A dark night on Wall Street
Tom Morgan talks to us about his spiritual emergency, how ketamine helped him recover, and what western culture needs for ecstatic integration
This is an interview with Tom Morgan, who writes the What’s Important substack. He works for a New York investment firm and bridges the worlds of spirituality and finance in a unique way. In this interview he opens up with tremendous honesty about a ‘mystical psychosis’ experience he had a few years ago, and the ketamine treatment that brought him back from the underworld. Thank you for your honesty and wisdom Tom!
You can read highlights of our conversation below, listen to the full conversation on our podcast, or watch it on YouTube. Paid subscribers will also get some extra info and resources after the paywall at the end. One quick note – Tom mentions the work of Iain McGilchrist, a British philosopher-psychiatrist who suggests we have two ways of knowing – analytical and intuitive – which are centred in the left and right hemispheres respectively, and that western culture has become increasingly and catastrophically dominated by ‘left-brain thinking’.
Jules Evans: Can you set the context for your awakening / breakdown experience?
Tom Morgan: I stumbled into the City of London after I graduated from Oxford with an unexpectedly good degree. I worked at Merrill Lynch selling equities, starting in London in 2005 then New York from 2009. I had a really good decade, and after 10 years my interests started to diverge.
I effectively spent long hours in a room, doing nothing, surrounded by other men in a room doing nothing and atrophying, and my health deteriorated, I started putting on weight, my mind started deteriorating. I started getting panic attacks. So I went through the US healthcare system. They couldn't find anything wrong with me. Eventually I went to a functional medicine doctor. I cut everything out of my diet, including like booze and rich food, which is hard to do in New York.
I started getting more and more clarity and energy, and I wrote a book. It was sort of a cut-and-paste of 60 pages of quotes, and on the final day of writing the book I had this moment where I was like oh, I suddenly know what the Tao is, and I suddenly know what the Hero's Journey is, and at that moment I snapped out of consensus reality. I had a satori [awakening] experience, or a psychotic break depending on your biases.
It was the best day of my life. I walked around with my senses blown open, completely bathed in love. I was able to contextualize it neurologically later, due to the work of Iain McGilchrist - I think I flipped from being left-hemisphere-dominated [i.e over-analytical] to right-hemisphere for a day [i.e immersed in the moment]. It ended my world. It put me in spectacular spiritual narcissism for about 3 months. Full Messiah complex but also immersed in conspirituality for a few weeks. I had the full range of experiences.
‘At that moment I snapped out of consensus reality. I had a satori experience, or a psychotic break depending on your biases. It was the best day of my life.’
I decided to quit my job. I become a hospice worker. I tried to be a social worker. I tried to be a recruiter to help other people manage these transitions. I tried to be a life coach. I tried to be a Jungian analyst…
Were you married at this point?
Yes, I was married, although I would say very precariously. My wife is non-traditionally spiritual. And suddenly I'm spouting bullshit, and buying Buddha statues and meditating and just being like as painfully obnoxious as you could possibly imagine, in a full 180-degree turn from my previous personality. So my wife was like, who the hell did I marry? I’ve lost my husband! All this stable life is gone.
I think my major mistake was letting my ego try and reinvent me when I didn't know what my meaningful direction in life was. I kept trying to grasp the things that were dictionary definition Meaningful. And every time, the universe would close that avenue down very aggressively.
That must have been difficult, from a material point of view and from a relationship point of view.
Well, this isn't hyperbole: it was as close to the definition of hell as I could comprehend, because I was psychotically depressed. I was very, very mentally ill, and I didn't see any way out of my predicament. I had gone from a managing director at an investment bank to being turned down for $20,000 a year graduate jobs. I was so abstracted from the world I had no sense of guidance, and basically just got very lost for a very long time.
One of the strangest experiences of my life happened on Boxing Day 2017. I got very into kind of Jordan Peterson before he made his hard pivot. And on Boxing Day, a few months after my awakening, I went on a run round Central Park, listening to Peterson talk about Adam and Eve. He gives a very florid description of hell in Hieronymous Bosch terms, and at the end of the podcast, Peterson describes a vision where he gets thrown into a Roman amphitheatre and has to fight the devil. At the end of it he asks God, ‘why did you do that’ And God says, ‘because I knew you could win’. And there was sort of ringing in my ears and I had a very cold shower after having been outside, and then I heard a voice qualitatively different from any voice I’d heard in my life say, ‘you're ready for the Hero's Journey. You're ready for a son.’ It was very strange. My wife and I had been trying to get pregnant. But I hadn't really thought about having a kid in the context of the Hero's Journey.
I sat down on the couch, and one of the things that my awakening had felt like was a strong pressure between my eye on the top of my forehead, the third eye area. And I Googled ‘is the third eye’ – and it auto-completed to ‘is the third eye evil’ and I went to an article written by a woman who said that she had dabbled in the occult and was damned. And at that point I was gripped with the conviction that because I dabbled in the occult when I was 13 (as in I’d bought a book about magic) I was damned. That night I had a vision of a snake eating my heart, and I had a an absolutely cast-iron delusion that I was damned. And a voice started in my head and went on for about 2 to 3 years, just basically screaming to kill myself. I ended up getting rosary beads so I could try and pray to make the voice stop, which it never did.
Did you speak to a therapist or psychiatrist, or you know, a spiritual advisor? Or were you trying to figure it out on your own?
Yes to every one of those. I was effectively told by the psychiatrists that I was never getting out and that my wife had to accept that I was just some dead-eyed freak for the rest of my life, and was stuck there. Everything was about the quantity of drugs, that was the conversation. They were looking through you to work out what you had and what they could give you. They gave me an antipsychotic that meant I didn't dream for nine months, although they did stabilize me.
I remember my wife, who is medium famous, got me into the office of the head of psychiatry at Columbia University very soon after my satori and I remember him looking at me with these cold blue eyes. And I said I think there's more to this spiritually, and he just looks at me and points to his scalp and says ‘if I stimulate this part of your brain, you will believe in God’. There's no ‘there’ there effectively.
And then there were spiritual gurus saying get off the drugs. I met some guy who said he could get me out of the dark night of the soul in two hours.
That’s our culture’s pathology – we have these directly opposed interpretations of spiritual experience.
Having a spiritual emergency in Manhattan is like having a burst appendix in the fifteenth century. There’s nowhere you can go.
So go back to the night your son was born.
So at this point, when my wife was pregnant, I had stopped searching for a meangingful job and taken a high-paid job selling data to hedge funds. Totally stripped of any meaning.
I read an article which I'm sure you're familiar with - Scott Alexander's Meditations on Moloch. It's the scariest thing I've ever read by an order of magnitude. It's about the devil and the god of zero-sum games, where you sacrifice everything of value for power. And at the time it felt like I was sacrificing my child, and I had to sacrifice my child, I either had to die myself, or I had to sacrifice my child to the devil effectively [ie to Moloch, the world of bad incentives], and I actually think that, as garbled and delusional as it was, it represented something archetypally true, that effectively I had to open up for my son. I was sacrificing everything for a high-paying job that was driving me insane. This article precisely articulated the dead life that I'd acquired at that time.
And then, literally on the night my son Jack was going to be born, as we were on the way to the hospital, I had a push alert on my phone from the Medium blogging platform, saying ‘The battle for your soul has begun’.
So my son was born, and I felt no connection to Jack, no joy and no relationship with him or anyone. But I had a sense that he was going to save me.
Then things all came to a head. I gave up on life effectively, because of my diagnosis. My psychiatrist suggested electro-shock therapy. I didn't care if I got amnesia after ECT. I felt I had got nothing in my life worth remembering or living for. I didn't really care.
But my psychiatrist, who, God bless him, was not effective, went on paternity leave, and referred me to Columbia's primary expert on treatment-resistant depression, and they had just started ketamine trials. And this expert just looked at me and was like we literally have nothing left to lose. So they put me on a course of antipsychotics to prevent me from going manic during the ketamine. Then they gave me six ketamine infusions, maybe a week or two apart. And I would come out and have like 24-48 hours of just being out from under my own consciousness, and then I’d be back in so it didn't really help.
The psychiatrist said we’ll give you two more infusions, and then try ECT. So the seventh infusion, nothing happens. And then the eighth one, I think I walked in knowing it's do or die. This is it.
I went into the trip state, saw a kind of amorphous black shape. And I went into it, and dialogued with it. I'm like, why are you here. I always think of the Jung line, which is ‘all neurosis is a function of the avoidance of true suffering’.
The night of Jack's birth I had dreamt that I dragged him into hell, and I had to give myself up for him, otherwise he was going to stay in hell, and that was the vision that I had under the ketamine - that I dragged my son into hell, and he was going to suffer. It did not feel redemptive.
One of the turning points of my life was immediately afterwards. A lovely Irish nurse who kind of had held my hand metaphorically through the trip, she saw me come out obviously so distressed, and she looked me dead in the eyes and said ‘there’s hope’ and I just folded. I cried for four hours.
And then I got better….My wife said that within a week, I was a different person. I could notice beauty again. I could listen to music. When I was very depressed there was a pane of glass between me and the world. And that pane of glass slowly dissolved, and I was back in life.
Tell me a bit more about what you think happened and why you recovered?
So this is where I go a little woo. My gateway drug for all of this was Joseph Campbell. If there's a guiding quote of my life, it's ‘follow your bliss and doors will open where there were only walls’. I have an unfounded belief that hearts are electromagnetic sensors, and that typically most people's heart centers are closed. And I think I was a very intellectually abstracted person, my heart was closed, and then, I think during the crisis I went full-blown, abstracted, left hemisphere intellect, I got dragged fully into that state of being separated from the world, so that I wouldn't confront whatever it was I needed to confront that was closing me off from the world, and I'm still not entirely sure what that is.
Then I don't know what role the ketamine played, but it enabled me to confront that thing, and then, after that point I gained a sense of openness and that openness manifests in a heart sense when I'm energetically doing something I should be.
So after that ketamine treatment, I got a job back in finance. It was spectacularly meaningless, but while I was doing it I kept writing. I started writing about a synthesis of finance and spirituality. I wrote one piece, and I sent it to my old distribution list, and my old boss called me out of the blue and said we’ll invent a job for you.
It was the first time I didn't reject my finance skills, but instead I integrated them. If I was a mystical person, I'd be like well, that's the audience that I'm supposed to be reaching - a highly rationalist audience that won't swallow anything that hasn't been Trojan horsed with how it's going to make you wealthier.
Most spiritual writing is dog shit, or is written for people that are already spiritual. There's no transitional literature. But increasingly, there’s a community of people that are guiding people from the left hemisphere to the right, or from science to spirituality, and that clearly is where I've been placed.
It’s encouraging to think there are people familiar with navigating altered states working in all kinds of fields, not just the stereotypical ‘spiritual’ world.
Yeah, it's the thing I'm obsessed with at the moment, which is basically we don't have a wisdom tradition. We don't have people that can marry both sides
A lot of spiritual people aren't very effective, and lot of effective people aren't very spiritual. What's needed now is hybrid people that are highly effective, who use a minimum amount of effort to get the maximum amount of result. That's what a wise person is, and I feel that like we've lost that - people have spiritual experiences often go way off the other direction, because there's so little response to that in society, but also there's no instruction in the game to people as to how to be effective. So now you've had a satori right? Like it's gonna take you 4 years to bed it in. Don't talk to anyone. Don't write about it for 4 years. I talked to everyone about it and wrote about it immediately, and it was fucking awful. We have no resources or guidance for people.
And I've noticed that the acceleration of this process is happening as I think we are hitting this kind of phase shift. I know it’s very common for people that have had ecstatic experiences to think that everyone's about to have one, but I do believe we're going through that slow motion or quite rapid transition now. But we haven't given people tools, or guidance, for it.
How was the recovery process after that ketamine experience?
I haven’t had any more ketamine infusions. I've had 2, maybe 3 psychiatry sessions since, once a year, basically for the psychiatrist to be like, you're good. And I'm like, yep good. I'm still on meds. I think it's to important to mention that. The meds have 0 side effects. As far as I can tell and I don't want to go off them.
They don't blunt your dream life, your spiritual life?
No, I feel like I have a great relationship with my own unconscious. The biggest change in my psyche has been basically been the idea that there is a ‘there’ there, and myth is talking about the there. Joseph Campbell said that the purpose of myth was to harmonize the mind and body, and that basically the mind rambles off in strange ways and wants things the body doesn't want – for the body, you could say right hemisphere. That basically, your abstracted side of yourself has all these plans but what you will start doing is grinding up against where you should actually be, based on your evolutionary flow, so for me it's being stuck in a finance room full of dying people, that grinding starts, and that distance starts, and the myth basically speaks to you and says you shouldn't do that you know.
But when your feeble consciousness cracks for a second and you encounter these experiences, your brain's not big enough to take these things in, and that was my experience initially. Like I dreamt in symbols. The first night of my awakening I dreamt of a gleaming ring, apparently it's a big Jungian thing but the only time I’d seen something like that before was in the movie The Ring. So I needed a story to explain it, even though that story was wrong.
We’re not really taught how to interpret symbols, outside of literature classes.
Well, we're actually told that they don't exist, which is much worse.
I think what's happening right now is that this very small group of people who I know you're familiar with all of them are building a new map, that integrates science and meaning and shows us where we matter in it. And my sole goal is to synthesize that map so that highly rationalist left-brain people can get enough science, you know, a good enough Trojan horse to understand how they can apply these kind of Hero’s Journey concepts in a deeply practical way without ever ruining their life.
I want to stop so many middle-aged people from getting stuck, because that's what I saw was the greatest unmet need and I want to communicate this meaningful message using my kind of unique finance audience skills.
I guess people in Wall Street are partly stuck because of material incentives and possessions.
The thing I always tell people is the nastiest, scariest quote I've ever heard from Jung is: ‘there's no greater burden a child can bare then the unlived life of a parent’. That hits men of a certain age right in the nuts. Because I think what happens is that particularly American tri-state area finance people, they look at their current situation where they've lost interest in what they're doing, the toothpaste is out of the tube. But it's not going back in, and they're like ‘all I can see is a room with fewer bedrooms, and me equally unhappy’, and there's no one really talking to them and saying that actually, you're going to have fewer bedrooms and maybe fewer cars but your wife's going to be happier, if you married the right person, and your kids are definitely going to be happy because their dad is going to come alive again.
But sometimes a spiritual life isn’t a particularly lucrative life – I know plenty of people who try to live spiritual lives and who struggle financially, and I bet some people reading this are trying to, like, manifest more abundance in their life.
Alright, so I've got views. The first is you need to pick where your gifts meet what the world needs.
I do believe there's a structural problem with our society that does not reward the right kind of people. And I'm working now at a very early stage on trying to arrange a patronage system because all the people that I find most impressive are not always earning what they need to earn, and I don't believe that's a deficiency of theirs, so like I hear that. But the full rejection of materialism often just strikes me as bitterness.
I think manifestation is like magic, and potentially incredibly evil and should never be practiced by anyone. Unless you're really sure that that you're smarter than the universe, maybe you shouldn't be bringing things into it. Be careful what you wish for. My biggest concern with manifestation is not that its bullshit, its that it works.
What about the systematic aspects of Wall Street, do they need reforming? Do you think about that?
Yeah, I think and write about it incessantly. The problem is that you have to realize if you're going to be consistent with your own thesis, the individual level is probably the only level that's applicable, because all emergent movements are bottom up right? So that what needs to be fixed. And what you're seeing in finance right now is the repeated failure of top-down interventions. And they just don’t learn. again and again, and again and again.
What do you think needs to be built in to the system to help us integrate these experiences?
The first article I read after I gained the mental stamina to read a long article was Studies on Slack, which is the follow-up Scott Alexander article to Meditations on Moloch. How do you kill zero-sum games? And it’s basically creating enough slack for emergence to happen. It's opening your heart enough for emergence to come in.
If you're working a 100-hour a week job in a Wall Street investment banking job, you can't you can't reorient your life, even though you're getting the call to adventure, but you're ignoring it because you’re so busy and then suddenly, you start meditating, and that creates a 2% gap. And that kicks the doors in. Or you decide to go on vacation, or you get confined to your room for 6 months by Covid. That creates this womb and something grows into the womb.
This sounds quite Taoist or Zen. The creativity of emptiness.
Precisely. I also think you need safe spaces where you get you can have the guru, but you also have someone that's trained to deal with psychotic episodes and can medicate you if need be. Those 2 worlds are kept separate and I find it really weird that I had to go to the guy that said ‘Get off the drugs’ to get the spiritual guidance, and the guy with drugs said ‘God's a feature of neurology’
And I think it speaks to the silos that the American mental health system works in, that you don't get hybrids.
In shamanic cultures, the shaman themselves had gone through this destructive experience, this Hero's Journey, this death and rebirth, and I think that gave them the ability to walk between worlds. And it gave them this fundamental empathy with people going through similar problems.
The problem is that we think we can get that from three years of studying the DSM. I would be more interested in hearing from people that have gone through these dark nights and come out the other side of what helped them. And what didn’t. Almost every wise person that I found. And there aren't many. They've all had horrifying dark nights I can't find anyone that I'm aware of that when you really dig into that bio haven't had like a prolonged experience of depression. I don’t know how necessary that is but I think it helps.
After the paywall, paid subscribers get: a link to a recent talk Jules gave on ‘the mysticism / psychosis continuum’, the concluding chapter to our book on spiritual emergencies (Breaking Open), and other recent stories on psychedelic and ecstatic ethics, integration and harm reduction, including GH Research’s wild new 5MEODMT treatment and why Australians are questioning the surprise decision to authorize psychedelic therapy. We hope our newsletter is a must-read and high-value resource for researchers, businesses, facilitators, and people interested in ecstatic and psychedelic integration, ethics and harm reduction.
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