Brother David Steindl-Rast (born 1926) is a Benedict monk with a PhD in experimental psychology,who is often portrayed as a mystic and successor to Thomas Merton. Having studied with Zen masters and dedicated most of his life to inter-faith dialogue, he puts theology aside and talks about spirituality in order to find a universal common language. He calls psychedelics “entheogens”, spiritual substances.
Brother David, you have dedicated much of your life to dialogue between faiths. What brings you to the Transpersonal Psychology Conference; what’s the connection?
Well, historically, I was a psychologist myself. I studied psychology, got my PhD, and then in the 1980s, I was at the Esalen Institute at the same time as Stan Grof. He often invited me to come to give talks within his several-week-long workshops. I lived very nearby because there was a monastery only about 20 minutes away by car. And then one Saturday morning I got a telephone call from Esalen saying “a speaker was supposed to come last night for the weekend, and he didn’t arrive. There are already people waiting, there were 18 but only 12 are still waiting. Would you quickly come down and take over?” I said “well, I can just make it at 10 o’clock”, got in the car and drove down, and while I was driving there it occurred to me – I had not asked them what the topic was. You will not believe it, but when I arrived, the topic of the weekend was “why am I not a Catholic”. The speaker was an ex-priest! That was my first workshop alone at the Esalen and is how I got connected with Stan Grof. We became friends and then I got into that.
You were here, 25 years ago, at the first International Transpersonal Conference in Prague. Was the transpersonal movement the same? What has changed in the movement since then?
Now it seems to me, that it has expanded very much. It has become better known all over the World, has many more centers where the psychology is being taught and more people realize how important it is to today. I see here people who are not directly connected with the movement. There are many lectures that are only tangentially related, and many people who come here to the conference were not precisely coming for transpersonal psychology, but for all the other things that are connected with it.
The transpersonal movement, with the premise of Wholeness or Unity, was very much born a long time ago in the 60s counterculture. Why do you think there is still so many divisions in the World?
I have really no… I can not understand why there are so many divisions despite people are already being aware that we can only tackle the problems that face us together, in unity and cooperation. I can not understand it, but I think Ken Wilber’s answer to your question would be we are still not at that level of consciousness, that we need as a human community and we have not yet reached the critical mass. We need to progress to another state of consciousness.
These days social inequalities, tensions, and fear towards other people are growing. How to be spiritual or grateful for life, when there is so much wrong in the world? Is this not a contradiction?
That’s a very good question. Gratefulness can be expressed in grateful living, over and over by making these three simple steps.
Stop, because we are in such a rush in our society that we are just carried away. Unless you stop, you would not see the opportunity that life offers you.
But when you stop, the next step is to look, or listen, to the opportunity.
And then the third step is to take that opportunity. Most of the time this opportunity is an opportunity to enjoy and therefore gratefulness or grateful living. This “stop look go” method, leads you to happiness, but sometimes this opportunity that life is giving you is very difficult.
It’s not always the opportunity to enjoy but for instance the opportunity to suffer and grow by suffering. Or the opportunity to learn something new – that also implies some suffering. Or the opportunity to help others with great cost to yourself, or the opportunity to protest – either personally, in a personal relationship that you see „this is my limit”, or politics, that you go on to the streets and protest. I spent a lot of time on the streets myself protesting. Nowadays it’s very easy because on the internet you can make and join all these petitions. Those are opportunities and therefore even if something very difficult comes, for what you really cannot be grateful (for war, exploitation of the environment, exploitation of people, poverty), you can be grateful for the opportunity that this gives you. The opportunity to counteract it for instance.
Thank you for this wisdom.
You are very welcome.
Do we need Catholicism or other religions to sustain our spirituality? What about engaging life, mystery or God, through art or a psychedelic experience?
We have to look at all different things that help us to really come alive. Because that is the goal of religion, art, science, of everything. Our task as human beings is to come alive on all levels. It is a very good idea to look also at the different religions with all their faults and all their difficulties because they contain, each of them, a great deal of wisdom from the past and from present and wonderful examples of people who have really been alive and serving others. But it’s also very important to look at other things besides religions, the ones that you have named for instance because they also can help us come alive.
We need very urgently rituals in our times.
Once you wrote, “If we encounter God through a sunrise seen from a mountaintop, why not through a mushroom prayerfully ingested”. What do you think about the laws that aim to incarcerate people who want to have an experience with psychoactive substances?
I have met many people who had experiences with psychedelic substances and for whom this was the first time that they woke up to something greater, aliveness, greater horizons, expanded the horizons. One has to distinguish that very much from sort of the common picture of people who use psychedelics just for entertainment or really get lost in them. Everything has its positive and its negative aspect, you have to ask yourself whether you really need that mind expansion. Many people need it and for them it is good, and when your mind is expanded, you can leave it [psychedelics] behind. Charlotte Selver, a very great woman, lived to be over 100 years and still taught when she was in her upper 90s. She taught sensual awareness and was kind of a grandmother of this whole awareness movement. She took psychedelics when she was quite old and afterward she said: “I don’t need the stones to yell at me, they always talk to me”. Some people don’t need that, but many people need and it would be good for them.
You are very open about different ways of experiencing the mystery, or God. Isn’t mysticism or monasticism anti-sensual?
That is a common misunderstanding because monasticism and monastic tradition involve asceticism, and asceticism means practice. Commonly people think that asceticism means depriving yourself of things, but the very word means practice. It comes from the athletic vocabulary and nobody thinks that the practice of a boxer or a football player is deprivation. It’s necessary to deprive yourself of very many things in order to become a good football player and it’s the same with monastic tradition. It is not an animosity against anything sensual, but it is a practice to keep it in balance. When you look just at the Wenceslas square [in Prague], you see 50% of the people who simply from their body picture you can tell that they are not healthy. Not healthy because they don’t balance what they eat and drink. Asceticism is not animosity to eating and drinking, just keeping it in balance.
The founder of your order, St. Benedict said: “to keep death at all times before your eyes”. One of the best-explored use of psychedelic mushrooms is to ease the psychological distress associated with impending death. Is this a wrongful escape?
Could be, could be. No, I think that if people really have that experience of confronting death, which many people have in a psychedelic experience, and if they learn from it and face it, and adjust their life to it, it’s something extremely positive.
Do you think it should be accessible and legal?
Yes, I do think so. An attempt was made in Portugal, I think. The effects were much much better than where the whole pathway is illegal.
What do you make of so-called “modern-day rituals”, like psytrance or other music festivals, which overlap with psychedelic culture. Is there at all something like purely recreational use, or is it always a bit spiritual?
We need very urgently rituals in our times. Whenever I see a ritual I take a view of it and it’s importance. The music festivals that you mentioned are rituals like that. Rituals can get out of hand, you know in my own church many rituals have gotten completely out of hand. That’s simply part of the human condition, one shouldn’t judge it by that. Ritualization is extremely important and I always encourage young people to think that their children have great needs for rituals. For instance, little children have a need for morning prayer, evening prayer, prayer at meals, they have a need for… simply everything becomes ritualized, washing and dressing and in the evening going to bed, being told a story. All these are family rituals and then of course celebration of birth is, and all [other] the celebrations. This is extremely important, we have lost much of it and we have to regain it.
That is fascinating… You also wrote „there is no guarantee of having a spiritual experience with the use of entheogens, and having a spiritual experience does not guarantee living a spiritual life.” What would be your advice to those seeking to achieve a spiritual life with the help of a psychedelic experience?
It’s very much parallel to a mystic experience or to a peak experience. The experience is a great gift of life but in order to really show yourself worthy of this gift you need to now translate this gift into daily living. If you have experienced in whatever form that you are one with all, you have to live and everything you do and every interaction with another person has to express your trust in the other that we are one.