A Catholic priest, three Jewish rabbis and a Buddhist monk walk into a bar.
Actually, they walk into a scientific research experiment, where they are joined by a Muslim imam, a Greek Orthodox priest and a score of clergy members — male and female — from different Protestant denominations. They don’t order drinks; instead, they ingest psychedelic mushrooms. Twice.
I learn about this “clergy research project” while attending the Psychedelic Science 2023 conference in Denver, where over 12,000 members of the “psychedelic community” have congregated. This community includes research scientists, psychotherapists, educators, shamans, hippies young and old, legal advocates and attorneys, policy wonks and representatives of pharmaceutical companies and investment firms.
I am an outlier in their midst. At age 73, I’ve never used psychedelics, even though I came of age in the late 1960s when they were still legal and easy to obtain. I was too risk averse. Why, then, am I attending this conference? Out of intellectual curiosity? For sure. The conference organizer — the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies — advertised it as “the largest psychedelic science gathering in history.” That’s quite a claim, and since cannabis and psychedelic substances are making a rapid march toward legalization in America, I want to see what’s up.
I have personal reasons for attending, too. The first is this: Cancer cells are swarming in my prostate gland. Aggressively. Following a biopsy, the urologist tells me, “In 30 years of practice I’ve seen only five biopsies, at most, that look this serious.” By “this serious,” he means “laden with cancer cells.” Oof. That’s a gut punch, even though he doesn’t yet know if it’s metastasized; that information will have to await the CT and bone scans.
This news unsettles me psychologically and spiritually. Not because I fear dying per se — I don’t — but rather dying before finding spiritual fulfilment. That I haven’t yet found it gnaws a dark pit into my soul.
Psychedelics, according to medical research, can help cancer patients experience tranquility and serenity, even when their illness is terminal (which mine isn’t, yet). Patients find peace of mind despite scoring low on the life-satisfaction scale. Could psychedelics help me? Why not go to Denver and poke around for an answer?
Another personal reason: I’m suspended somewhere on the autism spectrum — let’s call it mild autism. On the one hand, I like being a quiet, solitary loner; the idea of social distancing appeals to me. On the other, I yearn to participate in a beloved community, fully alive. Autistic tendencies leave me lonely and disconnected. This contradiction has plagued me throughout life and contributes to the reasons spiritual fulfillment eludes me. When I read on a neuroscience news site that psychedelics have helped some people manage autism, I wonder if I might learn something in Colorado.
The number of Americans who approve of psychoactive “substances” — plants and drugs — has increased notably over the past two decades. As of this writing, the medical use of cannabis has been legalized in 38 states, three United States territories and Washington, D.C., while 23 states allow some form of regulated, recreational use by adults. Following the triumphs of marijuana legalization, a major push for psychedelic legalization began. Oregon and Colorado recently legalized them, and a growing number of cities have decriminalized their possession and use: Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan; Washington, D.C.; Cambridge, Massachusetts; San Francisco; Oakland; Seattle. The list grows annually. The Pew Research Center anticipates that more states will legalize psychedelics in the near future. Legislators even in conservative states like Utah, Missouri and Indiana have begun to discuss prospects for legalizing psilocybin mushrooms as a treatment for mental illness.
The most common psychedelics are LSD, mushrooms that contain psilocybin, peyote, mescaline, ayahuasca, MDMA and ketamine. Some people include cannabis among them, although its effects are less intense. The growing acceptance of their use owes much to long-term scientific research at major universities such as Johns Hopkins; UCLA; the University of California, Berkeley; Harvard; Arizona State; Cornell; the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands and Imperial College, London, to name a few. More than 120 approved clinical trials are underway worldwide, some supported by federal agencies, others by private foundations such as the Beckley Foundation and Dr. Bronner’s Family Foundation (connected to the soap company).
The Templeton Foundation currently supports Notre Dame medical anthropologist Aidan Seale-Feldman and a team of scholars from Stanford; the University of California, San Francisco; Naropa University; the Graduate Theological Union and faculty members in Notre Dame’s departments of philosophy and theology. Their project examines the incorporation of mystical experience into the lives and therapeutic practices of secular Americans. Clinical psychiatry has been from its beginning a secular field that often dismisses religious experience. I wonder: Might the deep spiritual experiences engendered through psychedelic use force this very secular field to re-envision itself and alter its practices?
Clinical trials show that psychedelics, when used in professional therapeutic settings, may help treat severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) where traditional medications and therapies cannot. Psychedelics have been used to treat addiction to tobacco, alcohol and opioids; they help the terminally ill and those with cancer cope emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. A few studies even suggest that some mushrooms (not necessarily psychedelic ones) stimulate the immune system to actively combat cancer.
I want this to be true, but I also know that claims about the curative effects of psychedelics range from the well-founded to the near-magical. Speakers in one conference session in Denver claimed that ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew made from vines that grow naturally in South America, could bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, I kid you not. Further, psychedelics might cure Lyme disease! Allergies! Sleep disorders! Fibromyalgia! They might even save the world, according to Andrew Weil, the world-renowned natural medicine doctor who founded the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson that bears his name.
As a former academic, I’m skeptical of some of these claims, though careful scientific research, coupled with the testimony of users, presents a strong case for their medical use. The Food and Drug Administration is expected in time to approve MDMA, methylenedioxymethamphetamine — known as ecstasy or molly on the street — for the treatment of severe depression and PTSD.
Psychedelic drugs were studied extensively during the 1950s and ’60s. Thousands of research papers were published. When the youth counterculture began using them incautiously during a period of intense social and political turmoil, the U.S. government banned them. After 1970, funding for legitimate research dried up. These substances — along with highly addictive drugs like heroin — are classified as Schedule 1 drugs, meaning that as far as the federal government is concerned, they have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
Scientific research resumed in 2000 when Roland Griffiths, a highly respected psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins, conducted clinical trials proving that psilocybin, the natural compound found in “magic mushrooms,” can alleviate depression and mental anguish in cancer patients and others facing terminal illness. In 2006, Griffiths’ research team discovered that psilocybin can generate mystical states of consciousness even in nonreligious people, with features very similar to those described in the world’s great religious literature, including that of Catholic mysticism. Participants in Griffiths’ studies report strong and long-lasting mental and spiritual benefits from their experiences. Research accelerated soon thereafter, and countless publications have recorded the benefits and risks of using psychedelics in treating mental illness.
Numerous concurrent sessions take place at any given time at the Denver conference, so I focus on three areas: scientific and medical research, the clergy study, and harm reduction in psychedelic psychotherapy. I drop in and out of others as time allows.
Key words among the scientists, no matter which psychedelic substance they study, are neurogenesis, metaplasticity and neuromalleability, which refer to the brain’s potential — even as it ages — to generate new neural connections or regenerate older ones that have gone dormant. It was once believed that the brain loses its plasticity after age 25; we all know that it becomes more difficult to learn new skills later on. Neuroscientists now know the brain can continually regenerate and “rewire” itself with the right stimuli. Psychedelics provide such stimuli in a pronounced way.
Let me focus on the autism spectrum since it has special poignancy for me. People with ASD are self-imprisoned in some respects. They find it difficult to process the intricacies of social interaction. Developmental psychologists have long known there is a window of time when the human brain is fully open to learning new skills: the ability to hear and distinguish sounds; to learn language; to see and distinguish one object from another and learn the words that go with them; to learn how to interact socially — the “social-rewards learning period.” Some learning periods remain open through adolescence. If youth miss the social-rewards learning period for whatever reason — genetics, neurological defects or the impact of toxic family dynamics — the window closes. They fail to develop social skills, even though they have the capacity for it.
Professor Gül Dölen at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research discovered that psychedelics — almost all of them — reopen that critical learning period, at least for a time, enabling those with ASD to rewire and reconfigure their brain circuitry, making it easier to socialize and connect with others. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, PET scans and other tools, they can see how the brain’s various regions connect when neurons are ignited by psychedelic drugs. The same is true with treating past trauma and other mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Psychedelics help open key brain regions, enabling people to rewire the circuitry responsible for negative patterns of thought.
Not just anyone should use psychedelics. Those prone to psychosis or schizophrenia should abstain. Mind-altering drugs can exacerbate their conditions, so researchers cull them out of their subject pools. People with uncontrolled high blood pressure or heart arrhythmias should avoid MDMA because it’s an amphetamine. The general consensus, however, is that most people can use and benefit from these substances, without harm — at least according to ardent proponents.
I’m skeptical. What about the elderly? Can they safely take the same dosage of, say, psilocybin mushrooms, as a 30-year-old, especially if their bodies are filled with anti-cancer medication and radiation? Unfortunately, little is yet known about the effect of psychedelics on the elderly and almost nothing about how they interact with cancer drugs. Clinical trials invariably limit participation to people between the ages of 18 and 64, which seems sensible on the face of it; yet the elderly face existential woes, too. Some have many years left to live. What dosage should they take, if any?
I ask this very question following a session about the psychotherapeutic benefits of psilocybin. The main speaker, a psychiatrist from a major university, says no medical information indicates that the elderly should refrain from using psilocybin, even in large doses of 4 or 5 grams. Some people in their 80s, he says, take psychedelics without problem. His view is consistent with a common refrain at this conference and in much published literature: No one has ever died from a psychedelic trip. Some trips may be emotionally and physically challenging but, the thinking goes, as long as “voyagers” have an experienced “guide” with them, they’ll be alright.
I’m still skeptical. Granted, no data shows contraindications for the elderly — other than the medical conditions noted above — but there isn’t any data for those over 64 at all. So, therapists and guides must rely on anecdotal information from their experience with patients, which is valuable and suggestive but not probative.
My skepticism is confirmed later when a fellow conference participant, not much younger than I, seeks me out following the session. “I think the good doctor gave you bad advice,” she tells me. Her lanyard tells me her name is Annalisa, a nurse who practices clinically and teaches at a community college in Colorado. She and her husband have been enthusiastic psychonauts for decades. They grow their own mushrooms and have learned through experience that there is an optimal dose for the elderly, which they shouldn’t exceed.
“They should begin with a low dose,” she says, “say, 1 gram, to get a sense for how their body reacts. Then they can increase gradually until they reach an optimal dose for them.”
High doses — the kind that temporarily dissolve one’s ego and lead to mystical experiences — are dubbed “heroic” or “macro” doses within the psychedelic community. “Heroic doses of psilocybin,” Annalisa says, “produce intense experiences that can last many hours. They really do increase your heart rate and blood pressure. That’s a lot of exertion for both body and brain. Compare it to exercise: How much can old people handle if they haven’t kept fit?”
I later learn that many of the women attending therapy and harm-reduction sessions at the conference are nurses and doctors looking for a way to transition out of the current western, corporatized, materialist medical system with which they have become disillusioned. This makes intuitive sense to me.
I thank Annalisa for the information, which I’ll pass on to colleagues in my age cohort who might be considering psychedelic experimentation: Be wary of overly optimistic promoters, no matter their academic or medical degree.
James Fadiman, an elder statesman of the 1960s generation and author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, is the guest speaker for the “microdosing” session. Microdosing is the practice of ingesting frequent small doses of mushroom to improve one’s mood, focus, creativity and general well-being without the intensity of a macrodose. The effect of a microdose is “subperceptual,” a confusing term that means it doesn’t induce hallucinatory or mystical experiences, but still contributes to neurogenesis gently and gradually. Silicon Valley tech gurus, according to Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind, encourage their employees to microdose, especially on Fridays. Maybe they view microdosing as coffee-on-steroids, able to push employees through the final workday with unflagging creativity and energy.
The assigned room for Fadiman’s session seats about 500 people — not nearly large enough for everyone who wants to attend. People crowd into the aisles to sit, or stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the back of the room. Getting a feel for the audience, Fadiman asks: “How many of you have taken heroic doses of psilocybin?” About 25 percent of the hands go up. “How many of you microdose?” Over 70 percent of hands go up. “How many of you have never used psychedelics at all?” Five hands go up, including mine.
At that moment it dawns on me: I’m a psychedelic virgin. This is the first time ever I’ve belonged to the One Percent.
I confess to being pleased with this new moniker. The next day, however, I learn with some dismay that scientists use a different term of art for people like me: “psychedelic-naïve.” Pfff. I’m sticking with the richer literary metaphor.
Let’s return to the clergy members who walked into the psilocybin research project rather than a bar. All were psychedelic-naïve volunteers. Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins and his colleagues at New York University conducted the study. Each volunteer received two heroic doses of psilocybin one month apart. Follow up surveys and interviews were conducted immediately after each session and again after six and 16 months.
Griffiths summarizes the findings: All the clergy had profound spiritual experiences, none incompatible with their theological views. They rated their psilocybin experience to be among the most spiritually significant and meaningful experiences of their lives. They felt greater trust in God along with more flexibility in their theological outlook; they came away with increased openness to other religious pathways. Most but not all were hesitant to talk to their peers about their experience because of the stigma attached to psychedelics. All have remained in religious ministry and believe their experience has helped them be better ministers.
In a separate study, Griffiths’ team studied the effect of psychedelics on experienced meditators — both while they were using psychedelics, and while they were meditating but not using. Griffiths discovered that the brain lights up on fMRI scans in very similar ways in both situations. The meditators themselves report that the experiences closely match. Meditation is a traditional method of achieving mystical consciousness. Psilocybin, says Griffiths, is a kind of “crash course” in getting to that state. I wonder if “shortcut” might be a better term.
Either way, here’s what’s interesting: None of the experienced meditators said they would substitute psilocybin for their normal practices of fasting and meditation. In fact, Griffiths claims that long-term meditation has more enduring effects than psychedelics. He concludes with an important caveat: “With the recent renewal of psychedelic research, popular media is promoting scientifically unvalidated, inflated expectations of benefits and minimization of risks. In order to avoid the mistakes of the 1960s, a major and thorough assessment is needed of both short-term and longer-term risks and benefits of psychedelic use within established religious settings.”
Good advice. Beware the goddess Panacea.
By the end of the fourth day, I’ve learned a great deal about the effect of psychedelic molecules on specific brain receptors. I’ve met smart, accomplished professionals who have used psychedelics for years, beneficially. I’ve heard the testimony of religious clergy whose accounts I trust. I begin to wonder if it is time for this 73-year-old to lose his virginity. Maybe I could microdose away the cancer. Hmmm. Does my church have anything to say about this?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage to human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.” That’s not ambiguous. Nontherapeutic use is strongly discouraged. Does use of the molecules in these substances constitute a sin? Does it dishonor the body, which is a temple of the Holy Spirit? Is psychedelic-induced inspiration an artificial high — cheap grace — when contrasted with the spiritual consciousness fostered by ritual prayer and worship? Is the inspiration brought about by psychoactive substances less real — a mere simulacrum — than that inspired through traditional religious practices? How much weight should one give to the Catechism’s lone concession: on strictly therapeutic grounds? Good questions awaiting a more detailed theological essay.
Catholic intellectuals are beginning to pay attention to the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances. Recent essays in America magazine find justification for psychedelic use in that very phrase, “strictly therapeutic grounds.” The neuroscientist and bioethicist Father Tad Pacholczyk acknowledges the potential therapeutic benefits but emphasizes that “prudence and caution are in order. . . . As these drugs begin to appear on the scene for valid therapeutic purposes, it will be important to acknowledge the risks and dangers of non-monitored or self-administered psychedelics, even as we seek to identify and carefully minister to mental health subpopulations that may benefit significantly from these novel and promising approaches.”
As a lifetime sufferer of mild autism and, now, an inexperienced navigator of cancer, I would stand firmly on “strictly therapeutic ground” if I were to give these substances a try.
Harm reduction is a major emphasis in the world of psychedelics, and the conference organizers dedicated many sessions to it — an explicit acknowledgement that psychedelics can be dangerous for people who are not mature or healthy enough to handle their effects. Experienced psychedelic psychotherapists have developed procedures for a “safe” psychedelic journey.
First, preparation: fasting, meditation and setting forth one’s hopes and intentions for the journey.
Second, setting, which translates to a quiet, comfortable room with soft lights, a couch or bed to lie on, and music conducive to meditation. Visual symbols are often present. Immersion in a religious wisdom tradition, within which the journey will take place, is very important to many. A wisdom tradition provides guide rails, a safe and known context for the traveler. When drugs were used carelessly in the 1960s and ’70s, many young people lacked a “map” with which to orient their experiences. Some got lost.
Third, psychedelic journeyers should have a “sitter” or “facilitator,” also called guides, shamans, coaches or therapists, to accompany them at all stages of the drug-journey proper, to give comfort and ensure the person is looked after if they become distressed. Coaches should, ideally, have personal experience with the dynamics of psychedelic journeys.
Finally, an integration session should follow within a few days of a psychedelic experience. In this session, one talks about the experience and its meaning with a trained psychedelic therapist or spiritual guide. Integration can also occur in a group setting such as an integration circle, if one happens to be at a retreat center where several people are tripping at the same time. Experiences and insights are shared and discussed.
Catholic and Orthodox seekers will recognize similarities between this process and the spiritual quest in their own traditions: fasting, solitude, prayers for the journey and placing oneself under the tutelage of a trusted spiritual guide. The guide should have extensive knowledge of the Christian mystical and theological tradition and expertise in the techniques of meditation and spiritual counseling. In other words, a seasoned mentor who can facilitate one’s spiritual journey within a Christian framework. No one should go alone on a deep spiritual journey. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that “anyone who takes himself for his own spiritual director is the disciple of a fool.”
Soon I visit the Exhibit Hall, host to some 350 exhibitors: vendors; psychotherapeutic support groups; mental health counselors for veterans; entheogenic churches that consider psychedelics a sacrament and claim religious-freedom exemptions from legal prohibitions against their use; legal advocacy and policy reform organizations; practitioners of alternative and natural healing techniques; nonprofits dedicated to support and treatment of people on the autism spectrum; and business representatives contriving investment strategies. (Here comes Mammon!) The hall bustles with activity.
Among the many exhibitors are at least half a dozen purveyors of psilocybin mushrooms. I stop at one of them — curious and objective reporter that I am — to ask about their products.
Sacred Three Mushrooms, a veteran-owned company, has a team of five employees crowded into a small booth. They sell psilocybin grow-kits and receive heavy traffic. They cannot, however, sell fully fruited mushrooms, even in Colorado. Anyone may grow, harvest and possess mushrooms for their own use and may even “gift” small amounts to others. But selling the fruit is illegal.
Instead, vendors sell kits that contain the ingredients necessary to grow the mushrooms: grains such as rye or rice, vermiculite, manure, worm castings, straw and other stuff that makes for rich topsoil. Compacted, it becomes a hospitable substrate for mushroom growth. The substrate is placed in an enclosed container — a plastic “spawn bag” or “grow tub” — with a filter that allows the germinating life within to “breathe” while preventing contaminants from getting into the enclosure and ruining the harvest. The grower then injects a sterile solution with microscopic spores that contain the genetic material for different species and varieties of mushroom.
A staff worker shows me a list of the most popular varieties. Each has both a scientific and colloquial name, the latter quite colorful: Blue Meanies, Golden Teachers, Penis Envy, Liberty Caps, Flying Saucers, Big Laughing Gym, Philosopher Stones and more. The neurological and psychological effects vary among them.
Mushroom advocacy and support groups rent booths nearby, including Moms on Mushrooms and Psilly Girls. The former offers support and education for mothers of young children struggling to balance work, family and childcare duties, specifically through education about microdosing. Psilly Girls is an alternative healing organization founded by a young woman who goes by the name Soma Phoenix. That might be a given name, but my hunch is it’s an assumed name, from soma, the intoxicating ritual elixir of ancient India, and phoenix, the immortal bird that regenerates itself from its own ashes.
The booth is crowded with customers, so I search the Psilly Girls website. The homepage says Phoenix is “a psychedelic researcher and integration consultant who works with individuals seeking healing from trauma and spiritual transformation [sic].” She is also an attorney who “advocates for drug policy reform and supports the idea of cognitive liberty, or freedom to explore consciousness on our own terms.”
“Entheogenic” churches have booths scattered throughout the exhibit hall. The word comes from the Greek words en and theos, meaning God within, and genesthai, meaning to bring into being, to generate. Coined in the late 1970s, it was used as an alternative to both “hallucinogen” and “psychedelic.” It has a strong spiritual connotation the latter two words don’t, and it carries neither the pejorative baggage of hallucinogen, nor the negative association with the raucous 1960s counterculture that psychedelics have.
So, entheogen refers to a substance that “generates the divine within.” I don’t buy that. Even conceding that the substances produce a mystical-like experience — as Griffiths’ studies show they do — one might legitimately say the drug allows the divine to be experienced by freeing the brain to expand beyond its normal horizons into a transcendent mystical realm. The sacred is already and always there, ready to reveal itself to one disposed to receive it. But to say that drugs generate the divine is just, well, “psilly.”
At one booth, a book titled The Psychedelic Gospels catches my eye. I flip through it. The central claim is that some early and medieval Christian cults used magic mushrooms as a sacrament, maybe along with or on a par with the Eucharist. Church authorities — the authors contend — being mushroom-phobic as well as patriarchal, suppressed these cults because they challenged clerical authority. Magic mushrooms, the argument goes, give believers a direct experience of God without need of the Church’s mediation.
I’ve heard versions of this assertion, but never find them compelling enough to pursue. Still, I browse through the book and discover, to my surprise, photographic evidence of artwork in some ancient and medieval churches — even some of the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral — that prominently display mushroom caps. A fourth-century mosaic that remains today inside the medieval basilica of Aquileia, Italy, shows a basketful of entheogenic mushrooms. The artists would have placed those ’shrooms there intentionally. Hmmm. What kind of medicinal plants were those ancient and medieval monks and nuns cultivating in their cloistered gardens?
The autism booths are my final stop. Autism on Acid, for example. A young man named Aaron Paul Orsini wrote a memoir about how LSD enabled him to overcome his inward-turned mind and connect with others socially. He then created a support organization to help other people on the spectrum through online workshops, seminars and personal counseling.
As I chat with Orsini and flip through his book, I call to mind Professor Gül Dölen’s presentation two days earlier, the one that showed how psychedelics light up the brain’s neural network in people with ASD, switching on the electric grids in regions hitherto dark. If true, it promises autists a way to emerge from their self-imprisonment. The affable Orsini offers in vivo evidence untethered to a controlled laboratory study.
Deep Space, located in a large ballroom, complements the lectures, forums and exhibit hall. According to its creators, it is a “festival-like environment within the larger conference . . . an expression of contemporary psychedelic culture and art.” On entering, one is greeted by a large statue of the Hindu god Shiva bathed in pinkish light. The ballroom is darkened, with booths set well apart from one another, each with a unique arrangement of soft, multicolored lights. The goal is to generate mellow vibes, not bustle. Here one can find a tea lounge featuring a traditional gongfu Chinese tea ceremony; a space for ecstatic dance sessions; displays of sonic healing technologies; a psychedelic art exhibit; light-pulsation therapy; deep-brain massage; scalp and hair-pulling massage; and 3D visualizations of hallucinatory experiences.
Almost all the religious symbolism, background music and meditation practices featured are from Eastern or Indigenous religious traditions. I don’t see or hear Christian art anywhere. I wonder: Have the organizers never listened to Gregorian chant, to the rapturous music of J.S. Bach or Arvo Pärt, to gospel hymns and African American spirituals?
I spend most of my time at the psychedelic art exhibit. The paintings have a distinct style characterized by phantasmagoric images and bright colors — fascinating and alluring. One row of panels in the exhibit features icons of the psychedelic “saints.” Among them is Santa Maria, by artist Martin Bridge, depicting Maria Sabina, the Mazatec woman who lived in a remote mountain village in Mexico and from whom Westerners first learned about magic mushrooms. Once word about the mushrooms got out — in the form of a 1957 story in Life magazine — psychedelic tourists inundated Sabina’s village, eroding its ancient traditions and culture. The townspeople blamed Sabina, ostracized her and burned down her house. She died destitute. During her life she was baffled by Westerners’ interpretation of the benefits of mushrooms. According to Michael Pollan, she used them for healing, not as a spiritual sacrament. She was, after all, Catholic.
Two other icons by psychedelic artist Alex Grey are especially striking. One, with the ungainly title St. Albert and the LSD Revelation Revolution, portrays Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD in 1938. He holds what appear to be striped billiard balls but are really symbols for the LSD molecule. Another, titled The Shulgins and their Alchemical Angels, depicts Sasha and Ann Shulgin, elders of the psychedelic movement. They, too, hold molecular billiard balls. All the paintings here are fascinating. It’s like peeking into the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch.
Some of the artwork exhibited in Deep Space will be auctioned off by Christie’s.
I discern Dionysian and Apollonian impulses in this “psychedelic community.”
Dionysus was the Greek god of wine-making, fertility, festivity, insanity, ritual madness, wild dancing in the forest and religious ecstasy, among other influential talents. In the Roman world he was known as Bacchus, from which the word bacchanalia comes — a thought that crosses my mind when I read descriptions of some off-site, extracurricular events connected with the conference. Psychedelic use during the 1960s and early ’70s leaned decidedly Dionysian.
In contrast, Apollo, while also known for poetry and music, is associated with light, eloquence, justice, morality, purity, elevated thought, restraint and order. The majority of scientists and therapists here represent the Apollonian. They have discovered the healing psychological and spiritual power that psychedelics can generate. At the same time, they know how powerful these substances are and that therefore they must be harnessed and used judiciously, not recklessly. They don’t want the psychedelic renaissance to take a wrong turn.
After my return from Denver, a former Notre Dame colleague is curious about why I attended the conference. Let me paraphrase his line of questioning: “So, did you trip out? I mean, you traveled to Colorado for five days to attend a psychedelic conference — surely you got high on some of those substances, right?” I tell him the truth: On my trip to Denver, I did get high — one mile high, but no higher. I’m still a psychedelic virgin.
Should I remain one? What if the CT and bone scans show the cancer has metastasized? o
This article was written by Ken Garcia, who retired in 2020 as associate director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts. He is the award-winning author of Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University and Pilgrim River, a spiritual memoir.