by Chris Becker, Ph.D.
There is an excitement in the air about successes with psychedelic-assisted therapy for the treatment of difficult and resistant psychological maladies such as depression, PTSD, addiction, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. The successes include clinical trials undertaken with government approval. For example, the FDA has recently given MDMA and psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” designations for some conditions. That’s a really big deal! More results are expected for a variety of conditions from government-approved studies, and we anticipate many of them to be positive.
What we don’t often read about in the news is success treating these and other afflictions in “underground” settings. By underground, of course, I mean psychedelic-assisted therapy taking place without government approval, and given the current status of these medicines, that means illegally. Nevertheless, there is a growing group of trained therapist-guides in Western society providing treatment for a growing number of clients.
Let’s not forget the use of these medicines in indigenous cultures all over the planet for millennia. From anthropological study, we know they have been used for healing and spiritual growth (and not recreation). Talk about time-tested!
So, let’s just go ahead and say it’s established that these powerful medicines are effective in the right context. And speaking of context, let’s also recognize that the healing and growth work is done with a highly trained therapist-guide, sometimes called shaman, medicine wo/men, healer, or guide. (I’ll call them “therapist,” for simplicity.) It’s not the plants or chemical compounds alone that affect the healing.
Given the remarkable success of these treatments, let’s now turn our attention to the following fundamental question: how does psychedelic-assisted therapy work? What makes it healing?
I’m sure there are many explanations, theories, and evidence for why and how these treatments work. I’m a trained scientist (chemistry and physics) but not a trained neuroscientist. Nevertheless, I do read some of the neuroscience research in the context of psychedelics, including functional brain imaging. Some researchers talk about the role of the default mode network, the biochemical oxytocin, re-wiring important neural networks, and other interesting findings. I respect all those brain studies and honor their results. However, I understand the healing process in different terms.
IMHO, there are three elements that bring about healing in psychedelic-assisted therapy:
· Medicine opening the client’s heart and mind,
· Providing a key missing positive experience, and
These deserve careful commentary, and it isn’t easy because, fair to say, many healing experiences are ineffable. The best place to start, though, is to invoke the word holistic. These elements all must come together as a whole.
The reader may notice that the therapist is not explicitly listed among those three bullet points, yet s/he is critical. How, will become clear shortly.
The psychedelic medicine, or entheogen, is the most obvious aspect of psychedelic-assisted therapy, yet in some ways the most mysterious. Just because we know the chemical structures of, for example, psilocybin and serotonin, and know which protein receptors bind them tightly, does not mean we understand how these medicines work, and in such small quantities. We’re talking about tremendous shifts in consciousness at therapeutic doses. And what is consciousness? Many believe consciousness itself exists or extends outside of the brain and that multiple dimensions can be experienced. I can’t give granular detail as to what happens to consciousness, but I will say that it OPENS with the medicine. That’s a key word, and often the first journey or two in underground treatment protocols is with MDMA, which is said to be “heart opening.”
Next, what is a key missing positive experience, sometimes called a corrective experience? Well, they come in all shapes and sizes because people and their psychological injuries and traumas vary so widely. Generally speaking, during the healing journey, the client visits the “scene of the crime,” where it all went wrong. That could be sexual abuse or rape, a beating, an accident, or a whole childhood with an emotionally absent or controlling parent, to give just a few of a million examples. But this time, something is remarkably different. Not only has consciousness been opened, the client is not alone. The client has a magical visitor, a witness, a supporter, a person of safety, a person actively loving them. That terrible, traumatic re-visited scene also is happening in a safe container (setting). Plus, the client has been prepared (set) and careful integration will follow, all of this in the hands of the therapist. Well, not only their hands, but their hands are full and active.
Of course, treatment may take multiple journeys, and there may be multiple scenes that need visiting. Some of those scenes may only have resided in the unconscious before therapy.
The third element is love. As just mentioned, the therapist is critically important because they must be present, supporting and loving you. And it’s not a forced love, because there is no such thing. That’s an interesting aspect about love. There is no forced or false love; there is only unconditional love. Anything else you might think about love is a fiction or an illusion.
The materialists may scoff or grow sarcastic or call this talk of love a platitude. But if you truly want to know how healing occurs, it is through love. Only love can heal. Yes, it’s tremendously helpful to get into the right position, and the first two of the three elements speak to that.
Imagine: the therapist is doing their work, getting their client, who they love, in position, facing the East. They give the medicine and hold their client’s hand or place their hand over the client’s heart as the client recalls that dark and dangerous place—the place of disconnection, the place of pain, the place of fear. Soon the sun rises, and rays of Love, God’s love, penetrate everywhere, penetrate the client’s heart. And this love transforms the dark fear into light—healing, transforming.
I like this imagery, but I want to say that in reality, the client, therapist and Creator are one. The client heals as their heart enters the great furnace of love which burns away the darkness of fear. And that’s how the transformation actually happens.