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Temptation Of The Psychonauts

Exploring the realm opened up by DMT is to put your soul and your sanity in grave peril
Screen Shot 2023-01-10 at 10.24.00 AM

This is going to be a very weird post, but we live in very weird times.

A year or so ago, when I started researching my re-enchantment book, an Orthodox Christian I know in the Pacific Northwest urged me to take up the issue of people turning to psychedelic drugs in search of a mystical, transcendent experience. "It's exploding up here," he said. And so it was, and now is, nationwide. Colorado has become the latest state to legalize using psilocybin mushrooms. The taboos against using psychedelics are falling rapidly. There are plenty of news reports about psychedelics being used successfully to treat PTSD and other serious mental health issues. A good friend of mine, a devout Christian, is part of a federally-funded trial for this sort of thing, and reports positive results.


Yet there is serious reason to worry about this -- especially the popularity of DMT, a naturally occurring substance which is the main active ingredient in ayahuasca, and which has been popularized by DMT enthusiast Joe Rogan on his massively popular podcast. This issue raises a fundamental question about metaphysics -- meaning, the way the universe is constructed. This is going to require some unpacking.

First, you need to know that DMT is different from other psychedelics. Speaking in general, psychedelics like LSD (which must be created in a lab) and psilocybin mushrooms give one an intense experience of heightened senses and, at higher doses, might produce hallucinations. If LSD is a minivan, DMT is a Formula One racer. Users report that it blasts them into another dimension, where they often interact with autonomous sentient beings. Weirdly, these beings do not seem to be products of the user's imagination. DMT users of different backgrounds and experiences report seeing the same beings. More on this in a moment.

The obvious question is: are these users truly being transported into a different dimension of existence? Or is it all in their head?

Here's a recent story from The New Republic about "psychonauts," DMT enthusiasts who view their use of the drug not as recreational, but as exploratory. They do believe that the drug unlocks the door to a different dimension of reality (that is, not to a hallucinatory realm of the imagination), and they want to explore it. Excerpt:

Thorbahn is one of the first in a class of so-called “psychonauts” exploring new frontiers in hallucinogenic research, preparing to use a technology called extended-state DMT. When the drug is smoked, a trip lasts minutes—despite feeling much longer. But with a constant stream of DMT supplied to a user and blood serum levels of the molecule regulated, that trip can last hours or even days—seemingly an eternity.

The method might give Thorbahn and other psychonauts enough time to bring back detailed trip reports of their experience. An intriguing aspect of DMT experiences is a degree of similarity. The landscapes and beings can be recognizable to different users (a mechanical elf is a popular recurring visitor). And for Thorbahn, the trips seem “more real than real,” a quote heard often in DMT-experimenting circles. Advocates of extended-state programs want to know whether these experiences illuminate a new corner of the mind, even another dimension—or whether users are just getting really high.


The psychonauts want to try to figure out if DMT experiences are only hallucinations, or if they really do transport the self into another dimension. If so, then this raises root questions about what the self is, and about the connection between matter and spirit. The questions are more difficult for philosophical materialists, obviously. Even religious believers, though, would face profoundly unsettling questions about the nature of spiritual reality, and the intersection of non-material reality with matter.

Here's an article about DMT from the pro-psychedelic magazine Double Blind. Excerpt:

Still, research on both externally consumed and endogenous DMT is in its infancy. So, although these hypotheses are interesting, many conundrums still exist. Why do so many people on DMT see entities, for example? And why do different people have such similar experiences? Why does the spirit world seem so natural, so real, and so true? As McKenna says best: “I don’t know why there should be an invisible syntactical intelligence giving language lessons in hyperspace.”

Strassman offers a more practical perspective. “It says more about our mind-brain complex than the spirit world. We can’t necessarily assume that we’re tapping into an objective freestanding external level of reality. It may simply be our brain on drugs.” Strassman, however, believes that a combination of these factors is more likely. He continues: “The drugs modify our brains in ways that only our individual brain can be modified—because of who we are individually—and then we perceive things that we normally cannot perceive.”

“These things may exist within us, in our psyche; or, they may exist outside of us. What is ‘outside of us’ is difficult to determine, because the arena, the platform within which we experience the psychedelic state is our subjective mind, consciousness. Thus, it doesn’t really matter, at least at this point, where that information resides—dark matter, our visual cortex, God, the Pleiades—what matters is how much information we can garner in the state, then how to apply it for the greatest benefit.”

That's Western man right there: exploring to conquer and exploit, heedless of any dangers. It does matter where "that information resides," because despite what Strassman prefers to believe, there is no reason at all to assume that this realm, and the entities that reside there (if they exist), are benign, much less beneficial. I do believe that these drugs at times do allow us to perceive things that we cannot normally perceive. But should we be doing that?

One religious believer who strongly believes that they do create a portal to alternate realities, and that these doors should never be opened, is a man I'll call "Andy". He is a research scholar at a major American university. For years he took heavy doses of psychedelic drugs as part of occult ritual worship. He became convinced eventually that the entities with whom he was in regular contact were not (as they claimed to be) ancient gods, but demons. He put it all behind him, and converted to Christianity. Though I interviewed him for my forthcoming book on re-enchantment, I can't quote him here, because I promised him that I would allow him to review his quotes before I used any of them.

I can tell you, though, that Andy is extremely adamant about the dangers of all psychedelic drugs, arguing now that they really do open one up to malevolent discarnate intelligent beings -- "demons," if you prefer. Any drug that has the effect of making the boundaries of the self porous is spiritually risky, he said, even mild one like cannabis. But DMT is in another category. He pointed me to some resources on the Internet where DMT users, in particular, report hellish contacts with entities while tripping on the drug.

One of them is someone who posts as "Owen Cyclops." He used to be a very heavy user of psychedelics, including DMT. He writes about it in this long, somewhat profane thread, which culminates with him, like "Andy," realizing that he has been communicating with demons, and then running towards Christianity. He writes, in part:

Here's an older Owen Cyclops thread that collects from the Internet a few testimonies from people who used DMT and had literally hellish experiences with demonic entities. It's definitely worth reading if you have any interest at all in experimenting with this stuff. You do not want to mess with it. If it is nothing but hallucination, it's terrifying. But if there is anything real about it, in the sense that it's not just in your head, then you are putting your own soul and sanity at risk.

Owen posted the other day this clip from a British professor. It's like something out of a movie:


Said Owen in response:

Here's a link to further posts of his on that thread, if you'd like to explore. His point is basically that traditional cultures, even those that use DMT (e.g., shamanistic cultures), do so in a way that buffers it, recognizing that there is real danger there. But that's not how we roll in the West. We think we are masters of everything. We think we can penetrate all mysteries and harness them to make them do our will. Well.

In Dante's Inferno, the pilgrim Dante meets the shade of Odysseus/Ulysses, who is in hell for false counsel. In Dante's version of the Ulysses myth, the great silver-tongued warrior leads his weary crew to sail past the Gates of Hercules, into the unknown, beyond the boundaries where religion has told them they must not go. The crew resisted, but Ulysses, their captain, changes their mind with a heroic speech:

“‘O brothers,’ I said, ‘who, in the course

of a hundred thousand perils, at last

have reached the west, to such brief wakefulness

of our senses as remains to us,

do not deny yourselves the chance to know—

following the sun—the world where no one lives.

Consider how your souls were sown:

you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,

but to pursue virtue and knowledge.’”

Ulysses appealed to their heroic courage to obey no boundaries in their pursuit of knowledge and experience. After they crossed the forbidden boundary, they all died when their ship capsized in a storm. Ulysses was sent to hell for using his gift of speech to persuade the crew to do what they should not have done. The temptation is ever with us, especially in the soul of Western man.

Many of you will laugh at warnings not to do these extremely powerful drugs, for fear of opening doors to a hostile realm populated by evil intelligences that seek the destruction of humans. You shouldn't. The idea that we know so much better than primitive peoples in the world today, or sages of the past who warned sternly not to go to these places (the Bible, for example, is crystal clear about the dangers of this stuff), is utter hubris, folly born of pride.

Alas, we in the West live in a world that has become utterly unmoored from Christianity and its sacred knowledge. Many people will venture into this realm out of curiosity, seeking knowledge and enchantment. They will not come back unscathed. They may not come back as themselves at all. Parents and pastors, if you are not talking to young people about this stuff, you are failing in your duty. Psychedelics are far more available than they were when Boomers and Gen Xers were young, and DMT is vastly more powerful than anything our generations faced. A generation denied the licit enchantments of traditional sacramental Christianity, with its true mysteries, is going to be sorely tempted to try these substances out.

Some of you reading this will have stories to tell of your own experiences in this realm, but you may not be able to post your comments because you don't subscribe. Email them to me at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com, and I will consider posting them as updates. Put "DMT" in the subject line so I won't miss them in the flood of email I receive daily.

UPDATE: A letter from a reader:

This isn’t so much a comment to your post on Christianity vs DMT as I just want to thank you for posting it.  Lately I’ve been seriously considering trying it, largely because a significant number of people from the military community I served with have been using it, and most rave about it after these experiences.  They say it helps them relieve anxiety, release hate or other negative emotions, and return with insight about the “oneness” of things.  While I’ve heard expert meditators can achieve similar experiences, DMT is like getting to skip to the front of the metaphysical experience line and jump right in.  Some even claim they now believe in God (though they seem to avoid saying it is the God of the Bible) because of these experiences.  

Part of my hunger for this is I am so desperate to have a real encounter with Christ, or even the metaphysical writ large.  I am in many ways the hyper-rational Westerner you rightly criticize for viewing the entire world as physical problems to be broken down, understood, and solved.  I’ve long struggled with faith because while I intellectually know God, or know about God, I struggle to experience God, if that makes sense.  I was pondering getting into DMT as a way to truly experience that which I know intellectually.  I feel the modern (perhaps post-Enlightenment?) western Christian tradition is all about studying, learning, theology, interpretation, and analysis, and very little about knowing the presence of God in reality, and I have come to recognize how much I yearn for that.  As a Protestant, sola scriptura cannot help but mean you look only to the Bible for God and deeply study it like a textbook.  Personal experiences—the mystical—are frowned upon and cast into doubt, at least in my experience.  And while studying the Bible is unequivocally a good thing, if it becomes everything it can reduce the faith to an academic exercise.  In historical context, the majority of Christians could not even read from the Bible on their own until relatively recently (Gutenberg, et al), so I imagine the faith had to be more than that for them.  I am truly looking forward to your book because of this, and I hope it will help me connect with that which I seek.  

In some ways, I feel jealous of Christians who have encountered God personally and in a very real sense.  I am also, shamefully, a little jealous of my warrior brothers that have ‘skipped the line’ and had these profound metaphysical experiences with no serious religious conviction while I have grappled with Christianity and still struggle to see the real and living God in my day-to-day life.  Though I believe in and love Jesus, and my hope is in Him, I can’t say that He speaks to me or reveals Himself to me in any kind of overt way.  I’ve never dreamed of God or had an experience I would consider supernatural or miraculous, not even a voice in my head.  I don’t doubt that God is real.  I just want to know and experience Him personally, and not just academically or intellectually.

What you wrote about the perils of DMT struck a chord with me.  Is a people conditioned to believe only in materialism truly prepared to make contact with that which does not subscribe to natural laws?  I’ve never been one (for the aforementioned reasons) to speak in terms of “spiritual warfare” or to say “that’s demonic” (for me I would say someone has psychological issues or mass psychosis), but in today’s clime where we can’t define what a woman is or think it’s ok to pornographically educate 12 year olds or can be easily swayed into stripping every right from fellow citizens who don’t think what we want them to think, I lack a better vocabulary to describe what is happening than to call it some form of mass demonic possession.  So what happens when a people already given to deception wander into a realm they lack even the framework to comprehend, being atheists and agnostics and empiricists by training, cocksure of their ability to scientifically analyze it as surely as they’ve untangled the mysteries of the physical universe, and they encounter an advanced entity—perhaps malevolent--that understands them better than they understand themselves?  Given the zeitgeist I already see in the world, the possibilities are frightening.  And here I am, ready to take that shortcut.  I need to be strong and hold out and not fall into temptation.  I pray the Lord reveal himself to me in His due time, and that I have patience.  If you have the time, please say a quick prayer for me, too.

This is exactly the kind of Christian that the book I'm working on now is for. I wrote him back and urged him to visit a local Orthodox parish.

Another reader writes:

I read your post ’Temptation of the Psychonauts’ with great interest, and was impressed at how it affirmed so well the warnings of Fr Seraphim Rose in his book, The Soul After Death, specifically Chapter 7 (Out of Body Experiences in Occult Literature), and in that especially Section 5 (Astral Traveling). 

Although Fr Seraphim only mentions a couple of times in this book the use of LSD or hallucinogenic drugs as means to encountering the “astral world”, his in-depth presentation of the supposed astral travels of Emanuel Swedenborg in the early 18th c, and the influential writings of one Robert Monroe of the mid-20th c regarding his "out of body" experiences should be consulted in your consideration of these questions. 

In Fr Seraphim’s other ’best seller,’ Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, he warns Christians against a careless syncretism which seeks to deepen one’s Christian experience through the addition of Eastern meditation, Zen, and openly mediumistic techniques.

I also detected in your description of this DMT phenomenon an implicit connection with Jonathan Cahn’s book, Return Of The Gods, which I read after you posted about it. What you described in today’s post is yet another example of what Cahn would argue we should expect to see in the West as Christianity is driven out and the old pagan gods retake this post-Christian culture, “bringing with them seven other spirits worse than the first.” 

In any case, without a vibrant, clearly articulated and firmly applied traditional (preferably Orthodox) Christian ethos, even so called, self-identified Christians (the ‘cultural’ kind) are susceptible to being tempted by this sort of thing. My youngest nephew (coming up on 30 years of age) openly smokes pot now, but because he is considered to be living a responsible, adult life with job, car payment, investments, etc., he is permitted to do this, even openly in his parents’ home. Recently hoodwinked by SBF's crypto currency grift and losing thousands of dollars, he is exactly the sort of bright and good natured but nominal, gullible and vulnerable bored soul that might be attracted to the DMT movement, which of course is a modern reimagining of the infamous and widespread opium dens and seances of a hundred and fifty years ago, which figured so thrillingly in Victorian mystery literature (Sherlock Holmes) and even in late 19th c Western culture (see the movie Tombstone). 

The Re-enchantment Movement is happening in Christian circles, and in secular ones, and is helping raise up more and more openly pagan and demonic ones. The irony with this new trend is how it opens portals into the spiritual world which God closed for a reason. Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “The medium is the message,” and now we see it born out anew with an ironic twist. Mediumistic techniques, whether by drugs or gurus, DMT  or meditation witches, whether by witches or chemicals, open the human soul to grave, eternal dangers from malevolent forces no longer held back by the grace of God, which modern man has driven from his world. As Fr Seraphim Rose wrote almost fifty years ago, "Satan is now entering naked into human history.”

Fr Seraphim’s thesis was that all these pseudo-spiritual trends are precursors of the religion of Antichrist, the Religion of the Future. Post-Christian Man is being prepared for Something, and, as so many like to say, “Will know it when he sees it.” Post-Christian Humanity will accept Antichrist because they will have embraced his spirit already through antichristian spiritualities and revolutionary movements. 

Thanks for exposing and writing about the Apocalypse in real time!

An Orthodox priest writes:

When it comes to the difference between Christian and pagan enchantment, there’s an interesting point to be emphasized that I haven’t seen made elsewhere. It’s a point that comes across in the stories of the martyrs that we hear in the Synaxarion on a regular basis. Having been mostly secular before I converted to Orthodoxy, I always found the early martyr accounts kind of hokey and fabulous. There are so many obvious supernatural manifestations, and it’s all about who’s god is more powerful. As the cult of the martyrs developed, you see the saints and martyrs replacing many of the ‘functions’ of the old pagan gods in peoples’ daily devotional lives. Modern people, even Protestant Christians, look at this and say, “Hey, this is Christianity getting debased and paganized.” We tend to view it cynically, as though these naïve people just put some Christian window dressing on their pagan beliefs and practices. And that definitely went on. But there’s something deeper here. There’s something really beautiful about the way the saints of God, the martyrs for Christ, displaced the pagan deities. St. Athanasius says that God became man so that man might become a god. The cult of the saints is the literal fulfillment of those words. The martyrs really did become gods (by grace), and they have the power to help us and be a real presence in our lives, just the way the demons were doing before Christ came. The displacement of the old gods is part of the victory that Christ and the martyrs achieved through their blood. But we’re used to taking that victory for granted, and now we’re letting these entities back into our world.

It seems to me that, in addition to the ‘portal’ of psychedelics, we’re ushering in the reign of disincarnate intelligences through the development of AI as well. I could be wrong, but there’s something sinister and demonic lurking beneath the seemingly benign wonder of ChatGPT and other AI bots. Smart phones and the internet are just the first step. Paul Kingsnorth’s Basilisk story illustrates the connection between technology and the demonic really effectively.

I don’t think there’s any difficulty in understanding how a physical drug can enhance our ‘spiritual’ perception. We are a mysterious union of soul and body. Our cognition is clearly rooted in the brain and affected by its chemical composition. Mind operates in and through matter, at least as long as we’re alive in this body. Matt Crawford’s book “The World Beyond Your Head” has some really interesting stuff about how our perception of the world is embodied. We’re not free-floating Cartesian reasoning machines, we’re flesh and blood, breath and body. That is our only vantage point on all of reality. A materialist/rationalist might see that as a defect in our “objectivity”, but from the standpoint of Christian anthropology, it presents no problem because man is a special creation of God, a microcosm that recapitulates in himself the macrocosm. It is God’s image within us that gives our particular “subjectivity” an “objective” grounding.

You’re absolutely right that psychedelics open a person up to the spiritual realm, and to spiritual forces/beings beyond their control. I know for a fact that some people’s experiences on those drugs have eventually brought them to firm faith in God and in Jesus Christ. But it’s definitely not a path you want go down in search of truth. It’s just like the desert fathers warned people not to seek for visions and experiences in prayer, to reject everything of that kind because it could easily be from the demons (cf. 2 Cor. 11:14). When people are thirsty for those “experiences”, the demons are happy to provide them. Psychedelics feed into the same vainglorious impulse—to embark on the spiritual path without repentance.

It’s astonishing to me that so few people are aware that ‘prayer’ in the Christian mystical tradition has just as much depth and breadth as ‘meditation’ does in Eastern forms of mysticism—even more really, considering that in Christ is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). Prayer is so much more than asking God for things. The Jesus Prayer really can satisfy that spiritual hunger that Westerners seem to have for “reenchantment” or the living presence of God, or however you want to phrase it. If your book can serve to raise awareness of that fact, I think it could do a lot of good. But I also think that it would behoove you to cultivate that practice yourself as you’re writing (if you’re not doing it already!). You’ve written elsewhere that doing the Jesus Prayer for an hour a day helped you out of chronic illness. Given everything you’ve been through in your personal life lately, and also the spiritually sensitive nature of the things you’re writing about, taking up that practice again could really help. I say that simply as a Christian brother. In fact, though, I’ll be even bolder and say that it’s the most important thing you could do for writing this book, and it will bring you personal healing as well.