Earlier, I posted some of the key findings of the Johns Hopkins psilocybin experiments and a condensation of the concerns and criticisms the research has drawn. I promised responses to some of those concerns; this is the first in that series.
Concern/criticism: “What’s the big deal? I took mushrooms, and my experience was neither ‘spiritual’ nor life-changing.”
This of course proves that not all hallucinogen experiences are profound, but not that none is.*
Why are some hallucinogen experiences recalled as life-transforming and others as trivial? Likely because the trivial experiences involved a suboptimal dosage, ill-focused intentions, a suboptimal setting, or the wrong person. Or because even when all those things are right, any given experience may not be profound. But the research shows that well-screened and well-prepared people given a sufficient dose under good circumstances have a two-thirds or better chance of a profound experience, and a very small risk of real harm.
In the first Johns Hopkins psilocybin experiment, the most remembered and most appreciated psilocybin experiences tended to be those that reached mystical-type consciousness. Shifting the question, what are the factors that help a psilocybin session to reach mystical states?
– Dosage. Enough – neither too little nor too much. That’s usually a pretty substantial amount, more than typically used recreationally, though what’s needed to bring about mystical experience varies by person and occasion (not to mention chance or grace).
– Intention. If you’re expecting just to see pretty colors or to laugh with friends, you may not get much more. (But caution is advised, as sometimes people get other than what they bargained for.)
– Setting. This includes your guide (sitter, officiant, etc. – you have one, right?), the place, the company, etc. Recall the impact of awe-inspiring architecture, nature, sacred music, poetry, and the like.
– Individual. Just as some people are mystically gifted and need no assist, there may be others for whom the hallucinogens will never serve as entheogens. It’s not a path for everyone. That leaves a middle group, with quite a variety of tastes and mystical sensitivities.
These factors are interdependent. Intention influences choice of guide, setting, substance, and amount. A guide ought to have a lot to offer about preparations and establishing a suitable setting. The dose can be so high as to dissolve duality even when there is no intention for that to happen. (Warning: higher doses can greatly increase the risk of transient reactions – fear, paranoia, delusions – that could lead to harmful behaviors if unchecked.) Or, the dose can be so low that, for a given individual, not even alignment of all the other factors would likely yield a mystical experience.
Government surveys show around a million hallucinogen initiations annually in the U.S. That there does not appear to be a corresponding wave of mystical insight has been attributed (with respect to another classical serotonergic hallucinogen) to low doses:
LSD’s most profound psychic effect, the sense of contacting some profound universal truth, occurs at higher doses. The dosage common in the early 1960s (when achieving this cosmic consciousness was often a motivation for LSD use) was 250 micrograms; in the 1990s the common dosage is believed to be 50 micrograms.
— Leigh A. Henderson & William J. Glass, LSD: Still With Us After All These Years (1994)
A number of commentators…have recently argued that LSD’s effects are essentially in line with “recreational drug use.” However, most of these observers became interested in this compound in the 1970’s, when the usual dosage had dropped to 50 to 100 mcg., far below the dosages taken in the 1960’s, which frequently exceeded 250 mcg. Dosage is a primary factor in the emergence of religious impulses. Lesser amounts generally have lesser effects, although small doses on occasion have induced psychically powerful results.
— Peter Stafford, Psychedelics Encyclopedia (1992)
To focus on mystical experience is not to discount the potential value of lower-dose, non-mystical hallucinogen experiences. They can be useful, e.g., in some psychotherapies, to spark professional or artistic creativity, to enhance appreciation of nature and beauty, or to enhance philosophical or spiritual contemplation. But the most profound and remembered experiences seem to come with suitable preparation, suitable guidance, and adequate amounts of the entheogen.
*That paraphrases Huston Smith’s response in 1964 to another religion scholar, R.C. Zaehner, who had described his own mescaline experience as “utterly trivial.” For further reading, see Smith’s Do Drugs Have Religious Import?