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Researchers investigating beneficial new uses for psychedelic drugs have set their sights on what may seem an unlikely group of volunteer subjects — your local priest, minister or rabbi.Photo courtesy of agsandrew via Shutterstock

Calling all mystics: Clergy psychedelic study aims to awaken spiritual experiences

(RNS) Researchers investigating beneficial new uses for psychedelic drugs have set their sights on what may seem an unlikely group of volunteer subjects — your local priest, minister or rabbi.

Scientists at New York University and Johns Hopkins University have already shown positive results in an expanding program where psychotherapists have used psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” to treat depression and acute anxiety in cancer patients.

Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, is leading the new research, which stems from findings that volunteers who’ve taken psilocybin in a wide variety of research settings often report profound mystical experiences.

Griffiths wonders whether these altered states of consciousness are the same as those reported by longtime meditators or highly religious individuals. And he now has a three-pronged research project that will attempt to answer that question.

First, anyone in the world is invited to participate in an online survey about mystical experiences and “God-encounters,” whether they were inspired by Christian prayer, Buddhist meditation, a walk in the woods or a dose of LSD in the 1960s.

Second, spiritual seekers with extensive experience in Buddhist or other forms of meditation are being sought for another study that allows them to try psilocybin in a clinical setting with experienced guides. Eighteen of an anticipated 40 research subjects have gone through sessions for that project at Johns Hopkins.

Longtime contemplatives, Griffiths said, “have a vocabulary and a nuanced understanding of the nature of mind.” He hopes that insight will help scientists identify differences and similarities between mystical states induced by drugs and those induced by meditation.

Griffiths has had the hardest time getting volunteers for the third part of the research — the study involving ordained ministers. He and colleagues at NYU are looking for two dozen full-time members of the clergy in any religious denomination.

Organizers of the three studies have tried to get the word out via websites, advertisements in specialty publications and fliers — including one with the headline “Hopkins Scientists Seek Religious Leaders to Take Part in a Study of Psilocybin and Mystical Experience — Can Psilocybin Help Deepen Spiritual Lives?” 

After extensive preliminary screening, including medical and psychological tests, 12 subjects will receive psilocybin in living-room-like psychedelic session rooms at NYU in Manhattan and at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Subjects wear eyeshades, listen to evocative music designed to heighten the journey inward and are monitored by two therapists, who provide reassuring support.

So far, only one ordained minister has done a session at Johns Hopkins.

“We first need to see if these religious professionals experience the same effects we’ve seen otherwise. I think we can make a good guess that yes, they will,” Griffiths said.

“Then, if so, how does this experience affect their engagement with their vocation? Clergy burnout is a very real and common phenomenon,” he added. “They may feel burdened with administrative responsibility and may be losing some of the inspiration that brought them into the ministry in the first place.

“What I would most hope to see is that this kind of experience would resonate with the reasons they were initially drawn into the ministry and empower them to engage with their congregation in renewed and exciting ways,” Griffiths said.

The researchers at Johns Hopkins and NYU hope to find clergy with no prior exposure to  classic hallucinogens such as LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. Participants need to be in full-time ministry without likelihood of disruption over the next year.

“We don’t want someone about to go on sabbatical because what we are really looking for are the aftereffects,” Griffiths explained. “How are they viewing that experience a year later? How is it affecting their relationship with their congregations or their sermons? Are they more engaged or less engaged?”

Griffiths’ new round of research builds on an early study he led giving psilocybin to 36 “hallucinogenic-naive” adults. Fourteen months after their psychedelic sessions, well over half of those volunteers said the psilocybin trip was among the five most personally meaningful (58 percent) and spiritually significant (67 percent) events of their lives.

The new work with clergy and psilocybin harks back to a famous study by a Harvard researcher in 1962 called the “Good Friday Experiment.”

The researchers at Johns Hopkins and NYU hope to find clergy with no prior exposure to  classic hallucinogens such as LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. Participants need to be in full-time ministry without likelihood of disruption over the next year.

“We don’t want someone about to go on sabbatical because what we are really looking for are the aftereffects,” Griffiths explained. “How are they viewing that experience a year later? How is it affecting their relationship with their congregations or their sermons? Are they more engaged or less engaged?”

Griffiths’ new round of research builds on an early study he led giving psilocybin to 36 “hallucinogenic-naive” adults. Fourteen months after their psychedelic sessions, well over half of those volunteers said the psilocybin trip was among the five most personally meaningful (58 percent) and spiritually significant (67 percent) events of their lives.

The new work with clergy and psilocybin harks back to a famous study by a Harvard researcher in 1962 called the “Good Friday Experiment.”

Richards said it’s ironic but perhaps not surprising that clergy would be hesitant to go off on a mystical mushroom ride.

“Could it be that a factor is fear of encountering what the theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the really real God’? ‘Revelatory experiences may have been fine for Isaiah and St. Paul, but for me?’ ”

Stephen Warres, a semiretired psychiatrist who has practiced Zen meditation for 30 years, is one of the 18 subjects who has volunteered so far for the Johns Hopkins study of longtime meditators.

Warres, who never tried psychedelic drugs when he was in college back in the 1960s, found his recent psilocybin session to be “quite an ecstatic experience.” The music was “unbearably beautiful.” He felt, paradoxically, like he was “in a vast void that was completely filled.”

At one point during the trip, his guide handed him a single rose. “It felt like I was looking at the rose, and the rose was looking at me.”

Now, two months later, Warres feels like he’s become less rigid, less compulsive and a little less irritable.

“It was a wake-up call,” he said. “I had the sense I had been passing roses and people and trees and all kind of stuff all my life without really looking and really connecting. I saw that I have the opportunity to have more intense and beautiful connections to everything in my life.”

(Don Lattin is the author of five books, including “The Harvard Psychedelic Club” and “Distilled Spirits.”)

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