Today (November 16, 2023) is the 85th anniversary of the discovery of LSD, by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann. So happy birthday, LSD!
Hoffmann first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide on this day in 1938, although it would be another four and a half years before he accidentally ingested some of the chemical — and discovered its psychedelic and entheogenic properties (those words, both of which are younger than LSD itself, mean “mind-manifesting” and “becoming divine within” — words that attempt to capture the powerful hallucinogenic and ecstatic qualities of LSD and similar substances, mostly derived from varieties of plants like specific mushrooms, fungus and cactus).
By the 1950s cultural elites like Clare Booth Luce and Henry Luce were experimenting with LSD, and a decade later it had become widespread as a recreational drug, especially among young people in the hippie and anti-war movements. But then came the backlash: LSD and other psychedelics were criminalized by the mid-1960s, and eventually even the clinical study of potential therapeutic benefits of such substances ground to a halt. But in the last two decades, the moral panic about these substances has slowly given way to a quiet but significant resurgence of clinical trials and a growing movement toward decriminalization and ongoing efforts to seek FDA approval for therapeutic use of psychedelics. The science is promising: psychedelics, properly used, can contribute significantly to the alleviation of the symptoms of addiction, PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
So here we are in 2023, and psychedelics (not just LSD, but entheogens in general) continue to show up on our cultural radar. An article published just this week in the Christian Century takes a skeptical look at the theory, promoted by researcher Brian Muraresku in his book The Immortality Key, that the earliest Christians may have been influenced by entheogenic rituals from the pagan Greeks. Whatever you may think regarding such speculative readings of ancient history, it’s fascinating that a publication as mainstream as the Christian Century would see fit to give it a platform.
Less happily, there’s the story of Joseph Emerson, the off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who on October 22, 2023 attempted to crash a plane. Apparently he was in the midst of an acute mental health crisis, but he blamed his actions on having taken psilocybin mushrooms recreationally two days earlier. I can’t help but wonder if he had a pre-existing condition and was just trying to blame the mushrooms, whether or not he actually had eaten some (as one journalist remarked, “The naturally occurring hallucinogens found in certain mushroom varieties don’t last 48 hours, nor do they typically induce homicidal actions, like trying to kill a plane full of people”), but nevertheless the story as he told it was widely circulated online.
The bottom line is this: eighty-five years after Hoffman’s discovery, psychedelics still make headlines. And while Emerson’s story is a stark reminder of the dangers of recreational drug use, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a growing community of researchers who are doing responsible scientific studies of the therapeutic value of substances like LSD, psilocybin, MDMA (street name: Ecstasy) and other psychedelics — and the research is indeed very promising.
So, in honor of LSD’s birthday, I’d like to recount my experience participating in a clinical trial involving LSD earlier this year. I volunteered for this trial because I was interested in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics — which falls under the domain of science (psychology, healthcare) rather than spirituality — but as you will see, my experience turned out to have profound spiritual implications. And being the person I am, it is only natural that I would seek to understand my own encounter with LSD through the lens of contemplative spirituality and practice. So I’ll tell my story and then offer some reflections from that perspective.
I did briefly experiment with entheogens like LSD or psilocybin—but those substances struck me as pale and physically jarring in comparison to the heart-expanding loveliness I had known (through my experience of God). — Unteachable Lessons
As I mentioned in my books The Aspiring Mystic and Unteachable Lessons, in my youth I took LSD once, and psilocybin mushrooms twice. The LSD experience was beautiful but also unsettling — at one point my heart rate elevated rapidly, and although that subsided fairly quickly it led to a feeling of unease that cast a shadow over what was otherwise a lovely day. The mushroom experiences were very different: the first time I had a larger dose and that led to an intense, deeply hallucinogenic evening; whereas the second experience, with a smaller amount, was almost disappointingly mild. As different as each of these experiences was, they had one common thread: all three times I felt a spike in my anxiety, which was enough for me to decide that psychedelics weren’t for me. Indeed, in both of the books where I mention these experiences, I did so to point out that my most profound (and entirely drug-free) encounter with God was much more luminous, loving, and meaningful than my psychedelic experiments.
Looking back, I suppose it’s not entirely surprising that I felt anxious when exploring psychedelics. I had seen — and heard plenty about — the negative impact that indiscriminate use of powerful drugs could have on people. I remember a guy at my college who looked like Roger Daltrey of the Who; he talked a big talk about all the LSD he took, but he was loud and self-obsessed and had an unpredictable, violent temper, so my friends and I all avoided him. In my sophomore year, a woman I dated told me the story of a previous boyfriend who, while tripping on acid, became convinced that God was mad at him and was coming after him. He made it through, but was profoundly shaken by the experience. A few years later, another friend who was always talking about LSD had a terrifying experience where he panicked, got in a car and drove — and two crashes later, was lucky he hadn’t killed anyone, but ended up getting some jail time for his trouble. Lots of people talked about how ecstatic and mind-expanding psychedelics were — but it all seemed to be just too dangerous or unpredictable to be worth the risk.
Even though my own experiences were anxiety-producing, they were also lovely and so while I gave up on using psychedelics, I remained interested in learning about them. Over the years, as I devoted much of my adult life to exploring spirituality and mysticism in a variety of contexts, I became familiar with the writings of people like Ram Dass, Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, Aldous Huxley, and others, all of whom approached psychedelics with a kind of spiritual reverence, very much at odds with the recreational drug use I had witnessed or heard about. I began to wonder if there could be a legitimate spiritual use for psychedelics. I certainly wasn’t persuaded enough to seek them out again. Ram Dass’s masterpiece Be Here Now told a compelling tale: in that book he recounts his intensive psychedelic use early in his life, when as Richard Alpert (his birth name) he was a colleague of the Harvard psychedelic researcher Timothy Leary; Alpert eventually found joy — and a new identity — by letting go of LSD and turning to spirituality instead: as Ram Dass, he devoted himself to the Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba. Meanwhile, an Anglican writer I admired, Kenneth Leech, worked as a priest with the hippies of London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, introducing them to mystical Christianity as a next step beyond their drug use. That became my perspective for many years: psychedelics were powerful and spiritually interesting, but ultimately were only a pale imitation of the “real thing” — mystical spirituality, whether Christian or otherwise.
And then in 2018, after giving a talk on Christian mysticism at an event in Ohio, a Methodist minister asked me a question. “Given your interest in mysticism, have you read Michael Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind?” I admitted that I had not. The minister explained to me that it was a book about the new research being done into the therapeutic applications of psychedelics. I was intrigued enough to download the book — and it blew me away. Pollan introduced me to an entirely new way of thinking about entheogens — and how they could be used responsibly, as medicine.
In noting how I had found psychedelics to be anxiety-provoking, I should also point out that I have struggled with both anxiety and depression since childhood. I grew up in a blue collar family that had a “stiff upper lip” approach to mental health concerns: to deal with anxiety, depression, or any other kind of mental health situation, one simply was expected to “tough it out.” Given my family background, I suppose it’s not surprising that I did not begin working with a therapist until I was in my late twenties (looking back, I’m sad at the amount of anxiety and depression I suffered in my youth, without any recourse to counseling or therapy). But I should also mention that, while I was still in college, I first became interested in meditation because of its reputation as a holistic method for alleviating anxiety. And I’ve persevered with meditation all these years because it has been a great help for me psychologically. Yes, I meditate to pray and to draw closer to God, but truth be told, I also meditate to manage my anxiety and alleviate my depression.
Michael Pollan’s book documented the promising research into psychedelics as an effective medicine not only for people struggling with anxiety or depression, but also PTSD, addiction, OCD, eating disorders, and fear of death. Along the way, he reviewed the history of psychedelics, and gently criticized both the fear-mongering of the establishment and the excesses of Leary and the hippies. He also described his own experiences with entheogens. Surprisingly, I found those sections of the book to be the least satisfying — Pollan is a gifted writer but I suspect even the best writer finds it challenging to describe psychedelic experiences (you’ll see my own faltering attempt later in this essay). Pollan reminded me of my own experiences and I could see how his words were clunky and wooden compared to what I had experienced, even recreationally and even with the anxiety I had felt.
How to Change Your Mind gave me a new insight: while I had come to the conclusion that recreational drug use is irresponsible, and psychedelics are ultimately less satisfying than spontaneous mystical experiences, Pollan invited me to see psychedelics in a more positive light: as a potentially life-changing tool to help people find psychological healing. As someone with my own share of psychological suffering, I found myself wondering: what if I could explore psychedelics in a safe and healing environment, where my anxiety was being managed and I could simply be in the moment with the healing properties of the medicine? It was a compelling question, and by the time I finished How to Change Your Mind, I decided that, if I ever had the opportunity to participate in psychedelic research, I would.
But I lived in Georgia, for heaven’s sake! A few Google searches revealed that, as of 2018, pretty much all the research was happening either in the American northeast or on the west coast. It seemed like a good idea, but probably not available to me. So I put it out of my mind.
“I’m Participating in a Clinical Trial”
Five years later, the situation had changed, not only in America as a whole, but even in Georgia. Psychedelic research had arrived even here.
Back in the spring of this year, I was at a dinner party with one of Fran’s and my dearest friends, someone we have known for years. I met her at the Abbey Bookstore where I used to work; she regularly visited the monastery, so we struck up a friendship that has lasted to this day. Among other things, I knew that she struggles with anxiety, so it was not a surprise to hear her say, just in the course of our dinner conversation, “Guess what? I’m participating in a clinical trial that my therapist referred me to. It’s testing the use of LSD to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety.”
That got my attention. “An LSD study? Here in Atlanta?”
“Yes, right in downtown Decatur. There’s a large research center there, where all sorts of clinical trials take place. Mine is a dosing study, looking at different dosage levels of LSD to determine what the optimal dose should be.”
I told her I would like to volunteer. “Really?” she asked me. “But do you have anxiety?” She was so open and honest about her journey with anxiety, whereas I’m the kind of person who tends to keep my inner struggles hidden.
I admitted I had never been clinically diagnosed or had been prescribed drugs like Xanax or Valium, but that anxiety was an ongoing issue in my life which I had managed with meditation and talk therapy. She gave me the name of her contact at the research center, and said, “You’ll have to be screened, but see if you qualify.”
I emailed the person at the research facility the very next day, and a few days later she interviewed me on the phone. I was candid with her, explaining that I didn’t have a diagnosis but had long worked with therapists and had learned to manage my anxiety with my breath, rather than with pills. She explained that as a volunteer I would be screened, not only for general anxiety disorder but also for conditions that would disqualify me for the study, like high blood pressure, suicidal ideation or a family history of psychosis or bipolar disorder. If I did qualify, I’d have to go through a series of interviews, a complete physical, repeated blood work and urine samples, and then commit to spending an entire day on site for the dosing, even if it became apparent that I had received only a placebo (it was a double blind study, meaning that neither the on-site researchers or I would know the level of dosage, if any, administered to me).
I could receive a placebo, or one of several different amounts of LSD. Whatever I received, I would have to remain at the facility for twelve hours and be monitored closely before the doctor would clear me to leave. I wouldn’t be allowed to drive that day, so Fran would have to pick me up from the dosing center. Then I would need to return to the clinic up to six more times, for more interviews, blood work, and urine samples, all in the interest of providing data to help correlate my experience with that of the other 200 volunteers in this nationwide study. The goal of the study was not to prove that LSD could help with anxiety — that had already been established in earlier trials — but to help identify which dosage level(s) correlated with the best outcomes. Best of all, this study was safe, legal, and I even would get a modest stipend.
I went in, got screened, and was accepted for the study. One of the interesting points about participating in this study was learning an entirely new way of understanding and recognizing anxiety in myself — and others. This post is already too long, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here; let’s just say that having spent most of my life toughing it out in regard to my anxiety, participating in this study gave me a much more nuanced understanding of my own mental health. Even without the psychedelic therapy, that in itself was a tremendous gift to me. But a deeper dive into that topic I’ll save for another day.
My friend who had told me about the study was a couple of weeks ahead of me in the process, so she received her dosing in April and shared with me and Fran that it was a deeply beautiful, transformational experience. As my participation in the study progressed, I felt quite nervous about taking LSD, but everyone at the research center was very kind and reassuring that this would be a safe and carefully controlled experience. As we got closer and closer to my “dosing day,” I found I began to worry not that I would be taking psychedelics, but that I would be stuck with the placebo!
My dosing day was scheduled for the second Thursday in May. A few days earlier, I was taken to the room where the experience would take place. Unlike the clinical feel of much of the research center, the dosing room was beautiful and comfortably decorated. A futon, a couch, and plenty of pillows were available for my comfort, and tasteful art decorated the walls. The colors were muted earth tones, although two small projectors bathed the ceiling in a swath of ever-changing colors. A bathroom was adjacent to the room; for the purpose of safety, I would be asked to surrender my shoes, wallet and keys, and any portable electronic device I had with me (but I was allowed to bring a hard-copy book, in case I got the placebo).
Music would be provided — a playlist of gentle, soothing music, carefully selected for the study. Two people, a therapist and an assistant, would be with me throughout the day, and a doctor would be available at all times and would come examine me before signing me out at the end of the day. My blood pressure would be regularly checked, and my attendants would see to it that I remained hydrated and had a couple of meals — of my choosing, anything that was just an Uber-Eats order away. In the unlikely case I had a bad experience, sedatives and mood-stabilizing medicines were available (“but we’ve never had to use them,” my attendants reassured me); and if absolutely necessary, I would be transferred to Emory Hospital just a few miles away. “The worst case scenario is that we give you something so that you sleep it off — but again, we have not had to do that.”
My biggest concern was simply that I would have a “bad trip,” and when I mentioned this, the therapist suggested that such language was not useful and encouraged me to try to explain in my own words exactly what I was feeling nervous about. Thinking it over, I realized that my fear was simply about that anxiety spike I had experienced when doing recreational drugs; I was afraid of panicking or being terrified. As I articulated that fear, I had to smile at the irony of it — since the entire point of the study was to look at how LSD could help with anxiety. My therapist asked me to consider that I probably would experience at least some anxiety during the dosing. Again, she was gentle and compassionate. “We encourage you, when it arises to lean into it, that’s how the medicine is able to do its work.” That sounded so much like the kinds of instructions I give people who have unsettling experiences during prayer: the point is not to run away from such experiences, but to welcome them and gently set them aside. I began to consider that my years of experience with Centering Prayer and other meditation practices just might make this a totally different experience from what I had undergone years earlier.
Soon Thursday arrived. I was far more excited than frightened; I felt safe and cared-for by the research team. That morning we decided to let Fran sleep in and an Uber picked me up so that I could be at the research center by 8 AM. We had enough time for my urine sample, blood work, a final review of the day, and then settling in to the dosing room. At 9 AM sharp — the time mattered to keep us on schedule for the rest of the day, after all, this was a clinical trial — a nice looking young man with a locked briefcase walked in the room. He handed me eight capsules and a bottle of water and instructed me to take all 8 within sixty seconds. Each capsule could contain a placebo or 25 micrograms of LSD. If all 8 were placebos, I’d have a very quiet day reading my book. If all eight contained the medicine, I’d have a full-blown psychedelic journey. “Here we go,” I muttered to myself, and quickly downed the medicine as everyone watched.
On the Journey
The first thing I noticed, about a half hour or so in, was a spot of nausea — which my attendants assured me was completely normal. As soon as I mentioned it, I was handed a tablet of Zofran, and that cleared it right up. Shortly after that, I was clearly buzzing — I told my companions that we probably could rule the placebo out. Soon, I realized the entire room had a dreamlike quality, and I was simply awash with a feeling of gentle euphoria. I was definitely high — and as the morning progressed, I saw streaks of beautiful color and easily lost myself in the music and, ultimately, in my own inner experience. By 11 AM, my companions encouraged me to take some time for interior exploration: they invited me to lie down on the futon, wear headphones to let the music flow through me, and a blindfold to facilitate going within. After I gave her permission to do so, the therapist anointed my forehead and palms with an aromatic sandalwood/vanilla oil. Then I slipped on the blindfold, and in I went.
The medicine created a space for me to relax inward. In retrospect, I realize why my attendants encouraged me to go within, for I had been chatting rather aimlessly with them, and I realize now that talkativeness was driven by my anxiety. But once I slipped on the blindfold and settled in to the music, I was all alone. And yes, I felt some trepidation, but not a full-throttled panic, just a kind of low-level awareness of feeling some generalized angst. I decided to do a body-scan to figure out where my anxiety was embedded in my body. The first thing I noticed was a tingling in my jaw — where it had been broken in three places in a serious motor vehicle accident I had in 1992, the year I met Fran. Even though it has long been healed, as I lay there, floating in the music, I felt the trauma in my jaw from my accident. But that led to an even more insistent feeling, in my throat. I could feel that I was holding fear in my throat; perhaps in my throat chakra, or simply my esophagus. My maternal grandmother died from esophageal cancer, younger than I am now; she also was a smoker and suffered abuse from my grandfather. I have a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus, meaning that I am at risk for that same cancer, even though I don’t smoke. My throat felt scratchy, and I intuitively recognized that it was an embodiment of my fear, both arising my own health worries but perhaps also an intergenerational memory, inherited from the wounded and abused grandmother whom I never knew, who died before I was born. There I was, afraid of cancer, and that, I could see, meant being afraid of death.
“When you encounter fear, don’t run from it, lean into it.” What would it look like to lean into my fear of cancer and my fear of death? I didn’t want to do it! But that was the invitation, right? So I did — I leaned in, and the feeling was that I was being invited to sink right into my throat, and right into cancer and death. I realized that, despite the anxiety, I also felt very safe — I knew this was happening on an imaginal level, and that in my physical body I was secure, lying on the futon in the dosing room. With colorful music swirling in and through me, I imagined that I could simply dive, or sink, into my throat, into illness, and even into death.
And that’s what I did.
It felt as if the LSD was guiding me. “Come with me, let’s sink into your death, and I will give you a new understanding of your fear.” Not that such words were spoken in any kind of cognitive way, but that was the message, and I knew it as such. So I dove. At this point I felt like I was a bird, diving into — and through — a bank of clouds. It was exhilarating. It did not feel dangerous or threatening at all; on the contrary, it was a thrill, like riding a rollercoaster is a thrill. I dove into the darkness, the “cloud” (only later did I realize that this may have been an inner metaphor for The Cloud of Unknowing) and simply embraced the free-fall. I fell, I dove, I sank, I flew downward.
And then I came out the lower side of the cloud bank, and what greeted me was an infinite burst of beautiful golden light.
As I write these words six months after the fact, I am aware of how odd it must seem. After all, when we fly in an airplane, we have to climb above the clouds to find the luminous brilliance of sunlight. But in my inner journey, the light greeted me from below the clouds — and it wasn’t just sunlight, it was (to borrow Martin Laird’s evocative language) an ocean of light. I was immersed in light, bathed in light, dancing in light, flying in light. The light and I were one. I was the light, the light was me. The light was everything and everywhere. And the feeling was simply, purely, utterly joy.
It was ecstasy, happiness, serenity, bliss. And I realized the light was in me, emanating from in me and within me, and as I enjoyed the light, I saw that all my fear (and all my anger, jealousy, bitterness, sadness/depression, cynicism and other distressing or unloving feelings and choices) were nothing more than games that I would sometimes play with myself. They were simply games of hide and seek, my soul at play with darkness and light so that I could learn more about love by knowing all the various permutations of the ways I accept, allow, but also deny or reject love — love in all its forms: love of self, others, God, all. Almost in a flash I could see all the ways I had chosen fear, or angst, or depression, or sadness, or self-protective cynicism, not because they represented who I truly was, but because they signified different dances in the game, different dimensions of this soul-at-play in hide and seek, ways that I had chosen to resist or reject love (even including choices I feel shame about, like mistakes and choices that I have made that directly resulted in the suffering of others — and I could also see how, for that matter, how holding on to feelings of shame or guilt or self-contempt is its own form of hide and seek — and, again, how all of these various energy fields of emotion are simply ways in which I judge, and the judging is what really lies at the root of all my anxiety.
Do not judge. — Jesus (Matthew 7:1)
So I moved through fear, and from fear to death, and then through death into the burst of infinite, oceanic light. And there, I saw not only the inner hide and seek that I play on an emotional level, but I also saw a similar dynamic at play in my vocational work — my work as a writer, a speaker (throat chakra), a teacher and spiritual director. In all my work, I see my common calling or vocation as being an advocate for mystical spirituality and contemplation — but for the last 18-20 years, I have done that work in the context of institutional Christianity, and I have long struggled with what I see are toxic qualities embedded within hierarchical religion. There in the midst of my journey through the limitless inner light, I saw the suffering I feel as I struggle with institutional Christianity, but that even that was a game of hide-and-seek.
When I chose to re-enter the church (I had been alienated from Christianity for several years prior to that point), I was making a decision to ground my contemplative practice in one specific tradition, Christianity. In the midst of my psychedelic experience, that decision felt like being a firefighter who enters a burning building, hoping (perhaps) to help save the building if possible, but also to help save/rescue those who are trapped within it (i.e., those who are “trapped” in the worldview of a God who judges and is angry with them). I saw all my spiritual practices — from Centering Prayer, to Zazen, to yoga and long walks in the woods and all the ways I seek to sink ever more deeply into silence — all as ways in which I have simply sought to pour myself into divine union (that is actually already there, but playing hide and seek with me), and that the LSD was not making me one with God/the universe/everything but simply was revealing to me how I already was (and am) one with God/the universe/everything.
And in a flash of clear, blissful insight, I could see that all my spiritual practices were just as effective as the entheogen (although obviously the dosing was a more intensive experience), just as effective at realizing and recognizing that blissful luminous union as always/already present within me. I could see that one of the most persistent ways I play hide and seek with my own oneness-with-the divine arose through my tempestuous relationship with institutional Christianity, with religious dogma and judgmentalism. To enter the burning building felt, to me, like I was going to be consumed by the fires, not of heaven but of hell — which is to say, not the luminous fires of divine love, but the scorching fires of unrelenting judgment. But even the fear of divine wrath and judgment was just another dimension of the hide-and-seek game that I was playing with myself.
I could see that my decision to work within religious spaces was not unlike the commitment of a bodhisattva (someone who chooses compassion for others as more important than their own enlightenment) — so I have “entered the burning building” of institutional religion, less for myself than for my care for others. But still, it’s a game of hide and seek, and in my own soul’s playful commitment to hide-and-seek, I was continually “forgetting” who and what I truly was, forgetting my oneness-with-divinity, forgetting my point vierge, my spark of the soul, my place that “has never consented to sin and never will” — and in the forgetting, I experienced myself (my “ego” or perhaps what has been called the “false self”) as just a network of stories and hide-and-seek games, stories that I used to create a sense of self.
Meanwhile, the medicine (LSD) acted like a cheerful agent of unexpected insights within me, as if it were shining a bright light into the center of my heart, revealing the entire project of my ego/self to be simply this vast network of stories and hide-and-seek games that nevertheless helped me to navigate ordinary consciousness, and therefore was not “wrong” or bad, but simply not always skillful. The LSD, I could see, was not creating this vision I was having of myself; rather it was like a spotlight, bringing illumination into what was already there. In this clear light of infinite joy, I could see that anxiety is not my enemy, not something to be carved away or excised, but was merely an invitation to find a more skillful expression. Perhaps the anxiety could be recalibrated into caution, or prudence, or carefulness, which is to say, into energies that serve me and keep me safe without causing me unnecessary suffering or distress.
In feeling and seeing this invitation to befriend my own fear, I could also see that the purpose behind therapy, or meditation, or spiritual practice, or even creative work like my writing, was that they are all ways to manage or ride the ever-flowing wave of my ego- construct, all for the purpose so that I can facilitate the most possible joy and love in my life — for the joy and love (and bliss of union) are always there, even though I do play hide-and-seek and thus often appear to “forget” who/what I truly am and who/what I am truly capable of being, both for myself and for others.
As I could clearly see all this, the joy and giddiness just overflowed, and then finally it seemed the LSD itself invited me to “Share this!” so I removed the blindfold, and headphones, and got up and tried as best I could to articulate all this to my two companions. They listened warmly and politely as I babbled on about how in my quest to heal my anxiety, I ended up doing some pretty deep contemplative spiritual work, which was entirely unexpected. After sharing all this with them, I asked them how long I had been lying on the futon, thinking it had been at least twenty minutes.
“About an hour and a half,” one of them replied.
At that point I realized I was hungry, so we ordered lunch. I got a salad from my favorite salad shop in Decatur.
After we ate, I decided I wanted to “go in” again, so I got back on to the futon with my headphones and blindfold. By now the peak of the psychedelic journey had passed, so this felt like a less deep experience. Instead of trying to explore any further within myself (in retrospect, I can see that I got plenty of inner insights before lunch), I found myself musing on the Heart Sūtra, one of the core texts of Mahayana Buddhism. I’ve written about the Heart Sūtra both here on this blog and in Eternal Heart — it’s a beautiful text, one of my favorite sacred writings of any tradition. But like the Nicene Creed, it is philosophically challenging. A key line in the Heart Sūtra is “emptiness is form, form is emptiness” — and as I reclined on that futon, I received a powerful insight into the essential truth of these words. The “form” correlates with the ego-construct: the stories and the narratives we tell ourselves to establish or maintain a sense of identity or self. Meanwhile, the “emptiness” is what Buddhist teachers have called “the clear light of bliss” — and that is always, already flowing out of the center of my heart, but sometimes I experience it as ecstatic silence, other times as pedestrian ego, yet these things are not-two. As I write these words, six months after the experience, I am chafing at how poorly they capture what I experienced. Let’s just say that I saw connections that intellectually I already knew were there, but now they seemed more embodied or experiential, and again, the result of this insight was a clear sense of cascading joy.
After the Dosing
The last half of my twelve-hour sojourn is now a blur to me; at the time I think I simply relaxed as the effects of the LSD wore off; I rested, chatted with my attendants, had an impossible burger for dinner (yum), and when the doctor came to check on me at 7 PM — ten hours into the experience — it seemed like the time had flown by. Soon it was 9 PM and my companions for the day escorted me to the street where Fran was waiting. I told her I wanted some ice cream — still feeling like there was an “energetic” scratch in my throat — so we stopped by Sprouts, got the ice cream, went home, and soon I was in bed for a long night’s sleep.
The days following the dosing were rich with my own reflection as I sought to integrate what I had experienced — which included how to integrate this therapeutic experience with my work as a contemplative writer, retreat leader, and spiritual director. If there was one over-riding take-away from this clinical trial, it was feeling that I needed to integrate my experience not only psychologically/therapeutically, but spiritually/mystically as well.
Thanks to Ram Dass and others like him, I knew plenty of books were available on the relationship between psychedelics and Hinduism, Buddhism, and indigenous spirituality, but was anyone writing about Christianity and psychedelics? I went poking around online and found a book called God on Psychedelics by Don Lattin. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but I respected the book’s publisher, so I downloaded it and read it quickly.
In the very first chapter of that book, I learned about a study that had taken place at Johns Hopkins University a few years before the pandemic; all the participants were clergy and seminary professors from mainline congregations, Christian or Jewish. Volunteers were chosen not on the basis of mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, but simply because they were religious professionals who had never experienced psychedelics before. In the study, the participants were given two experiences with psilocybin, and intentionally were invited to regard these as sacred, spiritually meaningful experiences. While the results of this study have yet to have been published, Lattin interviewed several of the participants for his book. One of them, an Episcopal priest serendipitously named Hunt Priest, had such a profound and moving experience that it led him to create a networking organization for Christian clergy, therapists and spiritual directors who were interested in the interface between psychedelics and spirituality. The organization is called Ligare, and it turned out that Hunt lived in Savannah, just a few hours away from me. I was scheduled to lead a one-day retreat in Savannah in the summer, so I sent Hunt an email and asked if he would be willing to meet with me.
Just a few hours later he replied. It turned out that I was on his radar — mutual friends, including a Trappist monk, had suggested to him that he should reach out to me, and he even had a few of my books sitting on his desk. He mentioned a few folks in Atlanta who were interested in this topic, including an Episcopal priest who was involved in psychedelic research at Emory University Hospital. Her name rang a bell, so I checked my contacts list and email archives — it turns out she had been one of Rhiannon’s chaplains during her many hospital stays in the months before she entered hospice in 2014.
I know that coincidences can just be evidence of the random nature of things — but I am a contemplative, after all, and as a person of faith I believe many coincidences are in fact serendipities — and “serendipity” often is just a code word for “the Holy Spirit is up to something.” It seemed at that point that the chain of events set into motion first by reading Michael Pollan, then having a chance conversation with a friend at a dinner party, led me to that very point where I found that a small but dedicated number of Christians are indeed asking the same questions that I was now asking. When Hunt and I got on zoom, he expressed it so beautifully. “Psychedelics are coming,” he pointed out; “the science behind their therapeutic value is simply too good. So Christians simply need to decide, are we going to be reflexively resistant to this emergent trend, or are we going to look for positive ways that we can support the ongoing spiritual lives of those who are doing psychedelic therapy?”
Ram Dass comes to mind, as does a conversation I had recently with one of my dharma teachers, who (not knowing I was participating in the study) brought up LSD, and said “LSD and other psychedelics are useful in that they give us a glimpse of what enlightenment looks like, but then we have do the ordinary work of preparing ourselves for enlightenment through spiritual practices like meditation.” I couldn’t agree more, and apparently that was how I got on Hunt Priest’s map: having a psychedelically-induced mystical or enlightening experience is one thing, but then comes the question of “Now what?” For many people, the answer to that question might involve ongoing spiritual practice. And contemplative spirituality is precisely the kind of practice that can meet the wonder and mystery of psychedelic experience on its own terms, and show a holistic, sustainable, and daily path forward.
What Are We To Make of All This?
Clearly, there is so much more I could say about this experience, but since this post is already so long, I’ll try to summarize some thoughts I’ve had in response to my encounter with psychedelics through a clinical trial. While I don’t expect psychedelics to become the center-point of my work, it’s a topic that I suspect I will return to again in the future. But for now, here are a few thoughts I’d like to share on this admittedly huge topic:
- It’s time to put the moral panic about hallucinogenic drugs behind us. The tragic story of Joseph Emerson reminds us that psychedelics should not be freely available as party drugs; they are simply too powerful for that kind of indiscriminate use. But so much of the anti-drug rhetoric of the last 50-60 years is simply not backed up by evidence. We need to dial back the fear-mongering and work for common-sense drug policies that allow for the legitimate therapeutic — and spiritual — applications of psychedelics. Chemotherapy and other powerful/dangerous drugs are controlled but available to those who need them. A reasonable psychedelics policy should in a similar way balance control and accessibility.
- For some people, psychedelics are contraindicated, and that needs to be taken seriously. The tragic story of Joseph Emerson illustrates this. I don’t know the man and certainly cannot diagnose him, but based on the news reports of what happened with him, I can’t help but wonder that if he had been working with a responsible therapist, they would have recognized that his underlying mental health concerns meant that he was not a good candidate for psychedelic therapy. People with personal or family history of bipolar disorder, psychoses like schizophrenia, or even suicidal ideation need significant mental health care before even considering psychedelic therapy, which might never be appropriate for some people. A reminder: I am not a therapist, so this is just a writer offering their opinion. If you have any questions about this matter for yourself or someone you love, please consult a qualified mental health professional.
- Set and Setting matter. This goes all the way back to the days of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert doing research at Harvard. The “set” is the intention that a person brings to using psychedelics. Back in May, my “set” was to learn from LSD how I could alleviate and perhaps even heal from my anxiety. I did not expect or ask for the spiritual lessons that the medicine taught me (since such lessons arose anyway, I assume they were necessary for my work in dealing with my anxiety). Meanwhile, the “setting” is the environment in which one experiences psychedelics. My clinical trial took place in a beautiful, calm, comfortable room specifically designed for the comfort and safety of those getting dosed; I was always cared for by qualified attendants who were not under the influence of the drug themselves, and one of whom is a therapist. Having a constructive set/intention and a safe and comfortable setting can make all the difference for having a positive experience.
- There is a lot of bias against psychedelics in the spiritual community; we need to revisit those biases. As a practitioner of meditation and Centering Prayer, for many years I myself had a kind of self-righteous attitude toward entheogens: I saw them as a kind of spiritual bypassing, a chemically-induced spiritual “shortcut” that did not provide a “real” mystical experience. Full disclosure: I have a long-standing personal bias against drugs of all kinds; which is one of the reasons why I never pursued even ordinary pharmaceutical relief for my anxiety and depression. But over the years, I have learned that for many people, psychiatric drugs can be lifesaving, and eventually I replaced my prejudice with a much humbler recognition that sometimes, drugs are really the best path to mental health and wellness. Psychedelics, likewise, can sometimes be the best choice for people struggling with PTSD, addiction, depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, or even simply fear of death. All this begs this question: if psychedelics have legitimate therapeutic uses, doesn’t it make sense that they could also have legitimate spiritual uses as well? Again, I’m not suggesting that psychedelics are for everybody, but perhaps for some people, the appropriate use of entheogens can be a profoundly meaningful initiation into (or deepening of) their spiritual life and practice. Certainly my experience, which was intended primarily as a down-to-earth therapy for my anxiety, turned into a profoundly beautiful and moving spiritual experience. I am not alone in that experience, so those of us who love and practice contemplative spirituality need to be thinking about how we can support the ongoing spiritual lives of those who take psychedelics and have meaningful spiritual experiences as a result.
- Indigenous people can inspire us to reclaim the spiritual blessings found through entheogens. I’ve written this blog post as a white American of European descent, working with a psychedelic discovered in twentieth-century Switzerland. But many entheogenic plants have long been respected and used by indigenous peoples in their own sacred ceremonies. Indigenous communities that include peyote, ayahuasca and other plant-based entheogens in their spiritual lives have found wisdom, meaning, healing, and insight through their ceremonial encounters with the sacred plant medicine. This, right away, should point to an understanding that these powerful plant-based medicines (even LSD comes originally from a fungus) carry a profound spiritual potential. There are questions of cultural appropriation and white privilege at play here, so I’m not suggesting that indigenous peoples owe anything to the dominant society, nor should we expect indigenous healers to teach us or give us their ceremonies. But we both need to respect their spiritual use of entheogens, and reflect on how psychedelics might have spiritual blessings even in the mainstream. Incidentally, indigenous religious ceremonies that include the use of entheogens are technically protected by federal law, although I believe indigenous religious groups often have to fight for their rights. I think such freedom-of-religion rights need to be enshrined and protected in our society, in addition to the responsible therapeutic uses for psychedelics.
- As psychedelic therapy is becoming more accepted, we need to be thinking about the spiritual application of psychedelics. Christians and others need to look at how we can provide spiritual support to those who encounter psychedelics as part of their healing journey, regardless of what therapeutic issues they are engaged in. Whether you are healing from PTSD, addiction, anxiety, depression, or some other situation, part of holistic healing is becoming available for a meaningful spiritual awakening and ongoing spiritual practice. This is true regardless of our religious identity or relationship (or lack thereof) with institutional forms of religion. Spirituality is something for everyone who breathes, and psychedelics can call anyone, of any culture or creed, into a deeper and more intentional spiritual life. Will those of us who identify as contemplatives be willing to show up to support people who are doing this kind of deep inner work? I certainly hope so — and intend to do so.
My experience with LSD this year — participating in a clinical trial that promised me a therapeutic experience, but then receiving spiritual as well as therapeutic benefits — illustrates a point that many healers and saints across the world, from Carl G. Jung to Ram Dass to Gerald G. May and so many others, have pointed out: therapy and spirituality exist on a continuum of care. In my ministry as a spiritual director, I need to maintain boundaries both for myself and my directees, so that we all understand my work is contemplative rather than therapeutic in nature: I am not a psychologist or professional counselor. I do not provide mental health solutions but I assist people in their Spirit-directed spiritual growth. Despite this clear and obvious difference, spiritual direction is a form of interactive care, which means it has a certain affinity to talk therapy. While it’s important to keep in mind the differences between therapeutic and spiritual care, it’s also important to acknowledge those affinities. Which begs another question: could it be that psychedelic therapy just might live in the space where therapy and spiritual care intersect? That’s not something to fear, but rather something we all can explore with open minds and hearts.
It seems clear that, with proper set and setting, psychedelics can open powerful doorways for deep spiritual transformation. Are they absolutely necessary for such inner growth and development? Probably not. But can they be of meaningful assistance to those who seek spiritual growth, nondual enlightenment, or mystical union with God? I am convinced that yes, they can.
Organizations like Ligare are emerging to support clergy, spiritual directors, therapists and other healers and caregivers to meet the ongoing care and support needs of those who integrate psychedelics into their mental health and or spiritual care. Since my own initiation into the world of therapeutic psychedelics, I’ve begun to participate in a spiritual directors’ working group sponsored by Ligare that is developing a statement of best practices for spiritual direction with psychedelic users. I believe in the future, spiritual direction formation programs will offer training to help spiritual directors to meet this specific need among those they serve.
To finish, let me repeat the quote from my Buddhist friend: “psychedelics are useful in that they give us a glimpse of what enlightenment looks like, but then we have do the ordinary work of preparing ourselves for enlightenment through spiritual practices.” In other words, psychedelics may shine a light on our inner lives that can be healing, inspiring, or joyous, but they really are not shortcuts, for once the medicine wears off, we are left with the ordinary tasks of making skillful choices in the interest of our own wellness and our ongoing spiritual growth. Organizations like Ligare are doing that kind of ordinary work to help connect the dots between psychedelic therapy and spiritual care. Perhaps spiritual directors and other contemplative leaders will have an important role in helping people using psychedelics, whether for therapeutic or spiritual purposes, to integrate their powerful experiences into a visionary life of ongoing care, compassion, hope and joy.
Epilogue: A Dream
Here is a dream that I had twelve days after my dosing experience. I’ve decided to share it, because I think it hints at how my subconscious was continuing to integrate the experience with the entheogen, almost two weeks after taking LSD. Like so many dreams, by the time I woke up and started to write it down, I had already lost much of it, so this is mainly just a few snippets of images and impressions. But hopefully it’s worth reflecting on.
A few notes: Tommy was a childhood friend who in high school became very involved in psychedelics; I’ve lost touch with him and have often wondered how his life turned out. I think the “vast underground world” is pretty self-explanatory, and “the key to the portal” — could that have been the LSD? Or even simply contemplative practices? The woman resembled what my mom looked like when I was a child, so I’m thinking she could represent a “super-ego” figure, and the child, I assume is what we might call my “inner child” — with a nod to Matthew 18:3, perhaps? (I do not have a son in real life).
In front of Fran’s and my house, in the middle of our road, I could see an access portal to a vast underground world, vast like the Mines of Moria in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. This “portal” was made of brick and was about 6’x6’x6’ cube, right there in the middle of the road, with a locked iron gate/door on the side facing the home opposite of ours. It turned out that this cubed structure actually sat beneath the road normally, but there was some way that a person could make it “pop up” in the middle of the road to have access to it. And so now it was above ground and I could indeed have access to it.
I had been loaned a key, presumably from the county government, to visit this subterranean world beneath my house, it seems that it was a reward for a service I had rendered to the county. I stood there with a child, who seemed to be my son, and he and I and my old friend Tommy were examining the structure. We were talking about how the county had built this underground world years ago, and no one hardly ever visited it except for maintenance purposes. I unlocked the gate, and Tommy went down the stairs or ladder to have a look. The child and I waited outside. It looked very deep inside, descending multiple levels, and not exactly scary in a dangerous way, maybe just a little vertigo-inducing or awe-inducing. The kid wanted to explore it, and I promised him we would another time — after all, I had to return the key, even though I was already wondering about how I might be able to access the cube in the future.
As we were standing there waiting for Tommy to return from below, one of my neighbors (a woman I did not recognize, but she looked like someone with a lot of power/authority) drove by — and then stopped her car and called to me. I walked over to speak to her. She asked me how I had access to the portal. I told her I had the key on loan, but would need to return it soon. “It’s too bad that no one in the neighborhood has one of those keys,” she remarked. “There’s no chance you’re going to make a copy of it, is there?” I felt the need to be cautious with her — perhaps she was a representative of the county government and I would get in trouble if I told her that I wanted access in the future; for that matter, I realized that if word got out that I had the key to the portals, everyone would be bugging me for access. So I said, very noncommittally, “It’s not something I would officially do” and just then my alarm went off, ending the dream.
I’m not sure what the difference between “official” and “unofficial” access to the underground world means — but it seems to me that, for anyone who does not currently have access to safe and legal psychedelics, it’s helpful to remember that a sustained and intentional practice of deep meditation and contemplation can be, in its own way, a key to the mysteries deep within us.