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In Conversation with Michael Kaler

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JT: Just a quick segue. You made a passing reference to early religion, an area of specialization of yours. When LSD was introduced on the scene, a part of the excitement was it was embraced as something new, although obviously even then it would have been becoming common knowledge that it was tapping into a much longer history; you know, cultures where there were psychedelics. Mind-altering drugs were part-and-parcel with religious practice in so many different cultures going back millennia, if I'm not mistaken, right? 

MK: Yeah, there's been a lot of – a lot of folks have, in my opinion, been overly enthusiastic about finding traces of psychedelic use everywhere in religion, and I don't – I guess I, well –


JT: – I mean, there's such an explosion of interest, you know, with the ayahuasca and traditional practice, you know, as a “folk medicine” – I don't know what would be the respectful term – whether it's religious, per se, I guess that's open for interpretation, depends on what your definition of religion is, or what cultural perspective you might be coming from.  But that kind of practice – do you have any particular insights about that kind of thing?


MK: I like to go broader with regard to this. 


So there’s a few things. Number one: indigenous North and South American, South America especially, use of psychedelics. Part of that has to do with where you are – like, there's there's more psychedelics [there] than there traditionally were in Europe, where there's just not a lot. 


My feeling is that I'm totally comfortable with saying that people have – like, people's religious experiences have often been tied to or helped to be triggered by or linked with them doing weird shit with their bodies. Drugs are one example of weird shit with your body that you can do, but they're not the only one, right? So I feel like, if you're, you know, if you’re Jesus and you're going out in the desert, and you're not eating for forty days, yeah, that's weird shit that you're doing to your body. it'll take you weird places! And if you're, I don't know, if you're sitting –


JT: – Well, if you're eating peyote on an empty stomach – 


MK: I've been a little bit suspicious of the folks who are trying to find psychedelic drugs everywhere in religion – I don't think that's the case. I think that people doing strange things to their bodies is everywhere in religion, but I think that could be, like, if you're a Medieval nun, and you're praying for 8 hours a day, kneeling on a cold stone floor in your cell, and you're not getting much food – that's going to do weird things to your body. 

JT: Self-flagellation, I guess, is one, that Christian pain. But with traditional indigenous practice here in North America, my understanding, limited as it might be, is that they were often associated with rites of passage from youth to adulthood. It could be ritualistic fasting or self-mortification. Yeah, so I – you know, I'm, I'm agreeing with you! [Laughter]


MK: I think [psychedelics] have less of a set effect on people than maybe drugs like cocaine or heroin or whatever do; I've never done cocaine or heroin, so I can't say, but my understanding is that psychedelics really manifest in radically different ways, depending on what you bring into the experience – so depending on what your expectations are, how you understand these drugs, all that kind of thing. And they've been through a number of different phases since their discovery. 


There's a guy called [Ido] Hartogsohn. He did a good book [American Trip: Set, Setting, and the Psychedelic Experience in the Twentieth Century] on various different ways that they've been understood.  And so, you know, they start out as being psychiatric aides where they're there to help people through psychiatric mental health crises. And then they get picked up as artisticates where they're designed to help artists to be artists – and then they get picked up as religious things, where you'll meet up with God – and then they get picked up as party drugs, and then they're, you know, like, waves of ecstasy. Yeah. 

And now they're going back into a medical phenomenon. And so I feel like, what you bring into the psychedelic experience is gonna dramatically affect what you get out of it. And so if you go into it thinking, “These are religious compounds,” or “By taking this, I'm opening myself up to a religious experience,” sure, there's a good chance that you'll have a religious experience. But if you take them thinking, “These are going to revolutionize how I understand art,” then you might not get any kind of religious experience at all, right? You may just get really good ideas for, or interesting ideas for, what you do with your art.


JT: Right? Or maybe crossover, where you feel your art is really – something. And is there? There's a religiosity to it.

MK: I think that drugs have different meanings depending on what generation you're in. So if you're in the fifties and you’re Rock Hudson, or something like that, and you're taking acid at your psychiatrist’s, you know, you're not expecting to see God. You just feel it like, “I feel troubled, and my psychiatrist says this will cool my mind, or just that it'll be a cool medical pill that will help me feel less troubled.” 

And if it's the early sixties, and you're a jazz trumpeter or something like that, and somebody says, “Hey, this shit is really good for helping you really get into Charlie Parker’s head,” or something like that, then you take it, you do that. 

And if it’s the late sixties and somebody says, “Here, take this, it's gonna help you see God,” then you do that.

I just feel like they go through these cycles, and so the drug is never the same.  I think, especially with psychedelics or with weed, there's so much about the societal, the cultural expectations, and the personal expectations, that it's not the same thing as it was then, if it loses that outlaw sort of “I'm doing something rebellious and daring here” vibe, and then it's got a different vibe.  I was in a shop in Amsterdam a few years back that was selling mushrooms,  like it was a head shop and they had psychedelic mushrooms out on display – and like you could just walk in and buy them – and I was like, “Wow, this really kind of makes me not want to take mushrooms!” 


Folks these days are not going to have the same experiences with pot or with ’shrooms that we might have had in the 1980s or or whatever. But they're going to have their own experiences that are going to be different ones.


JT: Yeah, you know, it's not an experience to be viewed from the outside. It's a very personal, it's an internal experience that's a kind of essential to the whole, you know transformative aspect of the drug. The experiential, transformative aspect, that's kind of what you're saying is like that will always remain regardless of whether you're pushing back against The Man, or – 

MK: – No, I'm not – I think I'm saying the opposite, like I think there's not going to be – I don't know what will remain always. It'd be interesting if you – it’d be unethical as well – but if you could find somebody who didn't have any experience of psychedelics and didn't know anything about them and had no, I mean – the last time it'd be like, I'm thinking, like Albert Hoffman or something, taking the bicycle ride, like that was probably the last time that somebody with no preconceptions took it, you know. 


JT: Not sure if I know about the bicycle ride, somehow sounds familiar –


MK: – Oh, just you know, it was Albert Hoffman's famous bicycle ride. He was the guy who synthesized LSD back in 1945 or whenever. [Hoffman synthesized LSD in 1938, and accidentally ingested the drug in 1943 – ed.]. And so there's a classic bicycle ride that he took home. He knew he had synthesized a drug, but he didn't know LSD is really strong, like it works in very, very small quantities, and he got some of it on his hands, and he didn't realize because he was used to most drugs take ten times as much volume to have an effect. And so he's working on this stuff and he’s synthesizing it, and then he starts feeling weird. And so he figures, “Okay, I better go!,” so he goes home for the day and lies down – he was living in Basel, Switzerland. And so he bikes home, and he's tripping. He doesn't recognize it as tripping, but he's feeling very weird, and everything is strange, and he's riding his bike home through Basel, and then he gets home, and he says to his wife, “I think I may have poisoned myself. I feel very odd. Can you get a doctor?”  And the doctor comes by and says, “You seem to be okay,”  and then he just waits it out and gets better [both laughing]. But yeah, it's like, the first time anybody tripped on acid, and I feel like that was also probably the last time that anybody approached LSD without knowing [anything about] what was going to happen.


JT: Exactly. And it's a perfect example – it does remind me, one of my favorite experiences is forgetting that I dropped, and so – you know, forty-five minutes later, it's like you're feeling [laughter] – like you were saying –


MK: – Kind of weird and –


JT: – Kind of some thrum going on deep inside you like –

MK: And the music is sounding real. The Stranglers are sounding really good, you know. It's like you can't make out the lyrics exactly, but oh my God, they're sounding – yeah, I've forgotten how amazing the Stranglers are! And then it's like, “Oh, what?”  And so you could imagine if you didn't have your cultural programming saying, “Oh, this is something religious,” you might just be like, “Oh, wow! The Stranglers are great!”

third moon

In Conversation with Michael Kaler

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