Article: Search Magazine: Mystics Under the Microscope

by Peter Bebergal
Published in Search Magazine
in the January-February 2009 issue

Originally appearing here.

Is there such a thing as a core, common mystical experience?

Until 2006, John Hayes, a psychologist and self-described Zen-Catholic, had never taken a hallucinogenic drug. In the 1960s, Hayes was a Franciscan friar watching with curiosity while the counter-culture used psychedelics with impunity. Through his own meditation and religious practice, Hayes believes he has had sensations that he would label mystical. But these mystical states—which he described to me as “moments of unitive experience” —were significant enough that when he heard about a surprising research project at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine he was more than intrigued. Doctors at JHU were investigating the effects of psilocybin—the active ingredient in the more common variety of hallucinogenic mushroom—and looking for volunteers.

After some considerable thought, he signed up. For three sessions Hayes is certain he received a placebo. Then, in the fourth session, something happened that had never happened before in all his years of prayer and meditation.

“It was like ‘All right, what’s the big deal?’ Then ba-boom!” he says. “There was a sense of moving in some sort of astral space with stars whizzing by me. It was like getting the big picture.”

There is no question that psychedelic drugs can produce extremely dramatic personal experiences. But whether or not these experiences can be called “mystical” has been the subject of some debate. More importantly, the possibility of chemically created mystical states, often induced outside of normative religious communities and contexts, raises an even thornier riddle: Is there a universal core mystical experience that is unmediated by tradition and culture? The research at Johns Hopkins might not offer a definitive answer, but it has helped frame the question in way that is impossible to ignore.

Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology and neuroscience at Hopkins, has a long history tracing the effects of drugs on human beings. Griffiths has published hundreds of papers on drug dependence and the behavioral effects of psychoactive substances, including caffeine.

Fifteen years ago, he began his own meditation practice, which revealed to him the importance of having a psychological understanding of mystical states of consciousness. A few years later, he was introduced to Robert Jesse, founder of the Council on Spiritual Practice, an organization that takes the spiritual dimensions of human experience seriously as a subject worthy of scientific investigation. As the two men discussed the importance of entheogens—psychoactive substances used in a spiritual or shamanic context—in understanding religious consciousness, Jesse proposed a research project that the council might be able to help fund.

By then, there had been dozens of books, articles, and conferences on the use of hallucinogenic plants in religious ceremonies. As early as the 1950s, the famous banker turned mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson had written about his experiences in Mexico researching the use of “sacred plants” by the Mazatec people. And as recently as 1996, the Native American Church was given legal protection to use peyote cactus (the plant containing the psychoactive drug mescaline) as a spiritual sacrament. While there had been a number of research efforts by people like psychologist Timothy Leary and his contemporaries in the 1960s, after that most research into psychedelics ceased. Not only had these substances become illegal and more difficult to acquire; researchers began to worry their reputations would be tarnished by work that was seen as suspect at best, and dangerous at worst.

The field began to open again in 1990, when Dr. Rick Strassman, then an associate professor at the University of New Mexico’s school of medicine, performed the first human trials with a psychedelic since the late 1960s with the drug DMT, the alkaloid found in plants used in some South American shamanic rituals. Strassman was interested in discerning how naturally occurring DMT played a role in altered-consciousness events such as near-death experiences and mystical states. But still there was no controlled, scientifically sound research on the long-term effects these plants and compounds might have on the spiritual lives of those who have such experiences.

After years of overcoming hurdles with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Johns Hopkins, Griffiths and Jesse, along with Dr. William Richards, a psychologist at the Bayview Medical Center and a respected figure in the world of psychedelic research and therapy, put together a rigorous research project.

In a double-blind study, thirty-six participants, all of whom had no prior experiences with hallucinogenic drugs, were given either psilocybin or an active placebo that contained methylphenidate hydrochloride (Ritalin), which produces a subtle stimulant effect. For the purposes of this experiment, and to counterbalance the expected effects of psilocybin when used in its more usual settings—one’s parents’ basement, for example, or in the woods with a keg of beer—Griffiths paid particular attention to the setting. His research took place in a comfortable living-room like environment where the blind-folded participants listened to classical music—Bach masses—while as assistant provided support.

After seven hours, the participants filled out a series of questionnaires. A two-month check-up followed, as well as a questionnaire given to friends and family of those involved. Fourteen months later, research subjects answered another series of questions.

For Griffiths and his colleagues, the results were nothing less than astonishing. As they wrote in the journal Psychopharmacology, “When administered to volunteers under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences and which were evaluated by volunteers as having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.”

Twenty-two of the thirty-six participants described what would be called complete mystical experiences after psilocybin. And in the follow-up analysis, 67 percent rated their experience with psilocybin the single most meaningful event in their lives, or at least in the top five.

On April 20, 1962, in the basement of the Marsh Chapel at Boston University, twenty theology students were divided into two groups, one of which was given psilocybin and the other a placebo. The students then watched a live feed of a Good Friday liturgy. It could have been a den of medieval mystics, yet just outside, traffic on Commonwealth Avenue whizzed by and pedestrians walked on unaware. Had a beatific vision descended upon a modern university, or were a bunch of stoned theology students rising up to meet it?

According to the study’s principal investigator, Walter Pahnke, then a graduate student in theology at Harvard, he designed the project with his advisor Timothy Leary to serve as the basis for his doctoral dissertation. For this study, Pahnke created a questionnaire that has become the model for these kinds of investigations, later adapted for use in the Johns Hopkins study.

It was a slow-coming vindication. Because the reputation of psychedelic research done in the 1960s was tainted by the shenanigans by Leary and others, Pahnke’s study was not taken very seriously at the time by theologians and psychologists of religion.

In 1984, when Rick Doblin, the founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Associated for Psychedelic Studies, was looking for a legitimate psychedelic research project, a follow up to the Good Friday experiment made perfect sense. “The Good Friday experiment was a major inspiration to me and to many others,” he says, “about the potential of psychedelic research to use the scientific method to investigate religion, spirituality, the mystical experience, and the social-justice implications of the mystical experience.”

Doblin saw the potential of such a study in what he calls the “fruit test.” What results did it bear? Did the experience actually change the life of the person who had it? The Good Friday experiment offered Doblin two unique opportunities. The first was the ability to do some psychedelic research without having to win government approval. More importantly, enough years had passed that a follow up study would provide a real-world test of whether or not the dramatic mystical experiences reported by the students in Marsh Chapel (left) actually changed their lives. After interviewing sixteen of the original participants, Doblin found that among those who had received psilocybin, there was a general consensus that they had shared a genuine mystical experience. They believed after all these years, that they enjoyed “persisting” positive effects as a result.

Nonetheless, because all the participants were drawn from the same religious tradition, this research couldn’t really speak to the question of a core mystical experience. As Doblin explains, “We would need to conduct research with people from lots of different religions using the same questionnaire and compare responses.”

John Hayes, the former Franciscan who still considers himself a believing Christian, accepts that his faith and background helped to shape his experience at Johns Hopkins. However, he believes that religious images are best described as “circuit breakers to carry and figure the overwhelming presence of the numinous.” For Hayes, all of his life is mediated in some degree by his culture and his religion, particularly as someone who attends mass regularly and has a disciplined meditation practice. But Hayes claims his psilocybin trip was less mediated than any other experience. It has provided, he says, a framework for being more open and sensitive to not only nature, but to his work as a psychologist. For someone who has a religious life predicated on certain kinds of mystical experiences, this one was simply different by degree, not kind.

“I had no real question that what I was experiencing was something that I often experience,” he says, “but just in a much less mediated, diluted way.”

At first, Hayes had a difficult time describing to me what psilocybin had made him feel. He used words like “dream,” “elusive,” and explained that it was like trying to reference something from a different dimension of space and time. Yet as we talked he began to use some concrete terms, religious terms, to describe the indescribable:

“I could find myself going back to things in my very early childhood and walking through rooms and spaces,” he says. “It felt very connected and real. I had this overwhelmingly sublime, ecstatic feeling of the presence of the divine. I had images of Jesus, Mary, Buddha, my partner Karen. It was just very radiant and beautiful and very joyful and very ecstatic. I had this experience of being loved and being in ultimate reality in a very profound, sublimely beautiful way.”

The final assessment of Johns Hopkins study was the proposal that these kinds of experiences had a deep impact on those who had them, and that serious consideration should be given to the use of psilocybin, or other such drugs, in certain therapeutic environments. There is nothing to suggest, however, that the authors were trying to say definitively whether there is a universal mystical core to human consciousness. Nevertheless, the use of those particular scales to assess a mystical state is drawn from a well established school of thought that created the governing principles for the questions.

There is no stranger trip than the one taken by psychedelic drugs in American history. The little-known beginning of the story, which had a major impact on current research, is found in the writing of William James. In what was first anonymously published research, but later discussed openly in his seminal work Varieties of Religious Experience, James discussed his use of nitrous oxide to induce a mystical states. “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded,” he writes

James goes on to establish what he calls the four categories, or characteristics, of mystical experience: ineffability (the experience defies expression), noetic quality (the experience offers a new form of knowledge or insight), transiency (the experiences are short-lived and often difficult to recollect in full), and passivity (despite possible preparation, the actual experience is something that happens to a person).

In 1960, the philosopher Walter Stace built on James initial categories and described two types of mysticism, introverted and extroverted, which contained a number of similar features, including a vision of unity, a sense of divinity, and feelings of joy. Stace’s work set up a kind of litmus test that revealed the possibility of a universal mystical core which can be accessed by any human being and that is independent of the way these mystical states are described using particular religious language. But it was really the injection of the work of Aldous Huxley into the popular imagination that would go straight to brain. Huxley, famous for his novel Brave New World and his description of his own mescaline experience in Doors of Perception, wrote another, less known but possibly more influential work, The Perennial Philosophy. There Huxley lays out his vision for a universal religious consciousness that can be found in every culture in every age.

This notion was to have enormous influence on the nascent psychedelic research in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It offered legitimate and philosophical support to an idea already circulating in some groups, particularly occult- and Eastern-influenced religious movements: that all religions are ultimately the same, they simply offer a different—albeit winding—path to the top of the mountain. James himself was convinced that mystical states proved that ordinary states of consciousness are not authoritative. The deeper implication—that people from dissimilar religious traditions and backgrounds would recall similar characteristics of mystical experiences—was huge, particularly for a young generation that was becoming disenchanted with traditional Judeo-Christian institutions. It meant that one could explore varying religious ideas and practices without having to commit to any single tradition. It also meant that Eastern religions weren’t off limits to young Westerners looking for something that appealed to their desire for the exotic and the esoteric. And so beatniks and hippies began twisting their limbs into positions no American had before thought possible, and they saw Eastern ideas crystallize with the help of LSD.

The idea of a mystical experience comes heavy with cultural baggage. How do serious researchers like Griffiths and his team at Johns Hopkins deal with this?

According to the published studies, a great effort was made to prevent what is called “expectancy.” Researchers videotaped the study to make sure their test monitors didn’t say or do things that might be suggestive or leading, and they only chose participants who had no history with hallucinogens.

While this approach guarded against studying those with firsthand experience of the effects of drugs, little could be done about the deep pop-cultural language of preconception that most of us share. It is easy to imagine someone signing up to be a participant in the research and immediately going home and Googling all the associated terms, reading about Marsh Chapel and the studies of the past, even watching clips on YouTube of Timothy Leary describing his psychedelic breakthroughs.

The problem of expectancy is heightened by the nature of the questionnaires administered to the participants after the experience. The first questionnaire was made up of one hundred items, fifty-seven of which were actually irrelevant and meant to distract from the genuine questions. The other had thirty-two items, and while it had been used in previous psychological tests, this was the first time it had been incorporated into a study involving psychedelics. The relevant questions deal with the following characteristics: internal unity (union with an ultimate reality or God); external unity (generally understood as pantheism, in which all of nature is one); transcendence of time and space; ineffability and paradoxicality (the experience is beyond words or difficult to describe); sense of sacredness (what has been called awe or a sense of the mysterium tremendum); noetic quality (the appearance of some insight or revelation); and deeply felt positive mood.

One problem with these categories was elucidated to me by Professor Robert Sharf of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California at Berkeley. As Sharf explained, “such experimental work presumes that one can, with relative ease, establish a set of value-neutral, universal, and empirically testable categories that refer non-problematically to discrete subjective experiences or states.”

Moreover, Sharf contends that “such laboratory research often assumes that all religious practice ultimately leads to, or emerges from, a small set of unconstructed, cross-cultural ‘spiritual’ experiences that can be studied apart from culture, language, and so on. Not only is there serious debate over this issue among scholars of religion, but many religious professionals—evangelical ministers, Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, etc.—vigorously take issue with the notion that all religions ultimately reference the same subjective experiences. Thus there is a certain cultural chauvinism at work in this research.”

Because the categories are so general, and correspond to well-established cultural ideas about mystical experiences, there’s a danger the questions themselves will lead the participant towards the only possible answer. There is also a certain generality that precludes the participant from describing specific religious imagery.

Hayes himself admits a level of frustration with the initial questionnaires, which included such queries as whether his experience felt more “real” than ordinary experiences, or if there was a sense of unity of space and time. “Those types of questions fail to capture the elusiveness of the experience,” Hayes explains. “They are not poetic questions that would link you back to the experience in some way.”

He was happier with the follow-up questions, which allowed participants to relate attitudes about their own lives, their sense of self, and altruistic feelings. For Hayes there was a pronounced change, but, he confesses, it’s subtle.

“I think what it has done is deepen and open up a sense of conviction of the sacred dimension of experience. I think it has amplified a sort of heartfelt trust in that experience … I’m in a sense of living and moving in a greater reality that’s friendly.”

For Griffiths and the JHU researchers, this is the best proof that there is something extraordinary about the type of experience psilocybin can occasion, when taken in the right context, in the right setting, by people who are mentally stable.

Even more remarkable is how the study’s results relate to what is understood of classical mystical states.

“I was skeptical that hallucinogens that would model [traditional mystical states] in any meaningful way. I would have been perfectly happy if the results had suggested there was no overlap, or a little overlap,” Griffiths tells me. “After having talked to all these people, I’ve been turned in terms of believing there is something here that is cohering and making it look like this is biologically normal kind of phenomena. We are wired for these experiences in some sense.”

As intriguing as such research may be, one cannot help but imagine that taking psilocybin in its natural occurring form, the mushroom, is qualitatively different than taking it by a pill in a research study. Does the act of eating the mushroom produce any psycho-spiritual effects that cannot be replicated in the research setting, or is the method of delivery incidental?

I asked Erik Davis—author of Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information and a highly respected investigator of psychedelic culture—this question. He explained that since psilocybin is often taken in various forms, even in traditional religious contexts, he didn’t think the method of delivery would limit the quality of the experience.

But Davis does think there is something particularly compelling about eating the actual mushrooms. It makes a big difference, he says, when “the agent of transformation is a natural organic product, especially an organic product with such a powerful symbolic load as the mushroom—which runs through world folklore and animates all of our childhoods through story-book illustrations.”

A final and more important question has to do with the context in which classical mystical experiences have taken place. Many Jewish scholars approach this in simple terms. Great figures in Jewish mystical literature had their experiences after deep, often life-long immersion in a complex religious life, a life that involves fervent prayer, daily ritual, extreme diligence regarding laws about diet, dress, and sexuality, and a profound knowledge of sacred texts. In Christian literature, even what are classified as “spontaneous” mystical experiences still take place in the context of a religious life, a life in which most acts and thoughts are related to an idea of holiness. Is it really possible to equate the experiences in a research experiment with those of saints?

Davis offers that any discussion of mediated or unmediated experiences breaks down when you accept that there is always “a before and after.” There is always some vehicle to the experience and some transmission after the fact.

“Who gets to say what forms of mediation are legitimate and which are not?” Davis asks.

As I spoke with John Hayes and listened to him relate his experience, an experience that, whatever its source, had a profound impact on him, I came to realize something fundamental, not only about mystical states, but spiritual life generally.

Whether or not there is such a thing as an unmediated religious experience, the one element that seems to be unquestionably universal is that personal narrative is what shapes its transmission. Before and after the Hopkins study, Hayes considered himself a believing Christian. Still, he does not believe it was his Christianity that ultimately furnished whatever truths he gleaned.

“I’m certainly aware that I’m going to be inclined to use archetypal images. Yes, I’ll see it in Christian terms because that’s my tradition, but do I think there was something exclusively Christian about the experience? No.”

What is most important about the Johns Hopkins research is the lesson many in the 1960s didn’t learn. The possible universality of mystical experiences does not mean they should be had by anyone, anywhere, at anytime. In therapeutic environments, such as those long created by religion and more recently by science, these experiences can have lasting positive effects.

If only the places where psilocybin mushrooms are often eaten—wood-paneled basements, parties in the woods— had a trained shaman or psychologist on hand.

Peter Bebergal is the co-author, with Scott Korb, of The Faith Between Us. He writes regularly about religion, fringe culture, and science fiction. He has a blog at

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Is there such a thing as a core, common mystical experience? This article looks at the research into this question.