The Wild World of 19th Century Psychedelics

By Zeus Tipado

Our understanding of the brain in the 1800s was quite different from what we know today – and pretty weird, too.

You can’t throw a tab of LSD without hitting a story about psychedelics these days. While psychedelics are going through a scientific renaissance, 150 years ago, the field was a circus of misinformation and racism. Occasionally though, through that potpourri of misguided madness, it nailed some concepts that still hold up today. Granted, future scientists will most likely write an article clowning the state of psychedelics in the early 2000s to today, but let me be the first to start that vicious cycle by highlighting some of the more ridiculous concepts people believed in the 19th Century.

While there may have been many ethnographic studies of psychedelics dating back to the Bronze Age, the concept of modern neuroscience is a fairly new field. In the 1880s, the interest in neuroscience formed from humanity’s attempt to explain mental illness and addiction through scientific terms as opposed to supernatural spirits possessing bodies. Some neuroscientists in the 19th century believed a person’s cognition, along with predisposition of behavioral traits was rooted in neuroanatomy, which some believed was reflected in the physical structure of the skull. The idea that chemistry played a role in brain functionality was a novel concept that didn’t have much support in the scientific community in the early 1880s. In fact, the closest thing science got to neurochemistry was in 1809, when Johann Christian Reil soaked a brain in pure alcohol for a week just to see what would happen (if you’re wondering, it got really hard and took on the texture of shoe leather).

To first understand the state of neuroscience in the 1800s, we must first comprehend the state of science at the time, and it was bonkers.

Cell Theory, Darwin, and Phrenology

The idea that all living organisms consisted of cells and that all cells originated from pre-existing cells (cell theory) proposed by German physiologist Theodor Schwann in 1839 was revolutionary. It shifted the deeply-held religious belief that life originated supernaturally, and instead, emerged from biological means. It sounds trivial now, but society took a collective seat and came to the realization that each person was a community of cells working in unison to create a ‘Bob,’ Connie,’ or ‘Karen’ (and of course, all those Karen cells wanted to see the manager shortly after being created).

Twenty years after the world recovered from Schwann’s cell theory, Darwin dropped The Origin of a Species, giving birth to the concept of evolution, a radical idea that once again shifted humanity’s focus away from divine creation and more closely towards the modern worldview we hold today.

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Science in the 1800s was also notoriously racist. Many people used Darwin’s evolutionary theory to justify hateful pseudoscience that revealed the most vile aspects of humanity. While he was able to consciously remove himself from the 19th century racism that prevailed in science at the time, most could not. Franz Joseph Gall constructed the basic ideologies of phrenology in 1808, which was a belief that a person’s mental aptitude could be determined by bumps and ridges in a person’s skull — evidence Gall believed was the pressure of the neuroanatomy of the brain on the skull. More specifically, he believed a person’s behavior was localized in different compartments in the brain — a total of 28 areas to be exact. Things like ‘the firmness of purpose,’ ‘love of poetry,’ and even a place in the brain that’s responsible for a person’s tendency to murder, Gall insisted, could be determined through cranial anatomy. 

When phrenology emerged in Europe in the 1800s, most scientists discarded the idea since its foundations were based on faulty neuroanatomical information. Gall was tossed out of Austria for proposing such an obviously absurd idea and eventually ended up in France, where even Napoleon Bonaparte ridiculed his concept of phrenology. When the rest of the world seemed to collectively reject phrenology as the pseudoscience it truly was, it found a home in America — because at that conflicted time, obviously it would. 

With abolitionist movements spreading across the country along with the social underpinnings of what would be known as the Civil War, phrenology was used as a “scientific” reason to justify slavery in America and the overall disgusting treatment of Indigenous people as land continued to be removed from tribal territories. However, phrenology did have its fierce opponents, like John P. Harrison, editor of the Western Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal that caught the attention of Southern political leaders when it was introduced to America (and is still in print today). With the assistance of books like Phrenology Vindicated by Charles Caldwell and Crania Americana by Samuel Morton, political leaders had the “scientific” backing to make absurd claims like Africans were neurologically designed to be enslaved and Indigenous Americans were biologically a different species than white people — which made stealing their land a natural process ordained by God.

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Louis Lewin’s Phantastica

Amongst the incendiary nature of science during the 19th century, the unlikely emergence of psychedelic neuroscience occurred — and like all things in the 1800s, it was undoubtedly a product of its time. That’s a nice way to say it was sometimes wrong and mostly racist, but interestingly enough, it got some things right. 

Neuroscience can be defined as the objective study of the brain and the central nervous system. The first neuroscientist to analyze the effects of psychedelics was Germany’s Louis Lewin in his book, Phantastica. Although it was officially released in 1924 when Lewin was 74, it contained his collected psychedelic research that took place in the late 1800s. Among the many drugs he categorized, he decided not to call psychedelics “hallucinogens” since not all substances elicit a hallucinatory response. “Phantastica” was the word he decided on, along with other equally interesting names like “Inebriantia” for drugs like alcohol, and my personal favorite, “Excitantia” for substances like caffeine and nicotine. 

Lewin was never really a scientific rock star in his time though, mostly because he refused to renounce his Jewish heritage in 19th-century Germany – racism and anti-Semitism in the scientific community at this time went hand-in-hand. However, Lewin did get the props he deserved in psychedelics when Paul Henning of the Berlin Botanical Museum named peyote Anhalonium Lewinii in Lewin’s honor. 

Around the time Lewin came on the scene, most people were describing psychedelics in a subjective manner, wrapped up in pseudo-science and religious mysticism. People weren’t tripping because of psychedelic-induced neurological activity — evil spirits possessed the taker of the psychedelic, which meant evil behavior was soon to follow. Metaphysics, with its focus on the nature of human consciousness and existence, was rapidly growing in the 1800s. Lewin believed that describing psychedelics in metaphysical terms would ruin what we could potentially learn from them. His research was wholly focused on dispelling the pseudoscience that surrounded psychedelics, yet Lewin fell into the trap of anointing psychedelics with otherworldliness with his idea that an invisible force called ‘vital energy’ surrounded all living things. Lewin believed this vital energy governed all chemical, mechanical, and physical properties of each person and that psychedelics had the ability to interrupt this energy. He also believed a person’s resistance to psychedelics was dependent on the strength of their vital energy. 

This wasn’t the first time Lewin would take an L in his neuroscientific research of psychedelics. When assessing the capability of certain psychedelics on the brain, he assumed (1924, p. 8) that black people naturally had a higher recovery rate than whites: 

“We may take it as a fact that Negroes have greater recuperation powers than white people. This is due not to climatic conditions but to certain innate qualities possessed by them.”

In his writings, he didn’t seek to prove this theory — it was just taken as matter-of-fact; another symptom of the 19th century. Lewin also insisted Indigenous people knew of their own racial inferiority, which is why they self-medicated with psychedelics: 

“The Indians of South America are said to have an intuitive appreciation of their own defectiveness, and to be ever ready to rid themselves of such melancholy feelings by intense excitement, i.e. through kola and similar drugs” (p. 2).

Still somehow, Lewin believed psychedelics ‘form bonds in people of all walks of life’ (p. 7). He realized the diversity of people was so great that a one-size-fits-all explanation of human physiology and psychology in regards to psychedelics wouldn’t suffice. Likely influenced by Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Lewin made a strong case for the adaptations of organisms to a variety of external influences like psychedelics. He believed a skilled anthropologist could trace the development of culture directly to the availability of psychedelics, an idea shared 100 years later in Terence McKenna’s Food of the Gods. Lewin was also one of the first scientists to see the health benefits of psychedelics, mostly based on accounts of Indigenous people taking them for mental health. 

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In the 1800s, a small but prevailing idea amongst scientists was that psychedelics created a “trip” by activating ductless glands in the body to secrete hormones into the endocrine system. Lewin thought the theory was BS and instead theorized that psychedelics excite certain “brain centers” to “transmit agreeable sensations” (p. 3) through the chemistry of the substance. He basically described what we now know as psychedelics acting as serotonergic agonists that bind to mostly 5-HT2A receptors in the brain — an original theory Lewin established nearly 50 years before the discovery of serotonin.

Lewin’s assumption that psychedelics hit specific cortical regions through something like the serotonin system was remarkable, but only because he made other successful guesses like recognizing that every chemical study on the brain up to that point was conducted ex vivo, or on a dead brain, and that in vivo neuro research conducted on a living brain may have chemicals that were not present or didn’t transform into something else upon death. He also knew about the brain’s need for oxygenated blood and suggested that psychedelics may affect this process. Neuroscience had to wait 100 years for Lewin’s idea to be tested with BOLD (Blood Oxygen Level Dependent) brain imaging through MRI. 

When it came to theoreticals, Lewin had a few. One of his notable ones was the idea of a toxic equation, which is a loose formula that dictates everyone has a certain resistance to the effects of psychedelics based on their neurophysiology and overall physiology. On the surface, it sounds like a reasonable idea, but digging deeper, it gets a bit irrational. His general belief was that people built up a resistance to psychedelics due to parts of the brain weakening and not being able to process these substances. There’s still no proof of this over a century later though, and in 2021, Dr. Ling-Xiao Shao conducted research that pointed to the opposite. Psilocybin actually strengthens dendritic density in the brain and repairs neurons that have atrophied due to stress and depression. Lewin also believed cells had ‘will-power’ and when a person takes a psychedelic after not taking it for a long time, the memory of the ‘agreeable sensation’ is just too strong to resist and that’s how people become addicted again (p. 18). 

Learning From the History of Psychedelics

Unfortunately, psychedelic neuroscience research didn’t really catch on in the 19th century, mostly because civilization almost collapsed due to a global opioid addiction that crippled nearly every economy and led to prohibition in the early 1900s. The bigotry and racism of the 19th century confined Louis Lewin’s research of psychedelics into a box that takes a lot of ethical unpacking to fully absorb.

The origin of neuroscience is shrouded in poorly constructed science and whacky ideas which were specifically designed to marginalize groups of people from the discussion of who could be considered human. It has a dark past, but with a more defined scientific method and newer ideas, the future of psychedelic neuroscience is whatever we make it. In every natural system, diversity is the key defining factor for the progression of that system. These ideas aren’t mine or even new — Darwin wrote several books on this. This same need for diversity also applies to psychedelic neuroscientific research. History shouldn’t serve as an obstacle for the exponential amount of discovery that can be revealed if we all work together. We will get there.


About the Author

Zeus Tipado is a neuroscientist based out of Los Angeles, California. He’s the founder of Stonedgamer and Middleeasy, and co-producer/host of DoubleBlind Mag’s ‘How To Use Psychedelics’ course. His published work has appeared in High Times Magazine, MERRY JANE, and DoubleBlind Magazine. He received his Mphil from the University of South Wales and will start his PhD in Neuroscience with a focus in psychedelics in 2022. You can reach him on TwitterInstagram, and Twitch.

Psychedelic Bypassing: When Avoidance is Mistaken for Healing

A waning sunset from a mountaintop, sky aglow in orange

by Sean Lawlor

Psychedelic Bypassing: The many ways the mind can excuse abuse, ignore the darker sides of ourselves, categorize the vast scale of emotions into little boxes of “good” and “bad,” and cast aside anything deemed “lesser than” — all in the pursuit of a more enlightened life.

Last year, during a crowded online seminar on psychedelic microdosing for treating addiction, a few attendees raised caution in the Zoom chat over the dangerously simplistic ways in which addiction was being presented. Within moments, a frenzy of animosity resounded.

“Why are you bringing your negativity here?”

“The presenters are doing great—why not recognize that?

“If you don’t like microdosing, you can git out!

I would have been more surprised if I hadn’t witnessed other psychedelic conversations where “negativity” was not welcome and legitimate criticism was deemed “bad vibes.” What did surprise me was how much validation this animosity received, with even the facilitator joining in and scolding the critics — then again, since such critiques threatened his microdosing livelihood, I suppose his animosity made sense. 

I noticed a similar, albeit more concerning trend arise in February 2021, when a video surfaced of former 5-MeO-DMT facilitator Dr. Martin Ball boastfully recounting the time he vomited on the face of a client incapacitated by the powerful toad venom. For each objection to Ball’s blatantly unethical behavior, a defense kicked back, spitefully ridiculing the judgmental “snowflakes” and their “low vibrations.” 

I’m all for a fair trial. But some actions are not okay, and vomiting on the face of an incapacitated person in your care is one of them. Evidently, many psychonauts disagree. 

What is this trend I’m pointing to, this negativity about negativity, this shaming of voices raising valid concerns? This is a trend I’m calling psychedelic bypassing.

A Primer on Spiritual Bypassing

In 1984, meditation teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood coined the term spiritual bypassing. As laid out in Robert Augustus Masters’ book Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters, spiritual bypassing is “the use of spiritual practice and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.”

In other words, it is disguising patterns of avoidance with New Age lingo that liberates us from confronting difficult and painful realities. In short, Masters describes spiritual bypassing as “avoidance in holy drag” — a strategy “not only for avoiding pain but also for legitimizing such avoidance” (2010, p. 2).

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But What’s This Got To Do With Psychedelics? 

Don’t psychedelics force us to confront difficult and painful realities, no matter how fervently we resist?

A lot of the time, yes! But not all the time. 

Amidst abundant scientific research demonstrating psychedelics catalyze profound healing for an ever-expanding cast of conditions, many advocates appear to have forgotten that psychedelics can also inflict harm. Despite suggestions from mainstream narratives, taking psychedelics is not a guaranteed route to healing. Just as psychedelics can heal our wounds, they can also amplify our capacity to avoid those wounds — and, in the case of face-vomiting Ball, even inflict them on others. 

Plunder the depths of Erowid and you’ll find no shortage of reports of psychedelics catalyzing psychotic breaks. Read through Chacruna and you’ll find abundant articles on sexism and racism in psychedelic spaces, sometimes at high levels of influential organizations. Dig deeper, and you’ll find testimonials of people being physically, psychologically, and sexually abused in “safe” psychedelic environments. 

Psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers, meaning they can amplify our darkness as well as our light. Just as psychedelics can open space for curious inquiry and new perspectives, they also provide fertile ground for embedding distorted beliefs and behaviors more deeply. If psychedelics solely induced awakening, why would the CIA spend decades researching their potential to control people in myriad ways? 

Intention and context make all the difference. When self-delusion is the operating principle, psychedelics can amplify the delusion. And we mustn’t underestimate the mind’s capacity to delude itself. In the words of Carl Jung, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.”

And still a perspective spreads that psychedelics can only transform our world for the better, and anyone who raises concerns about their potential harms is a “threat to the movement.” Victims and their allies are silenced by a chorus of proselytizers who justify themselves, saying, “We’re so close to FDA approval! It’s not worth putting all this progress in jeopardy!”

No one wants another Nixon slamming down the great gavel on substances that can clearly help countless people. But when avoidant patterns proliferate unchecked, they become a culture, and when a culture avoids serious issues and vilifies those who speak about them, that culture deepens traumatic neural pathways that damage ourselves, our loved ones, and our world. 

No matter how enraptured in the Godhead its constituents become, a culture that evades its most pervasive issues will never be a culture of widespread healing. 

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Why Do We Bypass? 

Sometimes, it’s as simple as refusing to hear what we don’t want to hear. For instance, early in 2021, preliminary research from Imperial College London showed that the life-enhancing benefits of microdosing, as reported on countless podcasts and blogs, may be attributable to the placebo effect

The response of the microdosing community? 

A chorus of people instantly ripped on the study, refusing to consider the possibility that the results had validity, because… well, the results jived with neither their beliefs nor their advertisements for the microdosing programs they sell.

Such instances of bypassing are easy to recognize. Other times, bypassing is more complex, stemming from sources beyond the reach of awareness.

Psychological vs. Spiritual

Robert Augustus Masters argues that bypassing flourishes when the spiritual is split from and given more significance than the psychological. Countless spiritual practices emphasize “letting go” of pain, securing stability in a palace of positivity whose iron gates seal out all dementors. “Don’t mind the dementors that breach the castle in your nightmares!” the spiritual teacher preaches. “Just focus on the light, and your pain will dissolve away.”

The thing is, that pain often stems from psychological wounds, and spiritual practice that denies it won’t make it disappear. While meditation can be healing, it can also enhance patterns of disassociation and withdrawal that bar people from experiencing intimacy and love. 

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield speaks to this phenomenon in his book, A Path With Heart. After a decade of vigorous Buddhist training, Kornfield felt he had resolved his issues. However, when he returned to the States and entered a romantic relationship, he found he was “still emotionally immature, acting out the same painful patterns of blame and fear, acceptance and rejection that I had before my Buddhist training” (2002, p. 7).

Kornfield’s monastic isolation kept him distant from his deepest wounds, which were relational in nature. “I’ve seen how many other students misunderstand spiritual practice, how many have hoped to use it to escape from their lives” and “avoid the pains and difficulties of human existence” writes Kornfield (p. 6).

Whether we meditate for decades or blast ourselves into cosmic unity with every psychedelic under the sun, we still may be avoiding the most pertinent issues stunting our psychological development. 

The Traps of Transcendence and Oneness

Transcendence is a psychedelic buzzword, often regarded as a healing path of “overcoming” wounds and becoming more whole. It can also justify bypassing, for many transcenders cast negative judgment on that which must be transcended — often their psychological and emotional pain. 

“When transcendence of our personal history takes precedence over intimacy with our personal history, spiritual bypassing is inevitable,” Masters writes (2010, p. 12). Healthy transcendence embraces that which is transcended, while “unhealthy transcendence avoids it, making a spiritual virtue out of rising above whatever is deemed ‘lower’ or ‘darker’ elements of our nature” (p. 29).

In the framework of influential transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber, development is not about transcending, but transcending and including what came before. 

Transcendence is similar to another psychedelic buzzword, “oneness.” In the face of conflict and difference, many psychedelic advocates like to remind others that “we are all one.” While this is true at some metaphysical level, it invalidates the reality of difference and the struggles many face because of those differences, such as people who hold marginalized identities and experience overt oppression every day. 

What kind of “oneness” casts out all who don’t bliss out on the same medicine? Nothing more than the oneness of a bubble that resists what threatens to pop it.

The Happy Place Where Egos Die

Masters writes that we are vulnerable to spiritual bypassing when we practice to reach a better place — where suffering is abolished, where love and light reign in the resuscitated Garden of Eden.

When that’s the ideal, we villainize and shame the parts of ourselves we believe block us from that idealized perfection. We may even deny their existence, because according to our high/low, positive/negative ethic, these parts indicate we are far from reaching Happy Fun Land. If we’ve been presenting ourselves as a spiritually-evolved being, then no one can know about these parts of us! So we shove them down with a Buddha smile, forcing ourselves to connect to compassion and eliminate the enemy of our “lower” nature.

This trend is especially evident in the psychedelic concept of “ego death.” Psychedelic folks often villainize the “ego,” which is typically comprised of these “lower” aspects of our nature. When ego death is the aim, anything resembling ego becomes an obstacle. When ego is not recognized as an essential part of our inner world, that essential part of our inner world becomes the villain, creating a war within ourselves.

I imagine this is partly due to psychedelic healing being framed in the same way that yoga, meditation, and numerous “alternative” healing methods are marketed: Do this, and your life will improve dramatically. This idea is even more intoxicating with psychedelics because a) they work faster, and b) a boatload of science backs up their efficacy. But when we fall prey to this “magic pill” mentality, we follow a falsely advertised claim that psychedelics will transport us to Big Rock Candy Mountain, where our egoic problems evaporate. 

This thin narrative brings too little focus to the fact that psychedelic healing isn’t sustainable without significant changes in lifestyle and thought patterns. Feeling awesome and gaining perspective on your suffering is rarely sufficient. It is the beginning of a new path, and without commitment to new ways of being, benefits tend to vanish as quickly as they appeared.

Psychedelic folks often speak of “integration” as some finite place, like, “I integrated deep realizations about my anxiety on MDMA, so now it’s gone!” Healing isn’t always linear, nor is it about arrival. It can be cyclical, and when we cling to states of bliss, we bypass whatever threatens those states’ supremacy. Integration isn’t a final arrival, but an ongoing process of active engagement. As Jung wrote, “There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self.” 

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Dualistic Thinking

Bypassing can also be a symptom of dualistic thinking getting carried into the nondual realms psychedelics can open, where reality does not abide by rational structures. Rather than categorical frameworks like “good/bad” and “self/other” ruling the day, the ground of truth becomes paradox, beyond the reach of reason’s limits. As rationality fights to make sense of such an experience, it often subjects the paradoxical to the categorical, applying dualistic labels like “good” and “bad,” and “me” and “not me” to the experience. 

Say I have a mystical experience on five grams of mushrooms, and I realize that at my core, I am Love embodied. I’m so immersed in the experience that I am certain my demons have been forever cleansed. Three days later, I get cut off on the highway, and a familiar anger takes hold as I curse that reckless SOB. I pause, thinking, “This anger can’t be me, because I now know I am pure Love, and I can’t be Love and simultaneously feel such hostility.” So I reject my anger, creating a schism in my psyche that spawns a dualistic battle that will rage indefinitely, no matter how vehemently I deny it. 

If, on the other hand, I recognize that I can be Love embodied and feel intense anger at the same time, I give myself more space. In that space, I can feel anger without identifying it or fearing it is me at the core.

Passivity and Aversion to Anger

In numerous spiritual communities, anger is the quintessential “low vibe” emotion. Countless frameworks teach to restrict its expression, if not eliminate it completely. Only then can you abide in whatever nirvanic illusion is the goal. 

The problem is, anger is an essential human emotion, and a powerful one. Powerful emotions don’t just go away when we deny them. They get stronger, and even if we stop ourselves from expressing them externally, we end up expressing them toward ourselves.

“There isn’t any such thing as a negative emotion,” Masters (2010) writes. “There are negative things we do with our emotions, but our emotions themselves are neither negative nor positive. They simply are” (p. 15). When we judge anger, we are often judging harmful expressions of anger, such as hostility and violence. The emotion and the behavior are distinct, and becoming more intimate with the emotion and its sources will open healthier, more conscious avenues of expression.

When we judge our anger as “bad energy,” we judge it as such in others. When a community validates that judgment as virtuous, that community shuns an essential emotion that has a lot to teach us about boundaries, needs, and deep wounds.

In hearing about practitioners abusing clients, it makes sense to be angry! If we shun our anger, we disregard the wisdom of this response and may even justify the practitioner’s behavior, saying, “They’re doing their best. Who am I to judge if that’s right or wrong?” In that response, both our anger and someone’s harmful behavior are bypassed under a distorted ethic of “acceptance” and “forgiveness.” This encourages a passivity akin to numbness, a glorified distancing from a dark reality and the looming prospect of confrontation. It’s more comfortable to just “let it go.”

Maybe this trend is reducible to a reluctance to cast judgment. Moral relativism — the notion that each person’s moral code is justified unto itself — is a seductive ethos, but it promotes a passivity that allows harm to flourish unchecked. Anger about harmful behaviors is not “bad energy”; it is a valid, important response to issues that could implode this whole psychedelic renaissance if they remain unchecked. Transformation can only come by calling problematic issues to conscious light, and anger can sometimes show us where those issues lie. 

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Guru Syndrome

The psychedelic space is home to many self-appointed “guru” facilitators, many of whom are far less skilled at facilitation than they are at bypassing. How else could a self-described “healer” inflict sexual abuse on participants — an ongoing problem in psychedelic spaces — and free themselves of responsibility? 

According to Masters, this form of bypassing spawns from “delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being” (2010, p. 3). Quite likely, these facilitators have had profound psychedelic experiences, and they mistakenly “confuse the attainment of such states with being at an advanced stage of spiritual practice” (p. 70).

Here’s where psychedelics create a particularly tricky form of bypassing. Unlike meditation, which can take years to induce a peak experience, psychedelics can rocket anyone into sudden confrontation with the mystical. The confrontation can be so earth-shattering that the individual emerges completely certain they have been reborn, where yesterday’s troubles that occupied their “previous self” have forever melted away. That may be true for a while, but what about when yesterday’s troubles return? Since this experience birthed them anew, those troubles can no longer be them, right? This person fails to recognize this new “egoless” persona is actually the structure of a new ego that bears more similarities to the previous one than they care to admit. And how could it not, with root issues continuing to fester unresolved?

The danger then emerges as justification of harmful behavior. “Even clearly abusive behavior on the part of a spiritual teacher may be excused as an opportunity for students to grow in their practice,” Masters writes (2010, p. 25). It’s gaslighting to the extreme, fueled by an ego-boasting infallibility under the claim it is egoless and insusceptible to “lower” impulses.

It may be tempting to pass this trend off to a handful of underground practitioners, but recent revelations again show that above-ground clinicians are susceptible as well. Psychedelic researcher Matthew Johnson (2020) of Johns Hopkins describes this trend as “the inclination to believe that the nature of the experiences people have on psychedelics are so sacred or important that the normal rules do not apply, whether they be the rules governing clinical boundaries, the practice of clinical psychology or medicine, sound philosophy of science, or ethics.” 

“Psychedelics might magnify the subtle abuses of differential power that can be at play in the routine practice of clinical psychology or medicine,” Johnson continues. “The scientist or clinician might, perhaps without explicit awareness, fall into the trap of playing guru or priest, imparting personal philosophies without a solid empirical basis.”

While psychedelics can amplify the healing of therapy, they can also amplify the transference — a client’s unconscious feelings toward the therapist. If practitioners are adept at bypassing, they are vulnerable to excess countertransference — the therapist’s feelings in response to the client’s transference. That countertransference can manifest in harmful ways, and the practitioner can justify their harmful behaviors as “part of the client’s healing” — exactly how Martin Ball justified vomiting on his client’s face.  

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Responsibility in Facilitating Journeys in Non-Ordinary States

This subject is even more relevant now than when I started writing this piece, for the psychedelic world has recently been shaken by revelations that some of its highest-profile leaders may have abused clients. When the allegations were published in September, an eerie silence followed. It took several weeks for high-profile organizations to release statements on the matter, declaring in generalized ways that they do not have relationships with the defamed therapists and are committed to ethical integrity.

At the time of publication, these organizations have not addressed the fact that they previously promoted the work of the accused therapists on several platforms

What level of psychedelic bypassing has to occur for people who have allegedly perpetrated significant abuses to rise the ranks and become some of the most influential spokespeople — and trainers! — of the entire psychedelic renaissance?

Part of me wants to give those who stayed silent the benefit of the doubt, to bury my responses beneath a higher kind of “understanding” and “forgiveness.” That option would be more comfortable, for then I eliminate the risk of getting villainized by people with more power than me. While there are complex legal concerns around speaking up that I admit to not fully understanding, I will not submerge my responses entirely, for doing so would be engaging in the exact kind of bypassing this piece calls out. This silence and ensuing hands-washing of the organizations who supported these folks’ work really pisses me off, but my anger is not some “low vibe.” It is a legitimate response to a messed up reality that has to change. And if that reality does not anger you, too, I’d sincerely challenge you to investigate why. 

Maybe everyone deserves a second chance, but giving people a shot at redemption cannot be the same as enabling them to perpetuate harms without consequence. I hope that the leaders of this psychedelic renaissance become more proactive in preventing harms, rather than avoiding their existence until the next wave of allegations inevitably arises and they get to work, assembling  the PR brigade to wash their hands clean of any responsibility. Taking an honest look at our capacity to bypass, with or without psychedelics, strikes me as a good place to start. 

References

Barstow, C. (2015). Right use of power: The heart of ethics: A guide and resource for
professional relationships. Many Realms Publishing. 

Johnson, M. (2020). Consciousness, religion, and gurus: Pitfalls of psychedelic medicine.
https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/zwy96 

Kornfield, J. (2002). A path with heart. Bantam Books. 

Masters, R. A. (2010). Spiritual bypassing: When spirituality disconnects us from what really
matters
. North Atlantic Books. 


About the Author

Sean Lawlor is a writer and Masters student in Mindfulness-Based Transpersonal Counseling at Naropa University, where he is completing clinical internships in community counseling and ketamine-assisted psychotherapy. His book on psychedelics and healing is forthcoming from Sounds True Publishing. For more information or to get in touch, head to seanplawlor.com, or connect on Instagram @seanplawlor

Cover photo by Mike Alexander

Addressing Abuse in Psychedelic Spaces

By Joe Moore

Some commentary on recent events and long-standing issues in psychedelia. 

The psychedelic world had a major shake-up in the past few weeks. A few popular teachers in the space had some pretty serious accusations leveled at them by Will Hall, who has previously been on our podcast here and here.

You can read Will’s article on Mad in America here. He had further things to say in this article on Medium.

I’ve been hearing rumors and firsthand accounts related to the accused for a few years now and have been working internally and with allies on the best approach for dealing with it all. 

It’s not talked about a lot, but sex and psychedelics are closely linked (drugs and sex generally, for that matter). Think about the sexual liberation that boomed in the 1960s and is still seen in parts of the Burning Man and EDM culture today. Think about how powerful feelings of love and connection can be while on any number of mind-altering substances, and how easily they could morph into something more sexual.

Perhaps you’ve never experienced it, but regularly in psychedelic therapy sessions, sexual feelings do arise and can create challenging dynamics for both the client and therapist to navigate. What does someone in a fragile mind state, dealing with a maze of conflicting emotions and energies, do with an affectionate or sexual feeling they may suddenly have? What does the therapist do? How does either person know they can truly trust the other? This all leads to a big question many may not want to consider: Is it possible to totally divorce sexual feelings and ideas from psychedelic sessions? 

I’d suggest that no, it isn’t possible. Psychedelics unleash all sorts of energies without any bias or filter, so why would sexual energy be exempt? 

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I believe that psychedelics can be transformative for mental health, religious practice, spirituality, physical healing, creativity, celebration, rites of passage, and even for the development of planet-saving technology — and this is an abbreviated list. Psychedelics are extremely powerful things that can serve as near miracle cures and beautiful spectacles, but unfortunately, they can also be used as weapons.

For a long time on the podcast (and in day-to-day life — sorry, friends), I’ve complained about how I’ve unintentionally taken on the role of the “Psychedelic Police.” Because of my many years in the psychedelic world and my perceived expertise, many folks have divulged negative or abusive stories about what they’ve experienced in underground (and occasionally aboveground) situations. I shouldn’t complain about this, since it’s an honor to be so trusted, and some stories may have helped me side-step traps Psychedelics Today could have fallen into.

It is frustrating though, and puts me in a tough spot. 

Due entirely to the drug war, there are serious legal and financial consequences for bringing such things to light on behalf of someone else. What if the story isn’t entirely true? What if it is, but can’t be proven? What if proving it relies on multiple people admitting illegal activity and they’re not willing to do that? I could be hit with cease-and-desist letters, defamation lawsuits, or just be perpetually dragged into court for any number of things. Lawyers are expensive and what’s right doesn’t always win. Without ruining my reputation and finances, and possibly destroying my best tool for bringing positive impact to the psychedelic space (this very website), I have little recourse. We have developed some ideas about the next best steps, but it is hard to know with certainty if we are doing the right thing. So I do what I can, which never feels like enough. I anonymize these stories and turn them into generic ethical warnings, encouraging people to do their research and be as safe as possible.

At the Horizons Conference in 2019, Dr. Carl Hart suggested that immediately ending the drug scheduling system would be an amazing first step in resolving a range of harmful consequences from the war on drugs. Others have proposed that a state-by-state or region-based decriminalization similar to what we’ve seen over the last few years in Oakland, Oregon, and Denver would be the ideal starting point (especially from the perspective of political expediency). Whichever side of the solution you land on, I think we can all agree that we need to fix our laws around controlled substances and plants.

Given that facilitators and guides work with substances that are federally illegal, there could be massive consequences for someone participating in underground work who is apprehended by law enforcement for any reason. For both the facilitator and the participant; consider the attention to detail needed to ensure you’re protected from liability, the knowledge and support systems needed to be able to handle serious medical cases, and the amount of apprehension and secrecy necessary to maintain anonymity for all involved. Add in the complications of how differently an action can be perceived by different people in different mind states, and this almost creates an incentive structure to sweep things under the rug — a bypassing of anything perceived as a threat to the overall good. People who could force change can be, and often are banished from communities for asking the “wrong” questions.

Since so many people are forced to operate in an underground capacity, it makes sense that these problems exist. And they will continue to exist if we can’t have open and honest conversations about what we’re experiencing, and start working together to figure out how to answer so many of these complicated questions within the confines of the drug war. 

How do we talk about sex and psychedelics?

What are the appropriate ways to deal with sexual energies and consent in situations where people consume mind-altering substances in situations with clear power dynamic differentials?

How do we report issues of abuse to local leaders and elders?

Will they fight for us? 

Do they have any teeth?

What capacity do they have to investigate? 

Does the victim have any legal ground? 

Will law enforcement toss out reports due to drugs being involved? 

What if other senior leaders become complicit in a cover-up surrounding their colleagues?

At what point should leaders step down and elevate new leaders?

Is restorative justice even possible if the victim or perpetrator doesn’t feel safe or supported enough to come to the table?

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While some acts are inexcusable, we have to be honest with ourselves and understand that good people make mistakes; bad people can be anywhere; and while it’s easy to blame the individual  person, bad policies and dysfunctional systems incentivize bad behavior and can scare good people into silence. 

Ending the destructive and racist drug war in the US and internationally would improve safety and transparency in vulnerable spaces that often don’t have much of either. When the legal status of underground work is improved, frameworks for safety can be established, and abusers simply won’t be able to get away with bad behavior to the same degree they can today. When we can be more open, people will be safer, and practices can be improved more rapidly.

Ending the drug war is an enormous undertaking, and while there aren’t clear steps on how to accomplish such an incredible feat, many in this field are working tirelessly to do what they can. 

See Drug Policy Alliance, Drug Science, and Transform Drug Policy for just a few examples.

The best thing I can do is to use my voice at Psychedelics Today; creating courses, podcasts, and articles that help normalize psychedelics as part of everyday, contemporary life; shed light on under-discussed topics; and give voices to people who aren’t well-known in the space.  

I will continue to do my best to address these tough questions around abuse. I hope you’ll join me.