The Psychedelic Sorcerer

In November, 1999, I traveled to Basel, Switzerland, for a meeting called "Worlds of Consciousness," a forum for research on altered states. At the meeting I met and interviewed scientists such as Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD; the Swiss psychiatrist Franz Vollenweider, who is mapping the neural effects of psychedelics in humans with brain-scanning research; and the pharmacologist David Nichols of Purdue University, who probes the biochemistry of psychedelics with animal studies [see Chapter Eight of Rational Mysticism for an account of the meeting].

The most colorful character I met was the German anthropologist Christian Ratsch. If scientists like Hofmann, Vollenweider, and Nichols represent the rational superego of the psychedelic community, Ratsch is its id. Throughout the meeting, he was dressed in black leather: pants, hat, boots, fringed jacket. His slouch and half-lidded eyes gave him a reptilian air. His features were vaguely Asian; I learned later that his mother was Mongolian, his father German. Ratsch had reportedly never cut his waist-length, raven hair or Fu Manchu beard.

Because most of Ratsch’s books and articles are in German, he is less famous than Terence McKenna, but he is renowned among the psychedelic cognoscenti. I first heard about him from the chemist Alexander Shulgin, who praised Ratsch’s encyclopedic knowledge of the plants and fungi used in shamanic practices. Others described Ratsch as not only an expert on but also a practitioner of psychedelic shamanism, and ayahuasca shamanism in particular.

When I asked Ratsch for an interview on the first day of the conference, he eyed me suspiciously and replied in a gravelly, insinuating, German-accented voice that he was too busy; maybe later in the conference. Actually, Ratsch was busy. In spite of his stoner’s demeanor, he was a dervish of activity. As a co-organizer of the conference, he introduced speakers, led panel discussions and served as master of ceremonies during an evening homage to Albert Hofmann.

In a lecture titled "Keys to Other Worlds," Ratsch informed us that there are an infinite number of keys--pharmacological and non-pharmacological—to the spiritual realm, and each of us must find the key for his or her individual psyche. As Ratsch spoke, he prowled around the stage caressing a "key" that looked suspiciously like a phallus.

Ratsch finally agreed to speak to me on the morning of the meeting's last day. We sat at a small plastic table in a cafe in conference center's lobby. Nursing a bottle of Coke, Ratsch seemed hungover, or stoned, or both. His eyes were slits, his voice a croak. Even in this brightly lit, antiseptic setting, he seemed to be peering at me through the smoke of a fire in some primeval jungle.

He expressed amusement with a kind of groan-grunt, keeping his mouth closed as if to minimize the expenditure of energy: "Hmm hmm," or, if he was slightly more amused, "Hmm hmm hmm." When truly merry, he laughed through a barely open mouth: "Heh heh heh."

His demeanor made it clear that he found this interaction—me asking him questions, him responding—absurd. I felt absurd myself, preparing my tape recorder and yellow pad and pen as he drowsily watched me. I nonetheless forged ahead in my plodding, earnest fashion, and Ratsch played his part, too, giving me a view of spirituality that was as nihilistic--anti-Buddhist, anti-Christian, anti-religious--as any I had encountered yet.

He was born in 1957 in a Bohemian community in Hamburg, Germany, where he still lived. His father was an opera singer, his mother a ballet dancer. He started learning about shamanism and sacred plants at 10 and had his first drug experience at 12. He earned a doctorate in Native American cultures, and he spent three years living with a tribe in southern Mexico, investigating shamanism first-hand. He is an independent scholar, who supports himself primarily by writing and by organizing conferences such as this one. Universities "don't pay enough, and there's too much censorship," he explained. "I call the universities the graveyards of science. Hmm hmm."

When I mentioned that another scientist described him as a modern, westernized shaman, Ratsch shook his head. "I am just a researcher, nothing else," he replied. "To be a shaman means to be called by the Gods and heal people and help people, and that's not my way. I'm here to translate the shamans’ work into our culture, to understand them better and maybe to protect them."

Does he believe, I started to ask—but Ratsch cut me off. "There is no belief involved," he said, spitting out "belief" like an expletive. "It's pure experience, nothing else. Belief is the forerunner of faith, and that's religion." He waggled his head, looking at me, then grunted approvingly: "Hmm."

What about the claim that shamans have supernatural powers that allow them to harm and heal others? I persisted. Does Ratsch believe this? He laughed out loud. "If you start getting into shamanism," he assured me, his eyes narrowing, "then you better believe the unbelievable and expect the unexpectable."

What about the ghosts and spirits that shamans and others supposedly see during ayahuasca trips? I asked. Are those just in your head, or are they out there? "It's outside. If it's in here," Ratsch said, pointing to his own pitch-black pate, "we're sick." He added that visions are truth, but "believing in ghosts is maybe not the truth."

Ratsch distinguished between shamanic experiences and those induced by meditation. "Meditation is the way inside," he explained, "and shamanic traveling is to go outside." Ratsch has little respect for meditative paths such as Buddhism. "I don't think of Buddhism as a spiritual path. It's a religion," he said. "It's based on very strange, paradoxical ideas. For example this notion: ‘Don't kill.’ But then they eat meat." The Dalai Lama "loves meat."

Surprised, I said that I had assumed the Dalai Lama was a vegetarian.

"No. Hitler was a vegetarian."

Ratsch also objected to Buddhism's encouragement of monasticism and celibacy. The Dalai Lama and other Buddhists monks are "incomplete," Ratsch said, because they deny their sexuality. "You get crazy and weird if you don't have a partner." Ratsch assured me that he has "a lot of sex." (I could hardly doubt him. Although Ratsch’s wife, the anthropologist Claudia Muller-Ebeling, was at the conference, one or more young women always seemed to be orbiting around him.)

Ratsch believes in enlightenment, which he defines as "a state of complete understanding," "total loss of ego structures," and "just being one with everything." The spiritual path "starts with the enlightenment, and then you can try to get this integrated into your life. It's not the other way around." Ratsch abhors so-called spiritual leaders who claim that enlightenment can only be achieved through decades of meditation and other spiritual practices.

"That’s such a bad lie, and an exploitation of needs," he snarled. His cool irony had vanished; he was momentarily vehement, passionate. Then he paused, regaining his composure, his lizard-like, Mona Lisa smile. "This is my point of view."

Enlightenment "has nothing to do with all these spiritual teachings." It merely requires "the right molecule to hit your brain." Enlightenment is an intrinsically transient state, like an orgasm; in fact, some Amazonian societies use their term for orgasm to describe mystical states. "You are not in a permanent state of orgasm," Ratsch said. "It's one peak, and then you have to recharge your batteries."

Orgasms loom large in Ratsch’s worldview. "We are like almost crystallized orgasms from our parents," he said. "Hopefully, my parents had the greatest orgasm when I was conceived. Heh heh heh."

Asked about his drug preferences, Ratsch replied that ayahuasca "is the best shamanic medicine ever discovered. And I like it--definitely not as a recreational drug. I love recreational drugs, of course." Ratsch enjoyed taking small doses of LSD when going to a party or the opera.

"Richard Wagner is the greatest on acid," he said. Twilight of the Gods is "the greatest piece of art ever written, the most shamanic and mystical play ever. From Ring of the Nibulungs you can learn everything."

Have his psychedelic experiences convinced him that there is life after death? "I don’t know." Ratsch shrugged. "I have a certain vision I got on a DMT trip, and it will be the most beautiful..." He smiled dreamily.

Can he be sure this will happen? "How can I?" he replied with a snort of incredulity. Well, I said, some Buddhists and Christians have very specific beliefs about life after death. "That's their problem. Hmm hmm."

When I told Ratsch that a psychedelic trip years ago had left me with a sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with reality, or even God, he nodded. "I have seen many people tripping. And it happens from time to time that they think everything went wrong, or they did something wrong. Because of them, they destroyed the universe, and stuff like that. That's"—he waited a beat—"not healthy. Hmm hmm."

I laughed too, and asked him if he had ever had such a trip. No, he had never had a bad trip. "I don't know what that is."

You're very fortunate, I said.

"Yes! Definitely. Very fortunate."

I asked him if he had any thoughts on why life is so filled with suffering. "The universe is about life and death, and both belong to each other. It's two poles of the same thing. And every minute we kill to live." Buddhism attempts to deny this basic fact, or suggests that it can be altered. "That's why Buddhism is based on a lie."

I asked what he thought of Terence McKenna’s time-wave theory and his prediction that the apocalypse could occur in 2012. "Complete bullshit. Hmm hmm." Ratsch had once asked McKenna if he really believed the time-wave theory, and McKenna had answered, No, not really. "But that is because we are good friends," Ratsch said. "He wouldn't admit that in the public."

Ratsch said he has much more to learn from drugs about "the shamanic world, and the use of plants, the meaning of nature." This search for meaning is endless, he emphasized. "If the search for knowledge stops, then you're basically"—he paused—"dead, as a living, exploring being." The universe "produces people like us to learn about itself." This self-exploring process "goes on and on and on. And nobody knows where it goes and what happens. And I think that's part of enlightenment, to understand that there is no aim."

A waitress clearing a table beside us knocked a bottle onto the floor. Ratsch watched bemused as the bottle ponderously rumbled toward us and clanked against the base of our table.

Certain rare mortals are so cool that they seem transhuman. They appear immune to embarrassment, angst, guilt--all the negative emotions that wrack us ordinary mortals. Christian Ratsch has this quality. I believed him when he told me that he had never had a bad trip. I used to envy those who had attained transcendent coolness, but now I wonder whether it represents a deficit of feeling, of empathy. I prefer sages with hearts, like Huston Smith.

I found Ratsch’s sorcerer schtick entertaining, though. Moreover, as I went over his views of mysticism and enlightenment, I realized that they are not as outrageous as they sounded to me at first. His comparison of enlightenment to orgasm echoes the hypothesis of the brain-scientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili that our mystical capacity evolved out of our orgasmic capacity. Ratsch’s rejection of monasticism reflects that of Kabalists, who believed that only happily married men are stable enough to follow the mystical path.

Like the skeptical mystic Susan Blackmore, he does not believe in ghosts or life after death. He rejects the notion of enlightenment as a state of final knowledge, contending that if the search for knowledge ends, life ends. The point of visionary experiences is the experiences themselves, Ratsch suggests, not the knowledge or beliefs that might be gleaned from them. In the same way, the aim of life is to understand that there is no aim.

Actually, Ratsch qualified that principle somewhat at the end of our conversation. After he yawned pointedly, I said I had just one more question: What is the secret of life?

"Get high. Heh heh heh."

Selected Works

War
McSweeney's Books, paperback edition, 2014.
"Cross-check" (Scientific American blog), August 12, 2014.
Review of Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature," Slate, October 3, 2011
A rebuttal of the deep-roots theory of warfare. Discover, June 2012.
Drones may soon become ubiquitous in U.S. skies.
Brain and Mind
Don't hold your breath for the Singularity. IEEE Spectrum, June 2008.
Article on scientific explanations of religious experiences, Discover, December 2006.
Profile of Jose Delgado, pioneer of brain implants, Scientific American, October 2005.
Investigation of controversial "grandmother-cell" hypothesis. Discover, June 2005.
Investigation of peyote use in Native American Church. Discover, February 2003.
Misc.
Tenth-anniversay update of The End of Science. Discover, October 2006.
Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2006.
New York Times, August 12, 2005
New York Times, December 12, 2004
A list of articles written for Scientific American and other publications.
Rational Mysticism Outtakes
An account of Horgan's efforts to achieve satori in a Zen class.
A profile of the German anthropologist and authority on shamanism Christian Ratsch.
A profile of Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, authors of The Guru Papers.
A profile of the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.
A profile of the British Buddhist Stephen Batchelor.
A profile of the guru Andrew Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment?
Books