Interview with James Fadiman
The Daemon and the Doors of Perception
Conducted by Matt Cardin, April 2012
Revised and edited by Matt Cardin and James Fadiman, June-July 2014
Published November 14, 2014
The idea to talk with James Fadiman was originally given to me by Rick Strassman. A few years ago I interviewed Rick for an article that I was writing about the neurological and other biological aspects of creative inspiration, and at one point in our conversation he mentioned Dr. Fadiman, who had played a crucial early role in his introduction to the field of psychedelics research and related matters. I already knew about this connection between the two of them, having read Rick’s recounting of it in DMT: The Spirit Molecule. I was also familiar with Dr. Fadiman’s name, work, and pervasive presence in the fields of psychedelic research and transpersonal psychology, so when Rick told me that he was very approachable, I immediately took steps to set up a conversation.
The effort worked. I reached out, established contact with Dr. Fadiman, got on a first name basis with him — something made easy by his wonderfully warm and affable manner — and had a long and stimulating telephone conversation with him one afternoon in April of 2012. Then a variety of circumstances put the recorded conversation in cold storage for two full years. During that time Jim’s 2011 magnum opus The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide brought him a slew of new readers and a new burst of attention in the form of feature articles about him and his work, brand new interviews, and still more interviews. It also drew praise from the likes of Huston Smith, Stanislav Grof, and Daniel Pinchbeck.
For those who don’t already know the basic facts, here a brief bio of James Fadiman, lifted right from the back cover of his book:
JAMES FADIMAN, Ph.D., did his undergraduate work at Harvard and his graduate work at Stanford, doing research with the Harvard Group, the West Coast Research Group in Menlo Park, and Ken Kesey. A former president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and a professor of psychology, he teaches at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, which he helped found in 1975. An international conference presenter, workshop leader, management consultant, and author of several books and textbooks, he lives in Menlo Park, California, with his filmmaker wife, Dorothy.
There’s much more to say, but how can you succinctly summarize the life and legacy of someone who aided in the famous LSD creativity study led by Willis Harman and Myron Stolaroff, participated in additional psychedelic research with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert/Ram Dass, had his own first psychedelic experience under the supervision of the latter, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Abraham Maslow (for whom he once filled in at Brandeis University), co-founded the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now Sofia University), was the second president of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, and has lived and worked for more than half a century at the center of a psychedelic, psychological, scientific, spiritual, and sociocultural swirl of people and events whose names and memories are the stuff of legend?
It’s November 2014 as I type these words, and four months ago, thanks to an email sent to me by Jim’s wife Dorothy, he and I reconnected to talk about our long-buried conversation and finally bring it to published fruition. We did a considerable amount of work to enhance and update the text so that it’s something genuinely fresh and new. And although the original interview took place two years ago, the issues we discussed have only become more relevant since then. Our guiding theme was the experience of feeling inspired and directed by an external muse or higher power, but in the course of pursuing this our conversation encompassed a great deal more, beginning with Jim’s participation in that famous study about LSD and creativity.
MATT CARDIN: As you know, Jim, I originally contacted you to ask if we could talk about the creative muse and the creative daemon. I did this not only because I’ve read some of your work over the years, but also because of the interview that you gave to the Psychedelic Salon podcast. At one point in that interview, you actually mention the creative muse. You and the hosts, Lorenzo Hagerty and Matt Pallamary, talk about the sense of an influence, an external presence and inspiration, that comes through in certain psychedelic experiences, and you mention that although this experience is known to mainstream Western culture, it hasn’t been as central here as it is in, say, the shamanic tradition. So keeping this in mind, could you tell me a little bit about the beginnings of your research into creativity, including your work with Willis Harman? I find this part of your bio to be particularly fascinating, because Harman’s and Howard Rheingold’s book Higher Creativity is a touchstone text for me. What can you tell me about how that work got started, and about what you were pursuing and trying to find out?
JIM FADIMAN: I was actually very much Willis’ junior partner on that. We were aware that psychedelics had all kinds of possible uses, but they seemed limited to the personal, emotional, irrational, and spiritual. We looked at the possibility that psychedelics were, in the Huxleyan sense, opening up the valve of the mind to be more aware of its own contents. This is certainly true and easily seen in psychedelic psychotherapeutic settings. Might it then be possible to apply this turned-on faucet toward problems whose solutions could then be verified by the normal ways of the world?
For a number of years in Los Angeles, Oscar Janiger had a number of artists experiment with psychedelics in a laid-back set and setting of “Come to my place, take some acid, and then wander around and paint or draw.” From his reports, it was obvious to us that people do change their painting or sculpting or drawing styles massively during psychedelic experiences, and somewhat afterward. However, the art world was equally clear that calling their work, either under acid or later, “better” or “improved” or “more profound” was an impossible task. Clearly creativity is part of the mix. We tried to figure out how to design a way of working with psychedelics that would focus scientists or architects or graphic designers — people with real-world problems — toward creative solutions. And we developed a method that allowed us to work with a small group focusing in exactly that way.
To be accepted into the study, the person had to care deeply about the problem or problems. There had to have been no prior successful solution. They had to be intellectually capable by knowing enough about the area under observation. Then the question became how to run such a study. As we puzzled over how to set up our study, we realized that we met our own criteria.
So literally, Willis and I and two other people took a moderate dose of LSD, about 100 micrograms, and set ourselves to develop this study, in part, to be able to validate what we were doing to ourselves. Doug Englebart — inventor of the computer mouse and word-processing — used the term “bootstrapping,” meaning to make progress on a problem from inside the problem. In his case that meant that the computer language he was developing was being developed using earlier version of the same language. In our case, we were similarly finding out if we ourselves could do what we wanted other people to do. That night, we developed the basics ideas that became our protocol. It involved offering people passionately absorbed in their own scientific or technical concerns a moderate dose of a psychedelic, and supporting them in focusing on the problems they wanted to work with. Part of the set and setting was letting them know that this would work, and that we were there to assist them if they should get distracted. That was the genesis of the study.
But in fact the paper that you and Mr. Harman produced from it became recognized as a classic, not least because it was the only one of its kind for decades.
It became a classic, in part, because the federal government stopped all further research with psychedelics. What we’d done, however, was partly replicated by tech type people who took psychedelics to solve problems while creating products and processes. We were seldom credited, nor did the people who worked this way often admit what they’d done. We had demonstrated that psychedelics could be used successfully to solve highly intellectual, highly rational, highly Western scientific problems. Later on, Kary Mullis, who received a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993 for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), said that he definitely did not use psychedelics for the final breakthrough. He added, however, that he had used psychedelics enough so that he could go down inside the molecules and look around. He could do that because he had learned how to do it, and this enabled him to do the work for which he got the Nobel Prize. We were also looking to see if a single session would change a person’s overall creative stance, if one learned one had a much greater capacity that he or she had ever experienced before. Because of the government’s haling our research, we didn’t do a formal assessment, but many of our subjects reported that they felt they stayed better at what they were already good at for months after their single session.
In your discussion of that paper in The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, you share in considerable detail the responses of your participants to that very question, divided into several categories.
In that book, I finally had the space to fully describe what individuals did in their enhanced state. It doesn’t tell people what they want to know if you say, for example, “82 percent of the people in the study felt they were more creative for three months thereafter.” That honestly doesn’t mean much, does not hold your attention (except for people who needs those kinds of statistical findings before accepting new ideas). The paper is still valuable, because we did it both ways. There are enough descriptions so that you can get a feel for what our subjects were doing, and there’s enough quantitative data so that it’s clear we were not a bunch of cranks, nor were we just repeating Trager’s and others work.
In your book you offer a breakdown of what your subjects reported. As you just said, you were looking for things that hadn’t been done before, so you deliberately didn’t repeat the artistic stuff. As I read that section, I scoured it in search of any comments that you might make, or any comments from the study’s participants, about some kind of foundational shift in their worldview. Did anything like that come out of the work?
We weren’t looking for that, and we tried very hard, in one sense, not to have it occur. If you look at the earlier sections that talk about entheogenic experiences and life-changing events, those focus on worldview questions and personal problems, like, “How come I’m not as loving as I would like to be?” or “Is there something about my alcoholism that I could do something about?” or transpersonal concerns like, “What is the nature of God?” or “Is there personal awareness after death?” In the problem-solving sessions, we steered people away from spending time looking at their worldview and personality structure. Few felt any interest in psychedelics afterward. But their lives did change. J. K, for example, was a commercial furniture designer. Later, he went on and developed into an important artist with major permanent installations in New York buildings, and a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles that featured his work. As far as I know, he never took psychedelics again.
“We looked at the possibility that psychedelics were, in the Huxleyan sense, opening up the valve of the mind to be more aware of its own contents.”
We probably gave our participants clear indications that they were working within the capacity of their own minds. We did not include the notion of external, higher-order beings as we might have done when running psychospiritual sessions. It was not part of the preparation or descriptions of the problem-solving sessions.
How do you view the relationship between those two parts of the creativity question?
If I wrote essays, I think I could very easily see myself asking the question of whether a psychedelic could be a “muse magnet.” In ancient Greece, if you really wanted a god to pay attention to you, well, it would depend on which god, but most of them liked barbecue, so you killed an ox, you had a celebration that might include athletic contests, you gave the best parts of the oxen into the sacrificial fire, and you and your guests ate the rest. If the god was happy with that, he or she might give you what you asked for, like a safe voyage or a victory in a battle. You could then “invoke the gods.” And without killing as many bulls, you could also invoke the muses. The question then becomes whether taking a psychedelic in some sense serves to alert or attract those same forces, beings, entities, gods, muses, energies, allies, or guardian spirits.
What’s your personal position on this question? As someone who has been professionally and personally invested in such matters for years, do you think the answer is yes, these forces really exist? Or do you, like me, want to heavily qualify the answer by saying it hinges on what language you want to use for talking about it?
Personally, if I accept the idea that this world has no invisible entities, this would mean that I’m agreeing with a single culture only a couple hundred years old and disagreeing with almost every other known culture that has ever existed on the planet. I’m not particularly convinced that we, among all the cultures of the planet, have discovered that these entities don’t really exist. I’m more and more convinced from my personal experience — which is admittedly limited — and by friends who are shamans — Western-trained, on the whole — that the universe makes more sense when I acknowledge that it truly looks like positive and negative spirits are actual and available. Among these would be spirits particularly involved with creativity.
A number of years ago I would have said, “Nah, there aren’t any spirits. All of those people who say so are just kind of crazy.” I basically had the conventional attitude that says if I don’t personally know about something, and if science says it must not exist, I’d agree. Embarrassing but true.
So was there any particular occurrence or epiphany that kind of turned that corner for you?
Yes, it was my first shamanistic experience. A friend of mine, Amanda Foulger, is a Western- trained shaman in private practice in Los Angeles. She once asked me if I’d like to know what she did. Even though I didn’t really have a lot of interest in shamanic matters, I said okay. Lying down with eyes closed, I listened to drumming played through little speakers placed next to my ears. She went into what seemed like a light trance. Every once in a while I opened my eyes and saw that she was writing some notes. She said, “I used to be able to remember everything they tell me, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found it’s a good idea to write things down.” Later she asked if certain things were true about my life. They were, and some of them were very moving. What I mainly noticed was how good I felt by the end of the session, and that my energy level and creativity were increased for months afterward. This experience sharpened my interest and diminished my prejudices.
It’s been well said that to be born is to be hypnotized. We’re all enculturated into some kind of shared cultural worldview. And as you pointed out, the worldview that’s based on reductionist science — scientism, physicalism, materialism, all of that — is a tiny rivulet in the overall stream of human history.
If we look at human culture and the record of wise beings, we either have to say that Socrates, for example, had a brain condition when he talked about his daimon, or that he was reporting real experiences. Given what else we know of his mental state, it seems more sensible to take him at his word.
I think the case of Socrates is particularly important because of his centrality to Western culture as a whole. Socrates is generally recognized as the font of Western philosophy. He’s associated with the Athenian cultural pinnacle of ancient Greece, which includes the invention of democracy and rational philosophical thought. And he also famously claimed to be accompanied and guided throughout life by a daimon. And you know, it’s still easy today for anybody to have this same experience of invisible communication, or to have the experience that you had with your initiation, and to find it genuinely interesting and moving, but to still insist afterward on taking the interpretation that it’s all brain-based, it’s all biological, it’s all explainable along reductionist-materialist lines. One can believe that Socrates was a great philosopher while thinking he was clearly deluded about his daimon. See what I mean?
The reductionists eventually paint themselves into a corner. Consider the people who talk about the neurophysiology of dreams. They say, “Look, here’s this little part of the brain that turns on when you’re dreaming, and therefore dreams are psychophysiological in nature.” Then we ask, well, what generates a sex dream, a dream where a dead person appears with information, and a dream where you’re seated before a large pizza? And of course they say, “Why don’t you just go away.”
I think you’re raising the basic question of phenomenology as it relates to ontology.
But if you take the position that the brain is the place through which consciousness moves, so that it acts kind of like a radio, then all of those different dreams are much more understandable, because we can say they’re coming from different channels, different stations, different gods, different muses. And that makes much more sense.
But it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. I mean, yes, it does to me. Like you, I think that when we stand back and try to take an objective look at it — which is of course impossible in the strict sense, because we’re all ensconced within subjectivity — what you’re saying makes much more sense than the reductionist alternatives. But a lot of people simply don’t agree.
Science’s fundamental error is a religious sort. Science says, “Certain data (since we know it does not exist) you shall not look upon.” Science holds up the story of the church and Galileo to emphasize how dogmatic the church was in its refusal to look at evidence. But if you say to scientists, “What do you know about telepathy? What do you know about clairvoyance? What do you know about near-death experiences?” they say, “Those don’t exist, and I’ve never spent a moment looking at the evidence, because they can’t exist.” There’s a wonderful quote from the French scientist, Lavoisier, who was asked about meteors. He denied their existence, because, as he said, “There are no rocks in the sky to fall.”
It’s funny that you mention this quote, because I was going to bring it up next. What you were just now saying called it to mind.
It’s one of my favorites, because it makes incredibly good sense.
Yes, it highlights the total inversion of reasonable observation and thought that’s represented by scientific dogmatism. People in Lavoisier’s day, and also throughout history, really had been seeing rocks fall out the sky. But this conflicted with official scientific dogma, so Lavoisier says, “There are no stones in the sky; therefore, they cannot fall from the sky,” and this is supposed to stand as some kind of airtight refutation of people’s direct observation. It’s totally backwards, of course. The premise, the first part of the statement, is pure conjecture, pure prejudice, pure dogma. The right approach is to observe that stones really do fall from the sky, and therefore they must be in the sky.
Exactly. Scientism — science as a religion — and science are quite far apart. You see, I think I’m a scientist. That means anything that happens, whether subjective, objective, sensory, or whatever, I look at it. That may be due to my psychedelic experiences, which reminded me that, “Whatever you think the world is made of, James, you have a very limited view.” My muse chimes in and says, “Obviously, if you look at the size of the universe and contrast it with the size of your brain, the chances of your being able to know everything are statistically almost non-existent.” I think of the wonderful, statistically based argument that it is impossible for people to reproduce because the probability of any given sperm making it to an egg is so close to zero.
I think people who say that are getting at something like Zeno’s paradox. They’re trying to abstract from reality and use rationality to declare that things can’t be real, when in fact they manifestly are.
Right. And when you do Zeno’s paradox with you and your girlfriend on the couch, you can’t ever get close to her, but soon you can get close enough!
That’s a nice way to put it. Do you think maybe the very fact of having a psychedelic experience opens a person to actually being empirical, to experiencing the type of open-mindedness? Does it shake open the doors of prejudice? Or do you know of anybody who has actually had these experiences but insisted on interpreting them in a fundamentally materialistic and scientistic way? In other words, does psychedelic experience rattle that lock intrinsically, or not?
Let me respond with a story. I met with a professor from Europe, a professor of philosophy, who had written an article about his own psychedelic experiences in a peer-reviewed journal. In it he said, “Here are my experiences, and now I’m going to show you how they can all be explained within the scientific worldview.” And he defined science quite narrowly. He wrote to me at one point and said he would be vacationing in California and would love to meet and talk with me. When this lovely professor and his wife, an even higher ranked professor, showed up, I had reread his paper very carefully, and had liked it much more than on my first reading. However, I had puts marks beside the assumptions that were, in my opinion, wrong or limited or partial because they didn’t take into account certain things that I knew to be so. After a two-and-a-half hour friendly discussion, he said, “I’m going to revise my paper, because I agree with you that my way of framing science really is a disservice to my own experience.” But, perhaps, if he had written a more open-minded paper to begin with, it might not have been accepted by that journal.
“If I accept the idea that this world has no invisible entities, this would mean that I’m agreeing with a single culture only a couple hundred years old and disagreeing with almost every other known culture that has ever existed on the planet. I’m not particularly convinced that we, among all the cultures of the planet, have discovered that these entities don’t really exist.”
Yes, he would have been writing from a set of assumptions that fundamentally clashed with the journal’s audience and editorial board.
One of the things that delights me is the fact that discarnate spirits almost always seem to know your language. That’s unlikely if they’re speaking their own language. However, if they’re simply using what they can find in your brain to work with, it makes sense. Cases that really upset scientists are when people go into a trance and speak in a language they don’t know. It is recorded, and someone who knows that language listens and transcribes it. Sometimes, the language spoken is a dead language, which only adds to the mystery.
This crosses over into some of the horror territory that I inhabit as a writer. The Catholic Church recognizes it as one of the valid signs of demonic possession when someone speaks a language that he or she isn’t familiar with. I also think of John Dee and the whole Enochian language. But that’s kind of a different case.
The fun thing about the Catholic Church is that if you pair it with science — science plus the Catholic Church, together — you get closer to a much wider view.
What is that wider view?
The Church says there are an enormous number of beings external to humans that have some direct or indirect influence on our daily lives. Instead of doing what Homer says the Greeks did in sacrificing oxen, you can just burn a candle, or a saint magnet, so that Saint Somebody will watch out for you. There’s a 12th century book, The Miracles of Mary, full of wonderful stories about how Mary will help you even if you’ve been a serious sinner.
Here’s one: a monk who was a fornicator and a thief had lived in a monastery named after Saint Michael. On his death, he comes before the judgment throne where Jesus is seated — this is the twelfth century, so Jesus is the judge, not God. Jesus says, in essence, “Open and shut case. Send him to hell.” But St. Michael has already come to the house in heaven where Mary lived, and has asked her, “Blessed Mary, would you intervene? Yes, he was a terrible person, but he’s one of mine, and I feel a certain sense of paternal support.” Mary answers, “Why don’t you ask Jesus yourself?” Michael says, “He won’t listen to me, but he’ll probably listen to his own mother.” So she does intervene. And Jesus says to her, in essence, “This is ridiculous, Mary. This is a clear-cut example of someone who’s terrible and should go to hell.” And she replies, “I’m asking you, as your mother, to have mercy and give him another chance.” Jesus gives in and the monk is brought back to life.
These are wonderful tales of a direct intervention to overcome the rational decision of weighing someone’s sins and virtues after death, and letting the scale determine whether salvation or damnation. That scale image originated in ancient Egypt, where after death a person’s heart is weighed on a scale against a feather. The Catholic Church has nine orders of angels, and it may have nine orders of demons as well, and it’s jam-packed with notions of forces constantly trying to turn you bad and counter-forces trying to keep you good.
So if this kind of worldview could work in tandem with the scientific approach of looking at empirical epiphenomena, you’re saying you would consider the result to be a more rounded view of what reality itself contains?
Not exactly more rounded. Imagine a spectrum of colors. Science views a few colors, and the Church views a few other colors. If you look at both sets of colors from a real science position, you’re moving towards a full rainbow. Now, if you take a more shamanistic position, it’s a much fuller rainbow to start with. Shamans don’t ignore normal, everyday reality. They’re just aware that it is pervaded and interwoven with the energies or Platonic forms behind the appearances. Plato says that there is an invisible form behind every thing. The chair I’m looking at across the room is one version of the essential Chair, manifested imperfectly as this small chair with its brown cushion and so forth. There is an inherent master Chair or Chairness somewhere out in the universe. Plato pushes the notion far beyond spirits.
This makes me want to go back and talk about the muse and the daimon again. And I know that when I say what I’m about to say, I’m kind of muddying the waters and not talking about these things in the way that Plato talked about them. But in a way, it strikes me that his view of the daimon would be that it is something like a spiritual apotheosis of the person as an individual. It’s the mediator between a person and the gods, and in one of the dialogues Plato has the story of how each human is paired with a daimon before birth, and this spirit then represents the archetype of your life. And I never thought of it this way before, but it strikes me that maybe you could say the daimon is the “form” of the person. It’s a power being enacted in a lesser form here in the visible, mortal realm by a person’s physical being.
You can also look at the Sufi poet Rumi, who, in the 12 century, described an evolutionary developmental sequence that says first we were stones, then plants, then animals, and now we’re human. And we’re not done because, if Rumi is right, we will become angelic next.
I know Sufism has been a great interest of yours. What’s a point or principle in Sufism that relates to this idea of the realities we access through psychedelics and creativity?
Formal Sufism says very little about nonhuman entities; its focus is on a developmental sequence that takes you closer to God. There is some overlap in that one of the higher states of spiritual development is called fana, which means the annihilation of the self. It is not the highest state. That is a return to the world but no longer at the mercy of one’s own personality.
Recent research with psychedelics has shown that, actually, they shift the blood flow in the brain so less blood flows to the parts linked to personal identity. In that sense, there is some overlap between this very sophisticated spiritual system and the hard-nosed physiological research going on about psychedelics. There has always been the question: how is it that you have this particular kind of experience of spiritual communication, and what is necessary for a person to experience it? The answer, from all of the spiritual traditions, is that if you get yourself out of the way (as in fana), then, depending on your tradition, you’ll either see God or know God or know that you are God. And now for the first time here comes this psychedelic research that confirms it. It proves that when psilocybin “gets you out of the way,” amazing spiritual insights and experiences will happen. Going back to our creativity study in the 1960s, what we basically did was say, “We’re going to get you partly out of the way, but we’re keeping, with your ready acceptance, your obsession about a particular creative problem. Released from the limitations of self, the larger self has made an agreement to work with you on this problem.” If you think of the muse as directive, imagine the muse helping by speaking ahead of time to the study participants and saying, “Why don’t you call these guys in Menlo Park and sign up for their study? You won’t know why, but you’ll find out.”
Let me give you a personal story about a muse-like experience. I was fussing about writing The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide. I was thinking that I didn’t really want to do this book. I didn’t want to write another nonfiction book. I originally intended to write a memoir about how interesting I was, but I realized that the audience for that was incredibly small — even smaller than my Christmas card list — and so I just started writing with an attitude of, “You do what you’ve gotta do.” Then, I had another session with Amanda. One statement that came out of it changed my attitude. Amanda reported, “They say they’re helping you do this book, and that if you get it finished, the next thing you will be asked to do will be a lot more fun.” As I reflected on that, I thought it was the perfect way to manipulate my particular personality. A brilliant intervention. After that, whenever I worked on the book, I always asked for their help — whoever “they” were. My shaman told me they had various animal forms, which in her inner vision is what they looked like. And by the way, they were right: the book has given me opportunities that have been a joy to do.
After the book was finished, I was with another friend who does “higher self work,” and she said, “Let me see if I can get you some information about your helpers.” So she went inside herself, into her trance. Then she laughed and said, “They’re not spirit animals.” I asked what she meant, and she said, “That’s the vocabulary your shaman has, and so that was the way they appeared to her, because she would understand that. They’re just energy beings, and they don’t have a form.”
So we have a cascading chain of different lenses providing different takes on what this whole thing might “really” be.
Exactly. I also remember a wonderful discussion from the Findhorn garden, which is very much dominated by external spirits, by fairies and trolls and elves, who appear to one of the founders of the Findhorn community. The spirits said, “Look, we’re going to demonstrate that we’re real. We’ll make your garden look like it’s the central valley of California.” The practical result was that they grew unbelievably large and wonderful vegetables on soil and in a climate — which I’ve personally seen — where it was remarkable that anything could grow at all. But at one point the Findhorn medium was visiting with some of them, and she said something about their forms, about the fact that they were these lovely little elves, fairies, etc. One of the elves said to her, “We don’t look like this at all.” She asked, “What do you mean?” And they told her that they took forms that would not disturb her and were part of her culture, so she would feel comfortable.
I remember when I was a graduate student doing psychedelic research while at Stanford, the university was terrified that anybody was doing such things, and I was aware that my graduate career could be cut short at any point. So I was the only graduate student who wore a suit jacket and a tie. I showed up on campus once a day to get my mail, to say hello, so that this straight, nerdy person would be visible in their midst, apparently doing the things he should do. I thought that my dress would probably fool most of the psychology department. Somewhat to my dismay, it did. So, by personal experience I understand what the Findhorn elves were talking about.
[Laughs] You have been in their position.
[Laughs] Right. I have taken on a familiar form so I would not disturb people.
The reality of spirits, and whether they were going to help me, and what that might, mean has been an active and meaningful question in my life. Here’s an example. In the room I’m now sitting in, I have two bookcases full of psychedelic reference material, some of it old, most of it contemporary. Maybe 85 books and 50 articles in all. At one point I was writing, and I realized that I really wanted a statement or a quote. I knew that I had read it somewhere. But I’ve been reading this stuff for forty years, and I had no idea where the quote came from. Almost without volition, I walked over to the bookcase and pulled out an older book whose contents were not particularly familiar. I opened it up to what was, to me, a random page. Right there was the quote I needed. I’m sure there are at least two explanations. One is that in some part of my mind, I remember everything I’ve ever read, including that book and page number. The other explanation — that it was a lot easier and better for me for the spirits just to tell me where that quote was — makes the most sense.
I think for scholars, the phenomenon of having just the right book fall off the shelf and into your hands is almost proverbial by now. That’s the most common situation, or maybe the only situation, where a lot of people have an experience of synchronicity or some kind of invisible, external guidance. You know, My Dinner with Andre is one of my favorite films, and it mentions that very phenomenon. I saw the movie when I was kind of young, and — get this — it was actually the first time I ever heard of Findhorn. Andre Gregory talks in that movie about having stayed at Findhorn and participated in its community. Anyway, at another point in the movie he talks about a time in his life when he felt a strange compulsion to trace the outline of his own hand on a sheet of paper. Not long after that, he says he felt another unexplained compulsion to visit a bookshelf. So he goes to the bookshelf and pulls out a book, and he opens to a random page, and right there he finds a picture where the writer had traced the outline of his own hand. You get the idea. This whole thing, a chain of weird synchronicities, was stacking up over time.
But going back to what you were saying a minute ago, you said that as you wrote your book, you really did ask for help. Do you mean you actually articulated the words themselves, whether out loud or just mentally? Did you actually, consciously think or say, “Help me”?
The nice thing about writing a book is that you’re alone with it most of the time, so it becomes a fuzzy distinction as to whether you’re saying something inside or outside. But I’m very clear that I asked for help, and I have also asked for help at other times in my life. What I’m now seeing is that when you really mean it, what you actually do is to “step back,” so your personality becomes less prominent. In Islam, the central word, and the word for the religion itself, is “surrender.” It’s also called “submission.” The West misinterprets both translations. What it means is that there’s a larger energy than mine, and it probably knows more than I know about what I should do and how I should do it. I should listen to the voice of that energy. Western science explains away experiences of being “guided” or “helped” by saying that, in some mysterious way, you have access to the memories of everything you’ve ever seen, done, or experienced, and somehow you found a way to open this up to exactly what you need. However, every other culture on earth thinks this is kind of a dumb-ass answer. Since I don’t know how the world is made, and since all those cultures have had experiences, and have come up with particular families of solutions, probably everyone but us is right.
“I think I could very easily see myself asking the question of whether a psychedelic could be a ‘muse magnet.’ In ancient Greece you could invoke the gods and attract the muses with animal sacrifices. The question then becomes whether taking a psychedelic in some sense serves to alert or attract those same forces, beings, entities, gods, muses, energies, allies, or guardian spirits.”
Going back to my professor friend, here’s a data point. One of his comments was that his “hallucinations” or “visions” or whatever they were had no expected form. However, I had just recently listened to someone who has been transcribing a thousand Ayahuasca experiences, all taken from clients of the same center in South America, written down about 18 hours after the ceremony. He found that were about 20 categories of visions that covered maybe 90 to 95 percent of the experiences. There was indeed a topology. But as my professor friend didn’t know that, he took a more conventional view, which was that since he didn’t know of it, it simply didn’t exist.
This is a bit tangential from what you’re saying, but when you talk about the West’s “dumb-ass answer” that tries to locate all of these experiences inside a person’s own psyche, and you contrast it with the entheogenic effect of an Ayahuasca experience, I think of Rick Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule and an aspect of that book that really struck me as I was reading it. Rick talks about sitting there with his research assistants and actually watching people at the medical center as he’s injecting them with DMT, and he sees that they’re just there, they’re still physically present, but when they report all of those entity encounters and journeys to weird places, he takes it as something that might actually be occurring, but just not in a literal, physical, objective way. I’m personally fascinated with the whole psychedelic revolution, and I have been since college, but I’ve never actually taken LSD, DMT, mescaline, psilocybin. My experiences have been organically produced, as it were. I suffered through several years of epic sleep paralysis experiences, complete with the whole visitation phenomenon. And then when I got to reading Rick’s work and some other things in the past few years, I came across a lot of indications there may be a relationship, that the sleep paralysis experience may be related to the same hyperspace that we talk about with DMT.
I think of the famous painting of a demon sitting on a woman’s chest and the whole incubus/succubus idea. Those are beings from medieval Christian mythology. While Christianity keeps trying to deal with these experiences, all too often, it frames it as demonic. From my point of view, the world works better if I that there are entities who are supportive of what I’m doing, and who also might be slightly directive if I go off course.
Do you think this imagining is a different kind of truth in itself? How do you regard that?
Years ago I taught with Kathleen Speeth. She had a wonderful phrase: “All beliefs are false, therefore, pick ones that serve you.” What she was saying is that beliefs, by their very nature, mean you don’t quite know. Beliefs are we would call faith in other traditions. For example, I don’t believe that it’s overcast today in Santa Cruz. It’s plainly overcast! I believe it will clear up later, based on prior experience. That’s a kind of faith. What Kathy was saying is that we should look at our core beliefs and examine them, to see if they help or hinder our lives
Early on, Willis and I worked on what we called “The Beliefs and Values Inventory.” We were researching the same question you asked me earlier: do major belief systems change after use of a psychedelic? We asked people who had taken a high-dose entheogen in our safe, therapeutic setting. I was giving the instrument to a small group once, and a woman came up and said, “I don’t know how to answer this one question.” I asked her what the problem was. She said, “Well, it’s true, but I don’t believe it. How should I mark it, true or false?” I said, “Mark it false, because you don’t believe it.” I see the world filled with people who have a lot more in common with that woman than they are aware of.
In my experience the world works more easily for me if I do not believe that I am the only source of my own output.
Let’s talk about that “my.” What’s involved in that sense of identity as a personal thing that one owns?
When I was younger and more arrogant, I gave a lot of speeches as part of making a living. I always thought that it was inappropriate to have a fully prepared speech. For me, preparing a speech completely ahead of time implies the people in the audience don’t matter. Because you’ve already written the whole thing out, you cannot have taken those specific people into account. My goal was to give speeches that included my audience where they were. So I never prepared beyond an outline. Then, at the beginning of each speech, I would use humor to find out about my audience by seeing what they laughed at and what they didn’t. Sometimes, I would wait to prepare my speech until those few minutes when I was being introduced. When I look back on it today, I wonder why it didn’t occur to me how risky that was. But it was teaching me to rely on that inner help.
I found that I would receive ideas, and I could take it from there and give a coherent speech. It made me aware that I had the flexibility to deal with situations as they arose, because I had access to more than my own personality. In the shamanistic tradition, they seek out and befriend entities that like to help people. There are also entities that would like to hurt people. However, I have very little experience with that second group. In my world, helpers and I are more than willing to take on challenges that Jim Fadiman by himself wouldn’t feel adequate to meet.
There’s a term for these helpers that I’ve been using recently. It comes from a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat, Pray, Love.
Oh, yes. I first watched that talk several years ago, and it clinched my decision to go ahead and start the Demon Muse blog and write in a serious way about the muse/daimon phenomenon. I had been interested in this for years, and Ms. Gilbert kind of catalyzed that interest. [NOTE: Demon Muse is now closed, with The Teeming Brain having absorbed its duties.]
She brought up the term “genius” from Classical Rome. That one is easier than “muse” or “daimon,” probably because we agree that genius is a form of “specialness.” There’s also the term “flow,” which refers to being in the groove or being intellectually “hot.” When I’m preparing a talk on something that I haven’t ever thought through before, I reach a certain point where I know I’ve got it. I may not have written anything down by then, but when I do go to write it down, it unfolds very quickly, and it comes with a feeling of knowing that I’m going to make a good talk, that it’s going to work.
What this says to me is that the actual work was already going on in a non-egoic realm. We can refer to it as the unconscious mind or something else, something more.
Gail Delaney wrote a book on dream incubation. Her suggestions basically consist of going to sleep thinking about a problem, and writing down your dream when you wake up. She argues, and has chapters of examples, that you will find your answer is embedded somewhere in the dream material. I keep a pad by my bed, because I know that the first few minutes of my day are mentally clearer. I usually write a list at that point because I have so many work threads going at any given moment that I need this sorting out. Sometimes I will also get a phrase or an image that has a strong “aha!” to it.
This brings to mind about another kind of data that science doesn’t like: information at a distance. The studies that I like, because they’re super data-laden, high-science clean, include healing at a distance. The classic study was very simple. It involved patients coming into a post heart attack clinic. For six months, every client was in the records as either A or B. All the B’s existence was made known to people around the country who had volunteered to pray for their good health without knowing anything other than their condition. Several years later, the records were analyzed, and there were more B’s had outlived the A’s.
I think I was listening to a radio story or podcast about that a couple of days ago. The context escapes me at the moment, but I remember that in the study I was hearing about, the particular religious backgrounds of the people who were doing the praying didn’t seem to matter when it came to the result.
There’s other research that has shown it sometimes helps if people know what they’re praying about: heart, kidney, spleen, or whatever. But for other people general prayers for someone’s overall health seem to work better. It depends on the personality style of the one who’s praying. Of course, this isn’t necessarily proving that healing at a distance works. It’s just saying that, since it apparently works, let’s look at it! In a lot of areas — and this is what you’re doing in your work as well — we’re helping people to reach the first step, to recognize and accept that something outside of us seems to be capable of helping, especially in creative ways. The follow-up question is: how can we work with that?
Here’s an approach that I like to use for opening people up to the idea of outside help. It’s simple but effective. I ask, “How many of you can set an alarm clock and wake up a minute or two before it goes off?” A huge percentage will always say yes. And then I say, “Well, I know some of you are thinking that this is just a habit pattern, because the alarm is always set for 6:30, and you don’t like being jarred awake by it, so you always wake up at 6:28 to turn it off. But how about if you’re going on, say a fishing trip, and you have to set the alarm for 3:30? How many of you can set that alarm and still wake up before it?” Almost the same number of people will raise their hands. Then I ask, “Well, while you’re asleep, who is watching the clock?” It starts the conversation.
That’s a nice little experiment. Have you known anybody who was jarred into some sort of new awareness by it?
I most often presented this in a four-day seminar on affirmations, and goal-setting, getting what you want out of life, and overcoming your childhood beliefs like “I’m not loveable.” It is part of a section about powers of the non-conscious mind. I keep re-drawing a diagram of the unconscious and stuffing it with more and more material. Near the end of the class I open the drawing up on one side and say that many people think it opens up to the collective unconscious or God or however a person holds it. By that time in the seminar, most people are open and say, “Yeah, that’s probably so.” Then their lives start to change.
One of the problems in Christianity is the notion that the one and only God is aware of every sparrow that falls. That seems less likely than, “There are a whole lot of other beings out there, and some of them look after the sparrows and also maybe you.” That the ruling deity of the universe in the one who says to me, “Jim, go to the third book on the left. No, the third book!” That feels unlikely.
So you’re talking about what the perennial tradition or classical magic and occultism would call the intermediate world. You’re saying this seems like a much more likely candidate for these daily experiences of guidance.
Exactly what I am saying. The shamans, I think, have a very straightforward cosmology, which Christianity adopted even though it doesn’t acknowledge it. Both say there’s an upper world and a lower world, inhabited by different entities with different capacities. Christianity describes the lower world as all dark and bad, but most other cultures don’t. Shamans say those are just different places, and as such, they obviously have different ecologies and different species with different capacities and interests. A shaman will find the allies that are most useful for any given situation. So, someone who wants to know whether his brother who went to work in Honduras (say from Peru) two years ago is doing all right, is different from someone who comes in and says, “I have this large painful tumor on my leg.”
What I explore in my work is the idea of this kind of help as it is related mainly to artistic and literary creativity. The Greeks talked about the different muses who provided different kinds of inspiration for writing epic poetry and history and other kinds of literature. Do you include this type of thing within the wider type of framework that you’re talking about?
More and more.
And then there are different forces outside of artistic creativity that are more specific to completely different functions.
Exactly. And the negative forces may be equally diverse. Imagine a physical illness or injury. Look at your hand. Now imagine that you’ve just cut it open, say a paper cut. What you’ve done is to open your hand to the outside world. Bacteria that had been perfectly harmless on the outside of your skin are now on the inside where they might multiply rapidly, and if you don’t do something about them, could cause pain, scarring, or worse. What you do is to clean away as many of the bacteria as possible, wash it and apply antibiotics, so that bacteria still there will not thrive. Then you cover it. Two things are in play here: the wound, and the beings who live in wounds.
“Science’s fundamental error is a religious sort. Science says, ‘Certain data (since we know it does not exist) you shall not look upon.’ Scientism — science as a religion — and science are quite far apart.”
Now, let’s take someone who has just lost his girlfriend and his job. He feels like he won’t ever feel good again. He has an open wound in his psyche, maybe called hopelessness and depression. Now, what if there are entities that feed on hopelessness and depression?
And so we’re back to possession once again.
Yes, but unlike the muses, these are often negative. These entities settle inside the psychic wound, inside that cut-open space. Therefore, when you attempt to help that person through “rational means” by saying, “Just get over it, there are lots of other women in the world, and you will get a better job.” and so forth, the person says, “Yes, I know that — but I just can’t seem to get out of this depression.” My theory is that you first need to get the demons out of the wound before reasonable advice can be utilized. This is just a way of looking at the mental world in the same way that we look at the physical. And it makes sense when you look at how Shamans do their healing and how effective they are in many cases.
Here’s a nice synchronicity for you, and something to play on the idea of personal muses and daemons that are in communion with each other: just today, about two hours before I called you, I finished writing a story that I’ve been working on intensively for the past couple of weeks for publication in the second volume in a horror fiction anthology series titled Dark Faith. These books are focused on horror stories that deal in some way with religion and spirituality. And this particular story is set in a future dystopian or anti-utopian situation where there’s an unstoppable outbreak of “psychic sickness” that makes people see strange things and receive strange visitations. I included some stuff related to sleep paralysis in there. The protagonist is the chief Curer in a quasi-religious government organization called the Ministry of Psychic Sanitation, which is all about psychic hygiene. And he doesn’t tell his colleagues that his greater success in curing people is due to the fact that he personifies the sickness and imagines it as a single force, a unified entity, that he is fighting in its different manifestations in different people throughout the society. And he ends up seeing a patient who turns out to be the ultimate manifestation of the sickness itself, totally unbound and appearing in its true form, and it has been growing in power and stature precisely because he has been casting it out of people. So here you are telling me about your ideas on mental wounds and the entities that infest them, and for the past few weeks I’ve been totally buried in this fictional world and using words like “psychic sanitation,” “psychic hygiene,” and thinking about this character who personifies a sickness that comes in through the wound created in people’s psyches by a locked-down Orwellian/Huxleyan dystopia. I came to our conversation today not knowing you were going to say some things that hit directly on all of that.
What a wonderful creepy story where the healer makes things worse. Chilling.
As for our conversation going where it has, you only thought you didn’t know! [Laughs]
Yes, I thought I didn’t know. My angel knew. My muse knew.
Exactly. Related to psychic healing, I was just thinking that a horror writer might play with the notion of a group that prays for people to be harmed. It seems like a natural fit.
This reminds me of something I wanted to ask you. I titled my creativity book A Course in Demonic Creativity. Although in the book I make the distinction between “demonic” and “daemonic” or “daimonic,” some people were put off by the title with its connotation of evil spirits. Do you have thoughts about possible dangers involved in the creative act, about possibly being in contact with things that would lead in a dangerous direction?
Well, yes. When people begin from the position that we are separate, then when they get an insight, or particularly if they get a religious revelation, they tend to think it’s coming specifically to them, and that this is because they are somehow special. In my line of work, a lot people get visits from a lot of beings. Some of them get caught with an inflated idea about their own specialness, write books, become self-appointed gurus, etc.
Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) has a wonderful story that speaks to this. When he was just back in America after having gone to India and returned as a guru, he was running around New England wearing a great brown dress-like thing and sporting a full beard. This was before most of us did such things. And meanwhile his brother had, I think, taken over their father’s law practice and/or become an investment banker. He was super-straight. And he also happened to spend time in a mental hospital. One of his symptoms was that he thought he was Jesus Christ, not so unusual in such places. When Ram Dass goes to visit him, he finds his brother dressed as always, like a Brooks Brothers ad, while Ram Dass looks like a raggedy sandal-wearing hippie. He knows that his brother has learned you’re not supposed to say you’re Jesus Christ, because they don’t treat you well when you do. But he teases it out of him, saying, “I know you don’t really think you’re Jesus, but in a way you kind of had that belief, and in some sense you still do . . . isn’t that right?” And brother finally admits it. Ram Dass continues, “And right now you’re wondering this: ‘Why is it that I, the straight brother with the sensible career and the honest marriage, am inside an asylum, while my crazy hippie brother is free, running around in a brown dress saying he’s God?’” His brother acknowledges that yes, this is what he was thinking. And Ram Dass says, “You think you’re Jesus Christ. But tell me: do you think I am Jesus Christ?” His brother replies, “Of course not!” And Ram Dass says, “That’s why you’re in here.”
If you’re walking along and you pick up an envelope and find a bunch of money in it, you don’t think it was left there just for you. Anyone could have picked it up. But when you get certain kinds of creative insights, you may think that you are the author of those insights. Or even if you accept that they came from somewhere else, you may view yourself as the special vessel. So you begin to sell yourself as that, as a special person, and if you happen to be charismatic then a lot of people may buy into it. This is a recipe for trouble. Jung laid out a developmental sequence in which, just before you get to the point of full health, you may display what he called the mana personality, which is incredibly charismatic and attractive. Yet it’s still totally stuck in this fundamental error of separation.
So what would be the way out of this dead end for creative people or anyone else?
The way out for creative people is to understand that creativity is to human beings as water is to fish. There’s a Sufi story about some young fish that have heard about the magical Elixir of Life. They search for it and end up coming to a wise old fish. When they describe the Elixir, this wise old fish says, “I think you’re talking about water.” And the young fish say to one another, “That old fart doesn’t know anything. Let’s go somewhere else.”
I once took a room full of professional educators — who are the hardest people in the world to work with — and said to them, “I’m going to talk to you about writing poetry.” I watched some of them close down emotionally and mentally at this, because they “already knew” about poetry. Specifically, they knew that they didn’t understand it or like it, and the mention of it brought up memories of failure, of feeling not smart. After a few minutes I said, “Okay, take out a piece of paper and write a four-line poem.” And whoosh! Everybody’s writing a four-line poem, in part because educators are trained to be cooperative. Then we started reading their poems aloud, and many suddenly “got” the fact that, “Hey, I just wrote a poem!” The same ones who had closed down were among the most eager to share their poems. My point to them was to show how easily people come into their creativity if you just set it up as the way to go. The muse is always nearby, but will not come to your aid unless you ask.
“The daimon can only offer you what you can accept and use.”
I think no one else could have written my book, but anyone can write something about his or her own experience in a way that would surprise them by being better than they thought likely. People truly can be more creative than they imagine they are, because they are more creative than they imagine they are!
In my writings about creativity, I hammer pretty hard on the idea of creativity as a collaboration that requires openness and receptivity, and that also requires the hard work of being open, which will put the stamp of individuality on the work. And of course if it’s true that you’re working with a daimon or muse that is your own, this will automatically give things a certain stamp of individuality.
The daimon can only offer you what you can accept and use. Mozart talked about the way music just “appeared” to him. A number of composers have indicated that they’re really not composers, but are instead just people who listen well. There’s a really beautiful expression of it in the film Amadeus, when Salieri, who has been kind of the “anti-force” to Mozart’s genius, is with Mozart as he is dying. Salieri, acting as his scribe, is frantically writing down the Requiem Mass as fast as he can, because it’s just pouring out of Mozart. Many others have reported similar inrushes of music. Beethoven even talked about “hearing” his compositions after he was deaf.
In the end what I know is simply this: I can give good speeches with minimal preparation, and you can write splendid horror stories. Our respective muses work with what they’ve got. Thank you for a wonderful discussion between us and about our muses.