The Great Unknown: A Psychedelic Journey to the End of Life and Beyond

In the fall and winter of 2014 I participated in a research study at the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy on the effects of the psychedelic drug psilocybin. I was one of 12 volunteers who took psilocybin on three occasions under the supervision of the research staff. The dosage increased each time. In the last session we got 40mg of psilocybin per 70kg of body weight, the largest dose in the history of psychedelic research.

There were visions.

A few hours into my first session I saw my mother Martha sitting alone in her living room. She was sitting in her chair facing her stereo which was silent because her dementia had progressed to the point where she could no longer insert a CD in the player.

The music in my headphones—selected by the researchers—gave the vision a soundtrack of Bach and Vivaldi, the same music my mom played for me when I was a child, the same music her parents played for her. Now she sat in silence, disconnected from the art that gave her joy. I understood the purpose of the vision: I must bring my mother and her music back together.

The next day I drove to Martha’s care facility and put a CD of Brahms in her stereo and pressed play and watched her eyes widen with love. We sat together holding hands as we had when we shared music in my childhood.

A couple hours of Brahms and Mozart every few days brought my mom out of her fog and made her joyful, but it also changed our relationship. She was no longer the competent, independent person who traveled the world and played the stock market and raised a son as a single parent and put on whatever CD she damn well pleased. Now the roles of a lifetime turned upside down. I would learn to be a caregiver or there would be no more music.

* * *

In my third session in the UW study, the one with the big dose, I traveled down the birth canal and entered the world. I gave birth myself, which was very messy. I died.

The dimly lit room in the School of Pharmacy became an underground grotto and the guides sitting by my couch—gentle and helpful as always—prepared the last rites. Wrapped in headphones and blankets with my arms folded over my chest, I was a corpse.

I saw light in the distance as the borders of my individuality began to dissolve.

No! I pulled back. My ego hung on like a dog gripping a bone in its jaws. Then I felt the light tugging at my edges and seeping through my barriers and I knew it was time to go so I leaned forward and I fell in. The light came up to engulf me and then there was nothing.

Death was very hard, but the vision of rebirth was harder. I came back into primordial chaos with no sense of self, just fragments of objects and sounds and memories flying around in a whirlwind. My job was to put the universe back together one piece at a time. After much hard labor, I built a foundation solid enough to stand on and go forward. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

The next day as I drove home from the hospital I marveled at the beauty of streets and neighborhoods I’d seen countless times before. The world was fresh and new.

In the days after my final session I felt buoyant as if I’d lost a ton of weight. It was lovely but I figured it would end soon and life would be heavy and gray again. That didn’t happen. I had, in fact, lost a huge weight that I’d carried all my life. I was no longer afraid.

Sixty-plus years of social anxiety and stress and grinding discomfort in my own skin were lifted from me in one day. What’s more, I was no longer afraid of death. Been there, done that.

* * *

As my mom’s dementia progressed, parts of her disappeared like the limbs of a melting snowman.  Over the course of a year and a half she lost the ability to write checks, operate appliances, tell time, read, bathe herself, and remember the names of her parents. Her weight plummeted. Then she stopped eating.

Her doctor recommended hospice. The hospice nurse examined my mom, who was barely responsive by then, and told me that she probably wouldn’t live another week. The nurse and I sat by the bed in a silent vigil.

As I held my mom’s frail hand and examined the transparent skin of her wrist and the colored veins underneath, I realized I’d been there before. Not long ago I was the skeleton wrapped in blankets preparing for the final sendoff as the UW research staff sat nearby in a silent vigil. The familiarity of the situation comforted me.

I understand now why cancer patients who receive psilocybin lose their fear of death. The psychedelic experience—loss of ego boundaries, transcendence of space and time, direct knowledge of universal love—is so huge that everything else, even a fatal disease or the death of a beloved parent, falls into place.

* * *

After each session in the UW study I filled out a form called the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire. The form has a list of things that may turn up during a psychedelic trip. For example: “Awareness of the life or living presence in all things” and “Feeling that you experienced eternity or infinity.” You rate the significance of these experiences in your trip on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 5 (extreme).

Everyone who participates in a psychedelic research study fills out the same form. The data show that psychedelics often produce dramatic mystical states like the ones reported by monks or yogis. Many participants rate the psychedelic journey as one of the most important and transformative events in their lives.

What’s more, the questionnaire shows that mystical experiences can play a big role in psychedelic therapy. Recent studies at Johns Hopkins and New York University showed a positive correlation between ratings on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire and the effectiveness of psilocybin as a treatment for depression and anxiety in late-stage cancer patients. People who scored higher on the scales of mystical experience had fewer negative emotional symptoms from their disease.

Unlike other medications, the positive benefits of psilocybin seem to persist long after the drug passes out of the system. Long as in months or years. In the Hopkins/NYU studies, the cancer patients got a single dose of psilocybin. At a six-month follow-up, many of them reported continuing psychological and emotional benefits.

I can testify that it works like that. My study was for healthy adults; I don’t have cancer or PTSD or any of the other conditions treated with psychedelics. Even so, the long-lasting benefits of psilocybin came in very handy when I needed them.

* * *

I sat a vigil for the week it was supposed to take my mom to die. Then she woke up and asked for something to eat.

In the months that my mother lingered in this world, I learned to feed her and clothe her and take care of the basic needs that she performed for me when I was a helpless child. I learned to make conversation with a person who speaks nonsense.

The stress and sorrow grew with the demands. I put on a good face for my mom and the nursing staff, but the tears came the moment I left the building.

Oddly, as my own burden grew, my mom’s diminished. She wasn’t depressed or bitter like so many of her fellow residents in the memory care facility. She even developed a sense of humor. I held her stuffed dog on her knee and flopped its ears and she made growling noises and laughed and laughed.

One day I was sitting in the dining room at my mom’s table helping her with a glass of juice when an aide wheeled in another resident and parked her next to us and left her slumped over in her wheelchair. I didn’t pay much attention, but my mom, who was pretty vacant herself that morning, perked up and said hello. The only reply was a slack jaw and far-off stare.

Martha made another attempt. She feebly grasped her spoon and held it out to her dining companion who, of course, had a full table service of her own.

“Would you like this?” she asked.

I lost it. I started crying and made a lame attempt to cover up using my mom’s paper napkin. For an instant I saw her as she truly is, without the layers of her career and her daily routines and her endless responsibilities. She was always a loving caregiver, even to strangers, but I never saw it until her dementia took away everything else.

* * *

They call LSD “acid” both for its chemical name and for the subjective effect of bathing in a corrosive pool that dissolves all illusions. Psilocybin can have the same effect.

In one of my sessions I developed x-ray vision that let me see through my transparent skin to my skeleton and nervous system. That all dissolved followed by the ego junk—sixty years of habits, assumptions, and prejudices, all down the drain. There wasn’t much left besides a core of basic needs and spirit.

When the same thing happened to my mom I got a sense of déjà vu. As I see it, we are on the same journey, hers facilitated by age and illness and mine by chemicals. Both trips take us to the deep center of human nature. That’s why a psychedelic trip can feel so familiar.

Perhaps that’s also one reason why psychedelics are so practical. Long after the last dose of psilocybin washed out of my system, I still recognize the core human spirit in others, even those I used to avoid or dislike. People tell me I’m more patient and tolerant.

I also have a new attitude toward elderly people. For most of my life I didn’t have much time for them but now I seek them out. They’re past the stage of scurrying around preoccupied by things that don’t matter. It took me 40mg of psilocybin to learn that lesson, but I think I finally got it. Maybe I’m ready to follow my mom’s example and be a caregiver.

* * *

Martha is still with us. On a good day she still gets some pleasure from Brahms or Mozart, but just as often they pass by unnoticed.

Someday I’ll get a phone call from the hospice nurse. It could be tomorrow or it could be a year from now. I think I’m ready. I’ve done the work of letting go.

The final vision of my last session was a dance. I don’t think my mom and I ever did the waltz in the real world, but we did under the influence of psychedelics. She was a little girl, the most precious thing in the world, and I held her in my arms as we twirled around. I saw the crack forming on the horizon and I knew she would have to go soon. But we held each other and danced.

The crack widened and bright light poured in from the next world. My mother was very small, tiny enough to hold in my hands. I told her I loved her and I held her up and let her go. I cried but love remained.

* * *

I am, still, a rational materialist who doubts life after death. With all the visions and ordeals of the last two years, however, doubts and beliefs don’t seem very important. I got what I needed from my teachers, one a human and one a chemical. The rest is superfluous.

Who cares that the mystical experience I had in the UW study came out of a chemistry lab? Call it psychological, purely subjective, a fiction conjured by a brain under the influence. All true. It was also as real and beautiful and practical as anything in my life.

When it is my own time to die, I think I’ll be as well prepared as the cancer patients in the psilocybin studies. I’ll get the final diagnosis but I’ll remember the big galactic dance.

When it’s time for the final transition I suspect that it will feel familiar, like a place I’ve visited before. I don’t think it could be any more difficult or more cosmic than what I experienced in the session room. I know that my own death, and the death of my mother, are tiny compared to the love that will endure.

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UW study volunteers at Psychedelic Science conference

I’m honored to be a presenter at the 2017 Psychedelic Science conference. I’ll be part of a discussion panel with five other volunteers from the UW research study on the effects of psilocybin.  Our group will appear on Saturday, April 22, at 11:00 AM in the Grand Ballroom in the Oakland Marriot City Center Hotel. Click the banner below for information on the panel discussion.


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Important new studies on psilocybin therapy for cancer patients

Two research studies from Johns Hopkins and New York University show that psilocybin is an effective therapy for depression and anxiety in cancer patients. These studies are a huge step toward legalization of psilocybin as a prescription medicine. From the New York Times article:

About 80 percent of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in both psychological disorders, a response sustained some seven months after the single dose. Side effects were minimal. … In both trials, the intensity of the mystical experience described by patients correlated with the degree to which their depression and anxiety decreased.

Octavian Mihai at his home in Las Vegas. Mr. Mihai began experiencing anxiety after he finished treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Credit Isaac Brekken for The New York Times

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Psychedelic Science 2017

Psychedelic Science 2017 banner
I hope you’ll join me and the rest of the psychedelic community at the Psychedelic Science conference in Oakland next April. I attended the previous conference in 2013 and I was deeply impressed. This is a great group of fascinating people doing incredibly important work. Plus, it’s lots of fun. Early bird tickets are available by clicking the banner.

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“Greetings from Utopia Park” tells the truth

Greetings from Utopia Park coverMost of the people I knew in the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement were ex-hippies who had a conversion experience in young adulthood and ran off to join a charismatic guru. Not Claire Hoffman, author of Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood. She never met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian spiritual leader who popularized TM in America, although his unseen presence permeated her life from an early age.

Claire’s mother was part of the counterculture generation that discovered Eastern religion and made TM a huge fad in the 1960s. She took her children to a TM center for initiation while Claire was still a preschooler. When Claire’s parents divorced, the struggling family moved to the center of the TM movement in Fairfield, Iowa, where Claire and her brother grew up immersed in Maharishi’s world.

The Hoffman family arrived on the campus of Maharishi University in the early 1980s, a few years after I left. (Full disclosure: I’m the author of another memoir on this topic: The Maharishi Effect: A Personal Journey Through the Movement that Transformed American Spirituality.) By then, the guru’s teachings went way beyond TM.

At first, young Claire believed Maharishi’s claims that meditation would unlock magical powers and bring world peace. Doubts crept in, however. The “support of nature” that was supposed to make Maharishi’s followers wealthy never arrived for most of them. Claire’s mom struggled to make ends meet, especially with financial demands from the movement like the increasing monthly fee to meditate for world peace.

Claire was thrilled when her class at the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment took a field trip to the Maharishi Golden Dome of Pure Knowledge for a demonstration of “yogic flying.” Claire expected to see the adults zooming around like Superman. Instead, they were bouncing on foam mats. Claire’s magical fantasies ended for good.

As she grew into a teenager, Claire’s doubts blossomed into full rebellion. When her mom and the other parents left home for hours of “flying” in the Golden Dome, Claire and her friends ran wild. They left enlightenment behind for booze and shoplifting. She dated local guys who didn’t even meditate.

One of the best parts of this book is the insightful portrayal of the two cultures within Fairfield. Has there ever been a town/gown gap wider and more poisonous than the gulf between the “townies” and the “gurus” in this small Iowa community? In my day, there was little interaction and it was easy for the two sides to demonize each other. Claire Hoffman took a much harder path of working to blend in with the local Iowans. She gives us intimate details of life on both sides—the totally opposed beliefs, diets, dreams, body types, and destinies. Her bridge of understanding is an achievement that borders on the heroic.

When she was old enough and she couldn’t stand life in Fairfield any longer, Ms. Hoffman moved to California to join her father. From there, her story becomes more familiar—a talented and ambitious person who works hard and attains success in her profession. That’s not the end, however. Like most of us who come out of a fringe religious sect, the past never goes away.

Ms. Hoffman returned to Fairfield as an adult when the pressures of career and motherhood left her dried out and empty. Perhaps, for all its craziness, the TM movement could offer some peace of mind. She learned the “yogic flying” technique, had her daughter initiated into meditation, and found closure of a sort.

When I reviewed this book on Amazon I gave it four out of five stars because of the questions that Ms. Hoffman leaves unanswered. Every author has to end the story somewhere, of course, but I think she closes the door for the wrong reasons.

In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Ms. Hoffman says that the problems in Fairfield were due to a power vacuum left by an absent leader. “I think it created a kind of screwed up community for a number of years. But I think that was our fault. I feel like we do it to ourselves and why do we do it? I think that’s a more interesting question than was he a great man or was he a con artist. Who cares?”

As I see it, Ms. Hoffman’s “Who cares?” is an eerie echo of the excuse she quotes Maharishi giving for his astronomical prices: “Americans don’t value things unless they pay a lot of money for them.” Maharishi was very good at convincing his followers that everything he did was for their benefit and any problems were of their own making.

We were so wrapped up in our inner lives that we gave a pass to the person who issued the orders. Yes, we enabled him, and that’s a fascinating story, but it’s just a small fragment. What happened to the money? How did a simple meditation program evolve into a spectacular train wreck? What are the effects of unlimited power on a spiritual leader with no accountability? How can we prevent it from happening again? We won’t answer these questions until we look beyond ourselves.

I question Ms. Hoffman’s conclusions, but that’s a minor quibble compared to her very great achievement. As a second generation member of one of the most influential new religious movements in America, Claire Hoffman’s story is unique, valuable, and extremely well written. I hope you’ll buy this book, read it, and discuss it with your friends.

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“Psychedelics: A New Understanding” panel discussion audio


Mazdak Bradberry, Diane Pasley, and Geoff Gilpin at “Psychedelics: A New Understanding”

For those of you who weren’t able to attend “Psychedelics: A New Understanding,” here’s an audio file of the panel discussion with myself and two other volunteers from the UW psilocybin study, Mazdak Bradberry and Diane Pasley. Our guide Dan Muller makes an appearance during the Q&A at the end. Please note that the audio quality is variable.

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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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