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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.

The construction of ‘Spiritual India’

I went to India for the first time last year.  I’d always been drawn to ancient Indian philosophy, but had put off visiting the country until I had some time to dive in. It was, I guess you could say, ‘spiritual tourism’: travel for the purpose of spiritual growth. There have been spiritual tourists at least since the Crusades, but spiritual tourism really took off in the 1960s, when hordes of Westerners headed to the sub-continent looking for meaning, wisdom and drugs. In the last few years, the Indian government and tourism companies have sought to capitalize on this, with lurid adverts like this (aimed, it should be said, as much at Indians as Westerners):

The spiritual air in the country humbly carries the fragrance of Karma, Dharma and most importantly Forgiveness. Trudge through the mighty mountains and you shall experience divine presence, or traverse through the meandering alleys, where spirituality combined with history waits to greet your spiritually thirsty souls. 

You shall experience divine presence…or your money back!

Western spiritual tourists travel to many different parts of the world, but India in particular attracts them. When and why did some Westerners construct this idea of India as a unique well of spiritual wisdom? And is that bollocks?

The construction of ‘spiritual India’ began, I’d suggest, in the 19th century, when a handful of Romantic intellectuals like Schopenhauer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Madame Blavatsky started to read the Upanishads, the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita, and were struck by their spiritual depth. The ideas of samsara, reincarnation, Karma, and a Supreme Being behind all religions fitted well with Platonism, and gave succour to those intellectuals who felt alienated from traditional Christianity.

Around the same time, educated Indians started to pride themselves as belonging to a uniquely spiritual culture.  Amartya Sen writes: ‘Colonial undermining of self-confidence had the effect of driving many Indians to look for sources of dignity and pride in some special achievements in which there was less powerful opposition – and also less competition – from the imperial West, including India’s alleged excellence in spirituality and the outstanding importance of her specific religious practices.’

Indians started to produce spiritual gurus who received great recognition in the West, like Vivekananda, a travelling preacher who was a smash hit at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1892. His success there was a huge deal for Indians – their culture had finally stepped out on the world stage and been recognized for its spiritual greatness. 

In another speech, he declared:  ‘From the West we have to learn the sciences of physical nature, while on the other hand the West has to come to us to learn and assimilate religion and spiritual knowledge…All the nations of the world have to sit down patiently at the feet of India to learn the eternal truths embodied in her literature’.

How refreshing this must have sounded to Indians under the heel of the racist British Empire. Sit patiently at our feet! ‘Spiritual India’ was a way of asserting national pride in the face of colonial subjection. But it was also a way of winning Western attention and approval – look how the West loves Vivekananda, see how he is surrounded by swooning rich white women! 

Vivekananda with some Western disciples.

The idea of ‘spiritual India’, hitherto confined to the Western intelligentsia, then went mainstream in the 1960s, thanks to figures like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass, and above all the Beatles. As one commentator put it, ‘if meditation is good enough for John Lennon, it’s good enough for me’.

Spiritual but not religious often means being a sort of half-baked Indian

‘Spiritual but not religious’ became a fast-growing demographic among baby-boomers, and what that often meant was leaving Christianity and becoming a sort of Indian manqué, practicing yoga, trying meditation, learning a mantra, visiting an ashram, and if you were lucky finding your guru. The 1970s was the boom-time for Hindu and Buddhist gurus coming to the West and attracting thousands of followers. More often than not, the guru – this supposedly-divine being – turned out to have feet of clay.

The commodification and export of ‘spiritual India’ could be said to be bad for everyone. For Indians, it created this incentive to play the guru, a childlike idiot spouting banalities to get the attention, sex and money of gormless Westerners.

As a teenager, Krishnamurti was seized on by a cabal of spiritually-excited Westerners who decided he was the Messiah of their new world religion, Theosophy. To his credit, he refused to play the role once he’d grown up. He disbanded the Theosophists, and spent much of his life warning people not to seek for gurus. ‘The follower is the destroyer, the follower is the exploiter’, he once said. In other words, you can blame Eastern gurus for abusing their followers, but you can just as easily blame gullible Western followers for abdicating their responsibility and making a god of their teacher. That’s abuse too. 

The export of ‘spiritual India’ also creates this warped idea of a country so spiritually rich that the government doesn’t need to clean the streets, help the poor, protect women from assault or de-pollute the Ganges. It can lead to complacency and stagnation. It denigrates those aspects of Indian culture that don’t fit ‘spiritual India’ – modern India, liberal India, scientific India, capitalist India. And Vivekananda’s idea of ‘spiritual India’ has unfortunately evolved into Hindu nationalism, with xenophobic yogis in positions of political power. If Hinduism is what makes India great, where does that leave the 20% who aren’t Hindu? What of the Buddhist and Muslim contributions to Indian culture? 

For Westerners, genuflecting before ‘spiritual India’ might alienate us from our own power and  our own spiritual traditions. It can turn the spiritual life into a consumer tourist trip, searching for Instagrammable ‘experiences’ rather than embedding your practice in your local community. And it can make mugs of us – we’ll always be second-rate Indians, mumbling Sanskrit phrases we don’t understand. It’s like colonial Indians pretending to be upper-class Brits. It’s not just cricket, my good fellow. 

So yes, ‘spiritual India’ is somewhat bollocks. For a really pessimistic take, read Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola, a scathing exploration of spiritual tourism, which concludes: ‘the experience of the East is simply not accessible to the Western mind, except after an almost total reeducation’.

And yet…

…there really is something incredible about India, and going there really can be a spiritually-enriching experience for Westerners.

Indian culture really has produced some spiritual classics, like the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada. It also gave the world sophisticated forms of meditation. The ancient Greeks arrived at some of the same insights about the mind, the emotions and the ceaseless change of all things – compare Stoicism to Buddhism, for example, or Platonism to Hinduism. But the Greeks never developed nearly as sophisticated a body of practical methods for transforming the mind. 

What struck me most on my travels was how normal spirituality is in India. In Britain, spirituality is so erased from the cultural landscape, I find it suffocating. The churches have been converted to luxury apartments, the bells have been silenced, the TV and radio never discuss spiritual matters like God or the afterlife. We’re embarrassed to discuss such topics, and if we do, we apologize with statements like ‘but I’m just a bit crazy’. No you’re not – it’s our totally materialist culture that’s weird! 

In India, religion and spirituality are everywhere. Even for modernized middle-class Indians, it’s quite normal to spend time in an ashram, say, or to follow a guru. The media isn’t embarrassed to discuss spirituality – in fact, some newspapers have supplements devoted to it. Granted, they’re often rather boring and vapid, but I’d rather that than the complete exclusion of spirituality that we have in the British media. It was such a relief to be in a culture where the spiritual isn’t taboo, after feeling like an alien in my own culture.

It’s much more normal to discuss ecstatic experiences and altered states of consciousness in Indian culture than in the UK. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, for example, one of the main speakers was Sadhguru, a yogic teacher who spoke about his ecstatic experiences as a young man. Compare that to the Hay book festival last year, where even though the theme was ‘Reformations’ there was an almost-total lack of any talks on religion or spirituality. Pretty much the only talk on such matters was by me, God help us.

Things you won’t see in the UK: a guru at a book festival

What I like about Indian spirituality – what has often drawn Westerners fleeing the tribal exclusivism of Christianity – is its generous pluralism. As Vivekananda declared at the World Parliament of Religions: ‘We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true.’  It’s not either Hinduism or Christianity or atheism or agnosticism but all of them! The Vedas and the Ramayana include agnostic and atheist voices, including the perennialist line ‘God is one but the learned call him by many names’, and the wonderfully agnostic declaration:  ‘How did this creation arise – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – only the One who looks down on it from the highest heaven knows – or perhaps He does not know.’  Now there’s a hymn after my own sceptical heart.

It felt such a relief to be in this tolerant, accepting, ‘who knows’ culture after the rationalist ‘there must be one right answer’ culture of the West. I met a rickshaw driver, Ram, who goes to the temple of Ganesh on Tuesday, the temple of Hanuman on Wednesday, and the church on Sunday. He’s also a communist. I stayed at a Zen retreat in Tamil Nadu, set up by an old Indian man who was raised by Jesuits, became a Jesuit priest, travelled to Japan and converted to Zen, and now runs a ‘Zen-Christian’ centre. What happens after death, he was asked. He shrugged. ‘Who knows?’

For some spiritual tourists, absorbing this relaxed Indian spirituality – more focused on practice and states of mind than exclusivist dogma – opens a door for them to come back to their inherited faith. For me, I started to appreciate that Christianity can be a wonderful bhakti yoga, a devotion to the Lord, a heart-opening. It didn’t convince me that Jesus is the Only Son of God, but it did persuade me to join a gospel choir, as a way to open my heart in worship.

Today, we are slightly less wowed by ‘spiritual India’, slightly less likely to surrender to the latest guru arriving at Terminal 5. But the Indification of western culture is not a fad, it’s a long-term shift in the oceanic currents. Around 8% of Americans now meditate, and 10% practice yoga. Over 20% of British people believe in reincarnation, including a quarter of Christians. And roughly two thirds of Americans now believe that ‘many religions can lead to eternal life’, prompting Newsweek to declare ‘we are all Hindus now’.

It’s wrong to see this as an invasion of one culture by another, or as the loss of our cultural identity. Human cultures are constantly melding, blending, clashing and cross-fertilizing, nowhere more so than in religion. Nothing exists in separation, there is no pure, separate and eternal essence called ‘Western civilization’ or ‘the Eastern mind’. Plato has far more in common with the Buddha than Jesus.

Our cultures exist in relation to one another, steal from one another, remix each others’ ideas. ‘Spiritual India’ was created out of the encounter with the British Empire, and was somewhat influenced by Victorian chauvinism and muscular reformist zeal. When Indian spirituality travelled West and was absorbed into our bloodstream, it mutated again, and became something new. Nothing stays the same, everything changes and flows. 

We’re in a period of dizzying cultural change, prompted by mass travel, mass immigration and the development of a globalized culture. That’s led people around the world to cling to a rather fundamentalist and reductive version of ‘their’ culture and insist that its the best, and all other cultures are alien invasions and existential threats. I see this as much among some Westerners as among Indians or Pakistanis – I hear people like Douglas Murray say the West has an identity crisis and needs to return to Christianity. But what I see, instead of clear lines of demarcation and conflict, is a long history of stealing, imitating, and remixing. And that’s OK.