Roland Griffith’s pioneering 2006 study examining the impact of psilocybin on healthy participants opened the door for a new era of scientific inquiry into psychedelics. Together with fellow researchers Bob Jesse, Una McCann and Bill Richards, Griffiths found that psilocybin could spark mystical experiences that had lasting personal meaning and spiritual significance. The founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, Griffiths is on his own spiritual journey through his long-time meditation practice and now a terminal illness. 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 forward for new research into psychedelics. I talked with Griffiths this spring about the fund, why scientists need to study transformative experiences, intellectual property claims, risks associated with psychedelics, observations about Burning Man, his response to discovering his diagnosis, and gratitude. This is a transcript of that conversation.
Has an initiative such as the Roland R. Griffiths, PhD, Professorship Fund in Psychedelic Research ever been attempted before?
It is my understanding Johns Hopkins has never before had a fundraising campaign to establish an endowed professorship coupled with a research program at the level of funding we are seeking – $20 million dollars. Professorships are usually established at universities at much lower levels of funding such that they pay only a portion of a professor’s salary. In this case, the endowment will cover the full salary for the professor and provide additional ongoing support of the research program. Most gratifying to me is that this endowment will focus on the research I am most passionate about – that being rigorous psychedelic research on life transformative experiences in the service of human flourishing.
My thought in establishing this professorship and research program came up when re-writing my will after my diagnosis. I contemplated what it is that I would most want to give. My initial thought was to contribute through effective altruism to groups such as Give Well.
My second thought was that what I really want to give is precisely what I am most interested in personally and professionally -– and that relates to the idea of human awakening. Where I sit as a scientist is that psychedelics are the most powerful tool we have in the scientific toolbox to systematically understand awakening experiences.
And so that’s what I very much wanted to give. Initially I thought maybe I could provide funds from my own modest estate to sponsor a lectureship in that area, and then later thought that I probably have enough good will in the community to reach for a larger objective. So my admittedly audacious aspiration was to create an endowment through Johns Hopkins to support a professor and a rigorous empirical psychedelic research program in the service of human flourishing in perpetuity – that is forever! I am aspiring to raise at least $20M and we have about $16 million already pledged, which is really wonderful.
What the endowment will do is provide complete funding for the salary of a well-established scientist who understands psychedelics and who has a deep interest in life-transformative awakening experiences. Importantly, the endowment will provide additional income to support an ongoing research program. Clinical research with the psychedelics is quite expensive, so this will be initially a medium sized research program.
As shown on our website (griffithsfund.org), many of our largest funders are well-known philanthropists and foundations. And we have hundreds of donors at lower levels of support. It touches me deeply that so many people are stepping forward to support this shared vision of understanding awakening with the ultimate goal of promoting human well-being for generations to come. Although the professorship is in my name, I feel intensely this project is not about me – it’s much larger than that. I am filled with gratitude if people grasp the magnitude of the vision and feel moved to contribute to be part of this.
Tell me about your background in this field?
With regard to interest in psychedelics, in college I had what I assume to be a modest dose of LSD under what I would now consider very suboptimal conditions. Although some people may have deep and meaningful experiences under such conditions, I did not. It was more confusing than illuminating. In retrospect that outcome doesn’t surprise me, knowing what I now know about psychedelics. But at the time it wasn’t clear to me that there was anything of great interest to me to pursue. I recognize that I am an outlier in that respect because many of the people who were drawn into work with psychedelics have had a deeply meaningful experience early on, and that was what pulled them into engagement in the field.
In my case, I came to be interested scientifically in psychedelics about 25 years ago after having gotten involved with meditation and becoming deeply curious about experiences that can emerge in meditation. As my meditation practice deepened, I became somewhat disenchanted with my role as an academic scientist doing psychopharmacology research. In fact, I seriously contemplated leaving Johns Hopkins and going off to an ashram to devote myself to meditation.
There are probably thousands of different approaches to meditation and hundreds of different ways that spiritual and religious traditions interpret meditation. But the tradition that I initially got involved with was Siddha Yoga, which puts emphasis on emergent experiences. I had such experiences, and they were intriguing. These experiences got me curious about internal experiences and the nature of mind in a way that I hadn’t been before.
And then came an auspicious meeting with Bob Jesse who prompted the idea of studying psychedelics to bring an empirical approach to the investigation of mind. As a full professor and well-established psychopharmacologist, it seemed at least plausible to me that I could get approval to conduct a rigorous study with a high dose of a psychedelic in healthy psychedelic-naive participants. Bob Jesse introduced me to Bill Richards who was the lead guide in that first study that was published in 2006.
I have continued to practice meditation, but now from a mindfulness or Buddhist perspective – with interest in how thoughts, emotions, images etc. arise in mind and how we can work with them.
What obstacles did you have to address to develop the 2006 study?
There was absolutely no certainty in my mind that we could even get this first study approved, but we persevered. It was really closely scrutinized both at the FDA and in my home institution, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Needless to say there was considerable skepticism at that time because psychedelics were considered taboo. The risks and benefits were carefully examined and the protocol was also reviewed by the dean of the medical school plus the managing attorney of the university. It is rare for a protocol to receive those additional levels of scrutiny. But to the credit of Johns Hopkins and the priority the institution places on advancing science over potential political considerations, our study was ultimately approved. It was a very strong statement about institutional values and I feel fortunate and proud of Johns Hopkins for this.
Less than a year after approval, a new opinionated faculty member rotated onto the IRB, the institutional review board that reviews these, and moved to suspend the protocol immediately because this individual was so concerned about the risks of administering psilocybin. The study was sent out for re-evaluation and fortunately was approved once again, so we were able to proceed. But even after approval I had continuing concern that somehow something could happen to derail the study. One concern was about the problems that could be created if news about the study became sensationalized by the media or press. So we did everything we could to minimize public discussion of the study until we were ready to publish.
At that point in my career, I had conducted hundreds of studies with a variety of different mood altering drugs including stimulants, sedative hypnotics like sleeping medications, opioids, cannabis and compounds from other classes. These studies were primarily funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. We were very interested in the subjective and other qualities of drugs that would predict whether people would want to continue to take them. So I was very accustomed to giving high doses of drugs to both experienced and inexperienced volunteers and assessing the effects with questionnaires and behavioral measures and also designing rigorous trials to do so.
To conduct such studies rigorously, we need controlled conditions, and we need to pay very close attention to the instruction set and to select sensitive and valid outcome measures. So I brought everything I knew in from clinical behavioral pharmacology to bear on how we might go about assessing a high dose of psilocybin. Bill Richards, a clinical psychologist, had a key role in the study. Bill had been at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Institute years before and conducted psychedelic research along with Stan Grof among others. That program was shut down in response to the political and cultural overreaction to the widespread use of psychedelics in the 1960s. So Bill had the clinical expertise and I had the scientific expertise needed to conduct the study.
What most surprised you about that study?
I’ll answer that by providing some personal background. Having undertaken a meditation practice, I was interested in spiritual and related unusual experiences. So I delved into the academic research on religious and spiritual experiences. Bob Jesse prompted me to consider studying psychedelics. However, at that time I was quite skeptical about views espoused by psychedelic enthusiasts. But skepticism, coupled with curiosity, are hallmark features of good science.
In my field of study, I am not inclined to believe claims that are not scientifically validated to my satisfaction. Because the outcome of the study was uncertain, I designed it in such a way that if the effects of psilocybin were uninteresting, I could have published it as just another comparative pharmacology study, similar to many of my previous studies with other drug classes. The study included a control condition to permit comparison of a high dose of psilocybin with a high dose of Ritalin, which is methylphenidate. The study methodology and study information provided were designed to confuse both the participants and the guides about exactly what compounds and what doses would be administered.
The study showed that psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences similar to those that Walter Pahnke had documented in the early 60s in his acclaimed Good Friday experiment; and similar to experiences that were initially described by William James at the turn of the century – as well as those described by Ralph Hood, a scholar in the psychology of religion who did a lot of work on so-called naturally occurring mystical experiences. We used some measures from those studies and have since developed what we think of as even better measures.
Mystical experiences can fundamentally alter world view. They often have a strong sense of personal meaning and spiritual significance and are associated with enduring positive attributions of changes in moods, attitudes and behaviors. Mystical experiences are characterized, in my mind, by three principal components. The first is a sense that everything is interconnected – that we are all in this together. This deep sense of connectedness with others and sometimes everything. The second component is that the experience is precious beyond belief. If you want to put it in religious terminology, the word would be sacred. That is, something of incredible personal value and deserving of reverence.
And the third component of these mystical-type experiences is the feeling that what one experiences is absolutely true. It has a noetic quality, a sense that it is more real than everyday waking consciousness – a feeling of authoritative truth. It feels true not just in the moment, but that you have learned something about the fundamental nature of yourself or the world or the universe. If you put those three components together – connectedness, preciousness, and authoritative truth – you have a remarkable formula for changing people enduringly in a very positive way.
And that brings me to what was most interesting and surprising to me. Weeks, months, years after having their experience, our volunteers were attributing enduring, fundamental, and positive changes to that psilocybin experience. It was completely different from the many other psychoactive drugs that I have studied.
For instance, if you consume a large dose of alcohol or a stimulant or sedative, you will report various changes in subjective experience – somatic sensations, emotions, and thoughts for the duration of drug action. But a week or a month later, it’s just a memory and you are likely not to be changed enduringly. And that is true for virtually all the other psychoactive drug classes that I know of except for psychedelics. There is something super interesting about that. There may be changes in worldview and a sense of oneself that may, in part, account for the enduring changes attributed to these drugs. If your fundamental sense of self and world view has been changed, then you are going to make different decisions now and in the future. An analogy I use is that of reprogramming a computer with a new underlying operating language. You have done something that really changes how people make decisions and hold themselves in the world.
And I think an important aspect of this is that it has a strong prosocial ethical element. We really need to have deep compassion for others, because they are no different from us. It’s really the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s about mutual caretaking. As highly evolved social beings, this is crucial to our survival and relevant to understandings of ethics and morality.
And so that’s why I think this prosocial aspect is a core finding – a finding I remain most interested in. I believe we need a much better scientific understanding of the causes and consequences of experiences that give rise to this prosocial impulse and we need to develop cultural institutions that can wisely support experiences of this sort along with the enduring positive changes that can follow. Then we may have the basis for changing not only local culture but culture worldwide. And we are going to need to do this if we are going to survive as a species because we face so many existential threats – think nuclear or biological weapons or artificial intelligence risks. Thus, understanding this prosocial impulse is as important as anything I know or can imagine because of the larger cultural implication.
At the personal level, what is more important than a much deeper understanding of who we are as these evolved conscious creatures? It is the most fundamental and basic question that I think we can ask of ourselves: What the hell is going on here? How am I gifted with this opportunity to be awake, alive in this experience of sentience, of consciousness? Scientifically we are nowhere near to addressing this question. I wonder if it’s ever going to be known. But that’s the excitement I have for the endowed research project – it is going to use the power of the scientific method to address this very topic in the service of human flourishing. Further, the project is designed to continue in perpetuity because maximal human well-being and flourishing will never be attained.
What was the lasting impact of the first therapeutic clinical study that you did with psilocybin?
The first therapeutic clinical study we did was in cancer patients who were depressed and anxious secondary to a life threatening cancer diagnosis. New York University conducted a parallel investigation, and both were published in 2016. Those studies showed a single administration of psilocybin under supported conditions produced large and immediate decreases in depression and anxiety that endured through 6 months follow-up. The NYU group conducted follow-up interviews five years later and showed the therapeutic effects were sustained. So that was a remarkable finding – a single dosing session with psilocybin produced immediate and enduring therapeutic effects. That finding was unprecedented in treatment of serious psychiatric disorders. I should note that these studies were preceded by psychedelic research in cancer patients from the 60’s and 70’s as well as a smaller pilot study by Charlie Grob at UCLA.
Our findings immediately drew at least two major companies, Compass Pathways and Usona, into initiating programs seeking approval of psilocybin for medical use. Initially these companies sought to get approval for end of life depression and anxiety conditions, but they ultimately decided to focus on major depressive disorder in the general population.
So, our first clinical study awakened interest more broadly in the development of psychedelics for treatment of a wide variety of conditions. It has been a sea change. Prior to this, all the funding to support psychedelic research was philanthropic. Excitingly, we now have hundreds of start-up companies and considerable capital focused on psychedelic research to explore therapeutic benefits. Inevitably, however, our economic system is driven by prospects of future profits. So there is a gold rush among companies trying to patent intellectual property and to corner different parts of the market. To some, these developments appear exploitative and contrary to the prosocial effects of psychedelics.
Another very consequential development in funding is that NIH and other federal agencies are finally showing interest in supporting psychedelic research. Stepping back, I think the most impactful aspect of our early therapeutic trials is that they were scientifically rigorous, which has permitted much broader cultural acceptance. I think this has been fundamentally important.
What risks do you see associated with psychedelics?
There really are risks associated with psychedelics. Unfortunately, in the enthusiasm and excitement over the incredible opportunities for experiences that are life changing, sometimes the real risks are downplayed in a way that raises concern for me.
Number one, we are concerned that in vulnerable people, a high dose of a psychedelic might precipitate an enduring psychotic reaction like schizophrenia. And there are certainly case reports that persuade me that this concern is warranted. However, to date there aren’t controlled trials demonstrating such effects in part due to significant ethical problems in conducting such trials. In addition to psychotic disorders, there also appear to be risks of psychedelic occasioned manic states.
And then of course there is the risk of engaging in dangerous behavior that could harm oneself or others. Psychedelic induced confusional states, panic reactions, and paranoid responses can result in injury or worse – death or suicide. Although such effects are not frequent, they do occur.
Another type of concern is that if psychedelics are developed uniquely and solely within the medical community, they are not going to be available for as wide a set of applications and to as diverse a population as many would think would be ideal. Part of this problem is the structure of the medical system as well as the potential for inflated costs of patented medicine and delivery services. Although I am very sympathetic to this, I personally have chosen to initially focus on medical approval because we have regulatory structures in place that can handle Schedule 1 compounds that potentially have some kind of risk profile.
Once approved for medical use, there will be numerous opportunities to extend to non-medical conditions in which these compounds can be given safely under structured and supportive conditions.
What current research into psychedelics are you most excited about?
Our center at Johns Hopkins is conducting studies aimed at a wide range of therapeutic targets including depression, various forms of addiction, anorexia, OCD, and others. We also are conducting a variety of mechanistic studies, including various approaches to brain imaging and probing brain function. Because of my personal interest in meditation, we published a study in 2018 with beginning meditators. And we also conducted a study, not yet published, in long-term meditators.
We’ve also recently completed a study in religious clergy. That study was conducted jointly between Johns Hopkins and NYU. We have agreed collectively not to talk about the results until they’re published. But what I can say is that the results align with those from prior studies with healthy and patient populations.
What scientific questions do you want to see the endowment pursue?
A unique feature of the endowment is that it is managed to endure in perpetuity – forever. As long as Johns Hopkins exists as an institution, the endowed research program will continue and the funding will increase over time. So we are looking at a potential time horizon of thousands of years. Presently, psychedelics are absolutely the best scientific tool we have for investigating the nature of “awakening” or transformative experiences. And there are thousands of new candidate compounds that are being synthesized. Thus, the research will certainly continue for a long time.
In constructing the endowment we contemplated the possibility that psychedelics could become irrelevant. It’s an interesting thought experiment. Given that psilocybin mushrooms are so readily cultivated and so readily available, it’s hard for me to imagine conditions under which psilocybin becomes completely irrelevant to humankind. But let’s suppose that sometime in the future, psychedelics are no longer among the best tools for studying nature and consequences of “awakening” experiences.
As we learn more about brain mechanisms, it is plausible that other brain stimulation devices could produce effects that are more reliable and specific than our current psychedelics. So it’s possible at some point that psychedelics might be considered pretty crude tools. Even under these unlikely conditions, the founding document of the endowment directs the program to focus on research on non-psychedelic drug interventions that produce effects similar to psychedelic drugs.
Why have you chosen David Yaden to be the first recipient of the professorship?
I literally can’t think of a better inaugural recipient of the professorship. David received his PhD at the University Pennsylvania where, as an undergraduate, he had a naturally occurring transformative experience that sparked his deep interest in understanding such experiences. At Penn he did research on positive psychology and became a scholar of transformative experiences. Related to this, he became interested in initiatory ceremonies designed to produce life transformative experiences. In fact, part of his thesis project was first to go through Marine Corps boot camp to explore that type of initiation experience followed almost immediately by a long-term silent meditation retreat – two remarkably different ways of exploring transformative experiences!
In the course of his studies, David recognized the potential scientific power of psychedelics to rigorously investigate classic mystical-type transformative experiences. So when I offered him a position in our postdoctoral training program, he jumped at the chance to come to Johns Hopkins. In the several years I’ve worked with him, I’ve come to appreciate that David is an unusually productive, empirically grounded scientist and outstanding scholar who thinks, writes, and speaks clearly. He is also a great collaborator and is well liked by colleagues and staff.
He’s also a really nice guy. He has a deep sense of spirituality, yet believes strongly in science. He has a great record of scientific productivity and has just written a well-received book, The Varieties of Spiritual Experience, which is a scholarly update of William James classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience written more than a century ago. I cannot think of a better person to take charge of my heartfelt endowment project to advance psychedelic research on secular spirituality and well-being in the service of human flourishing.
What impact do you see psychedelics having on the larger culture?
Forecasting the broadest cultural impact of psychedelics is out of my wheelhouse but seems crucial to understand. Ultimately we need to develop cultural institutions that can help promote and support the very best use of these compounds wisely in a way that will support the transformation of the individual and the resulting culture. I see this as a co-evolutionary process.
Cultures do not evolve quickly. I think that was one of the mistakes of the 1960’s psychedelic movement. There was a fantasy – think the electric kool aid acid test – that if you just give LSD to enough people, you are going to change culture positively. Nope. I hope we have learned that cultures are conservative, they are resistant to change and they are going to push back on change if it is occurring too rapidly and threatening existing institutions.
My expectation is that those cultural institutions will evolve, but it will take time. It’s analogous to what’s happening now with our medical institutions beginning to incorporate psychedelics into the medical system. Change takes time.
One of the interesting directions for future endowment research is focussing on life transitional states. 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. 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.
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. 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.
You served tea in our tea house at Burning Man. What is the value of organizations that serve psychedelic communities and how can scientists study them?
I was very impressed by the quality mindfulness you brought and modeled to the Full Circle Tea House on the one occasion I attended Burning Man. It was an intense practice of being present. To cultivate that in community is a wonderful gift. Burning Man is a remarkable event with tens of thousands of people gathering in among the most inhospitable places on earth to celebrate mutual caretaking. It is a self-organizing community that embraces radical inclusion, self-reliance, and self-expression. Add mindfulness and psychedelics and the potential for positive transformative experience is self-evident.
Although Burning Man does not lend itself to randomized prospective studies, it is surely a rich opportunity to obtain new insights into some of the causes and consequences of a wide variety of non-drug and psychedelic occasioned transformative experiences.
Do you think your past experiences with meditation or psychedelics help account for your state of mind since your diagnosis?
My enlivening adventure, as I call it, started over a year ago (November 2023) with a totally unexpected diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer detected in a routine screening colonoscopy. The initial discovery was simply surreal – a bad dream. Remarkably, I have somehow been able to lean into gratitude for the mystery of existence and the preciousness of life and consciousness. As unlikely as it seems, the entire experience has been nothing but uplifting and enlivening – an adventure unlike anything that I could have ever imagined – wonder, equanimity, and a deep sense of well-being.
That is not to say that the cancer has not presented challenges. The repeated medical procedures and rounds of chemotherapy have been physiologically degrading and produce discomfort. But my overall experience, at least to date, has been one of joyful celebration. I would never have predicted that. And so the question for me is how and why did this happen?
Of course, I can’t know for sure. But I think there are two elements that have been important. One is meditation and the other has been my experience with psychedelics. In terms of meditation, I have had a regular, virtually daily, meditation practice for twenty-five years, and I have done more than a few silent meditation retreats. Like many long-term meditators, I have become accustomed to observing thoughts, feelings, and emotions emerge in consciousness and then, with patience, watch them recede. Through this process I have come to de-identify with the voice in my head that claims to be “me.” Of course the real usefulness of meditation is applying the skills of mindfulness to daily life – ideally, moment-to-moment. Although I had developed some of those skills, I knew all too well my limitations. I still considered myself to be a beginning meditator.
After a brief surreal experience of the diagnosis, I began to encounter a range of psychological states that, understandably, might arise including fear, anxiety, anger, and depression. I very quickly recognized these to be psychological rabbit holes of misery that would be unwise to inhabit. Going to war with the cancer and my body also seemed unwise and unpleasant. And my scientific training and skeptical disposition did not permit me to adopt a belief in a worldview that includes life after death.
My main practice since the diagnosis has been to intentionally and mindfully cultivate a deep sense of gratitude for the profound existential mystery of life and consciousness itself – similar to states that sometimes arise during meditation and other awareness practices, including after taking a psychedelic. It’s an appreciation, a celebration really, that we have been gifted this precious opportunity to be sentient in this incredible world.
I think there are some real similarities between psychedelic experiences and meditation in terms of exploring the nature of mind – the nature of consciousness. What psychedelics do really well is produce a remarkable, unexpected, astonishing display of consciousness which may be visual, emotional, cognitive, and/or somatic – an extraordinary display for which most people are totally unprepared. Meditation and other practices can produce similar experiences often of lesser intensity. Some of these experiences, which seem deeply meaningful, are characterized by the interconnectedness of all people and things, accompanied by a sense of preciousness and authoritative truth.
Both psychedelics and meditation can provide useful insights in how to deal with psychological challenging experiences. Famously, psychedelics can produce “bad trips” which can be among the most psychologically challenging experiences people can imagine. As with positive experiences, such challenging experiences can vary widely. They have an extremely negative emotional tone such as fear, anxiety, that could be accompanied by visual imagery such as a monster or demon, or disquieting thoughts such as paranoia or a sense of going crazy or being deeply damaged. As with positive effects, such negative experiences can also arise in meditation.
I suspect that almost everyone who has repeated experiences with high doses of psychedelics has encountered difficult experiences. We anticipate such experiences in preparing participants for a psychedelic session and encourage them to, “Trust, Let go, and Be Open.” If a difficult experience arises we encourage them to be deeply curious and interested in what can be learned from the experience. From our perspective, these experiences are merely novel objects of mind, so it’s important not to reify them as something “other.” We hold them to be vivid examples of the emergent properties of objects of consciousness that are neither inherently good nor bad.
So rather than running from the monster or trying to fight it, you want to approach it with interest. My observation is that if one does that, invariably it’s going to change because it does not represent a “real” threat but, in fact, is just a display in consciousness.
If you can see that, then the negative emotion projected on the visual image, thought or somatic sensation loses its power. Further, if you believe it’s going to change, then you are empowered to be with it. Initially the demon may become more frightening, ugly or disgusting. But with patience, that too will change… and it may transform into something benign or beautiful or transcendent.
For me, the take home lesson from both meditation and psychedelics is that one can cultivate a valuable skill set that can be applied to daily life. In my case the emotional and physical challenges that arose from cancer gave rise to energy that can be redirected to gratitude and wonder. If one can do that, life is magnificent and, in principle, there should be nothing that stands in your way. So, that’s been my experience, at least to date.
But I feel a need to add a footnote. I don’t hold myself as enlightened. I’m still a novice and I may yet end up being confronted with somatic or emotional difficulties that just become overpowering. But it’s my intention to practice mindfulness to meet and greet whatever emerges and use that energy to stay awake and awaken more fully. That’s what I’m trying to do – and so far, so good.
Have psychedelics played a role since your diagnosis?
I’ve been asked a number of times since the diagnosis if I’ve taken or plan to take a psychedelic. Frankly, initially I felt zero interest in doing so. I felt I was in a profoundly altered, uplifted state after I decided to embrace gratitude as my practice in dealing with the diagnosis. Although I felt moved to intensify my meditation practice, I wondered if an intense psychedelic experience might negatively impact my state. I was experiencing greater equipoise, joy, gratitude and love than ever before in my life. Why would I want to mess with that? What could a psychedelic do that would be helpful?
About a year after the diagnosis, I started to wonder if my decision not to take a psychedelic might reflect the possibility that I was psychologically defending against unconscious feelings such as deep existential fear of death. I further wondered if my claim of great equipoise and gratitude was a charade. Thus, I decided to take a significant dose of a psychedelic (LSD) to “stress test” my psychological state. During the session, I repeatedly asked if there were unknown fears or other emotions that I was denying.
My experience during that session felt informative and validating: I would indeed eventually die from the cancer. There was no trace of fear or anxiety, but there was something exquisitely beautiful, uplifting, and deeply meaningful about the process. Further, I had a strong sense that how I was experiencing and talking about the process was completely authentic and it would be of value for me to communicate to others about my experience. I currently don’t feel a need to revisit psychedelics, but have not ruled out the possibility that I might be curious to re-explore.
Featured image: Portrait of Roland Griffiths by Alex Grey, used by permission of the artist.