Following the prohibition of psychedelic substances in the 1960s, and the steady year on year increase in drug use since then, virtually all human research with psychedelics ceased until the turn of the millennium, when isolated research projects quietly began the delicate task of seeking approvals to conduct such work. Over the next decade more and more research projects began, especially those exploring the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. As these studies began being reported the media also began publishing positive news articles about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and their salience for a deeper understanding of neuroscience and consciousness.
Now that tide has finally turned. Currently we are witnessing a psychedelic research renaissance, as evidenced by the exponential surge in academic publications of research papers on psychedelics, with dedicated centres for research opening up in 2019 at world leading medical science institutions, Imperial College London, UK, and Johns Hopkins University, USA, and a new one announced in 2020 at UC Berkeley, USA.
Furthermore, the announcement in 2018 that psilocybin and MDMA have been granted ‘breakthrough therapy’ status by the FDA in the US indicates that these substances are likely to be licensed for medical use in the next 2-3 years, ushering in venture capital investment in psychedelic pharmacology and therapy to the tune of an estimated $2bn in 2020. The UK has seen its first psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy clinic appear this year, and in the US there are now already 200+ ketamine clinics for treating depression and addictions, which looked poised to adopt new psychedelic substances as they become licensed and legalised for medical use.
In addition, the considerable growth in ‘plant medicines’ recently has seen numbers of retreat centres internationally grow exponentially (e.g., there are 70 ayahuasca retreat centres in the Iquitos region of Peru alone listed on Trip Advisor). The explosion of interest in psychedelics, coupled with their coming use in psychotherapy will require thousands of therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and ‘sitters’ (guides), versed in the transpersonal realms that emerge during a psychedelic experience, although currently there are few training or educational opportunities available.
The need for a transpersonal psychological perspective on approaching experiences with psychedelics and other altered states of consciousness has never been more vital. Preliminary clinical trials using psilocybin (from ‘magic mushrooms’) to treat depression, anxiety, addictions and end-of-life fear of death has shown that one high dose of this psychedelic alongside therapy has massive potential in reducing symptoms for extended periods of time and leads to complete remission of symptoms in surprisingly high proportions of patients. What that research shows, however, is that the occurrence of a psychedelically-induced complete mystical experience – combining elements of a sense of unity, noesis, transcendence of time and space, sacredness, positive mood, love, peace, joy, and ineffability – is indicative of better therapeutic outcomes and is a significant mediating factor in recovery. Such mystical experiences have been the focus of study of transpersonal psychology since the name was coined by the psychologist William James in 1905.
In addition to the classic mystical experience, those consuming psychedelic substances, and indeed those experiencing all other altered states, report very high rates of other ‘exceptional human experience’, such as experiences of deep connection, enhanced empathy, interspecies communication, telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, out-of-body experiences, near-death-like experiences, encounters with discarnate entities, mediumistic experiences, etc., and yet such experiences have been either ridiculed, side-lined, pathologized or demonised by society, culture and the traditional medical and scientific approaches.
Consequently, as we move further into the renaissance in research into psychedelics, and as the use of psychedelics and other altered states continue to grow, we will increasingly need professionals working with people in and after such states that are versed and experienced in the kinds of experiences that occur. That is, the current era requires that a truly open-minded, non-judgemental, informed and rigorous approach to the nature of consciousness, mental health, altered states and exceptional experience be available to those exploring and working with altered states of consciousness.
There are several guiding principles that emerge from transpersonal psychology in navigating psychedelics and other altered states. The first is a consideration of the process of having an ‘exceptional human experience’, as defined by Rhea White, whereby several stages to the integration of the experience have been identified, from the initial cognitive dissonance and questions about one’s sanity and previous worldview, towards realigning of one’s life purpose and way of being in the world in the final integration of life changing experiences. Another useful principle is the notion of ‘spiritual emergencies’, as conceptualised by Stan and Christina Grof, who identified that “some of the dramatic experiences and unusual states of mind that traditional psychiatry diagnoses and treats as mental diseases are actually crises of personal transformation, or ‘spiritual emergencies.’”
Indeed, nothing other than a complete re-conception of mental illness and mental health is required as we move forward, now that experiences once pathologized, such as the mystical experience, are now gaining traction as important events for dealing with mental health conditions such as addiction, depression and anxiety. That way forward must incorporate the research, experience and collective wisdom of the approach of transpersonal psychology now that the genie is coming out of the bottle, lest it be once more just treated as a demon.
Alef Trust is launching a new Professional Certificate Programme in Psychedelics, Altered States & Transpersonal Psychology which starts in February 2021, and applications are open. This one year programme led by Dr David Luke provides a collaborative environment to study the transpersonal nature of the psychedelic experience, altered states of consciousness and exceptional experiences.