A Conversation with Rachael Petersen, Rita Powell and Joe Welker

Wednesday, January 13th from 12-20pm PST


In contemporary psychedelic research, the concept of “mysticism” and its impact on therapeutic outcomes has become a central component of many clinical trial designs. As such, the attempt to describe, measure, and otherwise evaluate “mystical-type experiences” has become increasingly important to the future of psychedelic therapies. Amidst this intersection of the secular and the spiritual, paradigms of mysticism have migrated from the qualitative realms of religion, philosophy, and the humanities to be used in scientific, therapeutic, and otherwise quantifiable models.

In this discussion, two recent participants in clinical psilocybin trials, Rachael Petersen (Religion and Psychedelics Program Director, Riverstyx Foundation) and Rita Powell (Harvard Episcopalian Chaplain), are joined by moderator Joe Welker (MDiv candidate, Harvard Divinity School) to explore the models of mysticism in place during contemporary psilocybin trials: what happens when the clinical becomes religious and the religious becomes clinical? How are religion, mysticism, and spirituality invoked, studied, and understood within psychedelic clinical contexts? What are the benefits and pitfalls of the current paradigms of mysticism, and what are the challenges and opportunities of expanding the mystical set and setting in future psychedelic research?

Rachael Petersen is a consultant and writer with a decade of experience working on climate change. She is founder of Earthrise, a consultancy serving nonprofits, think thanks, and philanthropists working to transform our world. After experiencing burnout, Rachael participated in the 2018 Johns Hopkins Psilocybin trial for major depression. She currently serves as Religion and Psychedelics Program Director for the Riverstyx Foundation and a visiting fellow at Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions. Her writing explores themes of despair, personal and planetary crises, and conversion. She studied anthropology and environmental policy at Rice University.

The Reverend Rita Powell is the Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard. She has studied religion at Columbia and Yale Divinity School. She spent a long stretch living and working with the monastic community in Taizé, France, and also served as Youth Missioner in South Dakota before coming to Boston to lead Liturgy and Music at Trinity Church in Copley Square.  She was a participant in the Religious Professional Clinical Trial with Psilocybin at NYU in 2016. She is a student and teacher of a variety of ecstatic practices including yoga, endurance sports, singing, dancing, theater, poetry, and contemplative prayer. 

Joe Welker is a Master of Divinity candidate at Harvard Divinity School after receiving his Bachelor’s from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Religious Studies. With a background in podcasting and storytelling, Joe is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) where he is discerning a call to ordained ministry. His studies at Harvard include interreligious theology, exploring the future possibilities of psychedelic chaplaincy, and issues facing indigenous peoples. He is also passionate about homeless ministries and supporting religious rights for sacred plant communities.

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