Mysticism and the Paranormal

Ralph W Hood Jr.. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

Mysticism and the paranormal are two concepts that have been avoided by mainstream science for both conceptual and empirical reasons. These reasons are linked, in that mainstream science has tended to demand sense perception as a criterion of reality. Thus, claims to a nonsensuous transcendent experience are conceptually suspect in science. Likewise, mainstream science finds little conceptual satisfaction with empirical evidence for paranormal phenomena that apparently violate established laws of physics. Paralleling the rejection by mainstream science are the faith traditions that have always had an uneasy relationship to their mystics, who often seemed to border on heretical claims (Katz, 1983). Likewise, paranormal powers chronicled in oral traditions and in sacred texts are often uneasily accepted as powers to be cultivated in the faithful (Hollenback, 1996). Not surprisingly then, both mysticism and the paranormal have typically been rather casually dismissed and explained in reductionistic terms by American psychologists of religion (Hood, 2000).

In this chapter I will avoid defending mysticism or the paranormal as being in some ultimate ontological sense true. However, neither will we dismiss them in terms of reductionistic explanations. In the broadest sense our approach will be phenomenological. We will accept what Blackmore (1988) has termed the new paradigm for parapsychology that applies equally to mysticism. Blackmore urges a focus upon the psychological, social, and cultural correlates of the report of paranormal experiences, much as I have for mystical experiences (Hood, 1997). Our first task then is to document the commonality of correlated reports of both mystical and paranormal experiences with reference to survey data.

Survey Research: Reports of Mystical Experiences

Survey results are easily quantified and allow correlations with a wide variety of demographic variables to provide a distinctive empirical base that complements merely conceptual discussions of these experiences. Here we shall simply indicate the commonality of the report of both mystical and paranormal experiences using a limited number of examples.

The most widely used survey question is associated with the work of Greeley (1974). It has been administered as part of the General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS is a series of independent cross-sectional probability samples of persons in the continental United States, living in noninstitutional homes, who are at least 18 years of age (Davis & Smith, 1994). In sample of 1,468 persons, 35 percent of the respondents answered “Yes” to the question, “Have your ever felt as though you were close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?” (Greeley, 1974, p. 149). Greeley (1975, p. 65) found that a very high percentage (29%) of those who positively answered his question agreed with “a sense of unity and my own part in it” as a descriptor of their experience. Thus most of the 35 percent answering “Yes” to the Greeley question also appeared to accept a mystical description of unity as applying to the experience.

Hay and Morisy (1978) administered Greeley’s question to a sample of 1,865 in Great Britain and found that 36 percent answered in the affirmative. Yamane and Polzer (1994) analyzed all affirmative responses from the GSS to the Greeley question in the years 1983, 1984, 1988, and 1989. A total of 5,420 individuals were included in their review. Using an ordinal scale where respondents who answered affirmatively could select from three options (once or twice, several times, or often) yielded a range from 0 (negative response) to 3 (often). Using this 4-point range across all individuals who responded to the Greeley question yielded a mean score of 0.79 (SD = 0.89). Converting these to a percentage of “Yes” as a nominal category, regardless of frequency, yielded 2,183 affirmative responses. The overall affirmative response rate was 40 percent of the total sample that reported ever having had the experience. Independent assessment of affirmative responses for each year suggested a slight but steady decline. The figures were 39 percent for 1983-1984 combined (n = 3,072), 31 percent for 1988 (n = 1,481), and 31 percent for 1989 (n = 936).

Our discussion of the Greeley question allows us to conclude that at least one-third of persons sampled affirmed a mystical experience. This percentage corresponds to our more exhaustive analysis of survey studies reviewed elsewhere (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 2003, pp. 307-314). Since most survey studies include demographic variables, we can use Blackmore’s new paradigm to characterize who reports mystical experiences. The major consistent findings are easily summarized: women report more such experiences than men; the experiences tend to be age-related, increasing with age; they are characteristic of educated and affluent people; and they are more likely to be associated with indices of psychological health and well-being than with those of pathology or social dysfunction. The most sampled countries have been the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, with similar percentages holding for each country.

Survey Research: Reports of Paranormal Phenomena

Since its inception, North American psychology has been linked in the popular mind with the paranormal. As Coon (1992) has documented, many founding North American psychologists fought hard to separate the emerging science of psychology from spiritualism and the psychic, to which it was connected in the popular mind. Then as now, psychologists sought to focus upon reductive explanations of things spiritual and paranormal (Hood, 2000).

Yet within research on mysticism, several empirical facts emerge that are problematic. First, key theoreticians and empirical researchers have explicitly linked mysticism to parapsychology, with varying degrees of sympathy to both. These include Greeley (1975), Hardy (1965, 1966), Hollenback (1996), and myself (Hood, 1989). Historians have also documented the relationship of paranormal phenomena to the history of religious experience in North American Protestantism (Coon, 1992; Taves, 1999). Second, in classifications of open-ended responses to single item questions to measure mysticism, one of the common code categories is called “the paranormal.” (Thomas & Cooper, 1978, 1980). Thus many persons who affirm what the researcher assumes to be a mystical experience are in fact reporting paranormal experiences, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, or contact with the dead. Third, survey studies of mysticism commonly include items to assess paranormal experiences. For instance, paranormal experiences were included in the 1984, 1988, and 1989 GSS data and have been reported by Fox (1992). We cite this study here because it included the Greeley question to assess mysticism and three additional questions to assess paranormal experience: extrasensory perception, contact with the dead, and clairvoyance. The numbers sampled varied by year with slightly under 1,000 for 1989 and slightly more than 14,000 for both 1988 and 1984. There were minor changes across the years on the percentages reporting various experiences, but the relative stability of the percentages is what is most impressive. Overall, mysticism was reported by about one-third of the samples (overall average 34%); the figure we have suggested is stable across numerous survey studies using variously worded questions to assess mysticism. However, far more persons reported extrasensory perception (overall average 63%), while clairvoyance was least frequently reported (overall average 27%). Contact with the dead was reported by an overall average of 39 percent of the sample (Fox 1992, p. 422).

In virtually every survey, when both paranormal and mystical experiences are assessed they are positively correlated and reported in similar frequencies in that at least one-third of persons sampled respond positively to both mysticism and paranormal questions. Some paranormal experiences, such as ESP, are reported at percentages almost doubling the rate for mystical experience. Thus, persons who report paranormal experiences often report mystical experiences as well, and vice versa. The question to be addressed now is, why are these experiences linked?

Mainstream Religion and Science

We think that survey studies revealing correlated reports of mystical and paranormal experiences are tapping into experiences that reflect a reality different from that postulated by mainstream science and to mystical experiences often relegated to disdain by mainstream religion.

Researches, myself included have recently championed an article by a sociologist, Porpora (2006), in which he praises an edited volume published by the American Psychological Association. This edited work explores anomalous experiences such as alien abductions, and paranormal (psi) and mystical experiences (Cardeña, Lynn, & Krippner, 2000). Careful attention is paid to the phenomenology of the anomalous experiences. It is not assumed that the experiences are exhaustedly explained by a social constructionist perspective that denies the possible ontological reality of what is experienced. As I noted in response to Porpora’s article (Hood, 2007), to accept the possible veridicality of even what seems absurd, such as claim of alien abduction, allows for the possibility of falsification. However, I do not presuppose an exhaustive scientific worldview So in this chapter I engage Blackmore’s new paradigm for parapsychology by retreating to a consideration of the reality of both mystical and paranormal claims as forms of human experiencing, as phenomena in a Kantian sense. I also note that it is an egregious error to assume falsification applies to phenomenological descriptions of experience.

Another reason that reports of mysticism and paranormal experiences are correlated is that they are more likely to be reported by persons who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. Not only are these people not religious, they are often antireligious. These persons have the highest rates of reporting both mystical and paranormal experiences (Hood, 2000; Spilka et al., 2003, pp. 331-340).

A review of open-ended responses to questions aimed at eliciting reports of mystical experience yields a wide range of experiences, some of which appear to be not mystical (Spilka et al., 2003, pp. 300-307). Part of this is likely linked to many spiritual but not religious persons rejecting both mainstream religion and mainstream science. It is likely that some respondents simply want to affirm experiences that offer evidential support for alternative beliefs. Persons believe their experiences to be veridical and do not want them dismissed as purely subjective at best or pathological at worst (Hollenback, 1996, pp. 607-615). Some empirical evidence is apparent in methodologies that attempt to tease apart various correlated experiences. For instance, two studies (Thomas & Cooper, 1978, 1980) analyzed in detail positive responses to Greeley’s survey question. They found many more of the responses were better classified as paranormal than mystical; the most common paranormal experiences identified were out-of-body experiences, telepathy, and extrasensory experiences. For now it is sufficient to note that many individuals define paranormal experiences to be mystical experiences, as do some scholars of mysticism such as Hollenback (1996). However, we will develop an argument to differentiate paranormal experiences from mystical experiences shortly.

When samples are carefully selected for their religious identification, paranormal experiences are infrequently cited (if at all) as instances of religious experiences. Margolis and Elifson (1979) carefully solicited a sample of persons who were willing to affirm that they had had a religious experience that the researchers accepted as indicating some personal relationship to ultimate reality. The 69 experiences described were content-analyzed, yielding 20 themes. These were then factor-analyzed, yielding four factors—the major one of which was a mystical factor “very similar to the classical mystical experience described by Stace and others” (Margolis & Elifson, 1979, p. 62). Two of the other three factors (a life change experience factor and a visionary factor) were clearly religious experiences. One factor, vertigo experience, was a loss of control experienced negatively, often triggered by drugs or music. No paranormal experiences were reported. Thus it is likely that survey questions worded to avoid religious language probably elicit a variety of experiences, including paranormal ones, that otherwise would not be identified as religious by the respondents. Mainstream religious persons (who are religious and spiritual) are less likely to identify a religious experience as a paranormal experience. The obverse is the case for the spiritual but not religious persons; their paranormal experiences are likely to be seen as spiritual. As Yamane (2000) has argued, how one narrates his or her experience is linked to the sophistication from which he or she is able to make distinctions among types of experiences. Thus, we will make the case that mysticism, as a nonsensuous transcendent experience, should be distinguished from the wide variety of paranormal experiences, all of which are best identified as sensuous whether or not they are also perceived as transcendent experiences.

The Uniqueness of Mystical Experience

I have long argued for what is identified as the unity thesis in the study of mysticism (Hood, 1985, 2003a, 2003b, 2006) as well as this thesis’s relevance for the paranormal (Hood, 1989). The thesis is associated with the pivotal work of Stace (1961). He argued for a common core to mysticism, derived from his phenomenological study of mystical experiences both within and outside of various faith traditions.

Stace’s common core has been operationalized in a widely used measure of mysticism, the M-scale (Hood, 1975; Hood et al., 2001). The importance of this measure for our discussion of mysticism and the paranormal is linked to four factors. First, Stace derived his common core thesis from a wide variety of reported experiences from which he sought to identify a common, phenomenological core. For our purposes we will focus upon his claim that mysticism involves an experience of unity that can be either perceptually based, perceiving the one with a multiplicity of perceptual objects (extrovertive mysticism), or non-perceptually based, experiencing the unity of a pure consciousness devoid of content (introvertive mysticism). These are but related ways of experiencing the same unity, with introvertive experiences perhaps a more fully developed unity experience than extrovertive. Introvertive mysticism is a nonsensuous transcendent experience found both within and outside of faith traditions. Second, while both introvertive and extrovertive experiences can be variously interpreted, the interpretation is not totally constructive of the experience. Third, the M-scale derived from Stace’s phenomenological work has been demonstrated in several different cultures to have a factor structure consistent with Stace’s common core model (Hood et al., 2001; Spilka et al., 2003, pp. 320-28). Fourth, Stace argues for a “causal indifference” in that he refuses to judge the experience based upon proximate triggers. Thus, any number of conditions may facilitate a mystical experience, including naturally occurring psychoactive substances and drugs derived by isolating the active ingredients in those substances. However, mystical experience is not a drug-specific effect. This will become crucial in this discussion shortly. Finally, mystical experiences challenge views of reality supported by mainstream science. Since the time of William James, mystics have always claimed their experience to be noetic. Noetic knowledge is directly given in experience and is ineffable. This ontological claim of mystics is as problematic to mainstream science as it is to mainstream faith traditions. However, it is not an issue that affects the focus upon the phenomenological description of this experience and the study of conditions under which it can be facilitated.

Stace’s claim that there is a common core to mysticism is based upon his claim that one can separate levels of interpretation from what is experienced. There is much empirical support for this claim (Hood, 1985, 2003a, 2006, Hood et al., 2001. However, there is also much conceptual criticism of this claim. Katz (1977) devoted an entire edited volume to challenging the distinction between experience and interpretation, central to Stace’s work. For reasons of space we cannot address this literature here. Likewise others have developed scales to measure mysticism derived from other theorists. For instance, Francis and Louden have developed a scale based upon Happold’s (1963) seven criteria of mysticism as well as a short version of this scale (Francis & Louden, 2000, 2004). Most recently, Lange and Thalbourne (2007) have developed a single-factor measure of mysticism.

The various scales to measure mysticism all have merit but lead to different conceptualizations of what is being measured. For instance, Thalbourne and his colleagues argue that common positive correlations between measures of mysticism and paranormal phenomena (as well as creativity, schizotypy, and magical ideation) are all derived from a common underlying factor identified as transliminality (Thalbourne & Delin, 1999; Thalbourne, Bartemucci, Delin, Fox, & Nofi, 1997). My measure does not identify paranormal experiences as mystical nor does it assume a common underlying factor that accounts for correlations between paranormal phenomena and mysticism. Thus I can ask under what conditions mysticism and paranormal experience might covary, but there is no assumption they are necessarily correlated. I shall address this issue by a detour through the not uncontroversial field known by the rather cumbersome term archeopsychopharmacology.


It has long been recognized that many religions have employed various naturally occurring psychoactive substances in rituals that facilitate transcendent experiences interpreted within the religious or spiritual frameworks of the culture. It is often rather arrogantly assumed that interest in the facilitation of experience by psychoactive botanicals is the domain of anthropology and sister disciplines concerned with non-Western religions (Hollenback, 1996). However, as we shall shortly discuss, such chemicals have experimental relevance in the contemporary study of mysticism in industrialized cultures as well.

Archeopsychopharmacological scholars often cooperate with ethnobotanists. The combination of ancient texts and artifacts with knowledge of naturally occurring psychoactive plants in various cultures has led to a controversial thesis. We will identify a strong and a weak version of this thesis.

The strong version is that all religion has its origins in experiences triggered by naturally occurring psychoactive botanicals. Religion is an effort to meaningfully frame the experience in ontological terms (Kramrisch, Otto, Ruck, & Wasson, 1986; Shultesa & Hoffman, 1979). This strong version of the thesis, that all religions originated this way, is not falsifiable and remains speculative.

The weak version of this thesis is falsifiable and thus a more appropriate scientific hypothesis. It states that many oral and faith traditions have records of experiences that are identical in all respects to those facilitated by naturally occurring psychoactive botanicals. These may be a factor in the origin of some religions. However, they are empirically reported in many religious traditions as valued transcendent experiences. The empirical evidence for this weak claim, especially that paranormal and mystical experiences facilitated by psychoactive chemicals are identical to spontaneous and nonchemical facilitating conditions such as prayer or sensory isolation, is substantial (Spilka et al., 2003, chaps. 9 & 10).

While likely to be always speculative, and controversial, the strong claim continues to be persuasive to many. Allegro (1971) contends that the origin of the Judeo-Christian tradition may have been heavily influenced by altered states facilitated by the use of naturally occurring psychedelic substances, such as the mushroom Amanita muscaria. So influenced, too, Wasson (1969) argues, was the sacred soma of the ancient Indian text Rig Veda. Soma has been linked to the fly agaric mushroom, which has well-documented psychoactive effects (Kramrisch, Otto, Ruck, & Wasson, 1986). Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck (1978) have argued that an ergot similar to LSD was integral to the Eleusinian mystery cults of ancient Greece, and from there influenced Western philosophy, particularly Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophies. Merkur (2000) argued that the miraculous bread that the Israelites consumed in the wilderness contained a naturally occurring entheogen. He went on to argue that Philo of Alexandria, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux all referred to special meditations to be performed when partaking of a naturally occurring entheogen (Merkur, 2001).

Shanon (2000a) has suggested that mandrakes, known for their psychoactive properties, were so desired by Rachael in the story of Genesis (30:14-15) that she was willing to give up the love of her husband for them. Likewise, Fuller (2000) has documented the role of entheogens in American religious history, especially among the spiritually unchurched. Others have noted how naturally occurring psychoactive botanicals illuminate particular American faith traditions. For instance, it is likely that Joseph Smith and members of the early Mormon Church used the peyote cactus, theAmanitaria muscaria mushroom, and the datura plant to facilitate visions of a transcendent realm (Beckstead, 2007; Peterson, 1975). Shanon (2002b) also has noted the role ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew, continues to play in South America, especially in the church of Santo Daime, and he has produced the most complete phenomenological description of experiences commonly evoked by ayahuasca.

Finally, Roberts (2001) has edited a volume in which over two dozen essays document the use of psychoactive chemicals as sacraments. Thus, whether the strong version of this thesis is accepted, the weak version is clearly compatible with the claim that some religions emerged as they sought to provide meaningful explanations for mystical and paranormal experiences facilitated by naturally occurring psychoactive plants. The shift is from the phenomenology of the experience to a certification of the ritual that would authenticate the sense of ontological wonder afforded by such experiences. This is a move to religious or spiritual worldviews. A clue to this is in the language used to describe these substances.

From Psychotomimetic to Psychedelic to Entheogens

The terminology for various psychoactive chemicals often reflects the orientation of the researcher. Archeopsychopharmacological theories in the weak sense, when applied to mystical or paranormal experiences, simply argue that psychoactive chemicals can produce experiences identical to those acknowledged by many faith traditions. Proponents of mainstream faith traditions argue that an experience that is chemically induced cannot be genuinely religious (Zaehner, 1972). Ironically, this claim was also made by one of the early psychologists of religion who favored reductionistic explanations for mysticism. Leuba (1896) used the report of mystical experience among the faithful as a criticism of modern religions. He noted that insofar as modern religions seek cultivation and recognition of mystical experience, they are a regression to primitive religions. However, as Weil (1986) has emphasized, the similarity of psychoactive substances found within plants, animals, and the human brain suggests that any simple distinction between naturally and artificially induced states is arbitrary. Insofar as experience is a function of neurophysiological processes, chemicals are omnipresent.

Various names have been used to classify the psychoactive chemicals identified in their natural forms by ethnobotanists. Hallucinogenic is the most inadequate term, since hallucination is one of the least common responses to these chemicals (Barber, 1970). Although they do produce various visual and imagery effects, whether users’ eyes are open or closed, they do not produce false perceptions attributed to a nonexistent external stimulus (hallucinations).Psychotomimetic was the term favored by early researchers who thought that this class of chemicals produces psychoses or psychotic-like states. Given the cultural evaluation of psychoses, the negative connotations of psychotomimetic are obvious. However, it is well established that the ability of these chemicals to elicit sudden psychoses in otherwise normal persons is highly exaggerated (Barr, Langs, Holt, Goldberger, & Klein, 1972). Psychedelic was the term most preferred by those who favored the mind-manifesting aspect of these drugs. It is a common term today, despite its positive connotations among participants in the 1960s deviant drug culture and its still-current association with the illicit street drug culture (Stevens, 1987). However, the term entheogen is favored by researchers who accept at least the weak sense of the archeopsychopharmacological claim that mystical and paranormal experiences are routinely authenticated by being embedded in religious traditions that unwittingly or not have used psychoactive plants as sacramentals. Further, the use of the term acknowledges that experiences triggered by entheogenic substances are not intrinsic to the substances themselves any more than the planets are intrinsic to the telescope (Richards, 2005, p. 378).

Mysticism and Paranormal Experiences Facilitated by Entheogens

Our detour into archeopsychopharmacology has put us on track to reconsider Blackmore’s call for a new paradigm for the study of paranormal experiences. Thus, just as shamans enter into a spirit realm and return, the realm itself would be of no significance if it were not both a psychological and a sociological fact that the shaman and his followers both believe in the reality of what was experienced. Furthermore, as we will note shortly, paranormal and mystical experiences triggered by entheogens require careful attention to set and setting, since the range of experiences is drug facilitated, but as noted above, not a drug-specific effect. The intimate relationship between the uses of psychoactive sacramentals documented by archeopsychopharmacologists is not simply embedded in the history of religions. Religions have discovered and elaborated means of arranging set and setting to facilitate the experience of realities long noted to be different from the mundane. Thus the distinction between sacred and profane is maintained in mystical and paranormal experiences. Mystical experiences are impossible to describe with language that functions to identify distinctions between subjects and objects. In so far as both introvertive and extrovertive mysticism have no separation between subject and object, these experiences transcend distinctions rooted in language. Likewise, paranormal experience disrupts the natural world as currently understood by science. Religious or spiritual language is often an effort to express or evoke such experiences, not to describe them, and is often viewed as metamorphic or mythical in a derogative sense. However, if archeopsychopharmacologists are correct, religious and spiritual traditions authenticate transcendent experiences that can only be maintained if the text is seen as self-authenticating, a principle we have termedintratextuality (Hood, Hill, & Williamson, 2005). Under this principle, experiences recorded in sacred texts are to be interpreted as exemplars of various experiences that, as we shall soon see, can be both facilitated by entheogens and scientifically studied.

Set and Setting Effects in Drug Research

Set and setting effects are well established for all drugs, but especially for entheogens that archeopsychopharmacologists identify as associated with most if not all religious and spiritual traditions. We cannot exhaustively treat this massive literature here. However, we can summarize what are consistent effects over several thousand studies. Excellent reviews on set and setting effects are available for entheogens and other drugs used under both legal (Barber, 1970; Grof, 1975; Shanon, 2002b) and illegal conditions (Zinberg, 1984). Our purpose here is to demonstrate that what is known about set and setting effects in laboratory-based drug research is one key to the archeopsychopharmacological discovery that entheogens facilitate both mystical and paranormal experiences that religious authenticate as sacred.

Set Effects

Under set we can identify three major factors that are relevant to any effect. First is the nature and amount of drug ingested. Entheogens exist either in naturally occurring form (e.g., peyote) or in drugs which are assumed to have identified the single or major active chemical in naturally occurring substances (e.g., psilocybin). Relative to drug set effects a simple summary is possible. First, neither mystical nor paranormal experiences are drug-specific effects of any entheogen. Second, as a general rule there is a curvilinear relationship between drug dosages: at moderate level mystical and a variety of paranormal experiences are likely. They seldom occur at low levels, and at high levels of drugs, one is more likely to be disoriented. Levels of drug are best individualized by mg/kg body weight and by the specific entheogen used.

The two most studied set effects are mood and expectation. One example of each from the massive literature should suffice. The single best predictor of mood during an entheogen session is the participant’s mood just prior to his or her session. Positive moods predict positive experiences during the session, or if a negative experience occurs, it is worked through and the overall experience is positive. This holds whether or not mystical or paranormal experiences occur.

The final set variable is expectation. Generally speaking, entheogens produce drug-specific effects linked to such things as perceptual alterations with eyes open. This will occur whether expected or not. However, mystical and paranormal experiences are greatly facilitated by proper expectations. Knowing that one might have an out-of-body or near-death experience will greatly facilitate its occurrence, and it is generally experienced as positive if the participant is not anxious and can be guided thorough the session by an entheogenic-experienced person.

Setting Effects

Here setting effects are separated into proximate and distal. Proximate setting includes the place where the entheogen is ingested; whether the entheogen is ingested in isolation or in a group; and the rapport between the participant and his or her guide (if used) or others (if in a group setting), and the researcher (if present). These results too can be readily summarized from the consistencies in the literature.

Proximate Setting Effects

The place where entheogens are ingested is crucial. Early research encouraged the participant, often a professional, to explore psychotic possibilities with predictable results. Here is the origin of the term psychotomimetic as a label for these drugs. Research in therapeutic setting produced claims to transformation, often akin to religious conversions. Many of these transformations were associated with paranormal experience, accepted as revelatory of a newly discovered scared realm. However, such conversions were mostly limited to self-report data, and little objective transformation in terms of overt behavior was documented. Artists taking entheogens in relaxed settings, often in personal homes, anticipated and often experienced various visual effects, from figure ground reversal to archetypical manifestations of strikingly realistic visions documented in the prophetic texts of many faith traditions. Here is the origin of the term psychedelic for these drugs. Finally, the rare specific religious settings in which entheogens were taken revealed the greatest range of mystical and paranormal phenomena. We will return to this when we discuss the tradition of what has become known as the Good Friday experiment.

One cautionary note is relevant before we continue regarding what is now recognized by many as inappropriate use of entheogens. Just as Blackmore argued to move research on paranormal phenomena away from the question of veridicality, much of the early research testing performance effects of entheogens on everything from memory recall to performance of experimental tasks and efforts to increase scores on telepathic base rates is appropriate (Barber, 1970; Krippner & Davidson, 1974). Entheogens are best used to explore and experience what Tart (1975) identifies as altered states of consciousness. Researchers who facilitate such states with entheogens cannot wisely expect performance in one state to facilitate performance inappropriate in certain altered states. Thus entheogens are best explored in relaxed settings where the focus is on experience, not task performance.

The second proximate setting variable is whether the entheogen is taken in a group or individual setting. Generally, entheogens taken in group settings reduce the occurrence of anxiety for participants. However, group effects are hard to isolate, as many studies employ one or more guides, even if there is but one participant. The real variable here is whether the guide is also under the influence of the entheogen. Two traditions emerged. One, heavily influenced by Timothy Leary, utilized a guide under the influence during sessions with one or more participants. The other tradition used entheogenic-experienced guides who were not under the influence when guiding any participant or participants.

The differences in guides (entheogenic-influenced or not) turns out not to be a factor. Instead, the crucial factor is rapport with an entheogenic-experienced guide and, if taking the entheogen in a group, with others in the group. Under these optimal conditions the widest range of experiences can be explored and worked through more as a spiritual quest and sometimes even spiritual trial. Here mystical and paranormal experiences are likely to abound and, as we shall see, be meaningfully transformative of participants’ lives.

Distal Setting Effects

Distal setting effects include the broader context within which entheogens are taken. First is the general cultural setting with respect to spiritual and paranormal claims. Cultures vary widely in their acceptance of various anomalous experiences and the ontological status they grant them. Likewise they vary greatly in the acceptance and use of indigenous psychoactive sacramentals and, especially in the United States, the acceptance of the use of drugs for recreational, spiritual, or religious purposes. In 1970 when entheogens were classified as Schedule I drugs by the Controlled Substances Act they were officially identified as having no legitimate medical use (Griffiths, 2007). For some, America’s “War on Drugs” reflects the worry of both mainstream science and religion that spiritual and paranormal realities might be readily accessible and no longer controlled by social institutions, whether scientific or religious. Entheogens are reasonably safe, and in many cultures naturally occurring entheogens are used as sacramentals in religious and spiritual rituals. In such cultures mystical and paranormal experiences are common and authenticated in spiritually meaningful systems of belief and practice (Roberts, 2001; Shanon, 2002b). Entheogens have played a significant role in American religious history, often among spiritual seekers who remained unchurched (Fuller, 2000; Stevens, 1987). They continue to do so today among the unchurched likely self-identified spiritual but not religious persons.

It goes without saying that set and setting factors interact. When the proper chemical dose is taken by a confident participant with a guide or a group in which there is great rapport and an openness of participants to explore expected altered states of consciousness in a relaxed and pleasant setting, entheogens can facilitate both paranormal and mystical experiences. Furthermore, these experiences are identical in all respect to experiences not facilitated by entheogens. This claim has significant empirical support. We shall briefly consider three studies.

Studies in the “Good Friday” Tradition

One of the more fortuitous happenings in the history of research on entheogens was the fact that Stace (1961) developed his phenomenological common core thesis with the assumption of causal indifference. Stace included some drug-facilitated instances in his exemplars of mystical experiences from which he derived his common core. Thus, he recognized that mystical experience could be facilitated by drugs but was not a drug-specific effect. Most of the instances of mysticism Stace used were culled from various reports embedded within faith traditions that did not cultivate the use of entheogens.

Early researchers of psilocybin were intrigued to verify the reality of various states of consciousness experienced under the influence of this chemical. Pahnke (1966)was a doctoral student at Harvard. Timothy Leary was his dissertation advisor. His dissertation was designed as a double-blind study in which set and setting were to be manipulated to maximize the probability of facilitating a mystical experience. Fortunately, he had Stace’s common core criteria to use as one objective self-report measure of mystical experience.

He utilized as participants graduate students at Andover Newton Theological Seminary. All were volunteers and had never taken entheogens prior to this experiment. The setting was the basement chapel, and the day was meaningful to all Christians, Good Friday, 1962. Participants were psychologically and medically screened beforehand. Twenty participants were selected, half to receive a moderate dose of psilocybin; the others to receive nicotinic acid as a placebo control. Participants were in groups of four, with two knowledgeable guides, one of which received psilocybin, the other the placebo control.

On the day of the study, participants met in a lounge beside a private chapel into which the sermon would be transmitted over loudspeaker. The chemicals were taken 90 minutes before the service began. Besides the lengthy sermon, participants heard solos, read, prayed, and meditated.

There are criticisms of this study (Doblin, 1991). A primary criticism is that the double-blind was quickly broken. Nicotinic acid produces a warm, tingling sensation that dissipates rapidly. Many in the control group thought this tingling signaled they were in the experimental group but quickly realized this was not so. Also, one negative experience that required medical intervention was not reported in write-ups of this experiment (Pahnke, 1966, 1969). Still, as Pahnke and Richard (1966) noted in discussing this experiment, set and setting were carefully manipulated to correspond to what occurs in cultures where tribes use naturally occurring psychoactive sacramentals in religious ceremonies. This likely contributed immensely to the success of this study.

Of the many measures used in this study, the criteria derived from Stace’s common core interests us most. Here the results were clear: on all criteria the experimental group scored significantly higher than the controls. Simply put, by independent criteria established by Stace, Panhke’s experimental participants indicated that they had mystical experiences while the controls did not.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the Good Friday study, Doblin (1991) was able to contact nine of the original control participants and seven of the original experimental participants. From November 1986 to October 1989 he interviewed participants in person or by phone. He was able to administer the original Pahnke questionnaire containing Stace’s criteria. Using as the criteria the percentage of participants who scored the maximum on each criterion of Stace’s common core, Doblin found that over 75 percent of the experimentals reported maximum scores on introvertive experiences of un-differentiated unity compared to only 5 percent of the controls. In Pahnke’s study the percentages were 70 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Thus, nearly 25 years later, participants who had mystical experiences elicited under proper set and setting with an entheogen gave evidence that entheogens can indeed be used as sacramentals and can produce lasting and profoundly meaningful effects, at least based upon self-report.

In a recent experiment Griffiths Richards, McCann, and Jesse (2006) sought to advance the Good Friday research. This benchmark study is a significant advance over Pahnke’s study for several reasons. It was a doubleblind, between groups, crossover design. Thirty entheogenic-naïve volunteers received psilocybin and methylphenidate (Ritalin) in counterbalanced order over two sessions. Methylphenidate was chosen as an active placebo control, and it has similar time-course effects to psilocybin on blood pressure. Additionally, six randomly assigned volunteers received methylphenidate in the first two sessions and unblended psilocybin in the third session. The purpose of this condition was to obscure the study design to both participants and guides. This was successful. Despite using an experienced entheogenic guide (who was drug-free when guiding) and additional knowledgeable monitors, almost one-quarter of sessions were misclassified with methylphenidate identified as psilocybin or psilocybin identified as some other drug. Thus, unlike Pahnke’s original study, this double-blind was successful.

Participants were volunteers with some religious and/or spiritual interests. Thirty-six participants (20 females) were medically and psychologically healthy, without histories of prior entheogen use. Ages ranged from 24 to 64 (mean age was 46). Most were college graduates and half had postgraduate degrees. Thirty participants were told that they would receive psilocybin and also that various other drugs might be administered (double-blind conditions), while six participants who received methylphenidate in the first two sessions were told that in the third session they would receive psilocybin. All participants met with the primary monitor over four sessions, for a total of eight hours, and on four occasions, for a total of four hours. The primary purpose was to develop rapport and trust and to minimize any negative reactions.

This study is a longitudinal study in that participants will be followed up on and assessed on a wide variety of measures at various intervals. For our purposes we will focus only upon the assessment of mysticism in this study. The assessment occurred in several ways. Before and two months after the study, participants took the M-scale. Seven hours after drug ingestion participants took a modified version of Pahnke’s questionnaire to assess mysticism. Both of these measures of mystical experience directly relate to Stace’s phenomenologically identified common core.

Results of the study indicated that seven hours after drug ingestion, participants in the experimental group had significantly higher scores on the modified Pahnke questionnaire than the methylphenidate controls. Likewise, two months after the experiment, psilocybin participants had higher scores on the Hood M-scale than the methylphenidate controls. Scores on the Hood M-scale after psilocybin predicted the spiritual significance of the experience (r = .77) in a 12- to 14-month follow-up (Griffiths, 2007). The majority of psilocybin participants rated their experience in the study, at both two months and at the one year follow-up, as one of the five most spiritually significant experiences in their lives.

Studies in the Good Friday tradition clearly establish that when entheogens are ingested under appropriate conditions of set and setting they can facilitate mystical experiences. The consistent use of measures derived from Stace’s common core indicates that these facilitated experiences are indistinguishable from mystical experiences that occur spontaneously or by other facilitated means, such as prayer or meditation. Thus, psilocybin and even methylphenidate (Ditman et al., 1969) can serve as psychoactive sacramentals. The Griffiths et al. study indicates that psilocybin is a more effective facilitator than methylphenidate.

Paranormal phenomena are common as mystical experiences with moderate dosages of psilocybin, but again the crucial requirement is that set and setting are appropriate. Individuals can be guided through out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and telepathic experiences equivalent to those so common in shamanic cultures. However, as noted above, to require improvement on paranormal tasks is as inappropriate under entheogens as it is to test the value of entheogens by performance on standardized tests. The crucial value appears to lie in their ability to facilitate altered states of consciousness. As Tart (1975) has long argued, these may require state-specific sciences to be properly understood. Wulff (2000, p. 430) has also suggested that if we accept mysticism as a healthy and veridical response, one must be open to views of the world that fundamentally challenge assumptions, theories, and methods favored by modern empirical psychology.

Mystical experiences of unity are among the most common cited by users of LSD and psilocybin (Luke & Kittenis, 2005). Interestingly, psilocybin is the active ingredient in the Psilocybe genus of mushrooms. Those experienced with naturally occurring entheogens rather then the synthesized single active ingredient suggest that there may be subtle and complex differences (Luke & Kitten, 2005; Shanon, 2002b). It may be that naturally occurring psychoactive substances would perhaps be easier to legalize in American culture, should that be desired. Regardless, that psychoactive substances can facilitate mystical and paranormal experiences seems so well established that the legitimate exploration of these experiences on their own terms appears to be more than feasible. If so, is there a frame within which they can be non-reductively explored? I think there is, and so I end this essay with a brief consideration of Jung and a concept he developed with the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1945.

Synchronicity and Set/Setting Effects

Several investigators have argued for the relevance of synchronicity to parapsychology and to the psychology of religion (Aziz, 1990; Bender, 1976; Rao, 1977; Storm, 1999). As is widely known, with the help of the physicist Wolfgang Pauli Jung (1960) sought to develop an acausal theory of meaningful coincidences. The value of this theory for paranormal phenomena is that it allows one to abandon the assumption that paranormal phenomena occur via causal means, including energy transmissions, that seem to violate known laws of physics. Instead, events can be causally connected, which in the case of humans usually requires the activation of archetypes. This is directly relevant to our previous discussion of entheogens in that investigators have long argued for the relevance of Jungian psychology to experiences facilitated under appropriate conditions set by LSD and psilocybin (Grof, 1975; Richards, 2005).

Schmeidleur (1997) has argued that paranormal phenomena may be natural abilities that, as with many abilities, exhibit wide individual differences. However, they can be cultivated and developed under appropriate facilitative conditions. Schmeidleur revised set and setting variables first identified by Braud (1975) that facilitate the report of paranormal phenomena. Included are such things as a non-anxious openness to experience and a positive orientation to alternate views of reality. If the focus is upon the phenomenology of paranormal experiences rather as opposed to efforts to assess the veridical nature of the experience as recently reemphasized by Targ, Schlitz, and Irwin (2000, p. 221), then researchers can as readily facilitate paranormal experiences under experimental conditions with entheogens as they can facilitate mystical ones. If paranormal events are seen as meaningful coincidences, the activation of archetypes under entheogens can be expected to produce meaningful coincidences. When the set and setting are carefully crafted to focus upon the possibility of experiencing paranormal phenomena, they can readily be facilitated. There is a considerable body of theory and research documenting this claim (Aziz, 1990; Grof, 1975; Rao, 1977).

If entheogens under appropriate set and setting can produce both mystical and paranormal experiences, the value of Stace’s phenomenological common core thesis becomes evident. Hollenback (1996, p. 615) argues that Stace’s focus upon introvertive mysticism as a nonsensuous form of transcendent experience undervalues the sensuous mystical experiences associated with visions, voices, and shamanistic flights to other realities. Hollenback would broaden the term mysticism to include such sensuous transcendent experiences. He also persuasively argues for their veridicality. However, we have taken a more neutral stance that nevertheless remains sympathetic to Hollenback’s view. We simply want to distinguish clearly nonsensuous transcendent experiences and identify these as mystical. Other sensuous forms of transcendent experience we identify as paranormal. We have argued that both mystical and paranormal experiences may be facilitated by entheogens.

Furthermore, as Richards (2005) has noted, it is often the case that mystical experiences are reported after experiencing archetypical imagery in entheogenic sessions. Thus, mystical experiences may follow paranormal experience. However, there need be no causal correlation between the two. The parallel to well-known progression in mystical traditions is obvious. The experience of paranormal powers is authenticated within many mystical traditions. However, the paranormal experiences are sensuous in nature and therefore not mystical. If we choose to restrict the term mystical to nonsensuous transcendent experiences, it does nothing to deny either the phenomenological descriptions of what we have simply called paranormal experiences, nor does it require the reduction of any of the experiences discussed in this chapter to claims that would refute the possibility that they are veridical.

It would appear that entheogens are among the most reliable facilitators of both paranormal and mystical experiences when set and setting are appropriate. Albert Hoffman (1994) was the first person to prepare LSD as a compound in 1938 and was the one who accidentally discovered its “extraordinary psychical effects” (p. 7) five years later. He repentantly noted that LSD (derived from the active ingredient in a naturally occurring ergot) has a fascinating history along with other psychoactive substances used as sacraments. At the symposium of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, assessing the current status and future of such compounds, he cautioned that the careless profane use of these chemicals would not have happened if notice had been taken of the thousand-year-old experiences of ancient cultures on how to properly use these substances (Hoffman, 1994, p. 14).

The meaningful study of paranormal and mystical experiences is clearly possible. There can be a science of spirituality but it must be “one that is nonreductionist. One that is phenomenologically rich” (Walach, 2007, p. 118). The simple fact that entheogens can be used to facilitate paranormal and mystical experiences does nothing to deny that the phenomenology of these experiences is identical to those that have been authenticated and valued within many faith traditions. The experiences themselves continue to fascinate those who have them and others who wish they could.