I have taken a long haitus from writing (almost a year) due to my Psychiatry studies last year that had me crouched in front of a computer for long hours with little headspace for anything else. I had to take a further few months off to recover my full faculties beyond all the black and white critical-thinking which is a pre-requisite for passing such a course of studies in medicine.
My thesis last year (for those who are interested) was on the use of hallucinogens in the treatment of disorders of disinhibition (OCD, ADHD and Tourette's Syndrome).
I chose to put myself through such an ordeal because I felt compelled to be able to more deeply support those I work with (and I listened to the plant spirits, the subject of another blog entirely).
In case you had not noticed, the use of psychedelics and sacred plant medicines is on the rise. From psychedelic boot camp retreats to self-ordained shamans offering sacred plant medicine in all manner of ceremonial (and not so ceremonial) ways, to microdosing your favorite altered-state constituent to get an edge creatively, it seems that being "altered" in some way, shape or form is all the rage!
Those of you on my mailing list will have experienced working with sacred plant medicine at least once. And most of those who are reading this will have worked with psychedelics such as Ayahuasca, San Pedro, Ibogaine, Marijuana, LSD and Psilocybin, or the entactogen, MDMA or the dissociative, Ketamine, all of which fall under the hallucinogen umbrella.
There has been some phenomenal developments and research around treatments for depression (one of our society's most debilitating diseases), anxiety, addiction, and many, many more mental-state conditions.
Yogi Bhajan, who brought Kundalini Yoga to the West, spoke of how each 'age' or cycle that our planet and society moves through has its own characteristics and challenges for the body, mind, and soul. In the Piscean Age, for example (which we have just moved through), the diseases were mostly physical in origin such as tuberculosis, influenza and malaria. In the Aquarian Age (which is the age of advanced technology we have recently moved into), diseases are more of psychological origin, such as depression, anxiety, fatigue and insomnia.
So, much of the healing of the future will therefore be related to our minds and mental states. It is no surprise then, that psychedelics have had such a powerful re-emergence. Working with hallucinogens alters human consciousness to the point that a world view ends up being anywhere from slightly to radically redefined. By imbibing such substances, people have the opportunity to digest the world and their experiences from a perspective way beyond that of a normal waking consciousness. In this altered state, it is as if a more wise and knowing version of ourselves with the tools to cope, is activated. From this state of “knowingness”, they are then able to grasp perspectives they did not have access to before. This works well with the psychotherapeutic model, whereby it is believed that everything we need is already within us, we just need to be reminded how to access it.
In their book, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert explained how these substances allowed for the participant to access this inner knowing;
"Of course, the drug dose does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures. The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting. Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical — the weather, the room's atmosphere; social — feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural — prevailing views as to what is real. It is for this reason that manuals or guide-books are necessary. Their purpose is to enable a person to understand the new realities of the expanded consciousness, to serve as road maps for new interior territories which modern science has made accessible". (1)
I personally became interested in using altered states of awareness as a tool for personal and psychic development when I was in my early 20's in South Africa. I met a wonderful teacher who helped me on my path and supported me through my deep (and sometimes awful) dives into getting to grips with who and what I was (and who and what I was not). Then, whilst living in the UK I started working with clients using clinical hypnosis about 15 years ago, back in the day when it was still considered strange, a bit woo woo, slightly unethical and even downright demonic by some. And yet the realizations that are possible for people as a result of giving their 'wiser inner mind' this space to “breathe” and stretch out, enabled subtle shifts that over time brought them to the threshold of an otherwise unreachable reality.
It has now become more widely understood that we are able to shift in and out of altered states of consciousness with no effort at all. The natural flow of our brain wave states is such that we will drift in and out of trance during daily routines such as driving or walking the same route, doing yoga, watching TV or even reading a book. This enables us to process, daydream about and contemplate certain events and concepts that have meaning for us.
When I was in training for my clinical hypnotherapy studies, I was made painfully aware of just how suggestible people can be when they are in a trance. Ethical boundaries and clean language were of vital importance considering the vulnerability of people while in a trance-like state. As therapists, we were expected to join specific regulatory governing bodies, to get insurance, to be overseen by a mentor and to abide by strict codes of conduct.
Psychedelics are a far more elaborate approach to shifting perception through an altered state of consciousness. And yet, much of the outcome is determined by the intention and setting with which such experiences are embarked on. Indeed, currently, there is little or no regulation as to how these sessions are performed and how a healer, facilitator or practitioner should or should not conduct themselves. Commendable efforts are currently being undertaken by certain organizations to establish more regulations and awareness around safety and ethical practice of psychedelic use, with sacred plant medicines’ in tow.
As much as I can see how important this is (sexual misconduct, racial and gender inequality, and other unethical behaviors are rife within this world), conversely, I also see how over-legislation may end up squashing the 'magic' a little.
In their article, Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness (2011), which was a pooling of information from many other studies, the authors stated that those who had a mystical type experience with psilocybin attained the longest lasting results of personality malleability. (2)
So basically the best results came from when there was an experience of something "magical and/or mystical" for the participants.
From my perspective, the mystical nature of psychedelics brings with it the challenge of attempting to place them entirely within a psychotherapeutic container with clean-cut boundaries and perfectly sanitized workspaces. Is it not these very systems of conforming that we are actually being drawn away from through the use of psychedelics, a phenomenon which Terrance McKenna called the “Archaic Revival”?
In his book, The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History (1992), McKenna writes;
“We have gone sick by following a path of untrammeled rationalism, male dominance, attention to the visible surface of things, practicality, bottom-line-ism. We have gone very, very sick. And the body politic, like anybody, when it feels itself to be sick, it begins to produce antibodies or strategies for overcoming the condition of dis-ease. And the 20th century is an enormous effort at self-healing. Phenomena as diverse as surrealism, body piercing, psychedelic drug use, sexual permissiveness, jazz, experimental dance, rave culture, tattooing, the list is endless. What do all these things have in common? They represent various styles of rejection of linear values.
The society is trying to cure itself by an archaic revival, by a reversion to archaic values. So when I see people manifesting sexual ambiguity, or scarifying themselves, or showing a lot of flesh, or dancing to syncopated music, or getting loaded, or violating ordinary canons of sexual behavior, I applaud all of this; because it's an impulse to return to what is felt by the body -- what is authentic, what is archaic -- and when you tease apart these archaic impulses, at the very center of all these impulses is the desire to return to a world of magical empowerment of feeling. And at the center of that impulse is the shaman: stoned, intoxicated on plants, speaking with the spirit helpers, dancing in the moonlight, and vivifying and invoking a world of conscious, living mystery. That's what the world is. The world is not an unsolved problem for scientists or sociologists. The world is a living mystery: our birth, our death, our being in the moment -- these are mysteries. They are doorways opening on to unimaginable vistas of self-exploration, empowerment, and hope for the human enterprise. And our culture has killed that, taken it away from us, made us consumers of shoddy products and shoddier ideals." (2)
In light of this, when it comes to current psychotherapeutic models whereby psychedelic sessions are being measured by scientific gold standard clinical trials, I would ask: What of the rituals? What of the communion with elementals and nature spirits? What of the phenomenon of healing through and as a community and of revering the sacredness of those persons’ experiences as a collective for a specified time thereafter? This all falls under the realm of shamanism, whereby altered states of consciousness (not only psychedelics) are used to elicit healing.
In ancient times, elaborate rituals were performed before, during and after such mystical experiences. The participants were expected to water fast or dry fast or at least to impose some sort of restriction on their physical bodies so that their soul would be primed and ready to receive this gift from the spirit world and the Great Mystery. This would enable them to process these profound downloads of information in a healthy way. This element of ritual and sacredness seems to have been lost to our current western society. For many, there are no initiation rites of passage that bring with them the gravitas of moving from one phase of life to another. Hence we have lost our connection to our roots, our ancestors and to the natural world that nourishes us with each breath we take.
These rituals imbue deep meaning to such experiences. Without such practices, I believe that our use of psychedelics (and sacred plant medicines) will only ever be that of self-inquiry. Another psychotherapeutic tool whereby we go around and around the kaleidoscope of fancy colors, without true accountability, like toddlers at the country fair but with little awareness of the depth of growth that is truly possible for our souls.
This is not to say that psychedelics do not deliver some deeply profound openings for greater compassion and awareness in this dimension, similar to that of other altered states of consciousness, and yet most humans continue to behave like monkeys a lot of the time.
Could this be because the path of getting there through the use of psychedelics requires so little effort and little preparation, and that this is likely what makes them so appealing, as Terrance McKenna goes on to espouse;
“I think there's a very strong Calvinistic bias against a free lunch. The idea that you could achieve a spiritual insight without suffering, soul-searching, flagellation, and that sort of thing, is abhorrent to people because they believe that the vision of these higher dimensions should be vouchsafed to the good, and probably to them only after death. It is alarming to people to think that they could take a substance like psilocybin or DMT and have these kinds of experiences.” (2)
If we as a species find ourselves at a crossroads of sorts (which I'm sure many will agree with me), then the surge of interest in psychedelics is quite timely. It may seem bizarre, but it reminds me of the Stoned Ape Theory (more like hypothesis) whereby Terrance McKenna, believed that our ancient ancestors accidentally (and then eventually intentionally) ate psychedelic mushrooms which enabled them to develop new ways of communicating and hence, they evolved from apes to something more like what we are now. He published this in his book, Food of the Gods: The search for the original tree of knowledge. (1992).
Might it be time for another evolutionary jump for our species? Is it time to relinquish the last or our mischievous monkey ways for a new paradigm of existence to emerge?
In a recent Ted Talk (2017), Lauren Sallan discusses how certain species over time survived mass extinction because of an ability to adapt, change and try new things and to move down different evolutionary pathways. (4) Using psychedelics enables us the brain plasticity (malleability) to make such changes to our belief systems, our behaviors, to our lives and to the world at large. I believe it is time for all of us (especially those working with psychedelics) to take full responsibility for our current state of consciousness and subsequent behavior toward the environment and towards each other.
Self-inquiry, however, is just one part of this equation.
The integration of this new (hopefully more advanced) awareness, acquired through psychedelics and other approaches to mind alteration is of paramount importance, not only for our society but for the survival of humankind.
My greatest wish, would be that all those embarking on this journey approach these experiences as something sacred, with respect, with a desire to grow, to evolve and to become the best versions of themselves. Despite our clear need to make haste, I would also wish for people to carefully and lovingly digest these experiences, to look to understanding their own brokenness, to allowing those often traumatic experiences to open them up further to deeper levels of compassion for others, not to shut their hearts down.
If there is one thing I have taken away from my many years of working with altered states of consciousness and psychedelics, through helping my clients and through my own experiences, it is that we are not all that different from each other. What we don't understand about others only comes from the fact that we imagine we have not had a similar experience ourselves, when in reality, that sense of separation from others, their experiences and behaviors, truly is a mental construct. Because we too have been everything.
Both science and mysticism all have a place, as do those who perpetrate and those who are victims of that perpetration.
It is only through integrating all parts of ourselves, the darkness, the shadow, and the light, that we can come to the true understanding of our oneness with all things.
Psychedelics are one awe-inspiring way to bring about these shifts in our awareness for a short period of time. It is my belief that with the right integration and personal effort, this shift in awareness will become part of our everyday consciousness and will contribute to our collective evolution.
Scarab Deva is a shamanic practitioner with a masters degree in Psychiatry, a certified Kundalini Yoga Teacher, a Reiki Master, Family Constellation Facilitator, an intuitive healer, and spiritual coach. She dedicates her professional life to assisting her clients with the integration processes before and after their psychedelic and sacred plant medicine experiences. www.scarabdeva.com