Roland Griffiths, a leading scientist studying psychedelics, passed away on October 16. The following article is as much a eulogy, praising his achievements, as a personal note about my own spiritual journey.
Roland Griffiths, one of the most respected and recognised voices in the psychedelic science community, died on the same day as my wife delivered our baby daughter. Karmic coincidence? I don’t know. What I do know is that he was a person who had a positive influence not only on the scientific understanding of the human mind, but on me personally as well.
A few months ago I was listening to a podcast with Prof. Griffiths that made a huge impression on me. He was talking to Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and meditation teacher whose book on radical acceptance I appreciate a lot. It is a fascinating and illuminating conversation between two beautiful minds – I highly recommend it. I was saddened by the news, shared by Brach in the introduction, that Griffith had been diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer and that his days were numbered. But what really struck me, in a positive way, was his radical acceptance of his own mortality.
“Kick the ass of cancer dad”, texted his daughter to him when he started his chemo. He knew she meant well, but it was a message motivated by fear. Fear of loss. And Griffith did not want to react upon fear. He did not want to “fight” cancer, he said, he tried to embrace and accept his own mortality. He did not want to spend the rest of his days with a desperate fight to prolong them. So it was somewhat ironic when I read a eulogy that claimed he died after “a long battle” with cancer. Yes, he did not reject treatment, but he did not fight cancer; he learnt to accept it.
Mortality is acceptable for most of us only as long as it is floating at the far horizon, while we are living our lives in blissful ignorance of the when and where and how. When death does come uncomfortably close or becomes a certainty, we tend to respond with panic and fear. We turn on our “fight or flight” mode – and our friends and relatives turn on the “denial and deception” mode. And the fact that Griffith could accept his own death with such a gentle and kind heart, proved to me that he was not only an excellent scientist, but a mature spiritual practitioner.
I also had my personal reason why this conversation with Prof. Griffiths on life and death was so significant for me: a few months earlier I had been diagnosed with my own cancer. An early phase and much milder version of cancer than his, but still, I had to undergo two surgeries. For the first time in my life, I had to face death as a very tangible opportunity – not as an abstraction that awaits me at the end of a long journey in the future. Meditation and Buddhist philosophy was something that helped me going through this difficult period and transformed my whole existence from the inside out.
It was most reassuring to listen to Griffiths’ personal account on how he embraced his own mortality. What is more, in the end, he realised that his condition is a blessing. It reminded me of what the famous LSD researcher and spiritual guru, Richard Alpert aka Ram Dass, was saying about his stroke that left him with expressive aphasia, and in a wheelchair. He stated that the stroke was not only a lesson but an act of grace.
Although I was terrified by the prospect of dying and I cursed my bad fate for having cancer in the same year in which my wife became pregnant, slowly I understood that there is a message here. My life was way too busy and noisy. I had to slow down, I had to learn to sit and listen to the silence inside. I had to learn to say no to the empty, meaningless craving for something more, something else, that always leaves me unsatisfied. I stepped on the path Griffiths called the “awakening project”. And despite all the fear and suffering, I am now grateful for this experience.
Psychedelics are often a bridge that lead from science and materialism to spirituality and meditation. Many people, including Ram Dass, made this journey, with psychedelics as a diving board, from ‘Western’ science to ‘Eastern’ spirituality. But Griffiths’ path was different. Not only was it the other way around – that is, from (mindfulness) meditation to psychedelics – but he has also never lost his identity as a scientist on the way, and did not become a “guru”. He kept the scepticism (from the Greek skeptomai: to think, to consider) and the curiosity of a scientific mind.
Both as a psychopharmacologist and as a practising mediator he was looking for tools to explore the space where no one has gone before: the inner dimensions of human existence, the mind. That is why he became interested in psychedelics. But at first, he was very sceptical about them. He distrusted the hype around the “magic” of these substances and doubted that they could genuinely induce what the psychologist William James called a “mystical experience”. But his own research proved him wrong.
His groundbreaking study at Johns Hopkins on psilocybin, published in 2006, was one of the first major scientific breakthroughs in psychedelic research since the 1960s. It demonstrated the huge potential in psychedelics not only as medicine but in better understanding the mind. After the long winter of the war on drugs, when exploration went underground, there came a new spring, a new renaissance of psychedelic research.
When we interviewed him at the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research in Amsterdam in 2016, he was one of the most prominent speakers and the shining star of psychedelic science. But what I really liked about him was his humbleness. The kind of intellectual humility that is so rare both in the world of academia and in the world of spirituality. He restrained himself from overhyping psychedelics, like many others in this movement, but he could communicate the wonder and awe that came with the mind-blowing findings of their research.
For a long time Griffiths was hiding his personal experiences with psychedelics because he believed that this could damage his credibility as a researcher. But at the end of his life he became more open and admitted he was self-experiencing psychedelics.
Griffiths was one of those people who tried to connect the worlds of meditation, contemplative science, and psychedelic science. He pointed out that the neurodynamic mechanism of psychedelics – collapse of the default-mode network – is very similar to what Jed Brewer and other scientists discovered in the brains of experienced meditators. He thought that the true potential of psychedelics can be much better harvested with the help of some spiritual practices, such as mindfulness meditation.
Being one of those guys who started to experience psychedelics as a university student, two decades before I got introduced to mindfulness meditation, I cannot agree more. I think whoever would like to use psychedelics either as a medicine or as a tool of self-discovery, can prevent and avoid a lot of needless risks, while enhancing the quality of the experience, by exploring meditation first.
Holding my daughter on the day she was born was the peak experience of my life so far. I was reborn. I hope I will be able to see her growing up. When I learned the next day that Prof. Griffith died on the same day, somehow I felt that it was not a coincidence after all. I felt a sense of grace and gratitude that his wise words helped me get from one of the worst periods of my life, to this day, the happiest of my life. But the most important thing I have learned is that nothing is permanent – I accept and feel the joy but I don’t cling to it. We need to accept whatever arises. If used in a responsible way, both psychedelics and meditation can be useful tools to break the cycle of endless and mindless habitual loops. To learn to rest even in uncomfortable situations. To feel both the pain and the pleasure, without clinging and craving.
In the podcast he explained that humankind developed technologies that are becoming a threat to its own existence. He hoped that as a scientist, exploring these uniting mystical experiences, he contributed to a collective awakening that can save us. We inherited his vision – and we have to grow to the task.
Bon voyage, Professor!