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During the last few hours, reality began slowly, effortlessly, to stitch itself back together. In sync with some particularly wowing choral music, I had an incredibly moving sense of triumphant reawakening, as if a new day were dawning after a long and harrowing night.

• • • AT THE SAME TIME I was interviewing Richard Boothby and his fellow volunteers, I was reading William James’s account of mystical consciousness in The Varieties of Religious Experience in the hope of orienting myself. And indeed much of what James had to say helped me get my bearings amid the torrent of words and images I was collecting. James prefaced his discussion of mystical states of consciousness by admitting that “my own constitution shuts me out from their enjoyment almost entirely.” Almost entirely: what James knows about mystical states was gleaned not just from his reading but also from his own experiments with drugs, including nitrous oxide.

Rather than attempt to define something as difficult to grab hold of as a mystical experience, James offers four “marks” by which we may recognize one. The first and, to his mind, “handiest” is ineffability: “The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.” With the possible exception of Boothby, all the volunteers I spoke to at one point or another despaired of conveying the full force of what they had experienced, gamely though they tried. “You had to be there” was a regular refrain.

The noetic quality is James’s second mark: “Mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge . . . They are illuminations, revelations full of significance and importance . . . and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority.”

For every volunteer I’ve interviewed, the experience yielded many more answers than questions, and—curiously for what is after all a drug experience—these answers had about them a remarkable sturdiness and durability. John Hayes, a psychotherapist in his fifties who was one of the first volunteers at Hopkins,

felt like mysteries were being unveiled and yet it all felt familiar and more like I was being reminded of things I had already known. I had a sense of initiation into dimensions of existence most people never know exist, including the distinct sense that death was illusory, in the sense that it is a door we walk through into another plane of existence, that we’re sprung from an eternity to which we will return.

Which is true enough, I suppose, but to someone having a mystical experience, such an insight acquires the force of revealed truth.

So many of the specific insights gleaned during the psychedelic journey exist on a knife-edge poised between profundity and utter banality. Boothby, an intellectual with a highly developed sense of irony, struggled to put words to the deep truths about the essence of our humanity revealed to him during one of his psilocybin journeys.

I have at times been almost embarrassed by them, as if they give voice to a cosmic vision of the triumph of love that one associates derisively with the platitudes of Hallmark cards. All the same, the basic insights afforded to me during the session still seem for the most part compelling.

What was the philosophy professor’s compelling insight?

“Love conquers all.”

James touches on the banality of these mystical insights: “that deepened sense of the significance of a maxim or formula which occasionally sweeps over one. ‘I’ve heard that said all my life,’ we exclaim, ‘but I never realized its full meaning until now.’” The mystical journey seems to offer a graduate education in the obvious. Yet people come out of the experience understanding these platitudes in a new way; what was merely known is now felt, takes on the authority of a deeply rooted conviction. And, more often than not, that conviction concerns the supreme importance of love.

Karin Sokel, a life coach and energy healer in her fifties, described an experience “that changed everything and opened me profoundly.” At the climax of her journey, she had an encounter with a god who called himself “I Am.” In its presence, she recalled, “every one of my chakras was exploding. And then there was this light, it was the pure light of love and divinity, and it was with me and no words were needed. I was in the presence of this absolute pure divine love and I was merging with it, in this explosion of energy . . . Just talking about it my fingers are getting electric. It sort of penetrated me. The core of our being, I now knew, is love. At the peak of the experience, I was literally holding the face of Osama bin Laden, looking into his eyes, feeling pure love from him and giving it to him. The core is not evil, it is love. I had the same experience with Hitler, and then someone from North Korea. So I think we are divine. This is not intellectual, this is a core knowingness.”

I asked Sokel what made her so sure this wasn’t a dream or drug-induced fantasy—a suggestion that proved no match for her noetic sense. “This was no dream. This was as real as you and I having this conversation. I wouldn’t have understood it either if I hadn’t had the direct experience. Now it is hardwired in my brain so I can connect to it and do often.”

This last point James alludes to in his discussion of the third mark of mystical consciousness, which is “transiency.” For although the mystical state cannot be sustained for long, its traces persist and recur, “and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.”

The fourth and last mark in James’s typology is the essential “passivity” of the mystical experience. “The mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.” This sense of having temporarily surrendered to a superior force often leaves the person feeling as if he or she has been permanently transformed.

For most of the Hopkins volunteers I interviewed, their psilocybin journeys had taken place ten or fifteen years earlier, and yet their effects were still keenly felt, in some cases on a daily basis. “Psilocybin awakened my loving compassion and gratitude in a way I had never experienced before,” a psychologist who asked not to be named told me when I asked her about lasting effects. “Trust, Letting go, Openness, and Being were the touchstones of the experience for me. Now I know these things instead of just believing.” She had turned Bill Richards’s flight instructions into a manual for living.

Richard Boothby did much the same thing, converting his insight about letting go into a kind of ethic:

During my session this art of relaxation itself became the basis of an immense revelation, as it suddenly appeared to me that something in the spirit of this relaxation, something in the achievement of a perfect, trusting and loving openness of spirit, is the very essence and purpose of life. Our task in life consists precisely in a form of letting go of fear and expectations, an attempt to purely give oneself to the impact of the present.

John Hayes, the psychotherapist, emerged with “his sense of the concrete destabilized,” replaced by a conviction “that there’s a reality beneath the reality of ordinary perceptions. It informed my cosmology—that there is a world beyond this one.” Hayes particularly recommends the experience to people in middle age for whom, as Carl Jung suggested, experience of the numinous can help them negotiate the second half of their lives. Hayes added, “I would not recommend it to young people.”

Charnay’s journey at Hopkins solidified her commitment to herbal medicine (she now works for a supplement maker in Northern California); it also confirmed her in a decision to divorce her husband. “Everything was now so clear to me. I came out of the session, and my husband was late to pick me up. I realized, this is the theme with us. We’re just really different people. I just got my ass kicked today, and I needed him to be on time.” She broke the news to him in the car going home and has not looked back.

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