Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sacred Intentions - Inside The Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Studies

"And I felt like I was being whisked...whoa, boy...and then I went to all these other places." [Sandy Lundahl (left)]; "We have to move beyond the concept of getting high and seek to become more mature human beings. " [Bill Richards]

By Michael M. Hughes

Sandy Lundahl lies on a couch, her eyes covered with a dark cloth mask. She's listening to classical music through enormous headphones: Brahms' Symphony No. 2, the "Kyrie" from Bach's Mass in B Minor, Barber's Adagio for Strings. An hour earlier, she had swallowed two blue capsules containing close to 30 milligrams of psilocybin, the primary active chemical in Psilocybe cubensis and other "magic" mushrooms, and she's already well on her way on a trip into the hidden spaces of her psyche.

Lundahl, a 55-year-old self-described skeptic and health educator from Bowie, is looking for God.

Two experienced guides are with her in the room, monitoring her: Mary Cosimano, a clinical social worker, and William "Bill" Richards, a white-haired, 68-year-old psychiatrist and scholar of comparative religion. He's sitting cross-legged on the carpet in front of the couch, ready to help Lundahl--to talk her out of any negative trips, to help her remain focused on the scenes unfolding behind the mask, to offer a drink or some fruit or escort her to the bathroom. The space resembles a clean, warm, but decidedly offbeat living room. The lighting is spare and soft, emanating from two lamps. A bookshelf holds a variety of picture books and well-known spiritual and psychological classics like Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Above the books sits a wooden sculpture of Psilocybe mushrooms. Behind the couch are a Mesoamerican mushroom stone replica and a statue of a serene, seated Buddha. An eye-popping abstract expressionist painting hangs on the wall, an explosion of color and intersecting lines.

This isn't a metaphysical retreat center in San Francisco, or the Manhattan office of a New Age therapist-cum-shaman. Lundahl's first psychedelic experience is taking place in the heart of the Behavioral Biology Research Center building at the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus in Southeast Baltimore, in a room affectionately referred to by both the scientists and the volunteers as the "psilocybin room." She's taking part in the first study of its kind since the early '70s--a rigorous, scientific attempt to determine if drugs like psilocybin and LSD, demonized and driven underground for more than three decades, can facilitate life-changing, transformative mystical experiences.

The study, which took place from 2001 to 2005, and was published in 2006 in the journal Psychopharmacology with a follow-up in 2008 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, made news around the globe and was greeted by nearly unanimous praise by both the scientific community and the mainstream press. Flying in the face of both government policy and conventional wisdom, its conclusion--that psychedelic drugs offer the potential for profound, transformative, and long-lasting positive changes in properly prepared individuals--may herald a revival in the study of altered states of consciousness.

Nonetheless, Lundahl, for one, wasn't initially impressed by the vibrant imagery behind her closed eyelids.

Click here to continue reading article and see more images at the Baltimore City Paper

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