When Brooklyn-based psychotherapist Dr. Neal Goldsmith was 40, a midlife crisis of sorts inspired him to take LSD for the first time since college. “I worked then at American Express, in the sexiest job you can get in corporate America, and I was worried I’d become an asshole,” Goldsmith says. The resulting experience–during which he discovered a “glowing, throbbing orb-mound at the core of [his] being”–led Goldsmith to quit his corporate job and open a private psychotherapy practice. Now, part of Goldsmith’s expertise is in counseling people on how to learn from crazy psychedelic experiences to improve their more mundane daily lives.
Since writing Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Etheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development in 2010, Goldsmith has become one of the leading experts on these little-understood substances. He co-runs Horizons, the biggest psychedelics conference in America. His latest lecture at Gowanus’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, “Psychedelics and Death: A Brief Introduction,” sold out within 30 minutes, and there are plans to move the lecture to a bigger venue in September. The popularity of Goldsmith’s work reflects how psychedelics, once the purview of a stigmatized counterculture, are slowly gaining more legitimacy in the mainstream.
“I want my clients to see that they’re fundamentally okay, that their true nature is this glowing, throbbing orb mound at the core of their beings,” Goldsmith says. (Wake up, sheeple.) Since the 60s, when Timothy Leary advised everyone to “tune in, turn on, drop out,” acolytes have similarly extolled the mind-expanding effects of hallucinogens. For the most part, though, the mainstream scientific and medical establishments dismissed such talk as hippie cliches (what scientist would take a theory about “orb mounds” seriously?). But since 1990–for the first time since the 70s, when the Nixon Administration classified most psychedelics as Schedule 1 substances–the government has cautiously authorized research on psilocybin. A few American universities, including Johns Hopkins and NYU, are conducting ongoing studies on psilocybin, or the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. Their research has offered unprecedented new insights into the neurobiology of the mystical experience, as well as promising data on how psilocybin has potential to help with everything from cluster headaches and substance abuse to depression and end-of-life anxiety in the terminally ill.
Goldsmith, for one, expects that psilocybin will be rescheduled and potentially prescribable within the next eight years. Regardless of how the drug war turns out, understanding of psychedelics is evolving and powerfully influencing the psychiatric community. We spoke to Goldsmith about his midlife crisis-turned-awakening of sorts, being a “psychedelically-inspired therapist,” and the most mind-expanding places in Brooklyn.
How did your interest in psychedelics and psychotherapy begin?
In 1965, when I was in high school, LSD was still legal. I grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, in an upper middle class Jewish intellectual community. I became a hippie in 10th grade, but I never took LSD back then–I was the designated driver. I started taking psychedelics in college, in the fall of 1969, and probably took them 25 to 50 times. I found them fascinating–lots of bon mots and witticisms in a darkened dorm room with four male friends–but they were never a spiritual experience for me, not taken in any kind of ceremonial or serious way.
It wasn’t until I was 40, having a kind of mid-life crisis, that I tried LSD again. I was working at AmEx as director of change management in the strategic planning department, the sexiest job you can get in corporate America, but I was miserable. After that first acid trip of my adult life, I quit my job. I wanted to use my specialty in innovation and change and policy research from my corporate life to help the field of psychedelic research. I did a lot of public speaking about it, and then my book got me lots of clients.
What was that LSD experience at age 40 like? (I know listening to other people’s drug experiences can be as tedious as listening to other people’s dreams, but this was a career-launching drug experience.)
I was worried I’d become an asshole, that I’d given up my youthful ideals. And I was scared that if, [when I tripped,] the answer was yes, I was an asshole, I’d go insane, run down the street and tear my hair out. So before taking a blotter hit, I wrote reassuring phrases on post-it notes and stuck them around the apartment (I was alone): “You’re okay, it’s only a drug, you’ll be down soon.”
At the beginning of this trip, I sunk below the surface of the ground, and I saw these roots. I knew they were my psychological roots. They looked like hairless possum tails. I still had a straight mentality, so I zoomed in and tried fix these crooked roots. But when I tried to straighten them, my roots screamed “aaahhh,” like an animal would if it was backing away from your scrutiny. I realized that I was disturbing my roots. So I told them I’d come back later, and continued to sink down. I soon saw a throbbing, glowing orb, and I knew that was the ground of my being, my soul. I went down and touched it. I saw clearly. It wasn’t enlightenment, but it was a relaxed state of not being nervous, self-conscious, or down on myself. I saw my beauty, and all the fears and worries I had seemed sweet and poignant and unnecessary. I felt compassion for that guy with the post-it notes.
As I came back up, I passed those roots again. And this time, instead of wanting to fix them, I accepted them. I stroked them. My roots released instead of recoiling. I felt an essential sense of ok-ness.
How did it inform your psychotherapy practice?
That very first acid experience of my adult life transformed my clinical practice and my worldview, and formed the basis of my personality theory. I think behavior commonly labeled “neurotic” is not pathological at all, but rather the whole organism’s natural response to developmental stress on the path to maturation. And that instead of trying to fix ourselves, we can connect with this fundamental ok-ness.
Importantly, I don’t offer psychedelic therapy–I don’t provide people with psychedelics, nor do I recommend usage outright, [for ethical and legal reasons]. But I can say to a client, “If you’re gonna do this anyway, come see me the next day.”
What are the demographics of your clientele? Who comes to see you?
My clientele are not necessarily psychonauts. Maybe 50 percent are interested in psychedelics, but a lot are just intelligent regular people who enjoy my approach. You won’t see the word “psychedelic” on my website. People will say “I love what you have to say about personality structure,” and sometimes they don’t even realize what my background is. Some are very old and middle-aged people, with marriage issues or substance abuse problems. I get a lot of kids of hippie-type parents, but I don’t discuss drugs or use psychedelic metaphors with kids. And I get a lot of people in their 20s and early 30s who are actively experimenting with psychedelics on their own, and who are delighted to find a knowledgable, understanding therapist.
How do you think psychedelics can help people?
I think of psychedelics as a mining helmet, with that light on the forehead: Everything you look at is illuminated. If you look at nature, you see its beauty. If you look at your hand, you think about evolution. But if you look inside, you see how you’re built, how you’re made. You see the devil’s bargain you made as a small child, as your personality was being formed.
When kids come out, they’re themselves. But then, if they do something that pushes their parents’ buttons, their parents say “No, you can’t be that way. You have to change that.” Personality is plan B. We try to be ourselves first, but that doesn’t work when our parents start getting pissed at us. We say, “What do you want me to be? How about if I’m funny, sexy, smart?” You adopt an adaptive uniform, like an astronaut or cowboy or Indian–a facade, a costume, an external superficial shell on top of our truest self. Defenses are adaptive. The personality’s whole purpose is to avoid pain. And it works in your childhood family, but when you leave at age 18 and go out into the world, you’re tailored to the hothouse environment of your neurotic little family. So you get divorced, or lose your job, and you have to start to explore. The task of adulthood is to become aware of that devil’s bargain you made with your parents. So you can become the person you were born as again. That’s what mental health is–being un-self-consciously, spontaneously, relaxingly, lovingly yourself.
What are the most common problems people come to you with regarding their experiences with psychedelics, and how do you respond to them?
One thing people often find difficult, even with MDMA, is that the trip is this beautiful, heart-opening experience, and the next day they feel so loving and clear and open. But then the next week, they come into my office, and they say, ‘I’m feeling fucked up and dissociated, tense and anxious. It comes down to the fact that, well, my life sucks. I saw beauty and perfection, and that was awesome and golden, but now I realize things are fucked up–my boss yells at me, the streets are dirty, I live in a shitty apartment. How can I get from point A to point B?’
The best spiritual and philosophical resolution for that discrepancy is to come back and think of yourself as a bodhisattva, which means someone who’s on the path and who is teaching others. Buddhism will teach that no one is enlightened until everyone is enlightened. And that’s what makes it possible to endure the dirty world, because you’re helping people.
The second part of the puzzle is meditation. Meditation in its best form is like a re-experiencing of the psychedelic illumination or recognition of truth and reality. You need to meditate on a daily basis and to have adopted an ongoing spiritual practice of some sort, like meditation or psychotherapy, in order to rethink of yourself as a bodhisattva.
Who should avoid taking psychedelics?
If you have a family history of major psychiatric disorders or mental illness–including schizophrenia, OCD, bipolar disorder, anything of a serious psychiatric nature–you should really be wary. If your mother was schizophrenic, for example, you should avoid psychedelics entirely. Some people would argue with me on that, and I’m making a broad statement, but I’d rather be super safe than super sorry. And, obviously, children and younger teenagers should avoid psychedelics. Some would argue with me on that, too–in some cultures, adults give etheogens to young teenagers during rites of passage–but again, I err on the side of caution. I once made a provocative statement at a conference, saying psychedelics should be outlawed for people under 40. That was to be provocative, but I think immature use is dangerous use.
These are not mild psychiatric medications. They’re most powerful psychiatric substances known to man. In the late 40s, the first name given to many of these drugs was “psychotomimetic,” which translates to “mimicking psychosis.” You have to be careful and really know your stuff. These are pharmaceuticals. If they were legal, they’d be prescribed by doctors. The purity and identity of a substance is unknowable in a black market. They can be unpredictable psychologically and physiologically. The wrong amount of substance or mixture of substances is toxic even in the healthiest of people.
Where do you like to go in Brooklyn to connect with your “glowing, throbbing orb mound?”
I love going to the Morbid Anatomy Museum. I live in DUMBO, and love going to the waterfront, or really, anywhere where you can catch a glimpse of nature. I spent many years raising my boy adjacent to Prospect Park, which is a wonderful place to be. I also used to love going to events on Jeff Stark’s Nonsense NYC list, but it got a little high school-ish.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Neal Goldsmith is giving a sold-out lecture, “Psychedelics and Death: A Brief Introduction,” at the Morbid Anatomy Museum this Friday, August 7th. He’ll give the lecture again in September at a bigger venue–time and place TBA.
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