PSYCHEDELIC THERAPY: AN ALTERNATIVE CLASSIFICATION FOR EXPANDED HEALING OPTIONS – PART TWO
In Part One I attempted to draw some comparisons between the cognitive and emotional function and outcome of psychedelic use with other experiences/practices, including near death experiences, out of body experiences, breath work, meditation, yoga, qigong, and other mystical and spiritual practices. (If you haven’t read it, you might find the background helpful!)
Before moving on, I want to revisit what started this train of thought in the first place.
First, I fear that the business model used for most psychedelic-assisted therapy will exclude many, many people due to financial, logistic, or legal/moral reasons. So part of my inquiry was driven by an attempt to find possible functional alternatives to psychedelic-assisted therapy for those who can’t access it.
Second, we can’t just wait for people to become physically or mentally ill before trying to address their needs. We need to take a proactive approach, which includes building inner resilience by providing opportunities for people to gain some insight in to “what life is and what life isn’t,” because many mental health issues have, at their root, dysfunctional or disordered thinking, and/or dysfunctional or traumatic experiences.
Psychedelics seem to allow both a reprocessing and a reinterpretation of thoughts, beliefs, and experiences, but encouraging a proactive/preventative use might have mixed results. Many of the practices we are discussing here have the capacity to do the same thing; but they can be implemented more safely and without the constraints surrounding psychedelics. Imagine what future mental health issues we could reduce or eliminate by dismantling the spell (of our default programming) before we get caught up in it.
Third, these practices could both support psychedelic-assisted therapy and allow people to continue to integrate and evolve beyond their psychedelic-assisted therapy experience; without the need for further psychedelic use. So even if we don’t pursue them as replacements to psychedelics, there would still be a functional use for them in daily practice, in conjunction with, and in support of, psychedelic-assisted therapy.
With these thoughts in mind, let’s take a quick look at a few examples.
I won’t go in to all of the historical references here, but I think we can say with some degree of certainty that psychedelic substances were used by many in the early spiritual and mystical traditions. In fact, some argue that it was these psychedelic inspired experiences that served as the origin of many traditions.
Regardless of what role they played historically, somewhere along the way, many traditions and practices continued to evolve without the use of these substances, while maintaining similar outcomes.
What I find interesting is the fact that even though many traditions of yoga, meditation, qigong, etc emerged from psychedelic inspired origins, most no longer condone the use of psychedelics in spiritual practice. I started wondering if investigating why this was the case might give us some insight in to the pros and cons of using these practices instead of or in combination with psychedelic-assisted therapy.
I contacted two people from different traditions to hear what they had to say about the issue.
Mingtong Gu, from the Chi Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said:
“In many traditions, psychedelics [are] considered great benefit to open the gate to spiritual experience as well as therapeutic benefit with proper guidance and support. WHQ (Wisdom Healing Qigong) acknowledges this common experience but [does] not emphasize it as a main practice. We continue to invite deep opening, as well as simultaneous integration, for both short term and long term development through consistent self-initiated and self-responsible practice.”
Master Gu’s response reflects many of the other opinions that I found, which is that psychedelics can serve as a catalyst to lead someone to a higher understanding, but that further insight and understanding could only be maintained by prolonged spiritual practices.
Some take a stronger position on the issue, however. While I wasn’t able to get a direct response from Sadhguru, of the Isha Foundation, the Isha representatives responding to my request sent me a number of videos in which Sadhguru spoke on the subject.
In every video I watched, Sadhguru appeared to not recommend psychedelics in any occasion, even in the context of psychedelic-assisted therapy. It should be noted that this was my interpretation of the videos that were sent to me. Because Sadhguru did not respond to me directly, I can’t say for sure what his stance would be when presented with different circumstances.
His reluctance to be in support of psychedelics, while a harder stance than some other traditions, reminded me of something I ran across twenty years ago.
I was listening to a lecture by Ram Dass, the former Harvard psychology professor previously known as Richard Alpert, who was expelled from Harvard (along with Timothy Leary) for his use and support of psychedelics. He was talking about the “trappings” and possible danger of high experiences, like the ones frequently experienced on psychedelic trips. Elsewhere, he wrote:
“For many of us who have come into meditation through psychedelics, the model we have had for changing consciousness has been of “getting high.” We pushed away our normal waking state in order to embrace a state of euphoria, harmony, bliss, peace, or ecstasy. “
“Psychedelics could chemically override the thought patterns in your brain so that you are open to the moment, but once the chemical loses its power the old habit patterns take over again. With them comes a subtle despair that without chemicals you are a prisoner of your thoughts.”
“The trap of high experiences, however they occur, is that you become attached to their memory and so you try to recreate them. These memories compel you to try to reproduce the high.
Ultimately they trap you, because they interfere with your experience of the present moment. In meditation you must be in the moment, letting go of comparisons and memories. If the high was too powerful in comparison to the rest of your life, it overrides the present and keeps you focused on the past. The paradox, of course, is that were you to let go of the past, you would find in the present moment the same quality that you once had. But because you’re trying to repeat the past, you lose the moment.”
This position seems to mimic what Sadhguru is saying, but it’s worth looking at the whole issue in context.
Thus far, the psychedelic-assisted therapy movement has had therapy as its goal, not enlightenment. And from what the current research has shown, many individuals receive tremendous benefit, and only end up taking the psychedelic substance a handful of times.
In my opinion, it would be wrong, especially in a therapy context, to throw the whole psychedelic experience out just because of some possibility of getting trapped by “experience” on your way to enlightenment.
In fact, in Ram Dass’ quote above, he says, “The trap of higher experiences, however they occur,” which includes spiritual practice induced experiences as well, which is the topic I heard him speaking on many years ago.
This idea is emphasized in the Zen tradition, as well.
In essence, a student goes to his teacher and says, “Teacher, in my meditations I am filled with images of demons and places in hell. What should I do?” And the teacher responded, “Don’t worry. Just keep meditating. It will go away.” A week later the student comes back and he is elated. He says, “Teacher! You were right! Now in my meditation I am filled with bliss and images of angels and heaven.” And the teacher said, “Don’t worry. Just keep meditating. It will go away.”
An amusing story, of course, but again we see this idea of disregarding experiences, positive or negative, as any type of ultimate reality or goal, because all experiences are impermanent and subject to constant change.
This is what Sadhguru and Ram Dass are cautioning about above; attachment to blissful experiences as some sort of elevated version of Reality.
This is actually something I have had some experience with in my own practice, and while I understand the warning, these experiences, especially ones that can knock us out of our current programming, can be an extremely potent catalyst for change. As long as we don’t turn to psychedelics as a way to “keep the high experience going,” they seem like a legitimate avenue to create positive change in one’s life.
[Even Ram Dass’ guru, Neem Karoli Baba, appeared to acknowledge this. You can read the story of when Ram Dass gave Maharaji LSD here. The truthfulness of the story has been questioned by many people, but Ram Dass always maintained that it happened as he described it.]
There are many other spiritual and mystical traditions that we could mention, but for now let’s move on to the subject of breathwork.
Even though breathwork has been around for perhaps thousands of years, in terms of modern day modalities, you have to start with Holotropic Breathwork, developed my Stanislov Grof. When LSD became illegal in the late 1960s, Stanislov came up with this technique as an alternative way to access deeper states of consciousness.
This technique is still around today, and it includes other elements of early psychedelic work as well, including having a “sitter” that attends to the “breather.”
Since then, we have seen the rise of many different styles of breathwork, and while they all have their own end goals, many offer the opportunity to experience similar types of benefits that psychedelic induced altered states of consciousness provide.
In fact, just recently, Jeff Tarrant, Ph.D., of the NeuroMeditation Institute, did a small study where he showed that participants doing the SOMA Breath technique exhibited the same kinds of brain wave states that we see with psychedelic use.
This is just one small study, of course, but the anecdotes of thousands of students of these different breathwork styles indicate that these modalities hold some promise, for both mental health issues and personal development.
And we still have all of the esoteric experiences to consider. Out of body experiences, astral traveling, lucid dreams, psychic powers; regardless of what your personal belief is about what is happening during these experiences, they all present openings to disrupt our default programming, creating a massive cognitive reframe and allowing us access to ideas and resources that we didn’t previously have access to.
Of course, scientifically, these examples are more slippery, but we don’t need “absolute truth” to heal and grow and evolve. Sometimes we just need an expanded context and healthier narratives to get us to a better spot, and there are many ways to create those openings.
So, again, I am not suggesting that we not pursue the psychedelic path, which has already shown enormous potential, I am simply trying to suggest that there might be alternative avenues for those people who can’t or won’t use psychedelics.
Additionally, I am looking for practices that can be used proactively that give people the opportunity to break the default cognitive programming that sometimes leads to disorganized thinking and mental health issues in the first place, as well as practices that can be used to both support psychedelic-assisted therapy and allow for greater integration after the therapy session(s) end.
I think many of the practices listed above have some potential to accomplish the goals stated. And I hope that this movement in the world of psychedelics forces science to open up to the idea that practices currently outside the realm of science can have practical application in people’s lives.
In Part 3, I take a look at the technological options that might contribute to the areas of mental health and personal development.