Set & Setting

The first time I ever heard about LSD was in my fourth-grade Sunday School class. The class was taught by Mr. Taylor, a middle-aged unsmiling man who still buzzed his head with a pair of clippers every week – years after his military service was over. And Mr. Taylor ran his ship as tight as that crewcut. If you spoke out of turn in Sunday School or even giggled while he was writing at the blackboard, he would throw a piece of chalk at you – HARD. I mean, he would whip it at you. Sometimes it would explode against the wall next to your head. Sometimes it would hit you in the head. He didn’t seem to be too concerned about his aim.

What he was concerned about – it turns out – was LSD. One Sunday instead of learning about whatever we were supposed to be learning about, Mr. Taylor taught us about the dangers of following in Timothy Leary’s psychedelic, counter-cultural footsteps and “tuning in, turning on, and dropping out.” I remember harrowing stories about kids “dropping acid” and jumping off building because they thought they could fly or staring into the sun for hours until they went blind.

For weeks every time I ate something – even my mom’s own cooking – I was terrified that it might have been dosed with hallucinogens by some revolutionary hippie trying to warp my young mind – a scenario Mr. Taylor had specifically warned us about.

I thought Mr. Taylor’s early lessons were all religion had to say on the topic of LSD and mushrooms and the like, until I learned a few years ago about the Marsh Chapel Experiment. On Good Friday, 1962 a group of Harvard Divinity Students were gathered in the basement of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel to listen to the Good Friday service piped in through speakers. Half the students were given a placebo and half were given psilocybin (the active, psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms). The researchers (including the infamous Timothy Leary) from the Harvard Psilocybin Project were attempting to test for the spiritual effects of psilocybin on religiously predisposed subjects. The experiment was by no means perfect – it was not scientifically rigorous and one tripping student needed to be tranquilized – but in a follow up 25 years later with the participants – many now pastors and religious professionals (including the famed scholar of world religions, Huston Smith), all those who had received the psilocybin rated the experience as genuinely mystical and one of the high points of their spiritual lives.

This came to my attention because after decades of being forced underground, research on the positive effects that psychedelics can have was being conducted again by reputable institutions – foremost among them Johns Hopkins and NYU. I learned that for one of their projects Johns Hopkins and NYU researchers were looking for religious leaders who had no experience with psychedelics to participate in an experiment testing the long-lasting spiritual effects of psilocybin. I was intrigued and contacted the researchers.

“What denomination are you from?” they asked. “The United Church of Christ,” I responded proudly. “Oh, I’m sorry,” they said, “We have more than enough volunteers from the UCC clergy and we’re really just focused on recruiting everyone else.”

So, I didn’t get an all-expense paid, legal, and professionally guided psilocybin trip. But I’ve remained curious. And when I heard that famed food journalist Michael Pollan was turning his attention to psychedelics, I added his latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence to my summer reading list.

There’s lots of good stuff in the book – much of it anecdotal, but fascinating all the same, and full of possibility – stories of psychedelics being used to beat addiction, depression, even the fear of death that terminal cancer patients experience. What’s fascinating about these drugs, however, is that taking them is not like taking an antibiotic or a Tylenol – you take the pill, you get better, end of story. Instead, it seems to be not just the drug, but the experience and the insights you gain while under the drug’s influence that have the longest-lasting positive effects, which really complicates the science with what are termed “critical extra-pharmacological variables.”

Instead of just giving someone a drug and letting it do its work, the researchers have to give special attention to what they call “set and setting.” Set and setting are the inner and outer environments in which any experience takes place. Set is short for mindset – the expectations we bring to an experience. And setting is the outward location – the ambience, the atmosphere, and perhaps the emotional baggage a particular location or type of location carries with it.

A cold, clinical exam room combined with improper preparations and expectations frequently leads to a “bad trip.” But an inviting, comfortable, safe environment with candle light, mood music, and just the right amount of ritual in combination with the proper instructions for facing the challenges of the experience can lead to a profoundly life-changing journey.

Science didn’t discover the importance of set and setting until it began experimenting with psychedelics. But I think our scripture reading from this evening tells us that Jesus also learned the importance of set and setting in his time. Jesus understood that you have to be ready for a miracle, and that our judgmentalism undermines our ability to experience holiness.

The good people of Nazareth were hearing the same message that everybody else had been hearing, but it had no power for them because for them it was coming from the wrong messenger. “That’s just Jesus. He’s one of us and now look at him – he thinks he’s so smart!” Jesus and the disciples had been expecting miracles, but discovered resistance. “Listen,” says Jesus, “you need me – if not to teach you, at least to heal you!” “No, we don’t,” says the hometown crowd. “You’re no better than the rest of us.”

Sometimes we suffer from what the Australians call “Tall Poppy Syndrome” – anyone who gets too big for their britches gets cut back down to size. It’s a mindset that expects and requires the small rather than the large. And it reinforces the feeling of being “stuck.” Anyone who dares to step up to the wagon and give it a push gets knocked down into the mud.

Jesus warns us – this is a mindset that we’re particularly susceptible to when we’re located “at home” – the place where we feel most comfortable, the place where we know everything, the place where we’re most allergic to change. If you really want to expand your mind and the borders of what you think is possible, you need to leave home.

And I think this insight might also have changed Jesus’ mind about who needs who. Because as Jesus is leaving home, he sets up an experiment that seems more bound to fail than any psilocybin trial:

Only one pair of sandals – the ones on your feet, Jesus said. Only the clothes on your back, Jesus said. You won’t even need a bag. Well, if we don’t have a bag where are we gonna put our purse? You don’t need a purse. But where will we put our money? You won’t be carrying money. Oh. Can we carry a walking stick to take the ache off our knees and to clobber bandits with? No. No staffs, no clubs, no sticks. Can we bring like a can of sardines or some trail mix – something salty? No, says Jesus, you’ll eat whatever food is offered you.

Why would Jesus take all the most common sense knowledge about how to hit the road – strap on your fanny pack, some snacks maybe, comfortable shoes, carry your toiletries in a one quart clear plastic Ziploc bag, enough cash for an emergency, extra underwear – and then teach the exact opposite of those rules to the front line of his movement to change the world?

Jesus was no longer interested in teaching comfortably, but ineffectively, from home. So, he chose a new set and setting – permanent homelessness, the constant need for hospitality. We wanted the world to want us, Jesus seems to say. Now we’re the ones who need the world. Now the miracles begin.

Jesus and the disciples would no longer be tall poppies to be cut down. Now they’re the tiny poppies, the petal-less poppies, the poppies who needed a hand up and a hand out. And from that location, from below rather than above, they’ll offer Good News to the world.

 In the course of researching his book Pollan has a number of psychedelic experiences. He ingests LSD on blotter paper. He eats LBMs (little brown mushrooms). He smokes the venom milked from a desert toad. And he drinks a tea brewed from an Amazonian vine and shrub. It’s wonderful to read introspective, journalistic accounts of experiencing the mystical, encountering infinity, and undergoing the complete shutdown of one’s own ego.

This ego death, according to Pollan’s book, is the most consistent and remarked upon experience when ingesting these drugs in high doses and Pollan does of good job of describing that experience from the inside and pursuing the science of what’s actually happening in the brain to cause it. The brain scans of people who have taken psilocybin and other psychedelics are remarkably similarly to the brain scans of experienced meditators.

I learned from Pollan’s book that psychedelics can be a powerful experience, and maybe they can give a patient or an experimenter something to aim for in their spiritual practice. But in the end we can’t all find the right amount of humility, selflessness, and love by dropping acid all day long. It’s just not sustainable.

But Jesus offers us a more sustainable, longer lasting path to human love and mystical connection – to go out into the world and to really depend upon it – to break ourselves of the illusion that the world needs us, that we are the most important thing, that we have the most important perspective, the most important mission. We don’t. This should be the Church’s “set and setting,” say Jesus. Our perspective is only valuable, if it finds it way in from the bottom, through the crack underneath the door. And our mission is only legitimate, if it’s a mission out in the world.

What would it be like if we here at Broadway UCC committed ourselves to that kind of a trip? A journey out into a world that we need more than it needs us. What might we discover about who we are? What kind of relationships might we build? What kind of miracles might we experience?