When in 1963 a young American student in Germany was led down the stairs to a laboratory in a psychiatric clinic, he had no idea how it was about to shape the rest of his life. Having signed up as a volunteer for what would be groundbreaking experiments exploring the effects of psychedelic drugs, Bill Richards was instructed to sit down on a cot in a cell-like room, injected with a psilocybin derivative and then left alone. Having no previous experience of psychedelics, it wasn’t long before he began to feel his consciousness expand into a fantastic transcendental state. Richards became awestruck. As he states in his book ‘Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences’: ”My awareness was flooded with love, beauty, and peace beyond anything I ever had known or wildly imagined to be possible.”
As many people had shown signs of tremendous anxiety after taking the drug, the German clinicians became open to exploring his experience with him. Richards believed that what he had been exposed to was sacred. Humphry Osmond in the 1950s in correspondence with writer Aldous Huxley, had coined the term ‘entheogens’ when talking of “mind-revealing” psychedelics. Richards now used the term to describe how they brought you closer to the understanding of God. From this moment onwards, he became determined to spend his academic life pursuing the ineffable truth that took over his whole being in that stark clinic.
Today, Bill Richards is one of the founders of the psychedelic research team at Johns Hopkins – one of the leading research institutes in the world for psychedelic research – and is among the most experienced figures in the psychedelic field today. It was clear to Richards from the start that being placed in a cold room with no plants and no integration was not the best way to trip on psilocybin, and that to get the most of the experience there needed to be comfort, music and, most importantly, support. He began to help others trip in clinical conditions as a treatment for alcoholism and mental health disorders. In a tranquil setting, the results were drastically different.
Back in Baltimore, Richards continued his work. He drew up a ‘States of Consciousness Questionnaire’, otherwise known as the ‘Mystical Experience Questionnaire’, to delve into his patients’ loss of their usual identity. Anyone taking part was asked to score the experience from 1 (slight effects) to 5 (more than anything before in my life). The document included questions on:
- Transcendence of Time and Space
- Loss of your usual sense of time
- Feeling that you experienced eternity or infinity
- Loss of your usual sense of space
- Loss of usual awareness of where you were
- Sense of being “outside of” time, beyond past and future
- Feeling that you have been “outside of” history in a realm where time does not exist
Not something most people get to score on a doctor’s chart, then, but even in the context of the irrational sensationalism towards ‘drugs’ prevalent during the 1960s, Richards understood that what he was exploring was the human psyche, that the entheogen was simply unlocking the door to other states of consciousness. These beautiful experiences may not be instantly meaningful to everyone, and it was for this reason that he also concentrated on creating a network of community support by specially trained personnel who can help the patient get the most from the experience.
There was a long period when Richards was banned from conducting any research at all, but his ‘Flight Instructions’ still apply to anyone embarking on a trip on a high dose of psychedelics to this day:
”Please relax. You will never be left alone during your experience. You need not worry about physical safety, [the name of the other sitter] and I will be here to help you and maintain your safety.
“You may experience a deep and transcendental experience. You may have feelings of the loss of one’s self, experience a sensation of rebirth or even death. You may experience a feeling that you have ceased to exist as an individual and are connected with the world or the universe. If you experience the sensation of dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc. — go ahead. Experience the experience. Remember that the death/transcendence of your ego or your everyday self is always followed by Rebirth/Return to the normative world of space & time. Safest way to return to normal is to entrust self unconditionally to the emerging experiences”.
“If you experience the sensation of dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc. — go ahead. Experience the experience.”
In short, ‘JUST GO WITH IT’. Bill’s ‘Flight Instructions’ work within any context when navigating the psychedelic world. The first time is unforgettable as there is very little context to understand how you are to return to your everyday life as well as to what it is that you will even be returning to. Bill Richards from day one seemed to instinctively understand, perhaps with a scientific curiosity at first, that the trip is bigger than you and, if you allow it, it will never stop revealing itself. And a sense of adventure and trust is not something to simply apply to recreational fun either. We can only hope that the use of psychedelics in medicine, education and even in religious services will become more appreciated in mainstream Western culture. That this is only the first of many taboos to dismantle.
Read a full transcript of the original Flight Instructions here.