There’s a popular meditation technique that centers on the phrase “Let go.” You silently say “let” as you breathe in, and “go” as you breathe out, in an effort to find release from whatever it is you’re holding onto. It works for me a bit, but I was able to let go in a whole new way this past spring.
At home, I caught a glimpse of my face in a mirror, and suddenly, it wasn’t just mine, but it was also the face of my grandfather, my aunt, and my mother, three people I lost at a young age. The connection to my mother, especially, overwhelmed me, and I was in touch with the feeling of being without her and how much of her was still in me in a new way, and I was crying, and my fiance was holding me, saying, “it’s okay, you can let it go.” I could. I stopped gripping and agonizing, and she was there, and I was there, and she was a part of me, and I missed her, and I accepted it all.
Had I been meditating, it would have been a breakthrough. But actually, I was on mushrooms.
The insightful moment was one of many I encountered during the hours in which psilocybin—the active compound in “magic mushrooms”—allowed me to explore the crazy circuitry of my mind and open up spiritually. It changed my perspective in lasting ways—and my experience is far from unique.
How meditation and ingesting psilocybin may produce similar states of awareness
In fact, psilocybin and other psychedelic substances have been used by spiritual seekers and religious groups for a hell of a long time, and now, an increasing amount of fascinating new research is beginning to map out how the two experiences—meditation and ingesting psilocybin—may produce similar states of awareness, leading to a deeper understanding of the so-called “psychedelic shortcut.”
“It is normal and natural to seek altered states of consciousness, higher states of consciousness,” says renowned physician and author Andrew Weil, MD, in the new documentary Dying to Know, which chronicles the lives of the pioneering Harvard researchers Timothy Leary, Ph.D., and Richard Alpert, Psy.D., (now Ram Dass) who did the first studies on psilocybin and LSD. “We do it all the time in various ways. Drugs are one of them.”
First thing’s first: we’re not recommending you try this at home. Other than the obvious fact that the purchase and possession of psilocybin are illegal, its affects are incredibly varied and can be dark and frightening. (You’ve probably heard of a “bad trip,” no?) Dose amount, setting, and prior psychological issues are all variables that play a role.
“Physiological risks are minimal; the psychological risks are the ones you have to worry about,” explains Frederick Barrett, Ph.D., a psychiatry and behavioral sciences instructor working on psilocybin research at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Studies administering the drug use strict screening criteria to choose participants and then create a specially designed, controlled setting, with guides and support.
The brain on mushrooms
So how might a little piece of fungus lead to enlightenment?
Basically, parts of the brain that are normally very active (and make you, say, worry about your career prospects) are dimmed down, and parts that normally stay quiet start lighting up. A 2012 study showed “decreased activity and connectivity in the brain’s key connector hubs,” while a 2014 study showed it’s not just about that dulling of traditional pathways, but that new connections are created that allow parts of the brain that don’t usually communicate to strike up conversations.
Something about that neurological change leads a portion of people who take psilocybin to feel a loss of ego, a sense of connection with the world and people around them, and an ability to see the bigger picture—all things that spiritual seekers and meditators strive for, often for years and years, as part of accepting who we are in relation to death.
Studies at top universities are asking “can psilocybin help deepen spiritual lives?”
Because of that, many of the recent (and past) studies on psiloycbin, like at New York University and Johns Hopkins, have focused on administering it to patients diagnosed with terminal cancer, to help them deal with end-of-life anxiety.
A pilot study at UCLA in 2011, for example, found, “a sustained reduction in anxiety that reached significance at the 1- and 3-month points after treatment,” among study participants with advanced staged cancer who had serious anxiety surrounding death, after taking psilocybin. Similar participants in the NYU study, in video interviews filmed after, reported finding, “a sense of connectedness that runs through all of us.” Another said, “It reconnected me to the universe.”
A smaller group of researchers have looked at, and are currently studying, how psilocybin affects healthy people looking for spiritual answers. In a famous 1962 study now often referred to as “The Good Friday experiment,” Timothy Leary and Walter N. Pahnke gave students at Harvard Divinity School psilocybin before church services on Good Friday, and almost all reported having profound religious experiences compared to the control group.
A follow-up study 25 years later (that included the majority of the original participants) found that “the experimental subjects unanimously described their Good Friday psilocybin experience as having had elements of a genuinely mystical nature and characterized it as one of the highpoints of their spiritual life.”
In 2006, Johns Hopkins researchers published a study on religious and spiritual individuals and found “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experience.”
Now, NYU researchers are asking “can psilocybin help deepen spiritual lives?” with a study on religious leaders, and the Johns Hopkins research Dr. Barrett is working on is administering psilocybin to individuals with long-term meditation practices (mostly Buddhist), based on the premise that there may be similarities between the two experiences. “People have reported experiences, in both cases, that can fit the definition of mystical experience,” he says.
The team is still far from publishing results, but “what I can report is that…people are experiencing similar states during psilocybin to what they’ve experienced during meditation retreats, at the end of meditation retreats, or states of consciousness that are similar or complementary to meditative states.”
Even more compelling is the fact that the researchers are finding that the experience stays with people far beyond the sessions. “We have a component where we do a long-term follow-up,” Dr. Barrett explains, saying that for many, “the experience has generally decreased their worry about the future, which has allowed them to live in the present moment a bit more cleanly.”
That, for me, was what made the “letting go” so remarkable. For at least a month afterward, I felt like I had a more firm grip on what mattered, worrying less about deadlines and subway delays and more about appreciating loved ones, less about my own sh*t and more about my place in the world, the people I share it with, and the short time I have to enjoy it all.
In Dying to Know, Ram Dass (who, tellingly, left his life as a Harvard professor studying psychedelic drugs to become a spiritual teacher) reflects on how all of his identities were stripped away during a psilocybin experience. “Professor went, and middle class went, and pilot went, all of my games were going off into the distance, because indeed, I was going to cease to exist,” he says.
It reminded me immediately of a meditation I did with Deepak Chopra last year, in which he had us gradually strip away our identities as we sat in stillness, saying “I am Lisa Held,” “I am Lisa,” “I am,” “I”… until we were just breathing. —Lisa Elaine Held