DMT and literature: An interview with Rick Strassman
Rick Strassman M.D. is the author of DMT: The Spirit Molecule, a modern psychedelic classic, which chronicles Rick’s experiences conducting a human research trial with DMT between 1990-1995. He’s been kind enough to lend PsypressUK his thoughts on psychedelic literature, writing and his latest projects.
The depth and breadth to which psychedelic literature reaches is increasingly vast. Rick mentioned a variety of works including LSD Psychotherapy by Stanislav Grof, Peter Stafford’s Psychedelic Encyclopaedia and My Problem Child by Albert Hofmann, when PsypressUK asked him to cite some works that have influenced him over the years. All of which have seemingly helped shape the man.
Born in Los Angeles, California in 1952, Rick Strassman went on to attend the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University in New York, where he obtained a medical degree with honours in 1977. With much of his working life dedicated to psychiatry, Rick also held strong Buddhist beliefs and it appears that this dichotomy has exerted a strong force on the paths of his life.
This very same coupling of, seemingly different, ideas is evident in other psychedelic works Rick cited as influences.
Ram Dass’ Be Here Now “introduced me to the overlap between psychedelics and spirituality, especially Eastern Religions” and, psychedelic favourite Aldous Huxley, in whose The Perennial Philosophy Rick saw “the vastness of philosophical-religious world literature.” Indeed, Huxley’s style was a benchmark: “I loved Huxley’s writing, and decided I wanted to sound as he did when I wrote.”
In DMT: The Spirit Molecule there are strongly interwoven elements of science, autobiography and speculation. Personal and professional conflict are central forces in driving the book’s narrative. PsypressUK asked Rick: In writing the book, how easy or difficult was it to lay yourself so bare, personally and professionally, in respect of the religious and institutional opposition you faced?
“It took a long time to come to a “voice” in the book with which I felt comfortable. The best advice I got was from Wade Davis, who told me to write as if I were lying on my back in bed with my soul mate, telling her the story, heart to heart. I needed two major pep talks from Wade, but the second one caused the writing process to finally click.”
Whilst writing the book represented a challenge in itself, the content also paid service to the challenges that clinical research in psychedelics brought. Again, psychedelic literature had helped point the way, for example: “[Timothy] Leary’s “Flashbacks” showed me what paths to avoid in resuming US research with these drugs.” It was the nature of the research though that most clearly highlighted the personal affections:
“I realized that the DMT effect was beyond my capacities to come to terms with. There’s a sense that science can explain everything to our satisfaction; rather than scientific results causing us even more anxiety than was previously the case. I was going through the latter experience, and wanted to clearly chart my course from more certainty to less certainty. I think it’s important to let people know the whole story.”
Intimacy and honesty are certainly feelings one receives when reading DMT: The Spirit Molecule but in order to do so Rick sacrificed much:
“I also needed to come to terms with the fact that writing the book the way I did might make it impossible to ever receive grant support for my research, particularly from the US federal government. And might make it impossible to ever set foot in my home Zen temple again. In both cases, I decided I could live with either or both of those outcomes. And by possibly closing some doors, I was opening others.”
Contemporary psychedelic literature has become the domain of scientists, cultural researchers and journalists, turned authors – wherein a non-fiction basis is nearly always the premise. Why do you think that there is a lack of (in the strictest sense) literary fictional offerings in the genre?
“I think the science fiction community has taken the ball with the psychedelic material and done great things with it. This was the kernel of thought that blossomed into the Inner Paths book.” Inner Paths to Outer Space is a new book co-authored by Rick. PsypressUK asked him to tell us a little about it:
“Slawek Wojtowicz is an M.D. and big pharma researcher, who’s also a sci-fi buff, author and artist. He contacted me about collaborating on a book that would attract the attention of the sci-fi community to the DMT work. Showing similarities between DMT states, their process and content, and what sci-fi deals with – space travel, different dimensions of reality, extraordinary medical research and spiritual questions.”
It’s in a great tradition of co-authored psychedelic works that Rick joins. Other influences he mentioned included Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar’s Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered, which “was thorough, open-minded, stimulating, psychiatrically-based but freely conjectured into other disciples.” However, in such a cross-disciplined project as sci-fi and psychedelics, Inner Paths to Outer Space required an eclectic input:
“I thought Luis Eduardo Luna would be a good addition to the team. Luis is an anthropologist who’s been studying ayahuasca use in Latin America for decades, applying a unique combination of a hands-on approach and academic rigor. He in turn invited Ede Frecska on board. Ede is a Hungarian psychiatrist with an impressive understanding and ability to synthesize quantum mechanic ideas with elements of consciousness. He would add a model for us to use in trying to understand the location of what people perceive on DMT.”
Rick’s recently launched the Cottonwood Research Foundation. Whilst acting as fiscal sponsor for the coming-soon DMT: The Spirit Molecule documentary, the foundation is also setting up an assay for endogenous tryptamines. PsypressUK was also very excited to hear about their new library project: “The library is our newest project, and we’ve entered almost 1000 entries into the database. Most papers are scientific, but we’ve got a lot of religious, anthropological, and social science papers, too.”
There have been several institutions in the past that have attempted to pursue a similar object. However, the Cottonwood Research Foundation appears to be embracing a varied and holistic academic approach. With the right support, please do check out their website, the Foundation has the makings of an extremely creative institution.
“Our long-range goal is to develop a centre for consciousness research, making the psychedelic experience the springboard for Cottonwood’s studies. The campus would include training in psychology, psychiatry, pharmacology, anthropology, art, philosophy, religious studies, computer science, physics – whatever discipline could help explicate the psychedelic experience using the theories and tools at its disposal, and whatever discipline could use the psychedelic experience to help its own evolution.”
As we move into a new decade, the psychedelic community is branching out, with increasing support for scientific studies and cross-discipline research. Rick is on the forefront of many of these moves and PsypressUK would like to wish him the best of luck in all his up-and-coming projects.