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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index


Psychotherapy and Spirit: Theory and Practice in Transpersonal Psychotherapy

Cortright, Brant. (1997)
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


ISBN:0-7914-3466-4 paperback
0-7914-3465-6 hardcover


Description: Paperback, xii + 257 pages.

Contents: Acknowledgments, introduction, 9 chapters divided into 4 parts: Part 1. Transpersonal Theory, Part 2. Specific Approaches, Part 3. Clinical issues, Part 4. Conclusion, references, index.

Excerpt(s): Consciousness is multidimensional. Transpersonal psychology has pioneered exploration and research into other levels or states of consciousness. Within the field of psychology, such alternate states were either pathologized into irrelevance (e.g., mystical union was described as "artificial schizophrenia") or dismissed altogether as simply fantasies. Research with psychedelic compounds which radically alter consciousness, the use of non-drug techniques such as shamanic journeying, breathing, fasting, hypnosis, and meditation to induce altered states, and study of the world's religions all demonstrate that the normal, ordinary consciousness most people experience is but the most outward tip of consciousness. Spiritual experiences often catapult a person into realms and states of expanded consciousness that reveal how limited and restricted normal consciousness is. (page 16)

Altered states of consciousness come in a variety of different forms, ranging from hypnosis and dreams to dissociative states. But what has had the greatest impact upon society as a whole, as well as upon transpersonal psychology and the field of consciousness study in particular, are those states produced by psychedelic drugs. Psychedelics are important in transpersonal psychology for several reasons, but the chief one is because with proper preparation these substances can reliably produce transpersonal and spiritual experiences of profound intensity and power. A psychedelic journey can open consciousness to vast new dimensions of experience, shattering previous conceptions of reality and revealing a new world of perception where spirit is no longer an abstract concept but a living, vivid actuality.

In some sense transpersonal psychology is a child of the psychedelic revolution of the '60s. Most all of the founders of transpersonal psychology have been influenced by psychedelics or originally became interested in spirituality as a result of psychedelic experiences. It may be no accident that the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology was born shortly after 1967's Summer of Love, a period of great psychedelic experimentation in virtually every part of society.

The cultural, psychic, and spiritual landscape has changed considerably since that time. Drugs have gone underground. People no longer are introduced to spiritual experiences through psychedelics in such high numbers as before. But psychedelic drug use as a method of self-exploration has remained a force in transpersonal psychology and continues to have a significant following. (pages 181-182)

There are two major classes of psychedelic drugs that are in widespread use today. The first are the true psychedelics-LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin-for which the term psychedelic was coined. The word "psychedelic" is usually explained as meaning "mind-manifesting," from the Greek "psyche" (mind) and "delos" (manifesting). But psyche also means soul or spirit. This is significant from a transpersonal perspective, for it shifts the meaning of psychedelic to "mind and soul manifesting." (page 183)

There are experiences of the soul with its light, love, joy, power, and great peace, along with greater communion with the Personal Divine and the celestial realm. There are also experiences of the Impersonal dimension, of "Big Mind," of immense inner space in which consciousness is allowed to roam freely in vastness. There is also the classic cosmic consciousness experience originally described by Bucke in which there is entire ego loss and an experience of vast light, unimaginable bliss, and a consciousness of the entire universe aware of itself in an endless, ecstatic moment. Some commentators have noted that for some reason this only seems to occur once or twice for those who experience it and generally does not recur.

It is not that the psychedelics magically invoke God. Rather it seems that if the set and setting support it, the psychedelic compounds somehow act to thin or lift the normally thick veil between normal consciousness and the spiritual dimension, allowing the spiritual dimension to be revealed. (page 185)

The question arises, do the psychedelics produce genuine spiritual experience, or only a vivid psychic imitation, a kind of astral analogue? Grof has shown that the phenomenological reports of psychedelic experiences seem to be identical with the classical mystical literature. But opinions are split on this issue, with experience with psychedelics generally being the deciding factor. Those who have experienced the psychedelics tend to think of the experience as intrinsically valid, whereas some of those who have not tend to dismiss the experience. This holds even when those trying the psychedelics are religiously trained seekers. An example is the famous Good Friday experiment in which Walter Pahnke administered small capsules to 20 Protestant divinity students before a church service on Good Friday in 1962. Half the capsules contained psilocybin and half a placebo. The majority of the psilocybin group reported experiences that were indistinguishable from classical mystical experiences. In a 25-year follow-up study the experimental subjects unanimously described their Good Friday psilocybin experience as having had elements of, "a genuine mystical nature and characterized it as one of the high points of their spiritual life".

What may be even more important is the effect of such experiences, which generally is a radially altered worldview and an activation or renewal of spiritual interests and possibilities. Whatever the "true" nature is of psychedelically induced spiritual experiences, the effect of a spiritual awakening after the drug experience is beyond dispute. (page 187)

High-Dose Therapy

This approach, originally called psychedelic therapy, holds that improved functioning results from a transpersonal or mystical experience, such as encounters with death-rebirth or ego-transcendent type of experiences. The major emphasis is not on the facilitation of therapy, as in the low-dose model. Rather the focus is upon an experience of the numinous, which then brings about improved functioning. This was originally pioneered by Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer in the 1950s in their work with chronic alcoholics. Giving a single large dose of LSD or sometimes repeating this over three or four sessions, these two researchers discovered that the greatest improvement came in those alcoholic clients who had mystical experiences. The spiritual experience caused a major reorientation to the person's life, which in turn led to therapeutic improvement. While the experience of an intense, transcendent experience can be powerfully life changing, this approach has the obvious disadvantage of not working through the person's psychological material in a more thorough way. (page 189)

Transpersonal and spiritual experiences can reliably be produced when we follow certain preparations. This is an astonishing, revolutionary fact.

This knowledge has been used by some cultures to initiate its citizens into a deeply spiritual and reverent approach to life and work. It has yet to be absorbed by the field of psychology or our society as a whole. Although psychedelic substances have been banned, and their use was relegated to the fringes and outskirts of society, this knowledge and power is still there, waiting to be used intelligently in a supporting context of spiritual seeking and psychological exploration.

Ram Dass has told the story of asking his guru what the significance of LSD was. His guru replied that the West was so materialistic that God had to take a material form to be revealed here.

The psychedelic experience poses a serious challenge to the dominant materialistic, scientific worldview. It shatters the materialistic paradigm. While it may seem paradoxical that a completely material substance opens to the spiritual realm, it is also part of the larger Mystery that no opening to the Divine is excluded by Spirit.

For a shamanic path or to explore the intermediate plane, psychedelics may be of use. But to really enter and live in the realms of soul and spirit-the domains of the Personal Divine and the Impersonal Divine-at this point it seems clear that it is necessary to leave the psychedelics behind and earnestly pursue a spiritual path. For this reason it has been said that psychedelics are a door, not a path. This may be overstating the matter somewhat. Psychedelics clearly do have much potential, not only for spiritual opening but for psychological growth and healing, although even here there are limitations. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that when psychedelics are used as a path, it is a rather short path. For ultimately it is our normal, daily consciousness that needs to be worked with and transformed. (pages 203-204)



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