Mysterious Molecules: The Sacred Knowledge of Entheogens

Sacred Knowledge

“How can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?”

This week, our featured book is Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, by William A. Richards. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Sacred Knowledge!

In Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, William A. Richards argues that, if used responsibly and legally, psychedelics have incredible potential to assuage human suffering and constructively contribute to the quality of life on our planet. Richards’ book comes at a time when many are questioning the blanket prohibition on and demonization of such substances. In the New Yorker this February, Michael Pollan’s article “The Trip Treatment” delved into the ongoing second wave of psychedelics research, with an assist from Richards. And in an interview with Noah Berlatsky in The Guardian, Richards explains the promise of his research.

As the drug war subsides, scientists are eager to reconsider the therapeutic potential of these drugs, beginning with psilocybin… The effects of psilocybin resemble those of LSD, but, as one researcher explained, “it carries none of the political and cultural baggage of those three letters.” LSD is also stronger and longer-lasting in its effects, and is considered more likely to produce adverse reactions. Researchers are using or planning to use psilocybin not only to treat anxiety, addiction (to smoking and alcohol), and depression but also to study the neurobiology of mystical experience, which the drug, at high doses, can reliably occasion. Forty years after the Nixon Administration effectively shut down most psychedelic research, the government is gingerly allowing a small number of scientists to resume working with these powerful and still somewhat mysterious molecules.

As I chatted with Tony Bossis and Stephen Ross in the treatment room at N.Y.U., their excitement about the results was evident. According to Ross, cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months. The data are still being analyzed and have not yet been submitted to a journal for peer review, but the researchers expect to publish later this year.

“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it,” Ross told me. “They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”

I was surprised to hear such unguarded enthusiasm from a scientist, and a substance-abuse specialist, about a street drug that, since 1970, has been classified by the government as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But the support for renewed research on psychedelics is widespread among medical experts. “I’m personally biased in favor of these type of studies,” Thomas R. Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (N.I.M.H.) and a neuroscientist, told me. “If it proves useful to people who are really suffering, we should look at it. Just because it is a psychedelic doesn’t disqualify it in our eyes.” Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), emphasized that “it is important to remind people that experimenting with drugs of abuse outside a research setting can produce serious harms.”

Many researchers I spoke with described their findings with excitement, some using words like “mind-blowing.” Bossis said, “People don’t realize how few tools we have in psychiatry to address existential distress. Xanax isn’t the answer. So how can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?”

Herbert D. Kleber, a psychiatrist and the director of the substance-abuse division at the Columbia University–N.Y. State Psychiatric Institute, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on drug abuse, struck a cautionary note. “The whole area of research is fascinating,” he said. “But it’s important to remember that the sample sizes are small.” He also stressed the risk of adverse effects and the importance of “having guides in the room, since you can have a good experience or a frightful one.” But he added, referring to the N.Y.U. and Johns Hopkins research, “These studies are being carried out by very well trained and dedicated therapists who know what they’re doing. The question is, is it ready for prime time?”…

How are we to judge the veracity of the insights gleaned during a psychedelic journey? It’s one thing to conclude that love is all that matters, but quite another to come away from a therapy convinced that “there is another reality” awaiting us after death, as one volunteer put it, or that there is more to the universe—and to consciousness—than a purely materialist world view would have us believe. Is psychedelic therapy simply foisting a comforting delusion on the sick and dying?

“That’s above my pay grade,” Bossis said, with a shrug, when I asked him. Bill Richards cited William James, who suggested that we judge the mystical experience not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by its fruits: does it turn someone’s life in a positive direction?

Many researchers acknowledge that the power of suggestion may play a role when a drug like psilocybin is administered by medical professionals with legal and institutional sanction: under such conditions, the expectations of the therapist are much more likely to be fulfilled by the patient. (And bad trips are much less likely to occur.) But who cares, some argue, as long as it helps? David Nichols, an emeritus professor of pharmacology at Purdue University—and a founder, in 1993, of the Heffter Research Institute, a key funder of psychedelic research—put the pragmatic case most baldly in a recent interview with Science:“If it gives them peace, if it helps people to die peacefully with their friends and their family at their side, I don’t care if it’s real or an illusion.”

From Richards’ conversation in The Guardian:

Couldn’t these experiences be explained as a physical/chemical process rather than as a spiritual one?

Sure. There are many different hypotheses to try to explain them, and I think there’s a biochemical substrate to probably everything we experience. But to what extent that substrate is correlative as opposed to causative, is a philosophical question.

If you dissected your television set and looked in the transistors to try to find the woman who delivered the news last night, you wouldn’t find her. And yet, the television set was a part of the experience. It was integral to seeing the news. Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, posited the same model of the brain. The brain may receive and process information rather than cause it.

But when these experiences occur, people will testify that there’s a great big mystery there. And it’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly meaningful. And it seems to have life transformative effects for many people regardless of their history of mystical or philosophical beliefs.

In your book you said there might be medical uses. Has it been difficult to figure out if there are because the research has been restricted?

In the 60s, we were very excited about their promise in treatment of addictions: narcotic addiction and alcoholism. We were using them back then in helping terminally ill people live the end of their lives more fully, with less anxiety and less depression, less preoccupation with pain, more closeness to family members. These are very promising medical uses that are just beginning to be reexamined now, as the research has started to come alive again in the last 15 years. There was a 22-year period before that where absolutely nothing was going on in the United States or most of western Europe mainly because of the drug policy and the demonization of psychedelics. Technically I think I have the dubious distinction of giving psilocybin to the last person before it got totally dormant; that was in 1977. But for all practical purposes around 1973 the research was pretty dormant.

Entheogens in the US are mostly very closely regulated. So what would the benefits be of making them more widely available or easier to access?

Well I hope they will gradually become more widely available, but it has to be done in a very thoughtful and sane way. There should probably be centers with specially trained personnel, where people who want this form of experience can obtain it legally. But also with responsible medical screening and good preparation and skillful support in the experience, and some help in initially integrating the insights that occur.

Dr. Richards discusses his work further in the essay Revelation, Psychedelics, and Everyday Living on the Powell’s blog:

At this point in the history of psychedelic research, there is no question that the responsible administration of these substances, long considered sacred in different cultures of our world, entails much more than simple ingestion of a drug. There are many varieties of “psychedelic experiences,” insignificant and transformative, frightening and beautiful, potentially destructive or constructive. It is clear that the experiences reported are best viewed not as being “in the drug” but rather as “in the human mind.” How one approaches the opportunity to explore other realms of human consciousness and the interpersonal grounding available during the period of drug action are known to be of critical importance. If one tries to consciously control an experience or attempts to avoid powerful feelings such as grief or guilt that may be encountered, panic, confusion, and paranoia may reliably be engendered, perhaps including a trip to a psychiatric emergency room. If, on the other hand, one is well prepared and enters alternative states of awareness with a high degree of trust, openness, courage, and a desire to grow personally and spiritually even if some suffering may occur during the journey, the states of consciousness encountered have a high probability of being life-enhancing.

Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences is available now.

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