Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

The Rebirth of Research with Entheogens: Lessons from the Past and Hypotheses for the Future

Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

The Rebirth of Research with Entheogens: Lessons from the Past and Hypotheses for the Future

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: On the basis of his professional involvement in psychedelic research with human volunteers between 1963 and the present, including studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine during the past decade, the author focuses on the noetic insights often reported by persons who experience mystical states of consciousness and their potential relevance in designing new treatment interventions. Consideration also is given to possible non-medical applications of transcendental experiences and the importance of incorporating knowledge obtained in past research into the design of new investigations.


In his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James referred to the intuitive knowledge that often is intrinsic to mystical states of consciousness as the noetic quality, emphasizing that, "although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge" (1902, p. 371). Abraham Maslow, not only the pioneering psychologist who drew our attention to the study of mental health, to peak experiences, self-actualization and the further reaches of human nature, but also a noteworthy Jewish mystic who never took psychedelic drugs, similarly wrote, "The peak-experience is felt as a self-validating, self-justifying moment which carries its own intrinsic value with it. It is felt to be a highly valuableeven uniquely valuable experience, so great an experience sometimes that even to attempt to justify it takes away from its dignity and worth... it justifies not only itself but even living itself" (1964, p. 62).

Many recognize the wisdom inherent in the verse from the Tao te Ching, which reads, "Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know." Fortysix years ago, finishing a research report of a personal psilocybin experience, I looked at what I had written and then wrote: "What is a 'transcendent dimension of being'? Such words on paper are little more than metaphysical poetry. Somehow I feel I could better communicate my experience by composing a symphony or by molding a piece of contemporary sculpture, had I the talents for either form of artistic expression. ... Only my silence can retain its purity and genuineness" (Robertson, pseud. 1968, p. 91).

Yet, here I am writing, obviously about to try to use words to describe mystical states. I own some inner conflict about this and trust that you who read will allow me some poetic license. However, if mysticism is to emerge from silent monastic cells into the bright light of scientific discourse, I see no alternative. Scholars in the psychology of religious experience and neuroscientists alike who today explore the nature and relevance of mystical states need language to define as clearly as possible what is meant by "mystical consciousness", and how to determine when it has occurred and when it has not occurred. This is especially important in investigations of the contributions that psychedelic drugs (i.e. entheogens) may make to psychotherapeutic treatment, for it has become increasingly clear that it is not the administration of a drug, or a "drug effect," that positively correlates with significant attitudinal and behavioral changes, but rather the occurrence of discrete states of consciousness, most notably mystical consciousness, during the period of drug action (Griffiths, Richards, Johnson, McCann & Jesse, 2008; Richards, Rhead, DiLeo, Yensen, & Kurland, 1977).

Mystical States of Consciousness, which several scholars now define in accordance with the Perennial Philosophy (Huxley 1945) or the so-called "Universal Core" (Hood, 2006; Kelly, Kelly, Crabtree, Gauld, Grosso, & Greyson, 2007; Stace,1960 ), when expressed in written descriptions, generally provides evidence of 6 experiential categories: (a) Unity, approached either internally with closed eyes or externally through sense perception, (b) Transcendence of Time & Space, (c) Intuitive Knowledge (the noetic quality), (d) Sacredness or Awesomeness, (e) Deeply-Felt Positive Mood- love, purity, peace, joy, and (f) Ineffability and Paradoxicality (Pahnke & Richards, 1966; Richards 2003). …

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