September 16, 2014

STRANGERS: Jesse & Sarah Smith
LOCATION: Blue Corn Cafe & Brewery, 133 Water Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico
THEME: Learning about a couple’s discovery of omnism

Discovering omnism is a long and winding path with stops along the way to learn about ingesting a hallucinogenic drug, meeting otherworldly beings, and chatting with Ziggy about life, religion and ethics. But it starts in Santa Fe, at the bottom of the staircase to the Blue Corn Cafe & Brewery.

It’s a nice-looking place, with lemon-colored walls, brown tile flooring, and all manner of artwork dotting the walls, including paintings of the beautiful New Mexico deserts.

The only initial downside to the atmosphere was the volume at which they were playing an 80s soundtrack. It made it hard at times to concentrate on what I heard during the meal when Elton John was wailing “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” at almost the same volume as my dining companions: Jesse and Sarah Smith. And they wanted to talk about omnism.

It’s the belief in all religions, and it’s something they became interested in after a few turbulent years in which they both wrestled with questions about the Christian beliefs they grew up with. But after experimenting with a psychedelic drug, they saw visions that gave them answers they wanted. That opened their minds to omnism.

As we settled into a booth, I was instantly struck by their broad smiles and outgoing personalities. Plus, they laughed at my jokes, so I had to like them. They have a natural rapport with each other, often finishing each other’s thoughts or egging their partner on to elaborate on statements.

Their apparent mutual respect probably dates back at least to their experiences with omnism, which in turn comes from them both experimenting with DMT.

DMT, also known in the science world as N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, is a psychedelic substance that is taken by injection, smoking, or drinking it in tea. In the United States, DMT is a Schedule I drug that cannot legally be manufactured or distributed. However, a Supreme Court ruling in 2006 permitted an exemption for a specific church to use Hoasca tea — a drink containing DMT used by the Christian Brazilian church União do Vegetal (UDV, or “union of the plants” in a literal translation). The court win made it legal for the church, which operates in Santa Fe, to sip the tea in services.

“A lot of people see DMT as an escape, but I don’t think it is,” said Sarah. She touted the experience of taking DMT as helping broaden her mind to answer major questions about life, love, and fate. “It’s so transformative you that you don’t instantly want another hit of it. You want to analyze and figure out what it means.”

Jesse nodded in agreement, adding, “What validates the psychedelic experience is the ability to pull new information that the person could no way possibly obtain otherwise.”

The UDV church in Santa Fe wasn’t the Smiths’ first foray into using DMT. They first learned of the substance in hearing about trials by Rick Strassman, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Strassman has been authorized to perform trials to assess the impacts of hallucinogens like DMT on humans. The government clearly sees DMT as worrisome enough that it’s severely restricted its availability, but the Smiths counter that the positive experiences they and others have had are getting ignored.

Critics could argue that DMT is just an illegal substance that plays with the mind, sending people on kooky trips to see visions that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band song. Advocates like the Smiths counter that DMT is a great way to gain clarity on religious questions, such as the meaning of life and whether or not there’s a God — questions that for a while were so confusing to Jesse, he contemplated suicide.

His deep depression was what drove him to experiment with DMT, almost as a last resort. For a long time, he had been on a downward spiral due to a host of problems.

He was raised in a very religious family and for a time was preparing to study at a college of theology in Tennessee. “But just before I went to college, I wanted to make sure I was certain about what I was getting into, so I studied the Bible more. Up until that point I hadn’t discovered any significant errors to Christianity. I felt everything could be explained.”

Then he found a flaw he couldn’t overlook: a disconnect between Jesus Christ saying that God said divorce is impermissible, and Moses saying it was allowed. “So either Christ is not who he said he is, or Moses lied. And then everyone’s just saying whatever they want, and what do you believe in?”

Jesse spoke to his family, pastors, and others, but couldn’t get a satisfactory answer. This question wasn’t just a thought exercise for him. “It melted my brain,” he said. “I struggled with it. I started questioning other systems that we just take for granted. What if experts tell us something and they’re not telling the truth? What if I can’t even trust my senses?”

This was all he could focus on and “it led me to be completely nuts,” he said, throwing in a self-deprecating smile as if to reduce the seriousness. But it was clear from Sarah’s sympathetic look at him that this must have been an immensely trying time for the couple.

They had been dating for a while before the depression happened, but once it hit, Jesse said, “I had no time for a girlfriend, school, or anything.” He dropped out of college, withdrew from his friends, and the relationship with Sarah went south.

Eventually Jesse decided that suicide was the only answer. “Depression is much more than just being sad. It’s a loss of everything. I would woke up and realize I had no argument left in me. I simply didn’t want to feel this way, and if the solution was dying, so be it.”

He planned to kill himself. But his family intervened, seeing warning signs in Jesse’s behavior. They checked him in to hospital, where he attended basic therapy sessions.

After his discharge, nothing much had changed. But then he heard about Strassman’s experiments with DMT, with study participants reporting mind-altering contact with otherworldly beings. “It sounded interesting to me, and by that point I was so far removed from everyone and my beliefs that I thought I might as well, even if it ends up killing me.”

Sarah accompanied him to his first attempt at trying DMT. After a few minutes, the impact was sudden. Jesse said he could see crystal clear images of strange beings. Nervous, he asked whether the beings represented God. “I thought if they said yes it’d be the most wonderful thing in the world. But they said no. And then I came out of it.”

Then he took another hit, and this time he saw what he described as almost like a stereotypical gray alien with the triangular head with large solid-black eyes. “She told me I was sick and that I didn’t understand why,” Jesse said. Then the being touched his forehead, and at that moment he said he felt an immense pressure was instantly lifted out of him. “In that moment I no longer had any desire to die,” he said. “I told her, ‘Thank you,’ and then I came out of it.”

After that second hit, Jesse said his entire outlook changed in an instant. “It was better than any of the therapy or anything else they gave me in hospital,” he added. “It fixed the immediate concern, which was suicide,” Jesse said.

Sarah nodded, adding, “But you still had questions.”

“Yeah. Being religious, I was still skeptical and still wanted answers,” Jesse replied, harking back to his struggles with Christianity. His self-declared struggle for truth is literally written on his body, with elaborate question mark tattoos on both his forearms.

He’d read about other belief systems, finding that atheism also had a flaw in its absolute belief of no higher being. Agnosticism was too wishy-washy for him, it simply couldn’t make its mind up one way or another. But the UDV offered another option: learning through use of Hoasca tea. “That changed everything,” Jesse said.

His experience this time round from sipping the tea containing DMT finally got him on the path to some of the answers he was looking for. On this trip, he saw beings with eyes all over their body, which evoked memories from his childhood of being told about extremely powerful angels that similarly had more eyes than your average human being. Then the beings swooped in and gave Jesse a big hug (they might look freakish, but I guess they’re friendly at least), and at that time he felt overwhelmed with what he described a feeling of his brain being overloaded with information. Again, he asked whether the entity was God. The entity said no.

But then they transported Jesse in his mind to talking with a being that was as close to God or a source of religion that he’d get. The vision was another psychedelic being, not exactly a bearded man in a white robe. But hey, at least it had a good personality.

“It wasn’t some stoic or upset caricature,” Jesse said. “It had a hilarious sense of humor, and I asked it every complicated philosophical question I had. I was given a response each time that was so eloquent and so perfect, I was able to bring that truth back with me.”

“For me, DMT has stood the test of time

DMT is a highly personal experience, he said. “I do not claim to have answers for everybody else, but for me it has stood the test of time.” Some of the answers he learned drove him to thinking about religion as a more fluid thing than the rigors of Christianity. Although his DMT experiences are incredibly detailed, colorful, and difficult to transcribe, he did offer one clear analogy that brought him from doubt to an ease of mind when it comes to questions about religion.

“Think of the truth like a mirror in God’s hands. God dropped it, it shattered, and everyone found a piece and thought they had the truth” even though they’re missing important pieces. Omnism, the belief in all religions, essentially reflects a belief in learning from the totality of the shattered glass. “It made me realize we’re all part of one large expansive thing that we can’t run away from, simply because everyone is a part of it,” Jesse said. Realizing there would be no absolute answers, he settled on his belief in omnism. And then Sarah explained how she came along for the trip.

As our food arrived, Sarah smiled at Jesse and said, “I’m going to let you eat, and I’ll talk.”

Sarah had ordered a sandwich of grilled chicken breast basted with honey-chipotle barbecue sauce, topped with caramelized onions and jack cheese. The mountain of food looked delicious, and I had to resist reaching across the table to grab a handful of the fries.

Jesse ordered the chicken fajitas, which appropriately came out sizzling, served with grilled onions and bell peppers, warm flour tortillas, flame-roasted salsa, sour cream, guacamole, and cheese.

At the Smiths’ suggestion I went for the sopaipilla, a pastry that’s stuffed with chicken, pinto beans, and cheese. It came with red and green chile sauces on the side. The green chile was relatively mild, giving only a slight kick to the sopapilla. It helped distinguish the flavor of the dish, which was largely subsumed by the pile of cheese melted on top of it. The red chile sauce, however, was smokier and tangier, and incredibly strong.

It was enough to bring a droplet or two of tears from this bland British man’s eyes. While I dabbed the tears away, the Smiths tried to figure out who should continue their story.

Sarah laughed as she said, “We have this problem when go out to dinner, either I spend the entire time talking or he does. You can always tell by how much food is on our plates.”

So Jesse tucked into his fajitas while Sarah told me about her childhood in Colorado and the time she first met Jesse online via a dating website. Jesse was born and raised in Santa Fe, so the two talked long-distance. Then one day Sarah decided to move down to New Mexico, and they started dating.

Her family is also religious, and Sarah said that while she never got suicidal or depressed like Jesse, she had a time of feeling “lost” with more questions than answers about religion.

The trigger for her doubts was talking with a friend who came from a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The friend was more into pagan beliefs and was also gay. “My friend said she was going to tell her family all of this on her 18th birthday, and that they’d disown her, burn her out of the photo albums, treat her as dead. But Jesus and the Bible had always taught me that God is love.”

That got Sarah thinking. “If God is love, why does he hate these people specifically? That seems exactly contradictory to everything that I’d ever learned.”

“Can you say, ‘tough love’?” Jesse interjected with a chuckle.

They both laughed, but then Sarah brought the topic back to its serious side and said her doubts about religion and its meanings led her to do a lot of soul searching.

“DMT is intense — but worth it

Jesse’s experiences opened her up to the possibility of trying DMT to resolve her uncertainty, though she saw both good and bad aspects of the drug. Among the negatives was watching Jesse as he first tried the substance. “He looked like a crazy person,” she said. “He was flat and emotionless, yet he seemed so focused. His eyes were darting around the place. At certain points he spoke out. I thought he was losing his mind. But all of his bursts of emotion were joyous.”

That upbeat conclusion to Jesse’s trial gave Sarah the confidence to experiment.

“Before I tried it, I thought the same as most people think about psychedelics, that they just want to see pretty colors and stuff. But when Jesse had that experience, he was crying because it was so emotional, and that made me start to believe in it. Something was gone from him. He wasn’t depressed in the same way, he didn’t want to die,” Sarah said.

So she tried it. And? “It’s intense — but worth it,” she said.

DMT didn’t just send her into an eccentric land of colors and bizarre imagery. It also opened her mind to omnism. She had started to think of religion in broader contexts than the confines of Christianity, including a visit to a Unitarian church, but wasn’t feeling satisfied with what she was learning (for example, she said Unitarians lack enough basic tenets and she needed more guidance than they were offering). DMT pushed her to the next step.

On her first try she saw strange Mayan, Aztec, and ancient Egyptian imagery. It was too much. “I got overwhelmed and freaked out, and said, ‘Stop!’” The experience stopped abruptly. “I thought I’d pissed these people off, the highest beings possible, and what a shitty person I am,” she said.

Jesse nodded. “It was like it crushed her soul, I’ve never seen her so destroyed.”

Finding Answers From A God-Like Ziggy

Feeling “beyond devastated,” Sarah had to try again. This time she saw something different: God in the form of the cartoon character Ziggy. “I’m really just a little kid, I love the dorky humor of cartoons, and so I saw a Ziggy God with a curly beard and a big fat nose, sitting up in the clouds.”

“You look like that?” Sarah asked him.

“For you I do,” the entity replied to her. This experience, she said, was “much less terrifying” and made it possible for her and Ziggy to have a discussion about Sarah’s religious questions. I’d also be less horrified asking questions of an old guy with a big nose than a bug-eyed monster. One of Sarah’s biggest questions for Ziggy stemmed from what she said is an empathetic nature. She was curious about how animals, insects, and humans all interact with one another.

That’s how Ziggy taught her about the omniverse, a highly interconnected system in which positive actions matter and help reduce the negativity in the world. Sarah explained it like so: Imagine a points system where bad actions count for one point and good actions count for two. Even though things like war and crime are happening and racking up bad points, there is more good happening in the world at all times, and slowly the value of that good is reducing the scope of negativity.

The Smiths have taken their experiences from DMT — which they still use occasionally — to develop their belief in omnism and their outlooks on life. “You can be Christian, or Jewish, or whatever and still believe in omnism, to see a wholeness from all the information you receive on different religions,” said Jesse. “Omnism extends past the psychedelic experience, because you’re taking information that’s only accessible when the substances are there, and using it in your life.”

As for life itself, I tried to get them to share the meaning of existence with me, but got answers that were very specific to their situations. However, the general takeaway message is a simple one: Do good, intend to do good, and positive experiences will feed back into the world in the future and make it a better place, even if you’re not around to experience them in human form.

Jesse and Sarah both said a few times during dinner that their stories might make them sound “crazy” but they were at pains to explain that their experiences with DMT have been invaluable in opening their minds, regardless of whether that’s in a world of Ziggy and many-eyed monsters.

But how do their families feel about it? They said that Jesse’s very religious father mostly ignores it, yet his mother has at least shown an interest in hearing what her son has to say. Sarah’s family are more open-minded yet also remain skeptical about it, they said.

Although Jesse and Sarah said they’ve benefited from their experiences, they’re not looking to use DMT for the rest of their lives. After the age of 50 the substance can apparently start to cause physiological problems, so there’s a shelf-life for the Smiths using them. For now, however, they’re happy to keep expanding their minds (legally).

As we got up and started to leave, I noticed the back of Jesse’s t-shirt. The letters “DMT” were emblazoned in white above a picture that could have been a Rorschash test. To me it looked like a dove. To someone else it could have been a wildly different image.

The picture on Jesse’s t-shirt echoed his statements about DMT and omnism: There are no definitive answers, only experiences and guidance for personal understanding and growth.

Or, as the words underneath the picture said, “Live, Learn, Evolve.”

3 thoughts on “#64 All About Omnism

  1. LaZondra Harrington Reply

    Interesting. I wanna know more cause I notice and question people, things & decisions that just don’t make since to me. I tend to not get the answers I need.

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