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“Everything Roland’s done he’s devoted himself to completely,” Jesse recalls Schuster saying, “including his meditation practice. We think it’s changed him.” Griffiths had shared with Schuster his growing dissatisfaction with science and his deepening interest in the kind of “ultimate questions” coming up in his meditation practice. Schuster then made the call to Griffiths telling him about the interesting young man he’d just met at Esalen, explaining that they shared an interest in spirituality, and suggesting they should meet. After an exchange of e-mails, Jesse flew to Baltimore to have lunch with Griffiths in the cafeteria on the Bayview medical campus, inaugurating a series of conversations and meetings that would eventually lead to their collaboration on the 2006 study of psilocybin and mystical experience at Johns Hopkins.

• • • BUT THERE WAS STILL one missing piece of the puzzle and the scientific team. Most of the drug trials Griffiths had run in the past involved baboons and other nonhuman primates; he had much less clinical experience working with humans and realized he needed a skilled therapist to join the project—a “master clinician,” as he put it. As it happened, Bob Jesse had met a psychologist at a psychedelic conference a few years before who not only filled the bill but lived in Baltimore. Still more fortuitous, this psychologist, whose name was Bill Richards, probably has more experience guiding psychedelic journeys in the 1960s and 1970s than anyone alive, with the possible exception of Stan Grof (with whom he had once worked). In fact, Bill Richards administered the very last legal dose of psilocybin to an American, at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center at Spring Grove State Hospital in the spring of 1977. In the decades since, he had been practicing more conventional psychotherapy out of his home in a leafy Baltimore neighborhood called Windsor Hills, biding his time and waiting patiently for the world to come around so that he might work with psychedelics once again.

“In the big picture,” he told me the first time we met in his home office, “these drugs have been around at least five thousand years, and many times they have surfaced and have been repressed, so this was another cycle. But the mushroom still grows, and eventually this work would come around again. Or so I hoped.” When he got the call from Bob Jesse in 1998, and met Roland Griffiths shortly thereafter, he couldn’t quite believe his good fortune. “It was thrilling.”

Bill Richards, a preternaturally cheerful man in his seventies, is a bridge between the two eras of psychedelic therapy. Walter Pahnke was the best man at his wedding; he worked closely with Stan Grof at Spring Grove and visited Timothy Leary in Millbrook, New York, where Leary landed after his exile from Harvard. Though Richards left the Midwest half a century ago, he’s retained the speech patterns of rural Michigan, where he was born in 1940. Richards today sports a white goatee, laughs with an infectious cackle, and ends many of his sentences with a cheerful, up-spoken “y’know?”

Richards, who holds graduate degrees in both psychology and divinity, had his first psychedelic experience while a divinity student at Yale in 1963. He was spending the year studying in Germany, at the University of Göttingen, and found himself drawn to the Department of Psychiatry, where he learned about a research project involving a drug called psilocybin.

“I had no idea what that was, but two friends of mine had participated and had had interesting experiences.” One of them, whose father had been killed in the war, had regressed to childhood to find himself sitting on his father’s lap. The other had hallucinations of SS men marching in the street. “I had never had a decent hallucination,” Richards said with a chuckle, “and I was trying to get some insight into my childhood. In those days, I viewed my own mind as a psychological laboratory, so I decided to volunteer.

“This was before the importance of set and setting was understood. I was brought to a basement room, given an injection, and left alone.” A recipe for a bad trip, surely, but Richards had precisely the opposite experience. “I felt immersed in this incredibly detailed imagery that looked like Islamic architecture, with Arabic script, about which I knew nothing. And then I somehow became these exquisitely intricate patterns, losing my usual identity. And all I can say is that the eternal brilliance of mystical consciousness manifested itself. My awareness was flooded with love, beauty, and peace beyond anything I ever had known or imagined to be possible. ‘Awe,’ ‘glory,’ and ‘gratitude’ were the only words that remained relevant.”

Descriptions of such experiences always sound a little thin, at least when compared with the emotional impact people are trying to convey; for a life-transforming event, the words can seem paltry. When I mentioned this to Richards, he smiled. “You have to imagine a caveman transported into the middle of Manhattan. He sees buses, cell phones, skyscrapers, airplanes. Then zap him back to his cave. What does he say about the experience? ‘It was big, it was impressive, it was loud.’ He doesn’t have the vocabulary for ‘skyscraper,’ ‘elevator,’ ‘cell phone.’ Maybe he has an intuitive sense there was some sort of significance or order to the scene. But there are words we need that don’t yet exist. We’ve got five crayons when we need fifty thousand different shades.”

In the middle of his journey, one of the psychiatric residents stopped by the room to look in on Richards, asking him to sit up so he could test his reflexes. As the resident tapped his patellar tendon with his little rubber hammer, Richards remembers feeling “compassion for the infancy of science. The researchers had no idea what really was happening in my inner experiential world, of its unspeakable beauty or of its potential importance for all of us.” A few days after the experience, Richards returned to the lab and asked, “What was that drug you gave me? How is it spelled?

“And the rest of my life is footnotes!”

Yet after several subsequent psilocybin sessions failed to produce another mystical experience, Richards started to wonder if perhaps he had exaggerated that first trip. Some time later, Walter Pahnke arrived at the university, fresh from his graduate work with Timothy Leary at Harvard, and the two became friends. (It was Richards who gave Pahnke his first psychedelic trip while the two were in Germany; he had apparently never taken LSD or psilocybin at Harvard, thinking it might compromise the objectivity of the Good Friday Experiment.) Pahnke suggested Richards try one more time, but in a room with soft lighting, plants, and music and using a higher dose. Once again, Richards had “an incredibly profound experience. I realized I had not exaggerated the first trip but in fact had forgotten 80 percent of it.

“I have never doubted the validity of these experiences,” Richards told me. “This was the realm of mystical consciousness that Shankara was talking about, that Plotinus was writing about, that Saint John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart were writing about. It’s also what Abraham Maslow was talking about with his ‘peak experiences,’ though Abe could get there without the drugs.” Richards would go on to study psychology under Maslow at Brandeis University. “Abe was a natural Jewish mystic. He could just lie down in the backyard and have a mystical experience. Psychedelics are for those of us who aren’t so innately gifted.”

Richards emerged from those first psychedelic explorations in possession of three unshakable convictions. The first is that the experience of the sacred reported both by the great mystics and by people on high-dose psychedelic journeys is the same experience and is “real”—that is, not just a figment of the imagination.

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