Research into psychedelics is undergoing a profound scientific and cultural renaissance, and their many uses are gaining interest among diverse audiences. With all this renewed attention, it might be helpful to consider a basic overview of how psychedelics are used for health, well-being, and spirituality. With this goal in mind, I have divided the applications of psychedelics into three general and often overlapping models, to help conceptualize the future of psychedelic medicines.
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 pain management, seizure prevention, and as an adjunct to chemotherapy. It also includes the use of LSD and psilocybin for psychological treatment of patients with terminal illnesses, addressing such existential concerns as fear of death. 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 useful in treating depression and relieving severely debilitating cluster headaches. As research continues, the list of medical uses will continue to expand.
Psychedelics are treated as sacred medicines and are often referred to as entheogens (“that which generates the experience of God within”) or simply as “medicine.” For many practitioners, 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 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. At the shamanic level, ayahuasca shamanism is one of the fastest-growing spiritual movements across the globe. 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.
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. 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.
In this model, there is only one condition that needs addressing, and that is the ego, or the 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 ego is seen as a self-generated energetic construct that binds individuals into false perceptions 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. Beyond this character of the self is believed to be 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 states described as “union with God,” the “fundamental ground of being,” “infinite love,” or “pure consciousness.”
This article was excerpted from a presentation at the 2nd annual Exploring Psychedelics Conference at Southern Oregon University, where Ball teaches religious studies.