Clinical spirituality research is an area where psychedelics’ placebo-enhancing effects play a very prominent role. This research’s guidelines for set, setting, and suggestion have been rigorously standardized, resulting in the marshaling of psychedelics’ placebo-enhancing effects toward a particular end. These guidelines are an outgrowth of those developed by the original University of Maryland research group in Spring Grove during the 1960s. At that time, the Spring Grove group demonstrated a relationship between a particular experience—the “peak-psychedelic” effect—and psychotherapeutic benefits in alcoholics and the terminally ill. The results using this model were impressive then, just as they are now using updated Spring Grove guidelines. However, I do not believe that this model is the only relevant one.
This paradigm reflects a particular religious worldview belonging to two of that team’s most influential members: William Richards and the late Walter Pahnke. Richards, now with the Johns Hopkins group, has developed and spread this model throughout the American research community. It is worth noting that before becoming a psychologist, Richards had degrees in divinity and theology. And Pahnke had a divinity degree in addition to psychiatric training. Both men believed that everyone possesses the potential for a universal religious experience.
This idea became popular at the turn of the 19th century. The theme of the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago was “interfaith dialogue.” And no one promoted that theme more eloquently than the charismatic Vedantist disciple of Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda. The transcendence of cognitive, emotional, and perceptual processes taught by Vedanta led to a formless, blissful, non-verbal, concept-free state. The experience itself lacked any particularities; for example, iconography, ethics, history, or philosophy. It was a universal spiritual experience, one that stripped away the presumed roots of interfaith conflict. Such a universal religious experience would be the experiential bridge by means of which meaningful and effective interfaith dialog could finally proceed. The implications were breath-taking.
The apparent naturalness and ease with which one could attain such an experience inspired an interest in non-duality, in particular Vedanta, that has continued to grow since then. For example, within 10 years William James’ major work on the commonalities of religious experience appeared. A generation later, Aldous Huxley popularized the “perennial philosophy,” and William Stace operationalized features of the universal religious—a.k.a. “mystical”—experience in order to begin mapping phenomenological criteria.
Thus, the Spring Grove/University of Maryland worldview that infuses the current model of psychedelic clinical spirituality (qua psychotherapy) research contains theological assumptions. It is not religiously neutral, secular, nor solely academic. Rather, it is the outgrowth of specific religious beliefs. These beliefs were first represented by Asian Vedanta, and were soon joined by Western mystical esotericism, such as Kabbalah, and Christian and Muslim mysticism. These traditions are religious. They teach about the nature of life and death (and what precedes and follows them), the well-lived life, whether existence is good or bad, the nature of evil. They promulgate specific teachings of how to act, what to think, how to believe.
The transpersonal psychology movement was psychology’s response to the influx of Eastern religious and psychedelic influences beginning in the 1950s. It conventiently provided a theoretical basis for applying such a universal religious experience to the clinical psychedelic drug research setting. A “peak-psychedelic” experience was conceptualized as the curative factor in any therapeutic intervention. Through their religious studies and beliefs, and their psychological training, Richards and Pahnke developed their mystical state—or peak-psychedelic—paradigm. It determined all aspects of their work: screening, preparation, supervision, and follow-up of subjects.
This universal religious experience—free of all particulars—I call the “mystical-unitive state.” One merges with an overwhelmingly powerful, intelligent, and loving presence, often represented as a blinding white light, unconstrained by time or space. Concepts, perceptions, individual personality and history, conflicts, all drop away in this state.
Most psychedelic drug experiences, on the other hand, are content-rich, and interactions with the visionary world may generate the most lasting impressions and effects. These specific contents possess specific meanings or information. An encounter with the “other”—its nature, characteristics, and activities—in the psychedelic state may be as novel, profound, unexpected, and influential as any encounter with the formless white light. It may therefore be useful to consider a spectrum of effects, with the unitive-mystical at one pole, and the interactive-relational at the other.
There are a number of reasons for society as a whole, and academic research in particular, to have so quickly and thoroughly adopted the mystical-unitive model of Eastern religions in understanding and applying the psychedelic drug state. The major influx of Eastern religious teachers and teachers entered the West at about the same time as did the psychedelic drugs. Eastern religious traditions accepted and utilized visionary experience more than did mainstream Western ones. Eastern religions’ ostensible lack of one God appealed to those who rejected Western religious traditions. Those who carried Eastern religions to the West were a charismatic group of Asian teachers from Tibet, and Southeast and East Asia—dare I call them rock stars?—who promised enlightenment. Finally, many youth sought respite from the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s by adopting an inward focus that negated the reality of either the outside world or an abiding individual self who painfully interacted with it.
Whereas Eastern religions emphasize the unitive-mystical state, traditional Western systems emphasize the interactive-relational. In Vedanta, one seeks the paradigmatic mystical-unitive enlightenment experience. In the Western tradition, one seeks the paradigmatic interactive-relational prophetic experience. Just as principles of Buddhist enlightenment are laid out within that tradition’s text and commentaries, so are principles of Western prophecy laid out in that tradition’s text and commentaries.
There are no theoretical obstacles to developing alternative models, and I believe that there is value in doing so. Research would characterize and assess the effects of interactive-relational spiritual experience in the same way that has occurred regarding the mystical-unitive one. A research team whose theoretical model, and practical applications of it, focused on the interactive-relational state could objectively compare the therapeutic/spiritual efficacy of one model compared to the other for the same conditions or desired outcomes.
Let’s look at a practical consequence of the two models—for example, dealing with extreme states during a psychedelic drug session. One is at sea in confusing, overwhelming, never-ending misery. Instead of preparing subjects in such a way as to make more likely the mystical-unitive state; e.g., “letting go,” counting breaths, directing attention to one’s bodily sensations, staff might prepare subjects by training them to “pray.” Establishing contact with—entreating, relying upon, and seeking support from—something outside oneself.
There now exist data demonstrating that psychedelics enhance meditation’s effects, both in the case of ayahuasca, reported by the Barcelona group (10.1093/ijnp/pyx036), and psilocybin, reported by the Hopkins group (10.1177/0269881117731279). In the same vein, one could determine whether psychedelics improve the subjective quality of prayer, as well as its downstream effects on personality and adjustment. Corollary investigations could refine the salient factors. For example, would effects depend upon what the person is praying to? Or what the contents of one’s prayer are?
Rating scales could be developed to characterize effects on various factors within the interactive-relational state, similar to how we developed the HRS using Buddhist psychological principles. Comparable religious texts could be similarly consulted in order to establish categories of interactive-relational effects.
There is of course no harm in one’s religious beliefs influencing how one performs clinical spirituality research, and as a result of which understands and applies its findings. However, full disclosure—in professional circles at the minimum—requires acknowledging the religious nature of one’s research models when studying religious experience.
I suggest that the placebo-enhancing effects of psychedelics are so profound in enhancing techniques developed to attain a mystical-unitive state, that we are ignoring effects that may be equally as profound in the case of the interactive-relational one. This quite different model may nevertheless possess similarly broad applicability to a similarly wide array of conditions.
Finally, in the spirit of “progress,” I would like to point out that the “mystical/psychedelic peak experience” model is not new. In fact, it is old. It is simply a more refined version of a model developed in the 1960s, which itself hearkens back to the 1893 Chicago Parliament’s dream of interfaith dialogue. In another sense, it is new, in that the notion of a universal religious experience is a relatively recent phenomenon compared to the emphasis on differences in belief and practice among various religious streams. In either case, the model is not inviolable, a one-size-fits-all. Other models with different practical guidelines and theoretical structures may be similarly useful in the same or different settings.
This perhaps is one of the most striking examples of the temptation to prematurely close the psychedelic mind. It appears to be a case of how political correctness promulgates an unproven assumption of religious universalism. Not everyone accepts the notion of a universal religion. Or, if they do, not everyone accepts that it most closely resembles Eastern Vedanta or Western mystical traditions.