Nearly four decades after research into psychedelics was suppressed by the government, a new wave of scientists is restoring legitimacy to a misunderstood and promising area of research. Baltimore is home to arguably the most prestigious psychedelic research program in the world. The studies conducted by Roland Griffiths and his team at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine did not just commence this new era of legally sanctioned research; they are also the most rigorous scientific studies to date on psilocybin.
This could not have come at a better time. America is not well, and psychedelics possess a therapeutic power uniquely suited for critical transitions—most notably the one from life to death. But psychedelics also offer insight into navigating the critical cultural and historical shifts currently at play in America. These transitions and the conflicts they create are manifestations of deep psychological problems intertwined with identity and mythology.
The mushroom could play a role in this endeavor as an organic remedy uniquely effective at breaking entrenched belief systems around identity. As the latest scholarly articles reveal, the psychedelic experience is fundamentally about restructuring one’s own perspectives on life and challenging one’s own core assumptions. That psychedelics might also be the genesis of the religious mindset may offer hope that this work is less daunting than it may seem. Huey P. Newton liked to point out that contradiction was the ruling principle of the universe.
The latest investigations into psilocybin at Johns Hopkins—published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in November 2016—suggest that it is a medicine, many times safer and more effective than any human drug technology now available, for treating crippling depression and other sicknesses of the soul.
In a commentary authored with colleague Daniel Shalev on the remarkable findings, Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University and director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, compared the effects of psilocybin to other “near-miraculous drugs such as aspirin and clozapine” whose therapeutic mechanisms also “remain mysterious.”
Lieberman argued that the alarming volume of psychiatric conditions in our society alone constitutes an ethical imperative to seriously pursue larger investigations into psilocybin: “We do our patients a disservice by not understanding and appropriately investigating compounds with potential therapeutic value because of their prior controversial associations and on their capacity for misuse.”
I personally investigated psilocybin and its effects by volunteering for one of Johns Hopkins’ studies in 2014, and one of my own findings might seem counter-intuitive: The psychedelic experience was a sobering experience. I realized that my own identity was nothing but a deeply interwoven set of stories or assumptions. Some of those stories were self-defense mechanisms that had outlasted their use. When those stories were stripped away, it felt like being naked or exposed in front of the entire world. It was humiliating to see myself in this way, but ultimately freeing. The experience freed me from deadening positions in order to think about my identity in new ways. The greatest impediments to my own freedom I found within my own assumptions about myself and the world. I felt I had been given a unique opportunity to lead a more fulfilling life outside of a socially programmed role.
Hopkins’ main finding has been that the lasting positive benefits of psilocybin are positively correlated with the intensity of the mystical experience it generates. Mysticism is a kind of transcendence produced by deep inner reflection—a state of cognitive liberty brought about by using the tools you have developed to analyze the outside world to analyze yourself. In this state, information is revealed via intuition.
My “trip” started with what felt like an oncoming spell of madness, as I broke away from what another journal commentator described as the “reassuring banality of everyday experiences.” Wearing eyeshades and headphones, the normal lines of defense—the eye and ear sensors—are disabled, concentrating the experience inward. Music plays a key role in the Hopkins study. The six-and-a-half-hour playlist guided me through a recurring series of birth and death simulations, essentially ringing out a brimming well of repressed emotions clinging to my insides. Imagine Mozart conducting “Ave verum corpus” with your central nervous system as the instruments and you will get an idea of what I am talking about.
“Are there any other kind of songs?” I once asked between waves, seeking relief from being sucked back into another death trance.
The fear of death is featured heavily in the commentary. If there is a consensus, it is that experiencing death, sometimes called “mystical death,” significantly reduces fear and anxiety. The Hopkins study (Griffiths et al.) used 51 cancer patients. These volunteers are often terrified—deeply fearful of facing the unknown, full of anxiety, and extremely depressed. Six and a half months after the study ended, 52 percent and 70 percent of volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as the singular or top five most spiritually significant experience, and the singular or top five most personally meaningful experience of their lives, respectively. Eighty-seven percent attributed increased life-satisfaction or well-being to the experience. Another study from Dec. 2016, titled “The role of psychedelics in palliative care reconsidered: A case for psilocybin” by Benjamin Kelmendi et. al argued that these studies demonstrated “that a single-dose of psilocybin can produce both an acute and enduring reduction in depression symptoms, anxiety, and existential distress in patients with life-threatening cancer.”
Another volunteer I spoke to in 2016—a musician in their mid-20s—told me that the experience with psilocybin led to a profound life reevaluation. “It’s been over a year since I finished the study and in a lot of ways it has totally changed my life in a really positive way,” they explained. “I wouldn’t call it a religious experience, but I would say it was definitely a spiritual experience. I would say that I’m continually very interested in life, in the context of death and these kinds of experiences—religious, spiritual, or transcendent—however you want to describe them, as being ways of coming to terms with or exploring what is beyond our existence in the material world.”
They continue on: “It’s also made me want to live more with less and to try to really genuinely live by my values better. To live more actively and with purpose. In that way, it was really inspiring, and in that way I really think it’s a really good tool to inspire mundane level change. I think it just makes people better and going and healing yourself from the inside will emanate into what you do in the world and it’s really important. I was able to continue to basically quit smoking, to cut down to drinking very little. I was just in Europe on tour and I wasn’t getting wasted even though those around me were.”
Programs like Hopkins might eventually be commonplace throughout the country, with the therapy facilitated in clinics by psychologists like Bill Richards, who has been legally studying psychedelics since the 1960s at Spring Grove Hospital in Catonsville, where he gained a wealth of knowledge and experience designing research studies.
“What makes the responsible use of psychedelic substances so important, however, is that it provides reliability and potency,” Richards writes in his book “Sacred Knowledge.” “For the first time in the history of science, these two factors allow these revelatory states of consciousness and any changes in physical or mental health, or in attitudes or behavior, that may follow them to be studied carefully and systematically within the context of academic research. No longer is the study of mysticism limited to the scholarly scrutiny of historical documents, such as the beautifully expressive writings of St. Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, Rumi, or Shankara.”
In the book, Richards relates the story of a drug addict from Baltimore living in a halfway house. After being released from prison, the man was sent to Spring Grove for treatment and received a high dose of LSD. Afterward, he explained that it was difficult to express the beauty of what was clearly a powerful religious experience. “My mind left my body and my body was dead,” the man said. He described a glowing Divine Being approaching him with his hand out. “I had touched that Divine Being and became part of God. At that moment, I shouted: ‘Good God Almighty, what a beautiful day! Good God Almighty, I am a man at last!’. . . I have been cleansed of all my sins. I thought before this moment that I could see but I have been a blind man all my life.”
Richards’ book is filled with these kinds of stories, which I, coming from a Baptist background, interpreted as clear examples of the “born again” experience, a phrase I’d often heard but never believed.
“You cannot see the kingdom of God,” Jesus said in the Book of John, “unless you are born again.”
Whether or not psychedelics are responsible for the bizarre stories depicted in the Bible, the document could disappear and it would shortly be rewritten, as stories of mystical experiences are a worldwide phenomenon today. However, if future research confirms that psychedelics did play a role in the genesis of religion, a shift in the church’s focus toward a more private practice—perhaps one utilizing eyeshades and a pair of headphones—would be wise.
After the study, I began to see hope and humor where I once saw only dead ends, outdated ideologies, and empty slogans. All of a sudden, forgiveness seemed of the utmost importance. “It is useless to try to adjudicate a long standing animosity by asking who started it, or who is the most wrong,” Wendell Berry once pointed out. “The only sufficient answer is to give up the animosity, and try forgiveness.” Christianity wasn’t so bad, I thought, hell, I might even be a follower. Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out in his book “The Prophets,” that the prophets of the Old Testament have been described since antiquity as “hysterics . . . who experimented with altered states of consciousness.” Former contradictions didn’t seem like contradictions anymore. Some kind of third path had been revealed. New angles, meanings, and perspectives were abundant and exciting. No wonder they were hysterical, I thought, the problems that plague humanity are easily solvable in theory.
I would need a grant from the health department, I thought, and somewhere to conduct a sociology study on mental illness. The 100-plus year relationship between Kentucky and King Coal has left a deep psychological wound on my people. My uncle, Colonel Oren Coin, was sent by the governor to intervene in the battles of Bloody Harlan County in 1935. On the front page of the New York Times on Sept. 30, Uncle Oren described the police and coal operators’ actions as a “reign of terror.” The terrorists have by now mostly abandoned the state, ending the rocky relationship with only environmental and public health disasters left behind as thank-you notes. “You could have called, and told me goodbye,” Larry Sparks moaned in his bluegrass classic of the same name.
There are plenty of troubled pastors in Kentucky (Marvin Gaye Sr. was born in Lexington) and it boasts some of the finest amateur chemists in the country—inside and outside of jail. Furthermore, we played a central role in the history of psychedelics in America. The two most prominent distributors of LSD were from the bluegrass state: Owsley “Bear” Stanley, whose acid fueled the entire counterculture of the 1960s, and Al Hubbard, a one-time CIA agent who provided LSD to the team from Stanford University that invented the personal computer. Hubbard is also the mysterious figure who facilitated the trip that Aldous Huxley recounted in his 1956 essay ‘Heaven and Hell.’
I imagined one of those Amazon drones navigating through the mountains with a box of mushrooms in its craw (“may cause fits, visions and trances”). An eye mask and compact disc were included to ensure a quality mystical experience. An on-the-job-training program would unleash the potential of the state’s demoralized spiritual entrepreneurs, now reduced to profits of positive-thinking. The pastorship would be dispatched with their conversion kits via the “Shaman” app to the homes of the unwell, and to our existing centers of healing, which already have chapels installed. Churches preaching the prosperity gospel were offered free samples—an opportunity for a meet and greet with Jesus! Then again, you should never meet your heroes, they say. I found God to be absolutely ruthless and highly indifferent in judgment.
Psychiatrist David Spiegel of Stanford University argues that psilocybin is essentially about reducing fear by facing “the ultimate loss of control.” Fear, says Spiegel, is a “limiting state of mind” that numbs us from living “fully and authentically.” He views healing as a kind of personal trial or day of judgment aided by the unique mindset facilitated by psilocybin, which switches the mind into a kind of diagnostic or safe mode. “[T]hese drugs seem to ‘reboot’ the brain, leaving it changed long after the drug is gone.” Unfaced fears lead to anxiety, Bilderman pointed out, and eventually crippling phobias develop, many times stored in the subconscious, beneath the level of awareness. “Good psychotherapy involves learning to restructure one’s perspectives on one’s problems in life” by challenging “routine assumptions and think[ing] about problems in new ways.”
At the time of the study, I had been thinking a lot about country music for a column I wrote for this paper. Hank Williams’ most popular song is actually an ode to cognitive liberty. Visited upon him like a “stranger in the night,” a brush with the ineffable leads to a life-altering change in the singer’s perspective, freeing him from paralyzing worry and fear. The clear white light restored the singer’s “vision,” an allusion to the conversion of St. Paul, and a common mystical experience. “I saw the light, I saw the light, no more darkness, no more night. Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight, praise the Lord I saw the light.”
My experience at Hopkins transformed country gospel favorites from stale but fun sing-alongs into meaningful symbols of the psychedelic experience. I imagined this story sparking a revival of old-time country music, and running the clock backwards to a pre-industrial front-porch paradise. In my mind, I was country music’s Martin Luther, restoring a wilder, more authentic form of worship. I saw a large stained-glass bird sitting on top of a tree like a totem pole; it could see everything crystal clear from there, I thought. I saw a network of doors and empty rooms inside of an invisible castle. I felt a presence, and observed the face of a feminine plant-being wearing an eye mask wrapped with vines. It was moving around, performing some kind of possessed ritual and carefully whipping those wild vines. I was mildly alarmed, but also flabbergasted at the performance.
“Travis,” a voice called out.
Was this a guardian angel, I wondered? Maybe a nymph! Or perhaps the Starmaker, guiding me to the Western Lands. I felt a hand resting gently on my shoulder. It was time to check my blood pressure, my session guide said.