STEPPING ON HOLY TOES • 301
"certifiability" of a volunteer's understanding with anything other than
psychiatric models of interpretation.
Another problem was how to relate what I knew about Buddhist ap-
proaches to nonmaterial beings with what our volunteers were reporting.
For example, Tibetan and Japanese versions of Buddhism possess a full
roster of demons, gods, and angels. I understood these encounters to sym-
bolically represent certain qualities of ourselves, not autonomous
noncorporeal life forms.
When volunteers began reporting contact, my first reaction was, "Oh,
this is something they talk about in Buddhism. They are just aspects of
our own minds."
These encounters got stranger, however, and the beings started test-
ing, probing, inserting things into, eating, and raping our volunteers. A
Buddhist framework seemed less capable of explaining these types of
experiences. Generically I could apply the inherent skepticism of Bud-
dhism in taking anything as "real" or "special" about these stories. That
is, it was "just meeting beings." These apparent life forms were not nec-
essarily any wiser or more trustworthy than anything else we might meet
in our lives or minds.
Nevertheless, I needed some guidance, both for the spiritual experi-
ence and the "contact" aspects of our work. I began sharing our findings,
and my questions, with trusted monk friends. The one to whom I turned
most often was Venerable Margaret, a Buddhist priest I met in 1974 dur-
ing my first stay at the monastery.
A clinical psychologist by training, Margaret became a Buddhist monk
after realizing, "I didn't want to be let loose on the world the way I was."
She wanted to experience her own mental and spiritual health before try-
ing to help others. She loved monastic life, however, and stayed on.
Margaret and I spoke the same language, shared the same concerns, and
viewed the human condition through similarly trained clinical eyes.
Before beginning the actual DMT studies, I happened to spend a few
days at the monastery. My two-year journey through the regulatory labyrinth,
seeking permission and funding to begin giving DMT, was drawing to a close.
Margaret had risen to chief assistant to the abbot, and her time was heavily
302 • TAKING PAUSE
scheduled. However, we found an opportunity to meet and I updated her on
my personal and professional life. The conversation moved into my interest in
giving DMT to human research subjects. Sharing with her my belief that the
pineal gland might make DMT at mystical moments in our lives, I speculated
about its possible role in death and near-death states.
The lanky and shaven-headed woman monk touched the tips of her
fingers together in front of her mouth, tenting them in and out. Her in-
tensely blue eyes narrowed, and she looked over my shoulder, meeting
the white wall with her gaze.
She said quietly, "What you are suggesting is something that only one
out of a million people could do."
I took this intentionally unclear remark as encouragement to go deeper
with the topic. Wondering about the role of psychedelics in spiritual de-
velopment, I commented on how many of the now-senior monks had gotten
their first sighting of the spiritual path from LSD and other drugs.
Margaret laughed, saying, "You know, I honestly can't say if my LSD
trips helped or hurt my spiritual practice!"
"Hard to tell, isn't it?" I replied.
She looked at her watch, picked up her tea cup, and graciously ex-
The next year, 1990, I was married at the monastery. At separate
meetings before the ceremony, I chatted with two other monk friends, now
some of the highest ranking officers in the order. Both of them had taken
psychedelic drugs in college with a fellow who later became a close friend
of mine in New Mexico. This mutual acquaintance was well-known for
using MDMA in a psychotherapeutic setting. They both asked about their
friend and his MDMA research and were in kind fascinated by my plans
to study DMT.
After wrapping up the dose-response study in 1992, I wrote a long
letter to Margaret describing the full range of the stories volunteers shared
with us, including near-death, enlightenment, and being contact. I also
shared with her my feelings that the setting was too neutral, and our vol-
unteers too familiar with psychedelics, for any real beneficial effects to
STEPPING ON HOLY TOES • 303
result. I raised the issue of helping people more directly, along the lines
of a psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy project with the terminally ill.
I was drawn to a terminal illness study because of the promising work
in this area performed during the first wave of psychedelic clinical re-
search in the 1960s. In addition, its emphasis on the positive effects of
spiritual and near-death experiences possible with psychedelics appealed
to my deeper interest in these drugs.
Margaret replied, "Most interesting! But to what purpose? Maybe fu-
ture 'helping' work will shed some light on that." She also wondered about
the risk-to-benefit ratio and advised performing such a study only if I was
sure there were extremely few risks and an equally high likelihood of suc-
cess. Insightfully, she also asked me to consider the lack of time available
to undo any harm incurred from a painful or disturbing psilocybin session.
The years passed quickly, and by the end of 1994 my questions grew
regarding the utility of my psychedelic research. Adverse effects accu-
mulated, and long-term benefit was difficult to assess. In addition, the
constant exposure to psychedelicized volunteers was beginning to exhaust
me. I shared these developments with Margaret.
As always, she supported whatever seemed most useful for my own
spiritual growth. If it involved giving up the research, she understood.
However, she encouraged me to look for someone to whom I might trans-
fer the project so the work I had begun would not end in my absence.
The additional circumstances described in the last chapter led to my
moving to Canada, but I commuted to Albuquerque in order to continue
running studies. After relocating, I met the members of the local monas-
tery-affiliated meditation group and started sitting with them. There existed
a major branch of the order in a nearby U.S. state across the border, and
their priest scheduled a retreat in our community. Venerable Gwendolyn
arrived, and the weekend workshop began.
Gwendolyn had entered the head temple directly from her parents'
home. She had had a series of extraordinarily profound spiritual experi-
ences at the monastery and was a highly ranked teacher. Nevertheless,
she was not especially wise in the ways of the world, and running an
urban meditation center was a significant challenge to her social skills.
304 • TAKING PAUSE
During a pastoral counseling session with Gwendolyn, I let her know
of the New Mexico research and some of my growing ambivalence toward
it. I appreciated the opportunity to air my story to a monk who knew noth-
ing about me, and to listen to her fresh perspective.
I was surprised to hear Gwendolyn's voice on the phone a week later.
"I was sick for three days after talking with you, it upset me so. I
called the abbot, who as you know is near death. This is the first issue he's
taken a personal interest in for over a year. He and I talked, as I did with
other senior monks. We have decided you must stop your research imme-
diately. I'll write you this week a more formal letter."
I replied, "Let me think about it."
Two weeks later, a letter came, not from Gwendolyn, but from Margaret. It
began with, "I hope what I heard third-hand isn't true. But if it is, let me
say this." With that introduction, she began an indictment of my research:
past, present, and planned:
"Your psychedelic research is ultimately futile, devoid of real benefit
to humanity, and dangerous;
"The idea of administering psychedelics to the terminally ill is to me
appallingly dangerous. It comes about as close to 'playing God' as any-
thing I've seen in the mental health professions;
"An attempt to induce enlightenment experiences by chemical means
can never, will never, succeed. What it will do is badly confuse people
and result in serious consequences for you."
Gwendolyn's letter arrived next.
"[Your research] constitutes wrong livelihood according to the
"That DMT might elicit enlightenment experiences is delusional and
contrary to the teachings of the Buddha;
"Hallucinogens disorder and confuse the mind, impede religious train-
ing, and can be a cause of rebirth into realms of confusion and suffering;
"This is the teaching and viewpoint of myself, [the abbot], [the order],
and the whole of Buddhism.
"We urge you to cease all such experiments."
STEPPING ON HOLY TOES • 305
I reminded these monks of the years of dialogue I'd had with them
regarding my interest in and performance of psychedelic research. I also
pointed out the continuous interest in my work by members of the com-
munity, and the absence of any prior recommendations to avoid or stop it.
If anything, there was enthusiasm and encouragement to use these inter-
ests as grist for going deeply into my own spiritual relationship to the
outside world. I recalled the many conversations I'd had with monks who'd
validated the importance of their psychedelic experiences as leading to
their first inklings of enlightenment.
Additionally, I was eager to discuss some of their concerns. These in-
cluded the obvious problems associated with thinking that certain knowledge
was accessible only with an outside agent; that is, a drug. I also accepted
the theoretical possibility raised by Gwendolyn that someone might mis-
take a real enlightenment experience for a psychedelic "flashback."
However, none of these attempts at enlarging the dialogue met with
What was going on?
The abbot was dying, and he was making sure the teachings he left be-
hind were as unsullied by controversy as possible. In addition, senior
monks were lobbying for elected posts that would determine the future of
the community. Who was the most zealous defender of the teaching? Those
whose positive psychedelic experiences had led them to Buddhism in the
first place had to remain silent, and close rank behind those without such
backgrounds. Psychedelics could not become a divisive issue at this cru-
cial moment in the monastery's existence.
And then the Fall 1996 issue of Tricycle, The Buddhist Review came
out with my article calling for a discussion of integrating psychedelics
into Buddhist practice.
In that article I presented Elena's first high-dose session, which we've
read in chapter 16, "Mystical States." Her experience served as an ex-
ample of the type of spiritual breakthrough possible with DMT in someone
open to them—that is, a person with a serious meditation practice, solid
psychological mindedness, and a deep reverence and respect for drugs
306 • TAKING PAUSE
like DMT. I also raised the concern that isolated experiences, occurring
without any sort of spiritual or therapeutic context, were not especially
effective in producing long-term serious change in our volunteers. I there-
fore concluded with the following:
"I believe there are ways in which Buddhism and the psychedelic
community might benefit from an open, frank exchange of ideas, prac-
tices, and ethics. For the psychedelic community, the ethical, disciplined
structuring of life, experience, and relationship provided by thousands of
years of Buddhist communal tradition have much to offer. This
well-developed tradition could infuse meaning and consistency into iso-
lated, disjointed, and poorly integrated psychedelic experiences. The
wisdom of the psychedelic experience, without the accompanying and
necessary love and compassion cultivated in a daily practice, may other-
wise be frittered away in an excess of narcissism and self-indulgence.
While this is also possible within a Buddhist meditative tradition, it is
less likely with the checks and balances in place within a dynamic com-
munity of practitioners.
"On the other hand, dedicated Buddhist practitioners with little suc-
cess in their meditation, but well along in moral and intellectual development,
might benefit from a carefully timed, prepared, supervised, and followed-up
psychedelic session to accelerate their practice. Psychedelics, if anything,
provide a view. And a view, to one so inclined, can inspire the long hard
work required to make that view a living reality."
This article sealed my fate within the monastic community. My life-
long affiliation with the order would implicate it as contributing to these
ideas. Gwendolyn sent copies of the Tricycle article to members of my new
meditation group as well as to other groups and the monastery. In it she
scribbled comments she remembered I made during what I believed was
our confidential pastoral counseling session. She wrote to the local con-
gregation, telling them not to enter my house because there might be
psychedelic drugs kept in it.
Her behavior brought these issues to the boiling point. I lodged a
formal complaint against this breach of confidence. As much as calling
Gwendolyn's behavior into question, I wanted a definitive statement from
STEPPING ON HOLY TOES • 307
the order regarding their attitude about my research. They complied on
The monastic review agreed she had indeed broken confidence, but it
was for a "greater good." That is, it was done to "prevent mistakes from
being made in the name of Buddhism." One could not be a proper Bud-
dhist and consider psychedelics to play any part in it.
There was little I could do. Holiness had won out over truth. This
particular brand of Buddhism was no different from any other organiza-
tion whose survival depended upon a uniformly accepted platform of ideas.
Only they could determine what were permissible questions, and what
Later I learned that the monastic community had elected Margaret
head of the order. The two monks who had taken psychedelics years be-
fore with my New Mexico friend also did well in the elections. One was
elected abbot of the monastery, the other his chief assistant. So political
ambitions also took on greater importance than a truthful dialogue. It was
unlikely that the organization could admit and openly discuss that their
three leading teachers were former LSD users, or that they had decided to
enter a monastic life after drug-induced inspiration.
Although I could see beyond the hypocrisy that motivated much of the
monastery's repudiation of my work, it took its toll. Combined with the
events and circumstances I described in the last chapter, my energy to
continue with the research flagged considerably. After completing two
long-distance research trips to Albuquerque, the extra pressure exerted
by my spiritual community broke down the last remnant of my desire to
continue. It was time to stop.
I resigned from the university and returned the drugs and the last
year's worth of grant money to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. I
wrote closing summaries on all of the projects and sent copies to the boards
and committees who had been working with me for the past seven years.
The pharmacy weighed all our drugs, packed them up, and mailed them
to a secure facility near Washington, D.C. The supplies of DMT, psilocy-
bin, and LSD remain there to this day.
• Part VI •
The Spirit Molecule
It is almost inconceivable that a chemical as simple as DMT could pro-
vide access to such an amazingly varied array of experiences, from the
least dramatic to the most unimaginably earth-shattering. From psycho-
logical insights to encounters with aliens. Abject terror or nearly unbear-
able bliss. Near-death and rebirth. Enlightenment. All of these from a
naturally occurring chemical cousin of serotonin, a widespread and es-
sential brain neurotransmitter.
It is just as fascinating to ponder why Nature, or God, made DMT.
What is the biological or evolutionary advantage to having various plants
and our bodies synthesize the spirit molecule? If DMT is indeed released
at particularly stressful times in our lives, is that a coincidence, or is it
intended? If it is intended, for what purpose?
DMT: THE SPIRIT MOLECULE • 311
In the case reports, we've seen how strikingly similar volunteers' experi-
ences are to naturally occurring psychedelic states of consciousness. It's
difficult to ignore the overlap of research subjects' descriptions of high-
dose DMT sessions with those from people who have undergone sponta-
neous near-death, spiritual, and mystical states. While I was not expecting
contact with nonmaterial beings to be especially common before starting
our work, the resemblance between those occurring "in the field" and in
Room 531 is also undeniable.
The similarities between naturally occurring and DMT-induced phe-
nomena support my suggestion that spontaneously occurring "psychedelic"
experiences are mediated by elevated levels of endogenous DMT. In chap-
ter 4, "The Psychedelic Pineal," I presented a series of biological scenarios
in which the pineal may synthesize DMT, and I speculated about the meta-
physical and spiritual implications of these possibilities.
How then might this spirit molecule, whether produced from the in-
side through these presumed biological pathways, or taken from outside
as in our studies, modify our perceptions so radically? In this chapter we
will give our imaginations free rein to consider any and all possibilities.
Most of us, including the most hard-nosed neuroscientists and non-
materialistic mystics, accept that the brain is a machine, the instrument
of consciousness. It is a bodily organ made up of cells and tissues, pro-
teins, fats, and carbohydrates. It processes raw sensory data delivered by
the sense organs using electricity and chemicals.
If we accept the "receiver of reality" model for brain function, let's
compare it to another receiver with which we're all familiar: the televi-
sion. By making the analogy of the brain to the TV, it's possible to think of
how altered states of consciousness, including psychedelic ones brought
about by DMT, relate to the brain as a sophisticated receiver.
The simplest and most familiar levels of change to which the spirit mol-
ecule provides access are the personal and psychological. These effects
may be like fine-tuning the television image, adjusting the contrast, bright-
ness, and color scheme. These "images" consists of feelings, memories,
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested