The Return Trip: Our Psychedelic Renaissance

When over the past several years states began to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes and then some of them for recreational use, many people from the Baby Boomer generation witnessed something they doubted they would ever see in their lifetimes. People who had long known or believed that marijuana was a safer and beneficial alternative to alcohol had that conviction sanctioned by some state governments. Marijuana advocates finally had their hard-earned victory.

Yet if one now gazes out at the cultural horizon, there is a storm heading our way the impact of which would not only dwarf cannabis legalization, it may have a transformative effect on the entirety of our social fabric. As vividly detailed in Michael Pollan’s 2018 bestseller How to Change Your Mind (Penguin Books), momentum is building towards the legalization and mainstreaming, at least for medical use, of the class of substances known as psychedelics or entheogens. Yes, LSD, psilocybin (found in certain mushroom species), and mescaline (from the peyote cactus) are undergoing a resurgence being described as a renaissance. But the most surprising aspect of this renaissance is how this research has opened a window to the world of spirituality that most involved wouldn’t have thought possible.

Science and Spirit Meet

What makes psychedelics such a fascinating and important topic of interest is that their very existence, unlike anything else this writer can conceive of, has to be considered as being of deep philosophical significance. Here we have a naturally occurring molecule or chemical, that nature has placed in various plants and fungi, that users have insisted for centuries elevates their consciousness to an unmistakable level of spiritual awareness and realization. There is nothing else that allows for science and spirituality, those two supposedly irreconcilable realms of human endeavor, to be analyzed for their connectedness, not their distinctions and differences.

Among the most recent and current psychedelic research programs is one taking place at New York University. Here researchers are working to see if psychedelics can be helpful for people with very difficult to treat psychological conditions, most notably those who have been diagnosed with cancer and are facing a possible terminal prognosis. The NYU psilocybin cancer trial is trying to determine if psilocybin can help people facing the greatest personal crisis there is: the existential fear and dread that comes with knowing that you have only a short amount of time to live. And the results thus far have not only amazed researchers, they’ve shown how spirituality has been thrust into the scientific paradigm.

Stephen Ross saw things in his patients he could hardly believe and said, “People who had been palpably scared of death – they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once could have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like that in the psychiatric field.”

One case study Pollan described is that of Patrick Mettes, a New York man with bile duct cancer who volunteered for the NYU program and had his initial psilocybin session in January 2011. Mr. Mettes was able to speak in great detail about his experience even as he was having it, at one point sitting up and saying to his doctors “Everyone deserves to have this experience, that if everyone did, no one could ever do harm to another again… wars would be impossible to wage.” He eventually added, “The sheer joy, the bliss, the nirvana, was indescribable. I know I’ve had no earthly pleasure that’s ever come close to this feeling. No sensation, no image of beauty, nothing during my time on earth has felt as pure and joyful and glorious as the height of this journey.” Mettes lived another 17 months after his experience, and loved ones say he seemed to carry that bliss with him the entire time. From his hospital bed in his final days he was the one consoling his wife and friends, not the other way around. “It was like he was a yogi. He put out so much love,” his wife Lisa said.

One thing I was struck by upon reading these accounts is how similar they seem to those I’ve read of people having near-death experiences in the now abundant literature on that topic. This is probably not a coincidence or misjudgment. Psychologist Katherine MacLean said, “A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice,” or almost like a dress rehearsal for dying. But people experience the blissful realization that there is something on the other side, so the spiritual implications of this are easy to see.

Martin W. Ball, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Religious Studies from the University of California in Santa Barbara, and now teaches religious studies at Southern Oregon University. He has been an advocate for entheogenic spirituality for years and has written several books on the topic. He also had some very interesting things to say when asked about the convergence of psychedelic and spiritual experience. “Not all use of psychedelics results in a spiritual or mystical experience, but these experiences do show up quite unexpectedly and regularly and can also be intentionally sought after through conscious use of entheogens. It’s very interesting that these kinds of experiences can happen whether one is seeking them out or not. In fact, one could make the argument that psychedelics and entheogens are the premier tool for having deep spiritual experiences simply because they are so reliably effective and potentially powerful.”

When asked why he thought that was, he discussed the psychedelic effect on ego identity/consciousness. “At a fundamental level, entheogens hold the potential to both weaken, and at times, effectively override and dissolve, the ego; our normal sense of self and being. There’s the possibility of encountering the nondual, or complete dissolution of sense of self and other or any sense of separation, where everything is perceived and experienced directly as infinite consciousness and being without any distinctions. Entheogens can propel one out of the habitual identifications into transcendent and universal states of being and perception. Such experiences can be radical, unique, and deeply life-changing.”

The questions statements like this raise are as profound as they are obvious. What are we to make of the mushrooms, cactus, and other botanical forms of life that have this amazing power to profoundly alter our state of mind and raise our awareness from the physical to the spiritual realm of being?

What we do know is that the power of psychedelics to create or enable these shifts in consciousness is not a recent discovery. And what may be more impressive to some people is that it was not yogis, gurus or other New Agers first making these claims, but the scientists who have been researching psychedelics from when LSD was first synthesized in 1938 and continuing to the present day. Almost all of those who led psychedelic research programs from the 50s onward sampled psychedelics for themselves, and even those who were staunch atheists or materialists before their experience felt as if profound truths about the existence of a spiritual realm were being revealed to them. It really isn’t any wonder why so many of them felt that their self-identity as scientists was being challenged, and they began to think of themselves in a more holistic way. Most if not all of the research up until the 1960’s prohibition led many of the scientists involved to feel strongly about the potential of psychedelics as a possible agent for human transformation and societal betterment. So even in the pre-60s much of the focus of psychedelic research changed from psychiatric treatment of the mentally ill to something much more encompassing: bringing peace, happiness, and spiritual understanding to all of humanity.

Indeed, if we fast-forward to the 21st century, we can see that the intervening years have done little if anything to diminish what scientists perceive the psychedelic experience to be, or what many feel its potential effect on society can be.

Rick Doblin founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) way back in 1986, after transformative psychedelic experiences of his own. He believes that psychedelic usage reveals a spiritual dimension in human consciousness that everyone has, regardless of the religious belief or lack thereof of users, thereby raising humanity up above the strife and discord caused by sectarian religion. The result can be, in Doblin’s mind, nothing less than a spiritually united human race. “Mysticism,” he said, “is the antidote to fundamentalism.”

Bill Richards had his first psychedelic experience as a divinity student at Yale in 1963. He described it thusly. “All I can say is the eternal brilliance of mystical experience manifested itself. My awareness was flooded with love, beauty and peace beyond anything I had ever known or imagined to be possible.” Later that decade he led clinical trials that gave LSD to the seriously or terminally ill and was amazed by the results. He wrote that LSD gave his patients a feeling “of cosmic unity,” so that death “instead of being seen as the absolute end of everything and a step into nothingness, appears suddenly as a transition into another type of existence.”

Richards is now part of the team headed by Roland Griffiths that restarted psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins in 1999, and if one person stands out as the leading figure in the psychedelic renaissance it is Griffiths. In fact, Pollan writes that if there is a date that the revival fully blossomed it was 2006, and the key event triggering it was the publication in the medical journal Psychopharmacology of Griffiths’ paper “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”

That the words “spiritual” and “mystical” could appear in a research paper’s title is remarkable enough, but even more so was the enthusiasm with which the paper was received by the scientific establishment. It was as if Griffiths had singlehandedly created a space allowing for the spiritual to be accepted as a subject of legitimate scientific inquiry.

Yet it has been observed there is an interesting paradox at work here. Research involving psychedelics has been applied with the highest standards of the scientific method, yet the success of this research seems to depend on the prevalence of mystical experiences that take subjects into places science is unable to venture. It may have been the great religious scholar and theologian Huston Smith who expressed the situation best. In a letter to Bob Jesse after the publication of Roland Griffith’s 2006 paper that got this Renaissance started, he wrote, “The Johns Hopkins experiment shows – proves – that under controlled experimental conditions, psilocybin can occasion genuine mystical experiences. It uses science, which modernity trusts, to undermine modernity’s secularism. In doing so it offers hope of nothing less than a re-sacralization of the natural and social world, a spiritual revival that is our best defense against not only soullessness, but against religious fanaticism. And it does so in the very teeth of the unscientific prejudices built into our current drug laws.”

Can’t argue with that.

Legal Status and Issues

More encouraging news for legalization advocates occurred in the last year, when Oakland, California, and Denver, Colorado passed measures to decriminalize the possession of psilocybin mushrooms. Campaigns to place mushroom decriminalization referendum questions on 2020 election ballots have also begun in Oregon and California. But while these events represent progress for those hoping for legal sanction for personal use, the scope of these efforts are likely to be limited in size at least until there is widespread approval for medical use, much like what happened with cannabis. In fact, if there is an area of disagreement among advocates it is the types of usage psychedelics should be legalized for.

Outright legalization for recreational use a la marijuana? While there are still those who hope for this level of social acceptance and government approval, the majority opinion is that might not be the best idea. While research has shown that psychedelics are remarkably safe, nontoxic, and completely nonaddictive, there is as with any substance the potential for misuse. They are not for drinking beer with or mixing with other drugs. Activists have a genuine reverence for psychedelics and don’t want to see them used frivolously or in dangerous ways.

As we have seen, the psychedelic movement has always been about more than just medical usage. The true believers from outside the medical profession have always envisioned broader applications for psychedelics, especially for their use in spiritual contexts. The phrase “the betterment of well people” is a mantra for those with this mindset. Activist Bob Jesse, founder of the Council on Spiritual Practices, would like to see trained and certified psychedelic guides administer entheogens in what he called “longitudinal multigenerational contexts,” which to Pollan sounded “a lot like churches.” Others envision psychedelics being used in spa-like or religious retreat settings, again with trained guides present to take care of people having their experience and then helping them integrate it afterwards.

Before the 1960s there was no law restricting the use of entheogens and they have been in use for spiritual purposes by cultures around the world for centuries or millennia. In the Western Hemisphere evidence indicates widespread usage among indigenous cultures throughout the Americas, with usage in Latin and South America, and among Native Americans, continuing today. Martin Ball was able to elaborate on other historical use. “Many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions actually have an ancient history of use of entheogens. Long before there were organized religions, humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies where the predominant form of spirituality was shamanism, and shamans have always made use of entheogens and plants and fungi that alter consciousness (along with other forms of accessing altered states such as fasting and drumming, etc.). The ancient Greeks used entheogens in their religions. So too did ancient Hindus. There’s evidence for entheogen use in ancient Egyptian religion, Zoroastrianism, indigenous African and Native American traditions, to name just a few. It’s important to understand that it was (and is) a global phenomenon and has not been limited to any particular time or place in the world.”

Unfortunately, those centuries of prior spiritual or sacramental use became problematic when the US started making all known entheogenic agents illegal in the 1960s, but in 2006 a slight legal opening for spiritual use appeared courtesy of the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the UDV, a small religious sect founded in Brazil in 1961, could legally import ayahuasca, an entheogenic tea it uses as a sacrament, into the US. The Court based its decision on 1993’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which when enacted allowed the Native American Church to continue the peyote ceremonies that had been a part of the Church’s worship for decades. The UDV, which stands for Union of the Plants in English, expanded in the US after the ruling, and had about 525 American members in nine church communities in 2018.

So, it seems as if a legal precedent has been established that sanctions entheogenic use in religious worship, but there are caveats. Part of the Court’s decision included the recognition of the UDV as an already existing religion, so it remains to be seen how the government would respond if an American citizen wanted to establish a new church in which entheogens were part of its practice or worship.

What Does it Mean?

Science has taught us that all forms of life evolve and adapt over the course of eons, and that they naturally develop attributes to better ensure their long-term survival. But what would be the reason that certain plant species developed psilocybin and mescaline over the course of their evolution? Botanical research has shown psilocybin and mescaline provide little if any benefit to their host organisms, but they do astounding things for the people who use them. It’s not a defense mechanism or something to strengthen an organism’s long-term survival prospects if it makes it more likely that humans will want to consume it.

Something is going on here. A person doesn’t have to be anti-science to believe that organisms that contain these incredible properties to enlighten minds to the spiritual realm of being couldn’t possibly have evolved on this planet by accident. Is the natural world we share this planet with trying to share secrets with us about life that it’s known all along? Is the immanent and transcendent God, in which we live and breathe and share our being, trying to speak to us through these amazing plants?

Most importantly, are we listening?

One of the things I loved about Michael Pollan’s book were its numerous references to something very dear to me and that is William James’ masterpiece The Varieties of Religious Experience, which is still thought to be one of the greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century even though it was published in 1902. James’ study of mysticism led him to believe that our everyday waking consciousness “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

Amen, brother James, amen.

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, Penguin Books, 2018.

Peter Stilla is a Christian Universalist minister who lives in Deerfield, MA, with his wife Shannon and daughters Sophia and Parrish.

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