A Psychospiritual Context for the Therapeutic Use of Psychedelics
Richard Spurgeon, M.A.
This article is an adaptation of the thesis I wrote for my M.A. in
Psychosynthesis Psychotherapy at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in
London in conjunction with Middlesex University.<1> It describes the
potential therapeutic benefits of working with psychedelics within a
psychospiritual context, and highlights other factors which help to
and integrate the contents of these experiences.
THE THESIS I WROTE for my M.A. in psychosynthesis psychotherapy arose from
my experiences during my five year journey as a trainee psychotherapist.
Its title was "In the Footsteps of Prometheus--integrating deep
experiential techniques with psychosynthesis psychotherapy." The thesis
explored the potentials and pitfalls of Holotropic Breathwork and the
therapeutic use of the psychedelics (particularly MDMA and psilocybin). It
attempted to build a psychospiritual framework for their integration with
the more traditional approaches to psychotherapy, using the maps and
models of psychosynthesis. I had found that my own psychological and
spiritual development had been profoundly catalysed and deepened through
the combination of these deep experiential techniques with the ongoing
psychotherapy that I was receiving. From my own experience it seemed clear
to me that these tools held tremendous psychotherapeutic and spiritual
value. Inspired, I began to read all I could on the subject (and was
particularly influenced by the work of Stan Grof), joined MAPS, and
continued my own self-exploration with these tools.
The psychospiritual context
At the core of my thesis and of this article is the belief that a
psychospiritual context is of enormous benefit to any therapeutic work
with psychedelics. The psychospiritual perspective holds that our essence
is spiritual in nature, and that life is a process of development and
unfolding in which psychological and spiritual aspects are deeply
entwined. Thus, while holding this context, therapeutic work at the
psychological level of egoic-self identity or personality can be as
important as (and is often far more appropriate than) work at any
or spiritual level of being and identity. There are various useful
psychospiritual models, of particular value are Ken Wilber's spectrum of
consciousness and the egg diagram and the triphasic model<2> of
Work with psychedelics, at whatever level of dose, needs to be contained
within safe forms and structures, including a firm context and clear
intention. These are fundamental in terms of creating the "set" which will
enhance the positive outcomes of the experience. A clear context makes the
experience more manageable, while clear intention makes a valuable and
insightful experience more likely. Holding the context of self-discovery
within an ongoing psychospiritual journey gives meaning to whatever
experiences an individual has to face in terms of their own history, their
present life situation, and their potentials and future development. The
contents of the experience are understood as primarily a reflection of the
individual's own psyche (though there may well be other, wider
implications too). A dark, painful and difficult experience is therefore
seen to be as valuable as an any other sort of experience--and perhaps
more so, as it may help the individual face the unconscious material that
he or she most needs to work with. Holding this psychospiritual context is
the key to the integration and grounding of the unconscious material which
is brought into consciousness.
What is also of great value is an ability to surrender to a Greater Power,
God, Spirit, etc., and to trust this fully. This helps anchor one's own
experience and context in a much wider and more embracing spiritual
context, and enables a much deeper commitment to, and faith in, the
process itself. The therapeutic use of psychedelics
My thesis describes six main benefits of using psychedelics within a
psychospiritual therapeutic context. Different substances have different
effects--so I can only speak in generalities here. These benefits are also
dose dependent. My own experience has helped me to understand the validity
of the differentiation between work with low ("psycholytic" or
soul-loosening) doses and high (or "psychedelic") doses. Both are
valuable, yet each is very different in its therapeutic effects. The
actual dosage needed to create the required effect will differ from
individual to individual. Work with smaller doses is gentler on the body
and mind, and the unconscious material accessed is more easily integrated.
This is because the psychological material that comes into consciousness
is nearer the surface, and it is therefore easier to accept and to work
with psychologically. It is mostly of a biographical, psychodynamic
nature, though the actual content may often be unexpected. The three main
benefits at the psycholytic level
To enable deeper insight into present psychological issues and give a
preview of the next steps in psychological work. When the context for the
experience is to further one's psychospiritual development, then these
psychological benefits seem assured. Each time I have taken psychedelics
within this context, I have gained important insights into my own process
and psychological make-up and have been given a foretaste of the next
stages of therapeutic work. The power of these insights is that they are
not just intellectual; they are normally experienced as realisations which
include the body, feelings and mind, and thus cannot easily be ignored.
To allow a temporary disidentification from mindsets, maintaining cycles,
and self-identifications, leading to a greater awareness of patterns of
behavior, and the experience of deep-level psychological freedom and "I"
consciousness. The experience of stepping out of identifications and
habitual ways of seeing ourselves and the world can be tremendously
liberating. It is true that we will soon return to our old ways as the
influence of the psychedelic wears off, but once we have had the
experience of being more than that aspect with which we are identified, we
can see ourselves and our lives from a different perspective. We become
more able to free ourselves from those aspects as we begin to disidentify
from them. As we do this, we are increasingly able to connect with our
"I"--a locus of identity that is not identified with any particular
content of consciousness, and which is a center of awareness and Will.
To loosen up or release blocks in entrenched, deeper level psychological
"infrastructure," thus facilitating and catalysing therapeutic work.
Within an intentional therapeutic context, psychological defenses and
structures are loosened and psycho-energetic blocks can be released. This
catalyses ongoing development by enabling previously inaccessible
unconscious material to enter into consciousness and be worked upon. The
amount of dose is directly related to the degree of loosening up of
psychological "infrastructure." This loosening is the reason that
experimentation with psychedelics can be psychologically destructive for
individuals whose sense of self is poor and fragmentary and who actually
need to maintain or build up their ego structure in order to function
In comparison, the more powerful "psychedelic" doses can open individuals
up to transpersonal and collective experiences--from the depths of
suffering and darkness to the heights of Love and Light. Occasionally,
intense spiritual experiences can be life-changing, in and of themselves,
due to the sheer power and authenticity of their numinosity. These
experiences can give the "big picture," indicating a much wider or deeper
"spiritual" context for the life events and personality structure of the
experiencing individual. However, the enormity of the experience can also
be a drawback. The content of an experience may be so far removed from the
everyday reality of the individual that it is next to impossible for them
to integrate and ground it in their ordinary life. This may result in the
experience being repressed or split off, or in the individual making a
rash decision to follow a seemingly "spiritual" path, while splitting off
from other more worldly aspects of their psyche. Either way, the result is
not integration, but splitting.
Potential benefits of psychedelic doses
To allow the bringing to consciousness and working through of deeply
unconscious psychological material held at bodily, bioenergetic or "soul"
levels. Powerful doses of psychedelics facilitate the release of
bodily-held tensions and energies, which can be worked through in the
experience itself when the setting is well- structured, safe and holding.
Any energetic or bodily tensions that do not work themselves through in
the course of the experience can be worked with and released with the aid
of focused bodywork techniques. This level of bioenergetic work is both
powerful and effective, but needs to be complemented with ongoing
emotional, mental and spiritual therapeutic work to integrate and deepen
any releases or insights. Work with powerful doses also opens us to "soul"
knowledge and perspectives (like "past life" experiences), in which we can
access understanding and experiences which do not come from to this
particular lifetime and which are held at much deeper and ordinarily
inaccessible levels of consciousness.
To facilitate the experience of other realities apart from everyday
"consensus reality," thus experientially validating the realities of the
realms of psyche and Spirit and their importance. With the appropriate set
and setting, the use of psychedelics as "sacraments" can be extremely
effective (hence the use of the term entheogen). Psychedelics enable
individuals to enter altered or non-ordinary states of consciousness which
transcend our everyday, consensual reality. For many individuals, the
experience of these states may be literally life-changing. The depth of
experience that one can access in altered states can alter forever one's
cognitive maps and worldview. This can be a profoundly important
experience, validating what may have previously only been theoretical
To connect with inner wisdom, the Inner Teacher, the voice of the Self,
and beyond this, the Divine Itself. One of the most profound elements of
this form of inner work is the connection we can make with a source of
inner wisdom and knowing--far beyond that of our ordinary everyday
awareness and knowledge. This experience can validate our theoretical and
conceptual beliefs about a deep inner self, soul, Inner Teacher or Self,
and, in some of the most profound experiences, can give us a direct
experience of the Universal Self, of the unmanifest face of God Itself, or
of the pregnant fullness of the Void. In this connection with the inner
wisdom, we get a sense of a co-operative venture between ourselves (in our
ordinary consciousness) and these "other," deeper inner aspects of our
essential being. There are times in psychedelic experiences when the
different roles of this partnership become clear. We experience our place
in the scheme of things. We see quite clearly how there is a profound
purpose to all that happens to us in our life, and that the source of this
is deep in the realms of Spirit. This results in an extraordinary inner
trust in the process of our life in general, and of the often intense and
difficult process of the psychedelic experience in particular.
Despite these important experiences, and the benefits and insights they
can bring, working with "psychedelic" doses is not about finding an easy
answer or a short-cut to enlightenment. They take us deep into ourselves
and throw light on our life journey. They show us what we most need to
see--whether our conscious everyday self wants to see it or not. The
experiences can be intensely painful and full of suffering, as often as
joyful and ecstatic. So those who are not willing or able to confront
their inner darkness should not be tempted to explore this route to self
knowledge. The truth can be a painful and difficult burden with which to
The value of support networks
Anyone consciously undertaking work on themselves with psychedelics needs
a strong enough sense of self to psychologically handle the depth and
power of the realms into which they are journeying. In the states of
consciousness accessible through psychedelics we can experience much that
is collective, rather than personal, and it is the nature of the process
that we temporarily identify with and take literally these aspects during
the experience. What is important, after the event, is to psychologise the
symbolic meaning of the experience. Whatever experiences we encounter will
always be relevant to us personally, no matter how cosmic or collective
the experience. "Objective" reality is always seen through the tinted lens
of our own subjective nature and conditioning.
An individual taking psychedelics may face extraordinary encounters and
identify with powerful energies, beings and images. This is why it is so
useful to have people around--like a therapist, partner, men/women's
group, spiritual guide or community--who can act as external points of
reference in relation to what can seem like overwhelming experiences. An
attitude of discrimination is important both during and after these
powerful inner experiences, lest we are swept away by their intensity and
seeming veracity. Participants may also return with what seem like
valuable insights and vital knowledge. However, the proof of the pudding,
as they say, is in the eating. What value do these experiences really
have? How are they integrated into the individual's life? This is the
purpose of integration and the role of Will.
Will, integration and action
Psychedelic experiences can result in a great increase in awareness--we
open ourselves up to receive from the unconscious--but this needs to be
balanced with some form of outer expression in terms of action. Too much
awareness can become a block to true self-expression and actually becomes
counter-productive. What does an individual do with all their insight and
awareness? How does it inform their actions in the world? In
psychosynthesis, this is the function of the Will. The Will is about
creating boundaries, accepting limitations and making choices--central
tasks in the process of actualising potentials and self expression. One of
the problems with psychedelics, though, is that they are so attractive to
some because they seem to offer everything, the All, without much effort.
But this attraction is illusory. A lifetime of experience, whether
psychedelic or not, does not necessarily lead to wisdom. It is what we do
with the experience that counts. For with increased consciousness comes
the responsibility for its expression. No matter how profound the insight,
or how numinous the experience, it needs to be lived in the context of our
own life journey.
It is easy to get caught up in the glorious pyrotechnics of psychedelic
experience, when the real work is in the grounding of these in the
interpersonal, relational task of living our lives--within our own
community of relationships and culture at this particular historical
moment. This is the role of praxis--putting into practice in our everyday
lives the insights and discoveries we gain through inner work--and this
calls for us to engage our Will in relation to our growth in
consciousness. In this process, a psychospiritual psychotherapist can be
of tremendous assistance. To have our process held, mirrored, challenged,
and witnessed by someone we can deeply trust can be an immeasurably
valuable part of the process of change and transformation.
The psychospiritual context challenges the view that life is some sort of
cosmic error or samsaric illusion, seeing instead that the complex and
multi-dimensional nature of reality is the vehicle via which we develop
and evolve through self-discovery and self-expression. Working
therapeutically within this context with psychedelics temporarily allows
us to go beyond the restrictions of everyday consciousness. In trusting
and letting go to this process, we connect with the natural and innate
healing mechanisms of the psyche, under the aegis of the Self. But
fundamental to this process is the Return. We must integrate and ground
the insights and consciousness we gain through these experiences in the
ongoing challenge of self-development and action in the world. This is
where work with psycholytic doses of psychedelics is of particular value.
Smaller doses bring to the surface psychological material that is more
easily integrated, and the step between where an individual is (in terms
of their psychospiritual development) and what arises is not so great.
Thus from a psychospiritual therapeutic context, work with regular
psycholytic doses, punctuated by an occasional psychedelic dose, seems
likely to offer the best outcome.
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- Psychosynthesis is an approach to understanding psychological and
spiritual development originally formulated by the Italian psychiatrist
Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974).
- The Triphasic Model has been developed by Joan Evans and Jarlath Benson
at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London. This model articulates the
developmental journey from the viewpoint of psychosynthesis--with three
stages (autistic/fusion, symbiotic and separation) at three major levels
(ego development, "I" emergence, and Self realisation).
Richard Spurgeon, M.A.