THE RESEARCHERS AND RENEGADES BRINGING PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS INTO THE MENTAL HEALTH MAINSTREAM.
Written by Michael Pollan
My first psilocybin journey began around an altar in the middle of a second-story loft in a suburb of a small city on the Eastern Seaboard. On this adventure I would have a guide, a therapist who, like an unknown number of other therapists administering psychedelics in America today, must work underground because these drugs are illegal. Seated across the altar from me, Mary (who asked that I use a nickname because of the work she does) began by reciting, with her eyes closed, a long and elaborate prayer derived from various Native American traditions. My eyes were closed, too, but now and again I couldn’t resist peeking out for a glance at my guide: a woman in her 60s with long blond hair parted in the middle and high cheekbones that I mention only because they would, in a few hours, figure in her miraculous transformation into a Mexican Indian.
I also stole a few glances at the scene: the squash-colored loft with its potted plants and symbols of fertility and female power; the embroidered purple fabric from Peru that covered the altar; and the collection of items arrayed across it, including an amethyst in the shape of a heart, a purple crystal holding a candle, a bowl containing a few squares of dark chocolate, the personal “sacred item” that Mary had asked me to bring (a little bronze Buddha a friend brought me from Tibet) and, set squarely before me, an antique plate holding the biggest psilocybin mushroom I had ever seen.
The crowded altar also held a branch of sage and a stub of palo santo, a fragrant wood that some Indians in South America burn ceremonially, and the jet-black wing of a crow. At various points in the ceremony, Mary would light the sage and the palo santo, using the crow’s wing to “smudge” me with the smoke — guiding the spirits through the space around my head.
The whole scene must sound ridiculously hokey, not to mention laced with cultural appropriation, yet the conviction Mary brought to the ceremony, together with the aromas of the burning plants and the spooky sound of the wing pulsing the air around my head — plus my own nervousness about the journey in store — cast a spell that allowed me to suspend my disbelief. Mary trained under one of the revered “elders” in the psychedelic community, an 80-something psychologist who was one of Timothy Leary’s graduate students at Harvard. But I think it was her manner, her sobriety and her evident compassion that made me feel sufficiently comfortable to entrust her with, well, my mind.
As a child growing up outside Providence, R.I., Mary was an enthusiastic Catholic, she says, “until I realized I was a girl” — a fact that would disqualify her from ever performing the rituals she cherished. Her religiosity lay dormant until, in college, friends gave her a pot of honey infused with psilocybin for her birthday; a few spoonfuls of the honey “catapulted me into a huge change,” she told me the first time we met. The reawakening of her spiritual life led her onto the path of Tibetan Buddhism and eventually to take the vow of an initiate: “ ‘To assist all sentient beings in their awakening and enlightenment.’ Which is still my vocation.”
And now seated before her in her treatment room was me, the next sentient being on deck, hoping to be awakened. She asked me to state my intention, and I answered: to learn whatever the “mushroom teachers,” as she called them, could teach me about myself and about the nature of consciousness.
PSYCHEDELIC THERAPY, whether for the treatment of psychological problems or as a means of facilitating self-exploration and spiritual growth, is undergoing a renaissance in America. This is happening both underground, where the community of guides like Mary is thriving, and aboveground, at institutions like Johns Hopkins, New York University and U.C.L.A., where a series of drug trials have yielded notably promising results.
I call it a renaissance because much of the work represents a revival of research done in the 1950s and 1960s, when psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin were closely studied and regarded by many in the mental health community as breakthroughs in psychopharmacology. Before 1965, there were more than 1,000 published studies of psychedelics involving some 40,000 volunteers and six international conferences dedicated to the drugs. Psychiatrists were using small doses of LSD to help their patients access repressed material (Cary Grant, after 60 such sessions, famously declared himself “born again”); other therapists administered bigger so-called psychedelic doses to treat alcoholism, depression, personality disorders and the fear and anxiety of patients with life-threatening illnesses confronting their mortality.
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