Ten years ago Dr. Katherine MacLean conducted the first scientific study of the combined effects of psychedelics with meditation. The encouraging results of the study showed the long-term beneficial effects these substances can have on our concentration, emotion regulation, openness, and happiness.
In our conversation I learned what psychedelics have in common with meditation and how they can compliment one another. And she offers careful advice as to when these substances might be of benefit and when they aren’t.
[00:00:39] Scott Snibbe: Katherine MacLean, it’s a pleasure to have you on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. I’m really looking forward to our conversation, and I appreciate your making the time for it.
[00:01:33] Katherine MacLean: Thank you.
What drew you to explore meditation and psychedelics?
[00:01:35] Scott Snibbe: You have an impressive background in Buddhism, psychotherapy, and psychedelics. Before I get into asking you about research I was just curious about your own life experience with meditation and psychedelics.
What drew you to this area of research in the first place?
[00:01:52] Katherine MacLean: When I arrived in college, I had pursued a kind of classic, privileged educational path. I was valedictorian, I was captain of the track team, I had kind of ticked off all the boxes of achievement. Then when I got to college, I was introduced to the really harmful effects of binge drinking and also injury. My body stopped working the way it had up until that point.
After a number of years of experimenting with different substance, approaches to happiness—hedonism didn’t quite work out the way I planned—I actually found meditation through a rock climbing instructor at Dartmouth. These Bhutanese monks were living in the town next to Hanover, New Hampshire. He took me to one of their sits and it was the first time I’d ever sat in a room with people meditating quietly.
That thread convinced me that maybe meditation had at least as much to show me as psychedelics. Thankfully, I got a really solid foundation in mindfulness and meditation before I had to embark on what is actually very complex and difficult work, which is sitting for people trying to understand psychedelic experiences.
[00:03:14] Scott Snibbe: That’s what I, and I think a lot of people, are most aware of your work, that you were a lead researcher on Johns Hopkins’ famous study on the combined effects of psilocybin and meditation. I was actually accepted into that study because I’m a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner.
Normally we take a vow not to take any intoxicants. But I asked my teacher, Would it be okay? Of course, as a 70s, 60s person he had taken lots of drugs in the past. He said it would be fine but then I just wasn’t able to do it because of the travel. So I’ve actually never taken any psychedelics which is a kind of a funny story because my my dad wanted me to take them so much that I rebelled and didn’t.
[00:03:59] Katherine MacLean: I’ve heard of people like you. It’s like the only way to rebel is to be very, very straight and sober.
The benefits of combining a meditative practice and psychedelics
[00:04:05] Scott Snibbe: I was really into math and physics, and I was telling him what I was learning, and he was trying to build perpetual motion machines and things, and I said, thermodynamics, and he got kind of mad at me. He was like, You need to take LSD as soon as possible. So I never took it. But I’m really interested in the connection and the benefits of this combination of meditative practice and psychedelics.
[00:04:33] Katherine MacLean: There were kind of two parallel studies happening at the same time. The first one was with naive meditators, people who had not really meditated before and had maybe had a handful to zero psychedelic experiences. My mentor, Roland Griffiths, was very particular about this. He first and foremost wanted to make sure that people’s intentions were sincere and that they wouldn’t push back at us against meditating every day.
We already had very highly motivated people in the study and interested in a spiritual outcome. This wasn’t mental health care. This wasn’t therapy. This wasn’t trying to fix them. Before I explain what happened to them, I also want to say that we are also studying people with a lot of meditation experience and no psychedelic experience.
We wanted to understand what happens if you’ve been meditating for decades, really understand the mind, have an ethical foundation, a very spiritual life, and then you get to drop this very different kind of fuel in the water and see what happens. It’s the opposite experiment of what a lot of the hippies did, which was put all of the LSD in the pool first and then try to swim.
[00:05:52] Scott Snibbe: That’s the study that I had signed up for because it was seemed kind of unique.
[00:05:57] Katherine MacLean: Yeah, I was more fascinated in a way by the experienced meditators and what would happen. Not because I thought they were already enlightened, but I thought that psilocybin would expose the parts of their practice that were in hiding. Like the parts of their practice that maybe they were very skilled at not practicing, not noticing, not saying, What’s that part of me that is resisting in some way? Just kind of keep that in the back of your mind.
Back to our naive meditators, what we found was actually kind of surprising. If you have a high dose psilocybin experience and you’re very well prepared—you’ve been meditating every day for a month ahead of time, you have great guides, and support people in the room, you get help afterward—just having that mystical spiritual experience on psilocybin is more powerful than a daily meditation practice for six months.
If you have a high dose psilocybin experience and you’re very well prepared, just having that mystical spiritual experience on psilocybin is more powerful than a daily meditation practice for six months.
Now, how did we determine that? We looked at people who started meditating every day, but we tricked them and only gave them the placebo until the very end of the study. Those people, after they got the psilocybin, basically looked like the people who had gotten it at the beginning.
You could say, Well, meditation doesn’t matter. I think that’s not actually the conclusion at all. The conclusion is that among people who are already highly motivated, meditating every day, and have the intention to develop a spiritual practice, that psilocybin is still very powerful. It’s not something that only shocks or surprises. 15 years later, what I would say is I think psilocybin and meditation go well together. We’re still just beginning to understand how they go well together. I think that’s going to be the most exciting part.
15 years later, what I would say is I think psilocybin and meditation go well together.
How do you use psychedelics mindfully?
[00:07:49] Scott Snibbe: Obviously not every person who’s taken LSD is highly evolved spiritually. We’ve each met many different types of people over the years, including people who it’s numbed them to life and they aren’t that engaged with themselves or life.
What’s the difference? How do you use these substances in conjunction with meditation or in a spiritual way?
[00:08:14] Katherine MacLean: There was a point in my own practice where I had a therapist point out the moment that I was leaving my body while I was having a big emotion. I made the connection that I was also practicing leaving my body while I meditated. I don’t have a daily mentor. I don’t live at a retreat center. So I would say it’s hard to hide this from a really good meditation teacher if they see you every day. But if you’re just going for a retreat it’s kind of easy to practice disconnecting from big emotions and feelings in our body.
I think psychedelics are similar. For some people, they’re a really great escape. They help us get away from our thoughts, our feelings, our past memories. It’s a nice little ticket out of here. You kind of go on your journey and come back, and the world is a little bit different for a while, like when you go on a nice vacation.
It does change you, but it’s temporary. In the same way that I changed how I was approaching meditation after the therapist pointed that out, Hey, you’re trying to hide from these big emotions. I think psychedelics can be used to take you deeper into your somatic existence, your body. I’m not sure that this is necessarily how most psychedelic therapists are being trained. Some of them are to prevent dissociation, but I think it’s built in as kind of a risk factor for psychedelics.
I think psychedelics can be used to take you deeper into your somatic existence, your body.
[00:09:49] Scott Snibbe: How did you measure those things in both types of studies? Like how the experiences were beneficial? How they were powerful? How you compare one to the other?
[00:10:00] Katherine MacLean: Well, one of the things we did was after every session where someone ingested psilocybin—it came in a form of a pill—at the end of that eight hours, before they went home, they filled out a bunch of questionnaires. You could imagine this is the worst thing you want to do right after a big trip. But for some of the people they actually enjoyed it because it helped them reflect and remember the things that they had learned throughout the day.
So we had their very fresh impressions of the experience. One of those questionnaires was a mystical questionnaire. Those 30 items predict whether you had a classic unity experience, a connection with all things, usually a dropping away of time and space. It’s very positive, it’s blissful, and it’s hard to describe to others unless you’ve experienced it yourself.
There’s a big debate right now about whether the way we’re measuring mystical experience at Hopkins is inclusive to all the types of experiences people can have and call them spiritual. Our answer would be, No, of course it’s not. It’s measuring a particular type of experience. We tried to see if it predicted whether they meditated more. It didn’t, unfortunately. We also wanted to see if there were any negative consequences. One month later, three months later, six months later, were people’s anxiety levels higher, were their depression scores higher or lower?
These were all people who were very healthy to begin with, but we all have anxiety. What we found is that transiently—within a few days after the session—you might see a little uptick in things like headaches, anxiety, unease, not really sure how to get back into your everyday routine. But the long term effects are mostly positive.
At six months, people are saying, It’s easier for me to forgive others. I can understand and empathize with others better. Even people’s loved ones and friends who we call to get independent reports corroborated what people are telling us. They’re not just narcissistically saying, I’m a great person now. The people around them are kind of saying, Wow, they’ve really changed for the better. There were very few tests that we gave them that could show either behaviorally or in the brain that something positive had changed. So that’s a lot of the research that’s happening now. It’s fascinating and it’s just the beginning.
Can you use psychedelics to become a better person?
[00:12:33] Scott Snibbe: When I’ve talked to my teacher about certain powerful mystical experiences I had in meditation, and friends of mine too, when they go to their teachers—at least in our Tibetan Buddhist tradition—we almost always get the same response, which is, That’s nice, but you want to work on your behavior. You want to become a good person. You want to become kinder, more patient, more generous, more content, let go of anger and craving, and so on.
I wonder if you could reflect on that a little. It sounded like you were aware of that, and you were trying to measure it. Do you have thoughts on how successful that was, and how we can go more towards measuring ethics, kindness, and so on?
[00:13:12] Katherine MacLean: I have a lot of thoughts about it. I think many Americans who are seeking out both meditation—maybe less so, but certainly psychedelics are coming from a place of profound self-centered suffering. I think that psilocybin is a great tool for getting you through that initial material; it will show you your stuff.
The person can say, Okay, I get who I am. This is the life I want to live. These are the changes I’m willing to make, but I still care about myself first and foremost. I’m not judging that at all. It’s still way better to be a happy self-centered person than a mean self-centered person. I think it’s important to say that.
[00:14:02] Scott Snibbe: I often say, Even narcissists need a spiritual path too.
[00:14:08] Katherine MacLean: Yeah, so if psilocybin and some of these other medicines can offer people relief from a profound level of suffering, that they can be a little bit happier, less harmful to others and themselves, great. But then there’s this real jumping off point for others, which is saying, Okay, I’ve now kind of sorted my own stuff, I can see now, and I’m starting fresh without being so hyper-focused on what’s happened to me, me being the victim, my life, my biography.
I think that that’s when the ethics kind of becomes a lot more important. Then you say, Okay, now what’s my intention with this? Do I want to get rich? Do I want to patent these medicines and be a savior to a lot of people or do I just want to be more kind? Do I want to fight for a cause I believe in? There are so many options.
It’s worth saying that psychedelics don’t differentiate, I don’t believe. You can take them and develop a pretty unethical platform at the same time, what the plant medicine folks would say is they do have a preference toward ethics and kindness. Again, it’s a debate, do these chemicals have a preference for working with people who want to help others and help themselves, or is it just a free for all? Can you do whatever you want with these things?
[00:15:41] Scott Snibbe: Even meditation can be used for nefarious purposes. The military uses mindfulness in a couple of different ways; one to help people over PTSD and problems like that. The other to train soldiers to focus very sharply so their hands don’t shake while they’re killing somebody.
There’s a long history of that, and you see it also in some of the ways very powerful people now kind of brag about meditating and how it helps them focus and be more effective, but not necessarily be more effective at doing good, just more effective at whatever they’re doing.
[00:16:20] Katherine MacLean: I really have been reflecting on this, especially recently. We have all these scientists working for a cure for cancer, we have vaccines, we have so much advancement in health care. Yet, do we have any medicine or any approach that can tackle the self-centered violence that is at the root of our human nature? No, we don’t.
You could ask the question, maybe MDMA or psilocybin, if people are turned toward the right direction. But it’s hard to predict. People can go in whatever direction. Once you’re free of your own trauma, you could be a bigger jerk or you could be a lot more kind and helpful.
Once you’re free of your own trauma, you could be a bigger jerk or you could be a lot more kind and helpful.
[00:17:06] Scott Snibbe: Is that ethical dimension the one you’ve taken in the next steps in your career?
[00:17:12] Katherine MacLean: Well, one of the reasons I left Hopkins was to work on my own stuff so that I would be less self-centered and less harmful to myself and others. One of the things I describe in my book is a turning point on a meditation retreat where I decided to take a vow of non-violence. After that retreat, it became much harder for me to do my work as a psychedelic professional.
What I say is that there are a lot of people, I think with good intentions, who have no concerns about having people pay a lot of money to get psychedelic care. Who are not concerned with charging lots of money for therapy, really are not that interested in what happens to people a long time afterward. It’s just, can we help people right now, whatever the cost.
I kept finding myself at odds with some of my colleagues and saying, What’s the bigger implication of this? What kind of support are we providing this person six months down the road? When my friend, Chris Kelly—it was actually out of concern for a dear friend of ours who went really off the rails after a psychedelic experience, we said, Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a sangha, a community of practitioners who could be a safety net for folks like this?
Psychedelic Sangha, which was created maybe five or four years ago, is finally maturing into that. I would say that the last conversation I had with Chris we were talking about lineage and we were talking about ethics. Like, what are we doing here? We’re actually not doing the thing that psychedelic psychotherapy is doing.
We’re asking different questions and we’re asking, How can we be of service to each other? Not just can I get happier, but can I be of service? Can I help others? So I would say that it’s taken a very happy path, although there were many points where I might have been seduced by the systems that exist: capitalism and fancy careers.
Again, I think now the Buddhist ethos of it’s not about how glamorous your life is. It’s not about being a celebrity. It’s about, do you care about the person next to you? Would you put up with a little unpleasantness to help someone? These very simple questions.
[00:19:31] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk about a specific example from someone in your sangha of how that community has benefited them?
Preparing for death with psychedelics
[00:19:41] Katherine MacLean: There are a few elders in the community who’ve been practitioners for a long time, have a very spiritual life, but live alone and are facing more and more either illnesses or challenges healthwise. What we noticed in our community is that we have a lot of young people with a lot of energy and resources, and we have these elders who even though they have a very strong spiritual practice, maybe don’t have the physical people in their vicinity who could help them carry out the things they care about at the end of their life.
Although it hasn’t, thankfully, had to manifest yet—as I told one of my friends who’s an elder, I said, I’d love to be there when you die, but not yet. I want you to keep living selfishly. I want you to stick around.
But it’s something that Chris and I have talked a lot about is how can we generate interest among young people to provide support for elders at the end of life so that people can not only get the health care they want, but maybe they want their body to remain undisturbed for three days. Maybe they want the Tibetan death instructions read to them. There’s just so many possibilities, but this is not really a thing you ask family to do.
These are such specific spiritual instructions, but it’s something you could ask your sangha members to do for you. It’s become a bit of a focus for us is, how to help people prepare for death. Not just your own, but how are you going to help the other community members?
[00:21:11] Scott Snibbe: It’s very beautiful and very related to the way communities functioned before modern society, obviously with that kind of support. There’s an architect who wrote a great book called A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. It’s actually almost like a Bible. It’s like rules of how to make a great society.
One of them was like “old people everywhere,” that we shouldn’t hide them away. We need to be an integrated community. So what you’re talking about sounds very beneficial. A question though, what does that have to do with psychedelics?
[00:21:46] Katherine MacLean: In 2012, I met a Zen teacher who gave me an instruction. I followed the instruction and had a very spontaneous and disorienting experience of complete dissolution. It left me, in psychiatric language, psychotic, unable to fully function, really struggling with a lot of anxiety and paranoia and distortions of reality.
Then I met another Zen teacher who helped me name what that experience was, reoriented me to the breath. Then shortly after that, my sister went in the hospital with advanced stage cancer and died. In the moments that I was with her, I understood that the thing that had happened to me, this very disorienting experience, had actually shown me how to help someone through the disorienting process of dying.
Now you could say, What does that have to do with psychedelics? I don’t think most people have a spontaneous dissolution experience after hearing a single instruction, it’s still bizarre. I can’t explain it. I don’t know if I was lucky or unlucky. I think that psychedelic experiences can help people tap into both the beauty and the disorientation or fear of nothingness, that everything and nothing.
Psychedelic experiences can help people tap into both the beauty and the disorientation or fear of nothingness, that everything and nothing.
Once you have that glimpse, my belief is it helps you be more present for people who are going through a very similar process as their senses become different, as they lose the control over their body, as consciousness changes. Yes, meditation could do it on its own. We know that. And yet most people are not going to spend the time required to meditate to prepare for their dying moments.
In a way, psychedelics are a little fast track, a little taste of what is it like to let go of everything? Then if I practice that enough maybe it’ll be easier for me to help someone else, and I can do it in a way that’s not so self-centered. That’s my belief. It’s an ongoing experiment.
The place that I live, I see it as an intentional place for people to die, and I have no idea at what point in the future, but my hope is that people are getting more practice and familiarity with death, including with psychedelics. So when people want to choose to be in a really peaceful place at their death, there are like five people I know who can say, Hey, I’ll be there, I’ll come help.
It’s like Ram Dass. He used to talk about these centers for dying and he created one around his own death, but that was just one person. I would like to extend his vision a bit.
[00:24:36] Scott Snibbe: It’s kind of amazing hearing you talk about this because in Tibetan Buddhism, it’s a very common practice. Many of us do it even six times a day, rehearsing for your death. There’s a very specific program of visualizations that’s taught in the teachings called the bardo and other places that’s supposed to prepare you for death. They even say the same sequence, you go through it when you fall asleep, believe it or not, when you sneeze, and when you have an orgasm.
[00:25:08] Katherine MacLean: A Tibetan Buddhist was just telling me these five different states.
[00:25:12] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it’s actually my favorite meditation. It shows you very precisely what Tibetan Buddhists have seen to be the dissolution of your physical and mental factors as you die. You do it in order to prepare for death.
I interview a lot of people and you’re probably the first person to talk about that I’ve heard talk about meditation explicitly as a preparation for death. What you’re saying makes a lot of sense that to have that experience, it’s not that accessible to people. Even if they’re taught it, they might not actually have the experience. I like what you’re saying a lot that psychedelics could knock someone into that experience. You certainly hear that from people who’ve had positive psychedelic experiences. They felt both a sense of interconnectedness, like you said, but also a sense that death’s okay.
[00:26:06] Katherine MacLean: The thing is 70 percent of the people in the Hopkins trials had a mystical experience, but the statistic that people don’t know is that a third of people experienced their own death. So if psilocybin can help people experience their own death a third of the time, even when the strong bias is, I’m here to have a spiritual experience, that number could actually increase if we said, Hey, this is why we’re using this, the intention is to practice for your own death. As soon as you add the intention in, that amplifies the possibility of that particular experience, I think.
The thing is 70 percent of the people in the Hopkins trials had a mystical experience, but the statistic that people don’t know is that a third of people experienced their own death.
I tell people, Don’t go searching for death. Death will find you if that’s part of your medicine bag. For me, death kept finding me, so at some point I said, I better really learn about this because clearly people who are at that threshold are asking me to help them. I better know what I’m doing; you can’t fake it. If someone’s dying, they’re in the real thing. They can tell if you’re just telling them something you heard somebody else say or like, Do this particular breath, but you’ve never done it yourself.
So I love what you’re saying about practicing those final breaths and practicing the dissolution, because if you then are with someone who’s never practiced before then there’s something that’s transmitted when the person who’s there with them is able to non-verbally help extend that consciousness state or help extend the instructions. I’ve experienced this around Buddhist teachers. I don’t know how to explain it.
What to consider before taking psilocybin
[00:27:47] Scott Snibbe: Absolutely, and it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a very highly realized teacher. It happens in you as the practitioner, it doesn’t come from the teacher. It comes from you and the teacher can awaken it, but we can do it for each other. That’s why I like using the term sangha because sangha ends up—according to my teachers—being the most important thing because you might only see your teacher once in a while or once ever, but that community that’s built up around you is what supports your practice.
I have a question for you. The people listening to this might be getting excited to go take psilocybin and be not afraid of death. What kind of guardrails, practices and support, do people need in order to have this kind of experience? Also, what kind of people should watch out for maybe not going into this kind of experience?
[00:28:44] Katherine MacLean: Let’s put it this way, there are very few people when they come to me and say, Should I try psilocybin that I say yes. Often I have a series of questions in response to their question and I ask things like, What kind of work do you do? Could you take two to four weeks off if you really needed, if something really went wrong? Do you have little children? Do you have someone who can really take care of them day in and day out for a period of time if you need to take care of yourself? Do you have a meditation practice? Do you have any mental health conditions and are you seeing a mental health professional? There are definitely conditions where you wouldn’t want to throw psilocybin in the mix.
There are definitely conditions where you wouldn’t want to throw psilocybin in the mix.
I know that it’s being talked about now as a cure for depression or a new treatment for depression. I still think that the jury’s out. I’m not convinced that psilocybin is the right medicine for people with major depression. I think it can help some people, but I also think there’s the potential for making things worse.
I don’t know of many systems in place to take care of people if they’ve had a bad trip. They’re few and far between. There are individuals here and there, but we don’t have a residential facility for folks to live in for six months if their depression gets much worse or they start having more paranoid thoughts or anxiety.
My anxiety after that meditation experience lasted seven months straight. I didn’t have little kids to take care of, thank God. I didn’t even have a pet I needed to take care of. I had to keep showing up to work. So I can’t imagine if I experienced that level of dysfunction with little children, with people who depended on me.
So I asked this series of questions and then usually if people get to the end of those questions, and they still say this is really important to me, I understand the risks, this is why I’m taking this chance. Then I say, Okay, where do you want to have the experience? Think about the physical location. Who’s there? Who do you trust? Ideally not just paying a stranger to show up and take care of you for the day, but a friend or a loved one. Maybe not someone who cares so much about you that they’re going to get all enmeshed in your own process, but someone who maybe you’ve known for long enough that they can kind of see all your machinations and not get drawn in.
That stops a lot of people too because they say, I don’t have that person in my life or my best friend is 3000 miles away. I can’t ask them to fly in and hang out with me for a week. People end up kind of getting to the end of this series of this interrogation, realizing like, Oh, maybe this is kind of a big undertaking. I’m like, Yeah, that’s it. That’s my way of kind of testing people and not to dissuade them, but just to make sure that they’re not getting into something that they don’t understand.
Now I have colleagues who really disagree with me. They’re like, Oh my gosh, it’s such a bummer. You always ask all the questions. You’re like, What if you have a heart attack in the middle of the session? Who are you going to call? They’re like, Nobody has that. I’m going to say, Yes, heart attacks happen under psilocybin. People have died under psilocybin. It’s rare, but it happens. I’m like the buzzkill and I figure if people can kind of get past that threshold then they’re very motivated.
It was Chögyam Trungpa who said, If you haven’t started meditating, don’t even start; but if you’ve started, you have to finish. What did he mean by finish? Well, I think it’s the same with mushrooms. It’s like, if you’ve started, you’ve opened a door that you can’t actually promise what’s on the other side. You can’t tell another person how it’s going to go. Only they can know. Then they keep finding out more and more, which I think is an amazing discovery.
It was Chögyam Trungpa who said, If you haven’t started meditating, don’t even start; but if you’ve started, you have to finish.
But my own path of discovery was not pleasant a lot of the time, it was really hard. Hopefully people hear that and really take it to heart. Maybe my life isn’t that bad, maybe mushrooms aren’t the miracle that I think I need. Maybe I can just look around and try things that are more easily accessible.
[00:33:14] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, we call it starting the journey of self discovery. From a Buddhist perspective, you’d say starting the journey of non self-discovery, realizing that you actually aren’t the the hard, tight, separate thing you think you are. But then it’s a very long journey of kind of unraveling, how to live in the world and whatever you might actually be.
You’re the most conscientious person I’ve talked to on this topic, so I really appreciate it, because from my perspective it seems like there’s a lot of risks. I saw what psychedelics did to my father: good things and bad things. It had positive opening effects, but it also really kind of knocked out some of the beneficial things too.
[00:34:06] Katherine MacLean: Right, thankfully I became a mom to two kids and that happily kind of ended a period of a certain kind of exploration for me. In a way, the end was created by the beginning because the mushroom experiences were what allowed me to make the changes and connect with a part of myself that really desired to be a mother, to welcome in that new path of self discovery. In a way, it’s like the mushrooms kind of opened a door into something new. Again, I share that so that people understand that the mushrooms are not the end. They’re just another teacher. They’re another gateway.
As a teacher of mine said, The whole point isn’t when the door opens, you don’t stand there admiring the frame and the artistry of the door; you walk through the door. A lot of people, psychedelics become this thing of worshiping the doorway.
As a teacher of mine said, The whole point isn’t when the door opens, you don’t stand there admiring the frame and the artistry of the door; you walk through the door.
Equal access to psychedelics
[00:35:08] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it’s like the show, the entertainment. I’m really enjoying talking to you. But one of my last questions is whether there’s issues of access, socioeconomic status. This is something generally wealthy and whiter people are doing, more than other types of people.
Are there variations in access, acceptance, effectiveness of these treatments across socioeconomic strata, race, gender, religious beliefs, and so on?
[00:35:49] Katherine MacLean: It’s a big topic. Baltimore is a very diverse city, and yet most of our participants were white, highly educated; they had more access to resources. Even geographically situated in a place that should have been easy to access, it was not easy to access. I think it’s a big question when all of the research centers, or most of them, are run by highly educated, privileged white people, it’s a blind spot that we just have to address. I think people are starting to address it now.
I have a very dear friend out at UC San Diego, who’s a Palestinian American and he got a huge psilocybin grant and that’s a huge step. More women are getting grants to do this research. I think we’re starting to see the increase in diversity. When the person running the studies isn’t of a certain demographic, they’re more willing to work hard to get participants through the door and the participants are willing to meet them where they’re at and say, I trust you to go through this kind of wild experience.
But the thing I do want to point out is at least with psilocybin, anyone can grow mushrooms. I remember someone who taught me saying something like, Well, we can’t expect people who don’t have a job and can’t put food on the table to spend the time to grow mushrooms. I said, Well, why not? Maybe that is the thing that would help direct their intention to a place where they can make a very different life choice.
It’s illegal right now in almost every jurisdiction. I want to be super clear about that. I’m not encouraging people to break the law, but I’m hoping that there’s a lot of attempts to change state law to allow what’s called “home grow” or “self treatment.” So you could grow a certain amount of mushrooms for your own mental health care, for your own spiritual practice. I’m working really hard in the state of Vermont to make sure that that piece of the conversation isn’t left out when they’re talking about what it means to bring mushroom medicine to Vermonters.
A big part of what it means is letting people grow their own mushrooms because people can’t pay to get to a big hospital up in Burlington when they live four hours south. Most people don’t want to leave their house in the winter. It’s very cold and snowy. I think mushrooms are kind of the great equalizer in that way. You don’t need a chemist. You don’t need a manufacturing license. You don’t need a lot of money to create the medicine. They’ll grow anywhere. They’ll grow in a closet. It’s quite simple.
Final thoughts on psychedelics, meditation, and Buddhism
[00:38:37] Scott Snibbe: They grow out in the median outside of our house. I’ve seen people out harvesting actually here in Berkeley.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about psychedelics, meditation, and Buddhism?
[00:38:52] Katherine MacLean: I think that the American Buddhist community is becoming more open to this concept that potentially they are spiritual supplements that are not intoxicants. I still think people are going to disagree about whether psychedelics should ever have a part in Buddhism. I guess what I would maybe request of Buddhists who find the topic of psychedelics to be a distraction or detour or not part of the training, just to hold an open mind.
Potentially, there were times in our own Buddhist traditions back to shamanism, back to the Bon tradition that before there was a formal religion, there were probably people doing something very similar to what Psychedelic Sangha is doing, having a practice, combining it with plants and seeing what happened.
On the other side, I would love for more psychedelic people to first of all, take less. I don’t think the amount of psychedelic use that I’m seeing now is necessary. So partake less and practice ethics and some spiritual practice more. It’s like if we all kind of change our view just a little bit, then here we are in the center where we have a lot in common.
[00:40:22] Scott Snibbe: When you say less, do you mean a dosage or frequency or both?
[00:40:27] Katherine MacLean: I mean frequency first and foremost. If you’re taking a microdose all the time, I don’t see that as very different than coffee or some of these other things that people use to get through the day. Certainly, if you’re macro dosing more than five times a year, that’s probably excessive. I know those numbers for some people are going to sound annoyingly conservative.
Again, I’m fine being the conservative person, but I’ve had experiences last 10 years in terms of their impact in my life. So I know that the fuel is strong enough to last through many, many ups and downs. And sometimes it isn’t until you live life that you understand what the lesson was. You actually have to live the life part to get the full gift from the experience.
[00:41:23] Scott Snibbe: In our next episode, we’re going to air in a meditation that you’ve kindly agreed to lead. Could you just describe that a little bit?
[00:41:33] Katherine MacLean: This was actually a meditation that the—I say the mushrooms, I believe they’re intelligent and I have agency and intention. So the mushrooms shared with me a way to help others access the space of psychedelics, but from a sober standpoint. I’ve taught this meditation to hundreds of people. It seems very simple and it’s actually inspired by a lot of Buddhist practices.
But I take people through all of their senses. The only thing they have to have from their past is a specific memory. Ideally not a super difficult memory and not a super positive memory, but a beautiful, meaningful time in your life. If you have had a psychedelic experience, you can pick a psychedelic experience, but not one that was just so overcharged that it is hard to differentiate the various sense memories. Then I take people through all their five senses. Then bring those together so that it actually takes people out of their body and then back in.
When they’re back in is when they realize something. It’s always mysterious what comes up for people. It’s called RAFT and it stands for Remembering to be Aware of Feelings in your body and Trust your experience.
[00:43:04] Scott Snibbe: I’m looking forward to doing that with you right now and people can listen next week. Well, Katherine, you’re exactly the person I’ve wanted to have on the show about this topic: open minded, critical, and scientific. Thank you so much. I learned a lot from talking to you.
Thanks for joining us for our conversation with Dr. Katherine MacLean. Next week’s episode is a guided meditation that Dr. MacLean leads us called RAFT: Remembering to be Aware of Feelings in your body and Trust your experience.
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