
I repeated to Nicky my usual claim about psychedelics: that I suspect they really do work to open the doors of perception, in ways that don’t usually happen to people except after long ascetic disciplines. Therefore, they are like people who win the lottery, versus people who become multimillionaires after years of hard work. The lottery winners don’t know how to handle the money, and often ruin their lives.
I thanked Nicky for what he told me. I read Michael Pollan’s book about the return of psychedelics in a therapeutic sense, and have in this space before speculated about what these drugs tell us about spiritual reality. Let me be perfectly clear: I do not not not recommend going down this road for anybody. I think psychonauts remind me of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno: driven by insatiable curiosity to go beyond where men are supposed to go, and do so risking their doom. Nevertheless, I think that an examination of the current state of knowledge about the psychedelic experience might be useful in helping us to understand spiritual and material reality, and to warn others away from fraudulent and dangerous forms of attempted re-enchantment. For example, I believe God sternly warns His people in Scripture to stay away from divination and the occult arts not because these things are fake (though they might be in individual instances), but because they open doorways that should never be opened.
This morning I looked at this website that catalogs testimonies about DMT experiences. They quote the psychedelics pioneer Terrence McKenna:
“The feeling of doing DMT is as though one had been struck by noetic lightning. The ordinary world is almost instantaneously replaced, not only with a hallucination, but a hallucination whose alien character is its utter alienness. Nothing in this world can prepare one for the impressions that fill your mind when you enter the DMT sensorium.”
Noetic lightning. Hadn’t Nicky said to me that the main problem with these drugs is that they thrown the nous (pron. “noose”) wide open? In Orthodox Christianity, the nous is the term we use for man’s faculty of spiritual perception.
The people who run the site are clearly DMT enthusiasts, but they do publish essays about what you might call “bad trips.” Here is one from 2019, by a man who says he encountered demonic possession in his many DMT experiences. Excerpts:
I smoked DMT at least once a day for a couple of months. While my early experiences were inexplicable and somewhat profound, there was no indication that DMT was anything more than just another psychedelic, albeit an incredibly powerful one. It wasn’t until around the third week that things started to get pretty heavy.
The first interesting thing that happened was when I decided to smoke a rather large amount through an oil burner off my stove. After the first hit, everything started to vibrate at this incredibly high pitch, and I thought to myself “Oh, you’ve really f*cked up this time…” and ran to the garage to be alone. I saw and felt the presence of multiple beings around me, thought “Nope, f*ck this…” and ran to my friend’s room where I fell face first onto her bed. I heard a lot of gibberish being whispered into my ears, and felt a weird sexual energy that made me uncomfortable.
There was a certain sensual quality to the gibberish, which was almost like moaning. Then I closed my eyes and saw what I can only describe as an Egyptian goddess made up of colors I’d never seen before… like, new colors that I can’t even picture in my head. She was literally one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, and due to her Egyptian vibe, I started referring to her as “Isis.”
The next day I kept ranting and raving to everyone about my experience. My friend was making fun of me for entertaining the possibility that there was anything more going on than brain chemistry, so I challenged him to smoke some. He was literally talking shit while lifting the pipe up to his mouth, but after he came to, he stood up and started yelling about Egyptian goddesses and things trying to get inside of him. He said there was a female entity at the center of it, and she had this hoard of helpers trying to examine him, but he was somehow able to deny them entry.
From a later trip:
They sat me in a chair, and before I could really get ahold of myself, I see Missy reach for my pipe and start hitting it. She laid back in the grass as I stood up and tried to regain my composure. A few minutes later, she popped up and started screaming “No!” at the top of her lungs, and rambling on very loudly about how “they” performed some kind of surgery on her and left something inside of her. I picked her up and carried her inside to her room because she was so loud the cops were definitely gonna get called.
After calming her down a bit, I left to drive my friend home, but when I returned, I found Missy sitting on her bed crying, rocking back and forth, and muttering “I don’t want this” over and over. I asked her what she didn’t want, and she looked up at me with a big smile and said hi to me, by name. I was like “Uh, hi Missy…” Then she went back to crying and begging for it to be over. She looked pretty miserable, and I guess I was more concerned with her well-being than I was about talking to whatever was inhabiting her body, so I said, “Tell them to suck a dick and come talk to me in person next time (I smoke DMT).”
She then looked up at me and said “Don’t be arrogant. We are much more powerful than you.” So I was like, “Uh… we? What’s your name?” to which she replied “Missy, of course…” with a big smile on her face, “…you’re so curious.” After reprimanding me for being “arrogant,” she went on to say “…but we love you, and we want nothing but the best for you. We think you’re beautiful.”
I don’t know why, but I was still more concerned about Missy’s wellbeing than I was about the conversation I was having, so I kinda blew my chance to have a clear, sober, uninterrupted conversation with an entity/entities from hyperspace. In retrospect, there was so much I wanted to say and so many questions I wanted to ask, but all I did was stroke Missy’s face and tell her it would be over soon.
A couple interesting things to note about the conversation:
It seemed like they were going through her brain like a Rolodex and laughing at the shit they found. For example, they were laughing and asking me to show them what Google was. After showing them how it worked, I asked if they would like to listen to music. I said “How about The Beatles?” and they got all kinds of excited. So yeah, apparently beings from hyperspace don’t know what Google is, but they’re familiar with The Beatles.
My other friend who was there was stroking her back and trying to comfort her when all this was happening, but they didn’t like that very much and started screaming “Why is he touching her!? Tell him to stop touching her! Get her some water!” Maybe they were sensing some creepy vibe coming from him that I wasn’t aware of, but they really didn’t like him touching her.
I got the impression that they really didn’t want me to tell anyone about what happened. At one point in the conversation, she turned to me and said “We’re just gonna pretend that Missy got drunk, right?”
This might just be my brain trying to compartmentalize things or whatever, but after putting her to bed and falling asleep in my room, I had this weird dream where I was naked in this room near a beach with these two humanoid creatures trying to act all sexy, but their proportions were all off, like they had perfect tits and big asses, but their limbs were too long and skinny. All I remember saying is “Yo, y’all are doing it wrong.”
It turns out that those entities had possessed Missy. What he later says happened ought to be enough to drive anybody away from this drug.
The website, DMT Times, has a page speculating on whether or not the entities people encounter on these trips are real, or hallucinations. It says in part:
One question leads to another, and the fire of curiosity burns on. However elusive the answers currently are, what seems clear is that regardless of intellectual capabilities, the majority of DMT users report a profound sense of reality in their entity encounters. DMT is also one of the few substances that facilitates such encounters in the first place, which lends credibility to the idea that is some kind of ‘gateway’ rather than a substance that simply warps the perception.
It is also not uncommon to hear that people feel they have ‘brought back an entity’ into the current reality. However unpalatable that might sound, it would be very unwise to write off that possibility.
I have posted before in this space this link to a personal account about ayahuasca healing by Kira Salak, a travel writer who has published frequently in National Geographic Explorer. She writes about how in an earlier trip deep into the interior desert of Libya, she and her team had been warned by locals not to climb a mountain that was believed to be the home of demons. They laughed at it, and climbed. If the ayahuasca experience in Peru is to be believed, Salak returned with demons attached to her; for Salak, the ayahuasca experience was a kind of exorcism, as well as a healing of her traumatic childhood. Notice this part below. Hamilton and Julio are the shamans directing this experience. Notice how Hamilton steps into her experience:
After three ceremonies, I still feel that I have something big to purge. There is something stubborn in me, refusing to be released. I walk through the jungle and wade into a narrow river, dunking myself in the water. Schools of piranha-size fish, mojaritas, nip harmlessly at my skin, unnerving me. Earlier today I was still scared to look at myself in the mirror, still scared of the self-judgment, the all-too-familiar shame.
I report to the hut for the next ceremony. The others sit or lie in hammocks, waiting silently, fretfully. Their experiences, while nowhere near as intense as mine, have been bad enough in their view. Winston has found the darkness during his visions tedious and unrelenting. Christy actually found herself crying during the last ceremony, which is something she says she doesn’t do. Lisa has found her ceremony experiences “too dark” for her tastes and blames me for creating this.
“It’s her own fear she’s scared of,” Hamilton told me earlier. “It has nothing to do with you.” It’s always that way, he explained. Projection of our own self-contempt. We judge in others what we can’t yet face and accept in ourselves.
We begin the ceremony, drink the ayahuasca. I’m hoping to find myself in some heavenly realms this time, but again, as usual, the darkness. With disappointment, I find myself entering a familiar tunnel of fire, heading down to one of the hell realms. I don’t know where I’m going, or why, when I suddenly glimpse the bottom of the tunnel and leap back in shock: Me, I’m there, but as a little girl. She’s huddled, captive, in a ball of fire before those three thrones of the devil and his sidekicks. As soon as I reach her, she begins wailing, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!” It’s heartbreaking to hear her.
I think this must be a part of me that I lost. Long ago. The shamans believe that whenever a traumatic event happens to us, we lose part of our spirit, that it flees the body to survive the experience. And that unless a person undergoes a shamanic “soul retrieval,” these parts will be forever lost to us. Each one, they say, contains an element of who we truly are; people may lose their sense of humor, their trust of others, their innocence. According to psychotherapist and shamanic healer Sandra Ingerman, author of Soul Retrieval, such problems as addictions, personality disorders, and memory blackouts are all warning signs that a person may have lost key portions of themselves.
“No one will help me!” the little girl wails in my vision. And now she is me—I am wailing. Crying like I have never cried before. I know it as an expression of primordial terror from a time when, as a small child, I felt abandoned, set helpless before the universe. I have never felt such profound fear. How did this happento me? the adult me wonders with fury. And why?
“The darkness was so heavy during your childhood,” a spirit voice says to me, “that your soul splintered beneath the weight.”
I have an awareness of having lost so much of myself. Who will I be when all the parts come home? I feel a hand on my back: Hamilton’s. “I’m here to help you,” he says. Suddenly, the flames trapping the little girl disappear. Everything is covered in a freezing white frost. I shiver from the intense cold.
“Julio and I have frozen the devil,” Hamilton declares. “You can pull the little girl out now.”
So that’s why everything got so cold, I think. But wait a minute—what are Hamilton and Mr. Julio doing in my vision? How can Hamilton see what I’m seeing?
“Pull her out,” Hamilton says to me.
I reach down and take the girl’s hand. When she feels my touch, she stops crying, and I pull her up, out of the tunnel of fire. The darkness departs. We reach realms of bright white light—the first such places my visions have allowed. The heavenly realms.
“Your little girl has to enter your body,” Hamilton says. “Call to her.”
I do. I see her split into several little girls, each looking like me at a different age. One at a time, they appear to enter me, my body jolting backwards for each “soul part,” as Hamilton calls them, that was retrieved.
As soon as they’re done, I see a vision of them. Dazed by the brilliant light of their new world, the girls walk through green grass, under pure white clouds. Flocks of butterflies land on them, smothering them. Flowers bow to them. All the pet cats from my childhood, those beloved creatures who had died over the years, appear suddenly and flock around the little girls to have their bellies rubbed. Here, I discover, is a place that transcends death. It is an unbelievably perfect place in which there is a sense that nothing could ever hurt me.
Back in 2013, I visited a friend in Amsterdam who was dying of cancer. Here I wrote about the sign and symbols that preceded my arrival. We sat in her living room and she told me about an ayahuasca experience she had recently had. Miriam was not a religious believer, but in this experience, she met her late mother, and was comforted by her. Miriam’s mother had died from breast cancer — the same cancer that would take Miriam’s life. After her mother died, she entered a profound crisis that broke up her marriage and caused immense chaos in her life. According to Miriam, the pain and terror that entered her when her mother died went away when she met her mom on the ayahuasca journey. She believed the journey had been healing, and had made her unafraid of death. Six months later, on Christmas Day, she died. A mutual friend who was at her bedside said that Miriam was terrified until the end.
I don’t pretend to know what Miriam experienced with the drug — if she really did meet the soul of her mother, or if it was a demonic counterfeit. I don’t think it is necessary to decide that to believe that whatever potential benefits can come from using DMT, they are not worth the risks of being struck by noetic lightning.
Yet after my conversation with Nicky yesterday, I believe that we are certain to see a big jump in spiritual seekers turning to DMT in search of transcendence and re-enchantment. I believe as a matter of faith that Augustine was right: our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We are created for fellowship with Him. And as spiritual creatures, we crave experiences of the spirit. I have major theological differences with Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, but I am 100 percent on their side in terms of their recognition of the importance of the participatory experience of God in worship. In Orthodox Christianity, I believe we have worked out a good balance. The Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green told me many years ago that she was at an ecumenical conference once, and observed during the break time that the Calvinists and the Catholics bunched together on one side of the room to talk doctrine, while the Orthodox and the Pentecostals bunched together on the other side to talk about worship.
Yesterday one of you readers put me onto Bernardo Klastrup, a Dutch scientist who believes that quantum physics and neuroscience have invalidated the materialist view of reality. I spent some time on Klastrup’s website last night, and the website of his Essentia Foundation, which promotes the scientific exploration of non-material reality. He doesn’t appear to be any kind of religious believer, which makes him more useful to my own research interests. I ordered one of his books to learn more about his theories, and expect that I will interview him in the Netherlands next year, if he is willing. Klastrup seems to believe that mind — consciousness — is the fundamental state of the cosmos. If he’s right, then what the DMT people are doing and accessing might well be real, not hallucinations.
This is heavy territory. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. This book of mine is not at all going to be a mere book about religious tourism (e.g., pilgrimages, visits to holy sites) and miracle stories, though those will absolutely be there. It’s about the collapse of naive realism — the idea that the universe is made up only of inert matter — and a return to the pre-modern Christian model of reality, which as it turns out has been most faithfully preserved in Orthodox Christianity, but which is also available in different, fragmented modes among other confessions. And it will be a stern warning not to go searching for spiritual experiences via drugs or occult techniques — not because they don’t work, but because they often do, to our own destruction.
By the way, if you are interested to know what the Orthodox tradition says about spirituality and noetic reality, a good place to start is Kyriacos Markides’s book The Mountain of Silence. I first read it in 2005, deep in a spiritual crisis that eventually led me to become Orthodox. I thought I understood a lot about Orthodoxy, but I really didn’t. I had no idea that such spiritual depths existed there. Markides, a sociologist of religion, writes in the introduction that he had spent his career studying shamanistic traditions, but had not really thought about the amazing spiritual resources that exist within the religious tradition in which he was raised, Orthodoxy. He writes that young Westerners who are bored with Christianity, and who set off for the East in search of what they believe will be more spiritually vital traditions in Buddhism or Hinduism would be better served by going to the Christian East, where they can find what they are looking for. The book is basically one long series of interviews with a monk of Mount Athos, who explains these things to him. That monk is now Metropolitan Athanasios, a bishop in Cyprus. I am going to reach out to him to see if he will sit for an interview with me for my book.