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Researchers Debate the Role of Mysticism in Psychedelic Science

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Researchers Debate the Role of Mysticism in Psychedelic Science

As psychedelic-assisted therapies enter the medical and pharmaceutical mainstream, some secular scientists are pushing back against a mystical mindset that permeates much of this growing movement.

In a recent paper titled “Moving Past Mysticism in Psychedelic Science,” two Dutch researchers warn against the emergence of a “risky blend of mysticism and science.”

“If science states that psychedelics induce mystical experiences that are key to their therapeutic action, this is too easily misinterpreted as research advocating a role for the supernatural or divine,” write James W. Sanders of the University of Amsterdam and Josjan Zijlmans of the Amsterdam University Medical Centers.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., one of the nation’s leading psychedelic researchers has issued a similar warning about the vague and “sloppy” use of terms like “consciousness.”

Matthew Johnson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, published a paper titled “Consciousness, Religion, and Gurus: Pitfalls of Psychedelic Medicine.”

“This danger is scientists and clinicians imposing their personal religious and spiritual beliefs on the practice of psychedelic medicine,” Johnson wrote, citing a pervasive “loosely held eclectic collection of various beliefs drawn piecemeal from mystical traditions, Eastern religions, and indigenous cultures, perhaps best described by the term ‘new age.’ ”

Secular researchers warn that emphasizing the role of mystical experiences in psychedelic therapy and using terms the “entheogens” threatens to undermine the hard-won respectability of these emerging medical treatments. 

Others in the field are pushing back against the materialists and secularists. They note that many patients and research themselves report that psilocybin and MDMA induce powerful mystical experiences which have enabled them to overcome long struggles with depression, substance abuse or post-traumatic stress.

In a paper titled “Working with Weirdness,” Joost Breeksema and Michiel van Eck argue that “psychedelic research should fully embrace the study of mystical and other weird experiences.”

Secularists base their “straw man” arguments “upon their confusion of mysticism as an esoteric, woozy notion.”

“Existential, religious, and spiritual issues are important determinants of quality of life, particularly in patients nearing the end of their lives, with meaningfulness and transcendence considered to be key aspects of spiritual well-being,” write Breeksema and van Eck.

This pushback against the centrality of mystical experiences, they say, is tied to the “emerging commercialization and medicalization of psychedelic-assisted therapies.”

In recent years, several pharmaceutical companies and major government contractors have released products and begun studies that view the consciousness-altering aspects of the psychedelic experience as dangerous “side effects” that need to be removed from therapy.

Breeksema and van Eck see this as the dangerous development, not the serious study of psychedelic spirituality.

“Getting rid of mystical experiences because they are difficult to research, lack plausible neurocognitive explanation or because of problematic colloquial associations would be throwing away the baby with the bathwater,” they write.

All three of the papers referenced here were published in the journal ACS Pharmacology and Translational Science.

Breeksema, who conducts qualitative research into patient experiences in clinical trials with psychedelics, said the debate in the research community is happening as “two big worldviews — science and religion — collide.”

“There is a friction there, a tension, but at least people are trying to seriously and systematically study these experiences.”

This is not a new debate. Since the 1950s, secular scientists have been struggling to understand and accept the fact that countless people have profound religious experiences on psychedelics — including powerful, unitive experiences of awe, wonder and selfless gratitude.

They may also experience paranoia, grandiosity and terror. That’s why the British writer and psychedelic pioneer, Aldous Huxley, called these compounds “heaven and hell” drugs.

Huxley described his own beatific mescaline trip in the spring of 1953 in his landmark book, The Doors of Perception. And it was Huxley who, several years later, suggested that Harvard lecturer Timothy Leary read The Tibetan Book of the Dead to understand the religious experiences that he and his colleague, Professor Richard Alpert, were having during their sessions on psilocybin and LSD.

This inspired Leary, Alpert and Harvard researcher Ralph Metzner to use the Tibetan Book of the Dead as the basis of their 1964 book, The Psychedelic Experience, a popular guide book on how to take an acid trip.

That book influenced how John Lennon and other members of the Beatles understood their psychedelic experiences in the mid-1960s. It inspired their highly publicized trip to India in 1968. Around the same time, Alpert embarked on a pilgrimage to India, met a guru and took the name Ram Dass, forever furthering the pop culture association of psychedelics with Buddhist and Hindu mysticism in the baby boom generation.

Huxley’s psychedelic initiation followed the publication of his book The Perennial Philosophy, his 1946 survey of the common mystical truths running through major world religions.

Varieties of Huxley’s perennialism continue to be embraced by many psychonauts today. It’s not unusual to see a variety of religious symbols in the session rooms of psychedelic therapists, including depictions of Buddha, Shiva, angels and icons of Native American shamanism.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the mostly fictional books of Carlos Castaneda, a now-discredited anthropologist, inspired many psychonauts to interpret their mind-blowing experiences through a romanticized version of Native American spirituality.

Much of so-called “indigenous” psychedelic spirituality in the Western Hemisphere, such as the famous Mexican mushroom cult of Maria Sabina or the ayahuasca churches of Brazil, are syncretic movements — a mix of Christianity, spiritualism and shamanism.

In his recent paper, Matt Johnson has no problems with patients bringing their own religious icons or ideas into psychedelic sessions. But he advises against guides and therapists bringing their spiritual preconceptions and religious paraphernalia into session rooms.

“This is not limited to standard religious beliefs,” he writes. “It would also be inappropriate to introduce meta-religious beliefs such as perennialism.”

Johnson even warns against therapists “instructing participants that a psychedelic session will inform them about the nature of the mind.”

From a scientific point of view, Johnson writes, psychedelic research has yet to explain the “hard problem” of consciousness — understanding the existence of experience itself. “Psychedelic science has primarily provided a preliminary understanding and generated testable hypotheses of how psychedelics work, but not the nature of consciousness.”

Of course, the subjective experiences of patients and research subjects may lead them to believe that they have discovered wondrous insights into the nature of consciousness and the universe. The ontological shock of a high-dose trip on LSD, ketamine or 5-Meo-DMT can lead to ego dissolution, disassociation or derealization. Patients may feel like they have been touched by the hand of God, or suddenly aligned themselves with “Ultimate Reality” or some amorphous “Higher Power.”

With the help of a trusted guide, such insight can help patients see how fear, self-centeredness and rigid thinking may contribute to depression, substance abuse or other mood disorders.

Disappearing duality may lead some to suddenly understand what mystics call “the myth of separation.”

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But in their “moving past mysticism” paper, Sanders and Zijlmans warn against what some have termed “psychedelic exceptionalism,” the idea that the old rules are blown away by such existential revelations.

“We should not be satisfied to label psychedelic experiences as ‘ineffable’, ‘paradoxical’, or ‘void,’ and should realize that the term mystical does little in terms of explaining psycho-biological phenomena,” they write.

They question researchers, such as Roland Griffiths and William Richards at Johns Hopkins, who have administered questionnaires to subjects in an attempt to measure or quantify the power of a mystical experience, and then see how those experiences relate to successful therapeutic outcomes.

“When we administer a mystical experience questionnaire, we invite participants to interpret their experience through the framework of mysticism,” say Sanders and Zijlmans.

Zijlmans, a post-doc researcher who runs a course on the neuroscience, history and therapeutic potential of psychedelics, said in an interview that critics have misinterpreted their paper.

“We are not only trying to explain things biologically,” he said. “These are extraordinary, weird experiences that are very meaningful and powerful to people. I just want to explain them accurately and scientifically, rather than vaguely. ‘Weird’ and ‘mystical’ don’t capture it.”

For example, he prefers to attribute the experience of a high-dose trip to “ego dissolution” rather than some “mystical” connection to Ultimate Reality or the collective unconscious. 

Richards, a clinical psychologist and author of Sacred Knowledge — Psychedelics and Religious Experience, was not impressed with Zijlmans’ paper.

“For whatever reason,” he said in an interview, “they just don’t like religion. That’s their right, but this is a rich realm of human experience…Mysticism is not beyond the scope of scientific enquiry. It is at the frontier of scientific enquiry.”

Back in the late 1960s, Richards worked with the late Walter Pahnke to fine tune a questionnaire used to study the mystical experiences that patients and research subjects had on LSD and other psychedelic drugs. This was several years after Pahnke made headlines with his “Good Friday Experiment,” a double-blind clinical trial in 1962 that administered psilocybin to a group of divinity students gathered at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.

Today, Richards still mentors students and works with cancer patients seeking psilocybin-assisted therapy to treat depression and other existential issues.

Like the term “psychedelic,” Richards said, “mystical experience” is becoming a term accepted by science. “Some prefer terms like ‘non-dual’ or ‘unitive’ or ‘transcendental.’ Choose your word, but this is coming into the mainstream of science.”

“I’ve certainly had psychedelic experiences that are not sacred,” Richards added. “I’ve had psychotic ones and psycho-dynamic ones. But I have had sacred experiences. I don’t know if I had them or they had me, but I can’t find a better word than ‘sacred.’ ”

Richards has worked with Matt Johnson at Johns Hopkins, and he was not surprised by his younger colleague’s paper.

“God bless, Matt,” Richards said. “He is a professor in the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, and he hates the word ‘consciousness.’ ”

“We’ve always had a statue of Buddha in our treatment room at Johns Hopkins. When we run a session, Matt always takes the statute out. But that doesn’t stop the spiritual experiences from happening.”

Image: Nicki Adams

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