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Divinity Students See Reality In “Good Friday” Mushroom Experiment


By James Donahue

Good Friday, 2005


On Good Friday, 1962, twenty Protestant divinity students participated in a volunteer experiment, conducted by the late Walter Pahnke, with psychedelic mushrooms.


The Pahnke experiment, which was research for his PhD degree in Divinity at Harvard University, was conducted under the supervision of the late Dr. Timothy Leary. It was designed to investigate the potential pf psychedelic drugs and their link to the mystical experience.


The experiment was one of many conducted by Leary and his associates, using both psilocybin mushrooms and LSD as potential treatments for mental disorders and for altering states of consciousness. This, it should be noted, was done back when both drugs were legal to possess and to use.


Of the twenty participants, half were given capsules containing 30 milligrams of psilocybin extract. The other half were given a placebo just prior to the service.


Pahnke later reported in his paper that “the persons who received psilocybin experienced to a greater extent than did the controls the phenomena described by our typology of mysticism.”


But there was much more to it than the stiff wording of that doctoral thesis revealed, according to a paper by Rick Doblin that later appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.


It seems that some of the test subjects that received the psilocybin had intense negative experiences in the Christian church setting. One man felt as if he were imprisoned in a dark, foreboding place and had to be subdued by a guard at the door when he attempted to escape into the sunlight.


At least three others said they experienced death. One found himself on the floor, looking up at the others, as he lay dying.


To get this personal information, Doblin said he tape recorded personal interviews with 16 of the original subjects, meeting 15 of them in their home cities throughout the United States. One subject was interviewed over the telephone.


Of the remaining subjects, one is deceased, the identity of another is unknown, and one declined to be interviewed.


All-in-all, the test subjects that received the drug reported experiencing positive persisting effects during and after the religious experience. All of these people, it must be remembered, were studying to be ministers in Protestant Christian churches, and were expecting good experiences during the service.


But there were some interesting surprises. Following are some of the actual recorded statements acquired by Doblin during the various interviews:


One man said he reached a “dream state” similar to a time when, as a boy of about nine, he had scarlet fever and rheumatic fever at either the same time, or close together. “And they thought that I was going to die. And I saw a light coming out of the sky, this is in the dream, and it came toward me and it was like the figure of Christ and I said, ‘No, let me live and I’ll serve you.’ And I’m alive and I’ve served.”


Another subject described an out-of-body experience. “All of a sudden I felt sort of drawn out into infinity, and all of a sudden I had lost touch with my mind. I felt that I was caught up in the vastness of Creation . . . huge, as the mystics say . . . I did experience that kind of classic kind of blending.”


The man that found himself dying on the floor of the chapel said he heard the voice of an uncle, who had recently died, saying “I want you to die, I want you to die, I want you to die.” He wrote that “The more that I let go and sort of died, the more I felt this eternal life, saying to myself under my breath perhaps, ‘it has always been this way, it has always been this way . . . O, isn’t it wonderful, there’s nothing to fear, this is what it means to die, or to taste of eternal life . . . “


Another man, by then an ordained minister, said he went into “a very strong paranoid experience. And I found it to be scary. The chapel was dark and I hated it in there, just absolutely hated it in there. And I got up and left. I walked down the corridor and there was a guard, a person stationed at the door so individuals couldn’t go out, and he says, ‘Don’t go outside,’ and I said, ‘Oh, no, I won’t. I’ll just look outdoors.’ And went to the door and out I went. They sent (a group leader) out after me. We went back into the building and again, I hated to be in that building and being confined because there were bars on the window and I felt literally like I was in prison.”


Yet another ordained minister, part of the study group that received the drug, said everything went black before the brilliant colors began. He said he found himself in the middle of swirling bands or rays of color. “I could swim out any one of them that I wanted. I mean I could swim metaphorically. I could choose any one I wanted, but I had to choose one. I couldn’t decide which one to go out . . . when I couldn’t decide, I died. Very existential . . . for a brief moment there, I was physically dying. My insides were literally being scooped out, and it was very painful . . . I said to myself . . . that nobody should have to go through this . . . “


The sixth subject said he closed his eyes, meditating on the Passion, and suddenly found himself being there, watching a vivid scene of the procession going by. Then he believes he began identifying with the Christ figure. “I had a definite sense of being an infant or being born, or something like that. I had a sense of death too, but I think actually the sense of death came after the sense of birth. I had my hands on my legs and there wasn’t any flesh, there were bare bones, resting on my bones.”


Subject seven said he began going “to the root of all being. And discovered that . . . you never quite get there. That was my discovery during that time . . . it’s a philosophy and a theology that I hold yet today. You can approach the fullness of all being in either prayer, or in the psilocybin experience. You can reach out, but you can’t dive down . . . and hit the root.” He said he believes this root is God.


The last subject to have experienced the drug said he experienced a “feeling of being . . . lifted out of your present state. I just stopped worrying about time and all that kind of stuff . . . there was one universal man, personhood, whatever you want to call it . . . a lot of connectedness with everybody and every thing. I don’t think Christ or other religious images that I can remember came into it.”


Indeed, this man saw the universal truth although he may not have recognized it for what it was. We are all one, and while Christ was part of the whole, he was never the God figure the church has made him out to be. To find that, we must all look within.