Tag Archives: Sam Harris

Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me (6)

The Meditation Connection

A note to new readers: I have recently applied to be included in a Health-Canada-approved study into the use of psilocybin in the management of treatment-resistant depression (TRD). I have survived the first few stages of the screening process and I hope to join the study in a couple of months. I will share the experience with interested readers here. In the meantime, how I got to this point is the subject of this series of blog posts.

My goal in this post is to try to put into words what I have learned from meditating, and then to explain how I hope to apply that knowledge to my experience with psychedelics.

Meditation and Me

In the several decades before I learned to meditate, I took up a lot of other activities, hobbies and personal-improvement strategies that were intended to raise my spirits, improve my health, and/or increase my knowledge. I took on projects intended to overcome bad habits (with greater or lesser success, depending on the habit), took courses and lessons (sewing, piano, Spanish, you name it), travelled when I could. I made friends, joined groups, and attended cultural and recreational events. I wrote – fiction and nonfiction. But always there remained something bleak inside of me from which none of these activities could ever completely distract me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had always thought of meditation as a bit “out there,” but by the time I got around to considering it seriously (i.e., ran out of other options), science was getting serious about it too. In addition to the great numbers of individuals who were talking about how meditation had improved their lives, reports on actual research studies into its physical and psychological effects began to appear. To address self-improvement goals in the past, I had generally chosen interventions that been proven to be of merit scientifically (e.g., nicotine patches) or had strong track records (e.g., Weight Watchers); in general, my trust in science and statistics had been vindicated. So when I started meditating, in addition to testing the waters for myself, I started to read the literature.

Research into Mindfulness

Not only have scientists from a multitude of disciplines taken an interest in mindfulness in recent years, research centres with meditation as their focus have now been established at several universities – the Center for Mindfulness Science at the University Southern California (USC), for example. Such cooperative ventures allow researchers in fields ranging from the social sciences to the clinical sciences to work together to investigate the effects of various forms of mindfulness on human health and well being. Faculty at the USC centre include “Buddhist scholars, world-renowned experts on the neuroscience of feeling, emotion, and cognition as well as national experts in self-report science, social science, educational science and research across a wide range of clinical disciplines.”

In a conversation entitled “The Science of Mindfulness,” posted in two parts on Sam Harris’s Waking Up site, Harris and Jonas Kaplan, associate director for mindfulness and neuro-imaging at the USC centre, agree that research into mindfulness and meditation is not an easy task. The many challenges include: reaching agreement about the definition of such terms as “mindfulness,” “meditation” and “meditation practitioner”; finding enough very-long-term meditators (40,000 lifetime hours, for example) with whom scientists can compare mental and physiological status to those with little or no experience; the perennial problems of self-reporting when it comes to conditions of well being (“one man’s meat is another man’s poison,” and all that); and the constraints of current technology when it comes to measuring changes deep inside the brain.

Studies relating to mindfulness that avoid such pitfalls have been published, such as one in Nature regarding the effects of mindfulness training on the brain’s insula networks, but we are still at the very early stages of scientific investigation in this field. Enthusiasm for the potential of meditation has grown to the point where practice has in some cases moved ahead of the science; Kaplan says that meditation has been used in the treatment of psychiatric disorders for which its benefits have not (yet) been shown.

What we do know so far is that there are differences in the way the brain behaves when people are meditating and when they are not, and that there are differences between the brains of long-time meditators and those who do not meditate. What is not clear is what these differences mean.

The Half-Full Part

Kaplan points out that the research undertaken at USC and in many other places is not being done to prove the value of meditation, but instead to look objectively at the measurable effects of the practice. This is not to say that there are no obvious benefits to meditation: masses of anecdotal evidence suggest that it may alleviate depression and anxiety. (Here Sam Harris interjects a caveat, noting that meditation can also have negative effects, both physically and psychologically, depending on the type of meditation and the person.)

Harris says that measurable benefits such as stress reduction may be unimportant to practitioners anyway: for many, the main benefit of meditation is the awareness that we are not identical to your thoughts. This awareness, in itself, helps to relieve a lot of guilt, anxiety and other forms of suffering. So even when we are so new to the practice that we are unable to sustain our independence from thought for more than a few moments, the fact that we know it can be done is likely to make us feel better.

It takes many years to reach a stage of true proficiency in meditation, just as it does with any worthwhile enterprise, but the journey in that direction can add value to our lives. “You can recognize the benefits yourself long before they show up in the world,” Harris says.

In a Big Think video entitled “How Meditation Can Change Your Life,” Emma Seppälä, scientific director at the Stanford University Center for Compassion, tells us that research shows that our minds typically wander at least fifty percent of the time, and that when our minds are wandering, we are never as happy as when when our minds are in the present moment – “even if [we’re] doing a task [we] don’t particularly like.” She adds (and this is a big plus for me) that learning to focus better means that “you’ll naturally be more productive.”

What Meditation Has Taught Me

For much of my life, the number of negative or even merely distracting and time-consuming thoughts that normally arise in my mind and prompt me to dwell on them has been a significant barrier to my productivity and my happiness. Meditation has helped me to separate myself from those thoughts at least once or twice a day. That doesn’t sound like much, to me it is huge. And I know that I can increase the extent and power of that relief if I keep practising. It takes a very long time to become truly proficient.

I have been meditating for ten minutes a day for a couple of years or so. At the beginning I was rigorous about meditating every day, but as is typical of me, it became every other day, then once a week. Then a couple of weeks or more would pass. But when things got tough inside my head, I’d remember meditation and give it another go. Now that I can see the benefits and know what I am working to achieve, I meditate increasingly often. Even if I don’t remember it all the time, I have reached a point where I absolutely recognize that every thought and memory and emotion that comes into my awareness is impermanent. It will go away again. And I have also learned to recognize what remains when no thought is present – no thought, no feeling, nada. That is pure “consciousness.”

What It’s Like

After trying out Headspace, Calm, Ten Percent Happier, and other meditation apps, all of which had (for me) their strengths and drawbacks, I have settled happily into the Waking Up platform, due to the wealth of options, resources, voices, and points of view it offers. In addition to meditations guided by long-time practitioners with areas of interest that range from “Loving Kindness” to “The Koan Way,” there is a “theory” section with talks on such interesting-to-me subjects as “Mind and Emotion,” “Free Will,” and “Mind and Brain.”

Sam Harris, the creator of Waking Up and my favourite meditation guide these days, suggests that consciousness is kind of like physical space. If there is a chair in my office, the physical space in my office does not stop at the edge of the chair. The chair is part of the office space. I can add books, a desk and other things to my office, but that does not change the space itself. The physical space around me is kind of like the backdrop into which everything else may come and go. And it extends away forever: through the walls and out beyond them and on and on and on. Thoughts, feelings and emotions are like the chair, the books, a pen. They are “impermanent.”

To use another analogy, the sky does not stop and start where there are clouds or comets. These things occupy the sky but they come and go. The sky is permanently the sky. So too with consciousness: it is inside, outside, everywhere. It is not located in my big toe or my elbow. Although it can feel as though it is located in my head, it’s not there either.

My consciousness is also timeless: there is really only now. That is all I have. This moment. And this one. And this one.

Everything is just happening. So too with thoughts. Notice these internal sounds and images that appear like waves on the surface of your mind.

Sam Harris

To truly recognize that consciousness is permanent and everything else is impermanent has offered me a form of liberation. I have learned to recognize a thought when it appears in my mind, to see it as separate from me, and to watch it simply flatten and disappear. Then I can go back to resting in the space of consciousness that remains.

When I do attain this uninterrupted state of awareness for a few moments (that’s all I get, being a relative newbie), it is restorative. This is partly because in order to reach a state of “resting in consciousness,” I do not need to work or strive in any way. I just let go. I can do this with my eyes open or shut, and I can do this with a guide talking into my headphones or I can do it in a silent meditation.

Even though thoughts continue to appear while I am meditating (ranging from “My ankle itches” to “Oh my god, Ukraine“), I am getting much better at letting them go, and for longer and longer moments. This gives me a mini-break from negative emotions and even physical sensations. And as a person who has worried about everything for her whole life, this is no small matter.

I’m also learning how to let go like that even when I’m not meditating. Whether I am dithering over whether I might have offended someone on Facebook or despairing over a loss I experienced twenty years ago, I can occasionally remind myself that these thoughts are appearing in my consciousness, but they are not my consciousness. They are not “me.” They have come, they are not bad or good, and I can let them go.

“Thoughts are like soap bubbles,” says John Kabat-Zimm, professor emeritus at UMASS Medical School.

The Bigger Picture

I have not chosen to practice one of the forms of meditation that is rooted in spirituality and based in centuries of Buddhist or Hindu teachings. Nor does my interest lie in a wholly secular practice, intended only to help me relax, lower my blood pressure, and avoid what some of us call “stinking thinking.” The objective of the type of mindfulness I am striving to attain is, in Sam Harris’s words, “to radically transform [my] sense of who and what [I am],” and to gain “fundamental insights into the nature of [my] mind – insights that change [my] whole approach to life.”

It is to expand on this kind of knowledge that I am also interested in the psychedelic experience. Practitioners of meditation who have taken psychedelic journeys have said that psychedelics help you to reach the same state of awareness about the nature of consciousness as meditation does, but faster. Since I (probably) don’t have 40 years to do it the long, slow way (by becoming a guru or even by sitting with one for days on end), nor do I have the interest, this seems like a promising alternative.

I am very curious to know whether the potential benefits of psychedelics in the treatment of depression, anxiety, addiction and so on are related to the principles that I am investigating as I practice meditation, including awareness of the impermanence of thoughts and feelings, and the permanence nature of consciousness.

Note: I am still waiting to hear back with a scheduling date for my experience with psilocybin, but I do not expect that it will be before the first of June. In the meantime, I intend to review a couple of books about psychedelics, and I am creating a page of resources for others who are interested in reading what I’ve read. So stay tuned….

Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me (4)

A note to new readers: I have recently applied to be included in a Health-Canada-approved study into the use of psilocybin in the management of treatment-resistant depression (TRD). I have survived the first few stages of the screening process and I hope to join the study in a couple of months. I will share the experience with interested readers here. In the meantime, how I got to this point is the subject of this series of blog posts.

I apologize in advance for the clinical terminology and references I have included in this post, but I wanted to get the wording right for those who like to follow the science. You can skip over any terms, definitions or references that aren’t of interest to you – I hope I’ve written the post in such a way that the citations, links, etc. don’t interfere with your understanding of what I am trying to say.

What I Know About Psychedelics So Far

There has been an explosion of news and media attention relating to psychedelics since I started this blog series. As of January 5, 2022, Health Canada has expanded its Special Access Program to include the psychotherapeutic use of psychedelics and MDMA in the treatment of severe or life-threatening conditions. At the end of January, the Canadian Psychedelic Association announced that the University of Ottawa will soon start offering a master’s degree program in psychedelic research. Numerous clinical trials are now underway or are being planned in various locations across the country and in the USA.

Outside of clinical studies like the one to which I have applied, the Special Access Program in Canada allows psilocybin treatments only for those “with a serious or life-threatening condition on a case-by-case basis when other therapies have failed and where there is sufficient evidence of safety and efficacy for the treatment of the patient’s condition.” Despite the restrictions, psychedelics are poised to become big business – as was the case with cannabis when it was approved for medical use in Canada several years ago. So it is no surprise that since this announcement, dozens of business groups, clinics, psilocybin manufacturers and organizations are fighting for attention in their efforts to attract investors and future customers. (Try Googling “psychedelics mental health” for a sample of what I mean.)

Although most articles relating to recent advances in the therapeutic use of psychedelics do talk about the almost immediate relief they’ve offered many patients with chronic depression, PTSD and end-of-life distress, they don’t talk too much about how and why the treatments work. In the past year or so, I have read and heard quite a bit about these drugs in general, and psilocybin in particular, but as is the case with any complex subject, I still feel as though I don’t know very much. Perhaps I won’t know much more until I’ve actually had a psychedelic experience, but I’m sharing what I know so far and hoping that others who have additional information or perspectives will share them with the rest of us in the comments.

What Is Psilocybin?

You can get a crash course in the chemical composition, sources, nature, history and uses of psilocybin on Wikipedia. Basically, it is a “tryptamine alkaloid” that affects certain serotonin receptor sites in the brain. It occurs in a variety of genera of fungi located in various parts of the world

These mushrooms have been used by Indigenous cultures since the beginning of time, primarily for spiritual or religious purposes.[1] It wasn’t until the middle of the last century, however, that a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann became the first person on record to synthesize and ingest lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), a substance that is extracted from a fungus found in grain – to startling and somewhat terrifying (to him) effect. (After his brain started tripping, he took a bicycle home from work to lie down. The anniversary of the day he did that, April 19, 1943, continues to be celebrated as “Bicycle Day” by psychedelic enthusiasts.) Hofmann also later identified the compound, psilocybin, that produces psychedelic effects in “magic” mushrooms.

The use of LSD and psilocybin in both controlled studies and non-therapeutic (“recreational”) settings “mushroomed” (sorry) in the 1960s, primarily due to the efforts of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. These two psychologists were at Harvard until their experiments with psychedelics, and their subsequent enthusiastic promotion of LSD for use by young people, started attracting a lot of negative attention. It was largely due to the misguided efforts of these two and others that the drugs became banned or controlled substances in many countries.

Despite their illegal status, mushrooms (often called “shrooms” in recreational settings, although scientists avoid this term) ­­­are not hard to come by and are pretty widely available on the street. (I do not know which street, so don’t ask.)

What Happens When You Ingest Psilocybin?

The effects of psilocybin, which turns into psilocin when ingested, typically set in approximately 30 to 60 minutes after the drug is ingested, and they peak at between 90 and 180 minutes. The onset of symptoms can be measured externally by monitoring heart rate and blood pressure (which increase), and by watching participants’ behaviour. Over the next five or six hours, the effects gradually recede.

What happens on the inside (i.e., from the perspective of the ingester)? According to Health Canada, “Taking magic mushrooms may cause you to see, hear or feel things that are not there, or to experience anxiety, fear, nausea and muscle twitches accompanied by increased heart rate and blood pressure. In some cases, the consumption of magic mushrooms can lead to ‘bad trips’ or ‘flashbacks’.”

The possible physical manifestations of taking psilocybin as set out by Health Canada may make the experience sound highly unappealing, but keep in mind that the agency is also obliged to remind its readers that “The production, sale and possession of magic mushrooms are illegal in Canada.” However, the site is of value for its scientific summaries and for its link to Health Canada approved studies that are currently underway.

It is the hallucinogen part of psychedelics (“see[ing], hear[ing] or feel[ing] things that are not there”) that is of interest to psychologists, psychiatrists and their patients. The hallucinogens are undoubtedly why these substances gained traction in the religious rites of early Indigenous cultures. (Michael Pollan points out in his book, How to Change your Mind (p. 13), that the Inuit were the only early Indigenous culture not to have used plant-based hallucinogens of one kind or another – most likely, he points out, because magic mushrooms and other mind-altering plants didn’t grow in the regions where they lived .)

Psilocybin is generally said to cause a feeling that the individual ego has disappeared, allowing those who take it to feel more connected with others and with the world as a whole. The psychedelic experience has been said to lead users to observe phenomena as children do, in a fresh way, unimpeded by the intervening repetitive experiences that, to adults, may make them seem routine, ordinary and uninteresting.

In an article in Quartz entitled “Scientists Studying Psychoactive Drugs Accidentally Prove that the Self is an Illusion” (I love this title), Ephrat Livni reports that in a study published in 2017, “Participants showed significant positive changes on longitudinal measures of interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping.”

In addition to the feeling that consciousness has fallen away, hallucinogenic experiences induced by psychedelics seem to contribute to a sense that the mind is creating new connections to the mystical/spiritual. I am beginning to understand the “falling away of consciousness” part of that statement thanks to my investigation of meditation and my ongoing efforts to attain a meditative state for minutes rather than seconds at a time (sigh. See my next post for more on this), but the second part is beyond my ability to conceive at the moment. However, others have gone where I have not, yet, and they warn that the experience can be great or terrible. Or both.

Sam Harris writes, “If [ …] a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD, what happens next will depend on a variety of factors, but there is no question that something will happen. And boredom is definitely not in the cards. Within the hour the significance of his existence will bear down upon him like an avalanche” (p. 193, Waking Up). In his own experience, he says, a psychedelic trip can be ”More sublime than I could have imagined or can now faithfully recall,” but it can also be “so painful and confusing as to be indistinguishable from psychosis” (p. 194).

“Ingesting a powerful dose of a psychedelic drug is like strapping oneself to a rocket without a guidance system.”

Sam Harris, Waking Up

Using a similar metaphor to Harris’s “rocket,” Michael Pollan compares his first experience with psilocybin to other psychedelics he has tried as “more like being strapped into the front car of a cosmic roller coaster, its heedless headlong trajectory determining moment by moment what would appear in my field of consciousness” (How to Change Your Mind, p. 261). He goes on to point out, however, that when he took off the eye mask he’d been given to wear during the “trip,” he had a better feeling of connection to the real world, and also experienced the commonly reported amazement at the beauty of the physical world around him.

John Hopkins Study

In a ground-breaking article that appeared in Psychopharmacology in 2006 (“ground-breaking” primarily because it was one of the first reports on a study of spiritual experience to appear in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal), R.R. Griffiths, W.A. Richards et al. reported that two months after receiving doses of psilocybin in a controlled situation, participants in their study reported “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” These individuals attributed “sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior” to the psilocybin, and the behavioural changes were confirmed by family and friends.

The article is fascinating and well worth reading. To summarize, 36 well educated, healthy individuals who reported “regular participation in religious or spiritual activities” and who had never before used hallucinogens were recruited for the study. Most said they’d agreed to participate out of “curiosity about the effects of psilocybin and the opportunity for extensive self-reflection…” (p. 2). Each participant had either two or three 8-hour monitored drug sessions, during one of which they were administered a dose of psilocybin. For comparison, during the other session they received another drug, methylphenidate hydrochloride, which has effects similar to psilocybin but without the hallucinogenic component.

In advantage of the drug-treatment session, each participants spent eight hours with their monitor(s) to build trust, which is “believed to minimize the risk of adverse reactions to psilocybin (Metzner et al. 1965)”(Griffiths et al., p. 3) and to manage expectations (“It is widely believed that expectancy plays a large role in the qualitative effects of hallucinogens [Metzner]”). Participants also completed questionnaires intended to measure “psychiatric symptoms, personality measures, quality of life, and lifetime mystical experiences” (p. 3). Some of these and other questionnaires were also administered immediately after the drug sessions and/or two months later, and volunteers met with monitors for four sessions of one hour each following the treatments. The drug-session monitors as well as pre-selected family and friends of the participants were also surveyed on various topics before, during and/or after the drug sessions. (For precise details on the various questionnaires and how the double-blind study was conducted, please refer to the actual paper.)

For many, the road to “substantial and sustained” positive outcomes was not smooth: “Psilocybin produced a range of acute perceptual changes, subjective experiences, and labile moods including anxiety” (Griffiths et al., p. 1). “Eleven of the 36 volunteers after psilocybin and none after methylphenidate rated …. Their experience of fear sometime during the study to be ‘strong’ or ‘extreme’,” and four said that “the entire session was dominated by anxiety or unpleasant psychological struggle” (p. 11). However, “These effects were readily managed with reassurance,” and “no volunteer rated the experience as having decreased their sense of well-being or life satisfaction” (p. 12).

The Discussion section of the Griffiths paper includes an interesting exploration of the issue of “empirical analysis of mystical experience,” but the relevant finding can be found in the first paragraph of that section. “The […] study shows that psilocybin, when administered under comfortable, structured, interpersonally supported conditions […] occasioned experiences which had marked similarities to classical mystical experiences and which were rated by volunteers as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance. Furthermore, the volunteers attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior that were consistent with changes rated by friends and family” (p. 12).

How Do Psychedelics Work on Depression?

Some reports (see this PubMed paper, for example) indicate that psilocybin may have an antidepressant effect through its action on the serotonin system, serotonin being a neurotransmitter whose “biological function is complex and multifaceted, modulating mood, cognition, reward, learning, memory, and numerous physiological processes such as vomiting and vasoconstriction” (Wikipedia). But this can’t be all of it: the antidepressants I’ve been taking for many years also work with the serotonin system, and they don’t produce out-of-body experiences or induce “sustained positive changes in attitude and behavior.”

Writing in Psychology Today, Scott Aaronson M.D. opines that “The use of psychedelics — in particular psilocybin, which is among the therapies [Aaronson is] investigating — seems to make patients more amenable to changing the thought patterns that underlie depression; these treatments work as, and with, therapy, not instead of it.”

The “suggestibility” occasioned by psychedelics is repeated often in the literature, primarily in relation to the importance of individuals considering their expectations and goals before the drug is taken. However, the fact that one becomes suggestible under the influence of these drugs leads to other issues. Like Pollan at the beginning of his investigation of psychedelics, one of my many questions is whether the “mystical experiences” reported by so many people who have consumed psychedelics are themselves hallucinations. (Then again, maybe life itself is a hallucination, but I’m not going there. At least not yet.)

Set and Setting

It is believed that “set” (being a shortened form of the word “mindset”) and “setting” have an important influence on the outcome of a psychedelic experience.

“Set” is the mental state that a person brings to the experience, such as thoughts, mood and expectations (Wikipedia). This relates to the “suggestibility” component of hallucinogenic drugs and seems to be why there is so much interest in studying the therapeutic uses of these substances in combination with “talk therapy,” rather than just offering patients psilocybin or LSD to trip with, context-free. As mentioned above, volunteers in the study by Griffiths et al. met with a monitor for eight hours before their drug treatment session, and for four hours afterwards.

 “Setting” is the physical and social environment in which the psychedelic experience occurs (Wikipedia). The psilocybin treatments in the Griffiths study were conducted in a peaceful setting, with the patient reclining and using a facemask and headphones to reduce outside distractions.

Negative Outcomes (Bad Trips and Other Stuff)

The paper by W..W. Griffiths et al. contrasted their generally extremely positive results from administering psilocybin to a study known as “The Good Friday Experiment” (Pahnke, 1963), in which ten theological students were given a dose of psilocybin and another ten were given nicotinic acid in a group setting during a religious service. While the participants who received psilocybin did show “significant elevations on the Pahnke Mystical Experiences Questionnaire [link added by me], and reported positive changes in attitudes and behavior at 6 months and at a 25-year follow up,” (Griffiths et al., p. 13) things got a bit weird (and the study’s double-blind component was broken) when some of the participants who’d received the psilocybin began to act “bizarrely,” affecting the experience of the others in the group.

Most of us have all heard reports of people tripping on psychedelics who have been found running around in traffic or throwing themselves off high buildings. We have also heard of people who had trips that were almost entirely horrifying, and led to all kinds of mental distress even when the drugs had left their systems. And then there are the “flashbacks” (officially known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, or HPPD) which causes a small percentage of people who have used psychedelics to have occasional or even (rarely) persistent psychedelic symptoms. According to an article published on BigThink, there is no known cure for HPPD.

All of these outcomes and side-effects sound terrible.

Concerns about effects like these on the masses of young people who were using psychedelics at the urging of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert in the 1960s (“Turn on, tune in, drop out”) was what got the two men fired from Harvard, and eventually contributed to the banning or at least restricted use of psychedelics in many countries, including Canada and the U.S.

However, the risks of using psychedelics seem to be greatly diminished by close attention to “set and setting” in comparison to their being used in uncontrolled situations. Michael Pollan reports that “Many of the most notorious perils are either exaggerated or mythical” (How to Change your Mind, p. 14). In addition, overdosing on LSD or psilocybin is almost impossible, and these substances do not lead to addiction: most people decide early on that one or two doses is enough, and the effects of these substances are reduced with repeated use. (In fact, they show promise in the treatment of other addictions, including to tobacco and alcohol.)

Since the revival of sanctioned psychedelic research beginning in the 1990s, more than a thousand volunteers have been dosed, and not a single serious adverse event has been reported.

Michael Pollan


So there you have it: all I know, and then some.

In the next post, I’m going to try to put into words what I have been thinking about meditation as it relates to therapeutic treatment with psychedelics, but if that kind of meandering thought doesn’t stir your interest, you can skip that one and wait for the one after that. If you want to subscribe to this blog, which is free of course, you can put your email address into the little “Sign me up!” box on the upper right of this webpage. Then you will get a notice whenever I get around to posting something here.

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[1] “These mushrooms] may be depicted in Stone Age rock art in Africa and Europe, but are most famously represented in the Pre-Columbian sculptures and glyphs seen throughout North, Central and South America.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psilocybin_mushroom#History )

Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me (2)

A note to new readers: I have recently applied to be included in a Health-Canada-approved study into the use of psilocybin in the management of treatment-resistant depression (TRD). I have survived the first few stages of the screening process and I really hope to be admitted to the study. How I got to this point will be the subject of this series of blog posts. By the time I’ve written a few of them, I should have learned whether or not I am admitted to the study. If I am, I intend to share the experience with interested readers here.

From There to Here

Despite my normally adventurous (some would call it “foolhardy”) spirit (e.g., I’ve skydived… once. Never again… and travelled to India on my own), if I had seen an invitation to join a study into the use of psychedelics in the treatment of depression even five years ago, I might not have submitted an application. Then, I probably would have been worried that: 1) the treatment would do nothing, and I’d be further demoralized, and/or 2) (at the other end of the spectrum) my mind would change so much that I wouldn’t be “me” any more (specifically, that I wouldn’t feel the need to write any more), and/or 3) that my friends and family would disapprove.

It is not that my fears have gone away – in fact I’ve acquired some new ones since I first contacted the study administrators, and I intend to write a whole post about them when I get closer to the actual experience. But my knowledge about mind-altering substances has increased considerably in the past five years. This learning journey started in an effort to find a meditation program that was suited to my needs and I’m recounting that experience here not because I think other people should learn to meditate, but only to explain how for me, that investigation led me from where I was in regard to psychedelics to where I am now.

Several years ago, a person who is close to me said that he was giving serious attention to the practice of meditation, and he’d found it was giving him some relief from the uproar of the world in general and daily life in particular. He was telling me about it because he thought I might be interested. Even though many people I know have found meditation helpful – most notably my sister, who is actually a meditation guide – I have always resisted it. I used to say, “I’ll have time to sit and do nothing when I’m dead” (totally ignoring how much time I spend sitting and doing nothing even without meditation). But since I was deep in my blue ocean at the time, I decided to give it a shot. He’d been reading Dan Harris’s Ten Percent Happier so I started there as well: first with the book and then with the app, and I used the app fairly consistently for several months.

I loved a lot about Dan Harris’s wildly popular program (which thousands if not millions have found helpful) but I had some issues with it: the spiritual dimensions and something about the tone just weren’t right for me. I was grateful for the introduction to Joseph Goldstein and a few other leaders in the field, and I admired the “heart” and generosity at the foundation of Dan Harris’s meditation program. But I was not interested in becoming a buddhist or a saint, and I decided to investigate what else was out there. I tried Headspace for a while, then Calm.

In the meantime, I had become a regular listener to Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcasts. (Sam Harris is totally unrelated to Dan Harris, by the way.) I know there are people who love Sam Harris’s outlook and some who absolutely do not, but I have always appreciated his (usually) rational approach to issues, his intelligence, and his wide range of interests. I don’t always agree with him, but in recent years particularly, I have found him a reasonable and interesting voice in this increasingly distressing – and often downright frightening – world.

Sam Harris had often talked about meditation on his podcasts, but I’d mainly skimmed or skipped those until now. I went back and started listening to his interviews with others in the field (including Dan Harris and Joseph Goldstein), and I learned that Sam now had his own meditation app. Entitled Waking Up, it was pricey compared to other meditation apps, but it offered a lot of other resources I was interested in as well (more talks by interesting people on psychology, philosophy, etc.). I decided to give it a shot.

In the immortal words of Goldilocks, for me Waking Up turned out to be “just right.” It was not too mystical and “oogie-boogie” on the one hand; nor, on the other, was it too bare bones, intended only to relieve my daily stresses and help me learn how to fall asleep. It went deep and made demands of me. I now meditate several times a week and after quite a bit of practice, I’m finally getting the hang of it to the extent that I do feel better when I do it. I’m seeing the world in a new way, and the possibilities continue to intrigue me.

In the meantime, I continued listening to the Making Sense podcast. I realized that several of the guests Sam Harris interviewed, as well as Sam himself, had begun talking seriously about psychedelic experiences they’d had in the past and, as time went on, ones they’d had more recently. They frequently talked about these experiences in terms of what they had learned from meditating. By now I had a high degree of trust in Harris, and I found the guests he was talking to (Tim Ferriss and Michael Pollan, for example) equally sincere, intelligent and rational. I knew they were respected in their fields, and so my ears perked up when they started talking about recent findings regarding the use of psychedelics in the treatment of addiction, depression, and PTSD. They also reported that psychedelics were showing great promise in alleviating end-of-life fears among those with terminal illnesses, freeing them to more fully engage with the world in the time that they had left.

Of course, psychedelics are not available for therapeutic use in Canada, and many of Sam Harris’s guests had cautioned against using them without a knowledgeable and honest guide on hand (there are sleezeballs out there. More about that in another post). So, even though I found several places online where I could apparently order “magic” mushrooms or the spores to grow my own, I was not about to try something that could actually cause me damage.

Late last year – increasingly frustrated to know that they might help but that I could not access them – I began to look more seriously for someone in my geographic area who might be using psilocybin or other psychedelic substances for therapeutic purposes. When a close friend of ours was dying, someone suggested he check out a CTV W5 program on psychedelic healing. As it turned out, our friend didn’t need it (he was not afraid of dying), but I watched it carefully. Twice. I was amazed to learn that treatments using ketamine to treat depression are available in Canada and the U.S., and that clinics that combine ketamine dosing with psychotherapy are opening in many cities. Soon after that, with the support of my family, I registered to attend a ketamine clinic in Toronto.

Ketamine has been showing astonishing, almost overnight, results for people with depression – estimates of those finding relief after using it have been as high as 70%. As you may have noticed, suddenly this approach to treating PTSD and depression is being written about and broadcast everywhere. However, it wasn’t until after I had been accepted into the program that I started reading the scientific literature about ketamine, and a few weeks ago, before my treatment program had begun, I decided to withdraw.

I’ll write about ketamine next time.

P.S. I welcome your comments on this blog! Please note that I have settings that permit me to approve comments before they are posted (I went viral on another blog once, and I don’t really want to re-experience the downsides of that kind of attention again!) so your comments may not appear until the day after you have posted them.