THOSE WHO SAY LIFE IS SHORT have never attended a peyote ceremony.
This thought occurred to me just after midnight on July 23, 2006. Thirty-one of us formed a circle around a fire in an enormous tipi we had erected on top of a mountain near Lukachukai, Arizona. Thunder and lightning ripped through the sky, and heavy rain lapped under the edges of the tent, soaking our cushions and turning the dirt floor into a muddy paste. My companions sat cross-legged on the floor, motionless, gazing at the flames with sleepy eyes dilated by the mescaline from the sacred herb peyote. Three strapping young men with long black hair moved around the circle, pounding on a water drum and singing an urgent chant, which sounded to my untrained ears like, Doo doo doo doo DOO DOO doo doo doo doo DOO DOO. I understood nothing, since they sang in the Navajo language, Diné, but I felt the power of the chant like ropes wrapped tight around my body. I could not move, only breathe.
But I wanted to move. I was desperate to move. I had been sitting for three and a half hours on a thin, wet cushion. The only relief came in shifting from cross-legged to a kneeling position, and then for but a moment. Unlike my happy and stationary co-participants, I was not in fact stoned. I was an “observer”—an observer of one of the only forms of drug-induced spirituality sanctioned by U.S. law. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin (mushrooms), and mescaline had been outlawed by the “war on drugs” in 1971, ending most of the emerging research on the states these drugs seemed to uncork. Only peyote and ayahuasca used in Native American religious ceremonies are permitted, which is how I found myself sitting in a tipi, bobbing my head to Navajo chants with a silly grin, wet and sore and as close as I could legally come to observing mystical states created by Schedule I drugs.
Well, almost as close. I could have ingested enough peyote to reach an altered state myself. But I had opted out. Okay. I took a little. The law permitted Native Americans to ingest peyote for religious purposes only, and there appeared to be no loophole for NPR. More important, I thought the peyote might actually interfere with my work, since violent vomiting is common for the uninitiated. I then reminded myself that I had a stepdaughter, and tripping on sacred mushrooms might not be the best message to send a twelve-year-old.Whole truth be told, I also worried that the peyote would deliver on its promise and thrust me into an enlightened spiritual state. I fretted that God might be reduced to a chemical, making my own daily commitment to spiritual practices look a bit archaic. All that prayer and study, when I could just swallow a bit of mescaline—a little like using the Pony Express in the age of e-mail.
Once in the tipi, I found that skipping the altered state was, from a culinary point of view, less of a sacrifice than I had imagined.When the peyote man first came around with his coffee can full of dark brown sludge and spooned the peyote paste into my mouth—using the same teaspoon for everyone, I noticed—I nearly choked on the acrid taste and lima-bean-like texture. Just as I was recovering from the paste, another man thrust a silver bowl in front of me. I reached into what felt like a mass of writhing worms and plucked out a peyote button, the cactus herb itself. I held the soggy yellow button reverently in my hand until he had moved on, and then quietly dropped it on the dirt behind me. I looked up to find a third man kneeling before me with a jug of green liquid—peyote tea—which he pressed to my lips before I could brace myself.
The trinity of peyote would return every two hours or so, but after the second circuit I politely declined, leaving myself in a wired but not altered state. At just after midnight, the drumming ceased, catapulting us into silence, save for the hiss of the fire. Eventually the Navajo woman in the place of honor cleared her throat, and we all turned to gaze at her.
“I want to thank you for praying with me,” Mary Ann began in a reedy voice. “I know that the peyote and your prayers will heal me. Now I want to tell you something I have never told anyone.” She paused, looking around the circle. “I need to confess to the fire.”
Jesus as Chemical Compound
I had met Mary Ann the morning before. She showed up just as a group of us—about a dozen Navajos, a Harvard professor, his wife, and I—were heading off to set up the tipi for Mary Ann’s healing ceremony the next night. She had come to work out the last-minute details.
My instant impression was that this was a woman in long-term pain: She was sixty-four, and her golden face bore deep lines around her nose and mouth, which was set in grim resignation. She jackknifed slightly at the waist, bent in discomfort.When I introduced myself as a journalist who would be attending her ceremony, she poured out her story of shingles and unreceptive doctors and unrelenting pain.
“I’ve been suffering, suffering for five months now,” she said, her voice wavering. “I can’t get out of bed. My husband has to do everything for me.” Her husband, frail and ancient, nodded soberly.“Tonight I’m going to ask the peyote to help me. I’m putting faith in the medicine to heal me.”
I murmured sympathetically. I thought it unlikely that mescaline would do the trick.
Her wording captured the difference between Native Americans and a white girl like me. I thought of peyote as a chemical compound that alters consciousness; they thought of it as a divine gift throbbing with supernatural power. In my conversations with Mary Ann and others, I noticed that Navajos referred to peyote as a being, a personality. One called it the flesh of God, another called it a spirit. A third said it was holy medicine intended by the Creator only for native people.
Peyote, Andy Harvey explained, is “a sacrament.”
With laugh lines around his eyes and mouth, Andy’s face welcomed all strangers. His lustrous black hair took a decade off his forty-nine years. His stocky body suggested that he had not seen much physical labor since he began working for the economic development office of the Navajo Nation.
Peyote is like the Eucharist for a Catholic, he said. It is God, and it opens the way to God.
“We take it, we pray with it, and we ask the Creator to help us in the experiences that we would have as we ingest that peyote. So in a sense we ask the peyote to help us to come to realize certain things in our lives that we want to realize. And some things we can’t understand, when we want answers to certain things. And in the case of being sick, sometimes we ask the peyote to help us cleanse the illnesses away and cleanse our mental being, our spiritual being, our psychological and emotional being. And we believe that’s what peyote does. That’s why we call it a sacrament.”
“For a Christian, it might be like addressing Jesus,” I offered, trying to translate into a metaphor I could understand.“It’s like an intermediary between you and God.”
“Right,” he agreed.“And just like Jesus Christ was sent to save mankind, to provide us a means to salvation, this sacred herb has got the same philosophy. We believe that the Creator put it on this earth for us to utilize and provide salvation, and provide us a life that we could be satisfied with. And,” he added quickly, “I’ve never taken it for the fun of it.”
“The word peyotl,” John Halpern explained to me a few minutes later, “means ‘heart of God.’ And these people believe it is a blessing of God to all native people, for their healing, for their strength.”
Halpern and I were seated on a log a few hours before the ceremony, basking in the mountain sun. At thirty-seven, he was balding, enthusiastic, a study in kinetic energy, and very smart: Halpern was the associate director of substance abuse research at Harvard’s McLean Hospital. Years earlier, he began studying why members of the Native American Church, who ingest peyote as religious ritual, enjoy vanishingly low rates of alcoholism compared with other Native Americans.1 From there it was a short hop to fascination with all things Indian, including attending several peyote ceremonies. It was John who had wangled me an invitation to the ceremony, and for that I was grateful.
“They refer to peyote as medicine,” Halpern continued, “but it would be with a capital M rather than a small m.We’re talking about a spiritual Medicine.”
Yes, but it’s also a psychedelic drug, I pointed out.
He nodded. Peyote contains mescaline. It is a “phenethylamine hallucinogen” that has stimulant-like properties. Translation: it acts like speed and dramatically alters your state of consciousness, and if the dosage is high enough, you will experience visions like those described by William Blake and Saint Teresa of Ávila. That would be 350 to 400 milligrams for an adult, though how that translates into teaspoons from a coffee can, I could not guess.
Halpern explained that like more commonly known hallucinogens, such as psilocybin, LSD, and DMT, peyote targets the serotonin system in the brain, which is the system that regulates mood and emotion, among other things. Also like other psychedelics—and unlike, say, alcohol—peyote is believed to make people hyperperceptive, because it stimulates the brain cells and increases blood flow to the frontal lobes, or the “executive” part of the brain.
Then I voiced the question that haunts me: Does peyote swing open the door to a different layer of consciousness, where “God” can be known, or does it merely spark chemical reactions?
“There is this claim that the use of hallucinogens will increase magical thinking so you think there are more connections than reality would show,” Halpern conceded. “And it’s so nice to believe that science can explain everything. But do we really have to understand the machinations, the steps in which a person ends up communing with God? Is that going to serve a useful purpose to operationalize a human experience? To what end?”
I could almost hear his loyalties ripping down the middle as he gave his impassioned speech. John Halpern the Harvard doctor knew that the whole purpose of science is to “operationalize” human experience, to dissect it in order to understand it. And yet, he clung to the mystical. “We are spiritual beings,” he said, “and to deny it does not make it go away.”
Soon, I would see all these faces of peyote: the chemical and the god, the sacrament and the medicine—but a medicine with strings attached, one that required confession before it made you whole.
Confession and the Headless Man
“I need to confess to the fire,” Mary Ann said, studying the flames as if to confirm they were ready to listen.
“One night, about twenty years ago, I was driving through Utah with my kids,” she began.“It was the middle of the night, and we were coming over a hill. Suddenly, there was a man waving at me to stop, but we were going too fast. And then I saw a body lying in the road—he was already dead, but I ran over him, I couldn’t stop. I think I ran over his head.”
Startled and relieved that the endless drumming had ceased, I glanced around the circle to see if anyone had registered what may have been a confession to vehicular homicide. They merely smiled benignly, heads swaying happily like bobble-head dolls, and stared into the fire.
“I know I didn’t kill him, but he kept haunting me,” Mary Ann continued, a bit frantic now. “Once, a few years later, I was in my car, waiting outside a [peyote] ceremony. And a headless man jumped up outside my car window. I screamed. I was so scared. Sometimes I still see him.”
She began to cry. “I need him to forgive me. I know I’m in pain because he hasn’t forgiven me. I need peyote to heal me.”
Mary Ann fell silent, and Fred, the “roadman” orchestrating the ceremony, began to chant prayers in Diné. The peyote man grabbed his tin full of paste and scooped a spoonful into Mary Ann’s mouth, as a mother bird feeds worms to her chick ... one scoop, two, three, four, five scoops, then a peyote button, washing it down with several gulps of peyote tea.
Mary Ann leaned back, sated. The drummers resumed their chanting. Two hours passed.
Two-thirty a.m.: “I had a vision,” Mary Ann stated, “a vision of a bald eagle.”
The others nodded. The peyote men fetched their medicine, and the group consumed the mescaline again, all except me. Then I noticed Mika, John Halpern’s Japanese wife. She bowed forward as in a formal tea ceremony and, her face a mask of stoicism, rid herself of the sacred herb. No more peyote for Mika. Two more hours of drumming, and then, at four-thirty a.m., Mary Ann spoke again.
“The shingles are gone!” she cried triumphantly. “The peyote has healed me!”
Right, I thought, let’s revisit this issue in forty-eight hours.
The next three and a half hours crawled by in comically slow motion. The ache in my legs escalated minute by minute, although this did inspire prayer: Please, God, let this end. I found myself gazing at the smoke hole at the top of the tipi, willing with all my might for the inky black sky to turn blue. But I was also mesmerized by the prayers and chants, and for the briefest of moments I did not want the ceremony to end. At eight a.m., eleven hours after we had crawled into the tipi, the roadman and his wife passed around water, corn, meat, and fruit as a ritual closing. The ceremony ended with a final blessing for Mary Ann: six spoonfuls of peyote paste, a button, and tea. There goes that interview, I thought as I watched her final peyote hurrah.
After the ceremony, a gauzy-eyed Mary Ann told me she was “too peyoted up” to talk with me, as did most others I tried to interview. After a few hours of waiting around, I reluctantly started off for Albuquerque without hearing Mary Ann’s story.
Wending through the mountains of Navajo country, I reflected that the ceremony I had just witnessed was more parts Catholic Church than Berkeley party. The tipi fire, and the church candles. The sacrament as peyote, and as a wafer. Confession to the fire and the people, to Christ and the priest. The Diné chants, and the Gregorian. The offering of food, and the collection plate. And after the service, in each case, the breaking of bread.
Still, peyote’s chemical makeup made me question how mystical the experiences can be. Knowing God through psychedelics. Seeing God through hallucinations. Hearing God through the serotonin system. Is it real? For Navajos, yes. Is the Eucharist the body of Christ? For Catholic believers, yes. Do I communicate with God through prayer? Yes, I believe I do, and when I am praying deeply, my brain waves no doubt slow, or my serotonin levels probably rise—and in that altered state of consciousness, I find God.Who am I to say that peyote does not unlock the door to the transcendent?
Two months after the peyote ceremony in Lukachukai, I called Mary Ann from my office in Washington. I was curious to know if her shingles had really disappeared, as she joyously proclaimed in the middle of the ceremony, or if the “healing” wore off with the peyote.
“Oh! That night, the pain stopped and never came back,” Mary Ann sang happily.
“You’re kidding.What happened?”
“While I was fixing the Medicine [the peyote] before the ceremony,” she said, “I talked to the Medicine. And I said, ‘I want You to help me.You know all the suffering I’m going through, and I want to get well with You. I want to put my faith in You, and trust You. Help me. Doctor me. Fix me up.’ That’s what I was saying to the Medicine while I was fixing it. So it did. It sure did.”
“Remember how you talked about the man you hit,” I said, recalling that Mary Ann had been raised Catholic. “Was that a confession?”
“Yup. You can’t hide anything from peyote.You have to tell it, this is what the sickness is all about. This is where the sickness comes from. So the main thing about the shingles was the fear. The person that I ran over. It wasn’t my fault. Someone else ran over this person. I didn’t see it and I came up the hill and I couldn’t put on the brakes so fast or stop. I got so scared, and I never went back.”
“So the peyote cleansed you when you spoke to it?”
“Uh-huh. So when I prayed with the spiritual food, the person [who had been run over] came in front of me, sat in front of me. And I told him, ‘I don’t know who you are. I know you have a mom and dad. And I know you have grandparents. And I know I ran over you. But it wasn’t my fault. You have to forgive me, it wasn’t my fault. And because of that, I’m sick. I want to get well. I want you to forgive me.’ So the spirit just left me. He came in front of me, and he left me. And that’s when my pain stopped. He forgave me.”
She giggled girlishly. “I can’t believe I’m alive again! I’m so happy. The pain never came back at all. It was a miracle.”
We hung up then, and I considered the possible explanations. The first, preferred by hard-core materialists, is that peyote has antiviral properties that can cure the shingles. Many doctors and psychologists would no doubt opt for the second choice: that Mary Ann’s pain was in part psychosomatic, and once the fear and stress had dissipated, so did the pain. But spiritual believers hold firmly to the mystical explanation: Mary Ann had enjoyed a genuine spiritual healing, empowered by confession and forgiveness, by the supernatural character of peyote, and by prayer. Of course, she could simply be lying, but that seemed the least plausible of all the explanations.
Peyote has been intertwined with the divine for centuries among native people in North and South America. But only in the past two decades have scientists possessed the technology to peer into the brain and witness the effect of the sacred herb. Now, in the twenty-first century, drugs allow neurologists to watch the mystical experience unfold in real time. They can view the hand of God, or God’s chemical proxy, as it courses through the brain, stimulating some parts, damping down others, to transport the subject to heaven or hell. It is like having God on tap.
For nearly four decades, this synthetic God lay just beyond their grasp. The war on drugs outlawed both recreational use and scientific research on the effect of psychedelics in the 1970s. It would take thirty-five years for the government to relax its grip on this scientific research. But happily, in 2006, more than 2,000 miles away from that tipi in Lukachukai, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University had just published a study on the chemistry of mysticism.
God’s Chemical of Choice
Roland Griffiths led me through the institutional halls of Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, turned the knob on a nondescript door, and ushered me into his mushroom mecca. The plush carpet sank beneath my feet, the pastels in the room soothed my eyes. I spotted a statue of the Buddha, a Shinto shrine, a crucifix, a painting of a vast landscape, something for every religious sensibility or none at all. Here, thirty-six people—one at a time over the course of many weeks—had rested for six to eight hours under the influence of thirty milligrams of psilocybin. They had stretched out with eye-shades and headphones attached to a stereo, cutting off the normal sensory information so that the psilocybin could hold court in their minds.
Griffiths motioned me toward a deep chair. He moved toward a white sofa, where he folded his thin legs into the lotus position. He was the chief investigator in a Johns Hopkins study on psilocybin and spiritual experience.2 He was older than I anticipated, entirely gray-haired and drawn. A self-confessed “gym rat,” he was strikingly slim in the style of people too busy to eat.
This breakthrough project, Griffiths confessed, sprang from a metaphysical question that dogged him for years.
“I started meditating ten years ago, and it opened up a window to the spiritual world,” he began tentatively, gauging my reaction.
“It was astonishing. I felt as though I had connected to another reality. Somehow, we are pre-wired to have that experience—penetrate that reality. But why? Evolutionary biology? Or is there some sort of mysterious pointer? If we’re wired that way, I want to know who did the wiring!”
I gazed at him, reflecting that most of the scientists I met who researched spirituality had experienced something mystical themselves. Personal, urgent curiosity—What happened to me?—drove them to the kind of alternative research that was at best a detour from the mainstream and at worst a risk to their careers. I sympathized completely. That curiosity drove me as well.
Griffiths continued. “And I thought, here I am a full professor at Johns Hopkins, flying around the world presenting papers on drugs, when there are huge, much more compelling questions to explore. What is the nature of consciousness? And finally, we got some modest funding to study spirituality and what happens to the brain in an altered state of consciousness. We’re just beginning, but it’s been the most exciting research of my career.”
With that buildup, you might think Roland Griffiths had extracted the God serum, a distinctive juice that ignites the brain into orgasmic mystical experience. In fact, his findings were somewhat more modest. This is the headline: Psychedelics can spark mystical experience. More precisely, twenty-two of the thirty-six volunteers (more than 60 percent) reported full-blown mystical experiences. They described feelings, visions, and insights that appeared to be similar if not identical to those experienced by mystics down through the centuries.3 And, like other “natural” mystics I had encountered, Griffiths’s subjects saw their worldview, their relationships, and their priorities rearranged by the experience, which they considered as meaningful as, say, giving birth to their first child.
Hardly the discovery of the double helix, surely, but allow me to inject a little perspective here. Science usually measures its progress in millimeters, not miles. In the world of neuroscience, which has endured a deep freeze on studying psychedelics, the fact that the government gave Griffiths permission to administer psychedelic drugs to volunteers at all was a watershed. The camel’s nose was in the tent, and soon more researchers would follow with similar studies.
As neuroscientist Solomon Snyder, the lean, stately chairman of the neuroscience department at Johns Hopkins University, put it: “It’s not what the dog says that’s important. It’s the fact that a dog can talk at all.”
But for me, what the dog said deserves attention in itself, because the dog is talking about serotonin. Remember, we are looking for a “God chemical” that opens a person’s mind to another dimension of reality. And psilocybin—the psychedelic given to Griffiths’s volunteers and to my happy compatriots in the peyote ceremony—affects the serotonin system.
I asked Snyder whether Griffiths had caught the scent of a “God chemical.” He considered the question, then responded carefully.
“Seeking the locus of religion in the brain,” he said,“is by no means fanciful.”
Snyder clearly does not traffic in hyperbole, so let me elaborate on his response a bit: What he is saying is that neuroscientists may be able to find the divine spark in our heads. Is that big enough?
Snyder himself became intrigued by the serotonin system when he was a medical intern in San Francisco in 1963. It all began when a friend lost her job at the medical center at the University of California in San Francisco. As a parting gesture, she filched a bottle of LSD from the laboratory refrigerator. For the next few weeks, Snyder and his friends gathered together every Sunday to do “research.”
Those Sunday trips led this young agnostic Jew to a religious insight. Thanks to a glass of LSD solution, he could see through the eyes of mystics.
“I had this sense of being at one with the universe, which involves a loss of ego boundaries, such that you can’t tell the difference between yourself and the rest of the universe,” he said, looking slightly embarrassed. “Now, that doesn’t make any sense. But let me tell you, that’s what it feels like. And there’s a vast literature, where everyone who has a mystical experience—whether Christian mystics, Zen mystics, or whatever—they describe almost exactly the same thing.”
Snyder told me that scientists have long suspected that spirituality—or at least the farther edges of it, such as mysticism, hearing God, feeling the presence of the “Other”—might have something to do with neurotransmitters in the brain. One candidate is dopamine, the feel-good chemical involved in Ecstasy and “runner’s high,” although dopamine has received less attention in this context. Most scientists have zeroed in on serotonin and the serotonin system as the main triggers of transcendent experience.
Millions of Americans have an intimate relationship with serotonin: Prozac and other antidepressants are believed to smooth out moods by increasing the activity of serotonin in the brain. It turns out that LSD, psilocybin, peyote, and several other psychedelic drugs look very much to the brain like serotonin.When psilocybin enters the brain, it glances around for a place to camp out, and heads toward some very specific docking stations called serotonin 5-HT2A receptors. This is a close cousin to the serotonin receptor that Swedish doctors identified when they were looking for a “God gene,” or a genetic predisposition to spirituality.4
This fake serotonin is an unruly thing. Imagine a bunch of six-year-olds being let out of school, their mothers waiting in the playground. They burst through the door and make a beeline to their mothers, who give them a hug and take them home. One day, a bunch of imposter six-year-olds, virtually identical to the real children, run to the unwitting mothers, who then hug them and take them home. Those impos ters are psilocybin, masquerading as serotonin. The psilocybin excites the receptors and confuses them—or, in our analogy, the imposter children wreak havoc once they get home, upending furniture, knocking over lamps, smearing their chocolate-covered fingers on the walls. In the brain, the psychedelic drug creates visual and auditory perceptual changes, a sense of boundlessness, and the loss of time and space.
Having God on Tap
It is one thing to pinpoint the chemical or chemical system that reveals “God.” Now some researchers, like Franz Vollenweider, are exploring how a chemical acts on the brain to foment spiritual experience. Vollenweider is a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich who has made his life’s work understanding the chemistry of emotion and, more recently, spiritual experience. Happily for the science of spirituality, he lives in Switzerland, which has long permitted research using psychedelic drugs. That means thatVollenweider has accomplished what American researchers could not: he has observed synthetically induced mystical experience in real time.
Spiritual experiences are slippery little fellows; they generally do not occur when someone is lying in a brain scanner, being checked for a brain tumor. The only reliable way to study the neurology of spiritual experience is to actually trigger a mystical experience—that is, administer a drug to a subject, slip him into a brain scanner, and then witness the mystical experience as it unfolds. In this way, Vollenweider can scrutinize the physiology of the “God experience” as easily as other scientists can monitor sleep cycles or an epileptic seizure.
Vollenweider’s research has identified serotonin, and a particular serotonin receptor, as keys to mystical experience. When the psychedelic drug psilocybin enters the brain, he told me, it makes a beeline for the serotonin receptor 5-HT2A, the same one that Roland Griffiths had targeted.
“When we blocked that receptor, nobody has any [mystical] experience,” Vollenweider said. “It’s the starting point. It’s the major docking station.”
“So serotonin is the God chemical?” I asked.
“Yeah, one of them,” he said, laughing. He noted that other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and glutamate, contribute to mystical experience and visions. But the serotonin receptor is a little like a bouncer at a party: if the psychedelic drug cannot get past that serotonin receptor, it cannot join the fun.
Once the drug passes the serotonin bouncer at the door, the party takes off, with brain chemicals interacting like dancers at a nightclub, bumping and grinding and creating a cascade of other reactions in the brain. Vollenweider has analyzed those chemical reactions and, in the process, he believes he may have located places described in the Bible and Paradise Lost: heaven and hell, and even the parts of the brain that spark the visions associated with those biblical “locations.”
In trying to map this mystical topography,Vollenweider picked up the mantle of Adolf Dittrich, a famous German psychologist. In the 1970s, Dittrich tested hundreds of subjects and found that people tended toward one of three states when their consciousness had been altered by drugs, meditation, fasting, hypnosis, or other techniques. They experienced heaven (“oceanic boundlessness”), hell (“anxious ego dissolution”), or mystical visions (“visionary restructuralization”). Vollenweider’s arrival at the Zurich Medical School in the 1990s marked a quantum leap in the research. He combined Dittrich’s theory with brain-scanning technology.
“I thought, Okay, if these dimensions really exist, there must be a common correlate of these dimensions,” he told me. “I began in 1994 and 1995, and I tried different inducers like amphetamines, ketamine, psilocybin, and MDMA.” (MDMA is the drug known popularly as Ecstasy.) Vollenweider asked volunteers to take these drugs and then lie in a brain scanner for a PET scan.
“And we found that different networks do correlate with different kinds of experience,” he said. In other words, one combination of brain activity induces hellish experiences, another confers bliss, and still another combination stirs up visions.
Heaven, Hell, and Chemicals in the Brain
Let’s look a little closer at these states. Moving from the abstract to the empirical, consider the case of Michael Hughes. Mike had applied to participate in the Johns Hopkins study, but he did not qualify because he had (lots of ) experience with psychedelics. Mike told me he had been profoundly changed by a spontaneous mystical experience as a teenager, and that had converted him into a perennial spiritual seeker.
Mike exuded that peculiar calm of so many others I have interviewed who have encountered the mystical. When Mike and I met in Baltimore on a sticky September day, he was sporting a faded blue polo shirt, blue jeans, and a big mop of brown hair with long, graying side-burns. Mike told me he had journeyed on a range of trips and would be my Virgil, guiding me through heaven, hell, and visions.
We’ll begin with hell.
The savage nightmare stemmed from a tiny mistake. Mike was in his early thirties, staying with some friends in a cabin in West Virginia for the weekend. Mike measured out what he thought was a reasonable amount of dried, powdered mushrooms (psilocybin) for himself and his friends. He miscalculated.
“About twenty minutes into the experience, my friends and I could barely communicate with each other,” he recalled. He looked stricken as he summoned the memory. “We were laughing, but the laughter was tinged with an ‘Oh, shit, we’ve really done it this time’ sense of foreboding.”
Mike wandered off to another cabin on the property and crawled into bed. His body felt thick as an oak tree. He pulled the covers over his head, but could not bar the images from his imagination.
“It was chaotic and phantasmagoric,” he recalled.“Suddenly, I felt as if something evil and malignant had entered my head—an entity of some sort. I had the sensation of tentacles moving around inside my skull. It was terrifying. I started praying the Lord’s Prayer, over and over, like a verbal talisman. Though I’m not religious, I thought maybe just praying, saying anything over and over, would get the thing out of my head. I felt the tentacles probing and moving around, slithering. It was utterly horrific. I wondered if the thing, whatever it was, was going to suck out my mind.”
Just as suddenly, the tentacles withdrew. “I was rolling around in the bed, sweating, confused, and panicky, but glad I was still sane.”
If Franz Vollenweider had been sitting by Mike’s side at that moment, he may have patted his hand and consoled him: Now, now, you’re just experiencing anxious ego dissolution, nothing to be afraid of. According to Vollenweider, bad trips arise from an overactive thalamus, the little gate that filters sensory information. Vollenweider speculates that during trips gone awry, the thalamus lets in too much sensory information, too many lights, too many voices, too many visions. In the nightclub analogy, there is no crowd control; a bunch of bad characters gets into the room, and that leads to sensory overload, anxiety, disordered thinking—Mike’s paranoia about the tentacles in his head threatening to suck out his mind. In fact, an overactive thalamus is associated with schizophrenia.
Most of Mike’s experiences, however, took him to Vollenweider’s heaven. One journey makes his voice quaver with awe to this day. He was twenty-two years old on that early summer night at St. Mary’s College in southern Maryland. He and his friend, just finished with college exams, celebrated with some mushrooms. They wandered around the town for a few minutes, eventually finding the door to a historic Catholic church unlocked.
“I had never really been in a church by myself at night and was surprised to see that the candles were lit. It was almost as if I had wandered into this magical place,” Mike recalled. “I sat down and I felt a really strong sense of sacredness. It felt like the accumulated energies and prayers of all the people who had been in this historic church for a hundred years had sort of congealed, that the atmosphere felt very thick with the presence of many, many people. I sat back and closed my eyes and I was overcome with this really profound sense of goodness and rightness and that everything that was, no matter how we felt—good or bad—was just as it was supposed to be,” he said.
Hearing this, I nodded. I recalled Arjun Patel using the same words during his spontaneous mystical experience. There wasn’t any “me” anymore, he had told me. There was just total seamlessness. And did that feel good or bad? I had asked. It just felt like ... this is the way it’s supposed to be.
Mike continued, snapping me back to the present.“And it was really overwhelming. Trying to describe a transcendent experience is difficult. There aren’t the proper words in our vocabulary to describe this immense sense of connection with Something. It felt like an intelligence to be sure, but it felt like a natural intelligence that imbues everything. It imbued the wood of the pews. It was emanating from the candle flames. It was the memories and the prayers of all the people that had ever been in this church. And it really felt like a microcosm of the universe itself. And at that point I really felt central and tied into all of existence.”
Here is the “oceanic boundlessness” of Franz Vollenweider’s heaven—the serenity, the unity with all things, past, present, and future. Here is the deep meditation of a Buddhist monk, the joyful vision of a Catholic mystic. In this state, you are flooded with happiness and peace.You feel no boundaries and are at one with the universe. When Vollenweider scanned people’s brains, he found they experienced heaven when the chemicals stimulated the front of the brain. The frontal lobes keep you alert and processing information. At the same time, Vollenweider found that during good drug trips, the parietal lobes, which help you perceive personal boundaries (where your body ends and the rest of the world begins), were also stimulated.5 Meanwhile, the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes emotions, anger, and fear—is dozing. The result is a mellow, blissful party.
As Mike narrated his story, I realized his “heaven” was woven together with visions, or, as Vollenweider would have it, “visionary re structuralizations.”
“The candles were extra-radiant,” Mike continued. “The colors were very rich. The shadows were very dense. These sorts of substances do bring out elements of our perception that we don’t normally access. Some people would say it’s a hallucination, whereas I don’t believe that. I tend to agree with Aldous Huxley that our perception is actually widened, and not just altered or twisted. It was also very tactile in the way my body felt opened up as if every pore was expanded, and it’s hard to say whether the experience was more physical or mental or emotional, because it was so profoundly all of those at one time.”6
If the Swiss neuroscientist had been watching Mike’s brain in the scanner, he might explain that visions (or “visionary restructuraliza tions”) refer to altered perception—hearing voices, seeing colors more brightly, even hallucinating.7 Visions materialize, Vollenweider speculates, when the drug stimulates the striatum. That is a part of the brain that processes sights, sounds, tastes, touch; stimulating this area makes those senses richer, more acute, more colorful—but not so much that it terrifies. Ordinary things seem remarkable. Oh, wow, look at that doorknob.
Dave Nichols, a pharmacologist at Purdue University, speculated that Mike’s brain was experiencing a torrent of events as he gazed at the candles. The part of the brain that detects colors was stimulated, and the frontal cortex, which makes sense of the world, was in overdrive, over-processing the colors and making them appear richer. At the same time, Nichols believed, a part of the brain called the locus coeruleus was firing out signals in bursts. This part of the brain is nicknamed the “novelty detector”—because it tells you, “Oh! Someone just walked into the room! Pay attention.”
“Say someone takes psilocybin and they look at a flower, and they say, ‘Oh my God, this is really beautiful,’ ” Nichols explained. On the one hand, the signals in your brain that say “red rose” are now being processed in overdrive, so the red looks much brighter and more saturated. At the same time, he said, the novelty detector is going overboard.
“The normal connotation placed on the flower is, ‘Well, that’s a flower, and I’ve seen a million of them in my life and it’s just a flower.’ But now you’ve shut off some of the processing that would come through and tell you that. And you’re also having this novelty detector saying, ‘Wow, this is a really interesting flower. Look at all those veins and petals.’ ”
The Brain as Spiritual Filter
As I worked through the chemistry of psychedelic experiences, one question nagged at me: Is a chemically induced experience a real spiritual experience?
Honestly, I haven’t the foggiest idea whether drugs trigger a genuine encounter with “God” or another reality. Nor does anyone else, incidentally, since that would require knowing whether or not another reality exists. It is possible that drugs are the bullet train to God. It is equally possible that this sort of spirituality is nothing but a figment of a chemically addled brain, a synthetic light show, a cheap imitation of the deep-seated spirituality gleaned from prayer, or meditation, or life events that lead to epiphanies.
Arjun Patel takes the latter view. Arjun’s appetite for the supernatural was whetted when he enjoyed a spontaneous mystical experience while meditating in his college dorm room. When he could not generate a repeat performance through meditation, he dabbled with mushrooms.
“Maybe if I hadn’t had a spontaneous mystical experience, I would have considered some of my psilocybin experiences to be mystical,” he told me. “But they’re really very different. With psilocybin you know you’ve taken something. There’s a physical, somatic component to it. I remember the first couple of times I tried it, I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve just eaten a poisonous mushroom and this is the side effect.’ ”
And yet, others who have experienced mysticism through chemistry swear it is as genuine as the natural kind. Mike Hughes insists that his mushroom trip in the Catholic church was just as mystical as the spontaneous experience that launched him on his spiritual journey several years earlier.
“The two experiences were of equal profundity,” Mike told me. “That’s another thing I’ve thought about these years when listening to the debate:‘Oh, a chemical cannot make you have an experience of God.’ I don’t believe that. And ultimately, I don’t really care if it is my brain chemistry doing this. They were equally profound. They both changed me dramatically. They’re just two different roads to the same place.”
I secretly hope Arjun Patel is correct. It peeves me to think that some people can ignite their faith life with a pill, probably because I lack the courage to do so. It irks me to contemplate all those hours of study and prayer, down on my knees straining to connect with God, when I could have swallowed a mushroom. But these irritations pale next to other puzzles: Does a chemical take one to a spiritual realm or to a subconscious one? Does it transport one to the light outside Plato’s cave or into the folds of one’s brain? And is “God” the creator of all life, or the creation of a chemical reaction?
Enter Aldous Huxley, who hatched what I consider the most helpful analogy for explaining spiritual perception. Best known for his novel Brave New World, Huxley was an early advocate of LSD—not for the thrills but for the insights it could bestow.
In The Doors of Perception, Huxley proposed that the brain is a “reducing valve.”8 He suggested that all around us is what he called “Mind at Large.” This Mind, Huxley ventured, comprises everything—all of reality, all ide as,all images, seen and unseen, in the universe. The closest analogy to Mind at Large would be the Internet. Each of us has access to that information, but an ordinary fellow, or even an extraordinary Einstein, could not possibly process the flood of information.
Therefore the brain acts as a “reducing valve.” It narrows the information to a “measly trickle,” only that information necessary for survival. And so we ignore thoughts of the cosmos to focus on the lion crouching behind the bush.We turn from the stirrings of transcendence to the e-mail on the screen.We nudge aside insights about the universe in favor of dinner. Most of us live our lives on that level of reality, satisfied we are missing nothing.
What drugs do, Huxley suggested, is temporarily open the valve, loosening the filter so that extraordinary perceptions are admitted.
“As Mind at Large seeps past the no longer watertight valve, all kinds of biologically useless things start to happen,” he wrote.“In some cases there may be extra-sensory perceptions. Other persons discover a world of visionary beauty. To others again is revealed the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence.”9
And to others is revealed the face of God.
“It’s not the drug that causes these experiences,” explained Bill Richards, a psychologist and co-researcher in the recent Johns Hopkins study involving psilocybin.“You don’t take psilocybin to get rid of your neuroses or to experience a transcendental experience. Rather, what psilocybin does is unlock a door. It gives access to many different states of consciousness, some of which are trivial, some of which are profound, some of which are crazy, and some of which are beautiful and creative.”
Richards would guide me to another insight. It was a signpost that would point me back to Christian Science, the religion I had dismissed a decade earlier. Sometimes, a brush with “God” or another dimension of consciousness transforms a person physically. It is as if the mere possibility of a hidden reality realigns a person’s body.
Researchers started to chase down this mysterious connection between psychedelic experience and healing a half-century ago. They envisioned a revolution in the treatment of autism, depression, terminal illness, and alcoholism. Many of the early studies were haphazard, bearing a sort of gee-whiz quality. They also yielded stunning anecdotal results. But before researchers could compile convincing evidence, the golden age of psychedelics came to an end.
Cancer in the Age of Psychedelics
By the 1970s, the U.S. government was fed up with the sixties drug culture and Timothy Leary’s call to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Favoring a butcher’s knife where a scalpel would have done nicely, it shut down the sale of all psychedelic drugs, not only for recreational purposes but for research as well. A rich area of psychopharmacology thus became off-limits, but not before a cohort of rock-star researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, and other research institutions conducted a raft of studies on the effect of psychedelics on a range of mental diseases and phobias.
In the mid-1960s, Eric Kast at Chicago Medical School stumbled on a surprising side effect of LSD—one that hinted at the symbiotic relationship among body, mind, and, dare I say, spirit. Kast found that after being treated with LSD, patients with end-stage cancer suffered less pain and “displayed a peculiar disregard for the gravity of their situations.” 10 Study after study confirmed this. From 60 to 70 percent of the terminally ill patients enjoyed a dramatic turnaround in mood and outlook on life after tripping on LSD. Many saw their pain level drop precipitously.11 The question was: Why? Did the chemicals reduce their pain directly—or indirectly, by reducing their stress and thus their pain? Or did these studies hint at another, spiritual, dimension?
I wanted to know the backstory to these psychedelic studies. I tracked down a few of the researchers, now approaching their seventies, who were too experienced, or too old, to worry about today’s scientific reductionism. One of those researchers was Bill Richards, who helped conduct the Johns Hopkins study. In 2006, I met Richards at his home office, nestled in lush wooded land adjacent to a wilderness park in Baltimore. He sat in his cozy office on a brilliant July morning, a man with copper skin and a gray goatee and a half-smile that put me instantly at ease. A few minutes in his calm presence and I thought, I wouldn’t mind taking hallucinogens from this man.
Why did psychedelics help the terminally ill? I asked.
The subjects traveled to “another level of consciousness. The deeper the mystical experience, the better the outcome,” he said.
“There’s a study I did with a hallucinogen called DPT,” Richards later remembered. “We divided the cancer patients into two groups after the fact—those who had experienced mystical consciousness, and those who hadn’t. And we compared those two groups, and those who did experience the mystical consciousness manifested more capacity for intimate contact, for example, as well as decreases in anxiety and depression.”
“And pain, right?” I asked him.
“Reduced pain for some,” he replied.“When we were working with LSD, we recorded decreased reports of pain. That was also true of the other substances. But part of it was, the meaning of pain changed. Before, pain was in the center of the field of consciousness. People would say, ‘I’m suffering, I’m scared, I’m in pain.’Whereas after [the LSD] people would say, ‘Oh! The pain is still there but it’s off on the periphery of consciousness.’ And at the center of consciousness would be relationships with important people.”
It occurred to me there might be something more spiritual at work in these terminally ill patients than merely rearranging priorities and appreciating the precious time they had left. I voiced that suspicion to Stanislav Grof. Grof had headed psychedelic research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, before the research was shut down. In his fifty years of studying psychedelics and “nonordinary states,” he has sat in on more than 4,000 psychedelic sessions.
Grof said the mystical experiences were in a class by themselves, because they altered the patients’ concept of reality, an effect that neither antibiotics nor Percocet has achieved. I thought back to Mary Ann and the peyote ceremony. Aided by mescaline that night in the tipi, the Navajo woman had traveled to what she believed was another spiritual dimension, and when she returned, the pain had evaporated.What Mary Ann and Grof ’s subjects shared was mystical experience.
“They lost fear of death,” Grof continued. “It’s also something we know happens to people who have near-death experiences. They’ve been in a car accident or have cardiac arrest, and they come back and they say they’re not afraid of death anymore. And we found out it had tremendous impact on pain. It frequently helped with pain that was not responding to narcotics. Or the effect was beyond the pharmacological effect of the drug. The relief sometimes lasted several weeks.”
In his book The Ultimate Journey,12 Grof offers vignettes of cancer patients who had taken psychedelics for his research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. Their mystical experiences could have been lifted from the pages of Raymond Moody’s Life After Life or other books on near-death experiences: the visions included hell, judgment, and—always—light and redemption. The patients emerged from the trips convinced that life and love extended beyond the grave. Often, Grof reported, the pain levels dropped so dramatically that the bedridden patients were able to return to work for weeks or months.
In a groundbreaking study of patients with terminal cancer,13 Grof, Richards, and other scientists reported the case of a woman whose breast cancer had metastasized to her spine.When the doctors first met “Mrs. G,” she was paralyzed from the waist down, anxious, and depressed. After her first LSD session, she emerged determined to work with her physical therapist, and after a few months, she was able to get around with a walker. But a year later, she learned her cancer had spread throughout her body and that she would soon die. She fell into a depression and received another LSD treatment. During this session, “the patient had the experience of passing through a series of blue curtains or veils,” the researchers reported. “On the other side, she felt as if she were a bird in the sky soaring through the air.”14
Mrs. G’s pain eased dramatically. She was able to walk down the aisle at her daughter’s wedding without so much as a cane, and amazed the guests by dancing with her husband during the reception. Six months later, she was considering returning to work, and asked for another LSD session. This time, she enjoyed a full-blown out-of-body experience. The session began smoothly, but Mrs. G became frightened when she saw a huge wall of flames. After encouragement from the attending therapist, she was able to pass through the middle of the flames, and at this point experienced “positive ego transcendence.”
“She felt that she had left her body, was in another world, and was in the presence of God, who seemed symbolized by a huge diamond-shaped iridescent Presence,” Grof reported. “She did not see Him as a person, but knew He was there. The feeling was one of awe and reverence, and she was filled with a sense of peace and freedom. Because she was free from her body, she felt no pain at all.”
Shortly thereafter, Mrs. G was discharged from the hospital “in good spirits.” Later, when she was troubled with pain, she could push the pain out of her mind by reliving her out-of-body LSD experience. A few months later, the cancer finally claimed her life—or, perhaps I should say, claimed her body.
Because of her mystical experiences, she had lost her fear of death, which the doctors believed dramatically reduced her pain for nearly two years after a bedridden, paralyzed Mrs. G first contacted Stanislav Grof and Bill Richards.15 In trying to explain the dramatic recoveries of Mrs. G. and more than forty other people in the study, the scientists could have copied a page from a book by Carlos Castaneda.
“Some of the patients who experienced the shattering phenomenon of death and rebirth followed by an experience of cosmic unity seemed to show a radical and lasting change in their fundamental concepts of man’s relation to the universe,” the scientists wrote. “Death, instead of being seen as the ultimate end of everything and a step into nothingness, appeared suddenly as a transition into a different type of existence.”16
This research, happily, is getting a second life. Two years after I interviewed Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins, he wrote to tell me that he and his team of researchers were soliciting volunteers for a new study. They want to treat cancer patients with psilocybin in a “scientific study of self-exploration and personal meaning”—picking up where Grof and Richards left off. Richards himself is clinical director in the new research.
By this point in my research, these eerie descriptions no longer startled me, so often had I heard them from spiritual people like Sophy Burnham and Arjun Patel, from broken and restored people like Alicia, from cherished people like my mother. These descriptions stitched together disparate experiences like quilting thread. The quilt would expand to include people who lived with epilepsy, those who had a brush with death, and still others who meditated for hours on end. It seems to me that this makes the challenge for an atheist scientist that much greater: instead of reducing transcendent experiences to mere chemical firings, he must produce a plausible explanation for all sorts of experiences that have no connection to one another.
What Science Has Established
The cancer studies dogged me. I mused about them constantly. Perhaps I heard echoes from my Christian Science past, which argued that the very act of touching the divine through prayer has physical consequences. I heard, too, the refrain I had learned as a child in a Christian Science household: Your thinking is your experience. How you perceive the world affects how you experience it. And let’s be clear: this is not a metaphor about turning lemons into lemonade. It is an ontological statement.Your thoughts and prayers affect your physical reality, I was taught, because the spiritual world shapes the human.
I had assumed that my friendship with Tylenol and the world of pharmacology had weaned me from such ideas, but here they were, trotting back and demanding attention. They were joined by Grof’s terminally ill patients and my Navajo woman, who had, with a little help from their friends, replaced one vision of reality with another. For these people, the blotches on the paper had turned into a gaggle of flying geese, and the world would never look the same. They had accessed something—call it a spiritual state or call it an altered one—and returned transformed. Perhaps, I thought, a spiritual reality had broken into their physical lives.
Thanks to technology, neurologists can now watch the mechanics of the most profound moments of one’s life, including mystical experience. So, what has science established so far? It has confirmed that brain activity correlates to one’s (spiritual) experience. In all likelihood, when Saint Paul or Sophy Burnham enjoyed their spontaneous mystical visions, certain neurotransmitters were coursing through their brains, exciting this lobe and calming that one.
What this does not establish, in my opinion, is that mystical experience is nothing but brain chemistry. After all, if there were an “Other” who wanted to communicate with us, of course He or She or It would use the brain to do so, as opposed to, say, the left big toe. Of course God would use the chemistry in our brains to create visions.
God would also use something else: he would use electricity. For if there is a God who wired your brain, He is a master electrician.Your brain crackles with tiny electrical reactions between its different lobes, and some of those reactions spark a spiritual experience. Here we encounter one of the oldest of scientific puzzles in understanding mysticism: Is spiritual experience an electrical storm in the brain that afflicted great religious leaders and mystics down the centuries? Is it faulty wiring that leads to a sort of madness, or superior wiring that leads to spiritual insight?
Now that neuroscientists possess the technology to tackle the problem, they are looking for the answer in the “sacred disease.”