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Recent study suggests psilocybin as spiritual eye-opener, but health and legality are concerns


Greg Horton May 6th, 2010

Editor's note: Oklahoma Gazette interviewed several local residents, documenting their positive and negative experiences using psilocybin mushrooms. All feared arrest and requested anonymity, so...

ment, a point at which more than 60 percent of the participants still reported an increased sense of well-being.

Tom Boyd, David Ross Boyd Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, said religious groups have used psychedelic drugs, including mushrooms, to induce religious or mystical experiences for centuries.

"Peyote is probably the best known of these substances," Boyd said. "Most of the groups that have used psychedelics in religious practice have, with very few exceptions, been free-floating and temporary."

He said defining what a religious or mystical experience is in the context of drug use is difficult to quantify.

"William James asked the same question in his treatise on the subject, 'The Varieties of Religious Experience,' in 1902," Boyd said. "One of the things he points to as a defining factor is that the self has a feeling of expansion beyond the self, and that the self feels a sense of harmony with all things."

Those words accurately describe the experiences of Laney, an Oklahoma City resident and graduate of Southern Nazarene University. She said she felt like a child discovering the world all over again.

"I don't know if words even justify my feelings or thoughts," Laney said. "I have done my fair share of different drugs, but nothing even comes close to the amazing experiences I've had on 'shrooms. It is like being in the most amazing, creative, colorful world you can imagine."

A 'bad trip'Mark, another SNU graduate, said the experience was not specifically spiritual for him, nor could he articulate the experience in understandable ways.

"I felt an elevated level of connectedness to the people that I did 'shrooms with, but I did not feel any more spiritual," Mark said. "When hallucinating, what I experienced was so complex, intricate and multiform that it cannot be put into words.
 
"Words have only been invented to cover and be able to describe experiences that occur under normal brain functionality. Psychedelic drugs so greatly affect the functionality of the brain that words simply cannot grasp the experience that they provide."

Medical research into the long-term effects of 'shrooms is sketchy. Most caveats lump the possible complications into two groups: persistent anxiety or symptoms after the initial effects have worn off, and a relatively new disorder referred to as Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), which usually involves reoccurrence of the symptoms at much later dates without ingestion of the substance. Perception is distorted, and symptoms may include suicidal behavior, depression and panic attacks.

Misidentification is a large issue, since ingesting poisonous mushrooms can end in death, according to research conducted by Brown University.

A short-term problem associated with the use of 'shrooms is the "bad trip." Haley, a 22-year-old college student in Oklahoma City, described her first experience of 'shrooms as "terrifying."

"I somehow got it into my head that the world was going to end at 9 p.m.," she said. "I could not stop watching the clock, and I was near panic as the time approached."

Boyd, who stated explicitly that he does not endorse the use of psychedelic drugs, said it was important to be in a safe, secure environment during the use of 'shrooms.

"Timothy Leary used to talk about set and setting in the context of LSD use," Boyd said. "What he meant was a secure place with an experienced user to guide you through the experience. I think the same guidelines would apply to any use of psychedelics."

Laney has had both good and bad experiences with 'shrooms, and even had one trip where both elements were combined.

"I saw crazy things," she said, "such as the roof of the house next door developed into a snake that was moving in place while changing from different shades of neon colors. At some moments, it was frightening, and others, it was almost peaceful. Every emotion that you can think of came out as well. I cried while I thought I was laughing, and I giggled at the sight of dirt, and then rubbed my face in it, and became so happy and content that I couldn't stop smiling."

The other downside of 'shroom use is the legal aspect. Mark Woodward, public information officer for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, said psilocybin mushrooms are a "schedule I" drug, which puts them in the same category as heroin or LSD.

"The legal consequences and penalties would be the same as for those two drugs," Woodward said. "We only have a few cases a year here in Oklahoma, usually someone growing it in a closet, so it's like LSD inasmuch as it hasn't gone away, but it's not a big problem."

Into the mysticThe more philosophical or esoteric problem with evaluating the use of 'shrooms has to do with what constitutes a genuine religious experience. Does hallucinating things that aren't there count, so to speak, as a real experience of the divine or the universe, or of some sort of harmonious sense of peace?

Boyd said theologians and philosophers have struggled with the question for centuries.

"Jonathan Edwards asked the same question in 'Religious Affections,'" he said. "What is a spurious religious experience? It's a legitimate question."

Boyd said the key to understanding the difference between a real experience and a spurious one comes down to the person's behavior subsequent to the experience.

"How has the person's life changed?" he said. "Was the experience integrative? Did it lead to a sense of wholeness and well-being? The difference between the mystic and the schizophrenic is that the latter will have hallucinations, but those events are not integrative; rather, they lead to a further disruption of the psyche."

Boyd's counsel was a paraphrase of American blues musician Robert Johnson: "You can get there by a lot of different methods, but you don't have to ruin your psyche doing it."
 
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