In the first part of our conversation, Josh shared his journey from an insecurity in his Christian salvation and anxiety over eternity, to arriving at a place of embracing mystery.
He now unpacks in greater depth the way in which he views the world and his place within it, including his experience of meditation, mindfulness and psychoactive substances. He finally reflects on his approach to the faith he once held, and what he has learned about himself after all that he has been through.
Where you currently stand – and I realise the term ‘God’ isn’t all that helpful as it will mean something different to everyone – do you think that there might be some kind of higher mind, or something behind reality as we understand it?
If I had to pick yes or no, I would say yes, but there are a lot of qualifiers. Labels aren’t particularly helpful, but I call myself an atheist mystic with pantheist leanings.
That’s a fun philosophical cocktail.
Yes it is. In my more contemplative moments, pantheism seems tangible – there actually is a current of unity and love flowing through literally all the matter and energy! But do I have any intellectual reason to believe that? No. My pantheism is less of a metaphysical claim, and more of an attitude. If I can look around and see divinity in every single thing, I’m going to really appreciate this life; I’m going to find joy and magic and wonder in every second. When Rhett and Link deconstructed, Rhett said, ‘I have no need for certainty anymore,’ and that’s kind of how I feel. There’s no way for me to make a metaphysical claim about what I actually believe about deity or divinity, but it really serves me to look at everything I see and think: this is sacred.
Would you say that you relate to the Eastern mystical ways of seeing things?
A lot of the things that have resonated as feeling true within me are Eastern. Zen Buddhism, definitely. I’ve read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh, I think he’s a wonderful writer and is able to distill the practical concepts of Buddhism really well. It is quite practical, and that’s one of the reasons I love it; Buddhism doesn’t particularly ask you to make any truth claims about the universe.
What are the practical elements about it that you find helpful in your own spiritual practice?
It’s about as cliché as anything else these days, but mindfulness and meditation are practical ways for me to seek divinity in everything. That’s where I’d like to be at all times; I’d like for someone to cut me off in traffic and to be able to say, ‘They are divine.’ Because that serves me, and it serves them. So if I’m stressed out at work and I can stop and say, ‘Think about the fact that your body is giving you life by breathing in and out air at every moment,’ the stressful computer I have to fix doesn’t matter. That is ‘peace that passes understanding’, as much as I hate to say it. And now I get to have it sometimes, which is really awesome.
What is your approach to meditation?
I do not have a particularly consistent practice. It’s kind of prescriptive: I’m a little stressed out; I’ll go on YouTube for a twenty-minute guided relaxation meditation. But sometimes I go out of my way to throw myself in deep. Before Covid, I was going to this group meditation; it was me and eight fifty-year old women, and very Buddhist inspired. It was an hour and forty-five minutes long, they burned incense and they turned the lights off and it was guided by someone. Sometimes I came out feeling like I sat for an hour and forty-five minutes on a week night when I could have been doing something else. But sometimes I have experiences that rival psychedelic experiences. I see the stillness that’s inside of me that I’m unable to touch when I’m running around doing things.
If I can look around and see divinity in every single thing, I’m going to really appreciate this life; I’m going to find joy and magic and wonder in every second.
Meditation is daunting before you start it, but we never pause, we never pause. And it’s just pausing; it doesn’t matter for how long it is. It’s just pausing and being like, ‘Hey, things are pretty great, actually. I’m breathing, I’m in a room, I’m alive.’ I started watching the Headspace Netflix show, and it’s a really good intro to meditation; I’ve been doing one a day. It talks a little bit about meditation, the practical effects, and the science behind it, with really nice animations. And then it will say, ‘Okay, this thing we learned today? Let’s try it out now.’ So if anyone out there is daunted by meditation in any way, it’s a super low-pressure intro.
Another thing in that area which I’ve been interested to chat to you about – as I often see you post about it – is psychoactive substances, because I have no experience of this. So, what are they, and what do they contribute to your meditative experience?
‘Psychoactive substances’ is a word I like to use as opposed to ‘drugs’, because like the word ‘God’, people have an image of drugs in their mind. Even ‘psychedelic’ at this point is a word that has a lot of baggage. It’s literally just, ‘psychoactive’ – brain active, knowledge active – substance; so a chemical that does stuff to your brain and that changes your experience. There are a ton of different kinds, and there are obvious examples of how they’ve negatively affected people’s lives, but, like sex, there’s just no education. Some of them are accepted: alcohol, marijuana more increasingly, most pharmaceuticals; those are okay to use. And then there are many that are not.
I try to be very grounded and fact-based. Psychedelics in particular – ‘psychedelic’ meaning ‘mind manifesting’– scientifically, a psychedelic experience is literally changing which parts of your brain are more active. Chemically, these substances are latching onto your serotonin receptors – or other brain receptors – and changing the sensory experience. It’s like a key that opens up the meditative state. Psychedelics are not by any means necessary to enter that state; there are monks who are in that state of perfect contemplation all the time. It just helps me to take a reality-centered look at what’s going on in my life and in my brain.
We come into every scenario with so many preconceived notions about everything; we can’t be to blame for that, it’s the human experience. But particularly with faith and belief – and I don’t just mean religious belief, beliefs on all sorts of different things – in a more contemplative psychedelic experience, something is put right in front of my face, and I’m like, ‘Wow. It’s right there for me all the time!’ I’ve never just seen it for what it is.
Are there any particular examples that come to mind?
I was very nervous to try drugs; I smoked weed and drank in college, but I started to have really bad experiences with marijuana, and I’d get really paranoid, so I eventually cut that off. But I wanted to try MDMA, which is commonly called Ecstasy or Molly. I’m very paranoid, so I did a lot of research and had my friend test it, and I took MDMA at a music festival. In that moment, as I began the high, I looked at everyone, and everyone was just being. I looked at them with no judgement. And then I looked at myself and I realized, I’m not judging them right now because I’m not judging me right now. Every time I’m judging someone else, it’s because I’m actually comparing them to me.
I think there are stigmas around psychedelics for a reason; people will trip and say, ‘I found God, you have to do this, man.’ But what it offered me was: that’s just my brain; I can access that headspace at any time. And it’s super hard, I still judge people all the fucking time, but I have been slapped in the face with the reality that I don’t have to do that, and it only makes me another sufferer when I do.
How easy is it to take those experiences – whether aided by the psychedelics or not – and bring them into your day-to-day?
There’s this concept in the psychedelic community called integration, which is what it sounds like; looking back just after an experience and thinking, what did that teach me? It’s certainly possible to integrate and not learn anything huge, and it’s also possible to not integrate and learn something big. But you help yourself out to reenter those states when you do integrate, whether it’s journaling for you that makes a difference, or talking the experience through with a friend, or writing some music about it, which I’ve done before; every musician who’s done drugs has written music about it!
Legality is hard right now, but there are people doing really, really good work. The MAPS organization, for instance, has been working since the eighties to get MDMA into the medical sphere, and they’re about to do it; people are being treated for complex PTSD with therapeutic Ecstasy sessions, with seriously lasting effects. It’s really awesome. But it’s hard, and it’s dangerous as well, because there’s no regulation for a lot of these substances. One of the things I’m really passionate about is harm reduction, and making sure that if this is a choice you do make for yourself, you go about it in the safest way.
What are some of the dangers that people might encounter? And how might they go about reducing any harm?
From a physiological level, you can trust your dealer as much as you want, but you don’t know what you’re ingesting unless you test it. There are pretty affordable reagent testing kits online; it’s legal, and they send you a bunch of little chemicals in bottles and a guide book. You take a tiny amount of your substance, and based on the chemical you drop on it, you can narrow down what you’re actually putting in your body. So often, people will do Ecstasy and say, ‘I had a terrible time; I felt like I was on top of the world and then I crashed so hard,’ which is what the experience of methamphetamine is like. Ecstasy pills are often cut with caffeine, amphetamine, or methamphetamine, so it’s really important to test it.
One of the things I’m really passionate about is harm reduction, and making sure that if this is a choice you do make for yourself, you go about it in the safest way.
And then on a mental level, a big trip is like an exercise in surrender. So if you are not comfortable with holding a tough thought in your mind and in your heart, and if you feel a lot of resistance and are consistently pushing it away, it might not be time for you to go on a psychedelic journey yet. The proverbial bad trip can come from a lot of things, but the crux of it is being unable to accept a reality that’s in your brain, and when you’re on a mind-altering drug, that can be a very harrowing experience. So dosage is another big part of it; you can always take more, you cannot take less once you’ve taken. So I always invite people to start small and feel it out.
In that sense, it’s not too different from drinking, I suppose!
Totally. I actually have a little complex about drinking. All my friends know this, but I treat it like a drug; I say like, ‘I’m going to redose now,’ or, ‘Oh man, what’s the come down going to be like?’ We don’t see alcohol as a drug, we don’t treat it that way, but it is, and it has devastating effects. More so than any other drug we use.
So, returning to your deconstruction, now that you’ve been working through some intellectual issues and exploring other spiritual practices, how do you approach your former faith?
It varies day to day; some days I’m mad, and most days I’m not. It’s totally reasonable to be mad after coming out of fundamentalism, or any sort of indoctrination. But I just watch people throw such vitriol at Christians, and I think, don’t you remember when we were Christians? We were hanging on for dear life; don’t you think that they might be too?
Lately I’ve been reading Thomas Merton, who was a twentieth-century Roman Catholic mystic, and he talks about God in a way that I think is accessible to the Christian and to the non. Merton’s dead now, but the Dalai Lama said that he had never met a Christian who has so understood Eastern thought. So I’m really liking this Christian language but interpreted through a non-fundamentalist, non-dogmatic lens. I’ll go back and watch sermons from my old Church, and when the words come out of their mouths, it amazes me how I interpret it versus how I’m guessing they’re interpreting it. For example, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’ That is Jesus saying what modern Christians believe, right? And yet I can look at that as pantheistic; he’s saying, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life, and also, so are you.’
But I just watch people throw such vitriol at Christians, and I think, don’t you remember when we were Christians? We were hanging on for dear life; don’t you think that they might be too?
Again, I’m not making any truth statements here. There’s a concept where faiths are all fingers pointing at the moon, but they can’t touch it. Christianity has been super bastardized, but it’s another of the fingers pointing at the moon. It’s saying the same stuff; it’s saying the same thing as the Tao Te Ching, and it’s saying the same thing as Zen Buddhism, and it’s saying the same thing as ‘insert ancient wisdom here.’ In my best moments I have compassion, and almost an evangelistic passion towards the people who believe it, to say, ‘Free yourself from the dense moral interpretation of this text, and just be like Christ; just be.’ I joked on Twitter a couple of months ago that some days I am a Christian.
I want fundamentalists to eschew fundamentalism. I don’t care about Christianity, but I really do care about fundamentalism, and I really dislike all religious and secular dogma. Any time people are putting themselves in a box by saying, ‘This is absolutely true, you have to be this way,’ there’s no evidence for that. Obviously science is a great method to try to gain truth about the world, but there’s no way to know any of the huge, wonderful, mysterious things.
The advice to ‘free yourself’ – I’d imagine that’s something you would have wanted to say to yourself when you were first deconverting. Are there other things that you would want to say to encourage your past self?
I think I would just say, ‘Hell isn’t real,’ because that was the key for me. I’m finishing up an album about this whole experience, and in one of my songs I say that my heart was going where it was all along. My heart was on a trajectory, and it was not American fundamentalist Christianity. As soon as the fear tether was cut I was off exploring, and if I could have started that earlier, things would obviously be different, but I’m okay with that one. But if I could have given small Josh some peace, some true peace, that would have been great.
Through this whole experience over the last few years, what have you learned most about yourself?
I have never had a particular problem with self-knowledge; I’ve always felt this really strong presence of who I am. That obviously was hard in Christianity, because so many of those things were very natural and human, which Christianity hates – sorry, just a little flare up. The big thing I’m learning is that I am not bound to be a certain way. For a while it was very easy to say that I was an anxious person, or that I was a high-energy person, or an extrovert, but these parts of me are not necessarily truly what I am. And so these extensions of me can all be love.
Truly I can, in every scenario, act not from Josh’s ego; I can take a wider look and see that I am part of it all. In these psychedelic, meditative moments, that’s what I have come to know in the way that I thought I would know that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were inside me. What I’ve come to know at this level that’s beyond explanation by words is that I am entwined with it all. And anything other than love that’s coming out of me hurts me. It hurts other people too, but it also hurts me.
And I like that view, because although it sounds kind of hippie, my emotional experience does reflect that, and literally, if you zoom in far enough, everything looks exactly the same. Everything is tiny little atoms, and I’m just more of those in a certain way. So I really enjoy having beliefs now that are reflected in the literal reality that I experience. But I guess what I’ve learned about myself is that I can be love to everyone.
Josh’s debut album, Wholiness, will be released on March 19th.
The above has been lightly edited for clarity and length.