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Searching for spiritual answers in psychedelics.

Last week a colleague at the university sent out a farewell email citing the great quit and explaining he was leaving to be a psychedelic coach. I guiltily watched the rolled eyes and snickers because I also resigned and will live in Mexico for the next six months to continue studying the use of magic mushrooms in healing trauma.

Psychedelics are psychoactive substances that are non-addictive, impossible to overdose on, and produce altered states of consciousness. Used for thousands of years for healing and spirituality, demonized and banned in the 1970s, they are now being used to treat mental disorders.

The New York Times announced we are in a psychedelic renaissance, a time when universities and businesses are investing millions in psychedelic research and developing new therapies and psychopharmaceuticals. The experimental treatments for depression, end-of-life anxiety, addictions, and PTSD bring hope to those frustrated with the current state of psychiatry and its limited outcomes. As corporations and Big Pharma discover the medical value of psychedelics, they lose their stigma, incorporating them into mainstream culture. I am curious and optimistic about the future of mental health with psychedelics, but without looking at the root causes, I’m afraid it will only mask the symptoms. How can we heal when immersed in the social and personal circumstances causing mental distress?

The psychedelic renaissance is not only in mental health but also in spirituality. Formal research started in the sixties in Harvard with psilocybin, the psychedelic substance in magic mushrooms. However, in 1970 the US government banned all research on psychedelics until 2006 when Roland Griffiths published a study in which psilocybin induced mystical experiences in healthy normals.

Mystical experiences are ineffable by nature, which means they are challenging to describe because we lack the vocabulary. They also generate a sense of profound unity with all beings, transcending time and space, accompanied by ecstasy and bliss, whether induced by meditation, religious trance, or psychedelics. These life-changing experiences are impossible to dismiss as just an altered state from a drug because they carry the authority of the self.

I craved the mystical experiences promised by psychedelics. Since losing my Catholic faith in my twenties, I struggled to support those around me facing death and existential anxiety. Because psychedelics are still illegal under federal law, I will not share my personal experiences. However, I will say they were so powerful they changed me. I am not yet the person I wish I were; I am still battling my flaws, but I am less fearful, controlling, and rigid; more flexible, connected, and at peace.

I recognize that the preparation, ceremony, guide, and integration with a therapist contributed to the experience and kept me safe. So I wonder what the long-term effects will be if it becomes an over-the-counter pill.

I don’t know if the mystical experiences are real or just the brain reacting to chemicals, but the peace it brings when we face our inevitable death has helped many dying and their loved ones. For example, during a trip with psilocybin, I experienced my death and dissolution. As I disintegrated, my molecules dispersed and became one with everything; I had no needs, wants, or cares. The closest words to what I felt are bliss and ecstasy. I can recapture the experience sometimes during meditation, and my views on death have changed, freeing me from existential dread.

The psychedelic renaissance brings more questions than answers, and its’ research is still in infancy. I worry that the medicalization of psychedelics will deprive Indigenous and well people access to psychedelics. Also, psychedelics come with risks when used carelessly, including deadly accidents.

Researchers, psychiatrists, psychopharmacologists, and entrepreneurs are using science to study consciousness and the effects of psychedelics, but its tools are insufficient. Neuroscientist Manoj Doss recommends we look at the theories of mind that have been around for centuries. How about studying from the shamans and curanderas? Maybe it is time we learn from those who have been using psychedelics to heal for thousands of years instead of just appropriating every valuable thing we discover.

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