A BPA Newsletter from last month, Science, Spirituality and Psychedelics, reviewed the article, Should psychedelic guides keep spirituality out of the therapy room? The article presented two opposing views of how psychedelics should proceed, medically or spiritually.
The discussion is still alive and kicking with a recent article in Frontiers from Kings College and Maudsley psychiatrists James Rucker and Alan Young, Psilocybin: From Serendipity to Credibility? They both argue for relying on clinical trials to bring psilocybin into public use and are sceptical about psychedelics being available in retreat centres.
A response quickly came from Alexander Beiner, who is co-founder of Rebel Wisdom and a co-director of Breaking Convention. He also produced the film 'The Rise of Psychedelic Capitalism.' Beiner counteracts the above argument in the article, Who’s in Charge of Psilocybin? and says that psilocybin is far from being a new, untested drug, ‘It is a pre-existing molecule with a rich history of Indigenous use…and an important history of underground and countercultural use as a spiritual sacrament of therapeutic tool.’ In a conversation with Rosalind Watts, Beiner recounts her view that, ‘While the clinical trial model is important, fitting psychedelic-assisted therapy into it can be like trying to force a square peg into a round hole.’
Beiner also tells us ‘We do not have to choose between clinics and churches; we can have both. But we won’t get there by trying to defend our own turf.’
We, at the BPA, welcomed Alexander’s response. As we shape our organisation’s overall vision, it has helped to clarify where we should take our seat at the table.
We are in agreement that the medical model should not dominate the psychedelic landscape, and that other models should exist. So then the next question is, where would these new models come from?
Can we have both ‘clinics and churches?’ Would a hybrid framework which offers blood pressure checks and spiritual exploration be the solution?
This doesn’t seem feasible.
The medical establishment has many gatekeepers and requires the expensive and lengthy clinical studies and trials for reassurance to use a ‘drug’ that has existed for thousands of years. It is doubtful that a spiritual aspect would play a prominent role in the process of the medical psychedelic experience.
Many people lament the fact that the majority of births and deaths have been removed from community practice and are now directed by a medical model. Entering and leaving life have been medicalised and depersonalised, and the argument for a similar model to oversee the personal exploration and understanding of life and death is, again, seeing the removal of another essential essence of our humanity and handing it over to the doctors.
As for the religious institutions, it is difficult to imagine they would welcome the exploration of consciousness and mysticism through psychedelics. However, there are rare instances of Western religious leaders talking about their psychedelic experience. One such person is Reverend Rita Powell, in a 2020 interview with Harvard Divinity School, Medicalizing Mysticism: Religion in Contemporary Psychedelic Trials:
From the beginning of my involvement with Christianity, I feel like I've already been interested in the future of religion, meaning I'm curious about new and unusual possibilities for the church. I had come to learn that there is more to the world than meets the ordinary waking eye. And I got into Christianity because I heard in the words of Jesus and Paul an insistence that our worlds needed to be cracked open to that very divine presence. There is a pervasive spiritual sickness all around us, in both church and culture - both in external events that we're familiar with, destruction of our world, violent racism - as well as internal versions - profound alienation from our bodies and from others. And these spiritual sicknesses are perpetuated because we are trapped in a small reality that we have created, and from which we don't know how to get out. And finding a way out of a limited view and into the expansive infinite of God is a matter of urgency for our spiritual health--literally, according to Jesus, a matter of life and death.
There are lots of practices that can crack someone out of a limited sense of self in the world. And Pollan's report of the clinical trials using psilocybin showed that this substance allowed people to crack out of it, to glimpse something bigger, and to have a mystical experience--a direct experience of God-- with a single dose.
Mainstream Protestant Christianity, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, does not look favorably on drug use, and certainly not from its clergy. It’s viewed as a cheat, a shortcut, and maybe doesn't even really deliver the divine, but some kind of chemical fantasy.
But now I was curious. And in the course of the article, I noticed a mention of a study about to begin--a study with religious professionals. And I wondered if that might be for me. It seemed like kind of sloppy, hippie stuff about love and harmony. And anyways, I didn't need drugs to know about love and harmony and God's presence in the world.
I kept improbably feeling and sensing that, in fact, God had something to show me in this experience. And I decided to trust that.
I approached the big day of my experience as a shaman going somewhere for my tribe.
Reverend Powell goes on to describe her psychedelic experience which is well worth listening to. This open-minded view is really encouraging, but it is a rarity in the world of institutionalised religion and Reverend Powell is doubtful that psychedelics will be ‘reintroduced’ into the church anytime soon.
(Much gratitude to Reverend Rita Powell and Charles Strang from the Harvard Divinity School for permission to print the transcript).
Is there a third way to reimagine a new model for non-ordinary or expanded states of consciousness in the Western world?
Jeffrey Kripal was also part of the panel interview with Reverend Powell, in his book, The Flip, he proposes:
This third way “beyond belief” and “beyond reason” is far preferable to religious belief or pure mechanistic rationalism, since it opens up new horizons of inquiry and thought and does not prematurely shut down our quest for meaning…I am convinced that this third way represents our best way forward into the future into new ways of knowing and new conceptions of the human that we have only imagined at this point in genres like comparative mystical literature and science fiction. I do not think these future forms of knowledge will be “religious” in the traditional sense, any more than I think they will be “scientific” in the classical materialist sense. They will be both, and neither. They will be something else, and something way, way more.
These ‘new ways of knowing’ diverge into separate streams, the personal inner journey of self-knowledge and the communal outer journey, which would impact how humans progress towards a more peaceful future.
The inclusion of all non-normal and expanded states of consciousness would open a larger dialogue about these new ways of knowing and would cultivate an acceptance that there ‘is more to the world than meets the ordinary waking eye.’ It would also free us from being ‘trapped in a small reality.’
Kripal also points to this reductionist phenomena:
We appear to have lost any sense of the cosmic human and have shrunk ourselves down to this or that minuscule religions, nationalistic, secular, ethnic, or genetic ego. We are shrinking into oblivion. We have it all exactly upside down. We have forgotten, or not yet realized our own secret grandeur. And so we suffer.
Suffering, for the majority of those who experience an expanded conscious state, is alleviated. Those states, to varying degrees, take us ‘outside’ of ourselves, diminishing our self-awareness and our ego. They are transformative and bring a kind of knowledge, an unknowable knowing. They are only describable through abstract or poetic language. And there is often a ‘mystical’ element.
This 'mystical element' was called 'Cosmic Consciousness' by
psychiatrist Richard Maurice Buck in his book published in 1901, and was described as, ‘A higher form of consciousness than that possessed by the ordinary man.’
Dr. Bernard McGinn tells us that 'mystical' is often a mis-represented word, frequently conjuring up an event or situation that is ‘weird,’ ‘bizarre,’ or ‘irrational.’ He says this has a long tradition which goes back to the enlightenment when everything was bounded by reason. There is the idea that if mysticism is not rational, then it has to be irrational, but there is a third category, ‘suprarational.’ The prefix ‘supra’ means ‘above’ or ‘over’ or ‘beyond the limits of,' or 'outside of.’ This means that the mystical can transcend the rational and doesn’t need to be understood by reason alone.
So maybe this new way of knowing calls for this third suprarational category of mysticism - requiring a leap into the unknown. How we get there from here is still to be determined. However, shared agreement and community accountability will hopefully open up new horizons of inquiry, begin the quest for meaning and strive towards cosmic consciousness.
The conversation continues on Tuesday, May 18th in an online discussion hosted by The Psychedelic Society: