Psychedelic Psychotherapy: Insights From 25 Years of Research (Exzerpt)

Von Dr. William A. Richards


Journal of Humanistic Psychology (2017) 57: 323–337 

[Ich habe hier einige wichtige Abschnitte zusammengestellt, TP]


I think of Alan Watts’s (1962) suggestion that one reason we have tended to avoid this field of enquiry arises out of “the taboo of knowing who you are”—that we tend to fear too much knowledge about the mysteries of our own being. As I know many appreciate, it is common for volunteers during the action of psychedelics in relatively high dosage to report phenomena that do not appear to arise from their personal life histories and that entail different perspectives on time and space—experiences that call into question some of the most basic assumptions that undergird our normative, consensual definition of “reality” and the manner in which we customarily define ourselves and orient ourselves in the world. 326


Although we like to think spatially and attempt to speak a language that may correlate the phenomena encountered in consciousness with neuronal structures and biochemical activity to some extent, it continues to make sense to stress that the experiential content of a particular foray into the world of alternative states is to be found not “within the drug,” but within the human mind itself. What the human “mind” is, continues to remain a tantalizing mystery, especially as there is good reason to question the reductionistic philosophical assumptions that have tended to prevail in the community of Western scientists in spite of quantum physics. It is time to take a fresh look at the writings of philosophers such as Henri Bergson, who viewed the human brain more like a television set that receives, processes, and limits information than as the primary source of mental phenomena (Barnard, 2011). Perhaps, psychedelic drugs still may best be understood simply as skeleton keys that, if wisely used, provide access to other realms of human consciousness. 327


The potential therapeutic significance of psychodynamic phenomena, in the context of the Jungian “personal unconscious,” including themes such as grief and attachment, guilt and forgiveness, anger and love, theoretically is congruent with many well-established systems of psychotherapy. The therapeutic potency of transcendental states may prove harder for some to comprehend, as it goes beyond the didactic content of many mental health education programs. By “transcendental,” I refer both to (1) alternate states of consciousness characterized by archetypal visions of gods and goddesses, of sacred architecture and art—often resplendent with gemstones and precious metals, and vast inner panoramas and landscapes, and also to (2) mystical consciousness. Mystical consciousness, as we have come to define it for research pur- poses, includes the six categories of Unity, Transcendence of Time and Space, Intuitive Knowledge, Sacredness, Deeply Felt Positive Mood, and Ineffability and Paradoxicality (Pahnke & Richards, 1966; Richards, 2003; Stace, 1960). These transcendental states are similar, if not identical with states of consciousness described in the world’s great religions, such as samadhi, nirvana, sekhel mufla, the beatific vision, fana, and wu-wei. 328


Nonetheless, these experiences usually do remain in memory and the reborn ego is able to recall them as sacred touchstones that radiate spiritual knowledge and a feeling of ultimate security. Among the intuitive insights that remain for many persons are (1) a conviction of the reality of an eternal structure or principle greater than our individual egos for which people have many names: Most common is “God”; some may prefer “The Ground of Being” (Tillich 1967) or the “Nothingness that contains all reality” or even “the purposive properties of protoplasm” (Sinnott, 1957); (2) an intuitive awareness of the indestructibility of consciousness—that many would call “immortality”; (3) a feeling of interrelatedness to others within the great unity, sometimes called “the brotherhood of man” or “the net of Indra”; (4) an appreciation of love as an onto- logical power beyond the limits of human emotion; and (5) a sense of awe at the intrinsic beauty of the imagery and thematic content of what has been experienced (Richards, 2009). 

The presence of a memory of this magnitude appears to constitute a pow- erful therapeutic resource. For the cancer patient approaching death, the memory provides a feeling that ultimately somehow all is well, which makes it possible to live the time that remains more fully, with less anxiety, depression, isolation, and pain (Richards, 1978; Richards, Grof, Goodman, & Kurland, 1972). For the alcoholic, the narcotic, or nicotine addict, or for any person struggling with depression or anxiety, the memory may testify to inner resources waiting to be more fully tapped, enhanced self-worth, and an awareness of interpersonal connectedness that can decrease feelings of alienation and estrangement (McCabe, Savage, Kurland, & Unger, 1972; Rhead et al., 1977). In summary, there is knowledge to be had in archetypal and mystical states of consciousness. The term getting high is simply irrelevant here, unless one understands it in the context of “Glory to God in the Highest.” 329


In the history of research with psychedelics, the term psycholytic sometimes has been used to focus on personal, psychodynamic forms of experience in contrast to the term psychedelic that may focus more on transcendental forms of experience. More probable with relatively low dosage, psycholytic experiences may entail abreaction, catharsis, and meaningful suffering that often lead to positive feelings of resolution, forgiveness, and rebirth. Most would not consider such experiences to be “spiritual” or as having religious import unless it is in the context of a belief that the resolution of psychodynamic conflicts for many is an important phase in the journey of spiritual development; the actual content of these experiences, however, typically does not include an awareness of the sacred, visions of deities or mystical insights. 

Conversely, as is more probable with higher dosage in a supportive setting, profound visionary/archetypal and/or mystical forms of experience may occur that, at least initially, appear to have little connection with the everyday historical life of the ego who may behold the vision or become encompassed within it. When this form of experience occurs, the therapeutic impact appears to derive from the death and rebirth of the ego, quite without regard for the details of childhood development and current interpersonal struggles at home and work. 

... the noetic (James, 1902) knowledge attained in archetypal and mystical realms … 330


Psycholytic/psychodynamic work also important

For persons who experience transcendental content in an initial session, it would be an error to assume that such a blessed experience has confirmed his or her sainthood and that there is no psychodynamic work to be done. Actually, especially in the case of alcoholics and narcotic addicts treated with psychedelic psychotherapy, this trajectory works especially well because, with the enhancement and strengthening of their self-concepts nurtured by memories of transcendental forms of consciousness, it becomes easier for them to explore areas of personal failure without undue loss of self-worth. 

It therefore appears that, if one seeks to facilitate optimal personal growth with the aid of psychedelics, sessions in both low and high dosage would prove useful. The Dutch psychiatrist, Hemmo Arendsen-Hein, supported this approach in what he called “Psychodelytic Therapy.” Typically, he gave his patients a series of low-dose sessions in small rooms in the clinic he designed in Ederveen Holland until he judged that sufficient resolution had occurred in the domain of personal psychodynamics. Then he would lead his patients into a large, beautifully appointed room and administer high dosage in hopes of facilitating transcendental experiences. 


There is a core point I wish to underscore here that focuses on the importance of the everyday self, or ego—that part of each of us that moves through the world from birth until death with our proper names. Even though mystical forms of consciousness, however eternal and vivid they may be, are incredibly meaningful, especially insofar as they often leave a sense of being at home in the universe in their wake, I have become convinced that our personal, everyday lives in time also have their significance and reason for being. This is well reflected in spiritual teachings and traditions. In Zen, the enlightened man “chops wood and carries water.” 331


Integration: The Importance of Drug-Free Sessions 

Huston Smith (2000), a highly respected scholar of comparative religions and one of our esteemed colleagues, first articulated the important distinction between religious experiences and religious lives, or between states of consciousness and traits of behavior. This also appears to be true of insights in more conventional forms of psychotherapy. A revelatory experience may provide an initial impetus toward behavior change, apparently more strongly for some persons than for others; however, once one returns to ordinary, everyday consciousness, there is integrative work to be done if the knowledge acquired in the alternate state is to result in personal or spiritual growth instead of remaining simply a memory of an interesting experience that happened one day—or perhaps a comforting awareness to recall when one discovers oneself on one’s deathbed. 332


Most persons appear to require a minimum of 8 hours of shared time with a therapist or guide, usually spread over a period of at least 2 weeks, in preparation for a productive psychedelic session. While sharing the joys and struggles of one’s particular life, including the current frontiers of personal development, not only is trust established with the guide, but an atmosphere of honesty and openness is clarified within the mind of the research volunteer. 333


My strong impression is that it is not the content of religious faith in terms of acceptance of the tenets of a creed or system of belief that matters, so much as the act of faith, that is, unconditional trust. 



I suspect that rigid, fundamentalistic belief systems, whether atheistic, the- istic, or otherwise can make it hard for one to navigate well in the depths of human consciousness, especially if one wants to “prove a point.” If, however, one is open and capable of trust and honest curiosity, t 



The Role of Music 


In this regard, music choices during drug onset, the ascent to peak activity, and peak activity appear of maximal importance; in the latter hours of a session, most any form of music can be explored and appreciated. In these early hours, music appears to provide a nonverbal support structure, akin to the net of a trapeze artist. It is there when needed, and does not interfere when it is not needed. Strong, flowing, reliable structure appears most helpful, without unexpected changes in rhythm or words that would engage intellectual functions. 



The promise of these substances however extends beyond medical applications. They have promise in education (Tupper, 2003), with applications in the training of both religious and mental health professionals, and even in fields such as philosophy, literature, music, biology, and physics. But above all, these substances have promise in helping us progress in deciphering and honoring the mysteries of our own being—of progressing in our understanding of what we are, of what the nature of consciousness might be.