The Good Friday Marsh Chapel Experiment
THEN -- Rev. Mike Young -- NOW
"TUNE IN, TURN ON, GET WELL?"
By Jeanne Malmgren
St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times, Sunday, November 27, 1994
Copyright (c) 1994 by the St. Petersburg Times.
All rights reserved.
Used by the Council on Spiritual Practices with permission.
So simple. So quick. It didn't exactly feel historic. Mike Young took the clear gel capsule that was handed to him and the paper cup full of juice. Down it went. In the windowless room around him, 19 other young men also swallowed pills, then settled back on beige vinyl couches. The mood was calm, but expectation hung heavy in the air. For 20 minutes the group chatted, laughed. And waited.
Next to Young was his best friend, Wayne. While they talked, the two eyed each other, watching for any sign the capsules were taking effect. They knew that half the pills given out were placebos. Their chances were 50-50. Please, Young thought, let me be one of the group who got the drug. Across the room, a clutch of doctors, psychiatrists and researchers looked on. Among them was Timothy Leary, Harvard psychology professor and high priest of the budding psychedelic scene.
It was the morning of April 20, 1962. Good Friday. Young was 23, a 1st-year divinity student at Andover Newton Theological School outside of Boston. He had come to that room in the basement of Marsh Chapel, on the campus of Boston University, to take part in what would become one of the most famous - and one of the last - large scale experiments in the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. All the participants were theological students. Half of them had just taken 30 milligrams of psilocybin, a hallucinogen extracted from mushrooms that produces vivid
sensory images and distorted perception. The other 10 got a placebo.
While under the influence, the group participated in a Good Friday worship service. Afterward, they were interviewed in detail about their experiences. The study's findings about the ability of psychedelics to produce
pseudo-mystical states were startling and largely positive, yet the experiment was the last of its kind. By 1970, possession of psilocybin, LSD and other psychoactive drugs was illegal. Harvard had fired Timothy Leary. The research ended and the war on drugs began....
Today, Mike Young is the Rev. Mike Young, pastor of the Unitarian
He was one of the 10 who took psilocybin that Good Friday three
"Of course I remember it. All of it," he says. "Experiencing death
is something you don't
Those wild and colorful seven hours showed him a new mode of
perception that was
nothing short of ecstatic. The drug trip helped solidify his career path in
the ministry. And it
conquered his fear of death.
Young, now 55, graying and bearded, is not a cheerleader for drug
abuse. He has
counseled drug abusers. He has seen how drugs can rip lives apart. He
warned his own children
about the dangers of recreational use.
But he also learned enough through his own experience to know that
some drugs, used
judiciously, can open a door. He's convinced psychedelics can be powerful
tools for personal
growth, as long as they're used in carefully controlled situations,
administered by professionals
trained to handle problems.
That doesn't mean he's advising curious teens to Just Say Yes.
"I'm not the least enthusiastic about recreational use of drugs,"
Young says. "I would not
wish to see them made legally available on the streets because they are
powerful mind benders."
Still, he thinks we might be overlooking something with our
blanket condemnation of hallucinogenics.
A handful of scientists agrees with him. One by one, in the last few
years, they've stepped
forward to declare their interest in psychedelic research. They think such
drugs might be used to
help heroin and cocaine addicts, terminally ill patients, post-traumatic
stress sufferers and people in
They're encouraged by recent changes at the Food and Drug Administration.
A new division of the FDA called Pilot Drug Evaluation has begun granting
to proposed studies of the effects of psychedelics on humans. Several
experiments began this year.
Many of this new generation of researchers were in grade school when Leary
experimented with hallucinogenics in the '60s. They're eager to reopen a
field of research that was
essentially shut down for 25 years. And they plan to go about it carefully
"We all have to be very cautious and conservative," said Dr.
Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and associate
professor at UCLA
School of Medicine. "It's very important not to make any unsubstantiated
claims or to be anything
but totally impartial."
There are critics, but the opposition seems muted. Several
psychiatrists have said
hallucinogenics are too unpredictable to be of any real value, but they stop
short of recommending
that research be halted.
In May, Grob began human studies with MDMA, a drug also called
say MDMA potential for psychotherapy because
it makes users feel sympathetic and communicative, without the hallucinations
common in other
After determining safe dosage levels and measuring the drug's
biological effects, Grob
hopes to try MDMA on terminally ill patients who have chronic pain and
His step-by-step plan is common among the new wave of researchers.
They know they'll
never get institutional approval or funding unless their studies have solid
From his vantage point, spanning two generations of drug studies,
Timothy Leary, now
74, watches the revival of psychedelic
research and questions the notion it ever stopped.
"A 'resurgence!'" he said by telephone recently from his Beverly Hills,
Calif., home. "That's
media-generated. This research has been going on the whole time."
He's right, technically. A few drug researchers went underground in
the '70s, backed by whatever private funding they could
scrounge and supplied by drug manufacturers abroad.
Psychedelic drug studies may never be commonplace or widely
accepted, Leary acknowledges. He calls the concept of federally approved
experiments in expanded consciousness "the ultimate oxymoron."
Science meets religion
The Good Friday experiment was the very blending of science
and religion that today might raise eyebrows.
Mike Young and the other volunteers passed a thorough
conducted by Leary, his associate Richard Alpert (who later became known as
Ram Dass) and
Pahnke, the author of the study.
Pahnke was a physician and minister working on his Ph.D. in
theology at Harvard. His hypothesis was that a psychedelic drug could induce
something similar to
a mystical experience, when taken in a religious atmosphere by a group of
subjects who were
Leary had already tried it on state prison inmates and Pahnke
wanted to use divinity students next. He designed a double-blind
study in which neither the experimenters nor the subjects would
know who had gotten the drug and who hadn't, at least until it became obvious
by their behavior.
He chose his 20 participants, assigned each a code name and recruited Harvard
to act as "guides."
As the organ swung into a prelude upstairs in the sanctuary, Young
and his friends, in the
basement lounge, waited for whatever might happen.
"I noticed Wayne was antsy," Young remembers. "Pretty soon his face
got all flushed and
he said, 'It's hot in here.' I was having no symptoms at all. So I thought,
's---, he got the drug
and I got the placebo.' Dammit, anyway."
Actually, it was the other way around. Young's friend was reacting to
the placebo--a large
dose of niacin, part of the Vitamin B complex.
Young's symptoms started as his friend's subsided.
"I just slid into it very gently, very, very beautifully," he says.
"Colors became incredibly
intense. Geometric figures seemed to etch themselves around objects. When
there was an after-image, a flare behind the motion."
Before long the light show became internal, as well. Young
closed his eyes and "leapt into an incredible kaleidoscope of visual
By the time he realized he was beginning his drug trip, the worship
service had begun and
the group was ushered into a small chapel across the hall. They sat in pews
facing an empty pulpit
The rich voice of the Rev. Howard Thurman, chaplain of Boston
University and mentor of
young divinity student Martin Luther King
Jr., rolled down from a pair of speakers at the front of the chapel.
Thurman's 2 l/2-hour Good Friday meditation was legendary. Intensely
emotional, the service contained poetry, homily, scripture
readings and music, interweaving events from the life of Christ with his
Passion on the cross.
As Thurman recited poetry--mostly dark, moody pieces about
death--Young sat in the pew and listened.
At one point, he went to the men's room and began hallucinating:
Cigarette ashes in the urinal
looked like beautiful black pearls.
Through an open window in the bathroom, he heard cars whizzing
"And I didn't know which was the real world. I couldn't keep
straight what was happening inside my head and what was happening
Young went back in the chapel and within minutes was plunged into what he
now calls "the
major vision of the drug for me."
It began with more visual fireworks.
"I was awash in a sea of color. These bands of swooshing liquid. It was
like being underwater
in an ocean of different color bands."
Overwhelmed, he tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
"Sometimes, it would resolve into patterns with meaning, and
other times it would just be this beautiful swirl of color. It was by turns
Thirty-two years later, Young leans forward in his chair as he describes
Eventually - he has no idea how much time this took- the colors began to
take recognizable shape.
"It was a radial design, like a mandala, with the colors in the center
leading out to the sides, each
one a different color and pattern."
Young felt that he was in the center of this great circle - frozen there
like a fly in a spider web.
"I could see that each color band was a different life experience. A
different path to take. And I
was in the center where they all started. I could choose any path I wanted.
It was incredible
freedom . . . but I had to choose one. To stay in the center was to die."
Young's voice drops to a whisper.
"I couldn't choose. I just . . . couldn't. . . pick one."
He was in agony. There was a sensation of his "insides being
clawed out. It was incredibly painful."
For what felt like an eternity, he hung there, suspended by fear
"And then I died."
At that moment, Thurman's voice, from upstairs in the sanctuary,
intoned the lines of an
Edna St. Vincent Millay poem.
I shall die, but that is all I shall do for
I am not on his pay-roll.
Young pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket and scribbled
something on it. Later that day, when his head was clear, he looked
at what he'd written.
NOBODY SHOULD HAVE TO GO THROUGH THIS. EVER!
"I wasn't talking about the drug trip," he says now. "I was talking about
having to make this
choice of what to be. I was talking about having an ego and having to have it
die in order to live in
freedom. I had to die in order to become who I could be. I did make a choice,
in that willingness to
Young spent three more hours under the influence of psilocybin.
"I was in and out of vision, but it was pleasant. Interesting. It
gradually tapered off. I was gently
coming down and reflecting back on that death image."
Eventually, he started to notice what was going on around him.
Most of the nine others who had taken the drug were still sitting on pews
in the chapel. There
was not a lot of rolling around on the floor or other dramatics, Young says.
One man got up and gave a "sermon," a string of gibberish.
Another stood and almost urinated before he realized what he was doing.
One man felt compelled to find out if the outside world was still there.
He was found trying to
force the lock on a door. Two guides walked him around outside, but couldn't
Eventually, he was given a shot of Thorazine, a powerful tranquilizer.
At the end of the day, all 20 men filled out a questionnaire and
wrote a complete chronology of their experience.
Afterward, they went to Leary's house, where they devoured
sandwiches and sodas. There were follow-up interviews and medical
and psychiatric exams a month later, and again at six months.
And then it was over.
Young never heard from Pahnke, the head researcher, again. He finished
divinity school, spent
several years as campus minister at Stanford University and assistant pastor
of a Unitarian
Universalist church in Palo Alto, both in California. He also designed rehab
programs for young offenders at the Los Angeles probation department before
coming to Tampa in 1982 to lead the Unitarian
There were never any flashbacks. But Young has had two re
lated experiences in the years since. First was a dream in which
he saw the circular design of his drug trip, which he now under
stands was all about his struggle to make a career choice.
The second experience came as he stood on a California beach,
watching a storm build out at sea and feeling a deep sense of connection with
He interpreted both as spontaneous expressions of what the psilocybin had
taught him during the drug trip.
"Religious ideas that were interesting intellectually before, took on a
whole different dimension.
Now they were connected to something much deeper than belief and theory."
In 1988, Young found out it was the same way for most of the other Good
Rick Doblin, a psychology student at New College in Sarasota,
called him. Doblin wanted to do a 25-year follow-up study, but Pahnke had
died in a scuba
accident several years after the experiment. Many of his records had been
Young helped Doblin crack the code names and he tracked down all but two
of the Good Friday
participants. One had died and one never was located.
Two others didn't want to talk about it.
The result of Doblin's interviews is the final chapter of the Good
Friday story. His report
was published in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.
Everyone I talked to who had the psilocybin felt after 25 years of
reflection that the
experience was a genuine mystical experience," Doblin says. "It was a clear
viewing of some
ultimate level of reality that had a long-term positive impact on their
Although many of the subjects endured frightening or painful moments
during their drug
trip, as Young did, they still felt it was worthwhile.
Quite a few reported later mystical experiences, either in dreams,
prayer or natural settings.
"The primary feeling of unity from their drug trip led many of them to a
feeling of compassion
for oppressed minorities and the environment," Doblin says.
Young told his Tampa congregation about the Good Friday
experiment several years ago, in a sermon. Only one woman voiced
mild objection; most were interested to hear the tale.
"What the drug experience did for me involved a deepening of my
own spiritual sense, along with a broadening of it," Young says. "It has
influenced the whole
context of my ministry."
The majority of the Good Friday participants now favors limited,
controlled use of hallucinogenics. At least two of the subjects who got the
placebo in the
experiment later arranged to take psilocybin on their own.
Young and his wife, Nancy, an artist, have a grown daughter and
son. They also reared 21 foster children part-time, including an
Amerasian girl they adopted when she was 13.
"My kids knew about my psilocybin experience as early as I can
remember," Young says. "But they also saw their dad working as a probation
officer with drug
abusers. They saw very clearly how drugs could tear up their life. My
approach always was,
here's the best information available on drugs. Here are the risks involved.
I trusted them to learn
from life's lessons."
Drugs, to him, are tools--helpful when used properly, potentially
lethal if used the wrong
way. "A hatchet is a very useful tool but it's really lousy for parting your
Young is just as concerned as anyone else when he reads about
middle-school kids turning on to psychedelics.
"One of the great ironies is that this stuff is once again becoming
available," he says. "You have
people cooking up batches of LSD in their bathtubs and it's hitting the
streets. It's there."
What is not there, he adds, is "the wisdom of how to deal with this."
And wisdom he knows, is more than just the contents of a gel capsule.
It's the ability to understand whatever secrets that capsule may
Reprinted with permission of St. Petersburg Times, copyright