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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


Textbook of Transpersonal Psychiatry and Psychology

Scotton, Bruce W., Chinen, Allan B., and Battista, John R. (Editors) (1996)
New York: Basic Books.


ISBN: 0-465-09530-5

Description: Hardcover, xx + 442 pages.

Contents: Contributors, acknowledgments, foreword by Ken Wilber, 40 chapters divided into 4 parts: 1. Introduction, 2. Theory and Research, 3. Clinical Practice, 4. Conclusion, index.

Contributors: John R. Battista, Seymour Boorstein, Sylvia Boorstein, Gary Bravo, Allan B. Chinen, Arthur J. Deikman, Donna Dryer, Mark Epstein, William W. Foote, Bruce Greyson, Charles Grob, John F. Hiatt, Dwight H. Judy, Ronald W. Jue, Kathryn J. Lee, Francis G. Lu, David Lukoff, Larry G. Peters, Donald F. Sandner, Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi, Bruce W. Scotton, Patricia L. Speier, Charles T. Tart, Eugene Taylor, Robert Turner, Frances Vaughan, Bruce S. Victor, Roger Walsh, Richard Yensen

Note: Readers of this chrestomathy may especially enjoy Chapter 8 "The Consciousness Research of Stanislav Grof," Chapter 18 "Psychedelics and Transpersonal Psychiatry," Chapter 23, "Diagnosis: A Transpersonal Clinical Approach to Religious and Spiritual Problems," Chapter 31 "Psychopharmacology and Transpersonal Psychology," and Chapter 32. "Psychedelic Psychotherapy."

Excerpt(s): Basic Perinatal Matrix I

At this stage in the process, biological birth and spiritual rebirth led to feelings of cosmic unity and release from needs on every level. The oceanic and symbiotic quality of these experiences led Grof to the supposition of a parallel with an undisturbed intrauterine existence. Some of Grof's subjects gave anecdotal accounts of blissful, oceanic, intrauterine memories. The characteristics and consequences of this level encompassed the nine qualities of mystical experience delineated by Walter Pahnke.

BPM I also rarely included negative intrauterine experiences such as attempted abortions, drug use, physical diseases, or emotional upheavals, which were reported by more seriously disturbed patients.

Perinatal Dynamics

Grof noted both biological and spiritual aspects to the perinatal phenomena. The biological aspects seemed to relate to the four stages of the birth process, and for each of the stages, there was a philosophical or spiritual counterpart.

BPM I related to undisturbed intrauterine existence in the biological dimension and to experiences of cosmic unity in the spiritual-philosophical dimension. BPM II related to the first clinical stage of delivery: uterine contractions before the cervix is dilated on the biological dimension and experiences of no exit or hell on the spiritual-philosophical dimension. BPM III related to passage through the birth canal on the biological dimension and to experiences of death-rebirth struggle on the spiritual-philosophical dimension. BPM IV related to the moments of separation from the mother's body on the biological level and to experiences of ego death and rebirth on the spiritual-philosophical level. (Chapter 8, Richard Yensen and Donna Dryer, Consciousness Research of Stanislav Grof, pages 79-80). ...

Shamanism can be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirits traveling to other realms at will and interacting with other entities to heal others or help their community. Shamanism is found in cultures all over the world, from Siberia and the Americas to Africa and Australia. Shamanism also has ancient roots: Paleolithic art from Europe dated to over 17,000 years ago and from South Africa dated to 25,000 years ago appear to show shamanic practices. ...

Shamanic techniques for inducing altered states include psychological, social, and physiological approaches. These techniques constitute one form of what has been called the "technology of the sacred" or the art of transcendence. The psychological techniques involve exercises undertaken both before and during the ritual. ...

Psychedelics

Archaeological records suggest that shamanic drug use may extend back for more than 3,000 years. Currently, Siberian and Latin American shamans often employ psychedelics as booster rockets to launch their cosmic travels. In Siberia a preferred substance has been the mushroom known as Amanita muscaria or agaric. Among the many drugs used in Latin America, two of the most powerful and popular psychedelics are peyote and yage, or ayahuasca. The latter is made from an Amazonian "visionary vine" called Banisteriopsis along with potentiating additives. Yage is chemically complex, but the most important psychoactive ingredient may be harmaline. However, shamans do not attribute the effects to chemicals but to the spirit that dwells within the plant.

Yage appears to elicit strong visual experiences. Users describe long sequences of dreamlike visions that appear in a spiritually significant progression. ...

Yage is particularly interesting with regard to shamanism because of claims for its healing and telepathic effects. In South America it is known as "the great medicine," which, through its intercession with the spirits, can either reveal remedies or produce healing. In contrast to Western notions of medicine, yage is believed to be curative whether the patient or the healer swallows it.

Native reports abound in stories of yage-empowered journeys, flying, and extrasensory perception. One anthropologist reported that "on the day following one Ayahuasca party, six of nine men informed me of seeing the death of my chai, my mother's father. This occurred a few days before I was informed by radio of his death." Reports of such paranormal phenomena are common in many shamanic cultures. Needless to say, the interpretation and significance of such reports is hotly debated by anthropologists. ...

The ability to access altered states appears to be a learnable skill. Entering a specific state for the first time may be hard, but with subsequent practice it can become easier and easier. For example the person who smokes marijuana may experience little or no effect initially; however, further attempts may meet with increasingly dramatic success. The result is a phenomenon, most curious and surprising to pharmacologists, known as reverse tolerance, in which the drug's effect becomes not less but more powerful with repeated use. The phenomenon probably also applies to other means of inducing altered states such as drumming. This learning effect helps explain why experienced shamans enter altered states with a minimum of ritual and preparation, in contrast to novice shamans, who use elaborate ceremonies. (Chapter 10, Roger Walsh, Shamanism and Healing, pages 96-99)

Psychedelics and Spirituality

The "transcendent" experiences evoked by psychedelics in the 1960s were a whole generation's introduction to altered and spiritual states of consciousness and helped catalyze the development of transpersonal psychology. These "peak experiences," as Maslow called them, led many Westerners to look to esoteric and Eastern spiritual systems to learn more about the realms of consciousness unacknowledged by orthodox psychology but often addressed in the Eastern consciousness disciplines. Charles Tart surveyed Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism and found that 77% of them had had major psychedelic experiences. A little more than half of the respondents reported that these experiences were very or fairly important to their general spiritual life, although only 10% said that they still use psychedelics. This interesting finding has not been expanded on in further research in part because of the societal taboos surrounding the topic.

It is a tenet of transpersonal psychiatry that mystical experiences can be healing and transformative. Psychedelics used wisely can certainly catalyze mystical experience in the prepared and predisposed, thus perhaps providing the best hope for a true science of "experimental mysticism." ...

There are many unanswered questions about the relationship of spirituality and transpersonal psychiatry to psychedelic drugs. In the study of spirituality, there has been a long-standing debate about the relative merits of a drug-induced versus a natural mystical experience. One of the main differences is that in a drug experience the revelation comes to an unprepared mind; therefore, its effect is not as lasting as in someone who, through methods such as prayer and discipline, has a foundation on which to actualize that vision. As the religious scholar Huston Smith says, "Drugs appear able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives."

A potential trap seen with psychedelics is that the user feels he "needs" the drug to have a spiritual experience and never grasps that the psychedelic is just "unlocking" an experience latent in the user. This feeling leads to "craving," even if subtle, which is contrary to the goals of most spiritual paths. Certainly there are those for whom one psychedelic experience has been life transforming, and there are others who tend to repeat the experience again and again compulsively with little change demonstrated in their day-to-day consciousness. Although the place of psychedelics in spiritual practice remains controversial, many transpersonalists have argued that psychedelics can serve as an awakener to other states of being and realms of consciousness. Once the message is heard, however, the individual needs to transform his or her life gradually through spiritual practice to manifest the transpersonal vision. (Chapter 18, Gary Bravo and Charles Grob, Psychedelics and Transpersonal Psychiatry, pages 179-181)

At least four factors have contributed to the current conceptual and clinical separation of the biological from the spiritual. ...

The final factor is one that could be termed a "trivialization of the biological." Traditional societies had clear and established rules regarding the use of mind-altering substances. There were specifications regarding who among the population were permitted to use them, when they could be used, what specific substances might be used, and why they were to be used on certain occasions. In contrast to these societies, Western cultures in the twentieth century have emphasized the notion of "recreational drug use." Faculty at prominent universities in this country indiscriminately handed out psychedelic drugs to their students, oblivious to the necessity of considering both "setting" (the environmental context of the proposed ingestion) and "set" (broadly, the internal preparedness of the user) in their use. Because of this casual treatment of what might be considered sacramental substances, psychotropic chemicals came to be feared for their consequences and denigrated concerning their potential transpersonal significance.

These factors led to a profound reaction on the part of those charged with enforcing social regulation of these substances, with unfortunate clinical consequences. As a result, marijuana is rarely available even for such patient groups as terminal cancer patients, who would benefit from its use in conjunction with chemotherapy. Similarly, clinical research using LSD and other psychedelics has been all but completely forbidden. The result has been the separation of psychedelic psychotherapy from psychoanalytic "depth work" as well as from transpersonal therapies, which are often portrayed as transcending the biochemical level. (Chapter 31, Psychopharmacology and Transpersonal Psychology, Bruce S. Victor, pages 328-329).

The Psychedelic Paradigm

When higher doses of psychedelic drugs were given, patients began to describe spiritual and mystical experiences that did not fit the personal psychology framework of psychoanalysis but appeared to have therapeutic effects. A new technique of psychedelic therapy evolved that had as its goal the production of an ego-dissolving mystical experience. This method, which generally encompassed one or several sessions, was favored by centers in the United States and Canada. Early on, there were successes claimed for such intractable disorders as chronic alcoholism, antisocial behavior, and autism, as well as in alleviating the pain and anguish of those suffering from terminal illness. Most of the early studies did not use rigorous scientific methods and thus were discounted by later reviewers. The successes were impressive, however, and the adverse effects minimal. ...

A subject's report from the Spring Grove Research Center in Baltimore illustrates many of the aspects of psychedelic psychotherapy. A woman in her 40s discovered she had metastatic cancer with a terminal prognosis and underwent an LSD session. Her description of the experience follows: ...

Mainly I remember two experiences. I was alone in a timeless world with no boundaries. There was no atmosphere; there was no color, no imagery, but there may have been light. Suddenly I recognized that I was a moment in time, created by those before me and in turn the creator of others. This was my moment, and my major function had been completed. By being born, I had given meaning to my parents' existence.

Again in the void, alone without the time-space boundaries. Life reduced itself over and over again to the least common denominator. I cannot remember the logic of the experience, but I became poignantly aware that the core of life is love. At this moment I felt that I was reaching out to the world-to all people-but especially to those closest to me. I wept long for the wasted years, the search for identity in false places, the neglected opportunities, the emotional energy lost in basically meaningless pursuits. Many times, after respites, I went back, but always to variations of the same themes. The music carried and sustained me. ... [end subject's description]

The question of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy reemerged in the 1980s with the rediscovery of a long-forgotten drug: 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA). Not strictly a psychedelic but rather a representative of a related group sometimes termed empathogens, MDMA is less likely to release experience in the higher spiritual or archetypal realms. ... Before the outlawing of MDMA in 1985, it was estimated that thousands of psychotherapy sessions with MDMA had been conducted. ...

As it is with all psychotherapies, assessing outcome in psychedelic psychotherapy is problematic. Psychedelics are not used as chemotherapeutic agents in the allopathic mode to reduce a symptom or correct a biochemical defect. New paradigms for psychedelic drug use must be developed, perhaps with help from shamanic models, in which the substances are given in elaborate spiritual healing rituals that integrate religion and therapy. Although much has been written about the importance of "set and setting" in the evaluation of drug effects, this aspect has largely been ignored in psychopharmacological research. Set refers to the personality, intention, mood, and preparation of the individual ingesting a drug, whereas setting refers to the environment in which the drug is taken, including physical, interpersonal, and cultural aspects. Shamanic healers are aware of these factors and use ritual, mythology, singing, and the powerful effects of expectation to provide their communities access to shared transpersonal experiences, thus enhancing social cohesion. (Chapter 32, Psychedelic Psychotherapy, Gary Bravo and Charles Grob, pages 336-341)



This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP

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