Calling all mystics: Clergy psychedelic study aims to awaken spiritual experiences

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Colorful mind illustration.

Photo courtesy of agsandrew via Shutterstock

Colorful mind illustration.

(RNS) Researchers investigating beneficial new uses for psychedelic drugs have set their sights on what may seem an unlikely group of volunteer subjects — your local priest, minister or rabbi.

Scientists at New York University and Johns Hopkins University have already shown positive results in an expanding program where psychotherapists have used psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” to treat depression and acute anxiety in cancer patients.

Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, is leading the new research, which stems from findings that volunteers who’ve taken psilocybin in a wide variety of research settings often report profound mystical experiences.

Griffiths wonders whether these altered states of consciousness are the same as those reported by longtime meditators or highly religious individuals. And he now has a three-pronged research project that will attempt to answer that question.


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First, anyone in the world is invited to participate in an online survey about mystical experiences and “God-encounters,” whether they were inspired by Christian prayer, Buddhist meditation, a walk in the woods or a dose of LSD in the 1960s.

Second, spiritual seekers with extensive experience in Buddhist or other forms of meditation are being sought for another study that allows them to try psilocybin in a clinical setting with experienced guides. Eighteen of an anticipated 40 research subjects have gone through sessions for that project at Johns Hopkins.

Scientists at New York University and Johns Hopkins University have already shown positive results in an expanding program where psychotherapists have used psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” to treat depression and acute anxiety in cancer patients. Photo by Matthew Johnson/Courtesy of Johns Hopkins

Scientists at New York University and Johns Hopkins University have already shown positive results in an expanding program where psychotherapists have used psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” to treat depression and acute anxiety in cancer patients. Photo by Matthew Johnson/courtesy of Johns Hopkins

Longtime contemplatives, Griffiths said, “have a vocabulary and a nuanced understanding of the nature of mind.” He hopes that insight will help scientists identify differences and similarities between mystical states induced by drugs and those induced by meditation.

Griffiths has had the hardest time getting volunteers for the third part of the research — the study involving ordained ministers. He and colleagues at NYU are looking for two dozen full-time members of the clergy in any religious denomination.

Organizers of the three studies have tried to get the word out via websites, advertisements in specialty publications and fliers — including one with the headline “Hopkins Scientists Seek Religious Leaders to Take Part in a Study of Psilocybin and Mystical Experience — Can Psilocybin Help Deepen Spiritual Lives?” 

After extensive preliminary screening, including medical and psychological tests, 12 subjects will receive psilocybin in living-room-like psychedelic session rooms at NYU in Manhattan and at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Subjects wear eyeshades, listen to evocative music designed to heighten the journey inward and are monitored by two therapists, who provide reassuring support.

So far, only one ordained minister has done a session at Johns Hopkins.

“We first need to see if these religious professionals experience the same effects we’ve seen otherwise. I think we can make a good guess that yes, they will,” Griffiths said.

“Then, if so, how does this experience affect their engagement with their vocation? Clergy burnout is a very real and common phenomenon,” he added. “They may feel burdened with administrative responsibility and may be losing some of the inspiration that brought them into the ministry in the first place.

“What I would most hope to see is that this kind of experience would resonate with the reasons they were initially drawn into the ministry and empower them to engage with their congregation in renewed and exciting ways,” Griffiths said.


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The researchers at Johns Hopkins and NYU hope to find clergy with no prior exposure to  classic hallucinogens such as LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. Participants need to be in full-time ministry without likelihood of disruption over the next year.

“We don’t want someone about to go on sabbatical because what we are really looking for are the aftereffects,” Griffiths explained. “How are they viewing that experience a year later? How is it affecting their relationship with their congregations or their sermons? Are they more engaged or less engaged?”

Griffiths’ new round of research builds on an early study he led giving psilocybin to 36 “hallucinogenic-naive” adults. Fourteen months after their psychedelic sessions, well over half of those volunteers said the psilocybin trip was among the five most personally meaningful (58 percent) and spiritually significant (67 percent) events of their lives.

The new work with clergy and psilocybin harks back to a famous study by a Harvard researcher in 1962 called the “Good Friday Experiment.”


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During an Easter-season worship service, 10 seminary students were given psilocybin and 10 received a placebo drug, in order to compare the nature and extent of whatever mystical experiences they had during the liturgy.

One of the seminarians who got the psilocybin, the Rev. Mike Young, went on to a 50-year vocation as a Unitarian-Universalist minister in California, Hawaii and Florida.

Young said it took more than a year for him to understand and appreciate the effect his psychedelic journey had on his life and ministry.

“What the psilocybin did for me was reframe what I thought mystical experience was all about,” he said. “I expected it to involve the basic symbols and language of religion, but it had more to do with the garbage that was going on inside me at the time. It reframed my values and perceptions.”

It also helped inspire him to work in the 1960s and 1970s with young people who had drug problems, and later with social justice and interfaith ministries.

“For me, there was a leap in imagination that saw that the same human experience lies at the back of all religious images and stories,” Young said. “It opened me up and allowed me to go beyond narrow sectarian notions, including those I was identifying with at the time.”

More than a half-century later, Young is not surprised that Griffiths is having trouble finding clergy to volunteer for his research project.

“It’s still the kind of thing clergy are scared to death to get close to,”  he said. “We’ve portrayed drugs as demonic for so many decades. … It’s still toxic.”

Private funding for the studies of religious leaders and longtime meditators is being provided, respectively, by the California-based Council on Spiritual Practices and the Heffter Research Institute in Santa Fe, N.M. Both are nonprofit organizations that are funding a new wave of research into the use of otherwise-outlawed psychedelic drugs to promote psychological healing and spiritual integration. The new research has been approved by federal regulators and the review boards at NYU and Johns Hopkins.

Bill Richards, a veteran psychedelic therapist working with the team at Johns Hopkins, did LSD research with alcoholics and depressed cancer patients in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, before the government put an end to the first wave of psychedelic science, a field of inquiry that has re-emerged over the past decade.

“Profoundly spiritual alternate states of consciousness, often called revelations, are touchstones in the histories of most world religions, and may even be found in their very origins,” he said. “There’s Moses and the burning bush, Isaiah’s temple vision, the vision on the road to Damascus that transformed Saul of Tarsus into St. Paul.

“We now know that such sacred experiences also can be occasioned with a high degree of reliability in many people with psychedelic substances when they are wisely administered,” said Richards, author of the new book “Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences,” published by Columbia University Press.


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Richards said it’s ironic but perhaps not surprising that clergy would be hesitant to go off on a mystical mushroom ride.

"Distilled Spirits: Getting High, then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk" is a new book by Don Lattin that traces the influences Gerald Heard and his friends Aldous Huxley and Bill Wilson had on the American religious landscape and, eventually, on Lattin himself.

Don Lattin is the author of five books, including “The Harvard Psychedelic Club” and “Distilled Spirits.” Photo courtesy of Don Lattin

“Could it be that a factor is fear of encountering what the theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the really real God’? ‘Revelatory experiences may have been fine for Isaiah and St. Paul, but for me?’ ”

Stephen Warres, a semiretired psychiatrist who has practiced Zen meditation for 30 years, is one of the 18 subjects who has volunteered so far for the Johns Hopkins study of longtime meditators.

Warres, who never tried psychedelic drugs when he was in college back in the 1960s, found his recent psilocybin session to be “quite an ecstatic experience.” The music was “unbearably beautiful.” He felt, paradoxically, like he was “in a vast void that was completely filled.”

At one point during the trip, his guide handed him a single rose. “It felt like I was looking at the rose, and the rose was looking at me.”

Now, two months later, Warres feels like he’s become less rigid, less compulsive and a little less irritable.

“It was a wake-up call,” he said. “I had the sense I had been passing roses and people and trees and all kind of stuff all my life without really looking and really connecting. I saw that I have the opportunity to have more intense and beautiful connections to everything in my life.”

(Don Lattin is the author of five books, including “The Harvard Psychedelic Club” and “Distilled Spirits.”)

LM/MG END LATTIN

  • Iam glad to see it noted that this is an entheogen, and like cannabis brings light within!

  • “It’s still the kind of thing clergy are scared to death to get close to,” he said. “We’ve portrayed drugs as demonic for so many decades. … It’s still toxic.”

    If God needs us to damage our brains in order to see him that would be a good argument against his existence – let alone his goodness. A trickster God who hides until our brains are properly altered would be of no use to anyone.

    Believe this stuff if you wish. But a God who appears with the help of a pill would be just a bad drug.

  • Richard H

    Such a trickster God would have also been responsible for the mushroom in the first place. Orrrr there’s no anthropomorphic God, and we can still see it as miraculous that the same world that manifested us also manifested a mushroom that grows chemicals in our bodies that provide us revelatory, mystical, cosmic experiences.

    If you portray yourself as an atheist then I suspect you have a distaste for those who accept what they’re told without critique. As the psychoactive chemicals in psychedelic mushrooms have no known toxicity, I would ask you to give up your belief that mushrooms cause brain damage. There is no evidence to support that conclusion.

    I’ve heard psychedelics described as “church for atheists.” I hope someday you get over your trepidation and take the dive into that deep water. But do your homework first — remember set and setting, and bring trusted company along for your first time.

  • Richard H

    * in ITS body, not “in our bodies.”

    It’s before my first coffee.

  • @Richard,

    You misunderstand. I’m sure the drugs are fun – and perhaps safe (though you carefully warn me about ‘set and setting’ so I doubt it). Glimpsing a cool unfamiliar scene for a temporary period of time thanks to mind-altering chemistry cannot be a valid way of reaching a god who cares about humanity.

    I’ve had enough mind-altering drugs to know what is going on here. If God is in a pill or a mushroom he is denying 99.99% of humanity a chance to witness him – and for a God who could do anything, that is too ridiculous to believe.
    There is certainly nothing pious or righteous in such a god.

  • I am a long time Buddhist meditator who did many three month Dzogchen retreats during a period of several years on the higher Himalayas and I have discussed the relationships between psychedelics and Dzogchen practice in an Appendix to Vol. IV of my four-volume book The Beyond Mind Papers: Transpersonal and Metatranspersonal Theory (2013, Blue Dolphin Publishing, Nevada City, CA). My conclusion is that all states produced by psychedelics have been charted by the Dzogchen teachings, yet nearly all of them are deemed by those teachings to lie within samsara rather than to be instances of nonstatic nirvana / rigpa… I could write longer but the reader can go to the Appendix in question…

  • AP

    An intriguing comment, Elias-la! Is the only way to access that appendix by purchasing the physical book? Or might you have the relevant snippet accessible online? This is a topic of much interest to me, and I hadn’t realized that someone had covered it!

  • Barree

    Elias- Read Jesus among other gods by Ravi Zacharias cause Buddhists
    are stuck in an endless cycle of trying to earn perfect karma which is not
    possible and that is why we need Jesus plus if there were others ways to
    go to heaven why would He/Jesus go to the Cross if there are other ways?

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  • AP

    Prof. Capriles, are you sure it was not Vol III?

  • Oh, I think it’s also in Vol. II of Beyond Being, Beyond Mind, Beyond History, which is freely available in my Website, but that’s an older version: that book hasn’t been published in print because it isn’t ready. I think there is another version in a paper of the “Beyond Mind” series published in the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies. However, the definitive one is in Vol. IV of The Beyond Mind Papers, a four-volume book published in 2013 by Blue Dolphin Publishing in Nevada City, CA. My email address is eliascapriles@gmail.com; if you write to me to that address I can copy the relevant appendix into a new file and send it to you as an attached file.

  • hoffman

    if you pump enough drugs in your system, you might ultimately hallucinate and believe that God speaks to you; or you might believe that St Patrick called you to slay all the snakes in Ireland, and send you off on a mission by sailboat.

    When one is sober, drug-free, and well-rested without suffering from sleep deprivation, the voices we hear are more often our own sense of morality and our conscience.

    True belief relies on true clarity of vision

  • TTP

    hoffman-Conscience/Con-science means with knowledge so God has given
    us all our conscience to know right and wrong plus in Romans 1:18-32 says
    God made it known He is real through a/the miracle of creation because the
    earth didn’t create itself so it takes more faith to believe this whole universe is
    just here by a/some random chance so do some research on Bible prophecy.

  • cken

    God didn’t create a flawed life. He gave us free will and against His will we chose a flawed life. Regardless of what mythology you subscribe to all mythology that has survived the test of time contains truths which are eternal. It is up to us to ferret out those truths. Spiritual can be found in many things from Shakespeare to the Gita, to the movie Star Wars to the Bible to J.R.R.Tolkien to the movie Avatar to things Science is discovering. It all boils down to what you are looking for and what you want to believe. But yes you are right all organized religions have created some silly beliefs they claim stem from their Holy Books. But that too is a function of man not God. The Bible for example contains much truth and great wisdom in it’s mythology; that doesn’t mean every word should be taken literally as something inerrant, holy and divinely inspired.

  • cken

    “Orrrr there’s no anthropomorphic God” This begs the question did god create man or did man create god. The answer is both are true. We can’t possibly comprehend god so we attribute human characteristics to him.

  • cken

    I checked out the web site. There is only one thing wrong with the amputee question. Amputees are not ill in any way so the argument even the question is specious. Many who are bound to a wheel chair have found it gives them a venue of service they would not have otherwise found. When bad things happen to us we should always look for the lesson contained therein whether the lesson be secular or spiritual. Often times it is both and we have to learn how to make the best in a spiritual and secular way with the hand we are dealt.

  • Petey B

    Am I religious? No. Have I had religious experiences? Yes, on psychedelics. I realized that the idea of God may more closely represent (or be more universally described as) whatever forces are responsible for life and existence. The rigid definitions of God that prevail in Western culture are at odds with this concept. They’d have you believe God is a being of sorts, pulling strings behind the scenes, when really God IS the strings, the very fibers of existence enabling life, death, space, and time.

    Anyway…

    Your comments point toward a very rigid idea of God, requiring that it care for, monitor, and acknowledge humanity instead of, you know, existing alongside and within humanity. I’ll admit, eating shrooms didn’t make me see a bearded man going over a list of who should get miracles that day. What it DID do was dissolve many ludicrous mental blocks I had on the concept of God.

    In defense of psychedelics; a drug that allows you to see life through new eyes is simply a…

  • Pete

    No way chi-cken. The amputees question is a valid one to ask, as is why god created typhus, cancers, and all those many diseases. The bible as a book by a “god” is a load of crock and mistakes. You also haven’t dealt with the non-sacrifice issue at all that Bob brought up.

  • Erik B

    I was a hardcore atheist from the time I was 16 until I was about 42. I used to love arguing with religious people and making them look foolish for believing in imaginary nonsense. Then I drank a big cup of ayahusca a few times in the Amazon Jungle, and when I left Peru I could no longer call myself an atheist. Scoff all you want, but until you have the courage to take a large dose of psychedelics you won’t understand nearly as much as you think you do.

  • There are many “religious type experiences”. It is important to understand that not ALL of them are from God or will cause us to draw nearer to God or He nearer to us. An experience for experience sake is not a good way to seek after God and truth. We are created in His image. He made us to commune with Him through prayer, and through meditation and study of His Words. Those that are found in the Holy Books. He has not left us without a blue print. He has given us all we need if we sincerely are seeking for Him. We need to recognize that we are separated from God by sin. And understand that God reached down to us, not us reaching up to Him, when He sent Jesus down from heaven to die on the cross for our sins. Jesus is the bridge to the Father. He has given us His Holy Spirit to guide us in the way. To comfort us and lead us into all truth. This is God’s way of communing with us. Better to do things His way then to try to make up our own way to Him. God Bless