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Imagine for a moment that everything that built your professional life, the things that motivated you, inspired you and defined you, started to feel irrelevant? As if he no longer fit with who you wanted to be in the world.
Maybe you don’t have to imagine it. I don’t have to After 20 years of covering news with a capital “N,” I found myself longing for a different kind of inner exploration: about the human condition, which is what these series is about.
The same thing happened to Dr. Roland Griffiths. He is known today as the scientist who helped prove that psychedelics, specifically a drug called psilocybin, can alleviate depression and mental anguish in cancer patients and others facing terminal illness. Before that, his professional focus was on the risks of mood-altering drugs, including various sleep medications.
But after starting a personal meditation practice, Griffiths began asking different questions, queries that felt out of place in the world of science. Questions like, is there a god? Do we have a soul? And can we use our mind to somehow alleviate our physical suffering?
He began working with a group of researchers and enthusiasts to develop a series of experiments proving the medical value of psychedelics.
Griffiths told me that the results were amazing. The drug not only reduced anxiety and depression in patients, but for some of them it unlocked a spiritual experience.
Now Griffiths is looking at all of this from the other side. In early 2022, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Doctors believe she only has a few months to live. I had an amazing conversation with this world renowned scientist and healer about how he deals with his own mortality and the mystery of what comes next.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Martin: You started working a lot with psilocybin. Can you describe what that is in simple terms?
Roland Griffiths: It is a classic psychedelic drug. It comes from mushrooms that contain psilocybin and has been used for hundreds to thousands of years with indigenous cultures for ceremonial healing or sacramental religious experiences. It comes on pretty quickly and doesn’t last as long as LSD or mescaline, so it’s easier to work with.
Martin: Do you use the expression “travel”?
Griffiths: No, I avoid it because it just has all the baggage of the 1960s.
Martin: You were running these trials explicitly on cancer patients to see how psilocybin would affect them.
Griffiths: That was our first therapeutic trial that we did at Johns Hopkins with psychedelics. I remember feeling very wary about what an experience of this kind would do to someone facing the most significant existential threat possible.
As it turns out, the effects were nothing short of amazing. In this cohort of individuals, who met criteria for clinical depression or anxiety, following a single dose of psilocybin in our supportive conditions, anxiety and depression were markedly reduced, immediately, and markedly and durably. That was the biggest feature: We followed people for six months and they stayed with very low symptom profiles.
Martin: What did they tell you about how they lost the feeling of fear or anxiety?
Griffiths: I remember a man, I hesitate to give this example, but I will, he came to believe in the reality of God. But what was so interesting is that this changed his whole frame of reference.
It wasn’t that it was full of spiritual language like, “God is going to save me.” No, it was an acceptance of his condition and a comfort to the people he loved the most, that everything was fine, that everything was as it should be and that they were encouraged by it.
Martin: If I may ask, why did you resist sharing that example?
Griffiths: The language of God.
Martin: We are all somewhat limited by our language, right? Perhaps some people use the word God because we don’t know what other words to attribute to these ideas or experiences.
Griffiths: I think that is precisely it. We live in the midst of this amazing mystery. And we don’t have a coherent scientific explanation of what’s going on. What we understand best about our experience of sensitivity is that we are aware that we are aware. That we have an interiority, and it is only us as an individual who can affirm that.
Martin: You have found yourself on the other side of this whole thing as someone who is contemplating these very existential questions with a new urgency. When were you diagnosed with cancer?
Griffiths: In early 2022, I underwent a screening colonoscopy, thinking I was completely healthy, and came away with a diagnosis of stage four colon cancer. And as unlikely as it may seem, it has been a call to celebration. My wife and I have been like this despite multiple surgeries and chemotherapy.
Martin: Do you plan to take psilocybin at some point?
Griffiths: No. Initially, I didn’t really want to touch a psychedelic, because I was worried that it might upset the state I was in.
Martin: You didn’t want to sabotage this mental clarity that you had.
Griffiths: Yes ok. And so it came to a point where I thought, I wonder if I’m defending myself from something here, I wonder if my reason for refusing to take a psychedelic is that I’m masking something. That there is a skeleton in my closet and I only say that I am happy and that everything is beautiful.
So I decided, okay, I’ll take a dose of psychedelic. I took LSD.
Martin: How did it go?
Griffiths: Fantastic. I approached cancer as someone else, and in general I don’t think it’s wise to reify anything in the mind as more than an object of the mind. But in this case, I addressed the cancer itself and said, “Okay, what’s going on here?”
Cancer did not respond. Then I got into a dialogue and said, “You know, I’ve considered you a blessing. I actually really respect everything that’s happened to me since this diagnosis. I’m really grateful for the diagnosis, but do you have to kill me?”
Martin: Wow, was there an answer to that?
Griffiths: Yes, the answer was: “Yes, you are going to die, but that is how it is meant to be. There is a deeper meaning. There is a deeper purpose. And you must continue to do what you are doing.”
I felt that meant that I should speak more broadly about what was going on, because I have been reluctant to do so. So, I have something to say here. So I asked, “How about you give me more time?”
Martin: I like that you went for the follow-up.
Griffiths: I went for the follow up. But I have radio silence. She did not answer. Was she conversing with cancer? No, that doesn’t fit into my world view. Some people would say it was, but it was a profound affirmation of what I was doing and it felt empowering to speak out.
My farewell invitation is to celebrate. I invite you to celebrate what I am celebrating and that it is this experience of the miracle of where we are. You don’t need to have a terminal diagnosis to support yourself more fully, and I promise you it’s worth it.
To ensure that his work continues, Dr. Griffiths has established The Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D. Fund of chairs dedicated to the study of psychedelics in the “service of human flourishing for generations to come”.