Unity Consciousness Through Quieting the Default Mode Network - The Wonders of Psilocybin
From MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Study) to Harvard, to Yale to Johns Hopkins University, to the University of Zurich, the study of psychedelic therapy is exploding across the academic domain, and the results are legitimizing. These groundbreaking studies have revealed some profound common threads between reports and brain scans of long-term meditators and those partaking in psychedelic therapies.
From the fourteen-month follow-up interviews with Roland Griffiths's 2017 study participants, some words echo the theme of Positive Psychology concepts. "The part that continued to stick out for me was "knowing" and "seeing" and "experiencing" with every sense and fiber of my being that all things are connected," "The sense that all is One, that I experienced the essence of the Universe and the knowing that God asks nothing of us except to receive love." Furthermore, "The feeling of no boundaries - where I didn't know where I ended and my surroundings began. Somehow I was able to comprehend what oneness is." 1 Johan Hari writes about these findings in his book Lost Connections - Why You're Depressed and How to Find Hope, "As he read through this, Roland noticed one thing in particular. The way people described feeling when they took psychedelics was strikingly similar to the way people said they felt if they had a deep, sustained program of meditation." 2 (276) "Roland was curious to learn whether there was any connection between the experiences long-term meditators were having and the experiences people have when they are given psychedelics. If these are two different routes to feeling the same thing, would that help us figure out what was really going on? "2 (276)
The John Hopkins University study, "Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors," 1 done by Roland Griffith, involved 75 participants who were separated into three groups of 25 each based on six factors to keep the groups as balanced as possible. The factors were; gender, age, lifetime psychedelic use, baseline lifetime Hood Mysticism Scale score, baseline frequency of meditation, and staff judgment about whether the participant was especially likely to engage in spiritual practices. That last factor seems highly subjective for a scientific study. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to have a strong influence on the study's outcome. The group was overall highly educated at 87% with a college or postgraduate degree. They had a mean age of 42. 31% were practiced meditators; however, the mean time for meditation practice was only once a month before joining the study.
The three groups received different dosages of psilocybin and differing levels of social support. Low dose with standard support, high dose with standard support, and high dose with high support. Standard support consisted of 7 hours and 20 minutes of one on one time throughout the study up to 6 months after. The high support group received 35 hours of one on one time through 6 months post-study. A general spiritual meditation practice was introduced to participants one month before the first dosing session and two months before the second. All participants were given the book, Meditation: A Simple 8-Point Program for Translating Spiritual Ideals into Daily Life by Eknath Easwaran. Dosing sessions took place in a living room type setting with an eye covering to minimize external distractions. Participants wore earphones with the same classical and world music playlist played for each of the participants. Seven hours after dosing and once the effects had worn off, the participants filled out four questionnaires: Hallucinogen rating scale (HRS), 5-Dimension Altered States of Consciousness (5D-ASC), 9 - point Mysticism Scale, and the States of Consciousness Questionnaire (MEQ30). There was an interesting finding shown in figure 2. of the "guide ratings of volunteer and mood assessed throughout the psilocybin session." 1 Of the three groups, the level of the positive emotional experiences of Joy and Intense Happiness, and Peace and Harmony, in all three dosing categories, it was the groups with "standard" and not "high" support that scored the highest. This finding speaks to a level of personal agency that may contribute to these emotions. Alternately, in the MEQ30, all five factors of Mystical Experience, Positive Mood, Transcendence of Time and Space, Ineffability, were elevated the highest in the high support groups. Even though these categories are not entirely alike with the positive emotions I listed above, they are all in effect, of the positive emotion scale; therefore, it is curious that the contradictory findings were revealed for this particular questionnaire. Perhaps it has to do with the difference between the self-reporting system of the MEQ30 and the guide/observer's reporting system of the latter.
Essentially, the results show that the high dose groups, both with standard and with high support, showed significantly higher lasting positive psychological effects. "Similar findings were shown for the percentage of each group providing strong endorsements of these same three dimensions. For example, 12%, 76%, and 96% of the LD-SS, HD-SS, and HD-HS groups, respectively, rated the experience(s) among the top five most spiritual experiences of their lives, with 0%, 40%, and 56%, respectively, indicating it to be the single most spiritually significant experience of their life." 1
The Harvard study," Functional-Anatomic Fractionation of the Brain's Default Network," 3 shows with brain scans the default mode network is composed of two cores; the posterior cingulate and anterior medial prefrontal cortex. The posterior cingulate cortex is responsible for the perception that distinguishes us from another person or object. The medial prefrontal cortex is responsible for our perception of time. Brain scans show there are two known things that shut down the default mode network; meditation and psychedelics. Ordinarily, when the brain is not engaged in a task or specific function, the DMN runs wild. In the meditation community, this is often called "the monkey mind." Through meditation, especially concentration practice, we learn to bring our mind back to a certain point of attention. The Buddha used the place on the nose where the breath enters through the nostrils. This practice is called Vipassana Meditation. When we sit in meditation and watch our thoughts arise, we witness the DMN in action until the brain calms down. When we choose not to follow the impulse to become absorbed into our thoughts but instead continuously turn our attention back to the sensation at the nostrils as the breath enters and exits, we begin to quiet the DMN. For some, the DMN calms down in a matter of minutes. For others, it may take years of practice for it to settle down to a significant degree. When the default mode network shuts down, we lose our perception of ourselves," other," and time.
Gary Weber Ph.D. has said in Happiness Beyond Thought a Practical Guide to Awakening, "We have found in the on-going Yale study that experienced meditators can permanently change their DMN to one that does not have the randomly wandering self-narrative, as mine has done, to one of stillness." 4 The Yale study he speaks of, "Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity," 5 was able to confirm through brain scans that the DMN of Gary Weber and other long term meditators had, in fact, been deactivated.
If meditation and psychedelics alike have the power to still the default mode network, the next logical question is; what happens when these two modalities are combined? Lukasz Smigielski, Milan Scheidegger, Michael Kometer, and Franz X. Vollenweider of the University of Zurich Switzerland sought answers to this very question when they conducted the study, "Psilocybin-assisted mindfulness training modulates self-consciousness and brain default mode network connectivity with lasting effects." 6 Picture a serene meditation center located in the Swiss Alps with silent participants dressed in monks robes during a five day silent Zen and Vipassana traditional meditation retreat, which included sitting meditation, walking meditation, physical mindfulness work, and psilocybin. "Both psychedelics and meditation exert profound modulatory effects on consciousness, perception, and cognition, but their combined, possibly synergistic effects on neurobiology are unknown. Accordingly, we conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study with 38 participants following a single administration of the psychedelic psilocybin (315μg/kg p.o.) during a 5-day mindfulness retreat." 6 Participants had a collective active high level of meditation experience with a mean average of 5,600 hours of meditation experience. Each participant had little to no psychedelic experience before the study. These were fifteen-hour days of meditation, which began with three days of pre-psilocybin mindfulness preparation. On day four, a double-blind placebo-controlled administration of psilocybin or placebo was administered, and the same daily mindfulness practice activities of the retreat were carried out. Day five was a deep meditative integration day. Brain MRI scans were collected on the day before and after the retreat. At the four-month post-retreat mark, a self-assessment was done by participants as well as close family and friends regarding psychological well being, behaviors, and attitudes using the HOOD mysticism scale. The psilocybin group scored much higher on this HOOD assessment than did the control group. Also significant was the observed lack of anxiety, which can be present to varying degrees in other psilocybin study settings. The lack of anxiety noted offers strong evidence that a mindfulness centered approach to psilocybin therapy may be a highly beneficial method. Each evening of the retreat, participants filled out a "depth of meditation" questionnaire. Depth of meditation scored higher across the board in the psilocybin group than that of the placebo. Also, higher levels of ego disillusionment were reported in the psilocybin group. The MRI findings showed decreased activity in the default mode network in both the placebo and the psilocybin group, with a more significant decrease shown in the psilocybin group. The reduced activity in the DMN is a groundbreaking discovery for depression recovery. The Default Mode Network is the network involved in maladaptive self-referential processing associated with depression. "The study highlights the link between altered self-experience and subsequent behavioral changes. Understanding how interventions facilitate transformative experiences may open novel therapeutic perspectives." 6
The study's findings support the theory that compounding effects of meditation and psilocybin together have a more profound impact on the default mode network than meditation alone. "Psilocybin administered in a mindfulness retreat setting significantly potentiated positively felt states of ego dissolution (i.e., OSB, oceanic self-boundlessness) compared to the placebo." 6
In his forward of The Translucent Revolution, Ken Wilber asserts that psychedelics can open people to unity consciousness differently depending on their current outlook. "If you are in an ethnocentric stage of development and you have a unity-state experience of being one with everything, you might interpret that as an experience of oneness with Jesus and conclude that nobody can be saved unless they accept Jesus as their personal savior. If you are at an egocentric stage and have the same experience, you might believe that you yourself are Jesus. If you are at an …integral stage …you are likely to conclude that you and all sentient beings without exception are one in the spirit." 7 (22) Could it be that the meditation component included in the University of Zurich study brought the study subjects into an "integral stage," and thus, the psilocybin group had the outcome of sensing that "all sentient beings without exception are one in the spirit?" 7 (22)
The reports of unity consciousness activation by way of the therapeutic use of entheogens are numerous. A questionnaire study post-psychedelic therapeutic session punctuates this in The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide "What single event or insight, if any, during the LSD experience do you consider to have been of greatest meaning to you?" are of sufficient interest to be worth summarizing briefly." 7 Out of 158 people, 53 reported the same answer, "Experiencing an underlying reality, a sense of oneness with all of life, of unity and purpose, of love, of the presence of a Higher Power." 7 (302)
Johan Hari, in Lost Connections, adds to the scientific findings of ego disillusionment, "They found that if you give people psychedelic drugs—mostly LSD, which was legal at the time—under clinical conditions, you can fairly predictably cause them to have what feel like spiritual experiences. You can make them feel they are transcending their egos and their everyday concerns and connecting intensely with something much deeper—with other people, with nature, even with the nature of existence itself. The vast majority of people given the drug by doctors said that it made them feel this way, and that the experience seemed profound to them." 2 While Hari's intent is to point out the antidepressant quality of psychedelics, the terminology, "cause them to have what feels like a spiritual experience" may be missing the mark. Perhaps instead, there exists in the human brain, something like a separation valve; the DMN. This separation valve acts as a veil or a filter, which prevents us from seeing things as they truly are, all one consciousness. In this sense, when we deactivate the DMN through meditation or plant medicines such as psilocybin, the blinders are removed, making visible the spiritual experience which is always present. Instead of plants as a way to "make them feel they are transcending their egos," the plants are lifting the filtered glasses of the ego."
Our confirmation bias acts as the seal on the envelope of our perceptions. William James is quoted in Ram Dass' book Be Here Now," 'No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question, for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. They may determine attitudes, though they can not furnish formulas and open a region though they fail to give a map.' At any rate, concludes James, 'They forbid our premature closing of accounts with reality.' In spite of what he said, we've closed our accounts with reality (most of us)." 8 The newfound access to science-based research regarding the use of entheogenic medicine alongside meditation may very well be that map we need to get us past our individualistic closed" accounts with reality" and thereby open us up to the awareness of our greater oneness.
The Scientific American published an article by John Horgan shortly after the death of Baba Ramdass that tells the story Ramdass himself has told in many of his lectures. It is a story about what happened when he gave a very high LSD dose to his spiritual guru, Maharajji, in India. "The guru asked him for the "medicine." Then they sat in Satsang all day together, and absolutely nothing happened." LSD didn't affect Maharajji, Ram Dass implied, because the guru already had such a profoundly mystical outlook. This message corroborated the overarching theme of Be Here Now, that spiritual practices such as meditation and yoga can induce the same powerful mystical states as psychedelics but in a more stable, permanent fashion." 9
It has been said that lasting change happens through repetition or impact. Change through meditation occurs over a long period of time. Through repetition, we can create lasting brain changes in which the default mode network is turned down. Long-term meditators may experience a sense of oneness as this occurs. The sense of "selfness" dissolves. In this case, meditation is the cause of change through repetition. Psilocybin and other psychedelics create brain changes that happen quickly through impact. As Roland Griffith was quoted yet again in Lost Connections, "If meditation is the tried and true course for [discovering this]," Roland said, "psilocybin surely has to be the crash course." 2 When used in combination, the results have shown to be substantial for creating lasting psychological benefits. When our sense of self and otherness dissolves, we experience a state of ultimate connection with the world around us and our fellow human beings. In this sense, maybe meditation and psychedelics have the power to cure us of our egos' tendency toward "othering" and, therefore, help us heal the wounds of division, like racism, sexism, ageism, and every other "ism" known to humankind.