Archive for Reason and Magic

The Badger Herald covers UW psilocybin study

The Badger Herald has a feature article about the UW psilocybin study. “‘Magic mushrooms’ study challenges stereotypes of psychedelic drug use” quotes me, fellow volunteers Mazdak Bradberry and Diane Pasley, and our guide Dan Muller.

Geoff Gilpin, an area author, said this study changed everything for him.

“It’s like going through a door,” he said. “You can’t go back the other way, but it’s a completely different life. I gained a strength, an inner peace and a sense of perspective that made it possible for me to survive what turned out to be the hardest year of my life.”

Gilpin said he still thinks a lot of misconceptions are held from the ’60s and the war on drugs. As study volunteers, he said they have a unique experience and perspective to share, especially to people in the public who might be hesitant about supporting psychedelic research.

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Meditation, Psychedelics, and the Hall of Maya (Part 1)

Meditation and psychedelics are the most powerful tools I know for busting out of ignorance. Both have a unique ability to dissolve boundaries and open up our perspective on ourselves and the world. Both offer hope to people trapped in fear, depression, or self-destructive behaviors.

Nobody really knows why meditation and psychedelics work so well. There’s a lot of research and speculation about their effects in the human nervous system. I’m not qualified to have an opinion on those issues, but I can report on the subjective effects which, to me, feel very similar.

My experience of both was like a reprieve from a prison sentence. It felt like I’d been stuck in a small box forever until somebody opened the door and I stood up and stretched and walked out into the daylight. It was a powerful experience of liberation followed by a lasting sense of freedom.

Like a lot of other people, I’m extremely grateful for the help I’ve received over the years from these uniquely valuable tools. I think I’m pretty well acquainted with their benefits by now, but I’m also getting a sense of their limitations. In some cases, the limitations may be a consequence of the benefits.

Both meditation and psychedelics shine a light in the darkness. The light is indiscriminate, however. It shines on all things good and bad, on eternal truths and shiny baubles.

I wish that there was some innate wisdom in human nature or meditation or psychedelics that would have us choose eternal truths over shiny baubles, but it just isn’t so. If you spend any time in spiritual communities you’ll meet plenty of individuals—intelligent, compassionate, enlightened folks—who insist they can read minds or travel to Alpha Centauri or live forever because of quantum mechanics.

I try to speak up for reason when engaging my brothers and sisters on the spiritual path, but I haven’t changed many minds and I don’t expect to. However, I don’t think our paradoxical beliefs have to end at an impasse. I sense an opportunity to work together for our mutual benefit.

I think we can all agree that spiritual practices—including meditation and psychedelics along with plenty of others—open up new areas of the mind.  When I learned to meditate forty years ago I was amazed by the new insights and experiences that bubbled up from the depths. I took it all pretty much at face value. For instance, I had an experience of controlling a traffic light with my thoughts. It was unusual, sure, but I believed it because it was one of my own experiences, qualitatively not much different from putting on my shoes or eating a peanut butter sandwich.

I understand now that experience isn’t neutral. It has an agenda. It comes out of a mind programmed by thousands of years of human evolution for survival and not truth. Our minds show us whatever will keep us alive and help us procreate, truth be damned. We see illusory patterns in random events and hear phantom tigers in the dark and it all seems as real as our minds can make it.

Our inner environment is booby trapped. All humans live with this danger, but spiritual people take extra risks. The deeper they travel through the inner realms, the more likely they are to set off a landmine. The techniques that free us from bondage to illusions can also create new illusions. Round and round.

But now we know. We understand that meditation and psychedelics shine a light on all things good and bad. We know that the choice is up to us, and we can remind each other to choose wisely.

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Psilocybin documentary in Madison


You’re invited to the Madison premiere of A New Understanding: The Science of Psilocybin. From the press release:

The compelling and touching story explores cutting edge research that uses the psychoactive compound found in ‘magic mushrooms’ to dramatically reduce anxiety of death in terminally ill cancer patients. Over the past decade, government-sanctioned, human psychedelic research with psilocybin has been conducted at Johns Hopkins University, New York University, and UCLA. The research serves as the narrative backbone for the documentary.

The film presents an intimate look into the lives of several terminally ill cancer patients participating in the studies, and opens an intriguing discourse of the dying process and our role as a society in that process. By informing current misconceptions about psychedelics, A New Understanding utilizes a collection of accomplished minds to discuss psilocybins’ role in culture, evolution, mystical states, and even life itself.

Join us for this important film at the Marquee Cinema at UW Union South at 5:00 PM on Monday, April 25th.

In addition to the movie, the program includes appearances by several people from the psilocybin research study at the UW School of Pharmacy. Guides Karen Cooper and Dan Muller will present “Trusting the Medicine,” a report based on their experience working with research volunteers during the psychedelic journey. Five participants from the UW study will appear in a panel discussion moderated by yours truly.

I hope to see you at Union South on April 25th.

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WPR interviews UW psychedelic research team

Here’s an interview from Wisconsin Public Radio with two members of the team that conducted the research study on the effects of psilocybin. (See this blog entry for more on this study and my participation.) The host of WPR’s “Central Time” program interviewed Paul Hutson, the lead researcher, and Karen Cooper, the head of the training program for psychedelic guides.

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The right stuff

I’ve received a bunch of interesting reactions to the Wisconsin State Journal article about the UW research study on psychedelics. One of the senior members of the research community compared me and the other study volunteers to the early test pilots who first broke the sound barrier.

It’s fun to take this metaphor and run with it. NASA test pilots and psychedelic test pilots both “earn their wings.” They both have “the right stuff.” Both have the occasional hard landing. However…

When NASA test pilots crash, they have a team of doctors to put them back together. When psychedelic test pilots crash, they have to put themselves back together.

Come to think of it… maybe putting yourself back together is the whole point.

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State Journal article outtakes

In my interview with the WI State Journal (see the previous post), I gave the reporter a bunch of quotes that wound up on the cutting room floor. Here are some of the outtakes:

First, on the topic of trust, especially of one’s guides:

My first trip ended with a major trial. I had a vision of a monstrous animal that embodied my fears. I was scared at first, but I remembered what my guides told me. They said that, if you encounter a being like that, don’t run away. Go up to it and look it in the eye. Then keep going and pass through its eyes, turn around, and look back out of its eyes.

I followed their instructions and my fear vanished. I realized that the fear was of my own creation and unnecessary. I also realized that my guides knew what they were talking about. I figured that, if I could trust them enough to make it through this trial, I’d be in good hands for the rest of the journey.

You don’t get this kind of expert guidance in a recreational setting. To be safe and to make real progress with psychedelics, you need trained guides.

Second, on surrender:

When I was at the peak of my second trip, I had a typical psychedelic experience of seeing the universe as a spinning mandala. It was a cosmic dance with everyone and everything in creation circling the divine source. I wanted to join in and I started to let go and dance, but I felt my individuality slipping away and I reflexively pulled back. I remembered that my guides had encouraged me to persevere and go with whatever happens. I let go and dissolved into the dance.

Oddly enough, this act of surrender continued into everyday life. You know those times when you’re sitting in traffic gnashing your teeth? Now I can relax and appreciate those moments as another turn in the cosmic dance.

Third, also on the topic of trust:

I’ve always had issues with authority figures. During my second trip, a bunch of these people showed up.  It was a parade of old guys from my home town, coming at me from the center of the cosmic mandala. I was intimidated at first, but then I realized that they were exactly like me, doing their best on life’s journey.

Since then, when I encounter these guys in real life, they don’t bug me as much. I see the humanity in them and I understand that our similarities are much greater than our differences.

Fourth, more thoughts on trust and surrender:

My third trip, the one with the big dose of 40mg, was difficult. With psychedelics, however, the most difficult trips can also be the most rewarding.

At the peak of the journey I had experiences of birth and death. They might have been psychological visions, but that doesn’t mean they were easier than the real thing.

At the climax, everything disintegrated and I left this world. I came back into a chaotic universe with no place for me to hold on. My guides saw that I was having a hard time and said ‘You’re doing good work’ and ‘Your physical body is safe.’ Their help gave me the courage to keep going and tackle the labor of reassembling the universe.

Eventually, I asked my guide ‘Did I die?’ He gave me the wisest, most loving smile and said ‘Every day. But today, not clinically.’ I laughed and I knew it would be okay.

That trip put everything in perspective. Big problems seem smaller now. It’s all part of the journey.

Finally, some thoughts for the hallucinogen naive:

I feel that psychedelics can be valuable because they take you to the core of human nature. They strip away all the everyday distractions and show you the extremes of wonder and uncertainty at the center of your heart. It’s natural to be afraid of the unknown, but psychedelic experiences aren’t alien, they come from within us. I was astonished when I got to the bottom of the tunnel and discovered that it felt familiar. If you’ve ever been in love or cared for a child or aging parent, you might not be too surprised at what you find if you take a psychedelic journey.

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