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New Clergy Study Echoes Roland Griffith’s Early Research

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New Clergy Study Echoes Roland Griffith’s Early Research

A highly anticipated unpublished study on the effects of psychedelic experiences on clergy members appears to align closely with prior groundbreaking research conducted by the eminent scientist Dr. Roland Griffiths. 

Conducted jointly by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and NYU Langone Health in Manhattan, the new study administered psilocybin to two dozen healthy and “psychedelically naive” clergy members including rabbis, priests, chaplains and seminary professors. The research examines the resulting spiritual encounters as reported by these religious professionals. 

After undergoing careful screening and preparation, each study subject was separately given two doses of synthesized psilocybin in a comfortable, supervised setting. The research sought to document mystical experiences that may have occurred and follow-up with subjects to examine how these encounters may have assisted or hindered their ministry. 

According to Griffiths, who is a lead researcher on the study team, the scientists have collectively agreed not to discuss the findings until they are published. But Griffiths notes that the results echo his earlier research on spiritual experiences with healthy patient populations. 

Griffiths said during the Psychedelic Science conference in June that similar to the clergy in previous research, the research subjects in the new study considered their psychedelic experience as “among the most spiritually and personally meaningful experiences of their lifetime.”

New Study Reinforces Early Groundbreaking Research

Griffiths is a pioneering researcher on the intersection of  psychedelics and spirituality. Earlier this year he launched The Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D. Professorship Fund in Psychedelic Research on Secular Spirituality and Well-Being to serve as his legacy and point the way for new psychedelic research

As a trailblazing scientist investigating psychedelic compounds, Griffiths has studied the therapeutic effects of psilocybin-assisted therapy on addiction, depression, anorexia nervosa, end-of-life anxiety and other conditions. Griffiths believes that psychedelic compounds carry significant risks, but he asserts they are also powerful tools to end human suffering.

While his research into psychedelics stretches back decades, Griffiths has particularly focused on the study of mystical experiences. Together with Bob Jesse, a convenor of the Council of Spiritual Practices, clinical psychologist Bill Richards, and Una McCann, Griffiths conducted the historic 2006 study examining the impact of psilocybin in healthy psychedelic-naive participants. The research examined the longer-term psychological effects of a high dose of psilocybin in supportive conditions compared to a high dose of Ritalin. 

The groundbreaking paper produced from the 2006 study “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance” ushered in a new era into the scientific study of psychedelics. The findings showed that these experiences were similar to those described by William James at the turn of the century and later documented by Walter Pahnke in the early 1960’s in his famous Good Friday experiment

Based on his research, Griffiths believes that mystical experiences can fundamentally alter a person’s worldview. He identifies three common components of these experiences including a sense of interconnectedness, that the experience is precious or sacred, and that the awareness is absolutely true or more real than everyday consciousness. 

Griffiths says that in the original study on the impact of psychedelics on mystical experiences, he was most surprised by the persistence of the positive changes reported by the subjects. “Weeks, months, years after having their experience our volunteers were attributing enduring, fundamental, and positive changes to that psilocybin experience,” says Griffiths in an interview. “It was completely different from the many other psychoactive drugs that I have studied.”

Continued Study Into Mystical Experiences

In a stirring  address during the Psychedelic Science conference, Griffiths advocated for continued  scientific investigations to support the availability of psychedelic medicines that could benefit healthy people as well as those with mental health issues. 

Griffiths, who is founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, said at the conference that he passionately believes psychedelics can catalyze “profound awakening experiences” in healthy people. “We have the potential to wake up to a sense of freedom, peace, joy and gratitude that sadly, most of the world, I think, finds unimaginable,” said Griffiths. “It may ultimately be important to the survival of our species.”

T. Cody Swift, co-director of the Riverstyx Foundation, which has funded psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins, presented at the Psychedelic Science session anonymous comments from religious leaders who participated in the new study of religious professionals. 

 Swift’s as yet unpublished report on the study, is based on follow-up interviews from the participants of the new study conducted seven and twenty-one months after their second psilocybin session. According to Swift, one clergy member in the study reported that rituals around religious holidays now seem “more like a lived practice,” rather than just “going through the motions.”

Swift said that some of the volunteer subjects said they felt “increased openness to other religious pathways.” Another member of the clergy said they experienced a “purging of the ego,” that seemed like a reflection of hell, but ultimately ended with a “deepened sense of humility.” One participant said that since her psychedelic experience, she now consciously tried to “leave holes in her sermons where the spirit can move.”

One member of the study reported that they were now “more in love with the mystery of God.” A participants who is Muslim reflected that  

“I didn’t see God, but I felt God the whole time.”

According to Swift, two of the clergy members said that because they could not share their experiences with their congregation, they felt “acute disorientation” and a “sense of isolation.” These participants said they also found it difficult to return to preaching the same old doctrines and dogma. The comments presented by Swift were similar to those in a  report  published last year by Lucid News based on on-the-record  interviews with four of the study participants. 

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Griffiths noted during the presentation of quotes from the study subjects at Psychedelic Science that the results of the study  are based on a small and self-selected group, and that “expectancy bias is at play here.”

Anthony Bossis of NYU, who is also a member of the research team for the new study, said during the conference session that separate quantitative and qualitative studies from this research will be published “a little later this year.”

According to Bossis, “the marriage of science and the sacred are the best hope we have for moving forward.”

Psychedelics To Mark Life Transitions

In an interview earlier this year, Griffiths said that he believes that one of the most interesting directions for future research on psychedelics is their possible impact on life transitions. “I can imagine psychedelic-facilitated initiation experiences occurring for example the transition into adulthood, perhaps at the point one is leaving college and starting a career. Or the life transitions individuals make in marriage –  with a commitment to a partner,” said Griffiths. “Or the transition to becoming a parent, or at the time of retirement from a vocation. And, of course when facing one’s mortality at the end of life.” 

Griffiths, a long-time meditator who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, began a solo presentation at the Psychedelic Science conference by acknowledging his “diminishing mental and physical capacity.” But he also said that he felt deeply grateful for the gift of life. “I’m in a remarkable state, unlike anything that I’ve experienced,” he said.

During an interview before the conference, Griffiths said he believes that psychedelic experiences often bring up existential issues that seem uniquely well suited to contemplation of the deep mystery of consciousness, death, and dying. “Our research and recent research by others suggest powerfully healing opportunities,” said Griffiths.

 “If such use were adopted by the larger culture, it wouldn’t take very many generations for virtually everyone to become familiar with the potential benefits to loved ones, possibly resulting in changing the entire culture’s attitude towards these substances.” 

Read the full transcript of Ann Harrison’s conversation with Roland Griffiths here.

Image: Nicki Adams using an adapted photo from the Griffiths Fund

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