What do Alien Abduction and Psychedelic Experiences have in Common? Let Dr. John E. Mack’s Work Explain

By Michelle Janikian

The story of the Harvard psychiatrist who wanted to believe – and ended up introducing the entire culture to the possibility of transpersonal experiences

“At their core Carlos’s encounters have brought about a profound spiritual opening, bringing him in contact with a divine light or energy, what he calls “Home,” which is the source of his personal healing and transformational powers. In our sessions, when he comes close to this light he becomes overwhelmed with emotions of awe and a longing to merge with the energy/light/being. Space and time dissolve, and he experiences himself as pure energy and light or consciousness in an endlessness of eternity, ‘a pure soul experience . . . I go back to the source because I’m not just human. I need to go back to the source in order to continue.’ Carlos, like so many abductees, has developed an acute ecological consciousness. He is deeply concerned with the earth and its fate. The question of whether this is an unintended by-product of a process that he, no more than any of us, can fathom, or is an integral part of the alien phenomenon, cannot, of course, be answered. Carlos clearly believes that the aliens, however awkward, or even brutal, their methods, are trying to arrest our destructive behavior.”

-Dr. John E. Mack, M.D.

Abductions: Human Encounters with Aliens (1994)

Until many lines in, to us in the psychedelic community, the passage above reads exactly like insights from a psychedelic-assisted therapy or integration session. But to my surprise in my recent alien abduction reading, this was work being processed with abductees – or “experiencers” as they preferred to be called – by pioneering psychiatrist, John E. Mack, in the 1990s. Mack wasn’t only the Head of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, but also the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence (his 1977 biography of “Lawrence of Arabia” ), and a fearless anti-war activist as well.

“John had always been so well regarded,” his former research associate and girlfriend Dominique Callimanopulos tells Psychedelics Today. “He was such a wunderkind in circles, such a bright light and leader in his field, and well known for his clinical perceptiveness and precision.”

So how does a Harvard psychiatrist get into the fringe world of alien abductions? It probably won’t surprise our readers that the story has its roots at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. According to NY Times journalist Ralph Blumenthal’s upcoming biography on Mack, The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack (scheduled to come out in March 2021 on University of New Mexico Press), in 1987, Mack attended the “Frontiers of Health” conference at Esalen in which Stanislav Grof spoke about transpersonal psychology and hosted an unplanned Holotropic breathwork session for the group. It was Mack’s first time trying the consciousness-altering form of breathwork and he had a profound experience relating to the death of his mother when he was only nine months old, as well as his first truly transpersonal experience.

Mack continued his exploration and training with breathwork, and according to Blumenthal’s book, by 1989, he had become a “regular” participant in Grof’s breathwork modules. Elizabeth Gibson, co-founder of Dreamshadow Transpersonal Breathwork and co-author (with Mack and Grof) of the 2003 article, “Reflections on Breathwork and Alien Encounter Experiences,” remembers Mack’s involvement in the Grof breathwork group. On a Zoom call, she recalls that Mack was a facilitator at the first Holotropic breathwork session she had ever participated in, one of the “big weekend workshops” Stan and Christina Grof used to host. “There must have been 130, 140 people there that weekend,” Gibson recalls, “and John Mack was on the team with them [to help facilitate] and he brought with him a lot of the psychiatric residents that were then in training with him at Cambridge hospital.” Similarly, Callimanopulos recalls that Mack was part of a Grof breathwork “pod” that would meet a few times a year in different parts of the world for two weeks at a time. “That was a very strong bonding experience for all the people in his pod,” she says.

It turns out that Grof not only introduced Mack to breathwork and transpersonal experiences, but to the alien abduction phenomenon as well. In March 1988, at a breathwork training module at Pocket Ranch in California, Grof gave Mack a chapter on alien abductions from his and Christina’s upcoming anthology, Spiritual Emergence: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis (1989). “I have no idea why Stan thought I would be particularly interested in that subject,” Mack wrote in 2003. “I read the chapter with much interest, although I kept asking myself, ‘But is it true?’ Were people really being contacted by humanoid beings or the like?” Later in the same article, Mack wrote, “Through Breathwork I became open to the fact that the universe might be full of entities, which we call spirits, gods, archetypes, angels, mythic beings or whatever. The humanoids encountered by abduction experiencers seem to be one such type of being.”

Soon after the March ‘88 breathwork module, Mack was introduced to New York artist and famous alien experiencer and researcher, Budd Hopkins, who then introduced him to a whole network of abductees through a support group Hopkins was running. Unlike other mental health care professionals these folks may have seen, Mack had a much more empathetic approach. Instead of disbelieving what these people claimed to have experienced because he couldn’t prove it was true, Mack just held space for these folks to process their abductions, much like one would do for any other type of non-ordinary state of consciousness, like a near-death, psychedelic, or mystical experience.

“I think that was one of the big gifts he brought to this community of people he was working with. He never questioned whether their stories were true. He just accepted that people were having these experiences and tried to support them and give them a safe place where they could express what they were going through without fear of being judged. And that was huge for people,” says Gibson.

Mack helped abductees tremendously through this approach to their trauma by helping them “integrate” this reality-shattering experience, and at the same time, he started to find some undeniable common threads among their stories, which he writes about extensively in his two books on the subject, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1994) and Passport to the Cosmos (1999). For example, the alien beings typically communicate with people telepathically and transmit profound messages through their big, dark eyes. Aliens also seem to alter people’s consciousness during their abduction experiences and even their “vibrations,” which then permits the aliens to move humans through the air and even through solid objects like the walls of their homes. What was also reliably consistent from experiencer to experiencer was a traumatizing loss of control of their bodies, incredibly invasive medical procedures, and even forced sexual contact and impregnation, which was often communicated to experiencers as an essential part of an alien-human hybrid program, and the future of both of their species.

Now, I know this all sounds a little X-Files-y (and according to Blumenthal in The Believer, Chris Carter (the TV show’s creator) even called Mack to pick his brain when he was developing the iconic series), but for the actual experiencers, this was deeply traumatizing. Budd Hopkins, for example, found the abductions to be incredibly demoralizing and felt it was a deep violation of trust and power by the alien beings, and that’s how he framed his support group for abductees- as one of victims processing trauma.

However, when Mack worked with experiencers, he used his recent training as a Holotropic breathwork facilitator to “hold space” for folks to integrate the non-ordinary state and to help it reach some kind of conclusion, which often lead to spiritual transformation. “As our work deepens, especially as the reality of the alien intelligence is acknowledged and the abductees come to accept their lack of control of the process, the frightening and adversarial quality of the relation seems to give way to a more reciprocal one in which useful human-alien communication can take place and mutual benefit is derived,” writes Mack in Abduction. “For example, the abductees [who] felt bitterly resentful about having their sperm and eggs used by the aliens in the hybridization project, may come to feel that they are participating in a process that has value for the creation and evolution of life.”

What Mack understood is that folks were processing experiences that completely shattered their worldview, similar to having one’s idea of reality flipped on its head after a strong psychedelic experience. How were folks supposed to get back to their regular lives after communicating with aliens telepathically and being shown we’re not the only intelligent life in the universe? “The terror is not just the terror of being paralyzed, having your body taken and having things done to you, the terror is the terror of the expansion of consciousness,” Mack said at a seminar on “Affect” in June 1992. He goes on to explain that is it a type of “ontological shock” that attacks people’s sense of their material reality- as it has attacked his own. And in his opinion, that’s what really needed to be integrated, not only by the abductees themselves, but by society, because that’s what really shocks people- that there’s more out there than we perceive on a daily basis.

In fact, his theories on the existence of aliens greatly differed from many of his UFO-hunting counterparts. Through his work with abductees and transpersonal realms of consciousness, he came to believe that aliens exist, but not in this physical dimension that we humans know as reality. He started to theorize about other realms of existence, or spiritual dimensions, where entities and intelligence like the alien “Grays” could exist, possibly less embodied but more conscious than us. And perhaps, the alien abduction phenomenon exemplified the most damning occurrence in the “Western dualistic worldview” as he often called it- that there are intelligent beings who are, at will, able to travel between dimensions and enter our material reality from their spirit realm.

“In short, I was dealing with a phenomenon that I felt could not be explained psychiatrically, yet was simply not possible within the framework of the Western scientific worldview,” Mack writes in Abduction. “My choices then were either to stretch and twist psychology beyond reasonable limits, overlooking aspects of the phenomenon that could not be explained psychologically… Or, I might open to the possibility that our consensus framework of reality is too limited and that a phenomenon such as this cannot be explained within its ontological parameters. In other words, a new scientific paradigm might be necessary in order to understand what was going on.”

While deep in this research, my next question was: how significant were Mack’s psychedelic experiences to this openness to the possible existence of aliens, in this reality or another? Because for me, as a person who’s not particularly spiritual or religious and also grew up with a Western idea of what’s “real,” it wasn’t until my psychedelic experiences began lifting the veil that I started opening up to the possibility of spirit realms, plant intelligence, and now, the existence of aliens in some dimension. Mack admits in Passport to the Cosmos that his own experiences of “a transcendent reality” influenced his evolution of thought, in addition to his decade of working with experiencers and all the data they supplied him with.

In The Believer, Blumenthal also reports that Mack was experimenting with some psychedelics with his Grof group and other close friends. He talks of MDMA, LSD, ayahuasca, and ketamine trips, in addition to Holotropic breathwork. Mack also had correspondences with psychedelic philosophers and researchers doing adjacent work, like Terence McKenna and Rick Strassman. There’s a 1992 video of McKenna interviewing Mack at the International Transpersonal Conference in Prague and multiple references to McKenna’s work and the conversations the two of them had in transcripts and correspondences of Mack’s, which the John E. Mack Institute provided for me while I was researching this piece.

When Mack started theorizing about the purpose of the alien’s visits in his writing- that perhaps they were sent by some greater creative intelligence or “Anima mundi” to expand human consciousness and help us not only evolve (or co-evolve), but also help us understand we are all intricately connected and need to take better care of our most precious gift, the planet earth – it sounds a lot like the insights from a strong psychedelic experience, or a talk from Terence McKenna at the time. At another Affect Seminar in July 1992, Mack referenced a McKenna quote, “that even God has limits”, in which Mack took to mean, “There is a point when one species seems to have carried the experiment too far in certain directions, then there is a cosmic correction occurring of a sort. And many of the abductees actually experience that powerfully, that this phenomenon involves some kind of balancing that is going on.”

Mack continues this line of thought in other talks and later writings- that perhaps the Anima mundi thinks we’re getting too destructive and it sent the aliens here to help us correct our ways. While I was in a deep reading of these ideas 20 years later, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps in 2020, that same intelligence thought psilocybin mushrooms may be a more successful plan to help evolve the human mind to realize its vital connection to all things. It’s a very common psychedelic insight (especially on mushrooms or ayahuasca) to feel a deep, spiritual connection to everything and to return with a great sense of urgency to help save our ailing planet. Could these messages all be coming from the same “source”?

Or, was Mack inserting his own spiritual and environmental bias onto his clients?  “My own impression, gained from what abductees have told me, is that consciousness expansion and personal transformation is a basic aspect of the abduction phenomenon,” Mack wrote in Abduction. “I have come to this conclusion from noting in case after case the extent to which the information communicated by alien beings to experiencers is fundamentally about the need for a change in human consciousness and our relationship to the earth and one another. Even the helplessness and loss or surrender of control which are, at least initially, forced upon the abductees by the aliens—one of the most traumatic aspects of the experiences—seem to be in some way “designed” to bring about a kind of ego death from which spiritual growth and the expansion of consciousness may follow. But my focus upon growth and transformation might reflect a bias of mine.” 

Are the aliens trying to expand human consciousness so we can live more harmoniously with the rest of the galaxy, save our own home planet, and become more in touch with a spiritual dimension? Or was Mack letting his own consciousness expansion leak into his work and influence it too strongly? “We would fight about it sometimes,” Callimanopulos recalls. She explains that Mack was accused of leading people to believe their experiences were spiritual in nature, and she also believed it had become his bias. Coming from an anthropological background, she “felt he should hold back more and be more neutral. Let people struggle to define their experience more.”

Yet, Callimanopulos also says that she often felt Mack was being very appropriate, and she describes how powerfully real people’s emotions were when they began to recall and process their abduction experiences. “He started this work because people were hurting,” Callimanopulos says. She also drives home that Mack possessed an incredible intellect and was always drawn to life’s mysteries. “John always tried to address the big questions in life, like what’s life about? How does it all work? What are we doing here? What’s our identity?”

After Abduction came out, Mack supported his theories – that aliens exist, but perhaps not in this physical dimension, and they’re here to expand and transform human consciousness for a higher intelligence’s purpose – on all the mainstream outlets of the time, including Oprah and Charlie Rose. But after a few damning articles in Time Magazine and the New York Times that questioned Mack’s practices, Harvard began a long and trying inquiry into the standards of his work. For instance, part of how Mack worked with abductees to help them remember and process their experiences was a relaxing form of hypnosis. But could that just be opening the door for false memories or confusing nocturnal dreams with reality? Mack defended his practice and truly felt that a non-ordinary state of consciousness like an alien abduction needed a similarly altered state to help the integration process, but to others, its necessity was less clear. There were other discrepancies that Harvard looked into as well, like how he billed insurance and charged abductees, and whether they were formally clients or research subjects.

Mack survived the Harvard inquiry tenure intact, but the emotional toll it must have taken on him is only for us to wonder. “He was very used to being well regarded and well-liked. It came as a big shock to him that people- his close colleagues, turned against him,” Callimanopulos says. “I think it was also harsh for John because he was a very collaborative, empathic person who enjoyed relationships more than anything else in life and sought out that harmony- that comfort and adulation from colleagues. So I think it was really tough.”

However, he continued the work with abductees, releasing his second and more openly spiritual book on the phenomena, Passport to the Cosmos, in 1999. Then, he also began a professional interest in the survival of consciousness after death, until his own tragic passing in 2004. When Mack was in England for a conference, he was hit by a car after looking the wrong way while trying to cross the road in London. It was a shock to the abductee community and all who knew him. He was 74 years old.

I can’t help but wonder if Mack’s ideas would be more easily accepted today in a world that’s decriminalizing magic mushrooms, pumping out psychedelic doses of ketamine to depressed patients, and scientifically quantifying the significance of mystical experiences in psychedelics’ usefulness for treating mental health conditions. During a time when more people are taking mushrooms and ayahuasca than ever before and coming to very similar insights as Mack’s abductees, would we be more receptive to his ideas of aliens expanding human consciousness in order to enlighten and transform our species, so that we can save ourselves from ourselves?

In 1999, he wrote in Passports to the Cosmos: “We seem to be experiencing now in the United States, and more or less throughout Western culture, a kind of spiritual renaissance. It reflects a deep hunger for something missing in the lives of many people, a sense, however vague, that there are other realms from which they feel cut off, and a growing realization that many of the catastrophic events of this century now ending have derived from radical secularism and spiritual emptiness.” Perhaps Mack himself was part of the cosmic correction, opening the mainstream’s mind to a whole world of transpersonal possibilities. “He was a big catalyst for the whole conversation being in the mainstream,” says Callimanopulos. “Maybe if he lived longer, he might have gone on to do a little more mapping of those different dimensions.”


About the Author

Michelle Janikian is a journalist focused on drug policy, trends, and education. She’s the author of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion: An Informative, Easy-to-Use Guide to Understanding Magic Mushrooms – From Tips and Trips to Microdosing and Psychedelic Therapy, and her work has also been featured in Playboy, DoubleBlind Mag, High TimesRolling Stone and Teen Vogue. One of her core beliefs is that ending the prohibition of drugs can greatly benefit society, as long as we have harm reduction education to accompany it. Find out more on her website: www.michellejanikian.com or on Instagram @michelle.janikian.

Uniform Model Law on Plants and Fungi Medicines: A Better Path to Reregulation

Uniform Model Law on Plants and Fungi Medicines: A Better Path to Reregulation

By Gary Michael Smith Esq.

Wittingly or not, pharmaceutical companies are clearing the path to the next populist revolution in traditional psychoactive plant and fungi medicines. Although still on the horizon, reregulation is fait accompli. As decriminalization and rescheduling of plant and fungi medicines advances, the inability to drive product costs suitably down will fuel the existing black market. Illicit users exist and more will join their ranks as pharmaceutical companies create a customer base. While new understanding of these ancient medicines disseminates, the public will learn that plant and fungi medicine is significantly less expensive to forage or cultivate at home than clinics or pharmacies could ever offer.  

Pharmaceutical Companies Are Protecting Their Interest with Patents, and the FDA Will Impose Limits on End-Users

Pharmaceutical companies are doing necessary and helpful work, leading the way with regulators. But their reign will not last. It is inevitable that a populist preference to procure psychedelics per penny will prevail. Profiteers have a problem: price.

Consider the effect on price caused by:

  • Federal law’s support of patent “monopoly.”
  • Health insurance’s slow adoption of psychedelics.
  • Investor need to recoup investments in years of research and promotion.
  • Investor hunger for profits.
  • Novelty, as the world awakens with fascination to something old as something new.

To recoup the tens-to-hundreds of millions of dollars invested in securing FDA approval and related patents, and then the expense of thereafter marketing their wares for a profit, the corporate owners of these future FDA-approved psychedelics are not acting out of principled charity or for the goodwill of all humankind. They are going to make their money, either in the pricing of the medicine or in the coupling of it to clinical services. At least in the early years, as the owners of these patents and FDA approvals try best to figure out how to market their products, it seems the inevitable price per dose will be multi-hundred dollars. Even if the price gets down to tens of dollars, nature remains tough competition- nature’s price tag of “free” is a tough price to beat.  

Pharmaceutical Companies Are Not the Problem— But They Are Its Origin

This not a rant against pharmaceutical companies, capitalism, or therapeutic services. It’s far from such, and each plays a necessary and vital role in this story. Without pharmaceutical company efforts, there would be no story. This is simply an observation that plant and fungi medicines are nothing more than unrefined nature, metaphorically and literally as cheap as dirt. With simplicity of that sort as competition, pharmaceutical companies are going to have a tough time keeping the genie in their “bottle of exclusivity.” This is not the circumstance where a retort of, “If you don’t like our prices, try to manufacture your own ibuprofen” ends the conversation. With psychoactive plants, if you do not like industrial prices, you can easily forage or home grow for pennies or free.

FDA Approval Means Islands of Privilege and a Festering Public Resentment

Here is the rub: future customers who may initially believe it acceptable to pay high prices for psilocybin or other natural therapeutic psychoactives will be the second group to bear resentment.

The people who cannot afford to partake are the first to be left out.  

The western industrial medical model is unintentionally in the midst of creating a psychedelic privileged class. If you cannot afford FDA-approved medicine, you will be left out. And if you try to partake like the wealthy people who can pay Gwyneth Paltrow prices, you will be branded a criminal. The difference? Pay your “tithing” to a corporation, and you will be alright. Do not pay? Well, tough luck on you, felon.

Who dares tell those who can’t afford this ancient “new” medicine not to turn to alternative sources, after science and corporate America confirm these plants and fungi are effective and healthy? Who dares blame those who correctly observe that contemporary science confirmation and corporate blessings do not themselves literally turn something old into something new? The fact that a corporate board finally figured out how to squeeze a nickel, or a politician found courage through campaign donations is not going to wipe out thousands of years of well-documented natural medicines and their effects.

Shareholders telling the public not to access nature, while slapping nature’s bounty with big price tags, is not going to sit well. The public will not long tolerate pharmaceutical companies touting the “added value” their little tweaks, concentrates, or clever packaging and marketing may bring. The public will inevitably learn that science did not give us psychedelics. Rather, science, in the name of politics, merely confirmed what thousands of years of human history have already well documented. The use of certain psychoactive plants and fungi to treat anxiety and depression is no more a credit-worthy invention than Columbus accidentally running into North America, and like a continent, thousands of years of history were not waiting for a contemporary politician’s approval to justify its existence.

Resentment over artificial financial barriers will satiate itself in a black market and home cultivation. The more pharmaceutical companies raise awareness, insisting compounds like psilocybin treat depression and anxiety, the more the public will want affordable access. Profiteering pharmaceutical companies are making a case against their own long-term interests. As modern cannabis has taught us, much like every vegetable at the supermarket, product price is a race to the bottom, and the vendor with the lowest price wins. Mother Nature, with her pesky ability to self-generate, and with a price tag of “free,” poses eternal and tough competition.    

Psychedelics-and-the-Shadow

State Legislatures Could Be the Solution (But Won’t)

As federally approved plant and fungi medicines make inroads, there will be market-driven increase in illicit use- illicit being “illegal,” only because our current laws deem it so. Knowing this, the logical thing would be for legislatures to act and get ahead of what will become a problem. Make no mistake, it is coming. But most legislatures are too frightened of change, and psychedelics, for too many, represent radical change.  

The political familiar is not the noble lion. It is the chicken, and rather than face their fears (and in so doing, master them), legislatures opt to ignore and pretend it will all just go away. My home state of Arizona is such a place. Three times, the citizens of Arizona passed pro-marijuana laws by public initiative. This election, a successful citizen initiative made Arizona the 13th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Although invited multiple times to craft laws, Arizona’s legislature took no action, forcing the citizens to do so for themselves.

A Better Solution— Introducing the Public Initiative

No one expects self-initiated reform from the federal government or from agencies like the FDA and DEA. One need only look to cannabis’ experiences these many decades. But one-by-one, citizens of certain states and cities are changing their local laws through a direct democratic process known as public initiative.

Public initiatives are citizen-initiated and citizen-driven proposals for new state laws or state constitutional amendments (sorry, there is no such thing as a federal public initiative). If enough citizen signatures are collected to qualify an initiative to be on the ballot, the initiative is added to the ballot and citizens vote on whether to adopt the initiative as new state or city law. For example, in November 2020, a few plant and fungi medicine citizen initiatives went to ballot, including Oregon’s psilocybin initiative, Measure 109, Arizona’s recreational cannabis initiative, Smart & Safe Arizona, and District of Columbia’s Initiative 81. All were successful- a historic first in U.S. history.

Even though state initiatives do not change federal law, changes in state law take off some pressure, reduce individual criminal entanglements, and allow for experimentation of policy reform. Plus, public initiatives garner the attention of other states and the federal government, thereby advancing the dialogue of reform.

Citizens of states with no public initiative laws are in a tougher place. They must resort to lobbying and campaigning for office to make these changes. But maybe those of us in states with public initiative laws can help at home. Plus, there is no reason a uniform model plant and fungi medicine act could not similarly be adopted by state legislatures. After all, the goal of a public initiative is to create laws upon which a majority of citizens agree. Any well-worded initiative good enough for a public vote could as easily be adopted inside a legislature.

Do Not Move a Mountain One Pebble at a Time

Although an initiative’s success at the ballot box is important, the progress it brings is slow, local, and piecemeal. There is a better way. Citizens can join forces and campaign with a uniform initiative that could be introduced simultaneously in multiple states and flip the country in one election.

Unfortunately, fewer than half the states allow initiatives. But citizens of the following states could campaign for a uniform statutory plant and fungi medicine initiative in the next general election: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington. Or, citizens of these states could join to propose uniform state constitutional amendments protecting citizen rights to plant and fungi medicine: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Dakota.

As seen with cannabis, successful initiatives sometimes have a domino effect. There is every reason to believe that neighboring states will take notice. A well-regulated legal environment is apt to serve as the national model, and success invites imitation. Strong currents in law and politics favor uniform laws. They make commerce and predictability more reliable across jurisdictions. The unanimous adoption of the Uniform Commercial Code is emblematic.  

Strength in Numbers

Imagine the buying power of shared campaign costs across ten or more states. Imagine the impact on national public awareness with campaigns running simultaneously in multiple states, educating the public about plant and fungi medicine reform. Imagine the favorability a well-crafted initiative will receive, if citizens across the country know they are not alone in considering change. A multi-state public initiative can attract and focus investment dollars from every national (and local) group with a stake in serious drug policy reform. In lieu of small and local, perhaps a national campaign will attract national dollars and national support from national drug policy, mental health, civil liberty, and similar reform organizations.

Why Do It?

Plant and fungi medicines have been part of global civilization for millennia. The more than 17 million citizens whom NIMH says suffer depression want a change. The millions in hospice filled with anxiety at the end of their lives want options to allow them to be more present and aware as they consciously live their final days. The 10 to 20 percent of U.S. veterans whom the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates suffer from PTSD deserve better treatment options. Or how about those afflicted with the impacts of the pandemic and forced isolation?

As results of the 2020 election suggest, there has never been a better time than now to push for impactful reform. A uniform initiative can succeed if it is thoughtful about cost and access, is patient-focused, is respectful of privacy, is driven by science, promotes responsible access and responsible use, and looks upon plant and fungi medicine as a health and spiritual issue instead of a criminal issue.

Remember there is no such thing as perfect law, and there is always someone ready to complain. Doomsayers can be placated with the inclusion of terms to address child safety, impaired driving, tax allocation, etc. A well-crafted uniform model plant and fungi medicine act can and should deal with the good and the bad upfront. A well-crafted uniform plant and fungi medicine initiative can curry favor amongst millions of citizens and be implemented in multiple states in a single election cycle. Swaths of the nation can tune in and turn on together, while implementing sound and measured policy that can start to erase the damage of the last 50 years of oppression and societal harms brought about by the Controlled Substances Act and the war on drugs.  


 

About the Author

Gary Michael Smith is an attorney, arbitrator and founding member of Phoenix-based Guidant Law Firm. He is also the author of Psychedelica Lex, the preeminent legal manual for individuals and organizations with a vested or growing interest in psychedelics and entheogens, as well as a founding director and current president of the Arizona Cannabis Bar Association, board member of the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, and contributing author to Green Entrepreneur.

Psychedelic Guide Abuse: High-Control Group Dynamics and Complicity in the Perpetuation of Harm

By Michelle Anne Hobart, MA, SEC, AMFT

If we do not face the issue of medicine guide abuse with as much courage as the psychonaut faces the edges of reality and their own healing process, we would be missing an important opportunity to do the necessary work at hand for us in this realm. When else would we confront the Shadow so greatly as this past year, when fascism, a global pandemic, and ecological demise were no longer on the horizon in post-apocalyptic visions, but were instead upon us? As we begin to heal and recover from the last four years and detox from the underlying structures of oppression at the core, we realize all that is at stake. 

The longing to be more connected and the need to create order out of the chaos of conflicting narratives combined with the simultaneous upsurge in fear of the virus, hate crimes, and political unrest, has created a swirl of catalytic enzymes with everything needed to activate a new wave of high-demand groups. In everything from the alt-right to the psychedelic underground, we see manifestations of high-control group dynamics, including charismatic leaders, propaganda, brainwashing, and the gaslighting of anyone with an opposing voice. Adding in the complexity of non-ordinary states with the accompanying loss of sense of self and agency, dissolving boundaries, and susceptibility, we have found ourselves deep in the psychedelic Shadow.

The current zeitgeist calls for a level of inquiry, openness, and capacity to withstand critique, without fear of losing the whole endeavor. We have an opportunity to refine, make the work more potent, and have more integrity and efficacy. This is the charge we have received: to name the ways that misuse of power in the guide/journeyer relationship manifests in traumatic consequences, to take actions to prevent future abuse, and help people heal from past abuse. 

This article will explore the types of high-control group dynamics that perpetuate and amplify psychedelic guide abuse, dispel myths, and offer a healing path forward on individual and collective levels.

Demystifying High-Control Group Dynamics

I wrote this piece to better understand and to share about the dynamics that set into motion a cascade of loss of agency, loss of identity, and the inability to speak up and out against problematic behavior. We can understand it on a micro-level within families, and a macro-level with what we, as a country, are coming out of from the last four years. All of us, especially the most vulnerable, have been affected by blatant narcissistic abuse.

High-control groups (HCGs) are defined by the areas that are being controlled and by diminishing the will of the individual, while the affected person actually is manipulated into believing what’s happening is in their best interest. Or, in some cases, the perceived value of the cause outweighs personal needs, and their intuition and ethical compass can become faulty. 

Steve Hassan’s BITE Model (Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, and Emotional control) is an entry point to begin to see the underlying infrastructure of HCGs. When we combine Hassan’s BITE model with data from Yale’s 1962 Milgram Obedience to Authority Study, Palo Alto High School’s 1967 Wave Experiment, and Phillip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, we begin to see how these forms of control and manipulation have great potency to influence the thoughts, words, and deeds of others in group dynamics.

In his book, Practice And All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, And Healing In Yoga And Beyond (Embodied Wisdom, 2019), Matthew Remski explores self-care and recovery while unpacking these dynamics, and cautions us to have discernment. The book’s final section includes a workbook for “better practices and safer spaces.” Janja Lalich and Madeline Tobias’ book, Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships (Bay Tree, 1994), is a comprehensive reference on cultic mechanisms, paths to recovery, and therapeutic concerns. Its appendix, “Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups,” written by Lalich and Michael Langone, is a useful analytical tool to discover if the group you or a loved one is in displays such features.

Lalich wrote another book with Karla McLaren called Escaping Utopia (Routledge, 2017), in which they share “the stories of 65 people from 39 different cults in more than a dozen countries.” On her website (which features her very helpful “Systems of Influence” checklist, McLaren talks about a common occurrence that happens to people:

When powerful systems of influence are active, people may lose their sense of self, their critical thinking, and their autonomy – and when they do, they can be converted into obedient followers. One of the strange side effects of this process is that converts may begin to believe that they have free will, and that they have intentionally chosen to de-self and obey. They become true believers and lose any real awareness of the influence methods that reshaped and resocialized them – and they come to believe that they willingly accepted this personal transformation to be one of the chosen few. This seems bizarre, but it’s a crucial feature of toxic systems of influence and persuasion. And it’s possibly the most difficult feature for someone who hasn’t experienced it to fully understand. “

People get hooked through a combination of insiders finding out what they want and believe and offering them just that. It is essentially sales, and the lieutenants/recruiters are the best salespeople on the team. They may say: “You need to offer this to your clients in order to really help them,” “You’re special, and I don’t know why you’re just now being invited,” “This is your destiny,” “You’re perfect for our program/cause/community, and together we can create a better world.”

Then, one is broken down to induce further vulnerability on physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels, through methods including, but not limited to: overwork, lack of rest or nutrition, altered states, and cathartic and re-traumatizing processes. When one sees abuses or questionable behavior, they are gaslit or judged as being unwell in some fundamental way, and coerced and guilted into silence. Once a person has been broken down, they no longer have a will of their own- a new persona is rebuilt that matches the need of the group and serves as a proxy for the leader’s enactment of will.

A window into these dynamics- the allure and encroachment, followed by people awakening to what’s happening, leaving, and fighting back, can be seen in the HBO docuseries, “The Vow,” about the NXIVM sex cult. Be sure to watch it and consider the synchronicities you see between this group and other organizations, or even patterns in the rise of authoritarian governments on the planet, in various communities, or within family systems. It is vital to understand these patterns on both micro and macro levels to be able to tend to the underlying wounds that give rise to these structures and reactions, defenses, trauma enactments, and conscious or unconscious perpetuation of harm.

Psychedelic Guide Abuse and the Problem of Community Complicity

As the Shadow of Psychedelics makes itself more overtly known to us though lived experience and our holding space for those who have been harmed, it has become vital for me, as a clinician, to name and express these concerns- for the survivors, and as an advocate for the ethical employment of entheogenic therapies. Many topics arise from the depths, including appropriation, misuse of power, complicity through economic ties, and allyships with other communities as funnels. 

The implication that psychedelics will be the panacea that will cure all the ills of our time on the planet may blind some to the problems at hand and the detoxification that needs to be done to make these practices safe again (which will ultimately be in service of furthering the movement overall). We notice, as well, the lack of proper training in how to honor and work with trauma as well as extraordinary states catalyzed by the medicine, such as Spiritual Emergence, and lack of oversight and accountability within communities (if they are underground).

Two examples of psychedelic guide abuse that everyone is already familiar with are the stories of Octavio Rettig and Gerry Sandoval, highlighted on 5-meo-dmt-malpractice.org, which displays the following open letter:

Join us in standing against psychedelic and entheogenic malpractice.

For many years there has been concern in psychedelic and entheogenic circles about what appears to be reckless, unethical, and potentially criminal behavior by Dr. Octavio Rettig and Dr. Gerry Sandoval in their capacity as facilitators of ‘Bufo’, the 5-MeO-DMT containing secretion of the Bufo alvarius toad.

Despite difficulties in gaining a clear picture of the overall situation, there is now overwhelming evidence that these concerns are well founded. For that reason we, coming from the psychedelic, entheogenic, and broader consciousness communities, have decided it is necessary to make this public statement.

A brief list of reported malpractices by Octavio include: dangerous sessions leading to hospitalizations and deaths; psychological and physical violence; non-consensual interventions and abuses of power; and neglect of people who have been damaged.

A brief list of reported malpractices by Gerry include rape; clandestine drugging; planting drugs on people with intent to endanger them; intentional overdosing; grossly unsafe serving practices; psychological manipulation; and financial fraud.

The collective consequences, apart from death, include physical injuries, psychological trauma, ongoing mental health issues, and shell-shocked and divided entheogenic communities.

For these reasons we, who come from the psychedelic, entheogenic, or simply the broader consciousness community, think it is time to take a stand. Now that these long running problems have come clearly to light, choosing to push them back into the shadows is no longer an option. Silence in the face of this knowledge risks making us complicit in any future abuses. It also risks completely distorting the role of this entheogen as it makes its way into the world.

We invite you to sign and take a stand with us.

Another example is in the March 3, 2020 Quartz article “Psychedelic therapy has a sexual abuse problem,” by Olivia Goldhill. In the article, Lily Kay Ross, who said she felt the need to leave her psychedelic work behind after speaking out about her rape by an ayahuasca shaman in the Amazon, shared, “I was told explicitly that I might single-handedly re-instigate the war on drugs and undo all of the advancements in the field of psychedelic research since the 1960s. There’s the idea that psychedelics are so important and so wonderful that the train has to keep going. We can’t slow down to get the rapists off the train.” 

Ross will be speaking on a panel at the Psychedelics, Madness, and Awakening Conference in early 2021 with therapist and author of Outside Mental Health: Voices and Visions of Madness, Will Hall, among others. They will be sharing their concerns about the impact of psychedelic guide abuse. In Will Hall’s most recent Psychedelics Today appearance, he discussed the shadow side of psychedelics, and challenged us all to look into what our motivations are, and how they align to the movement’s ethics:

“What is the commitment? Is the commitment to get psychedelic drugs accessible at all costs? And we’re going to lie, cheat, and steal our way to get there? Or is the commitment to trust that truth is the way? And if we just stick with the truth, that is how we change society?”

Dispelling the Myths

1) These Groups will naturally self-correct.

False. HCGs are closed systems that self-perpetuate their beliefs and dynamics and create a feedback loop. Thus, they not only create homeostasis, or a balancing within that keeps things the same, but this homeostasis may also intensify as the closed system feeds back upon itself. In the groundbreaking book, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, authors Fritjof Capra & Pier Luigi Luisi have this to say with respect to feedback loops: “Feedback loops not only have self-balancing effects but may also be self-amplifying” (Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 91).

Knowing this, we can see that by doing nothing, nothing will change. Many of us have thought that because the medicines are working in the ceremonies and sessions, they will help to automatically awaken and shift dynamics. For some, that is the case. For others, it deepens the trauma bonding them to the guide and HCG, and creates an even stronger disorganized attachment, which strengthens the reliance upon the guide and, by proxy, the medicine. 

2) The abusive guides must not realize they are doing harm.

This is based on an assumption that folks who work with medicine are free from the traits that are self-serving, manipulative, or Shadow manifestations. Maybe these are unconscious dynamics/trauma re-enactments, or maybe they are sadistically harming. I will not participate in the othering, though, lest I fall prey to enantiodromia (a Jungian principle that states that over time, an extreme, one-sided tendency can unconsciously change into its polar opposite). But suffice it to say that not all guides and facilitators of the work prioritize the healing and service for the highest good of all beings in their journey toward wholeness. Their motivations might be financial or for power, feeding the ego that gives them that godlike rule over folks in non-ordinary, vulnerable states. How do we demand accountability and create the change that needs to be made in these situations? If it is unconscious, how can the gift of the medicines not intensify these defensive structures, but instead melt them away? 

Can we lean into the wisdom of restorative and transformative justice to both understand the wounds that create those structures, and at the same time, keep those that are vulnerable safe from the abuse? Which part of this web of healing are you? Are you an advocate, ally, supporter, or educator? Know that each of us is needed to heal this together. And we must keep in mind and heart the words of Thich Nhat Hanh: “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”

3) Others in the community, and outside of it, know and don’t care.

This myth stems from the idea that “nobody is doing anything about it.” We need to remember that the trauma which occurs while in non-ordinary states of consciousness is so profound and the recovery so delicate, we must not place the burden of transforming this issue on the backs of the survivors. We all must acknowledge the harm that is being done, and those who are complicit out of financial necessity need to do the right thing and disconnect their umbilical cord from the toxic womb. If the community complicity is bound to the group’s silence and secrecy, and has lost agency and capacity to speak out against abuses, then more support is needed. And more support is needed for those that do see, and when they are excised for going against the grain, they need to be witnessed, held, and cared for.

Because so many of the harmful communities are underground, there is no way to go to above-ground sources for accountability and ethical quality-control. So how can the wider community of psychedelic educators and healers enact the change that is needed? This is a question in process- in deep inquiry now, and I would love to see more discussion, panels, and think tanks, here and through other platforms and organizations.

A Way Forward: Ethics, Education, and Accountability

The amplification of the intensity of trauma within entheogenic extraordinary states makes the impact of guide abuse, gaslighting, and complicity much vaster, and the effects deeper and more difficult to recover from. I propose that there is a way forward, beginning by naming and honoring the reality of these experiences, offering a haven for the abused, and sharing new ethical standards, not only for the above-ground practitioners, but for the underground as well. This can be community-based, restorative and transformative justice, and peer-led; informed by open dialogue, harm reduction, and radical humanism. 

Remember: Cognitive liberty is not only the freedom to, it is also the freedom from.

How does one resist these dynamics and methods of control and manipulation, maintain integrity in the sacred work we are undertaking, and therefore protect the safety and efficacy of psychedelic clients? First, do an inner inquiry into your relationship to power- others’ and your own. It is very likely that in entheogenic non-ordinary states of consciousness, that COEXes (layers of resonant trauma imprints) may re-create trauma enactments, whether you are the sitter or the journeyer. There may also be role-reversal, the unconscious’ way of balancing the scales. The Shadow activations thus may be on the continuum of repetition or counterpoint. 

The guides must have adequate education on trauma, spiritual emergence, and emergency, be well-versed in transpersonal psychology, and have the capacity not only to validate the reality of subtle realms, but great respect and competence to work with all of its parts: entities, energies, possession states, archetypes, lifetimes, and dimensions. At a minimum, each guide must have a list of resources for trained trauma therapists, Spiritual Emergence Coaches and energy workers, shamanic practitioners, and psychopomps. 

It is our ethical responsibility to maintain a clear and protected container for our clients. When a breach of ethics is witnessed, it is vital to intervene in some way to protect the vulnerable. Check your complicity. What keeps you silent? Is it livelihood? Access to medicines? The stream of potential clients? What is the cost of work if it is founded on harm, manipulation, abuse, and potential re-traumatization? Instead, bring curiosity, compassion, and humility to each session, and the courage to trust the Inner Healer of the client and the inner compass of the soul.

On a community level, we must replace these unwell systems of control with what Karla McLaren calls “healthy systems of influence.” She shares about the qualities of these healthy systems, which can help us orient when faced with HCGs or on behalf of others we care about. She says:

“Healthy systems of influence involve rules that make sense, clear checks and balances on power, responsive and respectful leadership, and goals that are livable and beneficial for everyone.

  • The system is democratic; all members have a say in how the rules and regulations are developed and implemented.
  • Members have the right to question, doubt, and challenge the system.
  • Checks and balances are in place so that the system remains flexible, responsive, and fair.
  • The system supports equality, and no person is above the rules.
  • The system incorporates fairness, justice, and leniency; no one is humiliated, abused, or shunned.
  • Members appreciate the sense of structure and discipline that the system provides.
  • The system provides a healthy sense of belonging and camaraderie.
  • The system helps members develop a unified group identity that does not erase their own identities.
  • The group encourages critical thinking and welcomes ideas from outside the system.

When a system of control is healthy, its structure supports and nurtures the people inside it. When a system is toxic, its structure crushes, demeans, and dehumanizes the people trapped within it.”

I would like to close this piece with a quote from Matthew Remski, who offers us hope and inspiration in the possibility of what he calls an “empowerment network:”

“The values expressed in an empowerment network directly opposed those in the abuse-enabling network, because the goal of victims and their allies is to deconstruct and re-distribute power, rather than to capture and hoard it. Where secrecy silenced harm, there will now be transparent speech. Where deception confounded critical thinking, there will now be evidence and research. Where power had crystallized vertically, there will now be a horizontal sharing of space and dignity… Harm is not inflicted in a vacuum, and healing is not accomplished alone (Remski, 2019, p. 242).


References

Capra, F., & Luisi, P. L. (2016). The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Reprint ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Hassan, S. (2015). Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults. Freedom of Mind Press.

Lalich, J., & McLaren, K. (2017). Escaping Utopia: Growing Up in a Cult, Getting Out, and Starting Over (1st ed.). Routledge.

Lalich, J., & Tobias, M. (2006). Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships (2nd ed.). Bay Tree Publishing.

Remski, M. (2019). Practice And All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, And Healing In Yoga And Beyond. Embodied Wisdom Publishing.

Zieman, B. (2017). Cracking the Cult Code for Therapists: What Every Cult Victim Wants Their Therapist to Know. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.


About the Author

Michelle Anne Hobart, MA, SEC, AMFT is a teacher, writer, and Associate Marriage and Family Therapist at the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy. She trained as a Spiritual Emergence Coach with Emma Bragdon, works closely with the Gnosis Retreat Center project, and among other collaborations, co-facilitates Psychedelics Today’s Spiritual Emergence Course with Kyle Buller. She offers individual, couple, and group therapy, and leads community wellness workshops and retreats. Michelle graduated from the Integral Counseling Psychology program at CIIS in May 2018, she finished her second book, Holding Sacred Space in February 2020, and is in awe of the beautiful opportunities to support others that the universe provides her with through writing, being a therapist, and her other energy healing modalities. You can learn more at michelleannehobart.com.