Dr. Mark Plotkin (@DocMarkPlotkin) is an ethnobotanist who serves as president of the Amazon Conservation Team, which has partnered with ~80 tribes to map and improve management and protection of ~100 million acres of ancestral rainforests. He is best known to the general public as the author of the book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, one of the most popular books ever written about the rainforest. His most recent book is The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know. You can find my interview with Mark at tim.blog/markplotkin.
Brian C. Muraresku (@BrianMuraresku) graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University with a degree in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name is Brian’s debut book. In 2020, it became a New York Times bestseller, and Audible named it “Best of 2020” in the History category. His website is brianmuraresku.com. You can also find him on Instagram @brian_muraresku.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Dr. Mark Plotkin: Welcome back to “Plants of the Gods.”
Today, we have a very special guest – a man I’m honored to call a friend and a colleague. And that is Brian Muraresku, who wrote the classic book, “The Immortality Key,” which I regard as the most important book in the field of ethnobotany since the original “Plants of the Gods.”
Let me start out by quoting a review I wrote of the book when it appeared: “Reading Brian’s wonderful book “The Immortality Key” reminded me -oddly enough- of the “Back to the Future” movie trilogy of the late 1980s, and I mean that in the most positive way possible. The “Back to the Future” films were genre benders: what started out to be a simple teen coming of age comedy quickly morphed into science fiction, action adventure, Western rom com with a brilliant nod to high school musicals, and a sustained swipe at a certain American president.
The “Immortality Key” unfolds in a similar way. What appears to be a straightforward investigation into the origins of Christianity becomes a detective story, searching for an explanation into the famed Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, as well as the righting of an academic wrong, a coming of age story, a Roots-like search for the author’s cultural origins, all told within the framework of a personal Odyssey, and I say Odyssey with a capital O!
The author is an unlikely protagonist: an American lawyer who has never sampled entheogenic plants or fungi. However, he is a Greek American, fluent in ancient Greek and Latin and Sanskrit, with an incisive and inquisitive mind and the gift for quickly earning people’s trust, which gains him access to archives and catacombs off limits to mere mortals like the rest of us, Brian, welcome to “Plants of the Gods.
Brian Muraresku: That’s the best intro ever, man. Thank you, Dr. Plotkin.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Huston Smith, who was the greatest historian and analyst I think of religions in the 20th century, said, and I quote, “if we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discovered the distilled wisdom of the human race.” And so much of your work, Brian, in the “Immortality Key” is distilling what is at the root of Western religions, and maybe world religions, so perhaps you can share with our listeners a bit about the Eleusinian mysteries, and the role in the development of where we stand today?
Brian Muraresku: Sure, so for those who don’t know, Eleusis still exists in one form or another. It’s called Elefsina in today’s world, and actually next year, 2023, Elefsina, of all the places in Europe, has been nominated to be the European Capital of Culture. This might all seem like weird anecdotes and footnotes that belong in an unread book. But Elefsina is back on the world map for one reason or another, and in antiquity Eleusis as I’ve described was kind of like the Vatican of the ancient world. It’s a few miles northwest of Athens. During the classical period for about 2000 years, this was the place that people went: men, women, sometimes children, slaves, people were invited to Eleusis, if you could afford it, and you had the time to make this pilgrimage, to become immortal.
That was the promise of Eleusis, you went to this place, among other things – and drank a potion called the Kykeon – with this magical potion, the recipe of which was secret – you would go there have this experience that has since been described as the culminating experience of a lifetime. And Carl Ruck, one of the Professors who researched this at Boston University, described the experience as somehow “made all previous seeing seem like blindness!”
You went there to have a visionary encounter with goddesses and other strange beings. These goddesses were Demeter and Persephone, the Lady of the Grain, and the Goddess of Death, the Goddess of the Underworld. And it was claimed that only those who went to Eleusis, again, drank this potion, participated in the pilgrimage would in fact, achieve immortality. It was only they who would survive death. And we don’t know what precisely that meant because the details were all kept secret. But we do know that the best and brightest of both Greece and Rome visited Eleusis for about 2000 years, and they went there, we think, to die and be reborn.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: I can’t think of any other book I’ve read on the history of religion which had parts that were laugh out loud, funny, but that is one of the special parts of the immortality key. And I really, really, really loved your discussion of the analysis of these classical scholars, the brightest people of their age, supposedly trying to figure out what the hell went on at Eleusis. And at one point, I think it was a fellow from Oxford or Cambridge said, well, it was giant puppets! And you said, yeah, ancient Muppets! This type of humor is often missing in these types of clinical and historical analysis but that’s what makes the book so special.
One of the sad aspects of the story was this concept was originally brought to the Western world, essentially in the 1970s, by a man named Carl Ruck, who’s still alive – a Classics scholar, along with my old friend Gordon Watson, and some other colleagues. And the whole story of how Ruck was ridiculed, and almost exiled because of this radical theory was very shameful, and I want to ask you to explain what happened. But I think it’s important to point out that while these Classic scholars were torturing themselves, trying to figure out what the hell went on, in Eleusis, all of us hippies at the time were reading these accounts of these classical leaders like Pindar and Sophocles and realizing that they were tripping! It was obvious to us even if it wasn’t obvious to the scholars. In talking about death and rebirth, we can frame that in Carl Ruck’s PERSONAL story, since I think your book really brought him back to the fore.
Brian Muraresku: Oh, that’s good. Good question. He went through his own death and rebirth as a kind of microcosm of this of this scholarship, which is interesting. So the idea that these [ancient] dudes – that they were on psychedelics – was not a popular theory in the late 1970s. You mentioned Carl [Ruck] and Gordon [Wasson] and Albert Hofmann who was the coauthor, the discoverer of LSD back in the 1930s. Together, they wrote this book called “The Road to Eleusis” unveiling the secret of the mysteries in 1978. It was not well received by the academic establishment, least of all, by the then president of Boston University, a guy named John Silber and Ruck was excoriated for daring to suggest that the founders of [Western] rationality could have entered so fully into such an irrational state of mind, and least of all, through psychedelic drugs, which were also not popular in the late 1970s, just a few years into the war on drugs under Richard Nixon. So, throughout the 80s, and 90s, Carl was he was relegated to the periphery of classical scholarship; in the book, I call him: the black sheep of the Classics. It’s a state, a place, you don’t want to occupy but he was [fortunately already] tenured at Boston University, so they couldn’t fire him, they couldn’t get rid of him. And instead of just quietly going about his way, he basically spent another 30, 40 years just continuing to pound away at this hypothesis and he also wrote about other things. [Of course] he’s a fantastic scholar, by the way, trained at Yale and Harvard, but he really went after this idea of the ancient Greeks, the Romans, and potentially the earliest Christians using these kinds of drugs, to create these spiritual experiences. And slowly but surely, the culture has come back around to where it was in the 1950s, when this was all the realm of gentleman’s discourse, and so Carl went through his own rebirth.
Only in recent years, as some of the technology came on the archaeobotany I write about in the book, the archaeochemistry is now really, really [able to] prove that, well, there’s actual organic data to test this hypothesis one way or the other. And so some pretty interesting data came to light shows that this is a discipline worth visiting. And I think, in coordination with some of the clinical work at places like Johns Hopkins and NYU and now it’s all over the place at Harvard, and Yale, and UCLA, even in Texas! I think that that the culture changed a lot in the past 5-10 years with respect to psychedelics. And so fortunately, Carl, who’s now 87 is experiencing yet another rebirth.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Well, “Plants of the Gods” has a subtitle, hallucinogens, history, culture and conservation. And I think your work Brian ties all four of those together. But my question to you is, why now? We have Ruck and Hofmann coming out with their book decades ago, John Allegro’s “The Mushroom and The Cross” which postulated some similar things, and they were laughed at derided, disregarded, ignored. And now, thanks to your book and other efforts, this is part of the commonly accepted wisdom. Why are we accepting it now? And why didn’t we accept it then?
Brian Muraresku: I have no idea is the as the honest answer…my [own] life has taken a weird course the past two years, I think. I mean, I alluded to it before, I think it’s a lot of dumb luck, to be honest. I mean, I’m sitting across from somebody who spent a lot of his life researching this in earnest. And you yourself standing on the shoulders of people like Richard Evans Schultes, the great ethnobotanist of the 20th century, who I know has been mentioned on this podcast before, deservedly so. I [just] think the culture war really got in the way, not just of the clinical work, but also the arts and humanities and some of this this scholarship that was not controversial in the days of William James at Harvard, as you know: more than 100 years ago, this was a respectable avenue of pursuit – until the 1970s. And things have changed, I think, for a lot of different reasons, largely because of that, that clinical work that I mentioned, which is now 20 years in the case of psilocybin, at the very least. Also with MDMA, the work of Rick Doblin at MAPS, he’s been chugging away at that as well. So I just think that our biases or prejudices are slowly melting away. And certainly the work of Michael Pollan, the journalist, did a great job with his books, “How to change your mind” and his his newest book, “This is your Mind on Plants.” I think the cultural conversation around psychedelics has changed dramatically in the past five years, and some of it is just dumb luck.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Well, you mentioned William James, and there’s two important aspects to James’s career which are overlooked in almost all the biographies that I’ve read. The first is that his formative experience was in the Amazon. He went to the Amazon with the biologist Louis Agassiz in 1865. And I think that certainly expanded his consciousness of human nature because he was working side by side with Afro Brazilians, Portuguese military, rainforest Indians. There’s no indication he ever took ayahuasca or any other mind-altering substances there. But a rich white kid whose idea of diversity was hanging out with other rich white kids certainly had his world rocked by what he saw in the Amazon. The other thing about William James that is often overlooked is that actually took peyote, so peyote did not begin at Harvard with Schultes but began with William James 50 years earlier. But I have to point out that William James didn’t like peyote: it didn’t agree with him, made him very sick. He much preferred nitrous oxide, laughing gas. In fact, he wrote that “it wasn’t until I took nitrous oxide that I began to understand Hegel.”
Well, I did plenty of nitrous oxide in college, and I still don’t understand Hegel! So William James definitely had the jump on me☺
But I do agree with your timing, Brian, that the planets are lining up and shamanic magic is happening that people are realizing [and beginning to understand all this]. And that’s why I chose to use that “Back to the Future” mention in reference to your book, because we’re rediscovering what the ancients knew. And what Indigenous peoples have been doing all along.
The Comanche War Chief Quanah Parker, that I covered in the podcast episode on peyote, said that the real reason that these indigenous [syncretic] religions – which combine things like Catholicism and an indigenous belief systems has [such a strong appeal to outsiders] is that [according to Parker] the white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus. But the Indian takes peyote and goes into his church house and talks TO Jesus!
Which brings us back to the Eleusinian Mysteries. I want to ask you to address this, this thesis, this concept of yours of the “pagan continuity” idea that we tend to believe that the Greeks invented Western civilization and then the Romans kind of took it over and then they kind of made a mess of it and Christianity rolled in and squished it. But in the “Immortality Key,” you make the point that those that Greek religious system, that Greek belief system, as personified by Eleusis, may, in fact, indeed live on in Christianity, and may indeed be the basis of many of the so-called major religions. So please address that for us.
Brian Muraresku: I emphasize that a whole a lot of the book is NOT about psychedelics. That’s not the key that I’m talking about. In the “Immortality Key,” I think the key that I’m talking about, and the thing that unites these pagan religions with early Christianity is the notion of experience, right, the direct experience of the Divine, there were a whole movements dedicated to this several different sects, within the Gnostic circles of early Christianity that were dedicated to the proposition that you have a spark of the divine inside you, and that Jesus came, not to be worshiped, but to instruct all of us men, women and children, how to identify that spark, how to how to fulfill our mission on earth, and how to embody that divinity, which is to say that we’re all divine, okay?
And this is the proposition of the Mysteries that belong to the pagan world to whether it’s the mysteries of Eleusis that we talked about or the mysteries of Dionysus, which I think have far more in common with early Christianity, and we can talk about that later. But this notion of encountering the divine within [personal] experience, so how did Aristotle define this this notion of the Eleusinian vision?
He said that you went to Eleusis not to not to learn something like doctrine, dogma, the way we think of religion today, you went there to experience something, you went there to suffer pathos, you went there to actually experience something. This shows up in early Christianity too.
And the other thing that shows up in early Christianity are secrets. So just look at Mark 4:11. You know, Jesus talks in parables and tells these weird stories, because there was an exoteric form to the faith and an esoteric version. Like there’s no controversy among Christian scholars that Christianity is born with secrets. You have a Church Father like Tertullian, in the second century, who basically accuses the Gnostic Christians of imitating the pagan mysteries, there’s this five-year preparation process, they’re trying to get these folks all excited about this great initiation. They’re rising, the anxiety, anticipation. He’s basically making fun of them for in fact, imitating the pagan mysteries. And if you want to Google Dr. Martin Luther King, you can Google the influence of the mystery religions on Christianity, an essay that even Dr. Martin Luther King himself wrote in 1950, about this notion of the continuity from that pagan, pre Christian world to what would become early Christianity in the decades and centuries after Jesus before became this big institution in the fourth century. So, you know, the thing that unites them is experience this notion of secrets, magical practices, folks getting together to consume divine flesh and blood. There’s a lot of parallels there!
Dr. Mark Plotkin: The great Israeli ethnobotanist Benny Shanon said he did not understand how a man could talk to a burning bush until he went to Peru and took ayahuasca. Since then, ayahuasca alkaloids have been found in the Sinai desert! And, in fact, at ESPD55, a couple of months back organized by Dennis McKenna, a wonderful Iranian Persian scholar by the name of Shauheen Etminan talked about how “haoma” was the basis of Zoroastrianism which of course, is the original Persian religion.
I think further research is revealing to us that these mystical experiences seem to lie at the [foot] of essentially all religions, not just Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, but some of these tribal religions of the people I’ve been working with. And this experience of the ineffable could be part of everybody’s experience, and may in part explain what’s missing from modern religion in the sense that the big question is, why are people turning away from organized religion?
So, Brian, what are your thoughts about the Eucharist that you mention in your book about how this may actually have been a mind-altering experience at the [dawn of Christianity]?
Brian Muraresku: You have to think about ancient wine. Without being heretical, or speculative about it, ancient wine was very, very different from the wine we drink today. In fact, a common word used in ancient Greek, the language that was used to draft the Gospels, the language that was used by St. Paul, the greatest missionary Christianity ever knew, when he was preaching and converting to this Hellenic universe around the Mediterranean writing letters in Greek to Greek speakers, the word they use for wine is “pharmakos,” right? So the word they used [for wine] was… drug!
Wine was routinely referred to as a drug from like the time of Homer to the fall of the Roman Empire. Over 1000 years go by, and of course, there’s a word for wine: “oenos.” And you see that in the New Testament, but this word comes up as a ritual formula again, and again. And the reason that is is because wine at the time, and you see this in the ancient literature, it’s described as, you know, unusually intoxicating, seriously mind-altering, occasionally hallucinogenic. That’s true and potentially lethal. So very, very different wine from the one and today. and in fact, you can look at Dioscorides, the great physician who writes at in the second half of the first century, at the exact same time the Gospels are being written. And you can read recipe after recipe of what to add to wine to produce any number of different effects, whether it’s adding spices like frankincense and myrrh, whether it’s adding poisons.
How did Socrates die in the end? With wine spiked with Hemlock, and other [poisonous] plants like aconite [Monk’s Hood]. And then funky things like Mandrake or henbane, or black nightshade, which Dioscorides says can produce not unpleasant visions?
So we have actual literature that points to something like a psychedelic vision in the first century AD at the time of the earliest Christian. Classicists know this, people who studied Greek and Latin know this. And what’s weird is that the people who study the pagan world are often very different from the priests and the pastors who study the New Testament from a very different angle, and this was pointed out by classicists in the early 20th century,[yet] they go on to say things like, you know, how strange it is that like a very big part of the literature and civilization of the ancient world is very much neglected by the very ones best able to investigate it, which is to say, the Greek speakers and other scholars.
Just using that as like a big lens, you can then go in and find actual organic data, like physical proof that people were indeed mixing things into wine. And I mentioned a few examples in the book, including from the first century at this Villa Vesuvio site outside Pompeii. [There] they found actual traces of wine which seems to have been mixed with plants like opium and Cannabis, and henbane, and black nightshade, in addition to toads, frogs, and lizards, so some very funky wine actually did exist!
Dr. Mark Plotkin: One of the shortcomings of the ethnobotanical literature is – in my opinion – the failure to consider beer and wine not only as mind-altering substances, but as vehicles for creating other mind-altering substances and MORE mind-altering substances. In other words, they call them spirits for a reason!
There is this interplay of beer and wine… few people realize that wine is not just [beneficial] because it’s wine, but certainly in the ancient world, it was [also] the number one antibiotic and also it was used as a menstrum – a word not common in everyday parlance, but meaning something useful for dissolving these compounds. There’s an episode in the “Plants of the Gods” podcat called “Hexing Herbs,” which focuses on these tropane alkaloids-rich plants like henbane that were used for mind-altering purposes, religious [purposes], witches’ Sabbaths and all sorts of other interesting stuff.
But [Brian], explain to us your take on their role in the invention of civilization, beer and wine, which I think are complimentary. You know, it’s been said that the first brewery may have been the first bakery may have been the first temple all at the same time, so please elaborate on this beer theory for us.
Brian Muraresku: Without getting into too much detail: you’re talking about Godin Tepe, which, as far as we know, goes back about 12,000 years from where we are now, although some of these ritual elements that show up at this big megalithic site 6000 years, by the way before Stonehenge 7000 years before the highest civilizations that we know like Egypt and the Indus Valley and Samaria, there’s this place Godin Tepe, these giant, megalithic T shaped pillars that the German archaeological folks at the very least think we’re meant to represent some kind of deities. And in this this big site in southeastern Turkey at the upper register of the Fertile Crescent, 10th Millennium, 9th millennium BC, they’re finding these big limestone vats – six of them! And they can accommodate – some of them- 42 gallons of liquid, 42 gallons of what wasn’t water, [since] wasn’t safe to drink water at the time, by the way, so they weren’t necessarily looking to get intoxicated. But there’s a great paper that came out I think it was in 2012 about the ritual feasting. If you Google ritual feasting, Godin Tepe, you’ll find a great paper on the feasting that that they think took place there. This ecstatic communion, these work parties that would bring people to this site where they weren’t living there, they would come there they think for ritual purposes to commune with the dead, potentially over something like a graveyard beer.
So have we definitively found beer there? No, but the interesting traces of calcium oxalate, [so-called] “beer stone,” which does point to fermentation. It raises this big question. Did the agricultural revolution start with beer? In other words, do we do we first start growing crops like wheat and barley to bake bread? Or did we really start growing them to drink them, to brew maybe one of these early ritual beers? The jury’s still out. It’s a debate that goes back to the 1950s. But it does inform what would later happen at Eleusis. And those many millennia in between this notion of a graveyard beer, ecstatic communion ritual events, there’s some hint of Eleusis they’re going all the way back to essentially the Upper Paleolithic, which is kind of weird.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: The question remains: was bread invented to make beer or was beer invented to make bread? And in either case, it shows that beer was one of the building blocks of civilization. But I wonder if you could talk a little bit about our mutual colleague, Pat, Patrick McGovern, whose work is really fundamental to sort of teasing this out.
Brian Muraresku: Pat McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania. I consulted him when I was writing the book, and he put me in touch with a guy named Martin Zarnkow, who did the testing for beer stone, by the way at Godin Tepe. He has done some some follow up experiments there which are really intriguing.
Pat McGovern is known amongst other things for resurrecting some of these ancient potions and these ancient brews, and he pointed me to like a well the “Midas Touch” beer, for example, which he recreated, that that was based on a Phrygian potion, eighth century BC in Gaudium.
This this could be a theoretically harkening back to King Midas. What they found in the burial chamber there was the remnants of a funerary feast. And this is another theme that pops up again and again, especially in the Roman times into early Christianity, this notion of, of a funeral banquet, and there’s even a word in Latin for this “Refugearium” which means just like it sounds to chill out its refrigerator. You see hints of that at this funeral banquet in with King Midas and some of these these vessels contain the remnants of what McGovern identified as calcium oxalate pointing to beer, tartaric acid pointing to wine and potassium gluconate pointing to something like honey or mead, or even some sort of weird beer wine, a mead concoction that was used, as he says to royally usher the king into the afterlife and maybe those attending this this funeral banquet. So, again, there’s actual organic chemical data pointing to the existence of these potions these compounds for centuries and centuries before Christianity.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: This brings up two interesting complementary or competitive theories depending on your perspective. One is the stoned ape theory, which is that these monkeys were going down to the ground (or these proto simians, whatever they were) and eating ripe fruit because the fruit that had fallen was the ripest, and they’re the sweetest, but it also start to ferment, so they were catching a buzz from that.
And the other is that it was the drunk monkey theory that it was a similar mind-altering that got them started. And the late Terence McKenna that you and I both discussed in our writings had this idea that it was this alteration of consciousness which gave birth to the human brain expansion, ultimately, humans, human culture and everything else.
Do you see those as as different theories, or complementary? Is it really one or the other? Or is it really all of these different mind-altering aspects throughout the course of not only human evolution, but pre-human evolution got us to where we are today.
Brian Muraresku: I think they’re very complementary, the same with these potions that, that you rightly suggest the idea of alcohol as a vehicle for these other compounds. I got that idea from Terence McKenna. He mentioned it in page 1 of “Food of the Gods.” And it was this notion of these archaic, matriarchal, psychedelic-loving societies versus the later patriarchal alcohol lovers. And he mentioned that this notion that, you know, alcohol could have been this intermediary that really united the two. So spiked beer spiked wine. So I think you know, the the drunken monkey isn’t that controversial? The stoned ape is far more controversial, for reasons you can imagine. But it’s worth looking into this morning. As a matter of fact, I won’t mention details but I was talking to my friend Lee Berger, who was a paleoanthropologist in South Africa. And together we’re taking like a very serious look at being able to scientifically test some of these stoned ape ideas
Dr. Mark Plotkin: There’s a really interesting aspect to wine and beer that is often overlooked in these ongoing analyses and that is that wine makes itself, but beer must be made. In other words, grapes that fall from a tree will ferment and create alcohol. Beer is not made by wheat by itself. It has to be made. So this shows that the path to these two drinks are fundamentally very different. And I think it just creates a different aspect to what’s entailed, not only in creating it, but in utilizing it. But that’s a more detailed discussion for next time. So I’m curious, Brian, you’ve been incredibly successful at getting the church to be collaborative, if not cooperative in the course of research. And I’d like your take as to where the church is now, why they didn’t burn you at the stake, and what the future looks like in terms of Christianity, in terms of Catholicism, in terms of all organized religions, as the substances before become more widely used in medicine, religion, recreation, what have you.
Brian Muraresku: Yeah, to be honest, I was more concerned about being burned at the stake of classical wisdom. I was really concerned about the reaction from some folks at Harvard and Greg Nagy in particular, who I reached out to around the corner here many years ago, the former director of Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies. And I mean an answer to your question, from the very first conversation I had with Greg, sort of like the classicist of classicists, he was not shocked by this line of investigation. And he encouraged me from our very first meeting. And I mention that because I talked about this dichotomy between the classical pre-Christian scholars and then what happens in the seminary today. You’re learning the same Greek. Why are there two different approaches to this? Why is there a classical department and why is there a department of theology? I think what unites those scholars today is this notion of a truth proposition, the value of truth.
So I mean, the Catholic church that I know, and I grew up Catholic. I went to Catholic school for 12 years, and I was trained by the Jesuits in Latin and Greek, so I only learned Latin and Greek through the Jesuits. I was always taught to ask questions. And from the very beginning, when I was bouncing from an office in Boston to places at the Vatican, I would get the same response. So I talked to the archivists, I would talk to the archeologists. The Vatican has an archeological team, for those who don’t know, the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archeology, which is a super cool title, and they’re out there to preserve the remnants of paleo-Christianity, to ask the same questions I think that I’m asking, and to arrive at this truth proposition. What happened, what motivated people to convert from the time-honored religion of their family, their ancestors, all these pagan cults, like what would motivate somebody to convert from that to Christianity at the end of the first century into the second and third century?
Before Constantine, this was an illegal thing, right? Christianity was illegal. It was literally underground, celebrated in house churches or necropolis. So graveyards. This is a graveyard religion, and today it still is, the interaction of the living and the dead that we celebrate at communion. And so I think that as long as you’re diplomatic and you be honest with the data, I think this is a conversation worth having. And I’ve never felt anything but welcome by the Vatican.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: So what changed? I mean, Indians were burned at the stake for taking peyote and mushrooms by the same Christians or their antecedents, witches were killed in Salem for presumably taking ergot. So why is everybody cool with this now? Is this something that happened 20 years ago or has this been a gradual evolution?
Brian Muraresku: I don’t know. I don’t know. You asked about the death and rebirth of Carl Ruck. So his career certainly changed from the late ’70s to where it is today. And I wonder, the Vatican had its moment with Vatican too for the Catholics who are listening in the 1960s, and it’s a big institution, maybe slow to change in certain respects, but there’s always been pockets in the church. And I look to a lot of these brotherhoods, sisterhoods like the Jesuits and the Dominicans and the Benedictines and the Franciscans, educated folks who have big questions same as you and me. And I think the best of them engage with the lay public, that’s the mission, that’s the ministry, engage with universities, engage with scholarship, engage with divinity schools. So I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I’m not going to say that psychedelics are their favorite topic, but it’s at least worthy of conversation.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Well, when I was sitting in Richard Schulte’s class on the Botany named Chemistry of Hallucinogens in 1977, I remember him putting up a diagram of mescaline, the mescaline molecule on the board. And he said, now right behind this classroom is the Harvard Divinity School. They worship Divinities. Here is divinity worship by some of my indigenous colleagues and teachers. But the divinity school has never asked me to come over there and put one of these divinities on the blackboard. Now, Harvard seems to be rediscovering what they actually discovered through William James well over a century ago. What’s happening there now? You’ve been spending a lot of time there at the divinity school, the medical school. It all seems to be coming together. So share your perspective on what’s going on.
Brian Muraresku: Yeah, I’ll share what I can. Yeah, there’s lots of interest and not just on that campus, but elsewhere. So the funnest part for me has been having these really cool conversations about the meaning of psychedelic studies writ large across all these campuses and in popular discourse. Again, things are very different from where they were even at Hopkins 20 years ago when a lot of this clinical work began. So I’ve had the funnest conversations at Harvard and Yale and Hopkins, and certainly on the west coast. So I’ve mentioned a few of those psychedelic centers already, and where a lot of the focus has been on clinical work, interestingly, at least for me over the past couple years as a humanist, I’m seeing interest in things like divinity studies and ethnobotany that you and I both love, and the social sciences and the things that William James was talking about at this weird intersection between philosophy, psychology, comparative religion.
From James to the 1950s, again, when this was all fair game, I think that I sense kind of a return to the big questions. In addition to the relief of suffering, what do psychedelics really mean for people today? Why do people find meaning, even if all you think about psychedelics are agents of relieving suffering for PTSD? Okay, if you’ve ever talked to, and I’ve talked to several of these special forces, Navy Seals who undergo these dramatic experiences with psychedelics, things like Ibogaine and 5 MEO DMT. I mean, the things they talk about, not in every case, but some of them have very weird, transpersonal, mystical experiences. Again, not across the board, but things that seem to tap into a collective understanding of the variety like James, the variety of spiritual experiences that can sometimes happen under the right circumstances. And so divinity schools are great places to host those conversations, English departments, maybe even in the arts. I think just I sense a real welcoming and an opening to what’s really possible in the next chapter of the psychedelic conversation, which I think is that, our deep history and this unwritten future.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Well, I regard the leading academic institution these days is the Institute of Johns Hopkins, which was set up in part by my friend Tim Ferriss and is helmed in large part by Roland Griffiths. And Griffiths famously has said that 75% of the people that go through some of his trials say it’s the most ineffable, indescribable, unforgettable experience of their lives. It’s very common in psychedelic experiences or reading about psychedelic experiences where people say that this was just a sensory overload, spiritually, physically, mentally.
But in a recent conversation with Karen Armstrong, she talked about how many religions seek to empty us of everything, and that they want to know how to get away from thinking about anything. I mean, this is the point of meditation. You want to get to the point where you’ve emptied your mind, your body, your spirit, so it can be refilled. So how do you reconcile these two things where on the one hand you want to fill yourselves up with sensations from the ninth dimension. On the other hand, you want to empty your soul at the same time. These would seem to be two completely opposite goals to have.
Brian Muraresku: Right. And they are. That’s why it’s called a paradox. And I see you were citing my recent conversation with Karen. You can find it on YouTube called the God Paradox. I think paradox is a very good thing because I think that’s, again, not ever having experienced them myself, it’s one of the things that seems to occur in those who experience altered states of awareness under the influence of psychedelics. So distortions of time and space, that’s one thing. You mentioned ineffability, that’s another. But okay, so being part of yourself and also part of someone you’re looking at or something you’re looking at, so being here but also there simultaneously. Now you’re getting some pretty quantum mind-bending stuff. These are paradoxes, and I think like a Zen koan, they’re there to remind us that life isn’t easily reducible.
And I was getting my phone out because I did want to quote Roland Griffiths himself, who I think is going on the record about this now, one of the researchers who’s largely responsible for the medicalization at least of psilocybin and rigorous clinical research into these drugs. He said last week in a video address to the Horizons Conference at New York, he said that, “I’ve come to believe that this line of non-therapeutic research,” what we’re discussing, “this non-therapeutic research is incredibly important and may ultimately prove to be crucial to the very survival of our species.”
So you don’t want to be grandiose about this stuff, but Karen Armstrong said the same thing. And she wasn’t talking about psychedelics, she was talking about these practices, these archaic, ancient practices, techniques of ecstasy in some cases that Elioti talks about that just kind of bring us back down to the notion of our true self. So you can call it ego dissolution and boundary dissolving, but it’s essentially entering into meditation or contemplative practice or yoga, doing this stuff with the intention of losing the self, the false self of the ego, in order to find something that’s maybe more genuine. So that, and here’s the whole point and the big kicker, is so that you can reinvest that sense of self into everyone you meet and everything you see. And so to be a beacon of love and compassion through these practices. That was kind of the whole point.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Well, I want to underscore something you said there, which is the importance of other modes of reaching these altered states. It ain’t all about hallucinogens. In a conversation you had with Jordan Peterson, he said he’d come to believe that all of these religious experiences were based on psychedelics. I completely disagree. I think it’s fasting. I think it may be mental illness, in some cases. It could be meditation. So all of these roads lead towards a similar place. But as much as I appreciate the value of hallucinogens and entheogens and psychedelics, I don’t think they have all the answers. In fact, I worry a bit that in some cases they’re being loved to death and sold literally in some cases as the cure all for everything, the panacea for all of the world’s ills. In fact, somebody sent me a horrifying link to something on the web called Lucy in the Sky with Nazis, that some of the alt-right were taking these things to reinforce their beliefs as obnoxious as they were.
So that we have to be careful that these things are kept in perspective. Now, in your conversation with Karen Armstrong, you both quoted this wonderful line from St. Augustine. If you think you’ve understood God, that ain’t God. But it brought to mind the line of George Carlin’s when he would use to mess with the nuns in religious school on Sunday and would say, if God is all powerful, can he make a rock so big that even he can’t lift it?
The point here being is that I think we need to find comfort in paradox. By the same token, we can’t just dismiss all the stuff as ineffable and you can’t know it and whatever, because it’s part of human nature to want the answer, at least to seek the answer. It’s an aspirational goal to learn and know even if you don’t reach the point where you know God or know the unknowable.
Brian Muraresku: And maybe that’s where psychedelics come in, right? And you’re reminding me of a conversation I had with Glenn Shepard who I’d love to talk about. So Augustine said, [foreign language 00:13:30]. If your rational mind can fix in on it, you’re probably not right about God. And I mentioned this Jesuit, Karl Rahner, who said that we shouldn’t even use the word God. It’s all aspirational. The rational mind has a tough time attaching to this. But yes, psychedelics in the right way, these are not for everybody. I’m also super concerned about the public discourse and this notion of a panacea or a God pill.
I think that under the right setting for otherwise consenting adults, I don’t know when that is, maybe it begins at 35 or later because life is psychedelic enough. The infrequent, occasional use of some of these compounds with people who know what the hell they’re doing could be an aid to a spiritual discipline that then transcends or at least sublimates psychedelics into a life dedicated to contemplative practice and action, like acting on that practice to actually do something in the world, something of benefit.
I mentioned Glenn Shepard because he and I had a conversation a couple weeks ago. Just shows you how differently people think about psychedelics. And his estimate was that something like 50% of Amazonian shamanism, at least with respect to ayahuasca, is not dedicated to health and wellness the way we think about it. But he said they’re hunting rituals, which I thought was fascinating. And he was talking about his work with the Machiguenga and all these hunting and why and how they use ayahuasca and other plants, other magical plants in these hunting rituals. And so now I just think we have to remember that this medicalization that has captured the imagination over the past 20 years is just one very small aspect of what these things represent, how archaic they really are. Stoned apes or not, these things I’m talking about, these plants and fungi have been evolving for millions of years, and I think we always need to keep that in mind.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Well, my late friend Peter Gorman, who was formerly editor of High Times Magazine, you see ethnobotanists have friends in all sorts of strange cultures, not just the rainforest. Was the second white man that I know of to take the magic frog, the green monkey frog of the Amazon. And he said that they were using this for hunting magic and that he took it and he saw a crossing in the river with a big juicy taper crossing it in his vision. And the next day as he’s hiking through the jungle with his indigenous guides, he recognized the crossing. And just as he recognized that was the crossing, a big juicy taper came walking across. So this is part of the ineffable, you can’t explain this through the prism of western science, but in one of your conversations with Carl Ruck, he quotes Carl Jung as saying, “You can’t reject something just because you can’t understand it.” And I think that’s the attitude we should have towards psychedelics, towards religion and in some ways towards life itself.
Brian Muraresku: But can I ask you a question?
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Fire away.
Brian Muraresku: Because I mean, talking about life itself. So I mean, I look at you as a hero, as a groundbreaker, in a very real sense around this discipline and this topic as a disciple of Schulte’s, amongst other accolades we could list. I think that some of the most impressive stuff you’ve done is transforming the insights you’ve had on psychedelics or not, I don’t know. Or maybe it’s through your scholarship or your study into a desire to actually preserve these traditions. And what that means in some cases is preserving the plants themselves. Sometimes it means preserving the people. A lot of it has to do with very boring legal work, which is conserving land in places that’s not always very easy. And if you wouldn’t mind, I think that you’re an example of doing good in the world based on ineffable, mystical, otherworldly type encounters. Would you mind expounding on that?
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Well, thank you for your kind words. First of all, I thought I was the one asking the question soon, but there’s a Jewish concept called Tikkun Olam which is about repairing the world. And I think that all of us live a better life in trying to do something a little better, helping somebody less fortunate. And it’s not always possible. But if everybody sort of pitched in and try and make things a little better, I think we’d all be better off. And I called this the spiritual boomerang. There’s a small element of selfishness in the work I’ve been doing with my indigenous colleagues because it helps me, I sleep better, when I see these forests on fire, when I see these people chased out of their traditional lands, knowing that I’ve at least tried to make a difference to help them and their forests and their frogs and their plants and their fungi, I feel like I’m trying. I used to say I’m trying to make the world a better place.
I’ve got too many dents in my fender now. Now I say I’m trying to make the world a little less bad place. And I think that’s a more worthy cause that hopefully everybody would try and do. But I’ve got to tell you that I set out to do this and work on this and protect this. But on a few occasions when I’ve been sick, they’ve healed me. And that’s the spiritual boomerang. You throw it away and it comes back to you. And if all of us can try and live our life trying to see where we can try and make a difference, what’s the downside to that?
Brian Muraresku: So what is ACT for those who don’t know?
Dr. Mark Plotkin: ACT is the Amazon Conservation Team. I’m the co-founder with my wife Liliana Madrigal, a Costa Rica protected area specialist. And we were long concerned that rainforest protection was overlooking indigenous peoples and indigenous lands. When we started this almost 30 years ago, there were groups like the World Wildlife Fund where I worked at that focused on protecting endangered species. There were groups like Cultural Survival focused on helping indigenous peoples, but they didn’t work together. So we got together with an approach we called Biocultural Conservation to work in partnership with the indigenous peoples to help them, to empower them, to train them to better protect their land and their culture. They’re in the driver’s seat, not us, but we have access to tools, technology, training, legal expertise that can make a real difference. Stuff they couldn’t do on their own. But as an ethnobotanist, you know the indigenous peoples know a lot more stuff than you do about rainforest issues, but they need a helping hand.
And Schulte’s often told me, he said, “These naked people may not have a last name, may not have clothes and may not be able to write their name, but they know a hell lot more about this stuff than we ever will.” And that was a very humbling comment on him. And I heard it many times. So it’s not about us playing Tarzan and saving the Indians of the jungle, but it’s also not making a similar mistake, which is, oh, they can do it all. They know better than we do. Let’s leave them alone. A similar dichotomy is where people say, well we shouldn’t give them iPads because that’s going to ruin their culture. The other saying that, let’s give iPads and iPhones and computers because that’s going to save their culture. Neither is true. In Suriname they say, to every complex question, there is an answer which is both simple and wrong.
So I want to wind up here with a bit of a loaded question, which goes back to something we touched on, and that is the history of hallucinogens in Harvard, which is something which has been fascinating me for 40 years. Many people think that hallucinogens and their study began with Leary and Alpert, God forbid, in the ’60s. More of us in the know like to think it began with Schultes in the ’30s and ’40s. Those of us who’ve really dug deeper, like you and I, know it began with William James prior to the turn of the century. But I’d like to know your perspective, having spent so much time at my old alma mater, as the contributions and the mistakes made by Leary and Alpert, which very few people address these days, where people continue to lionize them without calling attention to the pitfalls that they did fall into.
Brian Muraresku: That is a loaded question. Yeah, I haven’t talked about this publicly, but Leary is still a bit of a four letter word on campus, and just in generality has been having, I mentioned these conversations with folks from the divinity school to the law school to the medical school to the faculty of arts and sciences, just that there’s a lot of genuine organic interest in this topic. And I noticed over the past couple years that the specter of Leary, the shadow of Leary kind of hangs in the corner of every conversation. Because for those who don’t know, the pied piper of psychedelic enlightenment, Mr. Leary, gets a lot of flack for what happened at Harvard in the early 1960s.
And when he and Dick Alpert, who became Ram Dass were kicked off campus, that was the beginning of a long hiatus in these studies. So we’re talking about, this is about 60 years. So from 1962 until where we sit today, it’s been a full 60 years since some of this controversy erupted. But like we talked about at the very beginning, despite that psychic load, I think that the clinical work certainly made an impact. The fact that a guy named Michael Pollan teaches English at Harvard in the fall makes a difference, informs the conversation. And I think that people are reapproaching this topic now. I don’t know why it’s taken 60 years, but reapproaching it with a real sober lens. And it’s been really interesting to witness.
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Well, let me highlight the two things that I think live on in a positive way. And that’s the work of hallucinogens with prisoners and with religious leaders, which as you know, has been resuscitated and done in a much more rigorous and scientific way. So in that sense, that was a very positive contribution. But just like the Catholic church that we discussed, some mistakes were made along the way. And now hopefully in the age of the immortality key, we’re living in an age where we can learn from our past mistakes and not repeat them and look for a brighter future using hallucinogens in a careful, culturally sensitive, scientifically rigorous and shamonic way for the benefit of all. But first and foremost, we have to benefit the people that taught us these compounds, the plants, the fungi, the animals, and make sure the benefits flow both ways.
It can’t be just about celebrating the use of ayahuasca while the original ayahuasca vines are being put to the torch, as is the case in much of the northwest Amazon. So we live in a time where the candle is burning both ends. On the one hand, we have burning rainforests, we have indigenous peoples that continue to be forcibly missionized. On the other hand, we have the institutions of greater learning like Harvard, Yale, and Imperial College in London and UCLA and Johns Hopkins celebrating this back to the future where these lessons of the ancients, these chemicals created three billion years ago can revolutionize and improve the way we live our lives and our culture. And so I thank you, Brian, for your friendship, for your scholarship, and for being with us today.
Brian Muraresku: Dr. Plotkin, you are a hero and a humanitarian. Thank you.
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