Last month, we had the honor of welcoming Dr. Gunther Weil, the only remaining member of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, to speak to our ambassador network, The Circle. Dr. Weil was involved in notable studies such as the Concord Prison Experiment and The Good Friday Experiment, and he worked side by side with historic figures such as Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Ralph Metzner and many more. He received his Doctorate in 1965 from Harvard University, and was recruited by Abraham Maslow to teach soon after. Dr. Weil spoke with us about his experiences from the “first wave” of psychedelic research and how his first psilocybin session changed his life.
Then and Now: A Peek into the History of Dr. Weil
When asked to speak about his history as a refugee, Dr. Gunther Weil responded, “It’s an interesting point, as it also relates to my own healing.” Born in Frankfurt Germany in 1937, Dr. Weil describes how at a young age the Gestapo wrongfully took his father. His mother was able to quickly get his father released with his French papers, and their family soon after immigrated to the United States in 1939, when Dr. Weil was just two years old.
It was here that his family built a life, and where Gunther spent years working on his own healing with prominent figures such as Ram Dass. He was able to move through survivor guilt syndrome and pre-cognitive traumas, which furthered his enthusiasm for psychedelic work. As a new psychedelic renaissance is upon us, Dr. Weil has jumped back in with selectivity to the use of psychedelics, embarking on solo sessions that pay close attention to set and setting (a term coined by Dr. Timothy Leary). For Gunther, these psychedelic sessions involve eye masks and programmed music for a six hour duration. He shared with us the intention behind his recent psychedelic use:
“I’ve been doing that exploration, now in my 86th year, in preparing for my own transition. I’m not expected to go, but one never knows. In the spirit of wishing to die consciously, I’m doing that work again.”
Psychedelics in the Jazz Era
After immigrating to the United States, Dr. Weil’s family made a life for themselves in Milwaukee. He described his family as upper middle class and educated, and very musical. His father was both a pianist and violinist, having played piano in silent movies in his adolescence. At the time, jazz music was breathing life into Milwaukee, and it wasn’t long before Gunther heard the captivating sounds himself. One thing led to another and he became a self proclaimed be-bop aficionado. Dr. Weil found himself frequenting the city’s Black jazz clubs with a friend and explained how, although they were a bit of a ‘white boy anomaly’, the patrons were friendly and they all shared a love for the same music.
Nights spent among the jazz culture exposed Gunther to cannabis quite young, and he enjoyed it at the time. He credits cannabis for expanding his consciousness in ways that gave him the courage to step into the new unexplored territory of psychedelics.
An Introduction to Timothy Leary & Psilocybin
Dr. Weil had just begun his graduate work at Harvard in the fall of 1960. He walked into the Center for Research & Personality and was introduced to Dr. Timothy Leary, who was appointed as his faculty advisor. At this point, Gunther knew of Tim and that he had developed one of the most robust and sophisticated assessments of personality in the field of psychology. He also knew Tim had experience with altered states of consciousness, and was curious what psychedelics might promise.
“Last summer I was in Mexico with Maria Sabina and took [mushrooms] and it changed my life,” Gunther remembers Tim sharing. “What I’m now interested in is consciousness and the role psilocybin can play in that. If you’re interested in that, I’m happy to work with you as your advisor, and if you’re not, you’re better off finding someone else to be your advisor.” Within a week, Gunther Weil had his first psilocybin session with Tim.
Del Jolly, Unlimited Sciences: Let’s back up to your first psilocybin experience, there with Tim. How was that for you? What did that do and how did it set your course?
Dr. Gunther Weil: Well, it changed my life. Given my background, I came from an academic intellectual middle class family… I had a very strong orientation around concepts and the mind, and being an intellectual, and the identity I had crafted over a lot of years of growing up in my family… And all of that kind of got turned inside out. In that first session there was a deep transformation, an abiding and non-conceptual awareness and realization of thought as really a function of consciousness. It’s really one function of consciousness and one that serves us well when it’s a servant, and when it rules us as a master it’s pretty authoritarian and gets us in a lot of trouble… The sensory elements [of psilocybin] were extremely warm, and extremely seductive. In contrast to my LSD experiences where those were like, other dimensions… Those early psilocybin experiences, given the set and setting and the dosage and what we were exploring, had a different quality.
Unveiling The Concord Prison Project
Dr. Weil continued exploring the world of psychedelics alongside Dr. Leary for years to come. They began holding psilocybin sessions every weekend for people in and out of Cambridge from all over the world, who were seeking the possibilities of psychedelic use with Dr. Weil and Leary as their guides. Among one of these patrons was a resident psychiatrist for the Concord Prison, and out of this session came a proposal for the Department of Mental Health. The research would aim to see if the use of psilocybin could be deployed in order to reduce the recidivism rate (around 72% of people who go to prison once, return again).
Dr. Weil and Leary’s proposal was accepted. From the perspective of the Colonel Justice and mental health establishment, they were utilizing a pharmacological intervention, something quite common at the time. Under a pharmacological intervention, prisoners would receive what was called “good time” or time off their sentence if they volunteered for experiments using drugs of all types, ideally for clinical applications and retail sales.
A few months after the proposal was accepted, Dr. Weil walked into the maximum security prison, where a series of groundbreaking sessions would take place as part of the Concord Prison Experiment from 1961 to 1963. He described it as a scene out of a gothic novel, a prison with gigantic steel doors and “Frankenstein-esque” features. They reserved a room with 15 cots, and were locked in from 8:30 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon with 12-15 inmates. There, one session a month of that stature would take place as part of their randomized, controlled study, followed by a review session. Only one advisor would take psilocybin along with half of the prisoners, while the other half were given a placebo. Dr. Gunther Weil shares how together they were “able to discover our common humanity.” All of the roles and identities of each individual shifted away within less than an hour of ingesting the psilocybin.
Years later, an inmate with whom Dr. Weil shared a unique bond, contacted him while he was on probation to express the transformation he had experienced. “I want to thank you for the work we did,” he said. “It changed my life. I no longer have committed any violent crimes. I’m a criminal, that’s how I make my living, I don’t know anything else. But I’ve never hurt anyone physically since then.”
The Power of the Good Friday Experiment
In 1962, Gunther participated in The Good Friday Experiment, conceived by Walter Panke, a graduate student in theology at Harvard Divinity School, and under the supervision of Timothy Leary and Richard ‘Ram Dass’ Alpert. The experiment was to take place at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. Previously, the Dean of Boston University had taken psilocybin with Dr. Leary and thus was interested in supporting the experiment.
The question this group of changemakers seeked to answer was simple: Can psilocybin actually produce a mystical Christian experience? Backed by a historical understanding of the role of these substances, the set, setting, and session parameters were decided on. The set; Divinity students interested in mysticism. The setting; A chapel on Good Friday. Half of the students received psilocybin, while a control group received a dose of niacin as a placebo.
The Good Friday Experiment was so powerful that a number of students who had been given the placebo had psychedelic experiences themselves, just due to the magnetism of those who had taken psilocybin emanating such potent and contagious energy. The results provided more support for the notion that psychedelic drugs can in fact facilitate religious experiences.
The End of an Era
During this initial psychedelic era, there were people throughout the country having bad trips amidst recreational use of a mix of uncontrolled substances and mixtures containing elements of psilocybin and meta-amphetamines. Politicians and television personalities ran with the negative narratives against psychedelic use, and the end soon came to the efforts Dr. Weil and his fellow researchers had put forth.
“Basically, things blew up, and there were a variety of factors.”
As part of our closing conversation with Dr. Gunther Weil, we welcomed questions from our Unlimited Sciences Circle community.
The Circle: I really love the ideas of contagious energy within the Good Friday participants. Do you think this contagion is acute or is it potentially persistent? That is, for individuals who have undergone psilocybin healing, could their overall alteration in consciousness positively impact the people around them?
Dr. Gunther Weil: Yes, I think that’s definitely a possibility. Particularly in the months succeeding the experience. There is this capacity for insight and deep transformation. The key question here becomes, “What kind of support systems are needed following that to complete the integration?” Follow up and integration are necessary. There is this diminishing curve, and something is needed. Psychedelics provide a portal to a much deeper transformative awareness, but the real work has to be done day to day, in terms of whatever psycho spiritual practices or support people need to do in order to maintain that. At the end of the day, they’re like a gift of giving you a preview of coming attractions. In and of themselves the psychedelics cannot carry the burden or the weight of creating permanent change. The importance of integration need not be underestimated.
The Circle: Would you change any of Maslow’s ideas around self-actualization?
Dr. Gunther Weil: Yeah, and I have. Self-actualization is sort of at the sweet spot in the middle of that developmental transition. I believe that Abe did the best he could at the time with the tools he had and his own experience of developing the self-actualization model to the point he did. In my values work, self-actualization is a point of a shift in consciousness, or a shift in values, from a hand me down hierarchical structured linear consciousness, to one that is more open ended and non-linear and eventually a more and more quantum model. The ego death experience that happens with psychedelics when they’re utilized optimally, they realize the arbitrary nature of the lenses they’re looking through. That’s a profound transformation, and that can last for a while.
The Circle: If you were going to make a direct plea to the regulators in the state of Oregon about integration [as psychedelics are legalized], what is the most concise way that we could beg them to require integration?
Dr. Gunther Weil: I would say that it’s mandatory. Whatever evidence exists, both anecdotal and empirical, we know that the neuroplasticity that happens, we know that that is not lasting. We have to pay attention to neuroscience here. A robust and intelligent follow up program that would include moving pieces of mindfulness, trauma follow up, working with some of the better pieces of trauma work – if it were me, I would look to create a solid robust program. And also in addition to that I would look at creating some sort of intake screening for people coming into the program who are motivated to do the follow up work.
We are extremely humbled to have been given the opportunity to sit and chat with Dr. Gunther Weil, a lifelong student of consciousness and internationally recognized family advisor, executive coach, and educator. We leave you with an excerpt from The Psychedelic Reader, published in 1965 and written by Timothy Leary, Gunther Weil, and Ralph Metzner. As the present day brings traction once again to the psychedelic movement, these words still ring true:
“The synthesis of consciousness expanding substances which we regard as one of the most outstanding achievements of technological society, has now provided us with a means of transcending and overcoming many of the distortions which operate in the very society that has brought about these substances. It is now possible to affirm the general character of our social technocracy without succumbing to its totalitarian demands. The creation and furtherance of internal freedom for large numbers of people through the intelligent use of psychedelic substances are now a practical reality.”
To watch the full conversation with Dr. Gunther Weil:
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