What are the different frameworks being employed by entheogenic guides? How are these
frameworks different from those used in the research of the 1960s? How do the variations
in present day frameworks appear to affect the outcome? Regardless of one's individual
assumption of the value of psychedelic work, it is happening in a variety of contexts
across the planet. This alone demands scholarly attention.
Sacred Work in a Secular World:
Guided, Structured, Group Use of Entheogenic Substances
This work was made possible in part by a Kranske Scholarship through the California
Insitute of Integral Studies (CIIS) and by a grant from MAPS. Marsden is working on a
dissertation for a Clinical Psychology doctorate on guided, structured group use of
entheogenic substances in western culture at the California Institute for Integral Studies.
His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am doing an inquiry into the structured, guided use of psychedelic or entheogenic
psychoactive substances in contemporary Western culture. This topic, while relatively
new and controversial in modern Western post-industrial society, is understood quite
differently in non-Western, pre-industrial societies. As Schultes and Hofmann state in
the preface of Plants of the Gods, "Plants that alter the normal functions of the mind and
body have always been considered by peoples in non-industrial societies as sacred, and
the hallucinogens have
been 'plants of the gods' par excellence."
The usefulness of entheogenic substances for personal exploration and development is
well documented in the anthropological and psychological literature up to the late 1960s.
The importance of this research follows from three points:
1. The positive indicators from the history of entheogenic research;
2. The development of new forms of structured group entheogenic work;
3. The lack of research focusing on the contemporary entheogenic experience.
When one examines the literature on psychedelic work of the past 30 years we could
easily argue some of the conclusions, but there is suggestive evidence that these
substances might be useful in psychotherapy, and more generally, as a tool for personal
exploration, development and/or healing. It is difficult to deny that there is something
worthy of further examination. Reports of therapeutic efficacy published by researchers
embracing the psycholytic and psychedelic paradigms indicate that a broad range of
disorders may be amenable to treatment with LSD. Over and over again both research and
anecdotal reports indicate a tool that may have wide applicability and effectiveness. Much
of the literature is based on clinical impressions rather than well controlled and
followed-up studies. This fact prompts many scientists to reject the findings without
understanding the factors that make controlled studies with LSD impractical and possibly
A new synthesis
My interest in this psychospiritual technology is an outgrowth of two broad observations:
1) the abundance of promising research from the 1960s; 2) more recent developments into
the use of these substances in the 1980s and 1990s. A new synthesis is emerging that
incorporates experiences from the 60s, shamanic traditions, transpersonal psychology,
and finally, the general ethos of the 90s. These are unique phenomena with far-reaching
implications that have barely been examined; primarily documented in popular specialty
magazines such as High Times, Shaman's Drum, The Resonance Project and Psychedelic
Illuminations. Furthermore, regardless of how we interpret it, the fact is that many people
are currently using these substances with psychospiritual exploration and development as
This research topic reflects 15 years of focus. I chose it because it interests me deeply
and because I feel that if not for the social and political filters through which this subject
is perceived it would, no doubt, be an invaluable tool for individual and collective
Regardless of one's individual assumption of the value of psychedelic work, it is
happening in a variety of contexts across the planet. This alone demands scholarly
attention. But because of its controversial nature, there is very little in the literature,
subsequent to the 1970s, that documents or explores this important work. It should be
noted that although there is a surprising wealth of literature from the 1960s and 1970s,
the way entheogens are being used in the 1990s represents, like most things, an evolution
from that time. These changes are represented in important writings of a theoretical,
philosophical, even political nature, but there is very little that expounds upon the
practical dimensions of psychospiritual development with entheogens. Even within the
time of my own research I have made an adjustment based on cultural shifts. In recent
years ayahuasca--an entheogen used primarily in Brazil--has begun to have a significant
influence in the United States. Consequently my last (of three) group of interviews is
focused on the use of ayahuasca in a guided, structured group setting.
One model of guided work with entheogens
The Secret Chief represents an important aspect of what I am interested in exploring. It
delves into the experience of one guide's model of entheogenic guided, structured
psychospiritual work. Reading The Secret Chief we begin to appreciate that references to
"psychedelic work" reflect a wider spectrum than what Stan Grof presented in LSD
Psychotherapy. This observation is made with the utmost of respect for Dr. Grof and the
fact that his work with its detailed descriptions was virtually the only well-known
western reference point for psychedelic therapy for the past 30 years.
As for the wide range of research that did occur, there are generally no comprehensive
qualitative descriptions of the experience of guides and subjects from preparation to
integration with follow-up. Secondly, as a reflection of the medical model orientation most
subjects are brought to the experience via some "pathology." As in The Secret Chief most
of the entheogenic work currently happening is in non-hospital/research settings with
subjects/clients who seek guidance for a wide array of life's challenges, similar to the
issues that bring people to seek a traditional psychotherapy experience. This is a focus on
"growth" rather than the medical model, or focus on pathology.
This is not to imply that one scenario is more interesting or important than the other, only
that the situation is different and both should be given the attention they deserve. Many of
the individuals seeking psychedelic therapy or group experiences are not necessarily
facing an extreme situation calling for an openness to an "extreme" response as with
cancer patients or the acutely addicted. This reflects a trend in the culture toward the
kind of experience that guided, structured entheogenic use provides. What I want to detail
is what that experience is, what brings people to it, and how it seems to move people in a
way that is as effective if not more effective for some people than other modes of
psychological and/or spiritual facilitation.
I am using a qualitative multiple case study method, built primarily around semi-
structured interviews with both participants and guides in three groups using entheogenic
substances in a guided, structured manner. The study is primarily descriptive. It is
particularly important to give attention to ethical issues pertaining to design such as
confidentiality. The history of sociology and psychology clearly shows the importance of
examining behaviors at the outer edges of society. Because this work is unsanctioned the
only way to ethically have access to its exploration is by carefully maintaining
confidentiality. Consequently, I have avoided maintaining identifying information for all
respondents. I followed an interview guide to make sure I eventually covered the desired
points. Those points included: preparation, setting, philosophical orientation of the guide,
what brought the clients to this work, format of the actual entheogenic session,
relationship of client and guide, relationship of client to other clients (in their own
unique ways each group evolved a sense of community), transpersonal and spiritual
experiences, role of "ego-death," training of the guide, individuation from the guide,
substance abuse history, etc.
Cause and effect?
Although I will not necessarily be establishing causal relationships, to offer an in-depth
description of this population would provide useful information, opening up questions for
follow-up research. It is impractical to look for causal relationships, as in the "effects" of
psychedelic experiences. One reason is that there are so many extrapharmacological
factors that contribute to the psychedelic experience and its consequences. Secondly, the
effects are inherently too broad to control or anticipate; "psychoactive substances do not
work as simple pharmacological agents, but instead mediate psychological experience
which in turn result in psychological changes" (Lukoff et al., 1990). These psychological
experiences are frequently manifestations of what was previously in the unconscious. In
fact, we might say that psychedelics are ingested for just that reason--to make conscious
that which was unconscious. There is a much broader intention than symptom alleviation,
which would be more amenable to experimental design (i.e., is the symptom alleviated or
To a certain degree, resolving cause and effect questions is either premature or even a
distraction from other important questions. For example, when we talk to people who are
actively involved in psychedelic work I expect to find a population that is quite diverse,
but shares certain characteristics, such as a common interest, concern and sensitivity
toward issues of ecology. Did the psychedelic work cultivate this orientation or does it
reflect a characteristic of people drawn to this work? I do not expect to resolve questions
like that in this research, but if I can confirm that there is indeed this focus on ecological
values, that in itself is significant and can be a basis for future research that asks cause
and effect questions.
a) What are the different frameworks being employed by entheogenic guides? Including:
physical structure, sequential structure, preparation, ritual, integration, guide's role
before, during and after session, etc. Or, what are the essential components of this work as
practiced by these groups?
b) How are these frameworks different from those used in the research of the 1960s? How
do these changes or adaptations seem to impact the effects? For example, what is the
meaning of the contemporary emphasis on group work? How have the relationship
dynamics between participants and guide changed?
c) How do the variations in present day frameworks appear to affect the outcome? In
particular, I am interested in how this work may impact participants' attitudes,
understandings, feelings, beliefs, etc. regarding: ecology, death, life values, mystical
awareness, and "casual" or non-"therapeutic" drug use.
The guides all employ an integration of western psychotherapeutic techniques combined
with an indigenous/shamanic orientation. The emphasis varies. In fact, one element that
distinguishes these models is the extent to which they are syntheses of familiar systems,
western and otherwise. In each of the three groups I interviewed four clients, who varied
considerably in age, career background and social background. They came to this work in a
variety of ways. Some were in personal crisis, possibly involving substance abuse. Some
had backgrounds that included severe abuse of some kind. Most had extensive experience
in other systems of psychological (psychotherapy) and/or spiritual work.
Although it is true that all subjects interviewed were chosen by the guide and so will
obviously reflect well upon the guide, there are several reasons that I feel their
descriptions are reflective of the groups they represent. There is not the space to go into a
detailed justification for this assessment here, but it includes the quality and consistency
of the reports, and the progress made by group members.
All interviewees showed a remarkable openness and enthusiasm for discussing and
describing their experiences. Virtually all felt that work with entheogens has been quite
important to their lives and that its relative inaccessibility for the culture at large is
Preparation and integration
If there is anything that this work has taught us relative to the psychedelic experiences of
the 1960s it is the absolutely fundamental role of preparation and integration. All three
guides and their clients take this extremely seriously. In fact, one could almost question
whether the form of the entheogenic session itself is all that important as long as certain
fundamental pieces are in place, or if they are more expressions of the style, experiences
and personality of the guide. This was one of the first questions that led me to this
research: to what extent does the variation in structure impact the results? Variation in
structure might include emphasis on music, use of external sensory deprivation
(blindfolds, etc.), extent of interpersonal relating during the session, and type of
substances used. This leads to a sub-question: to what extent does the medicine--versus
the set and setting--direct the experience for the participant? Asked differently: to what
extent do different entheogenic substances open up the same door allowing for the same
essential experience, possibly with trappings a bit different? This may be in contrast to
the way some substances are thought of (romanticized?) but it is consistent with the line
of thought that says "the medicine will take you where you need to go," an idea often
repeated in psychedelic circles.
The most interesting example of this question emerged when interviewing the third group,
which was focused primarily on ayahuasca as the central medicine. Most participants had
extensive experience with other more familiar medicines, primarily psilocybin, in guided
structured situations. They all seem to describe ayahuasca as more potent in some way,
taking them where the other experiences could not quite get to. Is this true of the
ayhuasca, or if the sequence was reversed would we be hearing something very similar
about the psilocybin? Of course, this is difficult to answer conclusively. We do not have
anything even approaching the opportunity for a double blind study with an appropriate
sample size. But we do have some interesting questions that we can pay attention to over
The client/guide relationship
Essential to preparation and integration is the relationship of the clients to the guide.
This can be a tricky matter when we consider that the usual issues of transference and
counter-transference are magnified as everything is magnified in the entheogenic
experience. This can put vulnerable clients at risk if a guide is not clear about his/her
boundaries and intentions (counter-transference). Of course, this work is not technically
psychotherapy and whether the ethical guidelines are exactly the same as for a licensed
psychotherapist or counselor is an important question that I will not go into further here.
This topic has been discussed in a previous issue of the MAPS Bulletin (Taylor, 1997).
One comment I will make though is that in the evolved profession of psychotherapy
virtually all of the responsibility is on the therapist to maintain these boundaries as he
or she is considered to be in the "power position." Although this point of view is accepted
as if it were a deeper cosmic truth, it is actually an outgrowth of a very unique and
particular system which may often be dis-empowering for clients. In any case, it is not
necessarily appropriate to generalize this imbalance of power and responsibility to all
systems of psychospiritual work.
Since there is so much confusion in our society regarding the use of substances, I used
this opportunity to explore whatever relationship there may be between the use of
entheogens and destructive use of substances like alcohol, cocaine, etc. I took a profile,
including history, of each interviewee's experience with substances.
I found that over one third had a history of serious drug use or abuse. Part of that group
actually came to psychedelic work partly to deal with this problem. The respondents were
quite consistent in their assessment of the relationship, reporting:
1) The notion that they could fall into an abusive relationship with entheogens seems
extremely remote, largely due to the lack of predictable or controllable enjoyment of the
entheogenic experience; the experience is as often as not quite difficult if not painful.
2) The insights--actually it is usually described as much more than insight, also as
catharsis and a significant sense of "working through"--they got into their personal
psychology (as it related to their addictive behavior) moves them away from their
Preliminary review of the data seems to point toward the following:
a) that there are different models of organized, structured psychedelic work;
b) that they all have a strong transpersonal element (sometimes connected to an
experience of ego dissolution/ego death), impacting the values/life attitudes of the
c) that substance abuse tends to be less of a problem in this population. There is a
sacralization of substances, often referred to as "the medicine." Furthermore any
participants who came in with drug "problems" seem to undergo positive changes in so far
as "outgrowing" the addiction. This outcome seems to be based on the much written about
theme of addictions as a reflection of an existential search for life meaning (Peele, 1975;
Grof & Grof, 1992). The intentional entheogenic experience is often conceptualized as
being about the individual's search for life meaning.
d) This sacred relationship with the medicine and psychedelic work can generalize to
other aspects of the client's life. In other words in a culture where there is a loss of
sacred meaning, interviewees report a new or deepened sense of the sacred for life in
general. Or, does this group of people reflect these attitudes before undertaking
Although the focus of this study will be on the last 30 years--even more particularly the
last 10 years--of structured, guided, non-recreational psychedelic use in western society
it may be useful to refer to ancient cultures and modern indigenous culture as well, since
the models for current use are partly an outgrowth of those other cultures. Furthermore
for so many of the people doing this work currently a great deal of the meaning stems from
the way in which the substances connect or re-connect them with important elements and
values of past cultures or modern indigenous cultures.
Finally, I am interested in critically evaluating the serious use of psychedelics by
individuals who choose to do it in structured, guided settings, especially at a time in our
society when there are such extensive problems stemming from drug use. It has long been
assumed by many that drug use leads to further drug use/abuse. I plan to look at
psychedelic exploration with the question of its relationship to abusive or addictive use
of other drugs. The point has been made that the lack of positive ritualized drug use in our
society, linked to the search for deeper meaning, is part of the cause for its destructive
use (Bravo & Grob, 1989).
Bravo G and Grob C, (1989). Shamans, Sacraments, and Psychiatrists. Journal of
Psychoactive Drugs, 21 (1) 123-127.
Grof, S (1994). LSD Psychotherapy: Exploring the Frontiers of the Human Mind, Hunter
Grof, C and Grof, S (1992). The Stormy Search For Self: A Guide to Personal Growth Through
Transformational Crisis, J.P. Tarcher.
Lukoff, Zanger, Lu (1990). Transpersonal Psychology Research Review. Psychoactive
Substances and Transpersonal States. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 22(4): 106-
Peele, S (1975). Love and Addiction, Signet.
Taylor, K (1997). Ethical caring in psychedelic work. MAPS Bulletin 7(3): 26-30.
Schultes and Hofmann (1979). Plants of the Gods, Origins of Hallucinogenic Use, Alfred
van der Marcked Editions.
Stolaroff, M (1997). The Secret Chief: Conversations With a Pioneer of the Psychedelic
Therapy Movement, MAPS.