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What Happens When Zen Monks Take Mushrooms?

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What Happens When Zen Monks Take Mushrooms?

Amidst the pharmaceutical arms race to develop profitable medicines from psychedelic drugs, it’s worth recalling something the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann once said about two powerful compounds he developed at his Sandoz laboratory — LSD and a synthesized version of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. 

“These substances are not for the sick only,” Hofmann said. “They belong in the hands of meditation.”

It’s a shame that the Basel chemist, who died in 2006 at the age of 102, did not live to see the premiere of a wonderful new film, “Descending the Mountain,” which tells the story of what happened when a group of experienced Zen practitioners come together in Hofmann’s beloved Swiss Alps to meditate with a mind-altering dose of psilocybin. 

The film offers a window into how psychedelic drugs may soon be legally and safely used for the betterment of well people, not just as medicines to treat depression, addiction or trauma. 

Most of the government-approved research into the beneficial uses of psychedelics have taken place inside medical centers or university clinics. 

This little experiment — legal under Swiss law — unfolds at a zendo on majestic Mt. Rigi, at a meditation center founded by Vanja Palmers, a Swiss man who spent many years studying in California at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

Palmers partnered with another Swiss citizen, Franz Vollenweider, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists studying the brain on psychedelic drugs. He is the director of the Neuropsychopharmacology and Brain Imaging Unit at the University of Zurich psychiatric hospital, also known as Burghölzli. This famous mental hospital is where a young Carl Jung began thinking about the workings of the human mind, and where some of the first LSD research was conducted in the 1940s, just a few years after Albert Hofmann discovered the wonders of that revolutionary drug. 

“They are looking at the brain from the outside,” Palmers says in the film. “We are studying it from the inside.”

This sweet story about the coming together of the brain scientist and the Zen monk is directed by the Dutch documentary filmmaker Maartje Nevejan, whose team of animators and special effects wizards add just enough bells and whistles to convey the subtle magic of the psychedelic state. 

Half of the participants at a five-day meditation retreat on Mt. Rigi were given psilocybin pills, while the rest got a placebo. This double-blind, placebo-controlled study was necessary to make the mountaintop encounter legal under Swiss law and produced yet another paper telling us what we already know — that many people have profound and sometimes transformative experiences on psychedelic drugs. 

Vollenweider is the first to admit that scientists still don’t really understand the true nature of human consciousness. But he sees it as something as basic as energy or matter, a kind of empty canvas or structure upon which the entire universe unfolds. 

He and Palmers take long hikes on the mountain, discussing that feeling of timelessness and oceanic boundlessness — that spreading out of the self that can be experienced by both psychonauts and experienced meditators. Egoic boundaries dissolve, reminding us of the awe and wonder we experience as children but lose in the construction of ourselves. 

During the retreat session where the psilocybin and placebo pills were passed out, most of the meditators sit quietly on their cushions. But one young man lays back, moaning ecstatically and then laughing, revealing that he probably did not get the placebo. 

Later, during a discussion designed to integrate the experience, he tries to explain the ecstasy. Reality, he says, is simply “pure energy.” His trip was “overwhelming but without any fear.”

Another woman who got the psilocybin had never experienced psychedelics before. “It was not an individual experience,” she recalls. “It was a collective thing, so deep that I can’t put it into words. It was very beautiful.”

A man who got a placebo was at first disappointed, but during the session got a bit of a contact high. “Placebo is substance. Substance is placebo,” he says. “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”

Palmers says he was surprised that Zen students with thousands of hours of meditation experience had such deeper experiences with the active drug, compared to those who got the placebo. 

Vollenweider published a paper on the Mt. Rigi experiment in which he notes that meditation and psychedelics are both known tools for self-transcendence and altered consciousness. But their “possible synergistic effect” has not been scientifically studied. 

Four months after the retreat, Vollenweider’s team administered a series of tests to all the participants to see how the psilocybin affected their meditation practice, and what long term psychological benefits may have occurred. 

His findings:

“Psilocybin increased meditation depth and incidence of positively experienced self-dissolution, with no concomitant anxiety. Openness, optimism, and emotional reappraisal were predictors of the acute response. Compared with placebo, psilocybin enhanced post-intervention mindfulness and produced larger positive changes in psychosocial functioning.”

For some viewers, merely watching “Descending the Mountain” may increase the incidence of openness, optimism and mindfulness. 

The film, which is currently showing in theaters in Holland, will have its U.S. premiere at the International Buddhist Film Festival in San Rafael, California on Dec. 10, followed by a showing in New York on Dec. 12 at the Psychedelic Film and Music Festival.

Image: Descending the Mountain

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