Psychedelics, Psychotherapy and Mysticism

 

By Anna Lutkajtis

Recent research suggests that the positive therapeutic effects of psychedelics are related to their ability to induce a mystical experience. For example, in a trial of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression, Roseman, Nutt and Carhart-Harris (2018) found that having a mystical-type experience predicted positive clinical outcomes. Further, a study by Griffith et al. (2011) found sustained positive changes in attitudes, mood, and behaviour in volunteers who took psilocybin. In this study, 83% of participants who had a psilocybin occasioned mystical experience rated it as the single most, or among the five most, spiritually significant experiences of their life (at a 14 month follow-up this number was even higher at 94%). Even more recently, a large scale survey by Davis et al. (2020, p. 1) found that psychedelic entity experiences were rated by respondents as “among the most meaningful, spiritual, and psychologically insightful lifetime experiences, with persisting positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning attributed to the experiences.”

These findings are not particularly surprising given that mystical experiences (both psychedelic and non-psychedelic) have frequently been associated with positive after effects. For example, Wulff (2014, p. 375) writes:

“Although a profound sense of fatigue may immediately follow a mystical experience, and the knowledge or insight that defines it proves impossible to recapture, there remains the joyful impression of having encountered a higher reality and discovered new truths. Ordinary concerns recede in importance or appear in a new light, and new beliefs and values take the place of old ones. Some experients report feeling an intensified love and compassion for others, and many say that life as a whole has taken on new meaning.”

Mystical experiences have been reported by religious and non-religious people around the world and throughout history. Within religious traditions mystical experiences are given specific meaningful religious interpretations, however, even for non-religious people mystical experiences are often reported as being profoundly spiritual and meaningful. Despite this, mystical experiences have been largely ignored by mainstream psychology and psychiatry. Why has this been the case?

Mysticism and Medicine: A Serious Image Problem

Historically, there seems to have been a bias against mysticism in psychiatry and psychology. Traditionally, the mental health field has tended to view mystical states as symptoms of mental illness, rather than paths to mental wellness. This historical bias against mysticism stems from a bias towards religion and spirituality in general, and has been mainly informed by the personal opinions and clinical experience of a handful of highly influential figures. For example, Pargament et al. (2013, p. 5) write:

“Some leading psychological figures, such as Freud and Skinner, go beyond skepticism to antagonism toward religion and spirituality, equating religious practices with pathology and discouraging psychologists from supporting this purportedly defensive way of life. Albert Ellis (1986), founder of Rational Emotive Therapy, had this to say: ‘Obviously, the sane effective psychotherapist should not … go along with the patient’s religious orientation, for this is equivalent to trying to help them live successfully with their emotional illness.’”

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) – who never had a mystical experience himself – theorised that mystical experiences were based on pre-rational and primitive experiences. For example, Freud hypothesised that the mystical feeling of ‘oneness’ could have its basis in the experiences of a newborn infant whose ego has not yet separated from the world around them (e.g. Kripal 2007, p. 257). For a time, Freud’s thinking was highly influential in psychiatry and as a result, mystical states were generally considered to be unreal and inconsequential. For example, Kripal (2007, pp. 137-138) argues that in the 1960s, people who showed “deep and positive interests in various altered states of consciousness and energy” were routinely dismissed by the Freudian-influenced medical establishment as being mentally ill. Similarly, in early psychedelic research the states induced by psychedelics such as LSD, mescaline and psilocybin were initially thought to simply simulate a temporary pathological psychosis (although this view was soon recognised as limited and inadequate; Garcia-Romeu and Richards 2018, p. 2).

‘Diabolical Mysticism’

Psychiatry’s unenthusiastic attitude towards mysticism also stems from the fact that mystical beliefs and experiences are frequently a feature of psychosis. For example, Koenig (2007) notes that in the United States, approximately 25-39% of people with schizophrenia and 15-22% of those with bipolar disorder have religious delusions. Such delusions may contain mystical content, such as the belief that one is in contact with God or has special knowledge regarding the meaning of the universe. As a result, in psychiatry mysticism has generally been equated with psychopathology, and a person’s mystical experiences are not usually explored in a clinical setting as it is believed that this may exacerbate or deepen delusional beliefs.

Interestingly, it was the well-known philosopher and psychologist, William James (1842 – 1910) who may have played a key role in equating mysticism with psychopathology. Although not a mystic himself, James was sympathetic to mysticism and he argued that mystical states were both real and of “paramount importance” (James 1902, p. 328). He argued:

“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different … No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded” (James 1902, p. 335).

However, James differentiated between two different types of mysticism; ‘religious mysticism proper’ (which generally had positive effects) and ‘diabolical mysticism,’ which he equated with psychopathology:

“In delusional insanity, paranoia, as they sometimes call it, we may have a diabolical mysticism, a sort of religious mysticism turned upside down. The same sense of ineffable importance in the smallest events, the same texts and words coming with new meanings, the same voices and visions and leadings and missions, the same controlling by extraneous powers; only this time the emotion is pessimistic: instead of consolations we have desolations; the meanings are dreadful; and the powers are enemies to life” (James 1902, pp. 368-369).

 

While diabolical mysticism is only one half of mysticism, it is the half that has been given the most attention in Western psychology and medicine. This makes sense given that people who have entirely positive mystical experiences are unlikely to seek professional help. However it does create an unbalanced and negatively skewed picture of the mystical experience. While mysticism certainly has a shadow side, in modern Western psychology and medicine the focus on diabolical mysticism has been excessive – to the point where mystical experiences that may be healthy and even ‘normal’ have been pathologised.

The Sacred / Secular Divide

In a recent article on the use of psilocybin for depression, Roseman et al. (2018, p. 2) argue that the term ‘mystical’ is problematic in itself “as it suggests associations with the supernatural that may be obstructive or even antithetical to scientific method and progress.”

Indeed, modern psychology and psychiatry are based on secular humanistic and scientific understandings of the human condition and their focus is on the personal and the interpersonal – not the spiritual or otherworldly. So far, no mainstream secular mental health paradigm has managed to include the personal, interpersonal and spiritual/mystical within a single framework. Spirituality has achieved some legitimacy in psychological research (for example, research studies that demonstrate the positive impact that religion and spirituality can have on people’s mental health) but very little of this research has made its way into applied practice. Transpersonal psychology, which has attempted to integrate spirituality and mystical experiences into clinical practice, has been criticised for lacking scientific rigor and has never been fully accepted into the mainstream.

It is also possible that part of the reluctance among psychologists to integrate spirituality into clinical practice may come from the personal biases of clinicians themselves. Pargament et al. (2013, p. 5) note that in the United States for example, psychologists as a group are considerably more skeptical about the validity of a ‘sacred dimension’ than the general population.

Mysticism and Psychedelic Psychotherapy

Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that mystical and spiritual matters have largely been neglected in mainstream mental health care and most clinicians report minimal or no training in dealing with them. This has resulted in what some scholars have termed ‘spiritual illiteracy’ and ‘spiritually avoidant care’ (Saunders et al. 2010; Vieten et al. 2013).

However, despite this history of skepticism and avoidance, we are currently in the midst of a ‘psychedelic renaissance’ – a new era of psychedelic research that will have significant implications for the role of the mystical experience in the treatment of mental health conditions. Given the growing interest in psychedelic-based interventions and the probability that psychedelics such as psilocybin will soon be used as a mainstream mental health treatment, clinicians are likely to be faced with a new and unusual phenomenon: patients who have mystical experiences induced by their psychotherapeutic treatment.

This calls for a major paradigm shift in mental health care. Up until now, psychologists and psychiatrists may have been able to avoid religion and spirituality in practice, however given the sometimes overwhelmingly mystical nature of the psychedelic experience this approach seems unlikely to be able to continue.

Going forward we need a new approach to the mystical experience – one that rehabilitates its overly negative reputation and recognises the personal and clinical value of psychedelic-induced mystical experiences. Regardless of whether psychedelic mystical experiences are ontologically ‘real,’ these experiences do have real and meaningful treatment outcomes and deserve the attention and respect of clinicians.

 

About the writer: 

Anna Lutkajtis is a postgraduate student from Sydney, Australia. Her research focuses on
mysticism, the dark night of the soul and the healing potential of altered states of consciousness. She is particularly interested in the relationship between mental illness and spirituality, mystical experiences, and how traditional contemplative and spiritual practices have been integrated into modern Western psychology. Her PhD project is focused on psilocybin and healing.

AWAVENA: a review of the VR award winning collaboration.

A personal response to AWAVENA

Written by Brendan Toole

AWAVENA by award-winning Australian Artist Lynette Walworth’s Virtual Reality collaboration with the Yawanawa of the Brazilian Amazon Lynette Wallworth, Hushahu Yawanawa and Tata Yawanawa.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to venture into the healing realms of Ayahuasca first hand, many times. I have returned listening to countless people try, like myself, to interpret their profound, life-changing plant-medicine experiences. Often, words merely touch upon the inexplicable sense of ego death and the deeper connection to true self, the empathy and the universal consciousness that these insights bring. The action we learn to take into our everyday lives from these experiences is to be the medicine for the world.

As a wholly and completely perfect immersive experience, AWAVENA goes way beyond trying to simply describe this journey. The work not only distills the message of the divine feminine to its absolute essence in a beautiful, exhilarating way but also encourages the participant to dare to imagine what it is like in the realms of the shamans. Participants are connected directly to a shaman as she knowingly employs VR technology to speak to them personally and share heartbreaking, real, intimate moments nursing her dying teacher and chief, before teaching them about her world and medicine.

I am humbled by the women who have co-created this experience and how they have simply yet exquisitely projected their intentions, from the fuzzy otherworldly onset of the journey into the book, to meeting the radical indigenous woman and being taken up river by canoe. Crossing bridges as metaphors for layers of perception and seeing the fabric of the forest glow with X-ray projection, participants are taken giddily up into ancestral realms in the tree canopy, before connections and associations are peeled away and insights presented. Meeting the butterfly spirit guide from beneath the surface of the water introduces the masterstroke of the piece. Sent through ceremony and memorial then back through a film screen with a digitally created, respectful representation of this idea, a delicate and powerful gift, it flutters reassuringly beside Hushahu in the returning afterglow.

The second phase of the immersive experience gives the participant a more visceral personal connection with the spirit guide. Using breath and movement to navigate through a sacred forest, they are taken to the very heart of the gift being shared in this cutting-edge digital encounter.

This is more than a 360-degree immersion into an artistic interpretation of the medicine experience. This is the fusion of two polarized technologies in a way that is profoundly unique and completely groundbreaking. It is digital communication transcending into the spiritual realm in ways that we can only begin to appreciate. We live in the digital age and must learn to ethically harness the very best of what technology offers us as a species, at our fingertips, if we are to survive, wherever we live on the planet.

AWAVENA is the planting of a seed, an idea, a feeling, a memorial, a prayer and a gentle but powerful call to arms. It is a collaboration of minds from two different cultures finding connection and meaning on the deepest of levels and it is quite simply startling. My memories of this VR experience resonate deeply with my memories of altered states achieved during and lessons learned from Ayahuasca journeys. In everything we do, we must strive to protect wild spaces, the forests and the indigenous people living there. We must honour their sacred lineage, their custodianship, their continued knowledge and their descendants, for the sake of the entire planet. This call is stronger now than ever and we must harness our technologies to connect and grow together. The gentle flap of the butterfly’s wings can reap a whirlwind of change.

From the outset of this creative work, the late chief Tata, Lynette Wallworth, Hushahu and the Yawanawa have tapped into each other’s spirit and knowingly reached into the very core of human existence in a totally new way. As a plant shaman and a digital shaman, two women have poetically woven layers of reality together sending a message through space, time and from across the boundary of life and death. Art can make the world a better place and I thank them both for doing this so intimately. With this epic collaborative creation, they will truly touch minds, hearts and souls across the globe for years to come.

Find more about AWAVENA here!

Don’t Stress About the Simulation

By  Dr Sam Douglas

I’ve seen a bit of talk in psychedelic spaces lately about the possibility that we might be living in a simulation. From Descartes’s evil demon that perfectly deceives our senses, to Putnam’s Brains in Vats (BIVs) to Bostrom’s post-human computer simulation, a lot of ink has been spilled debating the idea that the world and our place in it might not be anything like the picture our everyday senses give us. 

For some, psychedelic or other mystical experiences can unsettle our confidence that reality is as it seems. I’m not here to say that the alternate realities or higher dimensions people perceive during psychedelic experiences actually exist or not. But I am going to argue that there is an important sense in which it doesn’t matter. 

Here’s an adaptation of Hilary Putnam’s thought experiment about disembodied brains in vats. I’ve changed it to apply to simulations (because everyone knows that’s way cooler), but the argument works either way.

  1. If you’re in a simulation, then you don’t have hands.
  2. You don’t know that you’re not in a simulation.
  3. Therefore, you don’t know that you have hands.

Is the conclusion worth really worrying about though?

For everyday purposes, probably not, since the only doubt you have about your hands is unrelated to the everyday experience of your hands. Imagine someone in a Matrix-style scenario, whose simulated body has lost its hands in a simulated accident, while their real body still has them. Would this person be comforted to be told that it’s OK because they ‘really’ have hands? How about the psychedelic version, where it’s fine because there’s no such thing as physical hands and we’re really all made from vibrations or something? I wouldn’t be very impressed in either case. Why? Because my lack of possibly illusory hands is more important to my everyday life than my ‘real’ ones, and the suffering that this causes me is most definitely real.

This fits with other ideas around what might be illusory. Our selves, the ‘I’ that is separate from the world, might be an illusion, and yet suffering occurs regardless (or possibly because of the illusion). Can you be wrong about physical injury being the cause of your pain? Yes. Can you be wrong about whether you had the experience of pain? That’s much less clear, and still hotly debated. 

Of course, I’ve assumed any simulation we are in is perfect in the sense that, unlike Neo’s experience of the Matrix, there is nothing in what we perceive that gives us reason to think that the world around us is not what it seems. For those not familiar with BIV and deceiving demon scenarios, this is normal – we would hardly worry about whether we were in a simulation if we could tell the difference between it and reality. 

This is where psychedelic experience complicates the philosophy a little.

Maybe we have been allowed to peek behind the curtain and see aspects of reality that are normally hidden from us. Even if you don’t buy that (and I’m not saying you should), at the very least psychedelics show that how we perceive the world and ourselves is not set in stone. Having experienced this, the ‘illusion’ may no longer feel as perfect as it once did. 

But before people rush off and try to observe their way out of this philosophical quandary by taking the express train to hyperspace (where legal) and telling everyone that Descartes should have just smoked some Changa instead of sulking in an oven for three days, we need to put the brakes on.

If seeing reality as different causes you to think that maybe your everyday perceptions aren’t ‘real’, then why would you think that any perceptions were trustworthy? Psychedelics show that we can’t always trust our perceptions. But this applies just as much to any places or entities people perceive during these experiences. Maybe all the things we perceive are real. Maybe none of them are. The point is, no matter how much acid you take, you can’t perceive your way out of the fact that our perceptions might not be perfect.

Where to from here?

You could abandon observation and try to philosophise a solution. Or, you could lean into it, pragmatically accept that some things are uncertain and get on with your life. I can’t tell you how this choice would be for you, but from my own experience I know what helps me sleep at night, and it’s not trying to prove that I have hands by using pure reason. This pragmatism means that even though you can’t say for sure that things like motor vehicles ‘really’ are what they seem, you should stay out of their way. Your perceptions of moving objects are the culmination of millions of years of evolution, and even if you think reality is ultimately different, they are worth paying attention to. 

But we should also pay attention to what we can be surer of. Experiences might not reflect reality, and the self might be illusory, but the experiences themselves are real. Importantly, the joy or suffering you experience is real. Doubly important is the fact that it’s real for everyone else too. So maybe the way forward is to not sweat the small stuff of whether the world is as it seems and take heart from the idea that if we cause joy and alleviate suffering, we’re doing something real, whether we’re in a simulation or not.