Those who follow health news have probably noticed a topic that appears to be popping up across the media spectrum: psychedelics and their roles in health and wellbeing. Research into psychedelics is currently undergoing a profound scientific and cultural renaissance, and the topic of their many uses is gaining interest among a diverse audience. With all this renewed attention, it might be helpful to consider a basic overview of how psychedelics are used for health, wellbeing, and spirituality. With this goal in mind, this essay will divide such applications of psychedelics into three general, and often overlapping, models of health and wellbeing: scientific/medical, shamanic/religious/spiritual, and nondual. These categories have been chosen as representative as they all have different approaches to both how and why psychedelics are used as medicines, with different goals, practices, illness categories, and objectives. Let's begin with the scientific/medical approach.
The Scientific and Medical Approach to Psychedelics:
Due to the U.S.-lead "War on Drugs," research into the medical applications of psychedelics was largely brought to a dramatic halt around the world, despite early promises of numerous medical applications that were promoted in the early half of the 20th century, especially in psychiatry. While most psychedelic compounds remain illegal in most countries, scientific and medical research has recently begun to flourish once more, and the results are promising (and inspiring shifts in legal status). Here, the model tends to coincide with modern medical practice: illnesses are identified by scientific criteria and psychedelics are applied on an as-needed basis, generally with minimal applications. Depending on how broadly one construes the term "psychedelic," many new therapies could be included in this category: MDMA ("ecstasy") for PTSD for vets, and as an adjunct to psychotherapy; cannabis for treatment of a wide variety of ailments, from pain management to seizures, cancer, and other debilitating conditions. It also includes the use of LSD and psilocybin for psychological treatment of patients with terminal illnesses, addressing such existential questions as fear of death, and also addiction, anxiety, and depression. There is also the use of iboga and ibogaine for the treatment of addictions, particularly alcohol and opiate addictions, where withdrawal symptoms can be bypassed entirely, helping individuals become addiction-free with only one application. Furthermore, psilocybin has been found to be effective in relieving severely debilitating cluster headaches. As much of this research is still in its infancy, more applications are sure to be found in the near future as studies increase and proliferate. At the forefront of such applications are institutions such as The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, MAPS, and Johns Hopkins University.
The Shamanic/Religious/Spiritual Approach to Psychedelics:
The next healing model would be shamanic/religious/spiritual. While lumped together, there are some important distinctions that could be made here, though the overall approach is that psychedelics are treated as sacred medicines, or “sacraments,” within this model, where they are often referred to as entheogens (meaning "that which generates the experience of God within") and even more commonly, simply as "medicine." For many practitioners in this category, psychedelic use is seen as a way of life, and as a direct means of experiencing the sacred. Unlike the scientific/medical model, where use of psychedelics is largely limited to very specific treatments, in this model, psychedelics are used as a primary means of individual and group spiritual practice, and may be consumed on a regular basis, usually in a ceremonial context. The identification of "illness" is much more broadly construed, covering not just physical or mental ailments, but also those that are deemed to be spiritual, religious, and existential. One of the appeals of psychedelics in this context is that they are effective at every level of a person's being: physical, mental, energetic, "spiritual," etc., recognizing more cultural or tradition-bound categories of disease than the scientific model would allow.
At the shamanic level, ayahuasca shamanism is probably one of the fastest growing spiritual movements across the globe, with use of ayahuasca (a tea made primarily with DMT, though also, at times, including 5-MeO-DMT, and brugmansia) is flourishing far beyond its origin in the Amazon, with ayahuasca ceremonies now taking place regularly across Europe and North America. Though generally taken under the guidance of a shaman in a ritual context, the ayahuasca itself is seen as the primary healer which can show participants what they need to see about themselves and their issues, bringing about greater personal awareness, while simultaneously assisting in purging negative elements from the body in the forms of vomit and diarrhea.
Ayahuasca is also spreading through various religious and church-based movements, such as Uñio Do Vegetal (UDV), and Santo Daime. Here, the consumption of ayahuasca (called "huasca" and "daime," respectively) is the central feature of religious gatherings, worship, prayer, and healing. Most importantly, its use is understood to facilitate spiritual maturity, growth, and insight, along with the resultant healing that comes as part of the process.
Peyote is also widely used for religious and healing purposes in North America, mostly through the Native American Church. Though it is a relatively recent religious movement (less than 150 years old) it is now considered "traditional" religion for many Native American communities, especially communities that have had their more culture-specific practices disrupted by colonialism and forced assimilation and conversion. In this context, peyote is commonly seen as an effective treatment for alcoholism as well as a medium for addressing personal illness, facilitation of prayer, and contact with the spirit world. Here, vomiting and purging is euphemistically known as “getting well.” It’s also quite common for peyote ceremonies to be used in combination with other ceremonial practices that are understood to have a health and spiritual value such as sweat lodge and vision questing.
At a less-organized end of the spectrum is simply the spiritual use of psychedelics by numerous practitioners outside of any particular shamanic or religious tradition for the purposes of growth, insight, and healing. Such uses include both synthetic as well as naturally available psychedelic compounds and substances. This takes place both in neo-shamanic healing circles and rituals as well as simply through individual use, exploration, and personal healing.
The Nondual Approach to Psychedelic Healing:
Our final model is the nondual. While sharing some features with the previous model, this has been separated out as a unique model in that, unlike the more broadly construed "spiritual" application of psychedelics for healing, in the nondual model, there is only one condition that needs addressing, and that is the ego, or the illusory sense of the individual self that is experienced as separate from the fundamental nature of being and reality. Here, the use of psychedelics coincides with the ultimate goal of the world's mystical and nondual traditions. The primary cause of suffering is seen as the illusory self that lacks knowledge and direct experience of the true nature of the Self that is beyond the apparent and artificial divide of self and other, subject and object, transcendent and immanent (and other such oppositional categories). The ego is seen as a self-generated energetic construct that binds individuals into a false perception of themselves, which in turn creates energetic distortions, blocks, and suffering. The construct of the ego is understood to be a "character" that is continually narrating and constructing its identity (including one’s “spiritual” identity), which individuals mistake for themselves, when in reality, it is merely a conventional construct. Beyond this character of the self lies the Authentic Self, in which there is no separation or distinction, and is therefore nondual, or encompasses all of reality, including the apparent individual. Here, psychedelics, particularly the most powerful of psychedelics, such as 5-MeO-DMT, are used to provide a temporary suspension of the energetic bindings of the ego to allow an individual to experience him or herself in a state of "union" with "God," the "Fundamental Ground of Being," "Infinite Love," "Pure Consciousness," etc.
The nondual model is grounded in the individual quest for enlightenment and ultimate liberation from illusion. It is not based on any specific religious or spiritual tradition. In fact, it is simply resting in the fullness of being that is revealed by the mystical experience. It is also not a system of beliefs, rituals, or spiritual practices, but rather is the raw uncovering of the universal nature of Being. It is a method of introspection, self-awareness, observation, and letting go of limiting beliefs, constructs, patterns, and choices. It demands deep commitment to truth and authenticity, and requires individuals to overcome their lack of trust, embrace unconditional love, and slough off self-created illusions to which they may be attached in the formation of their personal identities. While the ego is not viewed as inherently bad (as nonduality is ultimately about moving beyond such conventional distinctions of "good" and "bad"), it is seen as potentially problematic, as it is the fundamental root of human illusion and the resulting suffering. In this sense, the nondual model is directly addressing the most fundamental of human problems: the false illusions of our identities.
A primary difference between the shamanic/spiritual use of psychedelics and the nondual model is that most shamanic and spiritual use is still based in perceptions and constructs of duality. In the shamanic and spiritual model, beings, spirits, alternate realms, and non-human forms of consciousness are either implicitly and explicitly understood to be objectively real and authentically true. In other words, many psychedelic spiritualists believe in the reality of spirits and entities that may assist in the process of spiritual growth, healing, and insight. In contrast, the nondual model transcends these distinctions into seeing everything as a direct expression of the One Universal Self, where “spirits” and “entities” are appreciated as mental constructs formulated by the egoic mind. While the difference may seem academic, in the nondual approach, there is no ceremony, no prayer, no worship, no placating of spirits or divine beings, as these are understood as the self and not separate entities that must be appeased or dealt with. The majority of approaches to psychedelic healing are still embedded within dualistic models.
Whatever one's approach to psychedelics might be, there are numerous and various ways in which psychedelics are currently in use for spirituality and health. As practices become more widespread, and as legal restrictions are gradually loosening, we can expect to see interest in these areas of practice and wellbeing grow. In some ways, this is a return to origins in that psychedelic use has been identified with many historical and pre-historic religious, spiritual, and medical practices. In this context, the interruption of the "War on Drugs" can be put into the proper historical perspective as an aberration, rather than as the norm. As culture shifts, so will openness to the many promises of psychedelic therapy and spirituality.