In the first installment of this three-part series, the trailblazing B.C. professor discusses how psilocybin can foster meaning and purpose
As scientists at Johns Hopkins University prepare to publish the findings of one of the most ambitious investigations into the effects of psychedelic drugs on religious experience, Mark Haden offers a spoiler of sorts.
For the two dozen religious leaders who were each given two powerful doses of psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — the experiments “should prove hugely beneficial,” the executive director of MAPS Canada says over the phone from his office at the University of British Columbia.
“The people I’ve known who work in spiritual traditions find that their professions slowly become more challenging because they can’t actually talk to God,” Haden explains. “They may have cultivated a following, but the actual experience is pretty vacant. So if you allow spiritual leaders to have transcendental psychedelic experiences of spirituality, it can really fire them up to be more confident and effective in their work.”
These experiences can help anyone suffering from depression, he adds. “In tests, people took a high dosage of psilocybin, and data was gathered on the extent of their spiritual experiences and whether they found meaning and purpose. The results were profound. It was either among the Top 5 most-spiritual experiences of people’s lives, or was Top 5 in meaning and purpose. The absence of spirituality and meaning and purpose creates depression, so psilocybin and the other psychedelics are all very helpful in this regard.”
The Johns Hopkins sessions were reportedly conducted in a living room-like setting with two guides present. The participants who were recruited — Catholic, Orthodox and Presbyterian priests, a Zen Buddhist and several rabbis — took the drug, donned eyeshades while lying on a couch, and listened to religious music on headphones to heighten their spiritual journeys.
The experiment follows the lead of other efforts stretching back more than 50 years. The 1962 Marsh Chapel Experiment, for instance, investigated whether psilocybin would reliably induce spiritual experiences among religiously predisposed subjects, with most of the experimental group reporting profound results. Then, in a 25-year follow-up, all of the subjects given psilocybin reportedly described their experience as having elements of “a genuine mystical nature and characterized it as one of the high points of their spiritual life.”
These findings would be considered old news in indigenous contexts, Haden points out, as psychedelics “have been used since the dawn of time for human spirituality, and to get a sense of the universe in a different way.”
Adam Bisby is a Toronto-based freelance writer.