Skip to content

Buddhism

Integrating ayahuasca into western healthcare (part 2)

Here is part 2 of my interview with pioneering researcher Milan Scheidegger, who works in the psychedelics lab at University of Zurich. You can read part 1 here. In this half of the interview, we discuss how to translate aspects of indigenous ayahuasca rituals – such as the shaman or sacred plant songs – into the context of western healthcare. We also discuss Milan’s plans to establish a psychedelic healing clinic in Switzerland.

In terms of translating the elements of indigenous psychedelic rituals into a western context, the role of the shaman is taken by a therapist. The therapist becomes a spiritual guide, not just someone you talk to. They acquire a sort of vatic standing. What do you think of the scientist as shaman?

It’s a controversial topic. In Switzerland, we had a psychiatrist called Samuel Widmer, who offered psycholytic therapy with substances like LSD and MDMA with special regulatory permission. During his work, he moved from being a clinical psychiatrist to being a spiritual guru, offering tantra retreats with substances. He acquired many followers dressed in white, who lived in a commune. [He also had two wives and preached free love.]

Similar to what happened with Timothy Leary and Ram Dass? Timothy Leary tried to set up a religion after he was fired from Harvard…

Yes somewhat. These things can happen also in other parts of society, it is not solely related to psychedelics. It can be dangerous of course, this change in social role and dynamic. That’s why this type of work poses ethical challenges in terms of the personal integrity of the facilitator. What is their motivation in doing this work? Is it just a narcissistic, histrionic motivation to become a guru, or is it a humble motivation to reduce human suffering? Responsible use of psychedelics is related to the ability of the therapists to question their own role, providing a safe space for the transformation to happen, rather than strongly guiding the role. Yeah, it’s a problem we can’t get rid of. There are also guru-type personalities in other realms of society.

Indeed, and in other realms of therapy and psychiatry too. Then there’s the role of nature in the psychedelic healing process. You did a masters on deep ecology, didn’t you? Most psychedelic research is done in the lab, rather than deep in nature.

Yes. Our psilocybin meditation study is the only study that took place in an aesthetically pleasing retreat centre in nature. Obviously this type of setting has a huge influence on the experience of participants. I remember my own ayahuasca experience in the jungle, where one’s ego boundaries dissolve and you can’t distinguish anymore if the sounds from the animals are out there or in here. That’s why I believe that the widespread use of psychoactive plants in human cultures must have some deep ecological function. My colleague Matthias Forstmann recently published an interesting study on how lifetime experience with psychedelics predicts pro-environmental behavior through an increase in nature-relatedness. They argue that the mechanism is that, through dissolving our ego boundaries, we start to self-identify with nature. When the distinction between self and nature becomes more permeable, we incorporate nature into our self-concept and start to behave more responsibly. That is very similar to taking a non-dual perspective, then hurting somebody out there is actually damaging yourself. There are huge ethical implications in deep ecological thinking.

So you’d prefer the psychedelic clinic of the future to be in some beautiful natural setting?

Yes, the ideal setting would be a retreat centre in nature, offering inpatient treatments for 1-3 weeks with followup outpatient care. The retreat facilitates transformation because it takes patients out of their habitual dysfunctional settings, offering psychotherapy, body-work, music therapy, nature-exposures, consciousness-altering rituals, psycho-education and integration. When psychotherapy becomes more experiential, than just cognitive, people are more likely to change.

What about the importance of the group. Psychedelic research tends to study individuals. Do you think groups are the best setting?

From our experience with the psilocybin meditation study and my participation in indigenous rituals, a group seems to be an ideal setting for psychedelic therapy. The level of solidarity can be very deep and therapeutic, especially when participants share their experience in a group. We are all part of a life process, creating an interpersonal conscious field together through our relationships, you get to see that others’ experiences can mirror your own, to listen to similar stories which can also reveal your own patterns and struggles. It’s not different from other types of group psychotherapy. However, it’s difficult to get regulatory permission to work with psychedelic substances in groups because it’s not yet established within the biomedical treatment paradigm. The Swiss Society for Psycholytic Therapy had special permission from 1988-1993 to work in groups of patients, but most of the clinical studies are of individuals.

The maloka at the Temple of the Way of Light, a western-indigenous ayahuasca centre in Peru

How about the role of music? Could you tell me about your work with the Sound Trance Institute.

At the World Ayahuasca Conference 2014 in Ibiza, Joel Olivé – an ethnomusician from Spain – was giving a concert with archaic instruments. I was very touched by the resonance field and collective space of consciousness that opened up in the conference hall just through Joel’s playing of the archaic instruments.

What are archaic instruments?

The oldest archaic instrument of course is our own voice. Other instruments include didgeridoos, monochord, drums, cymbals, rattles, kalimbas, singing bowls, and symphonic gongs. It’s acoustic instruments that have been used by tribal societies from all over the world to create sound vibrations that feel very organic, and which facilitate entrance into trance states. When archaic instruments are used in a specific sequence, they induce states of consciousness that are very similar to psychedelic therapy and shamanic rituals. Peter Hess, a German psychiatrist and music therapist developed the so-called Gong Therapy, a new form of receptive sound therapy, that can be better integrated in our culture and society. As a musician, I became very inspired and passionate about this approach. Now I am training with Peter and Joel and my vision is to combine music therapy with psychedelic-assisted therapy in the future.

You’ve also done research into psychedelics and meditation. Can you tell me about that, and how meditation and psychedelics can work together?

Our primary interest was to research the neurobiology of the self and its alteration through psychedelics. Since long-term meditators are trained experts in self-regulation and in navigating  consciousness, we were interested in how they will deal with psychedelic experiences. As study participants, they spent 5 days in a silent meditation retreat, and we compared how psilocybin affected their meditation experience compared to a placebo group. We were particularly interested how psilocybin affects meditation depth, the occurrence of mystical experiences, and quality of life afterwards. Some participants have been meditating for 20 years, so you’d expect perhaps there is not much room to go deeper. But it was quite surprising to see that the psilocybin group not only reached higher levels of meditation depth and mystical-type experiences, but also truly improved on follow-up measures of mindfulness, self-acceptance, sense of purpose and appreciation for life, and less fear of death.

I feel the ayahuasca retreat I went on in October has helped my meditation practice since then. First of all, meditation practice is so useful during the psychedelic experience. Things like staying in the moment, following your breath, connecting to your body, reminding yourself things will pass, self-acceptance – these are such useful tools during psychedelic experience, that it really gives you a sense of the efficacy of those tools, which motivates you to work harder on meditation in the weeks and months afterwards.

As you mention, it’s a mutual relationship. On the one hand, exploring deeper states of consciousness through psychedelics can motivate a daily mindfulness practice. Psychedelic experiences can refresh the meaning behind your practice and be revealing even after sitting on a meditation cushion for 20 years. When you return to the madness of everyday dual existence and the polarities of life, having had a psychedelic experience can broaden your flexibility and courage in coping with difficult experiences. On the other hand, there are these other mindfulness capabilities that you mention – where psychedelics can support processes such as dis-identification from self-limiting beliefs or developing radical acceptance towards things you cannot change in life.

And meditation helps with the integration, with turning altered states into altered traits.

Yes, and it helps with the preparation too. In our study we found that long-term meditators had much less fear response to the psychedelic experience than non-meditators. Meditation can increase your conscious competence, going from narrow-minded consciousness to a broader perspective, and feeling more accepting of what happens.

There should be a masters degree in conscious competence.

You put yourself through a lot of conscious competence practices for your last book [The Art of Losing Control]!

Well…conscious incompetence maybe. Tell me about the Reconnect project.

The Reconnect Foundation is a non-profit organisation based in Switzerland, with the mission to establish a novel approach to transformational and sustainable healthcare with a focus on mental health and holistic well-being. It’s proposing a new paradigm of transformation-based psychotherapy, which means moving from the biomedical substitution-oriented model, for example giving anti-depressants every day for depression, towards more of a transformation-based approach, inspired by consciousness-altering techniques, to provide a sense of re-connection, to self, others and nature. The foundation also supports research into the therapeutic potential of psychointegrative plant medicines like ayahuasca. 

Will this potentially also be a psychedelic therapy centre?

Yes, we would like to offer evidence-based psychedelic-assisted therapy in the future.

What are the chances of psychedelic therapy being legalized in Switzerland?

It’s the perfect place because Switzerland has a long history with psychedelics, including Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD, and the long-standing psychedelic research at the University of Zurich over the last 20-30 years. The Swiss Society for Psycholytic Therapy received special permissions for psychedelic-assisted therapy in the past. And regulatory authorities are quite pragmatic, as long as we can proof the safety and efficacy of our approach. So I assume we have a good chance.

Where would Reconnect be based? In the Alps?

Currently, most of our researchers and clinicians are based in Zurich, but indeed the Swiss Alps would be a perfect setting to set up a mental health centre.

Finally, what are the questions not being sufficiently explored in psychedelic or ecstatic research? And what are the biggest challenges for the field?

Well, I see big challenges and dangers with respect to exposing the general public to psychedelics. The studies that have been published in the last few years are quite enthusiastic about the usefulness of psychedelics to treat various mental health disorders. It’s always dangerous to hop on trends because you can lose your critical perspective. I’ve often asked myself during my clinical practice, which of my patients would probably benefit from psychedelic therapy? We have no idea or data to estimate the costs and benefits and risks of psychedelic therapy for an individual patient. If we want to arrive there, a lot of research has to be done. I see a danger that clinicians who have no experience with psychedelics themselves, who haven’t gone through psychedelic training or haven’t had the chance to learn in indigenous or other legal contexts, will just administer these drugs in a setting that isn’t safe or effective enough. Psychedelics are like a surgeon’s knife, you need to be well trained to use this powerful tool purposefully, it’s not enough to watch how to do proper surgery on a YouTube channel. Similarly, the level of depth of a psychoanalysis varies with the reflective capacity and self-experience of your therapist. In my opinion, the same standards should apply to the responsible use of psychedelics in medical practice.

As for other frontiers, I have a special interest in non-dual experiences. Psychedelics are exciting molecular tools to systematically research this frontier of consciousness. Non-dual experiences were reported by mystics from various religious backgrounds, but they are also found among users of psychedelics, and they are the most challenging from a philosophical, phenomenological and naturalistic point of view. How can we make sense of a non-dual experience in terms of brain dynamics? If we understand how the brain mediates these two states – the dual and the non-dual mode of information processing – it could greatly advance our understanding of consciousness. There is also some ontological doubt about these experiences – what do they teach us about the nature of consciousness and the fabric of reality? We cross an epistemological boundary here that is very exciting for me, because non-dual experiences pose a challenge on integrating both scientific and spiritual perspectives on life.

One of the things that I feel could be more studied is the nature of the imagination. Psychedelics obviously open up the imaginative faculty in the subconscious – metaphors, symbols, stories, myths, our connection to art and music. When we’re asking about the value or validity of our experiences, that’s also a question of the value and validity of the imagination. The 17th-century materialist view of the imagination, in Thomas Hobbes for example, is that is just creates sandcastles in the sky, empty chimeras. But then you have the idea in medieval Christianity or Romanticism that the imagination can be a visionary, prophetic faculty. I don’t see that discussed much in psychedelic research.

Absolutely, that’s a new frontier. Imagination plays an important role in psychotherapy, you can work on your self-image through various imagination exercises. We can use our imagination to build up compassion to ourselves and others, and to review our self-limiting narratives and to transform them, to liberate ourselves from dysfunctional patterns. We know that psychedelics increase our imaginative capabilities, so that could be a great paradigm.

Indeed.  In Stephan Beyer’s book Singing with Plants, he talks about medicine and theatre, and of helping a person to a story about their illness and their recovery. He calls it ’emplotment’ – ‘the activity of making sense of the story’. He writes: ‘to heal is to rebuild the shattered lifeworld of the sick person’. Psychedelic medicine really does that, it helps people to new narratives: ‘I was broken, then I went to the jungle to take ayahuasca, now I’m better’. Or the opposite: ‘I was well, then I did LSD, now I’m fucked’.

So, as a final frontier, your work looks at nature, music and psychedelics. It’s interesting to think about how music connects us to nature. We don’t think about that much in the West. But Amazon shamans say the plants teach them their songs, and their songs call in the plant spirits. I think about Renaissance songs, like in Shakespeare, or Beatles songs like Blackbird, or Romantic odes to mountains, flowers and birds – how many western poems are songs that connect us to birds, or flowers, or mountains. So in that sense music and poetry deepen our connection to the spirits of nature.

Yes, the connection of life and nature through rhythm and music is very exciting. Since the 1970s, the Damanhur community in Italy has researched plant intelligence and communication. They created an instrument able to perceive the electromagnetic variations from the surface of plant leaves to the root system and translated them into sound. It’s incredible, it sounds like composed music, as if there is an innate ability or intelligence in nature to communicate intentionally. Our brain does not seem to be the only interface, where mind and nature meet.

Should I go on a retreat, and how do I choose one?

San Marco monastery in Florence

A friend emailed me asking about retreats, whether they’re useful, and how one goes about picking one.

It’s an interesting question, and a good one for Lent. Sixty years ago, before the spiritual revolution of the 1960s, you’d be hard-pressed to find any retreats in the West, unless you were Catholic. The Reformation attacked the whole idea of sitting in silent contemplation of God, you should be out there doing stuff (or if not, reading the Bible). The closest British Protestant culture got to retreats, before recently, was the health holiday – the spa or mountain sanatorium, or the hiking / bicycling holiday. 

Then came the Sixties, that ‘spiritual supernova’ of ‘galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane’, as philosopher Charles Taylor put it. Suddenly, retreats and transformational workshops were back with a bang, in large part thanks to the influence of a place called Esalen, on the coast of Monterey, where hip Californians would go for massage, hot-tubs, Gestalt workshops and the occasional orgy.

Today, there are a bewildering array of retreats on offer in the spiritual supermarket, as wellness tourism and spiritual tourism become bigger and more profitable trends. Wealthy Westerners don’t just want to sun-bathe and down Sangrias anymore. They want some yoga, massage, meditation and gong baths thrown in. They want some fine-tuning of their soul, then the Pina Coladas.

Would you like to see our menu? You could go on a yoga retreat, a surf-and-yoga retreat, a pet retreat, an ayurvedic retreat, a meditation retreat (Buddhist / Christian / Law of Attraction), a Ramadan retreat, a pilgrimage, a transformational workshop, a tantra or conscious sexuality retreat, a men’s retreat, women’s retreat, LGBTQ retreat, couples retreat, family retreat, a writers’ retreat, an entrepreneurs’ retreat, a plant medicine or chocolate healing retreat, a vision quest, a wild retreat…Or, like Dominos pizza, you can combine any of the above. LGBTQ surf n’ yoga retreat? You got it!

The sheer variety of retreats may put you off. It may feel a little bullshit, this combination of tourist consumerism and spirituality, particularly considering the ludicrous price-tag of some of these spiritual retreats.  $8,000 for a week’s ayurvedic retreat in India? $11,000 for a 10-day ‘entrepreneur’s retreat’ on ayahuasca? $5000 for a ‘digital detox’ week in the Algarve? Mate for £20 I’ll smash your phone and give you a Vicks inhaler, how about that.

Plenty of recent films and TV shows have had a laugh at this mash-up of the spiritual and the consumerist, from Fleabag doing a runner from her luxury silent retreat, to Don Draper coming up with the Pepsi slogan at Esalen in the final scene of Mad Men.

But this cocktail of the sacred and profane is not necessarily new: in the middle ages, monasteries were incredibly plush – exquisite gardens, gorgeous libraries, elegant chapels, and kitchens described as ‘the most distinguished temple of gluttony in all of Europe’. They made a fortune welcoming wealthy aristocrats for pampering weekends of spiritual guidance, to squeeze out the big donations. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to wind down on a pampered retreat. If you want to go to eat some delicious healthy food, drink a bit, swim, hang out with some cool new people, and also do a bit of yoga or surfing, why the hell not! 

Can retreats be useful if you’re trying to develop spiritually? Can they help if your ultimate goal is moksha, liberation from the ego? Yes, definitely so. Most religious traditions emphasize the importance of occasional retreats. They can help to:

  • settle the mind from its furious planning and ruminating
  • resist some of our usual habits of distraction, like booze, the internet, TV, chitter-chatter. This resistance of usual habits sharpens our awareness, wakes us up, and can help us develop our powers of focus, insight and self-control. 
  • turn our attention to our inner world and begin to get to know the mind better – not just the surface rolling news, but also the deeper levels of awareness.
  • learn to make friends with ourselves, to accept aspects of the psyche we usually run away from
  • discover inner resources of peace, courage, acceptance, kindness and insight, and take these resources back into our usual life
  • meet friends and guides on the spiritual path

Retreats can be challenging. We may go with the spiritual tourist mindset and be in for a rude awakening. I remember one lady at a Vipassana retreat complaining to the teacher: ‘I thought this was meant to be relaxing!’ And another guy, at an ayahuasca retreat in the jungle, who told us at the start that he didn’t really have any problems and was just there to optimize himself. Ayahuasca gave him a kicking, and he bailed out of the third ceremony, declaring he just wanted to ‘chillax with a movie’.

A retreat can feel like a little death, coming down from the usual buzz of coffee-sugar-internet-gossip-ego-planning, and just sitting there…The ego may scream for distractions, for the first day or two. Don’t just sit there, do something! But then things do settle down. And we discover a mind beyond the usual ego-chatter.

That’s the whole point – we’re not who we think we are. We think we’re our ego, and the whole game of life is to bolster the ego and gratify it, with achievements and compliments and security and so forth. Build a really good sand castle, and get everyone else on the beach to admire it. Everything in our culture supports us in this view. But there is a Great Mind around the little castle, which is free from fear and suffering, and we can sometimes discover it, get to know it bit by bit, make friends with it, and rest in in its luminosity. 

The modern ego is like 24-hour rolling news. So absorbing, so distracting! Constant headlines of triumph and catastrophe, And we’re always in the news! Like Trump, we’re fascinated by anything in which our name appears.

You see that? That’s you.

But you can look deeper than the endless clickbait headlines and ask….what is the screen on which this news is appearing? What is the TV channel? What is the light that makes the screen light up? Can you not chase the headlines but rest in the light? 

OK, how to choose a retreat. The main thing is to get over your awkwardness and embarrassment at taking your spiritual development seriously, and putting a bit of time and work into it. Don’t be embarrassed, it’s totally normal and healthy. It’s weird not to think about it or do anything about it. Think of it like a spiritual pension – you’re going to die soon, and the occasional retreat is putting a little effort into preparing for that transition. 

As with finding a therapist, you may not find the perfect retreat first time. You may do a runner a few times. I first went on retreat to a Russian monastery in my late 20s. It was such a beautiful, mysterious place, but I only lasted one night. I couldn’t handle the long, standing, Orthodox services, or the abbot’s incessant efforts to convert me (luckily I couldn’t understand a word he said). Some years later, I went to a Benedictine monastery, where there was no real programme, just regular services in Latin. I was bored and depressed. Finally, in 2016, I found Buddhist retreats which had more of a directed programme of meditation, which is what I was looking for. Very, very slow progress, but that’s OK. 

If you’re a beginner, like me, directed programmes of meditation can be really useful. If you’re not religious, perhaps try a Buddhist retreat – you could start off by finding a local Buddhist organization which offers drop-in weekday sessions, then try a weekend retreat, and then try a week-long retreat. Or you could go kamikaze and try a 10-day Vipassana retreat, which is a great crash-course, but remember, it’s not a sprint. The aim is gradual progress over the years.

If sitting meditation is not your thing, you could try a pilgrimage, or a yoga retreat, or even a week’s surfing or cycling. Or you could go on a transformational workshop, like the Path with Heart, or the Way of Nature, or a plant medicine retreat. These are much more social, and might be useful if your issues are around intimacy and interpersonal relations. But do your research first, they can be quite full-on. As I said, retreats can bring you face-to-face with your deeper issues, and for me, that sometimes involves my issues with other people, my feeling of being judged and my tendency to judge others in return. All that sh*t can come up. It’s good sh*t. It’s the manure in which your soul can grow.

Anything can be a retreat, if you bring the right intention to it. This day at the office can be a retreat, if you do it with the intention to focus, practice, and serve all beings. Washing the dishes can be a retreat. The commute home can be a retreat. A Sunday where you choose to go offline can be a retreat. The retreat is merely an artificial bracket we use to set aside a time as sacred, to sharpen our intention and help us focus on higher goals rather than the day-to-day headlines. And the true goal is to have no distinction between your level of awareness on retreat, and your level of awareness in ordinary life.

Don’t be embarrassed. Take your spiritual development seriously…while retaining the ability to laugh at yourself and the general ridiculousness of life in general, and the spiritual supermarket in particular. Accept the imperfection of all spiritual communities, there’s always a bit of bullshit, which you can use as an excuse not to work. It’s not ultimately their job to do the work for you – you’re in charge, you need to do the work. Accept whatever arises in your mind…but don’t get hung up on spiritual highs, don’t chase the fireworks. Remember, it’s just a holiday unless you bring what you learn back home and practice it there too. I’ll end with this great quote from Yuval Noah Harari.