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Ayahuasca and Kabbalah

Jay Michaelson

In 1954, Aldous Huxley published “The Doors of Perception,” a famous essay observing that the effects of mescaline were remarkably similar to the unitive mysticism of the world’s great religions, particularly Vedanta, the philosophical-mystical form of Hinduism which Huxley practiced. It caused an immediate sensation. Many in the public were outraged by its pro-pharmacological spirit, and many in the academy accused Huxley (like William James before him) of flattening different mystical traditions, and of disregarding distinctions between “sacred and profane” mystical practice.

But many more were inspired. Huxley’s essay, and other works like it, set the agenda for 1960s spirituality, and what later came to be called the New Age movement. He provided a philosophical explanation of what was important about mescaline – that our perceptive faculties filter out more than they let in, and that mescaline, like meditation, opens those doors wider – and a personal account of what a “trip” was like. He showed how entheogens (as they later came to be called) could be a part of a sincere spiritual practice. And he perhaps unwittingly imported a certain Vedanta agenda of what the “ultimate” mystical experience was like: union. As has been argued by many scholars over the last few decades, this claim of ultimacy – that unio mystica is the peak form of mystical experience, with others defined by how close they approach it – is actually a rather partisan one. Why is “union with the All” superior to, or more true than, deity mysticism, visions of Krishna/Christ/spirits, and the text-based mysticism of the Kabbalah? Sure, for Vedanta it is – but that’s just Vedanta’s view.

Two generations of spiritual seekers have been influenced, for better and for worse, by this hierarchy. From the naive hippie to the sophisticated yogi, Jewish Renewalniks to Ken Wilberites, hundreds of thousands of spiritual practitioners have implicitly or explicitly assumed the prioritization of the unitive over all else: the point is that All is One.

Most of these constituencies are also, like Huxley, influenced by the psychedelic experience, primarily that of mushrooms and LSD. While most contemporary spiritual teachers have long since given these substances up, in favor of meditation and other mystical practices which afford the same experiences in a more reliable container (and one greatly enriched by self-examination and introspection), if you ask them, as I have, they’ll admit that the psychedelic experience formed an important part of their spiritual initiation. Whether it’s what got them on the road in the first place, or confirmed their earlier intuitions, psychedelics have set the agenda for a huge percentage of contemporary spiritual teachers, across religious and spiritual denominations, and many of their followers as well.

These two trends that “all is one” is the point, and that it accords with the psychedelic experience – have occasionally led to a distortion of religious and spiritual traditions. In the Kabbalah, for example, unitive mysticism is only a small part of a wide panoply of mystical experiences. Yes, there are texts which speak of annihilation of the self (bittul hayesh) and a unification with God (achdut). But these are, truthfully, in the minority. Many more are visionary texts, describing theophanies of all shapes and sizes; or records of prophecy or angelic communication; or less explicitly unitive accounts of proximity to the Divine. Yet there’s a sense, among teachers of contemporary Kabbalah – and I’m not referring here to the Kabbalah Centre (where Madonna goes), which does not teach Kabbalah proper, but rather a unique and sometimes weird synthesis of Kabbalah, the Human Potential movement, and New Religious Movements like Scientology – that unitive mysticism is the summum bonum, the ultimate good.

Some Kabbalistic texts agree, but many others do not. For example, Rabbi Arthur Green, today one of progressive Judaism’s leading teachers, in 1968 wrote an article (under a pseudonym) called “Psychedelics and Kabbalah,” explicitly analogizing the psychedelic experiences to aspects of Kabbalistic teaching – but selecting those aspects of Kabbalah and Hasidism which fit the experience. Naturally, Green was also influenced by the many forms of non-Jewish mysticism popular at the time, most of whom asserted that “All is One,” but in that essay, he makes clear that the psychedelic experience affected how he understood Kabbalah. Green, like fellow practitioner-academics Daniel Matt, has been enormously influential: their anthologies of Hasidic and Kabbalistic texts are read far more widely than the texts themselves, and are widely assumed to represent the mainstream of their respective traditions.

I am not taking a position on whether this “distortion” is for good or ill; in my own practice, the nondual/unitive perspective plays a central role, and I am grateful for it, whatever its sources. But I have a hunch that it is about to change.

The reason it is changing is that more and more Jewish spiritual seekers are pursuing non-unitive paths. This includes earth-based ritual, shamanic ritual, and other disciplines which, while they may hold the view that “all is one,” provide experiences of differentiation (energies, elements, visions, etc). But perhaps more importantly, it includes drinking ayahuasca, smoking DMT, and visionary shamanic-entheogenic practices which offer different experiences from the unitive one. The ayahuasca trip, unlike the mescaline one, is not especially unitive: indeed, one of its hallmarks is the sense of communication with other life forms or consciousnesses. And while a sense of “all is One” is sometimes reported in the midst of the ayahuasca experience, it’s more common to read reports of visions of phenomena – manifestation, not essence.

Some of these accounts are strikingly similar to texts from the Hechalot and Merkavah schools of Jewish mysticism, which flourished between the second and ninth centuries. In the texts from this period, we read detailed accounts of heavenly palaces, Divine chariots, and angels; of ascents to other realms which seem somehow to be in outer space or an extraterrestrial locale; of a sense of great danger, but also great awe, beauty and love; and of beings which travel on some kind of cosmic vehicle. The descriptions are visionary and auditory, much like the accounts of ayahuasca visions. They are “shamanic” journeys, both in the sense of being journeys of the soul to other realm and in the sense of a transformation of the self. They yield information, prophecy, revelation, theophany. And they are not really about “all is one.”

Hechalot and Merkavah mysticism is studied in the academy, but it is little known in the contemporary spiritual world. It’s complicated, arcane, and literally other-worldly. But just as the unitive moments of Hasidism appeal to those who have had a unitive experience on mushrooms, so too the visionary aspects of Hechalot and Merkavah mysticism appeal to those who have had a visionary experience on ayahuasca. The similarities are striking.

What’s more, Hechalot and Merkavah mysticism, related as it is to gnosticism, provides one of world literature’s richest libraries of other-worldly mystical experience. It’s eerie how similar some of these millennia-old texts are to the records contemporary journeyers provide of the ayahuasca trip: the sense of being in “outer space,” the tenuous links to consensual reality, the sense of danger, and above all the colorful descriptions of chambers, angels, songs, palaces, ascents, descents, fire, music, and so much more. It also provides a sense of history, context, and “belonging” to those who affiliate with Judaism, Christianity, or gnosticism; like unitive experiences, non-unitive visionary/ ecstatic experiences have a lineage within these traditions. Perhaps, too, it might offer guidance for those seeking to integrate such experiences into their lives.

To reiterate, I am taking no position on whether unitive or non-unitive experiences are “better,” and see nondual essence and dualistic manifestation as two sides of the same ineffable unity. My point, simply, is that much of contemporary Western spirituality derives from a particular psychedelic experience and a particular form of mysticism it approximates. With the increasing popularity of ayahuasca and similar medicines, the former element has changed – and I think the latter will too.

In the esoteric world, this kind of change and interchange has always been with us. Hechalot mystics learned from the gnostics, who learned from the Jews, who learned from the Babylonians. Medieval Kabbalists learned from the Sufis, who learned from the Hindus, who learned from the Buddhists, who learned from other Hindus. One need not make the facile, and false, claim that all mysticism is the same thing in order to recognize that mystics across space and time have understood themselves to be gesturing toward the same truths, albeit in very different ways. And those differences advance, not obstruct, the progress of realization. After all, when one can ultimately know nothing, it helps to learn from everything.

Image by Akiva, used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.


  1. ~frankspeare says

    While it is true that we tend to see the world we believe in, and dismiss evidence which does not support our beliefs, there is an aspect of “us” that is more inclined to do this. That is ego or identity. The more one is identified with ego, the more likely we are to have a skewed perception of reality.

    A friend of mine has had three journeys with Ayahuasca now and reports that it is an experience of dissolving identity. He reports the experience of beginning to notice that he is not breathing, but rather being breathed; that he is not thinking but being thought. He feels that he takes on the role of a passive observer of what is present, both in the room and in his own imagination.

    He reports that it is as if someone (something) is making love to him in the realm of imagination (not sex… Love).

    On his first journey a shaman who was leading it suggested that he ask his questions. He asked “Who am I?” He said that the answer didn’t come in the form of a concept, but rather as an experience; that there was himself and an other, and that they existed in this field of love, and then both he and “other” disappeared into nothing and what was left was Love… and awareness. This was his answer.

    Then on a second dive, the question came up again and this time there was the experience of being the context in which All That Is has it’s existence. Another way of saying the same thing is recognition of being the dimension he previously thought he existed within.

    So, from this perspective, you’re barking up the wrong tree in arguing for the reality of separation. In fact I will go further and suggest that it is your ego which is doing the arguing out of a desperate attempt to preserve its own existence… an existence which does not exist in Reality.

    “The ego looks at death, which is nothing, and calls it something, to avoid facing what it really is, which is nothing. -Byron Katie


  2. The point here is in whether or not the point shall be on the ‘experience’. In the sense that an ecstatic experience will only, in space-time terms, last for a short moment and is in essence, as in Taoism concept of ‘rest’, another state of polarity. I remember that Wilhelm talks about the Taoist concept of ‘rest’ in Hexagram 52 in that it differs from the Buddhist notion of rest, which can be seen as the goal of the practice, the ebbing away of all psychic movement towards the atttainment of nirvana (the non-dual). In my opinion what is really changing today is that we see now this model is fundamentally flawed, that the mental body’s enlightenment is not the be all and end all, and any real ‘enlightenment’ can never be defined as a ‘state’ or by an image, a concept. Life is water, life is movement, life ebbs between times of movement and times of stillness, times of effecting and times of being effected and so on. My point being, these things you talk about are, like most psychadelic literature, a harkering over the experience specifically with perhaps giving little effort to the organisational, integrating work that comes with living in the flow of everyday life. My point being this. You write well in talking about the difference in mescaline and aya – mesc is much more masculine, more about pure consciousness, more about asceticness, more about non-attachment, more about pure mental clarity and expansion overiding and ‘souring above’ the world of duality. Whereas ayahuasca is much more feminine, much more feeling orientated, and since it is not such a cosmic and ineffeble unity kind of experience unless the drinker knows what he or she is doing and can direct the energy with presence, intention and balance(so to speak), it just glides you to the base, to the arms and bosom of the mother, and from there, if the organism is sufficiently relaxed enough to glide through the experience and be of acceptance and likeness-of-gratitude, one comes into contact with multiplicity, of earth and water, of all the possibilities and the web of life and how we as INDIVIDUALS relate to it. I think im wavering from my point now, so ill try get back on track 🙂

    It is an important part of the spiritual journey to access and expand into the non-dual, but time and time again we find that the overemphasizing of this stage is what causes so much confusion and stress on the evolving human. The feminine and emotional nature, the earth nature, the body nature, the nature nature! So many people ‘touch God’ on psychadelics and then hurtle back down to their suburban existence and then rationally summise that the point is to just ‘keep getting back there’ until eventually, you know, youll be there forever. The point is once you have experienced it, and i mean REALLY experience it, there is no further one needs to go in this respect. G.I Gurdjieff returned to Russia in 1914 from some 30 years of wandering, with a select group of explorers, northern africa, the middle east, central asia and india in search of esoteric knowledge, and began to teach his new method which he believed was a culmination of the 3 primary evolutionary methods exposed by the ‘three-brained beings’ earth – the physical (way of the fakir), the emotional (the way of the monk), and the mental (the way of the yogi). His idea was essentially that we live day to day lives in a waking sleep, and that the answer comes with simply bringing awareness and remembering to the different intelligence centres of our beings – the body, emotions and mind – in order to bring about an evolving and harmonious development to the organism in its entirety, without focusing on one and forgetting the other – because, of course, they are interellated and work dependent on each other.

    So whats my point here? All of the mystics believed in the same ineffeble unity but they had different methods and opinions reletive to their cultural context by which the individual could go about freeing themselves and creating a harmonious life. I believe after travelling in India just now that it is only the methodological schools that we here about in our much egoistic and confused paradigm of western comparitive religion (not to mention the ..cough cough.. new age). In this modern day now our task is to develop systems and essentially art that will allow the alienated peoples of densely populated areas to go about freeing, re-claiming and liberating themselves from their capitilist schizophrenic matrix and find ways in which to cope with the comin onslaughts of confusion and uncertainty prevelent in such a hyper-accelerated age. It comes with creating a balanced way by which to handle the whole organism, on the (horizontal) seperate, very physical, very emotional plane, as well as on the (vertical) inner plane of complete unity, nothingness and everythingness from which we all are eternally sourced.

    So yeah, this was a good article.

    In my opinion the work of Gurdjieff, the writings of Antero Ali and now the work of Daniel Stacy Barrons Theohumanity project is the best stuff that we have now to work with, but of course, in the coming times of great excitement, more will come until finally we have a reletively clear view by which we can work with.


  3. well actually you looking back in hindsight i was floating a bit when i wrote that laste reply, but expect a better and more grounded response soon in regards to the union of the horizontal and vertical dimensions, the free flowing consciousness of interacting in the terrestrial dimension where the intellect, in its associations of unity and in the minds understanding seperationless, is integrated so as to allow for the formation and flowering of the ‘lower’ bodies..

  4. Having examined numerous spiritual traditions, I see major differences in both precepts and endpoints. The Hindus believe self is eternal; the Buddhists see it as temporary, subject to dissolution (i.e. Nirvana). Neither resembles what some Australian aboriginals do with dreamtime, the Kalahari people do with “Num” or a Jain is attempting to do with fasting and meditation.

    The “All is one” concept is, I think, an artifact of Christianity and its focus on a unifying diety, popularized by earlier “occult” writers who simply couldn’t conceive of anything quite so alien from their native religious environment as a visionary, mulitply-dimensioned religious context.

  5. The ayahuasca Ceremony is an Event: instantaneous productions intrinsic to interactions between various kinds of forces.

    As I sit with the other shaman we collectively experience an emergent ontology.

    All of us there, with our celestial hierarchies, deconstructed selves, feminist theologies, shadow sides, redemptive myths, deity generators, vessels for the plant’s medicinal becomings, lovers of the divine, healers healing, all of us, with our unique developmental histories and singular bioenergetic configurations constitute the genesis and productive potential of the Ritual/Real.

    This dynamism of the confluence of forces is the actualisation of the event. The combination of all the forces and what other potentialities subsist generate the moment’s affective tonalities, expansivities and depths.

    The Ceremony experience is qualitative, multi dimensional and inclusive. It is the sonic directions I compose, it is temperature, it is the jungle, a breeze, the way the participants breathe in silence, cry, moan or laugh. We are chants, nocturnal suns and star shakers . We are subjectless emerging as instantiations of unique combinatory cohesions:
    We are made up of Relations.

    We experiment to reveal what a body, a mind can do in a given encounter, arrangement or combination। We experiment to reveal the effect of different combinations of different bodies and elements and to specially whether these combinations and encounters will increase or decrease the powers of acting of the elements into a greater whole or whether the combinations will destroy or decompose one or more of the elements at play.

    The experience is one of Nature as Emergence Art: Immanent in the moment productions of differential individuations of which the Collective or Ceremony is a naming of the Powers of the arrivals, manifestations, constituting quality and duration.

    THe shamanic procedures are experimental.
    What is compatible with what or not can only be gathered from experience there is no apriori knowledge within the Emergent horizon. Because outcomes can not be predicted in advance there is risk. One can remolecuralize to points of asociability and miscognition. Transient impairments are possible along with deep obsfucations. On the other hand, the knowledge gained through experimentation with different conjunctions and combinations can lead to the Great Shamanic Art of good encounters and of constructing collectives and sets of practices whether in art, politics, spirituality or personal transformation for Greater Liberation and Joy.

    The Ayahuasca ceremony is participatory initiation in the Production of the Real. It is the taste of Emergence and Unbounded WHoleness.

    What else is there but to Delight in the Manifestion of Novel Becomings on our way to the Silence of Stones and the marvel of wildflowers?

  6. I will add the following to the conversation: We are in the midst of an emergent ontology. Entheogens such as Ayahuasca are facilitators to a novel model of a Real that shows itself to be Diverse, congruent, and subject to Multiple becomings yet not available to traditional assimilations of the ONe and the Many Discourse.

    We can take Wilber’s Kosmocentric tier as model of a transmodern account that both acknowledges multiplicity without ending in a mindless relativization that post modern discourses on mystical experience can lead to.

    Ayahuasca is as Ayahuasca does: How one interfaces with the plant medicine can set up the horizon of disclosure. If I am involved in a practice that is psychological in import such as dissolving or reframing family of origin patterns then the work pre-during and post ayahuasca will be the context of that particular experimentation.

    If I am interested in mapping out novel dimensions to articulate supersensible possibilities for human embodiment then surely going through various traditions that retain and perhaps advance what we can experience is a first step.

    However, what was manifest for a particular group of seekers or shamans at a particular historical configuration does not mean that we are to experience
    the same intensities and sensations.

    I suggest that if we want to work with ayahuasca which for me is concrete access to Deleuzian difference then we, like Mckenna suggested, have to start producing the advent of the mystical experience relevant to our time and our historical, artistic, social horizons.

    We are at the inception of an ontology. Much of what the mythopoetic, esoteric traditions purport to be true can not dismiss what contemporary Western thinking has shown us about the Metaphysics of presence. A metaphysical narrative that permeates many of the schools or traditions mentioned above.

    So how are we to generate artfully, rigorously, experientially a Contemporary Horizon for mystical experience that has impact in our everyday lives? Of course, that means new collective and selves will emerge from such practices.

    Let us begin by playing with novel forms of ceremony and intent. I have been co-shaman in many ceremonies and what is possible for transformation in real time application is still very traditional and therefore susceptible to the same dichotomies and socializations that presumably the Ayahuasca experience is a source of liberation from.

    Calling out the poets, mapmakers, innovators, the evolutionaries. Where are the songs, dances, poems for this time? How are we to manifest joy. How will that look for us?

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