Please enjoy this transcript of a very meaningful episode to me and probably the most significant interview that I’ve recorded in the last year. It is with one of my favorite people and one of my favorite scientists in the world: Roland Griffiths, PhD.
Roland has recently been diagnosed with what is very likely terminal stage-four cancer. If you’ve ever found yourself inspired by someone who walks the walk, this episode is worth listening to.
Roland is a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at Johns Hopkins University, and founding Director of the Johns Hopkins Center on Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. His principal research focus in both clinical and preclinical laboratories has been on the behavioral and subjective effects of mood-altering drugs.
In 1994 Roland started a regular meditation practice that made him curious about certain altered states of consciousness that prompted him in 1999 to initiate the first study in decades to rigorously evaluate the effects of a high dose of a classic psychedelic drug (psilocybin) in healthy psychedelic-naïve participants. Subsequent studies with psilocybin have been conducted in healthy volunteers, in beginning and long-term meditators, and in religious leaders. Therapeutic studies with psilocybin include treatment of psychological distress in cancer patients, cigarette smoking addiction, major depression, anorexia nervosa, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Other studies have examined non-psychedelic drugs that produce altered states of consciousness having similarities to psilocybin. Brain imaging studies have examined pharmacological and neural mechanisms of action of psilocybin.
To learn more about Roland’s very ambitious project to establish a world-class psychedelic research program—in perpetuity—to advance human flourishing and well-being, please visit GriffithsFund.org.
Currently, Roland has received pledges totaling about $14M. This means that he is $6M short of the $20M target, sufficient to support the full research program. To donate, please visit GriffithsFund.org and click “Donate.”
For more information about establishing a major gift, please contact Mike DeVito, the Senior Associate Director of Development at email@example.com or call him at (443) 278-3174. Donors who contribute $1000 or more and who do not choose to remain anonymous will be acknowledged on the website.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors.
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Tim Ferriss: So we’re sitting here, this beautiful back porch, the fading light, entering into a calm dusk here in Baltimore. We’ve got Celeste Verdejo Sur Lies white wine, Pago Del Cielo, which is from God knows where. It’s got some great constellations on it. Don’t know. Doesn’t matter right now. But it does have Spanish, so I’m going to say Chile or Spain probably. And we just came back from a lovely hike. Thank you for that, Roland.
Roland Griffiths: At Lake Roland Park.
Tim Ferriss: At Lake Roland, no less. I’m so glad to be here. It’s been a little while, and had a wonderful dinner last night. Talked about 1,000,001 things. And one of the thoughts that came to mind for me — or let me begin with a question. You have had some hesitation, a lot of hesitation for, I think, many legitimate, reasonable reasons why you wouldn’t ever want to discuss or might not consider discussing personal psychedelic use.
Roland Griffiths: Let me talk about my personal experience with psychedelics. So I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s, and invariably within my cohort I was exposed to marijuana. And I had a few experiences with a psychedelic. Probably LSD, never psilocybin. They were done under recreational circumstances with friends. They were not meaningful experiences.
Tim Ferriss: How old were you, roughly, at this time, would you guess?
Roland Griffiths: Probably a sophomore in college.
Tim Ferriss: Yep.
Roland Griffiths: And had a few experiences, but they weren’t particularly compelling experiences to me. They were not the kinds of experiences that we now know we can elicit pretty reliably under optimized setting conditions and with proper support. So they were not that, and that’s actually quite usual with psychedelics. These can be just very disorienting, confusing experiences. So those few experiences were something that didn’t make a deep, personal impression on me in the way that we now know. We have people coming out of our session saying, “That was one of the most personally meaningful experiences in my life.” So that was not it. In my college cohort, I don’t know what percentage had exposure to psychedelics, but it’s —
Tim Ferriss: 80 percent-plus? I mean, it would have to be.
Roland Griffiths: Well, I don’t think it’s 80.
Tim Ferriss: No?
Roland Griffiths: No. No.
Tim Ferriss: In the Bay Area? Where were you?
Roland Griffiths: No. Well, at that point I was at Occidental College in Los Angeles, but my friends were from the Bay Area. In fac, that’s where —
Tim Ferriss: But nontrivial. It wasn’t like a prior generation. I mean, growing up in the Bay Area in the ’60s.
Roland Griffiths: No. No. So marijuana usage was much more normative than, in many situations, than alcohol use. And there certainly was experimentation with psychedelics. I was neither drawn particularly to marijuana, and as I say, I had a few experiences with psychedelics, none of which were of particular interest to me, when I went away to graduate school to study psychopharmacology, and that is psychoactive drugs, and that was ’68 that I went to University of Minnesota, the door had closed on any ability to do research.
Tim Ferriss: ’68. It had just closed. I mean, it was just about to lock.
Roland Griffiths: Well, it was slammed shut within the academic center. So University of Minnesota had conducted trials on LSD some years before, and it was already taboo at that point in terms of research. It was a third rail in terms of discrediting yourself for being interested in psychedelics. So the last thing —
Tim Ferriss: Now, at that time, were you interested, or were you —
Roland Griffiths: No.
Tim Ferriss: It was didn’t register as —
Roland Griffiths: Well, it didn’t —
Tim Ferriss: — meaningful enough to —
Roland Griffiths: It didn’t register with me as even a possibility to consider. In spite of coming from the Bay Area, I wasn’t steeped in the Haight-Ashbury culture and —
Tim Ferriss: Dirty, dirty hippies. Just kidding, folks. Although Haight-Ashbury’s pretty gritty, if you haven’t been there.
Roland Griffiths: Well, it became gritty. But of course, yeah. I mean, this was home of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. Stewart Brand’s been on the podcast.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: He’s got some stories, and Ken Kesey.
Roland Griffiths: But yeah, that was not the crowd in which I was involved with. And my friends who had tried psychedelics, none of them were psychedelic enthusiasts. So it was really a non-issue. And I got to graduate school, and it was clear that research wasn’t going to go on.
Tim Ferriss: This was ’68.
Roland Griffiths: ’68. Research of that type was not going to go on. So it never occurred to me to be thinking career-wise that would be an interesting thing to do. And because my limited experience was not particularly impressive, I had no particular interest.
Tim Ferriss: So from that point, when does — all right. We’re talking ’68. When does meditation enter the picture? And then when do psychedelics, even as just a topic of research interest or free-time curiosity, even reappear on the radar?
Roland Griffiths: So my involvement in meditation started in about mid-’90s, and that opened that spiritual window for me, that made me very curious about altered states of consciousness.
Tim Ferriss: And when psych-no-like. Sorry, guys. Geez. I’m going to leave that verbal tic in, just so you know. After 600 fucking episodes, I still have these tics. Note to the editing team. All right.
So I’d like to just understand when meditation entered the picture, when it entered the picture in a serious way, and then when psychedelics came back on the awareness or interest radar.
Roland Griffiths: I began meditation about 1993. I got, rather quickly, deeply involved. Had a regular meditation practice. Got involved with the Siddha Yoga community, and became incredibly intrigued by the altered states of consciousness that occurred through meditation. Very interesting phenomena that arise. And it really turned my interest, for the first time, on inner experience, deep inner experience. I’d had some curiosity about meditation back in graduate school, but it really never took. This time, when I got involved, it did take. It was interesting. Really, deeply intriguing to me. Got me reading the literature on comparative meditation traditions. It rang very closely to spirituality and religious traditions, of which I had almost no prior affiliation and interest in.
I ended up having experiences in Siddha Yoga, having experiences with the teacher of Siddha Yoga. And this is a tradition that puts high value on this relationship, even on a subtle level between the guru and the disciple. And that part really threw me and was repugnant to me from the beginning until I had, actually, what I considered an astonishing initiation experience in which I at one point sat before meditation session. This was just in Baltimore.
And the way Siddha Yoga works, again, the guru is revered. There’s a seat at the front of the center. And if the guru is not present, which the guru I don’t think ever visited the Baltimore center, then a picture of the guru sat there. And I was looking at this picture, and all of a sudden, the eyes became alive. And I was looking into the picture, and I was looking into these eyes that were looking right back at me. And I thought, “This is fascinating.” And as I looked more closely, I realized I was looking in my own eyes. And with that understanding, and this wouldn’t be commonly held within the tradition, I recognized that I was the guru, that I was no different than the guru, that the guru was just a mirror of who you are.
And with that kind of understanding, I was able to join the community in reverence to the guru because it was in reverence to this deeper interconnectedness that the guru was reflecting back. And I was able to pranam, bow, in front of the guru because I was bowing to myself. And so that shifted a frame of reference that allowed me to engage in that community. And then I started more serious daily meditation practices that I have continued ever since.
But I became just deeply intrigued with that whole area, and then had a period of time in which that was the most interesting and important thing, it really became a primary focus of interest to me.
Tim Ferriss: Psychedelics or meditation?
Roland Griffiths: No, no. The altered states of consciousness and meditation.
Tim Ferriss: So before that, if I may interject for a second. So before that, were you — and I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but more of a B.F. Skinner? Like, “Hey, if it’s outside observable behavior, we can quantify it and rely on it. Internal experience, too squishy.” It’s a maze with no end if you start delving into that side of things. And then after your direct experiences with meditation, you became more interested in the potential of personally, and maybe professionally, exploring inner experience. Is that an overstatement? It might be. It probably is.
Roland Griffiths: No. No. No. That’s accurate. Although back in graduate school, when I initially tried meditation, and I did only for maybe several weeks, I actually got the concept that there might be something interesting here. That people had developed these methodologies over thousands of years to explore inner experience. My training at the time was strict behavior analysis, which generally ignores inner experience as being irrelevant because it’s not measurable. And it was thought, really, to be a nuisance variable among scientists who are interested in behavior.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I’ve never heard that. A nuisance variable. It’s great. It’s amazing.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That should be the title of my autobiography.
Roland Griffiths: Well, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: The Nuisance Variable.
Roland Griffiths: So, yeah. I would have a mentor who had said, “Yeah. Words are just your mouth kind of flapping around. That’s the only behavior there is there.” Because you don’t have a third-person account of what’s going on in terms of subjective experience. Indeed, that’s the nature of the hard problem of consciousness and the ability to understand —
Tim Ferriss: Sorry for the noise. Molly’s snoring.
Roland Griffiths: Understand the validity of self-reports. But I got the concept that, wait a second, there might be something here, but the language used to describe it is going to be metaphorical probably because there’s no way to verify that what is being reported is correct. But then some years later, when I started having these very significant meditation experiences, all of a sudden that became really intriguing to me because there are experiences —
Tim Ferriss: If you wouldn’t mind just describing perhaps one variety of this experience, I think would be helpful for people who don’t have any exposure to, say, meditation. What does a deeper or unusual, to a intrepid meditator, experience feel like? What makes it unlike ordinary consensus reality/consciousness? What makes it different?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Well, there’s phenomenology attached to these experiences that will be highly variable across traditions.
Tim Ferriss: So just for the muggles listening, what’s phenomenology? I realize I used that word earlier because I want to sound smart of experience.
Roland Griffiths: The nature of the subjective experience. So it could be by lights, it could be feelings that emerge, could be imagery that comes up. There’s a whole variety of what we might call the play of consciousness. Whatever can appear in consciousness can come up. With meditation, there may be unusual features to that, or those experiences may come up more intensely than you would otherwise expect. I mean, one of the keys in meditation, I mean, what is learned in meditation is the ability to look at the nature of mind, to really figure out what’s — understand what it is that’s going on in your mind. So people would know —
Tim Ferriss: How much of that is separating consciousness from content? Of the observer from the patterns or the emotions that are being observed? When you say realizing what the mind is doing, could you expand on that?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. So the basic instruction with meditation in most traditions is you have an object of focus, that might be breath, it might be a visualization, it could be with eyes open and eyes closed. But you’re initially invited to put your attention on a single object and pay attention to it. So that could be breath, watching the in breath and the out breath. That sounds like a simple thing, but it’s not at all. It could be paying attention to how the back of your hand feels. It could be paying attention to what’s happening within your mind. There are a thousand different approaches. But what one is instructed to do is to pay attention and to stay awake to where your mind is. So following your breath turns out to be very difficult. If you sit down and you’re told, “Just stay with your breath, and if thoughts arise, just let them go,” that’s a trial by fire for most people.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Good luck, monkey mind. You’re going to see a lot of hyperactivity.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah, and that’s drives many beginning meditators out immediately.
Tim Ferriss: So you said you started with a few weeks and then you quit. What happened?
Roland Griffiths: Oh, it probably wasn’t even a few weeks. Three minutes seemed like three hours to me. It’s just incredibly frustrating and boring.
Tim Ferriss: Can I tell you just this — because I think this will give people inspiration also. So your wife, actually, I should say that, that’s actually fun to say. So instead of significant other, your wife was saying to me earlier, so she gave me a fantastic, it was very generous, head and neck massage. She’s very skilled and she said, “I’m really rusty because Roland doesn’t want massages and he can’t sit still for this long.” So I thought that was very hilarious, but also very inspiring, which means you can have the go-go-go predisposition and eventually still embrace and find tremendous value from these meditative practices. So what did quitting look like?
Roland Griffiths: Quitting?
Tim Ferriss: Well, you said, “I don’t know if I’ve even made it a few weeks.” I mean, with that first period of meditation, did you take a break? Did you just decide, “This isn’t working, I need something different.” What did that look chapter look like?
Roland Griffiths: Well, it was a very short chapter. I went to maybe two or three classes from a meditation teacher in Minneapolis and set upon myself to try to meditate each day and it just was aversive. It was no fun and frankly, I —
Tim Ferriss: Aversive. Next time you’re going to complain, people, say, “This is highly aversive to my delicate sensibilities.” Yes, it was aversive. You didn’t like it.
Roland Griffiths: I didn’t like it. No, it was hard and I didn’t get it. Nothing interesting happened, although I was very impatient for —
Tim Ferriss: Something to happen.
Roland Griffiths: Something to happen. Yeah, very quickly concluded I had better things to do and that there wasn’t any value in this for me. So then decades later, that situation changed.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so hold on a second. When was this initial experiment with meditation? What year were you saying?
Roland Griffiths: So that was probably 1970.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. ’70. Then around you said, what was it, ’92, ’93? It reemerges. Why does meditation reemerge at that point?
Roland Griffiths: Well, a good friend at the time got involved with Siddha Yoga, she started attending this local meditation center and I thought, “Well that’s interesting,” because I’d had a prior interest in meditation, but never got it. Then she called me up one day really excitedly saying, “I’m going on a month-long meditation retreat.”
Tim Ferriss: A month. That’s legitimate.
Roland Griffiths: I thought, “Oh, my God, what in the world would that be like?” There was this kind of mixed feeling I had. One was almost fear. It’s like, “That sounds like torture.” I couldn’t meditate for three minutes and she’s going to go —
Tim Ferriss: I have to say for people who don’t know, Roland, you are one of the most fidgety people I’ve ever met in my life. I say that not as any denigration or insult. I mean, you have a tremendous forward propulsion, I’ll put it that way. That’s a good thing. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m not sure how this is landing for you. Okay. So the idea of you going to a month-long meditation retreat is crazy. It’s crazy talk.
Roland Griffiths: Crazy talk and it would almost be like, I don’t know, saying, “Yeah, you could go to jail for two months.” It sounded like potential torture. But yet I had thought about meditation as being something that potentially could reveal something about myself and something I thought I should know more about and that is my kind of interior experience and that maybe there was something to this. So there was both this sense of fear, but also intrigue about —
Tim Ferriss: When was this? This was ’92, ’93?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Probably ’92 or ’93.
Tim Ferriss: We can edit this out, but tell me the truth. Was there any crush on this woman whatsoever?
Roland Griffiths: Well, she was a girlfriend.
Tim Ferriss: I knew it. All right. Just wanted to fact check a little. Okay.
Roland Griffiths: I mean, we subsequently came to live together and I don’t know whether we were living together at that time. We might have been. As a matter of fact, I think we were.
Tim Ferriss: So we end up you’re considering this insight that could come vis-à-vis greater awareness of your inner experience and you go to a month-long —
Roland Griffiths: No, I didn’t. She went to the month-long —
Tim Ferriss: She went. Okay.
Roland Griffiths: Oh, yeah. No, there’s no way I —
Tim Ferriss: I was like, man, that’s like — “Well, I don’t know how to swim, but I’m going to do an Ironman.” All right. So she does a month-long meditation retreat and what comes with that?
Roland Griffiths: She really starts to get engaged with the meditation. She starts to get —
Tim Ferriss: So it deepens her practice, this whole experience?
Roland Griffiths: Yes. She starts a regular meditation practice. The month-long retreat in and of itself probably wasn’t pivotal to her, but she got more deeply involved in meditation. As a consequence, I became more intrigued and so I took instructions from her. “What do you do?” I can remember the first meditation that I did, it was in the evenings after I’d come back from a run and I would sit down on a pillow in meditation posture and just try to be present with that. But at that point, I didn’t have any firm instructions in meditation, but I thought there might be something here, it might be intriguing. It became intriguing enough to me to attend, to go to a program down at this meditation center. It was a week-long program or a weekend program on meditation.
Tim Ferriss: What was it that gave you enough positive feedback to commit to that? Does that make sense? So how did it differ from your prior experience where you’re like, “I got better things to do, I’m out of here.”
Roland Griffiths: I think initially there was just some sense of calm and well-being and then curiosity about where this could go were I to get more systematically involved in it. It was like what is it to stare into the mind when you’ve never considered your own interiority, if you will? That’s where I was. I hadn’t paid attention to the nature of mind other than believing and identifying with the voice in my head that would come up and tell me, “Oh, good job,” or, “You really screwed that up,” or, “Let’s get this done today.”
Tim Ferriss: Where were you professionally at the time, just so we can provide some context?
Roland Griffiths: So I’m a full professor at Hopkins in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience, well established in psycho-pharmacology, international reputation, dealing primarily with drugs of abuse, successful in funding and already had published probably hundreds of publications at that time. So I was well established in the field.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, this is helpful because I just want to make sure we dismiss any imaginings that listeners might have of you living in an RV, sort of Into the Wild style, running around naked with palo santo or whatever. That’s not the case. You were definitively doing — you were on track professionally, so to speak. I mean, it sounds like.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah, and I’d established as a full professor at Johns Hopkins, a very conservative medical institution doing rigorous research and garnering funding and stature, international acclaim for my research, mostly on drugs of dependence. At that point I had done considerable work with sedative hypnotics. That was a primary focus.
Tim Ferriss: What would be an example of sedative hypnotic? Just so people can frame it.
Roland Griffiths: Oh, benzodiazepines, Valium, Librium, Ativan, sleeping medications. So that was one area of specialty that I had. I’d worked as a consultant and done a number of drug companies sponsored trials looking at novel drugs for their abuse liability. By that time, I had also done considerable research —
Tim Ferriss: For their abuse liability? So just I understand, are you basically trying to identify the worst case scenarios in that instance with sponsored research from industry? Just so I can try to translate what you’re saying into lay terms. Is it companies that are saying, “Hey, we want to understand what our liabilities are if we push this out to millions of people. Let’s look at abuse potential. Here’s some money to help us figure it out.” Is that —
Roland Griffiths: Well, correct, but FDA also mandates that they assess abuse liability.
Tim Ferriss: Right. For sure. For sure. I mean, it makes a lot of sense on a whole lot of levels.
Roland Griffiths: So we developed methodologies that are continuing to be widely used for assessing abuse liability of drugs. Many of those procedures were subsequently adopted by FDA and then mandated to be trials conducted by drug companies that were bringing new compounds to market because they don’t want a compound brought to market that has —
Tim Ferriss: No one wants another thalidomide on their hands or whatever.
Roland Griffiths: Well, but in this case, no one wants another heroin on their hands.
Tim Ferriss: It’s kind of wild how that turned out with oxycodone and so on, but yeah.
Roland Griffiths: Isn’t it? But I’d also been someone who follows my interests. So whatever is of most interest to me, that’s where my research has led me. So I got really intrigued first with nicotine, just again, as a psychoactive, as a model for understanding self administration. At the time that I initially got involved with nicotine, it wasn’t considered to be an addictive drug and yet it was widely used.
Tim Ferriss: Early days. When was this? This is in the ’60s? Or no, late ’60s, early ’70s. When was this?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Let’s see. I probably started in late ’70s on that.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. It’s wild to think about. People think this is ancient history. It’s not. I mean, for me at least. It’s not ancient history.
Roland Griffiths: So we ran a number of studies looking at the role of nicotine and the control of cigarette smoking and we went down a rabbit hole in looking at detailed behavior analysis of puff topography, exactly the nature of the puff.
Tim Ferriss: Wait, what is puff topography?
Roland Griffiths: Well, with each puff of a cigarette, there’s a profile of how people draw on that and what the duration is and the intensity of that puff. But then you also have the inhalation, the inhalation depth and duration, all of which is relevant to extraction of nicotine out of that. We became —
Tim Ferriss: Connoisseurs of puff topography.
Roland Griffiths: We did, and that turns out to have been a blind alley that I spent a whole lot of time focused on what actually is the nature of controlling the individual puff duration and the —
Tim Ferriss: Sort of relevant, if you think about vaping pens and more mechanized controllable means of administering nicotine, I would imagine. The people must be studying this still.
Roland Griffiths: Oh, no, it’s highly relevant and that is because we know that whatever you’re delivering via by lung is going to depend on the delivery device and so one of the things that we observed is that the puff duration decreased systematically as the cigarette was smoked. We thought, “Oh, that’s interesting. Maybe there’s a satiation mechanism in there, and maybe there’s something subtle about the control of puff duration.”
Tim Ferriss: Trying to make it last longer.
Roland Griffiths: We ran a variety of studies and found out it actually just had to do with the draw on the cigarette rod.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, because the longer it is, the longer you can drag.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. So that may change factors such as heat and things like that. But it turned out not to be very interesting with respect to understanding the nature of the addictive behavior of nicotine. But my first postdoc student in that area, Jack Henningfield, actually came to be very famous in the whole area of nicotine dependence and he was a coauthor on the Surgeon General’s report that recognized nicotine as a drug of addiction. So I’d gone down into nicotine, and at that point I’d already switched and started to do work with caffeine because there were lots of people then who were involved with the nicotine stuff. I’d gone down this blind alley looking at the puff topographies and stuff like that and that didn’t —
Tim Ferriss: Never fall for the seduction of puff topography, everybody. Don’t do it.
Roland Griffiths: Well, but that’s what science is. I mean, it looks so orderly and it looked clean and it was a discrete behavioral measure. So it was really —
Tim Ferriss: It was seductive.
Roland Griffiths: It was seductive. But not everything works out. But that’s the fun of science, is you can follow your hunches.
Tim Ferriss: If everything worked out, there would be a severe problem with the methodology.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. You learn when to hold them and when to fold them
Tim Ferriss: All right, so let’s zoom out for a second. So we’re talking about a number of things simultaneously. We’re talking about your professional interests. We’re talking about, it seems like, a reintroduction and turning point with meditation as a tool for examining your hitherto, is that the right word, largely ignored internal experience, aside from like, “Yeah, I know when I’m beating myself up and I know when I’m praising myself,” but outside of that, it’s just largely unexamined.
Roland Griffiths: I would go even further than that. I don’t think I knew when I was beating myself up and when I was praising myself.
Tim Ferriss: You knew those were things, but you didn’t have in-the-moment awareness to recognize when you were doing wrong or the other.
Roland Griffiths: I was so identified with the voice in my head that that’s all I knew. I guess if you ask, I could say, “Yeah, I’m feeling badly about that because I should have done differently,” but what I couldn’t see is that that’s just occurring within a larger field of consciousness and that voice in my head was not me, that there’s a sense of awareness that resides behind that. When you start paying attention to that voice and realizing it’s not you, then all of a sudden the game starts changing. I can remember when I first got involved with meditation and starting to pay attention to that voice in my head, it was brutally judgmental. I mean, it would say all kinds of — it was just self-judgment, but, “You’re stupid.”
Tim Ferriss: “Oh, come on, Roland. You can do better than that.”
Roland Griffiths: Right. “What in the world are you doing?”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, vicious.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. But I think many, many people live with just that and the kind of thought experiment and I did is, “Gee, if that voice in my head were to be amplified, brain on speaker, it would just be really embarrassing to hear what was going on.” I was a parent at the time and treated my relationship with my children as a huge privilege, and I would never talk to my children the way that that voice —
Tim Ferriss: The way you spoke to yourself.
Roland Griffiths: — was talking to me. I would say, “If I heard a parent talking like that to their children, I would have a lot of judgment that would come up instantaneously. I mean, that is not how to nurture a child.” I’m thinking, “But what? This is my relationship with myself? Good God. Let’s get this straightened out.” So that’s part of what emerges with meditation is this mindfulness and catching yourself and initially when I would hear that kind of judgemental stuff, I guess I had no — I was so identified with it that it was very difficult to dissociate from. But once I saw it for what it was and say, “Wait a second, I don’t need to hear that,” and then that kind of judgemental voice would just dissipate over time. But that’s just one example of what goes on within our own self talk. If that is not who you are, if there’s a larger sense of self behind that, then you needn’t allow yourself to get beat up like that.
Tim Ferriss: If I may just jump in for a second. All right. So we have all of these realizations, vis-à-vis practices. I think that’s my new catch phrase for the episode, vis-à-vis. I don’t know why. I sometimes have episodes that are dominated by some bizarre verbal tic that comes out of nowhere. I think vis-à-vis is my weird tic for this one. Anyway, you have these practices, you have this turning point of sorts, ’92, ’93, with meditation. We’re going to bounce around a little bit. When is your first study published that involved psychedelics in any capacity?
Roland Griffiths: 2006.
Tim Ferriss: 2006?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah, but we started the research back in 2000 and started thinking about it back in the late 1990s.
Tim Ferriss: Late 1990s. So let’s just, for argument’s sake, say ’97, ’98. We’re talking ’92, ’93 with meditation experiences. How do you go from that to then beginning to cogitate on the first germinating seeds of what would later become a published study?
Roland Griffiths: My interest in meditation became super compelling. I started reading literature on different meditation traditions, on different religious traditions, and it seemed important to me and it really functioned perhaps as a midlife crisis. By comparison, my interest in conducting new studies on sedative hypnotics or caffeine just seemed of much less importance. I’ve been there, done that, I could write other grants, I could get more funding for that. So what? Other people could do that. And here was something new, a shiny new coin to look at and something that I —
Tim Ferriss: And this is psychedelic compounds?
Roland Griffiths: No.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sorry. I misunderstood.
Roland Griffiths: No, this is about the nature of mind, what the hell’s going on. That’s the only thing that we really know is our minds, but in our culture we never pay attention to that. And I thought, Jesus, how could I have lived my life this long and not —
Tim Ferriss: Driving this car for my entire life and I’ve never looked at the car. How is that possible?
Roland Griffiths: Never looked under the hood and never occurred to me to look under the hood.
Tim Ferriss: Never even looked at it. You were just looking at the windshield.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. And so that seemed fundamentally important to me and there was a level of feeling disoriented because I didn’t understand what the nature of the meditation tradition I was involved in and how that fit with other meditation traditions and where in the world does this fit within the literature on spirituality and religion, but it seemed really important and of interest to me. So much so that I considered dropping out of Hopkins altogether and going off to the meditation ashram and really diving into meditation and this tradition, but I didn’t feel secure in doing that. I didn’t understand enough about that tradition and where it fit into a wider field. So I did a lot of reading about meditation, about spirituality, and then I came to be introduced through a good friend, Bob Schuster, who was head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at that time and had been one of my few colleagues who were actually interested in my involvement with meditation.
Tim Ferriss: Now we’re talking about what time line? Late ’90s?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. This would be ‘97, ‘98 when I’d go to meetings and my colleagues would say, “Well, yeah, what’s new?” And I said, “I’ve really gotten involved with a meditation practice.” And you could just see their eyes glaze over.
Tim Ferriss: “Oh, that’s nice. I’ll see you next Wednesday at the…” fill the blank.
Roland Griffiths: Most of my colleagues just didn’t get that at all.
Tim Ferriss: Bob Schuster, you said?
Roland Griffiths: Bob Schuster.
Tim Ferriss: What did he ask you? How did he demonstrate that curiosity?
Roland Griffiths: Well, so I don’t remember the specific time, but it would’ve been the same thing, I’ve gotten involved with meditation. And Bob just had a lot of native curiosity and so he would’ve followed up, “Well, tell me about that.” And he’d be pressing me for details. “What is it? What are you doing here?” And I think he was intrigued with that. He never got involved with meditation, but he had wide-ranging interests and was really a creative individual. He was one of my few colleagues who really showed interest. It turns out then that he ended up being invited to a meeting hosted by Bob Jesse.
Tim Ferriss: Bob Jesse, love you, buddy. He’s such a good guy. Anyway, not to foreshadow too strongly, but continue.
Roland Griffiths: Bob had started the Council on Spiritual Practices that was very interested in primary religious experiences. And in particular, those brought about what Bob would’ve described as entheogens, which would be psychedelics. He was very interested in the nature of these transformative experiences and he started this organization, the Council on Spiritual Practices and had a meeting at which Bob Schuster attended, and there was some discussion about launching research with psychedelics.
Tim Ferriss: And so you attended this at the behest of —
Roland Griffiths: No, I didn’t attend this meeting.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, you didn’t?
Roland Griffiths: No.
Tim Ferriss: Bob reported back to you?
Roland Griffiths: This is Bob Schuster attended this meeting.
Tim Ferriss: Bob Jesse and Bob Schuster.
Roland Griffiths: And then the question is, well, who could run such a study?
Tim Ferriss: Let me back up for a second. Why would Bob Schuster go to this event?
Roland Griffiths: Just out of curiosity.
Tim Ferriss: Good man. I feel like that just defines the best scientists I’ve ever met is just an extreme curiosity, because what’s the cost of one day, a couple of follow up questions? Why not? So he just went because he was like, “I don’t have no idea what this is about. Let’s check it out.” There’s probably more to it.
Roland Griffiths: He would’ve known there was something to do with entheogens and this sounded like an interesting group and he had broad interests so he went. I don’t know the details of that meeting, but I do know that at the end of that there was some talk, well, what if research were to be renewed with psychedelics?
Tim Ferriss: And just to set the stage here, from, was it ‘71? I might be getting the year off, but once we had the Controlled Substances Act, is that right? Am I getting that?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah, the Controlled Substances Act.
Tim Ferriss: And Nixon, which I would argue is more politically motivated than scientifically motivated, you basically have a psychedelic scientific winter. Everything is locked down up until now we’re talking about late ’90s. So it is important for folks to understand that very little had happened in those intervening years with maybe the exception of Strassman.
Roland Griffiths: Rick Strassman had run a study with DMT in experienced users, but other than that, nothing had been done. And Bob Jesse’s group was interested in what it would take to reinitiate research with more of the classic psychedelics, not inhaled or intravenous and in DMT. And so Bob Schuster suggested that Bob Jesse reach out to me because Bob Schuster knew that I was involved with meditation, I might be intrigued, and certainly was well credentialed, and he ended up introducing me to Bob Jesse.
Tim Ferriss: So many Bobs.
Roland Griffiths: And Bob Jesse then came out and we had lunch together. My interest in Bob Jesse was that he had this Council on Spiritual Practices that were interested in transformative change. I wasn’t interested in the psychedelics, but he was widely read on transformative change within mystical and meditation traditions. And so initially I was seeking him as a resource to try to do stress testing about how did I get involved with this group, where does this group fit within other different meditation traditions, and he was very generous with his time and made a number of books available to me, gave me a —
Tim Ferriss: What books. Do you remember?
Roland Griffiths: Just a reading list on different meditation traditions, different religious traditions, but he was also interested in what he would’ve called the entheogens.
Tim Ferriss: Now, just for folks who have no context, why would Bob care about calling them entheogens versus psychedelics?
Roland Griffiths: Well, Bob really felt strongly that psychedelics just as a term were beyond — could not be —
Tim Ferriss: Beyond salvation.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Absolutely beyond salvation that he felt that at that time, the whole term “psychedelics” elicited visions of tie-dyed t-shirts and lava lamps and the Haight-Ashbury and The Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sad that lava lamps have exited stage laps. Just for the record, I think they’re fantastic. But the Austin Powers flashback tie-dye association is not, on the whole, positive?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah, there’s so much negative publicity that the psychedelics had garnered because of what happened in the 1960s that there was every reason not to associate with that.
Tim Ferriss: So you have psychedelic, it’s a hodgepodge Greek etymology, but mind manifesting, then you have entheogen, so theo like theology or theobromine, food of the gods, chocolate for you chocolate lovers out there, and —
Roland Griffiths: Theos was God, so that’s the experience of God within.
Tim Ferriss: Entheogen as in genesis. What should we make of that term, entheogen? What does that mean? Just simply speaking.
Roland Griffiths: To engender the experience of God within, and these substances then would be claimed to be relevant to that, but of course that uses the God word, which is problematic in and of itself. And it’s a very narrow casting of what the psychedelics can do. Yes, they can produce experiences of spiritual significance, but they do a whole bunch of other things and they had been termed psychotomimetic for a long time.
Tim Ferriss: Still sometimes apt, I think.
Roland Griffiths: Well, they are. They were thought to be models of psychosis and that was thought to be their primary initial interest clinically.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask a point of question here. Without personal experience, after your initial experiences, how did you get to the point where you decided to dedicate your resources to studying psychedelics?
Roland Griffiths: When Bob Jesse prompted me to consider running a study with, in this case, psilocybin, and at that time we would’ve called it a hallucinogen, so we wouldn’t have called it a psychotomimetic. We would’ve called it a classic hallucinogen. And so the term psychedelic has since been rehabilitated, and so now we’re free to use it once again, but at the time it was too edgy to use. And so the thought going in was can we study this? I was familiar with the work that had been done, and now I got caught up on my reading of the work, particularly from Harvard, but there is a lot of other research on psychedelics from the ’50s and ’60s.
Tim Ferriss: A lot of which was in the context of then alcoholism and now alcohol use disorder, as I understand it.
Roland Griffiths: That was one of the central therapeutic targets from that early work, as was end of life anxiety and depression. And both of which have been now resurrected and we ended up running a significant trial in cancer patients who had anxiety and depression, end of life. And just this last week, Michael Bogenschutz from NYU has published a very important study showing that psilocybin is effective at treating alcoholism. Those are lines of research that were really started in the ’50s through ’60s.
Tim Ferriss: Flashing forward then to the current moment, not as we’re sitting here on your patio, but rather the moment that you’ve freeze framed, which is Bob Jesse suggests a potential study or research looking at psilocybin specifically, that is roughly what year would you say?
Roland Griffiths: It would’ve been maybe ’98.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. ’98. Funny enough, I just have to say for you, you might find this entertaining, in ’96, I think it was ’96, I was at Princeton, I was a psychology-focused undergrad hoping to specialize in neuroscience. Around the same time I would have submitted my final term paper for a psychology class with Bart Hoebel, who did all sorts of interesting research, discussing the neurological — this is fancy talk, but neurological correlates between LSD-25, otherwise known as just LSD, and REM sleep. So basically the exact same time, I just think that’s a funny coincidence. How do you then go from, let’s say, ’97, ’98, let’s just say ’98 for simplicity, to your next personal use of psychedelics and what came of this new reentrance on a personal level into psychedelics?
Roland Griffiths: Well, I think importantly, at least to me, is that when I decided I would conduct a study with psilocybin, number one, I didn’t have any significant prior experiences. I was not —
Tim Ferriss: Well, you had none with psilocybin, right? Because presumably you used LSD back in the day, so no direct experience to psilocybin.
Roland Griffiths: No direct experience with psilocybin, but nothing of interest with psychedelics.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you say yes to Bob or continue to have that conversation?
Roland Griffiths: Because I was deeply interested in altered states of consciousness and I thought this would be a way to use the tools of my trade, I’m a clinical pharmacologist that runs drug trials, to conduct rigorous research examining those. So at that point I had plenty of experience running clinical trials, designing novel ways to assess subjective effects and different feeling states, and I had a lot of credibility within the field in terms of running that. So this was in some ways right down my alley.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask you this. At the time, were you tempted to possibly have a firsthand experience with psychedelics and you subverted that because of other priorities that you had said, or at that time you weren’t tempted?
Roland Griffiths: No. I had zero interest. As a matter of fact, I think, if anything, I would’ve been deeply reluctant to be exposed to a psychedelic because I was already on a meditation path and I didn’t know how that would interact with that. And in fact, within meditation traditions there’s a long history of prohibition of use of any psychoactive substances. And as it turns out now, since we’ve done research with long-term meditators and beginning meditators, I don’t think that there’s any significant adverse effect on meditation of using a psychedelic, but at the time I didn’t know that. And furthermore, I frankly was suspicious of psychedelic enthusiasts, that there’s a cohort of people who would wax excitedly.
Tim Ferriss: Hold on, you’re using some fancy term for folks who’d cohort, et cetera, so what were you seeing that you didn’t like? Were you like, “I’m not sure those are my people.”
Roland Griffiths: Within the scientific community, they were not the enthusiastic researchers, because no human research could be done.
Tim Ferriss: I’m just curious. At what point did you become aware of Sasha Shulgin? We don’t have to spend a lot of time on this, I’m just wondering from a chronological perspective, because that guy, he has some real credibility. Had, he’s passed away of course.
Roland Griffiths: See, I probably would’ve read PiHKAL or TiHKAL, his classic books. At the same time, I was just getting familiar with the whole field.
Tim Ferriss: For people who don’t know, PiHKAL, that’s Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved. I think A Chemical Romance, maybe A Chemical Love Story, one of the two is the subtitle. Amazing book. But by and large, not many people in your scientific peer group who would want any type of association with psychedelics whatsoever, or is that too strong?
Roland Griffiths: No. At that point, it still was considered to be a non-starter. Except for Rick Strassman, no research had been done with these drugs. Certainly not in psychedelic naive individuals and within —
Tim Ferriss: And he had worked with experienced subjects?
Roland Griffiths: Correct. And so he had gotten permission to give DMT to experienced individuals, but it wasn’t clear at all that you could even get a trial approved to administer a significant dose of a psychedelic to psychedelic naive people. And so when we initially submitted that protocol, I —
Tim Ferriss: When did you initially submit?
Roland Griffiths: That would’ve been probably ‘99. I judged the probability of even getting the protocol accepted by my IRB and by — .
Tim Ferriss: What is it? Something review board. What does the I stand for?
Roland Griffiths: Institutional.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right.
Roland Griffiths: Institutional Review Board.
Tim Ferriss: Institutional Review Board, yep.
Roland Griffiths: And essentially they’re the ethical approval group within an institution, in this case Hopkins.
Tim Ferriss: If you want to do week-long facts, you’re a little late to the game, folks. Could have done that a few decades ago, but not anymore. That’s because you will not get IRB approval.
Roland Griffiths: And then FDA approval was equally uncertain. So it wasn’t clear we could do this.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you decide to throw that Hail Mary?
Roland Griffiths: Because I was really interested in altered states of consciousness.
Tim Ferriss: And now you have a means by which in a single session you could potentially induce a significant altered state.
Roland Griffiths: Yes. A key component in us doing this research was finding Bill Richards, who had formerly worked at Maryland Psychiatric Research Center.
Tim Ferriss: Didn’t he administer the last legal dose of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy?
Roland Griffiths: He did. And so he had been involved in this. He himself had psychedelic experiences before they were made illegal and he was a clinical psychologist in Baltimore with a deep interest —
Tim Ferriss: How did you find him?
Roland Griffiths: Well, Bob Jesse introduced me to —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, Bob Jesse, the source of all good things. Bill Richards, he’s very skilled.
Roland Griffiths: He’s very skilled, but I would also count him among the true believers.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Roland Griffiths: He was a skillful clinician and I wouldn’t have had the courage to study a high dose of a psychedelic absent someone who could assure me that they knew what they were doing clinically, because —
Tim Ferriss: “Hey, look, I’ve been shot into space. Let me tell you what it’s like.”
Roland Griffiths: So we made a great team. Bill was well grounded in guiding sessions, I was the skeptical scientist, and we designed a study that kept Bill entirely blinded to the study conditions.
Tim Ferriss: Meaning he would not know, as one example, who has received an intervention, meaning an active dose versus a placebo dose, among other things.
Roland Griffiths: The design of the study is a little bit complicated and we used a high dose of Ritalin as a control, and people were told that they would have three different sessions and at least one session would involve a moderate to high dose of psilocybin, so they were told that, but the other sessions could involve administration of I think we had 13 other psychoactive compounds, like nicotine or diphenhydramine.
Tim Ferriss: So diphenhydramine would be Benadryl, for people.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. But drugs that have a whole variety of different kinds of actions.
Tim Ferriss: Just from a study design perspective, why not have a few controls in that sense versus having many controls?
Roland Griffiths: Well, we had a single control, and that turned out to be Ritalin. But importantly the instructions to both the guides and the volunteers was that they could receive a much wider range of drugs. Now, among the drugs they could receive were methylphenidate, Ritalin, and psilocybin. And they were told that on at least one session, they would get a moderate to high dose of psilocybin.
Tim Ferriss: Why was it important to tell them that they could receive anything ranging from Ritalin to psilocybin to diphenhydramine?
Roland Griffiths: Well, we wanted them to be open to whatever experience they had. We did not want to tell them, specifically, this is going to compare psilocybin with Ritalin, because then they would be paying attention. They might look up the effects.
Tim Ferriss: It might be easier to deduce what they’re receiving.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that makes sense.
Roland Griffiths: And so that blinds them. They did not know that, in fact, everyone was going to get a high dose of Ritalin. Everyone was going to get high dose of psilocybin. And we further created a blinding condition by, with a limited number of subjects, giving them on the first two sessions just methylphenidate.
Tim Ferriss: That’s Ritalin.
Roland Griffiths: And on the third session, psilocybin. And again, it was to throw the guides off, the study staff off, and the volunteers off in terms of what to expect. So I think we did as good a job as we could.
Tim Ferriss: Can I interject for just a second?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I want to say, because we were talking last night about this conversation and the risk of you seeming biased because of things we have still yet to discuss, we’ll get there. But my thought, again as a tourist, a very enthusiastic amateur but not by any stretch a legitimate scientist, what I believe — it’s not even a belief. It’s not a belief. A statement of, I think, reasonable objective fact, which is that the scientific method and proper study design should reduce bias even if the experimenters have extreme bias.
And I’d love just to get your take on that for a second. Because for instance, I think Bill Richards is a genius with respect to many facets of what he does. He is an incredible clinician. I mean really outstanding, as is Mary Cosimano. I want to just mention that also as an additive. But that said, he is a true believer, as you put it. Right? So how do you include someone with that skillset in a study design while ensuring that any bias, preexisting bias, does not manifest in the clinical outcomes because of experiment or bias?
And that’s part of the reason why I wanted to have this conversation, because I feel like as long as your study design is immaculate, whether the experimenters are biased or not, ideally they are not biased. But even if they are biased, that is why you have people like Feynman saying the easiest person to fool is yourself. And therefore, precaution, precaution, precaution, precaution. But it seems to me, and I’ve brought in a lot of different elements in this conversation, but that the experimental design itself and proper implementation of scientific methods should hedge against bias even if it exists in experimenters. Is that just a wine-infused muggle’s understatement? I mean, what would you add to that?
Roland Griffiths: Well, yeah, so the nature of many clinical trials, if they’re double-blind and rigorously run, there’s no way for the people running the study to know what those conditions are. And in particular, if you can’t break the blind because of apparent effects of the drug, then you’re safe.
Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by breaking the blind?
Roland Griffiths: Well, breaking the blind is a particular problem with research with psychedelics.
Tim Ferriss: You mean niacin? I guess niacin doesn’t equal the reports of psychedelics that people have read on EROWID?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. And so it’s a deep problem with psychedelic research and it’s not been solved yet. We don’t have adequate controls that would completely put skeptics at peace and not thinking that there wasn’t an opportunity for bias. So you worry about expectancy effects on part of both the therapist, and on part of the participant biasing the outcomes.
Tim Ferriss: If I may, because I’ve had enough of this fantastically traditional neurotoxin to embolden me. Let’s assume that you are Roland, heavily biased towards psychedelics as you are, involved in a study design that nonetheless mitigates against experimenter bias. Even if bias somehow influences the results, would the actual clinical outcomes of psychedelics not still be impressive with a number of indications?
Roland Griffiths: I mean, the work with psychedelics has become much more —
Tim Ferriss: Because blinding with psychedelics is so hard. I mean, it’s just like everybody who gets niacin knows it’s not psilocybin.
Roland Griffiths: In our first study, we were dealing with psychedelic-naive individuals. So that was important, because what we didn’t want is people who had experience who could immediately identify.
Tim Ferriss: Who could benchmark against whatever they’re dealing with in the session.
Roland Griffiths: Oh, yeah. And furthermore, you would’ve had selection bias. People who had bad experiences with psychedelics would say, I’m not going to sign up for that study.
Tim Ferriss: Would opt out.
Roland Griffiths: So then if you had positive effects, you wouldn’t know how much of that was selection bias. So that was then. This is now. Now the widespread cultural enthusiasm, overblown enthusiasm for the positive effects of psychedelics.
Tim Ferriss: “It’ll pay your bills for you. Oh, my God, this stuff’s amazing.”
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. So it’s much more problematic now to conduct a clinical trial because many of your participants are going to come in with strong —
Tim Ferriss: They’ve been steeped in this cultural expectation of profundity.
Roland Griffiths: Huge, huge expectancy effects. And that makes the conduct of these trials even more difficult. And actually contributing to that is if you compare the psychedelic to an inactive placebo and you have people with high expectancy effects, you have the potential for huge disappointment effects. And so your placebo is no longer a neutral indicator of what happens if people don’t get psilocybin.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a negative indicator.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. You’re dealing with all of the consequences of people having hyped-up expectation and essentially knowing that they’ve drawn the black straw.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. And so let’s look at the inverse, or the converse. I’m lacking the vocabulary at this point, honestly, folks, of drawing the black straw. So you then at some point decide to personally reengage with consumption of psychedelics. How does that happen? When does that happen? What is the outcome?
Roland Griffiths: So —
Tim Ferriss: Just for people who are listening, we’re sitting here, I love recording at dusk because everything changes so dramatically. So I can’t even see your face right now. We’re sitting on the patio. It’s very dramatic. The light of the recording devices is alive and well. All right.
Roland Griffiths: Okay. So.
Tim Ferriss: Tell everyone, Roland.
Roland Griffiths: So I had become intrigued at studying these back in late 1990s. We enrolled our first volunteer around 2000. We published our first paper, 2006.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a big paper, just to maybe make an understatement. But important paper,
Roland Griffiths: I think an important paper. And sometimes credited with —
Tim Ferriss: What’s the name of the paper if people want to look it up?
Roland Griffiths: It was, “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”
Tim Ferriss: There you go. All right. So translated to Long Island-ese, since that’s where I’m from originally, “Psilocybin Occasions Big Fucking Deal, Mystical Experiences with Some Durability.”
Roland Griffiths: Well, no, with —
Tim Ferriss: Incredible durability.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah, substantial change in worldview. Attribution of positive changes in moods, attitudes, and behaviors, and experiences that are rated to be among the most meaningful of a person’s entire lifetime.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. All right.
Roland Griffiths: So that was the initial finding. That got my attention big time.
Tim Ferriss: This is going to sound like a dumb question, but why did it get your attention?
Roland Griffiths: Because I’d never seen anything remotely approaching that after having studied dozens of different psychoactive compounds. So at this point, I’ve given high doses of sedatives, and opiates, and stimulants, and other chemicals to people who are both drug experienced, drug abusers, and drug naive. So I’m really accustomed to understanding and being able to assess the subjective effects and what people say about them.
Different drugs produce different kinds of effects, and people report different things, and I knew that. And so that you give a dose of psilocybin and they’re going to produce effects, in this case, an unusual profile effect. Yeah, fine. What makes that any different? What makes it different is that months after the session, people are saying that experience, two months ago, was the most interesting, most meaningful experience in my lifetime, or among the top five, to be compared to birth of a first-born.
Tim Ferriss: Not what people say about caffeine, cocaine, or methamphetamine.
Roland Griffiths: No, no. Very different. So people, if you give them a high dose of cocaine, they may experience euphoria and really get high from that. But if you ask them a day later, much less a week or a month, “What was that experience?” They’re going to remember it like we remember anything in memory. “Oh, yeah, I remember I got really high that day. That was kind of fun.” But it’s a memory at that point.
Tim Ferriss: They’re not going to feel thankful, necessarily, for that experience.
Roland Griffiths: It has no meaning. It has no enduring meaning, And yet people are coming back months later saying, “This is among the most meaningful experiences of my entire lifetime.” So that’s really weird, but it fits with literature on naturally occurring mystical experiences. So people have these epiphanies.
Tim Ferriss: And you’d done a bunch of this reading in the meantime.
Roland Griffiths: Oh, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What type of stuff were you reading? How’d you find it?
Roland Griffiths: Oh, there’s a whole large literature on mystical experiences starting with William James at the turn of the century, where he wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience. There had been a whole series of research studies on mystical experiences, but they were really elusive because they occurred erratically or capriciously.
Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by capriciously?
Roland Griffiths: Well, you couldn’t predict when they would occur. And sometimes it would seem to be random occasions where people would just walk out on the beach and have this epiphany that they would claim to be life changing.
Tim Ferriss: It was not replicable.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. We certainly didn’t have conditions under which we could elicit those experiences reliably. So in that sense, they weren’t amenable to scientific study. So to do prospective scientific research, you need conditions under which you can produce, in effect, reliably. And then you can compare that to conditions in which you don’t give that drug, or you give some other substance. You can do that prospectively, and then you can compare those groups. So you have all the tools of the scientific method at your hand to deconstruct.
Tim Ferriss: So Roland, it is rare or infrequent that researchers talk about their personal use of compounds they are studying or focused on. Is there anything you’d like to say about your personal use of psychedelics?
Roland Griffiths: Well, thanks for asking, Tim, because I, among any number of researchers working with psychedelics, have been really quite reluctant to talk about any personal use. For good cause because these compounds were so misunderstood back in the ’60s, and so branded with all kind of mistruths that there’s historically been suspicion among people who may have even had experience, much less people who are proponents and have become enamored with their effects. What I’ve said repeatedly with respect to my launching our research with psilocybin was that prior to that time, I had no meaningful personal experience. Again, I was deeply interested and committed and satisfied by my own meditation practice. I didn’t know that that wouldn’t be a significant distraction. So, for years afterwards, it didn’t occur to me to take a psychedelic, nor did I have access to psychedelics.
Tim Ferriss: You can’t just break the quadruple locks and use the tightly controlled Schedule 1 compounds.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah, me of all people had no access to the drug supplies that we have locked away under very tight security. But I would have to say, I was deeply curious. And I also felt, in some sense, disadvantaged as a clinician talking with volunteers having gone through these experiences, but not knowing fully what that experience was like at a personal level. So there came a time, and it was at least six years after the publication of our paper, that would’ve been 12 years after the initiation of our research, that I had an occasion to have a higher dose experience with a psychedelic. I’ve now had a few of those. I’m by no means an enthusiast, but I certainly understand the nature of those compounds. I can now confirm firsthand that the overlap with the kinds of experiences that can emerge in meditation and in breath work, because I’ve also had experience with breath work, in other kinds of practices that elicit these changes in consciousness. I can confirm that they’re of the same flavor. There’s certainly differences, but they’re of the same flavor.
Again, that occurred only well after we had published our first study, we had published the follow-up study. We were largely completely through our cancer trial, and significantly through our beginning meditator trial. We also had run psilocybin dose effect trial. So the research had continued apace, and it’s only more recently that I’ve had these experiences.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s just flash forward to the 60 seconds before you are about to take your own personal psychedelic drug. You’re about to have your first, after a long hiatus, personal experience. In those, let’s just call it five, 10 minutes, an hour before you’re about to take it, what are you taking? Where are you? What’s going through your head?
Roland Griffiths: I ended up obtaining some 2C-B, which is a substituted amphetamine, and that was the only substance that I —
Tim Ferriss: So it’s structurally related to mescaline, for people who don’t know.
Roland Griffiths: Yes. But it produces classic psychedelic-like effects. So I took a really low dose of 2C-B.
Tim Ferriss: How did you decide to do that, to go from zero to one? I mean, this is a big step.
Roland Griffiths: Okay. But it was done. I was alone. The intention was to go deeply into meditation.
Tim Ferriss: Why 2C-B of all the things, of all the molecules?
Roland Griffiths: That’s the only thing that was available to me.
Tim Ferriss: So what happened?
Roland Griffiths: Went into meditation.
Tim Ferriss: You’re meditating now after having ingested?
Roland Griffiths: Well, I started by meditating before.
Tim Ferriss: Were you nervous?
Roland Griffiths: I was curious. Maybe a little nervous. Yeah. Yeah. I would say, yeah, I was nervous. But it was a low dose, and it started opening up very familiar territory within meditation. There was a sense of opening, and at that point, I had done enough research about the features of the classic mystical experience that I could look at my experience and try to interpret it within that framework. So one question is, is there a sense of unity? Is there a sense of connectedness? Or a void? Which classically occurs in meditation, the sense that there’s a total emptiness, or a total fullness. And that was there. Is it sacred? Is there something precious about this experience?
Tim Ferriss: Now are you analyzing this while you’re having the experience?
Roland Griffiths: Yes. Yes. Oh, yeah, absolutely. Well, I’m trained.
Tim Ferriss: No, no, no. I don’t say it to malign in any way. I’m just wondering.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. No, no. Well, absolutely. Yeah. That’s what this project was about, is what the hell are these things and how do they fit into the experience framework that I had from meditation, and that I’d now been —
Tim Ferriss: Now 2C-B, fortunately I would think in this instance, provides you quite a span of time within which you can reflect in this way. So it’s not like a five to 15, or five 20 minute experience with NN-DMT or 5-MeO-DMT inhaled. Instead of that, you have , who knows, what would you say, eight to six to 10 hours, six to 12 hours? I mean, something like that, potentially with 2C-B.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. But this was a threshold dose. I don’t remember what the dose was, but this would be in what we might call microdose range.
Tim Ferriss: I got it. Okay. So bunny slope, but nonetheless.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. But yeah, the features of this unfolded, the sense of unity, the sense of sacredness. Was it true? Absolutely true. And I ticked off all the qualities. And then I remember taking my phone out and writing a memo to myself. And it was just three words, “It’s all true.” And so, yeah, it was.
Tim Ferriss: What did that mean to you?
Roland Griffiths: Oh. It meant to me that the nature of the mystical type experiences is confirmed. It fits with what I know about meditation, and it’s quite amazing. It wasn’t totally unfamiliar territory to me though. I mean, this was territory that I had explored in meditation, so it wasn’t brand new in that sense. But I’ve also been meditating long enough, sometimes hours a day now, and at this point for years. And what I realized is the coherence of that experience, and kind of the tuning of it was remarkable because I’m all too familiar with spending hours meditating without such experiences.
Tim Ferriss: It’s all true.
Roland Griffiths: Now, what’s interesting to me now in where I find myself with this terminal cancer diagnosis, and reflecting on how I’m managing that personally, and as we’ve discussed, the sense is, one, that I have a sense of equipoise and balance, curiosity, wonder, gratitude, a sense of celebration for the preciousness of life. And the question that has emerged to me, but to others watching me, is how do you account for that? Because one might think that a terminal diagnosis would be devastating. I can’t possibly know how to account for at least how I’ve managed that diagnosis over these first eight months, but what I would highly suspect is that it has a lot to do with my long history of meditation practice. And it’s informed by some of the experiences that I’ve had with psychedelics. So with regard to the meditation, there’s a real training of the nature of mind. Watching one’s mind de-identifying from the voice in the head and making optimal choices about how one wants to proceed in one’s life.
Well, the same is true with a psychedelic experience. In fact, that’s exactly what we do in preparing people for a psychedelic experience. We give them a crash course in mindfulness. Telling them that all kinds of phenomena may emerge during the session. The posture that we want them to take is one of interest and curiosity. If something fearful arises, be it demonic vision, or just fear, the right approach is one of interest and curiosity, and to approach in spite of the fact that the hair on the back of your head may be standing on end. Because if that’s inspected deeply enough, one finds that those experiences change. They’re objects of consciousness, they can be very informative. There’s absolutely no reason to run from them. There’s every reason not to run from them. And nor do you want to fight them, because all that does is reify them, empower these objects of mind into something that they’re not. They’re part of the play of broader consciousness that’s deeply informative.
Tim Ferriss: Since you have both the meditative experience over decades and deep dedicated practice in that capacity, were your psychedelic experiences simply reminders of insights you had already gained, and therefore you appreciated them as tools, but they were not additive to your personal navigation of the world or lens through which you look at the world in life? Or did those psychedelic experiences add something that was not duplicative of your meditation experience?
Roland Griffiths: The psychedelic experiences and what I’ve learned about the nature of mind converge incredibly with the meditation experiences. But I have to say that sometimes characterized psychedelics is the crash course in mindfulness. I mean, it really is. It’s such a powerful teaching, and in a way that comes across much more forcefully, at least for me, than meditation practice. But once I can see that through the lens of a psychedelic experience, then I can bring that into meditation. So I think my meditation practice is undoubtedly deepened because of that. Yeah, there’s a lot of overlap.
I guess, what I would say is that psychedelic experiences have often, for me now, more intense, both positive and negative, experiences kind of embedded within them. But that makes them ideal for learning to navigate the nature of mind, and the nature of things that can arise in consciousness, and the wise use of how to pursue or hold those in a way that you don’t end up identifying, particularly with the negative constructs that arise. I mean, it’s very — yeah, it’s a peculiar thing. But when something negative arises, I mean, be it a demonic figure or something like that, the tendency is wanting to avoid it, to escape it. If you try, it’s just going to chase you forever. And you’ll have an absolutely miserable time for the entire duration. If you’re able to turn and be deeply curious about its nature, then it starts to change.
So it really is this invitation to face what initially appears to be the dark side of things, the most frightening things. I would have to say, terminal cancer diagnosis might well qualify as emblematic of such an experience. So perhaps, I don’t know, but perhaps psychedelic experiences that had negative valenced qualities to them, and how I learned to navigate those, could have been very important to me in how I came to find myself navigating the diagnosis.
Tim Ferriss: I know a number of folks, also, as you’re describing this, several, like Sam Harris, come to mind, who’s spoken about this publicly, but who first, through the experience of psychedelics, saw certain possibilities that had been invisible to him prior to that, that then led to his dedication to mindfulness and meditative practices. As you’re describing, say, a demonic force, or let’s just say in a psychedelic experience, if you face a Godzilla-sized figure, some type of giant dinosaur with a clown head, it may be, in a sense, training wheels for what you can do in sober, waking life with meditation. But it’s an easier opportunity to say, “Wait a second, this is a Godzilla with a clown head. Clearly, this is not something I can just take for granted as a real entity. How can I be curious about this?” So you have these dramatic examples that allow you to disidentify with the content perhaps of your experience and start to examine it.
Whereas if, and I’ll speak for myself, because I also tried meditation many times and quit initially, to deal with maybe the subtleties or the embedded stories around depression or sadness or anger that have been baking and accepted for decades is a harder task than saying, “Wait a second. I remember Roland told me before I laid down on this couch and put on these eye shades, that I should be curious about this type of experience that is scaring me. All right, this Godzilla with a clown head, I’m going to ask it who it is. I’m going to in and through. I’m going to do the whole thing.” It’s a practice dojo with extreme, in some cases, extreme examples that allows you then to come back to your normal waking experience and begin to examine your thoughts, or at least entertain the possibility of examining the content.
One thing you said, I just want to emphasize for folks, I’ve seen in real time with you, multiple times now, it’s not just a party line and a happy face that you’re putting on. I mean, we spoke a few days ago. I called you and asked you how you’re doing. You said, “Never better.” In the meantime, you said, “I’m not kidding. I am.” You’ve had various meetings, including a meeting this morning, churning out different, or at least becoming aware of different options and decision trees that you could follow. It seems to me that oftentimes people may have the in and through as a line in the scripture of psychedelic navigation.
But there’s also the option of looking at your mind or your psyche responding to your environment, your circumstances, and to separate the observer, or just the canvas of consciousness from what is being projected upon it, and to say, “Oh, I can see how I could go in five different directions. I don’t think it’s helpful to go in these four directions. I choose not to go in those four directions.” That’s different from fighting with the content of your consciousness without being aware of the distinction. Does that make any sense?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Oh, that makes a whole lot of sense. Across a number of therapeutic indications, not to mention our studies with healthy volunteers, very often people come out of these experiences empowered, a sense of self-efficacy, a sense of freedom of choice. Seeing the vastness of the decisions that they could choose to make, and that are available to them, that had previously just been foreclosed. I mean, most dramatically, people who come in identifying themselves as a addicted cigarette smoker or addicted alcoholic, and through these experiences, they come out saying, “Wait a second, I actually have agency here in a way I didn’t appreciate. I can choose.” There’s another piece of the psychedelic experience and that’s a willingness to engage with something that feels like it’s suffering so you don’t end up approaching the Godzilla. Incidentally, sometimes it doesn’t have a clown face, it has the most terrifying face that your psyche could possibly create for you.
Through these experiences, not only is there the landscape of consciousness, there’s a willingness to engage, interact with those fearful objects of consciousness. The Godzillas, if you will. Knowing that it’s going to enhance your fear initially, but by pursuing that, you’re going to end up resolving the problem. That’s precisely what happens with the addiction. So the person who’s identified themselves as an addicted cigarette smoker really has made a choice that they can’t bear the suffering that they know that they could experience when they quit smoking. They know that they’re going to crave and they’ve failed to do that time and time again. Here they’re having just faced down Godzilla. You come back out and say, “Well, can I put up with some craving that I know is going to be time limited? Can I put up with some tiredness or whatever it is? Damn right I can.” I mean, the payoff is much too great. So there’s this sense of personal empowerment.
The other thing is, these experiences with psychedelics inform the meditation practice. They inform a deepened sense of mindfulness. But let me also just remind us, it’s called meditation practice. It’s practicing to deal with the nature of mind, in this case, with the intention to bring that off the cushion, to bring that out of the practice into moment to moment life. That is the ultimate objective. I take that to be something that some people might identify as enlightenment. I certainly am not making any claims to having achieved that flawless moment to moment state. But that is the invitation, how do we keep remembering what these teachings are? How do we keep bringing ourselves into the astonishing celebration of the present moment?
Tim Ferriss: Let’s, if we could, just talk about the cohort or cohorts of patients who have used psychedelic assisted or psychedelic, you can call it assisted therapy, in this case, psilocybin, for end-of-life anxiety. Because I do know of several examples of highly, I don’t want to say decorated, but accomplished master meditators who nonetheless, upon facing mortality, have responded much like anyone would, or would expect themselves to, with tremendous fear and depression and so on. That has not been my experience. Although you’ve certainly had moments, as you described. It has not been my experience with you.
My question is, and you can make this personal, or you can direct it at the cohorts. That’s not accidental that I’m giving you that choice. How much of their reduction in anxiety, if any, seemed to be correlated to ego dissolution? So the experience of existing and observing and experiencing without what we assume often comprises the self. This I, this Tim that has characteristics and a name and a place, and a certain physical manifestation. Even in the absence of that in psychedelics, you can have the experience of experiencing and observing. What did those people attribute their reduction in anxiety to?
Roland Griffiths: Several things. We use several different descriptors for the nature of what we think are some of the transformative effects of psychedelic experiences. Ego dissolution is one. But my sense of that is it actually misses some really important components that are captured in what we call the mystical type experience. So the mystical type experience has one factor in it that is equivalent to ego dissolution. It’s the unity of all things that can be experienced as the absence, the void, the complete void that is completely empty, yet completely full at the same time, paradoxically. Or the sense of the interconnectedness of all of things. But in being interconnected, the personal self can dissolve or is just part of a much larger whole. So that’s a piece of it. But having a ego dissolution experience can also occur under conditions of extraordinary fear —
Tim Ferriss: And duress.
Roland Griffiths: — and create incredible psychological destabilization subsequently. But the mystical type experience has that. It has this component of the preciousness or the sacredness of the experience. So there’s something about the valence of this experience that’s absolutely precious. And then it has this noetic quality. The sense that the experience is absolutely true. There are other features, positive mood, very often a sense of love or gentleness, openness in transcendence of time and space, and ineffability. But those strike me as lesser important qualities to the enduring nature of these experiences. But we now have shown across a number of different clinical studies with clinical outcome measures, and studies in healthy volunteers, that the magnitude of the mystical type experience, the completeness of that correlates really well with the enduring positive changes in moods, attitudes, and behavior.
Now, it’s not completely determinative. There are other features of the mystical experience or of the psychedelic experience that we’ve also developed questionnaires to probe, that also appear to be really important. One very important one is psychological insight. So one can have an experience that is absent features of the mystical experience, but is given to some kind of profound new understanding about how one’s holding themselves with respect to whatever the problem is. Those experiences of insight can also result in abrupt irreversible changes in how someone proceeds.
A metaphor, you send someone from some sheltered background, that come from a tightly evangelical community that believes in literal interpretation of the Bible, does not believe in evolution, they go off to college. They take a couple biology courses, and they go, “Okay, this evolution is a thing.” That understanding, I don’t know if that’s reversible. Once you come to an insight of that being true, or you come to an insight that you’re in an abusive relationship, that the person that you feel closest to is actually truly abusing you, if that’s true, if it’s a real insight, then that can be irreversible. So those kinds of marked changes can occur.
With respect, particularly about how people with a terminal diagnosis, what their attitudes about death and dying, and why the anxiety and depression they’re experiencing becomes less is probably multifaceted. So the therapeutic effects there correspond with the mystical type experiences. They’re probably insightful type experiences. There seems to be, very often, a marked decrease in fear of death. And there’s a tendency toward the belief that there’s something, and that can take incredibly different forms in different people, something that may survive death. Whether that’s a full on theological compatible account, or whether there’s some just mysterious sense that there’s something that endures after death, that belief tends to be enhanced.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s return to the personal for a moment. We don’t have to belabor this, but I certainly would be interested to hear you answer the question as to, why have this conversation? Why, among other things, would you feel it’s potentially beneficial? Maybe that’s not the right adjective, but the right time to discuss or mention personal use, for instance. Why do that?
Roland Griffiths: Well, see, I’m going through —
Tim Ferriss: We can obviously edit all this or scrap it, but just talk to me.
Roland Griffiths: I’m going through an experience of a lifetime here. It’s one of just an astonishing celebration and joy. I would say, just with respect to how I feel about my own very probable impending death, that it’s not that I hold strong ideas about the continuance of life or consciousness, and certainly not reincarnation or classic Heaven. I don’t hold those beliefs. I feel agnostic toward the idea that we — I mean, we truly don’t know what’s going on here. So it’s like this, “I’m really curious about whether there’s any experience after death. It’s kind of exciting that I’m going to have the opportunity to find out well before most of the listeners here will know.” So I’ll know something you don’t, and I’m really interested in that.
But at the same time, I don’t know. I don’t know what happens. But what I do know is that this gift we’ve been given to be these sentient creatures, walking around, being aware that we’re aware with just a little bit of contemplation, a miracle is not an inappropriate descriptor of where we find ourselves. How this has come about and why we’ve been gifted with this opportunity is unknown to us, but it should be a source of incredible gratitude and joy and celebration. That’s what I really want to communicate about my own experience, along with the invitation to have others join me, hopefully without the terminal diagnosis, but join me in this celebration because we deserve it. And, in the largest sense, my deepest desire is to have that sensibility awakened in humankind all over. I mean, we need that for the survival of our species. Ultimately, it leads to this sense of wonder and pro-social tendencies and mutual care taking, but there’s no easy way to get there. The way to get there is certainly not to dump LSD in the water supply because these —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I wish you told me this yesterday. Just kidding. Just kidding.
Roland Griffiths: Because I think the culture needs to develop institutional structures to hold and support and work with these kinds of experiences in a way that doesn’t undermine culture more broadly. I think these substances can do that. So I see it as co-evolutionary opportunity that our cultural institutions need to co-evolve and learn to support this. That could be some number of generations, but ultimately, the basic message I have is, yeah, let’s awaken. Join me in this larger awakening project. There are many, many, many people already on it. It takes different forms and it’s not just psychedelics, but it is the awakening to the huge benevolent mystery that — how one wants to put language around that is completely up to where you find yourself in culture, but that can be done from a reductionistic, scientific perspective, or it can be done from a full-on God encounter. I mean, it’s the benevolent mystery that seems to be at play here. That’s my experience of this, is quite akin to what many people would call God.
Tim Ferriss: I remember very, very distinctly coming out of my first ever trip to Antarctica with the dear friend, Matt Mullenweg, in fact, who as well because he was one of the co-founders of the center at Hopkins. Great human being. And I had just returned to land that was not ice. In this case, it was in Chile. And suddenly had cell reception or at least Wi-Fi. And I received your text, and we had a conversation. I reached out to you, and we spoke about your diagnosis. And we have a number of close mutual friends, and it’s been remarkable to me and all of them how you have been able to thus far, and I’m sure there’s a lot behind the scenes, of course, that we don’t see, but navigate and integrate and view this experience from different perspectives and certainly not with rose-colored glasses. I think that’s what makes it so impressive to me and to other people.
You’re looking at the diagnosis and possible trajectories in a very sober way. But at the same time, at the very beginning of this conversation, you’re laughing. And we’re talking here, and you seem like good old Roland to me. It doesn’t seem like you have psychologically succumbed in the way that I have seen with, sadly, other friends who have had cancer diagnoses, many of which have recovered. But they’ve been psychologically flattened. And I’d love for you to just speak to your experience. And to the extent that what I’m saying sounds accurate, what has enabled you to do that?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Well, let me start with the beginning of the diagnosis. So this was a routine colonoscopy. I viewed myself as incredibly healthy. I exercise regularly. I watch my diet. I pay attention to factors that support my well-being. I went in and remarkably came out with this stage four colon cancer, metastases to liver. And initially, Marla, my now wife, and I were just thrown into a situation where this couldn’t possibly be real. This had to be some dream, and so I think I spent a couple days there not being able to even process the reality of that. And then when subsequent tests came back confirming the highly suspected metastatic aspects of the disorder, then the full implications of that came upon me. And what I would say is initially, it was like shell shock. What do I do with this?
And then in very short order, over a few days, I started exploring all of the places where I could go psychologically with this diagnosis. And one, of course, would be just sheer out fear or panic. One would be depression. And I woke up, this is in that first few days, at one point in the middle of the night with this deeply flattened affect and thinking, What is this? And I thought, Well, if I went to describe this to someone, they would surely say, “Oh, you’re deeply depressed.” And I thought, Okay, yeah, I can see how that can happen, and that’s not a good place to go. And then there are other things. You could choose to be resentful. I could have chosen to be upset at my provider that had, in retrospect, a longer than ideal callback time for the colonoscopies. Mine was at five years, but I’d had polyps before. And I think in retrospect, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to follow that.
There’s fighting it. I’m going to beat this sea, going to war with your body over it. I’m going to kick all the cancer centers out because one of my daughters said to me on one of my first days of treatment — she said, “Dad, kick cancer’s ass.” And I appreciated that thought because positive thinking is really good for health outcomes. And I didn’t want to go to war with anything, but I wasn’t about to roll over and be dead.
Then it really quickly came to me that the experience and the practice should be gratitude for the preciousness of human life and everything that I have. And I think with that came almost this immediate awakening, this clarity. Okay, I’m going to reset my life priorities now. I looked at my to-do list and go, okay, maybe half of those things are just not that important now that I have some constraints on my life horizon. So there was a level of clarity that came into focus. And then I think I would have to credit my long-term meditation practice. And there are other practices as well that have done along the way that we could talk about at some other time. But my long-term spiritual practices in combination with psychedelic experiences, which also can be spiritual practices. But I think that enabled me in a way that I wouldn’t have predicted, and I’m kind of humbled that I’ve been able to achieve the level of equipoise and well-being from this to date. But I don’t know what the future holds for me, so I’m kind of humble, I don’t want to over claim that I got this nailed. But at least initially what came up is an intense practice of mindfulness in which I could see these different psychological rabbit holes, if you went down them, you’re not going to be happy. And I was able to identify those as soon as they came into vision and just choose I’m not going there, that’s self-defeating. And so I think it’s that that has sustained me.
And people ask me — well, I tell them I have this cancer diagnosis now and they say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. That must be so awful.” And my response to date has been, “No, you’re not understanding. This is something — I’m more alive, I’m more awake, I have a much deeper sense of equanimity and joy than I think I ever have had in my life, and I’m sharing this with my partner. And what a tragedy it would’ve been had I walked out of my house the morning of the colonoscopy and gotten run over by a bus. I mean that it would’ve been a lost opportunity to awaken to a degree that I previously considered myself to be awake, but this was order of magnitude different.”
And so I consider, authentically, the diagnosis to be a blessing. It’s an opportunity for practice. But when people ask me how I’m doing, I commonly say, “Never better,” but there have been serious weighing about whether or not I wanted to engage in treatment and what kind of treatment and at what cost to staying awake and being present and doing the things that still are most important for me to do. Does that answer the question, Tim?
Tim Ferriss: It does answer the question. I’d like to add something to that from my recollection, which was that first conversation we had when I got back to South America and we were talking about it, I remember it so distinctly. And I might be getting the phrasing slightly off, but I recall you saying to me, “Every day is Thanksgiving. Every day I wake up is Thanksgiving.” And that didn’t seem accidental. It seemed like a choice and maybe on top of that, a practice. Is there anything you’d like to say about that? It stuck with me.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Yes. And the diagnosis was made late November so Thanksgiving was in my mind, but that’s actually the core of my practice. It’s gratitude practice and it’s gratitude for the preciousness of this experience that we’re having right now if we allow ourselves to get out of our mind enough to have it. And that, of course, is the trick, we get encumbered by the narrative structure of what we think is going on and we get caught up in that, and then we lose track of the magnificence of every single moment if you just allow yourself to enjoy it, appreciate it for everything that it offers. That’s my go-to practice. I’ve been doing gratitude meditations every morning since the diagnosis, and I think that’s the core way of leaning into this. I’ve dropped the phrase “Every day is Thanksgiving” because it’s so associated with turkey, and it is about the preciousness of life.
Tim Ferriss: What does your gratitude meditation look like? What constitutes your gratitude meditation?
Roland Griffiths: Well it varies, but the core of it is — well, let’s see, yeah, the practice would be anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more. And during some periods of time of the initial diagnosis and some of the procedures where my sleep cycles were totally dysregulated, I spent hours, actually, at night in gratitude meditation. But it’s just leaning into the joy of what this experience is. And in fact, it’s kind of interesting, some of the most clear experiences of present moment and joy have been at times where I’ve been undergoing surgical procedures, I’ve already had two intravenous ports placed because one became infected, and so that’s a surgical procedure. They usually anesthetized people with fentanyl and with a benzodiazepine and then they use a local, and I said, “I don’t want anything other than the local, let me stay awake for this.” And it was an incredibly joyful, interesting kind of experience to have.
Tim Ferriss: What does the procedure look like, if I might ask, since I don’t know what it looks like? Were you just looking down at your abdomen while they’re up to their elbows? No, I can’t imagine that’s what’s going on.
Roland Griffiths: No, you’re flat out. You’re in a surgical operating room, you’re laid flat on the bed. They actually put some kind of hood over or some —
Tim Ferriss: Like a curtain?
Roland Griffiths: Curtain between you and the sterile field, so you’re not looking at anything but a curtain. And then you’re just laying there for the procedure. But it wasn’t a big deal. I think the anesthetics that they give are because people get so tense and anxious that they don’t want to experience anything. And you could feel them mucking around in my chest to run the catheter, but it wasn’t a big deal and they gave me local anesthetics. It actually turned out to be fun. I have enjoyed that. I’ve had also some sustained MRI procedures that were similar. I actually reached an amazing degree of pure awareness practice during some PET scans. I hate to say it, yeah, I almost look forward to some of these surgical interventions.
Now, recently I just had a procedure, liver embolization, which is essentially they go into the abdomen and inject some kind of glue into some of the venous structures of the liver. And essentially it knocks that liver, in this case my right liver lobe out. And so, I was talking to the surgeon and saying, “Look, can I do this without anesthesia?” And he convinced me that that was not the right idea, because there’d be real significant pain that they couldn’t manage. But I tried. Yeah. It’s almost like you’d lose this opportunity to be awake for something really interesting and important.
Tim Ferriss: What other practices, you mentioned to other practices aside from the meditation that you’ve described, have been helpful, supportive in allowing you to — face has too negative a connotation, but to — I’ll just use navigate again, navigate your experiences over the last say six months. What other practices have been helpful? And it could be other meditation practices. Quick definition of terms, you said pure awareness, is that something akin to open monitoring, if that makes any sense, when you said you achieved that during say the surgical procedures where you didn’t have general anesthetics?
Roland Griffiths: Let’s see. No, and it’s different than open monitoring. Open monitoring would be more like a sense that you’re watching your mind and you’re watching things arise in consciousness and —
Tim Ferriss: Like a Vipassana meditation.
Roland Griffiths: And then fall back. Awareness of awareness practices, they’re prioritized in some traditions as being the ultimate. I certainly can’t claim to have any kind of stability with respect to pure awareness practices, but it comes to a point where you’re in the field of awareness and nothing is arising. There is nothing within that field of awareness other than awareness itself. And so the body drops away, thoughts drop away, and you’re in a state of pure awareness. Sometimes, those experiences are magnificent. They can almost be described as satcitananda, it’s consciousness and bliss. And they’re very interesting experiences. Some people claim that 5-MeO-DMT under right conditions comes closest of all the psychedelics to producing such experiences. Although, mileage may vary. There can be a lot of variations in those kinds of experiences. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I can say, and I don’t think you and I ever discussed this, but I have some experience with the 5-MeO-DMT. I happen to think it’s a very big gun, so I have some very real concerns around its therapeutic use. As you know, “It’s only 15 to 20 minutes in earth time” is not always the best argument for using a specific compound. But I would say at the right dosage — well, the right dosage, at certain dosages in the right setting, that is my experience, that you effectively can have — not always, you can have some very, very horrifying experiences, too. And I’ve seen some very experienced psychonauts, people who have used, say, ayahuasca dozens of times who have become quite destabilized after 5-methoxy DMT. But putting all that aside, my personal experience have on multiple occasions experienced effectively a void of content, just a completely disembodied field of consciousness that does not feel localized, but you are nonetheless observing. What was the term you used? It captures it pretty well. The consciousness and bliss?
Roland Griffiths: Oh, yes, satcitananda.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I would say that encapsulates the experience. And when people ask me what did I take out of it, I’m like, “It was a beautiful experience, but I could not give you any new story, any rewriting, any narrative. I can’t give you even a droplet of that.
Roland Griffiths: But that speaks to its inevitability, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Let me ask a question that I would never ask you on stage, but since we’re just jamming here, another experience I don’t think I ever described to you that I’d love to get your take on, and it could just be straight placebo effect, of course, but — although I feel like when people say, and even in this case, “Ah, it’s placebo effect,” that that sometimes throws out the baby with the bathwater in the sense that even if it is placebo effect, labeling it such doesn’t really explain anything in terms of how the hell it happens. But let me tell you what happened.
I have two experiences now, only two that come to mind, where I’ve effectively had what I would describe — now that we have the common vocabulary, I can’t say the Sanskrit so I’ll just say the 5-MeO experience as we’ve described it, without any pharmacological intervention whatsoever. The first was meditating and having a guru, in this case, put his hands on my head — and I had no expectation of what would happen, so I wasn’t coming in preloaded with confirmation bias, and I had absolutely what I would describe as a 5-MeO experience.
And talking to — I hate using this word guru. In Indonesian at least it just means teacher, but let’s use it in the more Indian sense or at least the Western use in the Indian context of the term guru, right, like this master. Met with an Indian master maybe two years later and he said, “Oh, yeah,” in his pretty basic English, he said, “Oh, it’s just product shock. It’s a trick. It’s a cheap trick,” basically. He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, that happens. That’s product shock. That guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s a cheap like parlor trick.” That’s number one.
And then the second one was being in a very deep massage state and the massage therapist, this was in Montreal, asked if she could use tuning forks with me. And I’ve never had anyone before or since in a massage therapy session ask this, but she did. And she took two different tune forks and put them on opposite sides of my head and, again, basically instantaneously had this spontaneous 5-MeO experience. And I’ve been trying to track her down since. I have not been able to find the contact information. What would you make of either of those? And maybe the answer is there’s nothing to be made of it, but just, again, I’m pushing a little bit. What comes to mind as I describe these two things?
Roland Griffiths: I’m not at all surprised. These altered states of consciousness that we have, some of which we’ve come to know through psychedelics, can also be elicited under any number of other conditions. And presumably, prior to psychedelics, that’s exactly what happened. If you look into mystical traditions and meditation traditions, these things can happen. We’re biologically wired to have these experiences, and we just don’t understand the optimal conditions under which they occur. The guru experience is interesting, and in the Siddha Yoga tradition, there are all kinds of stories that really don’t seem to make much sense, unless you actually believe that the guru has these remarkable powers of transmitting something, and how that’s transmitted. And how much of it is expectancy effects versus not. But they’re hundreds of accounts of some of these most outstanding or notable gurus, in which people, without any expectation, come to awaken or have profound experiences in their presence.
So I don’t know what — I mean, that’s one of those things that makes me deeply curious. But so far, we don’t have anything that approaches scientific proof that that occurs or can even occur reliably. So it’s part of what needs to be investigated. And that would get to the longer term project of the endowment on spirituality, secular spirituality, and well-being.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to talk about that. I want to, if you don’t mind, just pause for a second to ask you a question about the two cases I described. So in, let’s just say, with respect to investigating — and I’m probably going to screw up the vocabulary, so please feel free to correct me. I should have said expectancy effect, not confirmation biased, as an example. I’m just dangerous enough to be wielding these labels without really understanding what the hell I’m talking about, but I’ll make an attempt. So if we look at say, some of the psychedelic research out there. And if we’re looking at some of the, let’s call it classic psychedelics, and we can introduce the drug. And then maybe one model of explaining the effects would be, we introduce this drug. It binds to any number of things, but very often to serotonin type 2A receptors. And then that produces this effect.
If you were to form a hypothesis around — let’s put the guru piece aside. The tuning forks, mechanistically, what could be happening in a case like that? Or in a case like meditation, for instance? Because I’ve spoken with some folks who take a counterpoint to meditators who would say, psychedelics are cheating. They’re brute force. You’re not really taking anything away. We meditators are doing it naturally, therefore it has higher value. But the counterpoint would be, you’re doing the same thing. Ultimately, if our experience is mediated by neurochemistry, you’re just finding another way to somehow do something similar, if that makes any sense.
Basically if we, within the lab looking at, say, a certain ergic agonist, we say, okay, this molecule binds to this and the effects are as described subjectively by the patient. And also as recorded in this fMRI machine. If it were say, a tuning fork that produced a similar experience to say, 5-MEo-DMT, what are the mechanics by which it exerts that similar effect? Because it’s not a chemical that’s binding to anything, right? It’s not an exogenous chemical.
Roland Griffiths: Presumably, whatever these experiences that are occasioned with psychedelics are producing interconnectivity and network changes within the brain. And that accounts for the experience. This from the reductionistic neuroscience viewpoint. And so then the question is, well, what other conditions can occasion the same critical network changes? And so you could imagine — or I could imagine that, with tuning forks. Different frequencies going into different ears, I mean that’s a very unusual set of conditions. You’re totally relaxed. You’re totally comfortable, otherwise. And so it would be really interesting. And this is part of the comparative experimental work that needs to be done, is once we have a good signal of what accounts for that pure awareness state under 5-MEo, and if that can be replicated with tuning forks, then you’d want to compare brain activities during that time.
And so in principle, there should be a way to examine those similarities and conclude what’s operative under both conditions. And the same would be true of meditation states. But our understanding of the nature of these experiences is so primitive, and our mechanisms for inquiring about brain structure — not structure. But network complexivity, are so crude at this point, that I don’t think science is up to the task to fully answer that. But that is the project that is unfolding. And there are many laboratories that are interested in just that.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll have to make some phone calls to the director of the tuning fork lobby to see if I can drum up some funding. That’s another challenge, right? Is just getting funding for this stuff.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Well, and the same would be true of breathwork.
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
Roland Griffiths: Under some conditions, particularly in some people, breathwork can result in also similar kinds of changes. It’s just that there’s so much variation among meditators or breathwork practices, and I’m guessing tuning fork massage therapists, that it’s hard to mount a prospective study. Because you’d have to identify conditions under which those experiences can be elicited reliably. And so that is the power of psychedelic drugs, is that — not in all people. But in most people, you can occasion a set of phenomenological events that have definable phenomenology, definable experiential aspects.
And so that leads us to be able to study those effects, prospectively, with the tools of empirical science. And that’s made much more difficult under conditions where you can’t reliably occasion the experience.
After my initial engagement with Siddha Yoga, then I started exploring other meditation traditions. And I was drawn, most prominently to Buddhist practices. So I worked some with Alan Wallace, who comes out of the Dalai Lama Tibetan school. But probably just pragmatically, ended up spending more time with Vipassana meditation, as taught by the Insight Meditation Center. And they have a retreat center in Barre.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you say pragmatically? Just because it was easily available?
Roland Griffiths: Easily available, yeah. And Tara Brach and Jonathan Foust are local to us and interested in the work that we were doing. And so my practice has turned more Buddhist. I like the Insight Meditation practice, because it strips away any theological or dogmatic practices. It doesn’t appeal to magic mechanisms or supernatural phenomena. It’s very worldly based, but yet it still has some of the flavor of the other kinds of traditions in terms of the enlivening quality of it. And it’s a much easier practice to understand and rationalize from a scientific worldview.
So I did that. And then I got involved with a local teacher who you know, Jessica Dibb. Her central practice has been breathwork, and that is this structured breathing practice that brings you into presence. But she also teaches a series of courses in what I would describe — and I’m not sure how she would describe it. As embodied awakening. And so at the point that I encountered her, I had 15 years or more of sitting meditation practice. And so I had that kind of discipline down, but that’s a very narrow sense of practice. I mean, you’re sitting on a cushion, meditating. And the objective is to bring that into the world, but how to do that is a little bit mysterious.
Jessica, as a teacher, had a whole host of practices that just brought those same sensibilities into moment-to-moment awareness. And some of those were bodily practices. Some of them were variations on meditative practices. Some were —
Tim Ferriss: Bodily practices, meaning movement?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Movement, yeah. But all focused on staying awake to the present moment. And so it wasn’t — well, as an example, like yoga. Yoga could be that, but very often it becomes a routine practice that is certainly about the body, but it’s not about that blending integration of moment-to-moment awake awareness with what you’re doing. And that was, I would say it was a significant gift to my own practice, because it got me out of an introvertive practice — and that is focused inwardly, as meditation does. To an extrovertive practice, in which you’re still holding that sense of aliveness and degree of awareness, but it’s also projected into the world, or it’s projected back from the world. However one might experience that. But it’s really the enlivening of everything there is.
And those are very different, but very similar. And so in the literature on classic mystical experiences, there’s a differentiation between introvertive experiences, that is internal experiences, versus extrovertive, in which all things become alive and you’re in the world. And I think it’s important to recognize both are true and there’s great value in both. And of course, that leads us directly to some of the queries about psychedelic experiences. So our laboratory has focused on research in which we’ve given a psychedelic, mostly psilocybin, under conditions where people are asked to put eye shades on and listen to music. So it’s intentional and a container to produce an introvertive kind of experience.
But as you know, there are people who have profound and serious use of psychedelics, who think that that’s just an abomination. That you need to take these compounds out in nature or within community. And those are all legitimate set and setting conditions. And my own thought would be that it’s the marriage of what you learn from each of those kinds of experiences that helps you bring that into your moment-to-moment and daily lived experience.
Tim Ferriss: How do you relate to death? I mean, people have a million different takes on it. There are different ways that people maybe console themselves or provide an ideological, theological safety net in certain belief systems. And you have the Richard Alpert, Ram Dass, it’s like taking off a shoe that’s a bit too tight to transition. I’m not asking for anything in particular other than just how you relate to death, how you think about it.
Roland Griffiths: Well, it’s an ongoing contemplation for me. I’m bred as a reductionistic neuroscientist, but open to all possibilities. And so one scenario is — yeah, the nervous system goes down. It’s like unplugging the computer. That’s the end of existence. And then there are other scenarios that would have different accounts for survival of something consciousness or some type of awareness post-death. I guess what’s clear is I cannot bring myself to embrace the most fanciful thoughts about what death and dying are. I’m going to go to heaven and sit on the right hand side of Jesus and be with all my loved ones, or whatever story some people can embrace. I have to think that if you actually believe that, it could be joyful to die. But that seems outlandishly improbable to me, so I can dismiss those out of hand.
So then it’s really what the probability is that there’s something beyond death. And I had these conversations with my cancer patients. And this was when we ran the cancer study that was published in 2016. And there’s some irony, of course, in my now being one of those patients. But I would often ask — always ask participants at the beginning of the study, “Well, what do you think happens when we die?” And some would say, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to go on and meet my parents and it’ll be a joyful reunion.” And then others would say, “Well, I don’t believe anything. It’s computer off, system down, nothing.”
And then what I would ask is, “What’s the probability you think that’s true? Are you absolutely certain about that?” Or something — and they’d say, “Oh, I believe that to be true. So 95 percent, let’s say.” And I would think, 95 percent? So five percent likelihood that would be true. That would be, I mean, if you had lottery tickets that were going to pay off at five percent of the — you’d buy them immediately. I mean, it’s like people invest in lottery tickets at odds of, what? One and a million or less. So I thought, well, that’s interesting. And I think all you need is a fraction of a percent. It can be as tiny as you want. But if you haven’t foreclosed on the possibility that something might occur that’s interesting at the time of death, then that, at least to me, psychologically changes the whole game.
So I’m strongly biased toward a reductionistic, powers-off scenario, but I’m open to the possibility — although the probability I put on that changes from time-to-time. But it’s really narrow, in any case. But I’m open to the possibility that something other might occur, and so that gives me this deep curiosity about death. And I think that’s, at least for me, that’s all you need. I mean, that’s like this is — the story could be revealed. I mean, you might pass through that gate and go, “Oh, this is what that was about.” The curtain comes back and you see what’s going on. But that’s a fanciful idea in and of itself.
But I think I — yeah. I revel in the idea of curiosity at the time of death. Now, whether that’s going to change as I proceed through the medical course and my diagnosis, I don’t know. And I don’t know whether I’m going to be able to maintain the degree of equipoise I currently have. And I don’t know that I’m not going to succumb to the rabbit holes, but I’d also say that I’m looking forward to the challenge. I mean, it’s like everything that comes up that could be viewed as, “Oh, that’s terrible. Oh, I’m so sad to hear your test results came back like that.” And I’m experiencing it as, “No, this is great. This is an opportunity to explore what that is.” And it’s partly for me, just embracing reality as it unfolds in the course of this illness.
Tim Ferriss: How can your friends be most supportive to what you just described? Because I imagine many people, myself included, don’t really know how to address or not address or speak to these experiences you’re having as they unfold. So I’m sure I have said at some point, “I’m so sorry to hear…” dah, dah, dah, because I just don’t have a better replacement. Do you have any suggestions for — if I texted you and I said, “Roland, how are you doing?” And you replied with something that most people might respond to with, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” Is there an alternative that you might suggest? And this is for you specifically? Not saying this is general advice. How would you like me to be supportive?
Roland Griffiths: Thanks for asking. That’s an interesting question. Yeah, people very often are calling and say, “Oh, I hope you’re feeling better.” Well, that predisposes that I was feeling bad at some point. I’m not embracing that or endorsing that at all. And so yeah, when people say, “I’m so sorry,” my immediate reaction is “There’s nothing to be sorry about, I consider this a blessing.” [inaudible 01:41:08]. However, as I now am encountering more physical problems, best I can tell, all secondary to the medical treatment, which is a little exasperating but I think it was the best course of action. Yeah, there’d be no question that it would be nicer not to be encumbered by that. So what would I want friends to say?
Well, where I see it right now, I want them to join me in the celebration of what my experience is, and that is this deep gratitude for the preciousness of life. That’s what I’m trying to communicate to people. Let’s all wake up, you needn’t have this stage four cancer diagnosis, but there’s a degree of awakening that’s obtainable and join me in this celebration. But now putting myself in my friend’s shoes, they may not know what my current state is. They don’t know what my current state is. And so it feels like they should offer some kind of empathetic sympathy.
So what do I think about that? I think the question is, yeah. Been thinking of you, how are you doing? Rather than I hope you’re feeling better or I’m so sorry. We’ve been talking about identifying kind of the rabbit holes that you don’t want to go into. I almost have this kind of visceral response to people saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Or, “I hope you’re feeling better.” And there’s some people, every time I communicate with them, I have to make that correction because that’s not my experience and not the way I want to hold myself in this adventure that I’m undergoing.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned that in the cancer study with patients prior to, and I’m emphasizing prior to, that’s at least what I heard. The psilocybin sessions, you asked them what they thought happened when they died. So 95 percent confident, Pearly Gates, meet all my relatives, happy reunion. 95 percent confident, lights out, robot unplugged, and so on. Did you observe any patterns of change after the session? I don’t know if you revisited that question, maybe you were able to infer from the reports, which I know you have people both verbally recount and also in some cases, type out or write out. Did you observe any changes there?
Roland Griffiths: Yes. There are changes and it’s in the direction that you might anticipate, people are more open to the possibility of something occurring after death. And we’ve seen that repeatedly, we’ve seen that in our cancer patients and we’ve given a number of surveys of belief changes that occur before and after psychedelic experiences. And we’ve also looked at belief changes that occur before and after near death experiences and psychedelic experiences. And under all those cases, people are more likely to endorse something that continues after death, so I think that’s actually a very common feature of psychedelic experiences. More broadly, in a study that we’ve just submitted to publication about belief changes, there’s a shift toward more dualistic thinking that mind is somehow different than body, so that would be different than a purely reductionist worldview that would say that your mind is nothing other than neural functioning. But there’s a shift toward dualistic thinking, and then there are a number of other kinds of changes that occur.
Tim Ferriss: I like to pretend I’m some kind of amateur scientist but really you’re the scientist, and I’m just this sort of plodding interloper who happens to be a big fan of scientist and science in the scientific method. But I want to ask you, and this is not to infer any belief. Certainly on my side, I can’t explain this in any way but have you taken a look at or come across at any point — let me back up, there are all sorts of stories to use, one of your words, fanciful stories of life after death, lots of best sellers written with these either subtle or very direct kind of theological undertones, and you just can’t know. You can know that you are aware of being aware but I may just be some robot that’s passing the Turing Test, some deep fake AI that happens to be on video here, who knows.
So similarly, you can’t verify these experiences that people are reporting from near death experiences necessarily. Maybe they’re commonalities and that’s interesting at some level, but I remember reading a book, and there are some chapters in this book, it’s more of an anthology put together by David — it was edited by David Presti, who is at UC Berkeley. And I believe the title is called Mind Beyond Brain. And there’s, I’d say 20 percent of it, I wish they had left out because from my perspective, it doesn’t really further the conversation, it just muddies the water. However, there’s one section and this has also been, I believe looked at quite closely by an author and a journalist who’s written for The New York Times named Lisa Keen, who has also looked at case studies gathered by researchers at, I believe, University of Virginia. And you might see where this is going, but the stories relate to very young children in many cases, two or three years of age, recounting with sufficient detail a prior life that it could be confirmed and identified.
This is interesting. Again, no explanation but in India, this seems to be particularly common where it’s like, “20 clicks from here, I am so and so who grew up in this village and my brother’s name is such and such. And I died in this way and I used to do this.” This is a two or three year old, and lo and behold they go and they’re able to confirm this person actually existed. Not asking you for commentary necessarily but have you come across any of this? Have you read any of these accounts?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah, I’ve read those accounts. I’ve read some of the literature on paranormal phenomena, more generally. In neither case have I gone deeply enough into it to overcome my potential skepticism, that there could be biases in the data —
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
Roland Griffiths: — as collected? Look, we have almost half of our nation believing the election was totally fraudulent.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, for sure.
Roland Griffiths: So the ability of cultures to birth stories that are consistent with whatever worldview they want. So you’d have to look really closely into exactly who said what to whom and what kind of information would’ve been otherwise transmitted or distorted.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Roland Griffiths: I just don’t know. I do know there are people who have been involved with paranormal research, like Presti at UC Berkeley, who believe that there are real fundamental, interesting things going on there. I just haven’t pursued those areas enough to kind of quell my skepticism. Of course, if you believe those accounts, then it breaks down our whole paradigm for understanding reality, at least to date. So that makes it discomforting to scientists and reductionistic scientists altogether. But frankly, that’s also one of the great benefits in having psychedelics to study, because one of the phenomena, one of the belief sets of belief changes that occur after psychedelic experiences of the type I was describing, people are more inclined toward dualistic thinking.
They’re also more inclined toward endorsing paranormal beliefs. And so why would that be and what’s going on there? And I don’t know but these are questions that should be studied. Very early on, we were interested in merging the work on paranormal phenomena with psychedelics because of those associations, and we ultimately concluded that we had our hands full in terms —
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Roland Griffiths: — in terms of conducting our psychedelic research, which has changed markedly since 2000. But when we first got involved here, it was a very iffy business and we felt like we could be shut down.
Tim Ferriss: You didn’t want to throw psychics and astrology in there just to see if you could get that past the IRB.
Roland Griffiths: Right. So I guess the bottom line answer is yeah, we’ve kind of avoided looking closely at that and we have enough to do with what we have without getting involved, but it’s certainly enticing and anything that’s paradigm shifting that is hugely important.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t buy a lot of what comes up in that book. I raise an eyebrow with respect to — that term paranormal is really unfortunate, supernatural far worse, of course, just because I feel like — and you and I have chatted a bit about articles written by physicists where there is on one hand, what you said a lot of truth to if even one or two of these edge cases, forget about the majority let’s just say one or two of these cases happen to be verifiable, it upends to what we take to be true from a paradigm level perspective. Then on the other hand you can say, well, if we start going big enough or small enough, there isn’t really a consensus on what the hell is going on to begin with, if that makes any sense.
And things get very bizarre and there’s a lot of contentious debate and absolutely no consensus when it comes to quantum level physics. So I do think there’s a lot to be explored, and I have to assume, it seems like this has always been the case that we have many paradigms and it just seems inconceivable — what did you say, outlandishly improbable that all of them are correct. There must be, there have to be flaws. We’ve always thought that we have it mostly figured out and we’ve never been correct to date. I have to assume there are some things that are missing.
Roland Griffiths: That’s what science has to offer. We do have this methodology for discovering replicable relationships and science has been a huge blessing to human culture. So that’s where I’m kind of strongly inclined to say, let the wheels of science grind and begin to answer some of these questions. And ultimately, they’re going to be answerable, I think, other than the ultimate question and that’s what the hell’s going on here? But the more mundane questions about whether there’s remote reading, ultimately, there’s going to be proof of that or not proof of that. But so far — well, I won’t go into that because I don’t know the data well enough.
Tim Ferriss: I agree with you, which is partially why people are like, oh, “Do you want to prove that X, Y, and Z exists?” So I’m like, “No, actually I don’t.” And that wouldn’t be again, I’m not a scientist but that wouldn’t be a very scientific way of going about it either. You can have a hypothesis but I do think a lot of these things that appear to be fictionalized accounts of anomalies will be explainable, at some point. It might be quite a distance into the future but I’m optimistic actually with harnessing a lot of these technologies.
It is pretty wild that we can use quantum computing while still, at some of the most basic levels, we do not understand what’s going on but we can still harness the technology. It is very interesting. I think our explanatory power will improve a lot over the next five to 10 years by harnessing AI and other things. So I’m actually optimistic that a lot of these things that look like sort of improbable anomalies, maybe they are improbable anomalies, will nonetheless be explainable and therefore, cease to be thrown into this bucket of say paranormal, which is just like, ugh. Such a negative connotation.
I will say though, getting a little off track, that when it comes to any mention of some of these things posed as questions, that there is a lot of, sort of calcified, let me put it in a different way. Reactionary, unscientific response from people who are practicing scientists. They say, “Well, that can’t be possibly true.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s not a very scientific response.” If you say the data don’t support that conclusion, as of now, that’s a fair response, but if it’s that’s bullshit, that can’t possibly exist, that’s also not a terribly thoughtful response to things. But like you said, let the wheels of science grind. And I will just say that for me too, looking at the scientific method, looking at Western science and medicine, these are, in the last case, the most successful healing system ever devised by humankind. I lean heavily in your direction as well, with respect to all of those things.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. In some respects, science can become a religion in of itself. And that’s what you’re talking about is people who have totally bought into a reductionistic worldview, that’s the only way to look at it in the story. Yeah, they’re just as closed-minded as QAnon supporters, as far as I’m concerned. Science itself is entirely open-ended and agnostic. All it’s trying to do is find out what’s true. And there are things that have come to be proven sufficiently well that we believe them to be true and then there are things that haven’t reached that threshold yet. But we have a methodology that can answer these kinds of questions.
Tim Ferriss: Would you like to speak to the endowed professorship just to introduce that. I’d like to know why is it important and what type of research do you hope to be conducted? What types of things, in your sort of dream of dreams, what kind of stuff would we be investigating?
Roland Griffiths: With the diagnosis, I ended up starting to reprioritize a whole bunch of things in my life. Some became more important. Some became less important. It was very clarifying. It’s interesting because Marla, my wife, and I have done on several occasions the exercise of, oh, so what would you do differently if you knew that you only had a year to live or a month to live or a week to live or a day to live? We have been through that, but this brought that exercise into crystal clarity for me in a way that I hadn’t previously experienced it.
Among the things that came up, of course, was my will and what does that look like, and so I started reworking my will, and I got to the point of charitable contributions. My first response was, “Oh, that’s simple. I’m going to give to the effective charities movement like Giving Well,” which is this leveraged group that really studies different charitable causes and makes decisions and prioritizes those that are most effective.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, givewell.org.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Yeah. Terrific. Yeah. Yeah, and so that was my initial response, and then I woke the next day to the thought, and I may get a little emotional about this, “What would I really want to give? What could I give that would be of most value and of most meaning?” What came up for me is precisely the path that I’m on. What we want, those of us who have done spiritual practices and have experience with psychedelics, is we want the world, humankind, to awaken to what this marvelous experience is and appreciate it. With that kind of awakening comes this sense of wanting to take care of one another, to take care of the environment, to make a difference at the most fundamental level.
There are aspects of moral thinking, doing unto others as you would have them do you, and pro-social behaviors and attitudes that emerge from these kinds of transcendent experiences, whether they’re psychedelic or not, but psychedelics seem to be a very important scientific tool. Then the contemplation is, yeah, that’s what I want. What I want for humankind is for them to awaken. Can I contribute in any way because I think that some of the research we’re doing is directly germane to that? I thought, Oh, I could leave a bequest in my will. I don’t have a big estate, but I could maybe sponsor an enduring endowed lectureship where someone would come to lecture on this. That felt right, and then I thought I probably have — there’s some goodwill that I’ve accumulated with respect to the work that I’ve done with psychedelics, so maybe I should reach beyond that and create a professorship, a position that’s dedicated to studying these very things and, ideally, a research fund that would allow continued research into something that I call secular spirituality and well-being.
By secular spirituality, all I’m meaning is an empirical, scientific approach to studying the effects of psychedelic compounds or interventions that produce psychedelic-like effects to the empirical study of those aimed at healthy volunteers with the aspirational idea that that’s going to feed into a deeper understanding of the mystery in which we live and, if that can alter culture, that’s fundamentally important. My thought actually is that it’s one of the most powerful ways that we could potentially alter culture. I don’t mean by that to suggest that everyone should go out and take psychedelics, I think they’re much too powerful a tool for that and they’re potentially culturally disruptive, but to let the wheels of science grind on those questions I think seems to me to be critically important to solving the problem of what these transformative experiences are and then how they can benefit humankind and human flourishing.
In some sense, I feel like we’re in an existential race against the development of technologies that could end this whole experiment. I mean, they’re extinction-producing events like bio weaponry or nuclear war or climate change or AI, to name a few. Our technology is advancing at a rate much more rapidly than these evolved sense of moral-ethical standards, and so there’s every reason to give this area of research a high priority. Ironically enough, that we got deeply involved in this research and sometimes credit with setting off the Renaissance, psychedelic Renaissance, but ironically enough now, funds are flowing into the area of psychedelic research, but they’re doing so solely in support of therapeutic ends.
Don’t get me wrong. If a major focus of our research has been on therapeutic populations like depressed patients, anorexic patients, end-of-life cancer patients. That’s really an important target, and it’s an understandable cultural target that it should be prioritized. However, those funds are coming in from private capital to gain economic leverage, patent opportunities that are going to be used for therapeutic indications.
I’m also optimistic that NIH is increasingly coming online, and we’ll see money flowing into the psychedelic area through the federal governments, but what’s marooned in that process is this whole aspect of the well-being of the populations that aren’t, otherwise, identified as patients and the ethical and moral implications of those investigations. I think I’ve sometimes said it, and I think some people take it as hyperbole, but, in fact, I mean it. This area of research toward understanding these benevolent, magnificent qualities or sensibilities that arise from these experiences and their attendant changes in pro-social behavior are very likely to be critical to the survival of our species. It sounds like overreaching, and I don’t believe it to be so, in coming to that, that maybe I could play some role in establishing a fund that would do that in perpetuity.
I mean this is an endowment, so what that means is it continues enduringly over time as long as Johns Hopkins as an institution continues to exist. In terms of stable structures that we can expect to last for generations, I think major academic centers are among those that would be the most trustworthy in that regard. I see the question being addressed here, this idea of unpacking the mystery of what this is all about in a longer timeframe, and that may be a gift of the diagnosis. It’s not can we achieve this in five years? Ultimately, the ultimate answer to what are we doing here may never be known, but striving toward that is critical. This endowment will last in perpetuity and will grow in perpetuity. It’s managed by Hopkins in such a way that endowments grow over time, so I’m hugely excited about the prospect of setting this in motion.
Tim Ferriss: What type of research could you foresee? Who’s planned to head this up? What might studies look like? This might be a good place to bring in the religious leaders study and maybe describe that if it seems like an opportune place. I’m interested in it. Certainly, I think maybe at some point others would be as well, but would you like to address any of that? With the types of studies/research that might be conducted, who do you foresee heading it up, since it is a professorship, and then the religious leaders study?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Let’s see, so what kind of research would be done? Well, I see this as actually a through line of the research that initially got me involved in this, and this was the inquiry, “Would psychedelics have anything to tell us about this, the mystery, the benevolent mystery of what it is to exist?” That brought me into the field through meditation. We’ve done a series of studies in healthy volunteers to show that these effects, these kind of pro-social dispositional effects are reliable. They’re dose dependent. We can show them across different populations. We then did studies in beginning meditators and long-term meditators. Most recently, we’ve done a study in religious professionals, that is, clergy. In each case there, in beginning meditators and long-term meditators and the religious clergy, we’re looking at different populations with different histories and different belief systems, if you will.
What we’ve shown in each of those cases is that psilocybin is producing the same kinds of effects. Sometimes, they’re interpreted a little bit differently, but they’re these deeply moving experiences. As you move into long-term meditators and religious professionals, these experiences are resonating with some of the very things that brought them into that area of interest.
Where could this research go in the future? One very important question is to what extent are these experiences with psychedelics universal experiences? I mean, we still have to parse apart culture set in setting, but we’ve been doing this in different populations. An obvious additional population would be to study people who are holding atheistic worldviews, hard atheist worldviews, and see how they interpret these experiences in light of that. If I were to guess, I would guess that the benevolent pro-social attitudes are going to shine through whatever they claim their belief system to be. They won’t use the God language to describe it or they won’t use spiritual to even describe it, but I’m guessing they would fall back on the magnificence of what it is to be human.
There are other groups that could be studied, including philosophers. Different non-Western cultures should be studied. A very interesting group to be studied would be monastics, deep, deep monastics from the Dalai Lama’s tradition. We studied long-term meditators, but those were generally US citizens. If we could study monastics out of who have been studying, who have been practicing decades in isolation, that would be really interesting. We need to understand to what extent expectancies play a role in these effects, and can we prime these different kinds of effects with different instructions?
I mean, I think I could go on and on with the kinds of studies that could be done. There’s no single study that’s going to answer it. I mean, one question is a total concept intervention. What if you really throw the kitchen sink at the possibility for these kinds of changes, giving well-curated psychedelic experiences in supportive conditions that allow for maximizing the potential of these experiences to alter worldview in this fundamental way?
Related to that, a really interesting possibility is to look at psychedelic effects as rites of passage. There are inflection points within lives like the transition into adulthood. I’m thinking immediately post-college before someone has undertaken a career. That’s an inflection point in one’s life. Other inflection points could be at marriage or the birth of the first child or retirement from vocation and, of course death. Those are each potential inflection points that would be really interesting to investigate with respect to how psychedelic experiences could alter those. There are many, many other kinds of studies. What I hesitate to do is outline a single study because that’s all it’s going to be, a single study. What I’m seeing is a multi-generational process. I mean, like I said, it goes on enduringly to investigate the very nature of this sense of wonder and pro-social attitudes that evolve out of those kinds of experiences.
Tim Ferriss: Who’s the first lucky recipient, so to speak, first appointee, first quarterback, I’m not sure how to best describe it, professor, obviously?
Roland Griffiths: I was delighted when I thought of this idea, an endowed professorship, that I had recruited into our unit, David Yaden. He comes out of Pennsylvania and had worked, has devoted his career to date to the investigation of transformative experiences, but without psychedelics. He worked very closely with Marty Seligman in the —
Tim Ferriss: Seligman. Yeah, Marty Seligman of Positive Psychology.
Roland Griffiths: David has been very interested in transformative experiences, and he certainly recognized when he was doing this stuff that there was something super interesting about psychedelics. We had recruited him in several years ago and my appreciation for what he has to contribute, which has done nothing but grow enormously. He’s a rigorous empirical scientist. His own personal story is one in which he’s had transformative experiences that got him enthralled with answering these kinds of questions. He’s an incredible collaborator. He collaborates naturally with people. He’s very productive, and so I can’t think of a better person to initially take on the endowed fellowship.
I should say something just about what we’re aspiring toward. In general, endowed professorships can be established at universities at rates of a couple of million dollars, two or $3 million, but it’s a little bit deceiving because recipients of those professorships are receiving income from the endowment against their salary, but it only supports about a third, at best, of their salary. They’re not free to study any given thing. They still need to —
Tim Ferriss: They have to sing for their supper, writing grants to supplement their income.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. Absolutely. In some ways, those endowed professorships are illusory at least within some academic centers, including my own, so the first goal was to create an endowment that would cover someone’s full salary so they would not have to be concerned as long as they were productive. They wouldn’t have to be concerned about losing their job for lack of funding, and then the next level was to create enough additional funding so that they would have income for a research program. The kinds of studies that I’ve already outlined are expensive.
I think the initial goal of the endowment to create the professorship was at a $10-million mark which appears that we have reached — and I want to just express my gratitude to you, Tim, for your oversized role in making that happen. We still have to go through signing agreements and stuff like that. We’re still short in that respect, but, ultimately, my audacious dream, as I keep calling this because it seems so improbable from the onset that it could even be established, my ultimate dream would be an endowment of $20 million. That would really provide significant research funding to continue this work in perpetuity.
Tim Ferriss: How did you come across David? I’ll certainly have more questions, but I’m just wondering how the two of you first connected.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. David reached out to me when he was still an undergraduate because he immediately identified what we were doing as really interesting. I forget what question he asked me, but the other day we were talking and he actually pulled up the email, and he was asking something about transformative experiences. I mean, he has a very interesting life story in and of itself because he’s had these opening experiences. He was very interested in initiative, initiatory experiences. Part of his thesis research was he did back to back Marine bootcamp, and he was interested in that as an initiatory experience, but that’s one hell of dedication to go through bootcamp and come out the other side and take that as a learning opportunity, and then I think, within weeks, he went off on a month-long meditation retreat. I can’t imagine two more different initiatory experiences, the Marine boot camp and the —
Tim Ferriss: Sweet and sour chicken of initiatory complements.
Roland Griffiths: Yeah. He shows that he has his own practices. I mean, he’s a regular meditator, and so he has a good sense of the basic phenomenology of this and bringing that back with his scientific expertise, and also his very positive personality and ability to connect and collaborate with people make him a really good choice. He already has good connections with Harvard Divinity School and international reputation in collaborations with other centers doing psychedelic research. I think he’s just uniquely well-placed to take on the professorship.
One of the interesting places we went through is, well, yeah, how protected can we actually make this? How do we know that somehow this dream that goes on in perpetuity isn’t diverted for some other reasons and the mission becomes distorted in a way that we didn’t intend? I had the great, good fortune of working with a remarkable lawyer who just did this on a pro bono basis, but really helped us work through the formal agreement with Johns Hopkins that creates boundary conditions under which decisions about the professorship need to be made.
We’ve written in to the agreement very strong language about what the intent and purpose of the professorship is and then, in addition to that, within the agreement, we hold Johns Hopkins accountable to evaluating the person with respect to the purpose and intent and, at the point that they need to replace that person, they have to replace it with deep consideration of the purpose and intent so much so that, although we can’t and it wouldn’t make any sense to try to take the final decision away from Hopkins, we require that they involve in that decision-making process at least two other major institutions that have focuses germane to the purpose and intent.
Right now, we’ve chosen Harvard Divinity School, they have a deep interest in psychedelics, and the Usona Institute out of Madison, Wisconsin. Hopkins has to confer with those two institutions and then as well as two or more professional researchers in the area that are doing research in alignment with the intent and purpose. What we’re really doing is requiring a group of people to apply decisions having to do with whether this endowment is on track and whether the person appointed to the endowment is the right person. I feel very good about that in terms of securing its future direction to be consistent with what we laid out as the purpose and intent of the endowment.
Tim Ferriss: Very quick question just to — and this is going to be maybe a boring, procedural question, but Harvard Divinity School, I don’t think is going anywhere. I expect that’ll be around for a long time. Usona, less track record. I wouldn’t immediately have confidence that Usona will be around in 50 or 100 years. They may be, and I have a great deal of respect for them, but is there a contingency for if Usona ceases to exist, a replacement that’s kind of plan B and C?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah, absolutely. So, if those institutions are no longer doing research with respect to the purpose and intent of the endowment, then Hopkins has the right to choose another institution. But yeah, those are the tricky kinds of decisions to be made. Certainly, Bill Linton from Usona, is setting up Usona to survive in perpetuity, but there are all kinds of unknowns that we can’t account for. But I think we have enough redundancy built in between the institutions and then the individuals, that we a have pretty good check on Johns Hopkins following what was intended.
Tim Ferriss: Question, this is personal curiosity, I mean, all this is personal curiosity. But, if you’re open to telling me, what is the current prognosis? Where do things stand? Where do you see things going with respect to your medical diagnosis?
Roland Griffiths: Yeah, Tim, I’m totally open to talking about anything. One of the funny things that’s happened to, or maybe it’s not funny, but one of the things that’s happened since the diagnosis is that I just feel this transparency, that there’s no reason — well, there’s every reason not to be totally authentic and honest with myself and with others, so there’s nothing you need fear to ask.
So, the prognosis. It’s metastatic stage 4, but there are variations. There are metastatic stage 4 colon to liver cancer for which complete cures might be achievable. This appears not to be one of those for several different reasons. There are actually some very good immunotherapies for some forms of colon cancer, but the immune markers aren’t favorable to that intervention. Then, it really depends on the extensiveness of the liver metastases. Unfortunately, I have metastases in multiple lobes of the liver. So when you ask the medical providers, it’s very difficult to get them to give you kind of the raw —
Tim Ferriss: Straight answer?
Roland Griffiths: — the raw, straight answers of survival possibilities. But, they’re healthcare providers. They’re not trained to do that, and they want to protect people from unnecessary fear. So none of them will say, “Oh, yeah, there’s no chance that you’re going to survive.” They all say, “Well yeah, there’s a possibility here.”
I may have told you at one point I asked one of the surgeons, I said, “Okay, well, so given what you know about my cancer and the risk factors and the distribution of it,” I said, “how many patients have you had that are still around 10 or 15 years later?”
He said, “Oh, well, that’s just not a fair question to ask.”
So I teased him about that subsequently. But clearly, had he one case, he would’ve jumped on it, and said, “Well, yeah, just two months ago I met with someone who…”
But nonetheless, I guess the possibility of complete cure remains, but my thought is that it’s a theoretical possibility. Also, it’s interesting in terms of just how I’m dealing with it psychologically. I’ve read some books on people going through terminal cancer, and I think one of the toxic things that comes about is this grasping for the next therapy, that, “Oh, yeah, this is going to work and I’m going to be cured.” I don’t want to paint myself as hopeless, but that feels toxic to grasp for straws, “Oh, yeah, all I have to do is get through chemotherapy.” Or, “There’s a new experimental treatment.” There’s some people who live out the course of their terminal diagnosis chasing down the next possibility to prolong life, but in so doing, they’ve given up the opportunity to participate in life fully. So that’s a balancing act.
Tim Ferriss: Roland, is there anything else that you would like to say as we’re having this conversation and recording? It just could be any closing comment, requests of people. It could be something you want to say to your family or loved ones. This is entirely up to you. This is just whatever feels right to you, which could also be nothing further to add.
Roland Griffiths: So the first thing I would say is just deep gratitude to everyone who has helped support me. And then, in terms of what I’m going through personally, it’s this celebration of the preciousness of human life, the preciousness of awareness. We’re all in this together. At the deepest level, people understand that.
So my invitation to anyone who ends up hearing this in the future is to join me in that celebration, even if I’m not around in bodily form. There’s something so precious about that. And then of course, in line with what we’ve been talking about, this endowment feels truly important to me. It feels like it’s a gift to humanity and what we all want in terms of human flourishing for humankind and for planning for other sentient species. And so, whoever’s moved to support that, that would be accepted with deep gratitude from me.
I guess the final comment would be, to be continued, because I don’t know what lies ahead for me. I don’t know whether I can maintain the level of equipoise that I have. I certainly hope to be able to do so, but I’m also taking it in real time as it comes up. So I don’t want to give any sense that I’ve got this handled all the way to the end. I’m looking forward to seeing how I encounter those potential challenges.
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