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Spotlight: The Psilocybin Solution: The Role of Sacred Mushrooms in the Quest for Meaning

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The following excerpt has been shared by the author Simon G. Powell and our friends at Inner Traditions exclusively for Reality Sandwich. Enjoy the tasty morsel.

The Psilocybin Solution: The Role of Sacred Mushrooms in the Quest for Meaning

In The Psilocybin Solution, Simon G. Powell educates his readers on the deep history behind psilocybin mushrooms and the corresponding spiritual psychedelic effects. Powell discusses the research conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Johns Hopkins University, and the Heffter Research Institute on the therapeutic results psilocybin can have on individuals. Psilocybin supports terminally ill patients experiencing treatment-resistant depression and anxiety to individuals undergoing other psychological disorders like obsessive compulsion disorder (OCD). Throughout the book, the studies Powell hones in on paint an illustration on how psilocybin contains incredible consciousness-altering effects. Accordingly, Powell analyzes the neurochemistry underlying the visionary and magical psilocybin experience. Explaining how sacred mushrooms help restore our connection to nature’s natural intelligence, Powell unfolds what the meaning of life truly is.

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Dr. Timothy Leary Gets Turned On

For forty-year-old Leary it began, as ever, in Mexico. Already an established and respected psychologist at Harvard, Leary spent the summer of 1960 with some friends at the Mexican resort town of Cuernavaca. During his stay, an anthropologist associate at the University of Mexico, who had come across references to sacred mushrooms while studying the Aztecs, suggested that Leary try some.

At noon one Saturday Leary gulped down six obnoxious-tasting local Mexican mushrooms, which had been obtained with much more ease than those consumed by Gordon Wasson five years earlier. Through this strange lunch, Leary’s fate was effectively sealed. As he later wrote in his autobiography, while the psilocybin coursed its way through his “virgin” Irish bloodstream, he enjoyed the most awe-inspiring religious experience of his life.

Leary was convinced that in just four hours under the influence of psilocybin he had learned more about the mind and the brain than in the fifteen years that he’d been a professional psychologist. This gives good measure to the strength and psychological impact of his first psilocybinetic encounter. Under the right conditions the mushroom is able to restructure one’s culturally determined concepts about reality and proffer an entirely different set of beliefs with which to navigate oneself through life.

Being a keen and responsive practitioner of psychological science, alert to new fields of discovery, Leary immediately requested funds to set up a research program into psilocybin. In no time at all the Harvard Psilocybin Project was initiated, commencing at the end of 1960, when a handy batch of psilocybin arrived from Sandoz. Already the natural mushroom had been replaced with jars of precisely dosed pills, thereby subtly altering the context of the psilocybin experience. How different might the implications of psilocybin have been at Harvard had the scientists had to go out into the wilds to pick their research material by hand . . . 

One of the most impressive projects undertaken was the systematic study of 175 subjects given psilocybin in which the experimental emphasis was on providing a relaxed and supportive setting. This important notion of set and setting—the subject’s mental and physical environment prior to taking the psilocybin—can never be stressed enough, as they are crucial factors in determining the subsequent psychedelic experience. Leary and his coworkers had already established these facts among themselves prior to their official experimentation, and they were at pains to point out how set and setting played a key role in whether the psilocybin experience proved well or ill. It is possible that had someone without Leary’s temperament and intimate knowledge of psilocybin organized the experiments instead, then more negative experiences would have been reported.

As it was, most of the subjects reported a pleasant or ecstatic experience, that the psilocybin experience had changed their lives for the better. No psychological casualties were reported even though stronger doses had been used than in previous experimentation. There was no evidence for psychological or physical addiction, although 90% wished to repeat the experience. No hangovers were reported and presumably no one awoke the morning after to rooms strewn with empty bottles and cans. In a six-month follow-up study, none of the subjects had developed enduring psychotic or neurotic symptoms. The experiment was a success in demonstrating that under favorable conditions, ordinary people were able to have an inwardly enriching experience with psilocybin. Things on the psychedelic front were looking good. The Earth’s special mushroom, albeit in pill form, was showing promise.

These findings were eclipsed however by the legendary Good Friday Experiment of 1962, surely one of the most radical and far-reaching psychological studies ever undertaken. In their general approach to research and the collection of data, psychologists, particularly up until the 1950s and 1960s, had always had a rather special affinity for rats, more often than not placing them in specially constructed boxes where behavioral phenomena like classical conditioning (you remember Pavlov’s dog salivating to the sound of a bell) could readily be observed. Go into any academic psychology department and you will likely find and smell a rat or three, so beloved are these furry rodents by the ardent psychologist. Rats are cheap, easily maintained, and behave in a remarkably reliable way (like small machines) in their reactions to the manipulating advances of experimental psychologists. Explanations about human behavior can then be extrapolated (so they say) from the results of these rattish experiments on the reasonable but limited assumption that all mammalian brains run on similar principles.

Such ratomorphism, as the writer and philosopher Arthur Koestler cynically termed it, used to dominate psychological science, and topics like mind and consciousness were banished from the scientific arena like some forbidden fruit unfit for empirical consumption, even though, of course, the science of psychology is itself mediated through the stuff of consciousness. Today things are fortunately beginning to change, and a kind of philosophical psychological approach to mind and consciousness is emerging, a topic I will later explore in much detail. Back in 1962 the Good Friday Experiment was as far removed from rats as is possible, stretching empirical science to its limits. It was the type of experiment that our controversial psilocybin demanded, and its results remain significant.

A Divine Invasion Upsets the Status Quo

A psychology student named Walter Pahnke, working for his doctorate, arranged the experiment with the help of Leary and other members of the Harvard Psilocybin Project. It was an attempt to capture the psilocybin-induced mystical experience in quantitative measures through questionnaires. Although questionnaire studies fall foul of a number of methodological criticisms, it is the only viable scientific approach to measuring the reported subjective effects of drugs. It is not enough for someone to claim that psilocybin is a wonderful substance that elicits transcendental feelings of awe. Rather, one must obtain objective measures if one wants to bring entheogens under the analytical eye of science; if, that is, one is a scientist who believes science offers the best approach to psilocybin—a moot point to be sure. If you’ve tried the stuff yourself and you’ve traveled to those divine realms, then you are one who knows. Leary knew, as did the other members of the project, but though they had tasted superconsciousness, they were still caught in the unenviable position of trying to document the psilocybin experience with the relatively cumbersome tools provided by the science of that era. Understandably perhaps, Leary was soon to don a kaftan, abandon academia, and hijack the media instead. Yet the Good Friday Experiment, or “Miracle of Marsh Chapel” as it became known, still stands out as the classic psychology experiment of that pre-LSD period.

Five rooms in the basement of Boston University chapel were reserved for Pahnke and the psilocybin project team. Twenty subjects, all theology students and therefore at home in the chapel building, took part in the study, which employed a double-blind methodological approach. This meant that half of them received psilocybin while the other half received a mildly psychoactive placebo. No one knew who got what, not even the experimenters, though it soon became clear who had been given the mushroom pills.

Leary later recalled that the ten psilocybin subjects began to act rather unconventionally. Some began to wander around the chapel murmuring prayer. One lay on the floor, some lounged on benches, while another began playing strange music on the chapel organ. The most intense effects, however, were occurring in the depths of the subjects’ psyches, and an analysis of the subsequent 147-item psychological questionnaires completed by the subjects soon revealed what had taken place.

The questionnaires were designed to probe various aspects of the psilocybin experience. Parts of the subjects’ reports were then rated by naive markers, who had to compare this psilocybin phenomenology (phenomenology is the study of direct conscious experience) with mystical phenomenology taken from various religious scriptures, without knowing which was which.

Incredibly, the results showed that the psilocybin group had mystical religious experiences indistinguishable from those reported in religious literature. This was a decidedly controversial finding. A naturally occurring substance, although in pill form thanks to Sandoz, had been shown to be capable of generating a full-blown mystical experience within the religiously ripe minds of theology students. The implications were enormous, and, as we shall see, many a storm was to brew over the validity of chemically induced theophany. Traditionally cherished beliefs about mystical enlightenment and the religious impulse were being threatened by, of all things, a drug, and this was guaranteed to cause uproar and dissent among those members of the priestly elite who serve to police communion with the divine.

Despite the beginnings of heated controversy, Pahnke’s thesis on psilocybin was uneasily approved, though he was not allowed to continue his line of work and his requests for further government funds were denied. Something was obviously amiss. Psilocybin—this wild alchemical product of Nature—was becoming a threat to long-established power structures both in academia and in the realm of traditional religious beliefs about divine communion. Psilocybin’s wild and ebullient energy, dormant for so long, was once more on the loose, this time flowing though the very heart of the Western establishment.

In one sense, it was as if the Good Friday study could be viewed as the last experiment that the scientist keen on ascertaining the nature of consciousness and reality needed to perform. The message seemed clear. Humanity could transcend its secular level of being and raise itself to a new order, an idealistic dream shared by many early Western psychedelic explorers. Psilocybin could be carefully used as a source of knowledge and wisdom, allowing people glimpses of a transcendental reality that is a mere perceptual step away.

As it was, the lofty psychedelic dream shared by so many at the time never quite materialized, although I would argue that this was mainly due to the lack of an explanatory framework for the psilocybin experience, and not because the idealism of the dream was untenable. Indeed, at this early stage in psychedelic research, almost nothing was known of psilocybin’s mechanism of action, and apart from Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious, there were little in the way of speculative psychological theories able to capture the full import and impact of the psilocybin experience in a nonreductive way. In a real sense, language let the scientists down, or at least the lack of descriptive terminology and lack of conceptual sophistication meant that psychedelic phenomenology remained an abstruse anomaly. And anomalies, even if they might contain the essence of some new ways of understanding the nature of reality, are more often than not deliberately buried out of sight, or at least the conceptually uncomfortable data are all too easily lost somewhere at the back of the scientific community’s filing cabinet. Such a fate did indeed meet the psychedelic experience, and by the late 1960s almost all of the world’s known psychedelic substances had been deemed a dangerous social threat and were promptly declared illegal. Scientific research into psychedelics was thereby halted.

However, this was not a big and final end to the matter, and today scientists are once again gradually returning to experimentation with psilocybin—often with a view to elucidating psilocybin’s therapeutic potential. It is also the case that psilocybin mushroom use by the public is now more widespread than ever, particularly in Europe. Indeed, various specialized spore samples and grow kits can now be purchased in many countries—although it is still unclear how the law will react to this novel situation. Given recent scientific reports on the relatively benign nature of psilocybin (which I discuss in more detail at the end of this book), one hopes that good sense will prevail and that the mushroom’s decidedly spiritual influence will continue to be integrated within our Western culture.

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Inner Traditions Author – Simon G. Powell

If this section wets your appetite craving for more, visit Inner Tradition to pick up the full book! Happy Reading. The Psilocybin Solution: The Role of Sacred Mushrooms in the Quest for Meaning by Simon G. Powell © 2011 Park Street Press. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com

After graduating from UCL in 1992, Simon G. Powell suffered an extended bout of ‘mushroom fever’ brought on by excessive psilocybin use. After this ‘mushroom fever’ subsided, he was left with a case of chronic biophilia. This curious condition, which turned out to be permanent and quite stimulating, led him to write a number of unorthodox books – including The Psilocybin Solution (2011), Darwin’s Unfinished Business (2012) and Magic Mushroom Explorer (2015).

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