My First Psychedelic Experience at Johns Hopkins Changed My Life
By Mark Huslage
It's been more than six years since I participated in the Johns Hopkins Spirituality study, but it continues as the most life-changing event of my life. For those not familiar, Hopkins has been researching the effects and benefits of psilocybin for more than a decade now. The Spirituality study, in particular, involves meditation and mantra training, counseling sessions with a guide, and 2-3 guided sessions mediated by psilocybin. At the time, it all seemed straightforward enough to me. Little did I know that the content of these sessions would be so powerful that my life would change forever.
At the time of the study, I was in my early 50s, recently divorced, and relatively stable in my lifestyle and psychology. I'd worked in the field of brain injury rehabilitation for twenty years as a clinical social worker and found brain-related issues fascinating. On the spiritual front, I was raised evangelical Christian, even attending a major Christian college, but had taken on a loose-agnostic position over the years. Probably most importantly, I had never used a psychedelic of any kind, including marijuana. This was my first foray into any mind-expanding substances. I had no idea what to expect.
The particular experimental group I was in had three sessions, each with various quantities of psilocybin. Not surprisingly, each experience was different in both content and depth. The setting was arranged like a living room and I was invited to lie down on the couch and comfortably arrange pillows. Perhaps most importantly, for the duration of the session I was to wear an eye-shade and headphones through which played instrumental music. This insured that the experience would be primarily internal and with distractions removed. Since there is no way I can succinctly convey all that took place in these sessions, I'll focus on several moments that were most rich and meaningful.
My “trips” were quite visual and involved journeys which led to important epiphanies about myself and the nature of all things. The descent into a psilocybin journey for the first time is not for the faint of heart. The feeling that you are progressively losing control of your mind, coupled with any personal insecurities and physiological rushes makes for an initial anxious experience – at least for me. The presence and wisdom of my two guides sitting beside me was critical in navigating the territory. Without them I sense I would have fought against the experience the entire way and potentially lost out on the gifts that followed.
Once immersed in the experience, I found myself being drawn into a natural amphitheater of rocks and plants. I sat down to wait on what would happen next, deeply sensing it would be meaningful. I saw a figure appear before me… it was my father who had died some 40 years prior. I could feel his presence and love all around me, holding me without touch. But it was his words that provided the power to press on past any fears: "Mark, you have everything you need. Don't hide, go seek." A convincing message to me, being someone who can often feel incomplete. This initial interaction would prove invaluable in preparing me for the experience that was to follow.
Shortly after my father’s appearance I found myself paddling a canoe in a large lake. In a previous vision I was shown that this lake was the container of everyone's life experience, where their river emptied itself. Following the shoreline, I came across many coves until I reached one which was especially foreboding. Although fearful, I decided to explore further and paddled in. I left the boat to check out the stream that was entering the cove and when I looked back the boat was drifting away on its own. The only way was up.
I began to scramble up the stream, which was chock-full of boulders and rocks. I could feel a force of some kind drawing me to climb further and imploring me to “go to the source.” The journey became more difficult, as waterfalls and large boulders blocked the way. But I found a reserve of powers and abilities, with which I used to climb higher. I then found myself staring at a sixty-foot waterfall and I believed that if I could conquer it, something big would be revealed. Finding superhuman powers I was able to leap and fly to the top, only to find nothing but more stream and a path along the side to be followed. The call was still there to find the source.
I walked the path for some time, enjoying the beauty of the space, until I saw a jumble of rocks with water springing up through them. I immediately knew it as The Source. I came close and put my hands into the clear water. Never in my life had I felt something so true and beautiful. Never had I felt such an amazing peace – a “peace that passeth understanding.” But, it also was the most powerful place imaginable. Such a rare and vital combination: peace and power. The final quality was that of compassion. The waters let me know that I was loved and accepted just as I am. This place was The Source...from which all blessings flow.
As I sat for a while and drank the water, I noticed something coming out of the brush. It was a fawn that was coming out to drink downstream. I told this to my guides who encouraged me to explore it further – to look into its eyes and discover why it was here. I was baffled for a while until it hit me… this little deer was me. It was the little dear in me that was looking for nourishment; that was looking for the healing waters of The Source. This hit me hard and I cried uncontrollably for a long time, as I could allow the little deer's pain to be felt and be held at the same time. There was a palpable sense of healing in that moment, but also a strong invitation to continue the work of healing in my everyday life. More powerfully, there was direct knowledge that this work held the key to opening locked places within me.
The third session at Hopkins was by far the most powerful and incredible. This one came with an internal guide, who took on the form of a court jester, sans the outfit. A very playful, but all-knowing being who knew the territory well and was ready to show me around. “But first,” he said, “we have to get someone's permission.” He then reached inside me and pulled this shivering, small, fearful being out of my abdomen. The jester spoke with this being with such compassion and knowing: “You have done an amazing work for Mark. I honor these beautiful walls that you created for Mark, these trenches and scaffolding that have protected him for many, many years and got him to this place. We need to make sure you’re okay with taking these down so you both can fully experience the rest of this journey.” The wisdom and recognition of what was needed in these initial moments still amazes me today. It was like a deeper part of me was conversing with my everyday self and delivering matter of fact truths. It would be years before I'd more fully understand this more essential self and the means of accessing it.
The experience that followed was less of a journey than an immersion into a dimension that was all-knowing, fully-compassionate, and ready to teach. Imagine a space where you are fully accepted just as you are and unencumbered by shame or doubt or fear. Where even the egoic barriers that serve to protect us are acknowledged (and even applauded to some degree), but which are no longer needed in this space. Judgment ceases. Acceptance abounds. Boundaries dissolve. What a freedom!
With my defenses lowered and full access to pure knowing and love, what followed was a complete absorption into what felt like the wisdom of the universe. What had started as a mantra of a self-involved, “I know, I know” became the collective, “We know, we know.” My knowing would be informed by a greek chorus of ancestors, celestial teachers, and loving beings. These noetic messages were focused on simple truths. “Every move toward personal wholeness evolves the world.” “Push past personal discomforts and connect with others.” “Go explore the grandeur of this world.” For many weeks after, my world become poetry, not prose.
A final piece of the experience still mystifies me. While marinating in the essential stew, I felt my fingers begin to move on their own, followed by my tongue, and eventually both my arms and hands joined in on the dance. They stayed in motion for several hours in what my guides said was the most beautiful dance they had ever seen. The amazing part was that I could consciously join in the dance and add my gift to whatever was happening unconsciously. I now see this as an invitation to living life... the interaction and mutual informing of the form and formless will be what creates the most meaning for us. Allowing the full integration of the two realms bears incredible fruit and may actually be what saves mankind from itself.
This account would not be complete without a discussion of the aftermath. What do you do with an experience that has rewritten your previous narrow view of the world and your place in it? How do you take the noetic download and integrate what you have seen and been given? How do I continue to “seek and not hide?”
I asked these questions of the Hopkins researchers and thankfully was provided some options. It was clear that I needed a place that could attend to both the psychological “mandates” and spiritual mysteries of the experience. Providential for me, I was drawn to a place right in Baltimore that proved to be a marvelous extension of my psychedelic experience. Inspiration Community and Consciousness School allowed me to freely explore the realms I had visited and better understand the unified relationship between psychology and spirituality. Through experiential methods, study, and integrative breathwork, I've slowly been able to heal where healing was needed, develop deeper aspects of my being, and, in the words of Ken Wilbur, turn “states into traits.” I believe this is the great invitation of psychedelics: to know there is more beyond our senses, that the truth of who we are lies within us, and that we are loved and held as we explore this vast universe, without and within.
Mark Huslage lives in Baltimore with this beautiful wife, Kathy, and is in training to become a breathworker at Inspiration.