A Shortcut to Nirvana?

Monday July 24, 2006

Magic Mushrooms

Last week I read about some interesting recent research from John Hopkins university. Led by Dr. Roland Griffiths, PhD, from the Neuroscience and Psychiatry and Behavioral Biology department, a team of researchers have explored the connection between mystical experiences – chemically induced, in this case – and behavioural change.

Their paper, published in Psychopharmacology is called “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance” – and is the first responsibly designed and clinically controlled study of psychedelic agent psilocybin in around four decades. The study concluded that 60% of subjects gave descriptions of their experience that met the criteria for “full mystical experience”, whilst a similar number claimed the experience was amongst the five “most meaningful or spiritually significant” of their lives.

This study would not be particularly interesting if it had only focussed on the experience itself. Much more interestingly it also looked at the connection between this experience and behaviour. Religious or mystical experiences are all very well, of course, but experience is fleeting. Experiences come and they go. The question is what longer term effects such experiences had.

In the study 79% of subjects reported an increase in well-being, and this was generally corroborated by interviews with friends, family members and co-workers of the participants who said that the participants exhibited positive changes in behaviour and attitudes after the experience. This connection is perhaps the most important one, because it really doesn’t matter too much what kind of mystical experiences I have if I still go around frowning and snarling at people and being generally miserable and unfriendly. Even worse, if I have a mystical experience and then go around convinced I’m the Messiah and that all who disavow me should be cast into the flames, then it would almost certainly have been a better thing for me and for the world if I had not had this experience. History is littered with religious fanatics who have built their terrifying conviction upon private religious experiences that have emphatically not been to the benefit of humankind.

In the context of this study, it is interesting to note that all of the participants in the study had some kind of spiritual practice already (I have not read the research directly, so I do not know how this broke down), and this probably included a strong interpretative ethical framework. I suspect that such a prior framework is a necessary condition for the positive changes reported to take place. In addition to this, the research was carried out in highly controlled conditions with prior screening, significant preparation and subsequent monitoring. Dr. Griffiths reported that a third of participants reported significant fear during the experience, and added, “Under unmonitored conditions, it’s not hard to imagine those emotions escalating to panic and dangerous behaviour”.

So whilst this research into the field that is becoming known as neurotheology (somewhat inappropriate, it should be said, when applied to Buddhist experience, but we can let it pass) is certainly thought-provoking, it seems a bit premature to be going out into the fields and tracking down magic mushrooms as a shortcut to our own personal nirvana. Huston Smith, commenting on the study, wisely concluded that,

In the end, it’s altered traits, not altered states, that matter. ‘By their fruits shall ye know them.’ It’s good to learn that volunteers having even this limited experience had lasting benefits. But human history suggests that without a social vessel to hold the wine of revelation, it tends to dribble away. In most cases, even the most extraordinary experiences provide lasting benefits to those who undergo them and people around them only if they become the basis of ongoing work. That’s the next research question, it seems to me: What conditions of community and practice best help people to hold on to what comes to them in those moments of revelation, converting it into abiding light in their own lives?

Read the article here

# · Tom

I don’t think that I understand.

Nirvana isn’t in Samsara? Nirvana is when other people behave better?

What kind of behavior are we looking for in others? That they snarl less? frown less? are more friendly?

It seems that we expect spiritual advancement to result in overcoming all our challenges—and then what? All our challenges are overcome so we may sit in some unchanging beautiful garden, with perfect fruit on every tree, playing endless games of Canasta so our brains will have something to do?

Or is it the case that our challenges is what we live for and God help us should we ever conquer them all. Maybe it is the case that we should learn to better appreciate imperfect fruit and snarling friends. And that the wine of revelation is supposed to dribble away down our throats instead of being imprisoned in a bottle.

# · Will

Thanks for the comment, Tom. I too am sceptical of the idea of some kind of final, private, release from all challenges. It seems a) impossible and b) irresponsible.

The point, I think (without getting into the metaphors of wine and questions of whether, wherefore and whither it dribbleth!) is that there needs to be some kind of ethical context for religious experiences to have any lasting significance; and that really it is ethics in the broadest sense (“what we do”) rather than experience (“what happens to us”) that is the main point of practice, although the two cannot be entirely disentangled.

As for snarling less, frowning less and being more friendly – these are all worthwhile things, when I remember to do them. But I don’t always remember.

All the best,


# · ck

I’d be really interested to read the research itself, to see how the participants interpreted their experience. A few years ago, I read “Why God Won’t Go Away”, I think it was, that looked at PET scans of Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns. They were, supposedly, remarkably similar. The difference, to the researchers, lay in the interpretation the monks/nuns gave to the (supposedly) identical phenomena.

What interests me, though, are the cases where an experience changes one’s framework. If I am a nontheist and regularly interpret my meditation in terms of aiming for Nirvana, how could an experience shift me towards theism? Or vice versa?

That’s the kind of thing I’d like to see investigated neurologically, though I’m not sure that it would be easy.

# · mangadezi-jr

Joseph Campbell wrote an interesting piece on the similarites/differences between the LSD experience and mystical experiences. What is of note is that mystical experiences are done within a certain framework whereas the use of mind-altering drugs is often devoid of any spiritual/religous context.
I think he states that the use of LSD can offer a glimpse of what a mystical experience is like, but it is by no means a substitute nor a short cut for the real thing.

# · Charlene

Any “mystical awakening” induced by drug is not an awakening of any kind, period.

# · Will

Thanks for the comments, folks. Here are a few brief responses.

CK – generally speaking, it seems that experience is interpreted within a particular framework, and it serves to support that framework. If anybody knows any accounts of shifting frameworks through some kind of “mystical experience”, I’d be interested to know.

I was interested by your responses Mangadezi Jr. and Charlene, for similar reasons. The experiment at John Hopkins University was certainly not devoid of context – albeit a context of careful monitoring and of scientific study – but at the same time the inviduals who took part all had their own religious context (this was one of the criteria for selection). So my question is this: in what sense is this different from the ‘real thing’?

When it comes to such experiences, we can only rely on first person accounts. And whatever Joseph Campbell might say, if the first person account says that there has been some kind of “mystical” or “spiritual” experience, if they can give a fairly good account of what they mean by that, and if it the longer term effects – the most interesting part of the study as far as I can see – are corroborated by their friends, family and colleagues, then I’m not sure that it can be distinguished from the “real thing”, whatever that means.

That would also be my response to your comment as well, Charlene. To dismiss these first person accounts and the accounts of those close to the people involved in the study seems to me to be unreasonable. On what grounds can it really be said that this isn’t an awakening of any kind, other than merely on the grounds of a priori assertion for doctrinal reasons?

This isn’t to say that we should all be giving up meditation and hunting down magic mushrooms. Indeed, there are many reasons to believe that this might be truly unwise: the experiments were carried out in a very controlled environment and in a very clear context. But I don’t see any good arguments at the moment for dismissing the first person accounts of these experiences as genuinely meaningful experiences leading to genuine transformations.

All the best,


# · emannuel

the creator placed these substances in the landscape as aids to solving the riddle of life—to decry the experience as not valid is to use the creator for “religious” purposes and thus put intellectualism above reality

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