Hallucinogens and Shamanism


In the western area, many drugs are highly refined and attempted excessively or habitually, in ways that are addictive and harmful. However, in traditional societies powerful mind-active plants are consumed ritually for therapeutic purposes or for transcending normal, everyday reality. In this article I will look in detail at the ritual use of mind-active drugs for therapeutic mind-expansion as part of shamanic traditions in comparison to the modern abuse of pharmaceutical drugs as part of drug addictions and dependencies.

The use of psychoactive drugs was studied in the 1960s by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert who looked at LSD and psilocybin who studied shamanic teachings and practices around the globe. These shamanic traditions involve non-ordinary states of consciousness induced by a variety of methods including ingesting hallucinogenic plants, but also drumming, fasting, wilderness vision questing, use of sweat lodges and others.

Metzner notes that indigenous people have a profound knowledge of plants and herbs and their effects on the body and mind and are well able to distinguish harmful from beneficial medicines. For this reason the vision-inducing plants that have a tradition of shamanic usage are much more likely to be safe, in contrast to newly discovered and synthesized drugs, the use of which may often involve unknown long-term risks.

Western psychotherapy and indigenous shamanism use similar psychoactive substances for healing and obtaining knowledge (called diagnosis in the West and divination in traditional cultures). Popular terms for these drugs include "psychedelic," coined byAldous Huxley and popularized by Leary which means "mind-manifesting," "hallucinogenic" which is common in the psychiatric research literature and is derived from the Latin alucinare meaning to "wander in one's mind" which today is termed to "trip" and "entheogen," coined by R. Gordon Wasson and Jonathan Ott which is based on the root for "enthusiasm," and means "releasing or expressing the divine within".

Many drugs that are considered addictive and recreational have also been used therapeutically in various cultures and contexts showing that it is often the set and setting rather than the drug that is to blame for abuse. LSD was discovered during World War II in a Swiss pharmaceutical lab and was investigated by the military as a means of disorientating enemy soldiers but this research was abandoned when soldiers who took it became mystics rather than robots. Albert Hofmann synthesized LSD at Sandoz labs and accidentally discovered its properties which he described as causing "psychic loosening or opening." LSD was used in psychotherapy in Europe by applying it to neurotic patients suffering from anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorders which was believed to cause a 'loosening' of defenses, making the patient more aware of his or her unconscious reaction patterns acquired in childhood in order to cause resolution of inner conflicts.

At about the same time the psychedelic model became the preferred approach in Anglo-American psychiatry. Humphrey Osmond worked in Canada with Abram Hoffer on the treatment of alcoholism with LSD and provided Aldous Huxley with his first mescaline experience, immortalized in The Doors of Perception. LSD was thought to simulate the life-changing "bottoming out" experience in therapy for alcoholism in which the unconscious mind was manifested in hallucinatory imagery, leading to insight and transformation. In the early sixties therapists gave psychedelics to clients in the Hollywood film, arts and media community.

Timothy Leary, Frank Barron, Richard Alpert and the Harvard research project examined behavior change in convicts using psychedelics and also "consciousness expansion" using graduate students, artists, musicians, poets and writers, in an unstructured but supportive, home-like setting. "Consciousness expansion" was contrasted with the contracted, fixated awareness characteristic of narcotic addictions, as well as obsessions and compulsions in general. Leary developed the "set and setting" hypothesis, according to which the primary determinants of a psychedelic experience are the internal set (intention, expectation, motivation) and the external setting or context, including the presence of a guide or therapist.

Following LSD, an important psychedelic used therapeutically was discovered by Alexander Shulgin, a chemist who found a variety of phenethylamines, such as MDA, MDMA, 2-CB and others, which bring about an expansion and centering of emotional awareness with minimal perceptual changes. These have been termed empathogens ("generating a state of empathy") and included MDMA (which also became known as Ecstasy or E and is vital in rave culture) which was attempted successfully in psychotherapy to develop relationship communication and giving treatment of disabling trauma.

In the western area, many drugs are highly refined and attempted excessively or habitually, in ways that are addictive and harmful.
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