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.

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. 

 

In Review: Dr Bruce Damer- A Visionary Approach for Hope and Action in the Era of Climate Shock

Author: Marc Devitt
A Visionary Approach for Hope and Action in the Era of Climate Shock.

A sweltering Saturday afternoon in fire ravaged New South Wales; a modest cloud of witnesses
gently precipitates around the cool inner sanctuary of Rigpa’s ‘Temple on the Park’ in Sydney’s inner
west. Cups of cold water refresh us inside as we take our seats in front of the dais, for the proposed
‘audacious two-part romp’ through the liminal borderlands between materialist reductionism and visionary mysticism.

True To His Word: The heart of the human experience. 

Bruce Damer guided us through his unique technique of endogenous-tripping; a type of non-substance induced visionary journey, replete with colours, creatures and
worlds, embracing cosmic, biological and psychological origin narratives, a theory of almost
everything, and an optimistic prescience for the future of humanity (and all species of Gaia-kind) as
we prepare to launch into the cosmos toward the stars from which we’ve emerged.
Astoundingly,
Bruce managed to weave all of this upon the frame of the psychedelic experience, sharing intimate
recollections gleaned from his close friendship with Terence McKenna, and most impressively kept it
all bolted down onto an empirical, ‘dialled in’ foundation free of any woo-woo. Yet, the edifice
constructed upon that sure scientific foundation on that Saturday afternoon was a complex of
magical and alchemical wonder which evoked and drew out the very heart’s blood of the human
experience. The act left us deeply touched by the dimensionality and sincerity of Damer’s tender
compassion, in active application, to the task of healing human wounded-ness and evoking the
fulfilment of human potential in the face of climate crisis. I’ll try and sum it up in a brief sketch.

Part One: The Geeky Stuff

Part one involved the ‘geeky’ stuff as Bruce unassumingly displayed the rigour of his commitment to
the scientific method and moreover his drive, along with several other esteemed colleagues, to
combine laboratory experiments with experiments in the ‘raw field’ of nature. As such he explained
his work in recent years with UNSW (here in Australia) in the Pilbara and in Port Hedland where the
discovery of geyserite containing fossilised microbial substance and gas bubbles provided evidence
of hot springs on land, 3.48 billion years ago, now being theorised as providing the ‘warm little
ponds’ intuited by Darwin as the possible engines originating all life on Earth. Damer and his
colleague Deamer constructed series of artificial rock pools in the lab that replicated the wet-dry
cycles underpinning their theory and successfully produced the formation of DNA, RNA and other
proteins, without any mechanical interference beyond this natural wet-dry cycling. To the
astonishment of sceptics, they were able to produce the very same on location in the hot springs of
Yellowstone national park (the sceptics had not considered the function of ionic components in the
hot springs which allowed for stable protein formation).
Following our APS event in Sydney, Bruce flew to New Zealand to continue working with scientists there, at the renowned hot springs of Rotorua, where he continues to firm up the evidence backing this remarkable biogenesis theory. Bruce drew a delightful analogy between the dynamics of these hot spring rock pools and feeding
punch card programmes (polymers) into an Altair 8800 microcomputer (warm little cycling pools) to
convey how protocells (programs) would either pop their cell walls (crash) or else remain stable
(run) in order to be selected to be run again through the next cycle of growth. Bruce showed how
this understanding of the role of hot springs in biogenesis can be used to direct the search for
evidence of life on Mars and how he is currently working with the Japanese space agency to do just
that.
We then considered the origin story of the human species in particular: Bruce’s description of an
endo-trip in which he gained greater insight into the development of the visual cortex in prosimians.
This, he proposed, was a result of altered states of consciousness, gained by the more daring of the
species, who went out on a (tree) limb to get ‘lifted’ on tree sap, thus gaining visual acuity enabling
them to see through the mesmerising patterns of tree snakes which would have otherwise left them
transfixed and helpless prey. We’ve now evolved the ability to both recognise and create complex
hypnotising patterns; thus we can use this ability to create technological ‘snakes’ that can in turn be
used to wound or to heal, to either manipulate human weaknesses, transfix and exploit, or to
enhance human vision, break beguilement and help us to heal. Bruce contrasted the role of
manipulative media transfixing us to disempowering states of consciousness, that leave us open to
exploitation, with the very different liberating and empowering work of ‘trans-tech’ at Esalen
Institute, using techno-bio-logical interfacing to help us return to a state of communal synchronicity.
From the latter state of consciousness we can recognise dis-functional patterning and clear it out in
a group setting, to free up enormous amounts of energy for new creative and healthy endeavours.
Bruce called this ‘healing the inner kindergarden’ and pointed out that what so much of these
findings highlight is that the origin of life is in common community and not in separative
competition. He linked in Ram Dass’ philosophical point of contention with what he’d called the
myth of separateness and suggested that this scientific investigation could be for biologists in the
2020s what relativity was for physicists in the 1920s.

Part Two: Cosmological Exploration

Part two launched us into ontological and cosmological exploration, all the while grounded within
the appreciation of the rock pool dynamics as comparable computers processing randomly
generated polymer programmes and testing them to see if they boom or bust. Bruce proposed a
new Copernican cosmic centre – once again inspired by an endo-trip in which he was spurred to
consider the dynamics of these rock pools. It’s a triangular cycle which he calls ‘the progenote’
(pictured below):
In brief it shows how there is a kind of ‘Engine of Emergence’ at the heart of cosmos, which is conscious, recollective, interactive and actively shaping probability. Bruce proposes that it is this ‘field’ of consciousness which our limited primate brain samples and that this explains many of the other-worldly ecstatic and epiphanic perceptions of the psychedelic experience. ‘Life opens pathways to impossible events’ he asserted, relating several instances in which he had successfully interacted with this kind of triune engine of responsiveness and suggesting ways in which we might learn to do so with greater dexterity – including but not limited to the use of psychedelic substances.

In the end: “The trip is always made within” – Bruce Damer

Bruce concluded the talk by applying all of these findings to the current climate crisis and noted the urgency for climate change mitigation strategies, noting that whilst emissions reduction is surely a must, we are already inevitably going to experience some possibly cataclysmic shifts, even if the harm reduction is effective and we spare ourselves the worst case scenario. If we are able to preserve biological diversity here on Earth first, we can look toward navigating the stars and preserving Gaia’s greatest experiment beyond the inevitable ‘Venus terminator’ event 100 millennia from now, in which Earth will follow a similar fate to her sister planet on the inner orbital ring. Designs for spacecraft capable of harvesting asteroids were floated as a possible way for us to obtain the resources needed to launch into space and explore life on other planets. Such confidence was refreshing in what is so often a prevalent climate of almost apocalyptic gloom and frustration, nevertheless stressed along with the optimistic confidence was the urgency of a call to action.

Bruce encouraged optimistic and holistic effort (to which the efficient use of psychedelic tools of various sorts are undoubtedly a helpful supplement, if not an essential contingent!) in the war on stupefied inertia and stunned apathy which inevitably results from a vision too dull to recognise the predator behind the patented patterns of profit driven predators in the digital marketplace. Damer has certainly evoked from within us a confidence that, in such a struggle, the marriage of endo and exo tripping, of psychedelics and science, offers a greater probability of victory and an earnest reminder that, whatever cosmic journeys we may yet embark upon: ‘the trip is always made within’. 

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