“And suddenly I had an inkling of what it must feel like to be mad.”
(Aldous Huxley, Doors of perception)
In this essay I intend to discuss the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs in Western culture. I will not provide an extensive survey of such drugs, rather I will examine the medical and psychological benefits offered by some of these mind-altering hallucinogenic drugs, and will argue that under medical supervision Western drug-taking can be viewed as a form of shamanism.
It has to noted straight away that the notion of mind-altering drug is rather vague, especially in a Western context. What qualifies as such in a given culture might not in another. French Anthropologist Julien Bonhomme pinpoints that the Warao indians of Venezuela use tobacco for their shamanic transes, in a similar way to other shamanic cultures who use so-called 'more powerful hallucinogens' such as, say, ayahuesca. (Bonhomme, 2008) Of course Westerners do not really consider smoking tobacco as a shamanic process - rather as a bad addictive habit.
The whole problem of drug use in the West is that it is mainly viewed as recreational, and dangerous. This is not the case in traditional shamanic cultures. The shaman can use drugs for purposes like “healing, divination, protection, and finding game animals” (Winkelmann, 1999). The healing aspect of shamanism is something that can seem alien to allopathic Western medicine. Traditional shamanistic cultures have little or no sense of fun associated with drug-inebriation, whereas Western youths can be seen as seeking something 'far out' and subversive (Boaz, 1990).The question remains open, at any rate, as to whether a total ban on psychedelics can be seen as plain coercion that dismisses shamanic practices as irrational and dangerous. One possible answer to this charge would be to argue that the Western culture is not equipped for such mind-altering drugs. It emphasises dualisms and attaches great importance to individual ego, contrasting deeply with the holistic approach in shamanism. Clinging to one's ego has often been cited as the prime cause for 'bummer-trips' (Leary, 1964).
The 1960's saw four main approaches to the use of LSD. Albert Hofmann, who synthesized the LSD-25 molecule, argued that it should be used under strict medical supervision only because of its potential dangers (Hofmann, 1980). Aldous Huxley had a more elitist vision, arguing it had to be used in intellectual circles only and not be brought to the masses, because of its dangers and because he believed reform could only come from the higher spheres of society (Hofmann, 1980). Timothy Leary had a more open conception of the drug, organising supervised LSD sessions for personal development. Author Ken Kesey had the most liberal approach, simply giving it to anybody under little or no supervision. He believed that it was an amazing gift (Wolfe, 1968) that had be shared with everybody. Here we can draw a parallel between the social stratification in shamanic societies, where the shaman has the unique role of administrating the drug through rituals, and the Western social structure embodied by medical practitioners – in Hofmann's opinion - as the only ones competent for drug administration - Hofmann was indeed very critical of Leary's methods. (Hofmann, 1980)
In Hofmann's views LSD stands as a unique kind of drug because it specifically targets the human psyche: “It can be assumed, therefore, that LSD affects the highest control centres of the psychic and intellectual functions.” (Hofmann, 1980) Hence it has a high potential for altering the human mind and even for curing various forms of mental illnesses. Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert advanced several benefits in using psychedelic drugs for personal, inter-personal, aesthetic, or mystico-religious experiences. (Leary et al, 1964) But it was English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond - who coined the word “psychedelic” - who was the first to provide a theory on the treatment of mental illness with LSD. He believed that Western science laid too much emphasis on the necessity of understanding phenomena in a rational and scientific way, and was too often guilty of neglecting unorthodox medical possibilities on the grounds that we partially or did not understand the mechanisms behind the phenomena: “Our preoccupation with behaviour, because it is measurable, has led us to assume that what can be measured must be valuable and vice versa.”(Osmond, 1957) Osmond offers the following explanation to the West's obsession with Reason: “We prefer such rationalised explanations because they provide an illusory sense of predictability.” (Osmond, 1957) Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain also noted that psychedelic therapies were disregarded by the conservative mainstream psychiatrist: “They were appalled to learn that some psychotherapists were actually taking LSD with their patients. This was strictly taboo to the behaviorist, who refused to experiment on himself on the grounds that it would impair his ability to remain completely objective.” (Lee and Shlain, 1985) This too is part of the holistic approach we find in shamanism. The shaman usually takes the drug with the patient and is by no means attempting to objectify the experience. But because it breaches the patient-practitioner barrier, it is seen as an invalid scientific experiment.
Of course the psychedelic experience may be of great reward in terms of personal development, but it has also been used to cure some mental illnesses. Lee and Shlain have underlined Osmond's work for curing alcoholism – amongst other mental illnesses. Following their drug experiences Osmond's patients “often spoke of an LSD session as insightful and rewarding.” (Lee and Shlain, 1985) Such treatment produced “remarkable results”, as we shall see. (Lee and Shlain, 1985)
Lee and Shlain go on to describe the two most common LSD psychotherapies of the 1950's. One is “the "psycholytic" or "mind-loosening" approach [which] utilized low or moderate dosages of LSD […] The drug was said to speed up the process of psychoexploration by reducing the patient's defensiveness and facilitating the recollection of repressed memories and traumatic experiences.” (Lee an Shain, 1985) This method was used in psychoanalysis to encourage catharsis of the patient. The second method on the other hand involves high doses of LSD to spur total ego-loss and depersonalisation of the subject. “This approach was particularly effective in treating people who were emotionally blocked; they were able to cut through a lot of psychological red tape, so to speak, and get right to the heart of the matter.” The general idea is that is the patient is face to face with himself and the problem and is forced to sort it out (a good example is provided at the end of this essay).
D.B. Blewett and D. N. Chwelos have endorsed these views in their attempt to offer a practical guide for a therapeutic use of LSD: “The great value of LSD-25 lies in the fact that when the therapeutic situation is properly structured the patient can, and often does, within a period of hours, develop a level of self-understanding and self-acceptance which may surpass that of the average normal person.” (Blewett and Chwelos, 1959) Hence it can be even more efficient than a traditional parapsychiatric methods, where “the release of repressed or suppressed [memories] [...] is likely to offer but temporary relief” (Blewett and Chwelos, 1959) because it goes straight to the core of the problem. It is somewhat like spraying perfume on a bad smell as opposed to getting rid of what is causing the bad smell. This method was successfully used “on a wide range of diagnostic categories: juvenile delinquency, narcotics addiction, severe character neurosis.” (Lee and Shlain, 1985) In her reminiscence of LSD experiments she conducted on patients suffering from mental illnesses ranging from depression to borderline schizophrenia, Betty Grover Eisner writes that her patients conditions improved by 72%.(Eisner, 1958). One of her patients was an alcoholic who had been hospitalised 23 times as a result of drinking. Following LSD sessions and discussion with his therapists, the patient was never re-hospitalised and was even able to drink again. (Eisner, 1958)
Nona Coxhead can also provide us with an interesting though quite uncanny use of LSD, when citing the example of John Willmin, a former Baptist Minister who went on a supervised acid trip because he was undergoing a crisis of faith, which had ultimately led to a nervous breakdown. The outcome was a deeply insightful and mystical experience, which offered him new perspectives in life. His perception of the divine also shifted from an anthropomorphic God to one of “Isness” and “Ultimate Reality”, i.e. a mystic feeling of unity with the cosmos. As a result he realised that he could no longer be a preacher for the Church: “Religious dogma are puny and trivial.” (Coxhead, 1985) Bonhomme has showed that religions interpretations can be manifold and are partly correlated to the subject's culture. Trying to accommodate the learnings with dogmatic scriptures seems indeed a difficult task. (Bonhomme, 2001)
Of course the therapist has to be present all the time and be very knowledgeable about psychedelic experiences. He thus becomes a kind of “Western shaman”, in that he is the patient's guide into the “Other World”, a reassuring force that helps him “relax and go with the flow” (Lee and Shlain, 1985) and avoid the possible traps of fear and nausea. However the importance of set and setting cannot be underestimated. Leary et al, Blewet and Chwelos, Lee and Schlain all underlined the importance of being well prepared for this kind of experience. To quote Leary et al, “long?range set refers to the personal history, the enduring personality” while “immediate set refers to the expectations about the session itself.” Setting refers to the spacial environment in which the drug session takes place. It should be “removed from one's usual social and interpersonal games and [be] as free as possible from unforeseen distractions and intrusions.” (Leary et al, 1964) Virtually all scholars and writers have written about the potentially hellish experience it can turn into. Sandison, Spencer and Whitelaw, who conducted several psychiatric experiments with LSD in the 1950's, wrote: "We would stress that all our cases were in danger of becoming permanent mental invalids, lifelong neurotics or suicides." (Sandison et al, 1954)
Hence it can be advanced that while such experiments with LSD may well have been in some respects a form of shamanism, there are nonetheless significant risks related to psychedelic inebriation, which, as I suggested earlier, boil down to the cultural differences between Judeo-Christian Western culture and traditional shamanistic cultures, in particular in relation to the importance attached to ego and dualism. In his utopian fable Island, Aldous Huxley wrote: “Dualism... Without it there can hardly be good literature. With it, there most certainly can be no good life.” (Huxley, 1962) What he was suggesting was that Western philosophy crucially lacked holism.
I would now like to examine the case of ibogaine. It is a psychoactive substance that can be found in in iboga, a sacred root used in various rituals such as divination, witchcraft, and initiation (Bonhomme, 2008). In 1984 Howard Lotsof, who at the time was addicted to heroin, tried ibogaine and found out, when he came down, that his addiction had vanished. Following his ingestion, Lotsof lobbied for seven years the National Institute on Drug Abuse to examine medical research on ibogaine (De Loen, 2004).
Ben De Loen's documentary provides many – often moving – accounts of former heroin and cocaine addicts who were radically cured without experiencing the usual withdrawal side-effects. Clinics in Amsterdam provide treatment in which the patient is given ibogaine under strict medical supervision. A doctor regularly checks on her and makes sure the patient's trip is a safe one. (De Loen, 2004) Interestingly, in witchcraft rituals in Gabon such as the Bwete Misoko, a mirror is placed in front of the patient in order to symbolically face her inner self and sort things out: “[the patient] agrees to be initiated to the Bwete Misoko by eating the vision-inducing iboga roots to see for herself the origins of her misfortune and to find a cure for it.”(Bonhomme, 2008)
Here it should be stressed that like all psychedelic drugs, ibogaine is not the curing element as such, rather a channel for the patient's recovery: “ibogaine is like a door you open, but there's a vacuum (the addiction) trying to suck you back in.” (De Loen, 2004) She therefore needs to have the necessary will-power to find the way out of her addiction – hence the use of the mirror in the Bwete Misoko. Philosopher Sheridan Hough reminds us that the effect of a drug does not depend solely on the drug itself, but is also subject to psychological (set and setting) and cultural influences (Hough, 1994) and argues that this alone makes it difficult “to reliably pick-out a “drug-sensation” as such”(Hough, 1994) We must therefore take care, upon trying to analyse the so-called 'effects' of a mind-altering drug, not to forget the holistic dimension of drug inebriation: biological, psychological, sociological and cultural aspects intertwine (Bonhomme, 2001). Trying to consider such and such drug as a medication for such and such disease can be in Bonhomme's views akin to ethnocentricism, in that “we are trying to determine whether it is true medication (or drug or poison), i.e. medication in the sense that we [Westerners] define it. This also points to the non-Western shamanic drug ritual as a 'total social fact', to use Marcel Mauss's concept (Mauss, 1923), and not simply related to the medical sphere drug inebriation has to be placed in a larger context of political, medical and religious institutions.
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