A Divine Encounter in the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Study
By Sandy Lundahl
As the somber security guard waved my husband John and me into the elevator of the Behavioral Sciences Building of Johns Hopkins University, I suddenly wondered if she was aware of my unique distinction: on that day, I would be the only woman in America legally taking the powerful psychedelic substance, an entheogen called psilocybin. Her face was friendly, but impassive.
The elevator rattled to the top floor and I stepped out, with some apprehension intruding on my growing sense of excitement. As I waited in the office area, my excitement grew and my feet would not keep still. My feet were bouncing and literally bouncing me, both knees bopping up and down at the same time, about 150 times a minute. I had never experienced excitement in quite that way — literally my whole body was bouncing with anticipation. I was “ready!” I entered “the room” (the psilocybin study room) with Bill and Mary (my two monitors), and Roland.
It was only a few days earlier that I was ready to drop out of the study and I would have had it not been for a serious conversation with Bill.
“Bill,” I said, "I’ve got two questions.” Beseechingly and with great uncertainty, I asked him, “Why should I, Sandy Lundahl, do this? Secondly, why are YOU doing this?”
All my concerns and indecision returned. I thought I had escaped the ultimate unknown and a risk to my mental well-being. Now I had to really decide. I could walk away and not take any more chances. Why did I need to do this? Why? I had to have a good reason that was personal to me. And I had to know why Bill was engaged in this research. Who was he? Why was he doing this research?
“Well, one reason,” he said looking me straight in the eyes with great seriousness in his voice, “is that on Tuesday, you will be the only person in the U.S. who will be taking psilocybin legally.” His eyes danced, giving himself away. I burst into laughter! It was the thought of getting away with something that just pierced my self-concern bubble. Then, less solemnly, but with great wisdom and kindness, he asked me to recall why I signed up for the study in the first place. “Let’s see if that or those reasons still apply,” he said.
It took a few moments for me to truly reflect on why I didn’t drop out of the study earlier. “It’s my curiosity,” I said. “It’s always my curiosity. Any new opportunity that comes along, I get curious about it. Is that legitimate?” I asked quietly with doubt in my voice.
“Well," he said, "on Tuesday you can satisfy your curiosity—or spend the rest of your life still curious about psilocybin.”
I didn’t laugh this time but realized he spoke the truth. If I did not participate, I would be left with a quiet and lingering question about what I may have missed out on. And so far, everything Bill had said had come to be true. The two non-psilocybin sessions (low doses of Ritalin in a double-blind research design) I had were memorable, things were improving in my life, and Bill seemed to be suggesting that more was to come. At that point, I knew I would go forward, but it still wasn’t quite enough to satisfy me. There had to be a bigger reason for why I would participate.
So I asked him again: “OK, and so why are YOU doing this? What is this study really all about?”
He leaned back slightly in his chair. His eyes closed and when he opened them again he said, “Because these simple molecules, in the right setting and in the right hands, I believe, can truly make a difference in people’s lives, and in turn make a difference in the world.”
My jaw relaxed and I looked at him in awe. The sound of his gentle voice plus the solemn look on his face stirred something inside of me. His deep, heartfelt commitment to making a difference in the world was clear, sincere, and exposed. All of a sudden, I realized two things at the same moment. One, it didn’t matter whether what he said was true or not; I was in the presence of authenticity and it felt good to feel that. And second, if what he said was true, I could be a part of something really big and meaningful.
There was only one thing left to say: “OK, I’ll do it.”
On Tuesday morning, we chatted a few moments and then Bill handed me the tray with the pills. An almost imperceptible wave of apprehension passed through my body as I reached out to take the two blue pills with three sets of eyes looking at me. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself that I had said I would do this and I would. Taking another deep breath, I swallowed the pills.
I had been through this process twice before and now knew what to expect. Bill gently placed the big comfy earphones on my head, and I could hear the familiar opening music softly playing in my ears. With tender expertise, he placed the dark cloth eyeshades over my eyes. It felt like a ritual.
Once inside the eyeshades, I closed my eyes… and gasped audibly. This time was different! Instead of seeing black, inside my closed eyes and projected onto a screen that filled my vision, I saw shapes and colors – intense brilliant, luminous colors and faceted geometric shapes. Intense diamonds, glowing square-cut emeralds, vibrant rounded rubies, dazzling biconed topaz, and exquisite sapphire teardrops were pulsating, yet neatly arranged with a barely perceptible grid on top. It was like looking at jewels with threads of precious gold and silver providing an intricate structure that held them all together. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope.
Soon, I tired of seeing these colors. I felt my body getting heavier, I felt drugged, and dismal thoughts streamed through my mind.
“Bill…” He moved closer and sat on the floor next to the couch. “Yes?” he responded. “Bill,” I said slowly, softly: “This was a big mistake.” Bill was quiet for a few moments, and then I heard his voice, deep and soft, in my ear saying, “Don’t second-guess your decision… you are experiencing exactly what you are supposed to be experiencing.” Snuggling underneath the blankets I thought, Just leave me alone and I’ll sleep this day away.
Before settling into what I believed would be a drug-induced sleep, I made a vow, to myself, that from now on I would strive to be totally truthful, and that I would never, to the best of my ability, make an inauthentic decision again. Then, instead of sleep… I glided into the next moment and felt myself slip away and start to travel.
Whoa! I said to myself (and perhaps audibly) as I was being whisked away.
After that, I lost sense of linear time, so the following is not necessarily in chronological order (though it may be). There were recurring themes that I experienced throughout the session, and then there were very exact and vivid images, sensations, and insights.
At one point in the session, I saw a parade of sorts. Actually, I was on the sidelines watching the parade and a jester came along, bouncing up and down as he marched in the parade. One side of his body was black and serious, and the other side light and happy. This vision occurred to me as a symbol of duality: The darkness represented experiences of sorrow or seriousness, and the light side represented lightheartedness or not knowing, and the freedom or ease that comes from that. The Jester is right in between… laughing inside and outwardly… laughing merrily, wholeheartedly, with kindness and mirth… laughing at us humans. We think we know it all, but we’re clueless—totally clueless. It’s absolutely ridiculous to even think we humans can understand the cosmos and what life is all about. Even Bill, as knowledgeable and wise as he is, is clueless. That thought tickled me and I laughed and laughed, first to myself, then chuckling out loud, and then just laughing and laughing at the seriousness with which we take life—and how absolutely clueless we really are.
Bill wanted to know what was so funny, but I couldn’t tell him. I just looked at him and thought He’s so kind and wise… but clueless and peals of laughter continued to pour out of me in gleeful waves each time I took a breath.
The parade suddenly transformed and I saw Jesus, a man who fully experienced his emotions. He interacted with the world, he was in relationship with his world and the people in it, experiencing the full range of emotions—intra, inter—as he walked the planet (or his piece of it) experiencing life fully: love, despair, the pain of the events that led to his crucifixion—he felt it all as he lived his life.
As he walked the path to his death, I was in the crowds alongside the street. I saw him dragging the heavy cross, exhausted; he walked slowly but kept moving as though he knew this was part of the path he had chosen. Right in front of him, at the moment when he paused, I saw him turn his face upwards and say:
"Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do.”
I felt him say those words, and I experienced the full depth of what he was saying: “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do”—understanding the ignorance that we humans have, and feeling deep forgiveness for the cruelty we all inflict in so many ways. The little hurts and slights that we perpetrate on a daily basis—and the massive acts of brutality that nations and groups of people inflict onto others. We are totally ignorant and unaware of what we are doing.
Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do.
Forgive ourselves, for we know not what we do.
Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.
Forgive me Lord, for I know not what I do.
Somewhat late in the session, I experienced a woman emerging from the earth. Her body, my body, had been embedded in the earth, and was slowly emerging, coming alive, rising from the earth embodying aspects of the earth in her body, my body. Eyes closed as she was being formed with a look of dreaminess, a sense of innocence, and an exuding sensuality behind my closed eyes. Arms outstretched, whole body moving, emerging, getting larger and separating (yet not really separating) from the earth. I experienced the whole of her as she rose out of the earth-images in my mind and became real in my body. I named her Anthroposophia several months later after an artist, Kali, recreated her from my memory.
I started to ask myself, and then softly out loud, “Who are you?” I wanted to know, who had I been “talking to” and “talking with” during this session? I wanted to know… Who are you?
Squinting my closed eyes behind the eyeshades, I strained to see. I saw mist-like veils gently and slowly swirling around. Was something, someone about to be revealed to me?
Nothing appeared, but I kept coming back to my breath and taking deep breaths.
Then it occurred to me that my breath and the wind were the same… and that the wind is the breath of the Divine experiencing the world as its body.
When the Divine breathes, the air moves; we call it a breeze or the wind, but it is the Divine simply breathing. And my breath is like the wind; it allows me to feel my body and experience the world—literally the breath of life in both dimensions.
I sensed the air, maybe a slight breeze, and my breath. I got a sense that there was something like God, but yet beyond God, out beyond this mist, this breeze, something magical/mystical out beyond my senses… and then my focus would return to my breath; my breath was real.
Gently going between the mist and beyond… and my breath. The mist and beyond… my breath.
My attention turned to Bill and I started sensing Bill as the Divine. He is so kind, so wise, so understanding, so caring and humorous in an odd sort of way. “Open your eyes and you will see,” I heard Bill’s voice gently saying, "Open your eyes and you will see." Fully expecting to see Bill’s face, I got ready to open my eyes, expecting to see the Divine and Bill’s face in front of mine. Yes, I thought, I would see the Divine in him—or perhaps through him.
What I saw when I opened my eyes sent a shockwave through my body.
Bill was holding a photo of my husband, John—and I was looking straight into John’s face. I jumped, startled, and dove under the covers. We all started laughing. But it wasn’t funny. I told them I was not coming out from underneath the covers. I was in shock! And panting, almost breathless, panting.
"I just have to be with this for a while," I said softly and a bit desperately. "It’s OK," Bill said, "Just be with it."
Breathing heavily, deeply, and noisily through my nose and yet deep in my chest, as if in pain or in shock. Slowly I began to recover and I allowed my mind to drift and to notice what I was sensing. I sensed John’s soul and his deep knowing—his deep, quiet, all-knowing soul. And I stayed with that sensation, breathing deeply and rhythmically, until I fully “got it” deeply. I had thought of John as ignorant and that I was superior to him—for having this psilocybin session, the two sessions before, the coaching sessions, and for all the reading I had done—but I slowly began to realize that John does know. He’s had this experience, somewhere or sometime before. He knows what I now know—he knows it deep, deep down. And I connected with his knowing. I came out from underneath the covers.
How was I going to remember all of this? All the feelings and sensations… the moaning and breathing as I listened to the music.
I remember talking softly to Bill as I held his hand. We talked about Buddhism. I recalled that Buddhism listed 1500 afflictive emotions and the corresponding antidote to each one of them. “Yes,” Bill said, “they are fond of making lists.” “I want to spend the rest of my life feeling each and every one of them,” I replied.
After a while, Bill said the psilocybin was wearing off and that the session was ending.
Slowly I brought myself back into the room, started looking around, and feeling myself in my body.
Filling out the paperwork and questionnaires was so hard to do. I was tired, feeling a very heavy body. Each time I got stuck on a question, I simply closed my eyes, took a deep breath, listened to my inner voice… and got my answer.
After answering all the questions on paper, it was time to go home. One last trip to the bathroom. As we left I gave everyone a hug and a kiss goodbye, and slowly made my way out of the building and home.
The next morning I wrote my report and at the very end I wrote, "Thank you very much! I feel very special and very lucky. I love you all!" And my parting words—the last words that I wrote in my report—"You didn’t have to 'drug' me to have this experience… and you had to 'drug' me to have this experience.”