A few years ago I sat down with NPR’s religion reporter, Barbara Bradley Hagerty. She was writing a book about the scientific basis of mystical experiences, and had come to Baltimore to interview me. I spoke to her about a profound experience I had, when I was in my 20s, after ingesting Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms, aka “magic” mushrooms—an experience that, to this day, I look back upon as life-changing and pivotal in my understanding of what falls under the loaded term “spirituality.”
Barb’s book has just come out, and it’s titled Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality. From what I can gather, the book presents a balanced assessment of the current scientific inquiries into the nexus of science and mysticism (exemplified by the rigorous Hopkins Psilocybin studies conducted by Roland Griffiths, which I wrote about in my City Paper article “Sacred Intentions”). I haven’t read the book yet, though I have read some of the galleys, and while googling the title I came upon this review in Christianity Today:
The review takes a fairly moderate tone until this:
Nobody who believes in the Incarnation—in a God who thinks matter matters so much as to take on human flesh to communicate himself—can conclude otherwise. God uses all of our senses to allow us to understand him, so why not the brain, which processes the senses? That drugs or epileptic fits can induce spiritual experiences is not surprising or any more or less significant than that drugs can induce fear or euphoria.
But if so, does that mean the person actually encountered the divine? No one can say for sure, not even the recipient of the experience—which, unless he is a complete narcissist, can only leave the recipient in deep doubt about the authenticity of the experience.
But Hagerty’s conversations with mystics show that the temptation to narcissism—to relish the experience as a “high” that makes me a better person—remains powerful. For example, when Hagerty asks Michael Hughes to compare a non-drug-induced mystical moment with his mushroom-induced one, he says, “Ultimately, I don’t really care if it is my brain chemistry doing this. They were equally profound. They both changed me dramatically.” For many, an encounter with Reality is less important than how they feel.
I don’t understand why my comment about my experience is labeled narcissistic. Don’t classic Christian conversions or alleged episodes of “grace” change the experiencers and make them more positive and well-adjusted? And ultimately, whether it’s a chemical inside a mushroom or intense prayer and meditation or just something spontaneous that causes profound, life-altering experiences, why should it matter? Didn’t Jesus himself say “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them”?
Also, for what it’s worth, I make no claims to have met “God” or any sort of deity. But I have read a lot about classic mystical experiences, and what happened to me in that tiny church in historic St. Mary’s, alone, late at night, fits the definition. I felt immersed in the universe, but it was a living, conscious universe, and I was connected to every part of it. I also had a deep sense of knowing what spirituality meant, and I understood that human religions are a desperate attempt to reconnect with the type of primal connectedness I was feeling. Make of it what you will. It doesn’t matter to me, in the end, because it is intensely personal experience that cannot adequately be put into words. All these years later, I’m still processing it.
It seems to me that the reviewer’s ambivalence comes from his fear that the evangelical Christian path to spirituality isn’t the only game in town, and that science may be pointing out the basic truth of the perennial philosophy—that there are many valid paths to deeper spiritual understanding and mystical union with God, the Universe, the Collective Unconscious, or whatever you want to call it.
Sacred Intentions: Inside the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Studies (City Paper, October, 2008)
Roland Griffiths’ TEDx MidAtlantic Talk “Psilocybin and Experimental Mystical Experience.”