Modernization of Sacred Plant Medicine Traditions: At What Cost?

By Jessika Lagarde

Sacred psychedelic plant medicines are increasingly entering the Western mainstream, but is it cultural appropriation?

From the medicinal and ceremonial use of mescaline-containing plants by the Indigenous peoples of Mexico thousands of years ago, to the brewing of ayahuasca by several Indigenous groups in the Amazon today, entheogens have been a part of the cultural heritage of these communities in ways that Western society is just starting to understand.

Because there are significant differences in the ways these plants have been used  historically and the way Western society is integrating them, let’s take a brief look at both approaches.

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Indigenous Uses of Sacred Plant Medicines and Traditions

Various Indigenous cultures have used medicinal plants with psychoactive properties for hundreds of years including the Mazatec and Huichol of Mexico, Native North Americans, tribes in Africa, and Indigenous groups in the Amazon. The uses of these plants vary from culture to culture, but have a few commonalities when it comes to their healing purposes. For most, there is a general belief in their sacredness and spiritual properties.

“Plants, in general, have been used for ceremony, food, and utilitarian purposes. Sacred plant medicines were always used in ceremonies and never used for recreational purposes. Plants were placed on this earth to heal humanity as I understand it,” Belinda Eriacho, Native American Healer, tells Psychedelics Today. “In my own experiences, these sacred plant medicines have helped me to heal intergenerational trauma, to find peace with deceased loved ones, and to look at my own life and improve many areas of [it].”

When it comes to ayahuasca, Indigenous peoples from Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador have used the brew in their sacred rituals for many years. It served and continues to serve as a basis for the establishment of different spiritual traditions by these peoples. They hold the vine in high regard and believe it can facilitate the perception of the complexity of the natural world and human creation.

Similarly, the consumption of peyote in sacred rituals allowed the Huicholes and the Tarahumaras of Mexico to come into contact with divine beings or ancestors and to cure various diseases. To this day, peyote has also been adopted by several Native American peoples. They see peyote as a gift from the creator, and a direct communication channel with the “Great Spirit”.

These cultures have preserved rituals and sacred medicines but have also gone through extreme hardships in order to do so. Many Indigenous spiritual practices in Mexico were severely persecuted and banned during the Spanish Inquisition, and hundreds of thousands of natives were brutally murdered. Many other Indigenous communities in the Americas faced the same barbarities during colonization, having their codices destroyed and much of their ceremonial knowledge lost.

Western Uses of Plant Medicines

In the Western world, the use of psychedelic plant medicine can also be traced for thousands of years. A few examples are The Eleusinian Mysteries, the most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece that involved ceremonies with psychoactive plants. Furthermore, Indigenous peoples of Siberia and the Sámi people of Northern Europe used Amanita Muscaria mushrooms in their sacred traditions.

Many medicinal plants have found their way into numerous products that the pharmaceutical industry sells today to treat a variety of diseases and health conditions, from aspirin derived from willow tree bark, to the current growing interest in entheogens for therapy and the possibility to revolutionize global mental health.

Scientists have been carrying out research for decades on psychedelic plants for their chemical properties and pharmaceutical potential. In this model of Western medicine, science seeks to understand these substances simply as chemical compounds detached from their ethnobotanical origin.

Adapting the uses of sacred psychedelic plants to Western medicine brings the advantage of making them accessible to people who can benefit tremendously from their properties on a global scale. In recent years, research into psychedelics has demonstrated their potential to address disorders that have proved difficult to treat including depression, anxiety, chemical dependency, and post-traumatic stress disorders.

But in reality, there is a suspicion that dominating the market is more important than addressing the mental health crisis. For instance, we are currently witnessing a debate on whether it’s ethical for companies such as COMPASS Pathways to try and monopolize the psychedelic industry with their patent strategy.

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Additionally, in the past few years, the New Age spirituality movement has merged with positive psychology and the wellness industry, bringing many to seek healing, transcendental experiences, and self-improvement through entheogens. For many, these plants are the catalyst of positive life changes and are also revered with respect. However, there is concern that some are engaging in ceremonies so often that “spiritual bypassing” is now a recurring theme in psychedelic community discussions.

“I find it interesting how often I hear stories of people doing ceremony [using sacred plant medicines] every weekend. In many indigenous cultures, you were blessed to have one ceremony in your lifetime,” says Eriacho. “I would suggest that if individuals are finding that they need to use these plant medicines every weekend then (1) they are not taking the time to fully integrate into the experiences shown to them, and (2) these plant medicine(s) are not working for them.”

This high demand and constant search are not without negative consequences. Issues related to cultural appropriation, sustainability, and the commercialization of spirituality are often ignored by Westerners while engaging in such frequent ceremonies and spiritual tourism when they should be taken into greater consideration.

What Is Cultural Appropriation?

To understand the meaning of “cultural appropriation”, we need to understand the meaning of “appropriation” and ”culture” on an individual basis. We can define culture as the set of practices, symbols, and values ​​​​that a specific group shares. For example, tattoos are an important symbol for many Indigenous cultures, as they are an essential part of the historical constitution of the groups to which they belong.

On the other hand, appropriation is the act of taking for oneself a certain element without the owner’s consent. So cultural appropriation would be the action of adopting elements of a culture to which you don’t belong without consent. An important detail to remember is this  becomes problematic when it involves a power relationship. For example, it’s cultural appropriation when a culture which has historically been suppressed and marginalized has its elements stolen and its meanings erased by another culture that has dominated it.

Cultural appropriation contributes to the maintenance of structural racism in our society and the continuity of different stereotypes about cultures. But we must not forget that individuals appropriating a culture are just symptoms of a much larger problem. A capitalist system that aims for profit and uses extractivism (the exploitation of natural resources on a massive scale generating significant economic profits for a powerful few) to transform a community’s culture into a product but does not value the people whose culture it belongs to, is the real problem that needs addressing.

In the context of medicinal psychedelic plants and fungi, cultural appropriation may manifest itself in different ways. An example was the bioprospecting (the practice of searching for botanical miracle cures) of psilocybin mushrooms out of their Oaxacan context at the end of the 1950s by R. Gordon Wasson. And more recently, cases of “neo shamans” offering ceremonies they label “authentic” without years of experience and a real understanding of the cultures to which these ceremonies belong, are also examples of cultural appropriation.

The Answer? Awareness, Balance and Respect

There is a growing tendency to commodify these substances without giving back to the communities who have held this knowledge for centuries at their own risk. For example, who is really benefiting from expensive retreats in the Amazon jungle? Additionally, the development of new treatments with synthetic derivatives of these substances will reach the market through pharmaceutical patents without properly recognizing traditional knowledge.

For Indigenous people throughout the world, the commercialization of their spirituality is just one of many daily challenges embedded in larger societal struggles. Western engagement with Indigenous spiritual traditions often contributes to a false romanticization of these communities’ situations; it can even feel like an erasure of the injustices that they have experienced in the past, and continue to experience to this day. Indigenous people have to fight daily for the preservation of their lands, their languages, and their cultures. In fact, many continue to be murdered for standing up for their rights. As psychedelic enthusiasts, we have the responsibility to bring awareness to these dynamics.

“While psychedelic plant medicines still have most of their potential still to be taped into for the benefit of society, contemporary psychedelic studies are at risk of replicating harmful colonial behavior with the territories and communities from which the plants originate,” writes anthropologist, Paloma David, in her forthcoming publication, “Decolonizing Psychedelic Studies: The Case of Ayahuasca”. “A decolonial approach is essential to the current renaissance as failing to recognize indigenous perspectives as equally valuable to the discussion in the appropriate use of these substances only contributes to deepening the colonial wound in which these plants are interwoven.”

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Will psychedelics be reduced to high-class wellness, healthcare, or self-optimization products that are only accessible for those who can afford the steep price tag while the people that carried this traditional knowledge are excluded from the market? As we are about to enter the era of psychedelic capitalism, it’s important for us to remember that balance can be achieved if we acknowledge that respect is crucial for any relationship.

We need to look at what we are doing when it comes to sacred plant medicine, how we are doing it, and what impact our actions have on other communities around the world. There needs to be an effort to educate ourselves in order to comprehend Indigenous paradigms, and the effect of their loss of languages, land, culture, and knowledge. As we begin to better understand spiritual identity and sacred reciprocity, we can start making an effort to no longer let Indigenous peoples and their cultures be seen as resources to be harvested.

“Through my lens as a Native American woman, when we are ill or when we seek balance in our lives through ceremony, we often look to our plant relatives for healing,” says Eriacho “There is a ritual or practice of utilizing these sacred beings. Before the plant is harvested, we are mindful about how much will be needed, and then explain to the plant why it is needed and for whom. This is done out of respect for the plant in exchange for its life. We offer tobacco, cornmeal as an act of appreciation. This is referred to as sacred reciprocity. We need to be respectful and reverent of these sacred plant medicines.”

So how can we protect and develop traditional ceremonies in a way that is useful and respectful of Indigenous communities? And how can we prevent the so-called psychedelic renaissance from exclusively benefiting non-Indigenous Western entrepreneurs?

When I speak to Paloma David about how we can move forward in a respectful fashion, she says, “Firstly, by being culturally humble in actively listening to Indigenous voices who are authorities on the use of psychedelic plant medicines and actively including them in the conversation on the appropriate use of these substances.”

“By being aware of our own cultural biases. By understanding that people’s making-sense of an ayahuasca experience is highly dependent on their cultural background, religious beliefs (or the lack thereof), and personal psychology.” David continues, “And secondly, by avoiding the harmful reproduction of colonial dynamics of appropriation, epistemicide and exploitation in which the Amazon rainforest and Indigenous knowledges are interwoven.”

Reflecting on these ethical dilemmas can offer us models for understanding and solving this  continuing harmful and extractive economy. Another solution might be pointing out paths for fair and reciprocal reparation agreements with Indigenous communities.

More importantly, considering these issues make us question the colonial and racialized Western mentality that contributes to the continued delegitimization of Indigenous communities and their knowledge so we all can at least start asking ourselves: What are the true costs of our healing?

About the Author


Jessika Lagarde is a Brazilian storyteller, Earth and climate activist, and Women On Psychedelics co-Founder. Women On Psychedelics is an educational platform that advocates for the end of the stigmatization around women’s mental health and substance use, and the normalization of the use of psychedelics for its therapeutic potential and healing capacities. Jessika’s environmental work and psychedelic path have made her more aware not only of the crisis of our planet but also of how human disconnection is a direct cause of it. All of her work is informed in taking action in a way that serves the Earth and our human collective, in hopes of mobilizing inner healing towards outer action.

Psychedelics, Religion, and the DEA’s Quest for Soul

By Gary Michael Smith Esq.

Our regular legal contributor explains why the DEA denied the ayahuasca church Soul Quest’s religious freedom exemption application, and how the DEA may be overstepping its role.

To explain what happened between the DEA and Soul Quest, we first need to step back and start from the very beginning. Our story begins with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a sub-agency of the US Department of Justice, itself an agency of the Executive Branch. The DEA serves as legal gatekeeper of scheduled substances under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, including ayahuasca which contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a Schedule 1 substance. Although Schedule 1 substances are generally forbidden, their manufacture and use are permitted for licensed scientific research and as sacrament in sincere religious practice. In fact, there are United States Supreme Court cases that have recognized the First Amendment protected use of psychedelic substances, such as ayahuasca and peyote, in religious practices.  

Against this backdrop, the DEA asserts jurisdiction over access and importation of Schedule 1 substances. For religious users, the DEA requires all religiously inclined importers, manufacturers, and users of Schedule 1 substances to first seek DEA exemption (meaning: acknowledgment and permission) before being allowed to import or to access such drugs. The DEA even published an exemption application and requires all parties seeking exemption to provide a raft of data, substantial disclosures, interviews, among other requirements, signed and sworn under oath, attesting to the possession and use of Schedule 1 substances.

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The Soul Quest Exemption Application

In an effort to comply with the DEA Soul Quest Church of Mother Earth, Inc. submitted a request for religious exemption to use ayahuasca as a sacrament in 2017. It wanted to assure its congregants and officiants would be protected from further and future investigation and interdiction by the DEA, which posed a continuing threat of intervention and prevention of Soul Quest’s ayahuasca importation.

Under attorney letterhead, Soul Quest’s request sought exemption from application of the Controlled Substances Act in its totality—in other words, Soul Quest was seeking the ability to import, possess, manufacture and administer ayahuasca, all on premise of religious freedom:  

“…request for a religious-based exemption by Soul Quest Church of Mother Earth, Inc., d/b/a, Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth Retreat & Wellness Center (“Soul Quest”) to the provisions of the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 801, et seq., specifically as it pertains to the ritual use by Soul Quest of ayahuasca for its sacramental activities. Soul Quest asserts its eligibility for such an exemption, pursuant to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in 0 Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal v. Gonzalez, 546 U.S. 418 (2006) (“Gonzalez”), and the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb, et seq., (“RFRA”).”

In support of its First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) rights, Soul Quest provided a variety of organization records and information, including bylaws, articles of faith, dietary provisions, mission statement, safety and security protocols, among other requirements. Several church members also sat for extensive interviews with DEA agents. 

The DEA’s Denial of Soul Quest

Disappointingly, albeit not surprisingly, the DEA took the better part of four years to come to a decision: application denied.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

It is important to make a clear distinction here that the First Amendment does not grant religious freedom.  Rather, it acknowledges its preexistence. The US Constitution presupposes religious freedom existed before nationhood and that the innate right would be forever protected from government intrusion through the guarantee provided for in the First Amendment. In this sense, the First Amendment is a brake on governmental regulatory power. But this does not mean the government cannot regulate. It can. But, when those regulations intersect religious belief or practice, the borders of Constitutional right can sometimes be ambiguous and require a court ruling. That is where the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act comes into play. It assures that the burden is always on the government to prove that its religion-impacting regulation serves a compelling governmental interest and is being enforced by the least restrictive means. To this end, the DEA’s denial letter actually does a fine job of summarizing the RFRA standard. But for reasons explained a little further below, the DEA is misinterpreting its position in the RFRA analysis flow:

“According to RFRA, the “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the Government can demonstrate “that application of the burden to the person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1; AG Memorandum at 3. To establish a prima facie case for an exemption from the CSA under RFRA, a claimant must demonstrate that application of the CSA’s prohibitions with respect to a specific controlled substance would (1) substantially burden, (2) religious exercise (as opposed to a philosophy or way of life), (3) based on a belief that is sincerely held by the claimant. 0 Centro, 546 U.S. at 428. Once the claimant has established these threshold requirements, the burden shifts to the government to demonstrate that the challenged prohibition furthers a compelling governmental interest by the least restrictive means. This “compelling interest test” must be satisfied through application of the CSA to the particular claimant who alleges that a sincere exercise of religion is being substantially burdened. Id. at 430-31.”

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The DEA Installed its RFRA Filter Backwards

Soul Quest is in litigation with the DEA over the exemption denial and is challenging the DEA’s determinations, seeking to enjoin the government agency’s continuing interdictions of its religious practices. Whatever facts the DEA disbelieved or questioned will ultimately be put to a judge (if the case survives to an evidentiary hearing).

Not only does Soul Quest get to challenge the DEA’s application of the facts, but Soul Quest also gets to challenge how the DEA applies the law.  In this regard, any psychedelic religious group would be right in thinking to attack the process. That is, just because the DEA says it gets to decide what a religion is, does not necessarily mean the DEA actually has that authority.  Likewise, just because the DEA says its policy of wholesale refusal to grant importation exemption is the “least restrictive means” does not mean it is.

In other words, a psychedelic religion seeking to challenge the DEA’s assumptions should not simply let the DEA dictate or frame the issues. Why? Because the DEA has it wrong. Let’s walk through the analysis.

Imagine you just asked (not applied – just asked) for exemption. The DEA, under its current policies, would presuppose it is not dealing with a religion or a religious group. [Why?] The DEA would deny the exemption. [Why?] The DEA would request you fill out its forms. [Why?] Provide a raft of data. [Why?] Sit for interviews. [Why?] The DEA requests this on the premise that it is going to determine, amongst other things, if your group is a religion. [Why?] And the DEA will also determine if your practice is sincere. [Why?]

Consider this: The DEA investigates and makes its own determination on the validity of religion and the sincerity of its practice. If the DEA determines, as it did in Soul Quest’s instance, that your group is not a religion, or it determines your practice is insincere, it will deny you the exemption. But, from where does DEA, a police agency, derive this power? In what statute or appellate decision is the DEA’s espoused belief that it has the right to investigate and to certify religion in the United States found?  Doesn’t the First Amendment demand that the DEA presume the religion is valid and its practitioners sincere? Wouldn’t anything less be an affront to the guaranteed protection of fundamental freedoms accorded by the First Amendment? 

If imagination helps context, consider if the issue were Catholics having to prove both Catholicism and the sincerity of its practice to a police officer, as a precondition to import or to consume Eucharist wafers. This would be abhorrent to the First Amendment, would it not? Next, imagine that the same police officer approved Catholicism, but still denied the Eucharist because he found your practice of Catholicism insincere (your transgression: not being at Mass last Sunday). A police agency preventing access to Eucharist because of the officer’s arbitrary assessment would even more offend the First Amendment, would it not? Yet, this is present DEA policy. What’s worse, the DEA does this with no objective standards. 

Readers must understand, the DEA absolutely has a role to play in the nation’s drug regulatory scheme. It likewise does properly involve itself in scheduled substance importation and tracking. In this context, contact between the DEA and religious groups engaged in the importation of psychedelic sacrament is neither unexpected nor unwelcomed. For example, pharmaceutical companies and medical practitioners are well acquainted with the paperwork and practices that come with the importation and storage of scheduled substances. But those are, compared to assessing religion, very mechanical and objective functions for the agency. Religion is far too ephemeral and Constitutionally protected for a police agency to engage without clear parameters and metrics. And that is the point, even assuming the DEA were authorized to assess religion, it would still need objective metrics, of which it presently has none. In the absence of objective standards, its decisions on religion would be (and are) subjective and applied unequally.

Even if somehow the practice of DEA religious assessment were deemed First Amendment compliant, the DEA would still then have to contend with the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Constitution, two places where subjectivity combined with government intrusion have not fared well.  If the DEA does not have published objective standards, then every investigation it conducts into religion is by definition subjective. In every one of those cases, the decisions will be made (and presently are being made) by field agents with no training in religious practices or theology—cops arbitrarily approving and disapproving religions.

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The Solution on the Religion Question

This may seem odd, but the DEA being mired in the religion question is a little not its fault. The DEA was created by President Nixon to assist in enforcement of the new Controlled Substances Act, but it was never given instruction or authority over religion. Making matters more complicated, although it sets many of its own policies, the DEA answers to the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ), and neither have ever put forth a cogent and logical policy on religious exemption. The favorable ayahuasca cases, especially the 2006 case, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006), caught the DEA off guard, but it never put in the time to work through the problem.

There is a single solution that solves both the problem of helping the DEA to avoid having to act as religious police and helping to arrive at the true least restrictive means to effectuate the DEA’s legitimate governmental interest of preventing diversion of controlled substances outside of the comprehensive regulatory scheme established by Congress. And, no, total prohibition as the DEA advocates is not the solution. Rather, the DEA should abandon its entire exemption policy. 

Instead, the DEA should reduce its religious assessments to no more than requiring an attestation of religious intention and sincerity of belief, signed under oath and under penalty of perjury (the DEA could still mandate inspection of storage facilities and other non-religious aspects). The attestation would include details like: name, address, phone number, and other neutral data, much like what pharmaceutical companies or medical professionals provide.

Under this practice, the DEA’s need to track and verify would remain satisfied. Upon exchange of the attestation, the DEA should release the sacrament to the applicant. If the DEA has doubts, it then can refer cases to the US Department of Justice for its exercise of proper discretion, including possible investigation. If things are found inaccurate from the attestation, USDOJ would remain free to charge the parties involved (plus charge a bonus felony for the false attestation). Such an arrangement would keep the DEA out of religion, while still enabling the agency to function. Plus, attestation is a far less restrictive means than the DEA’s current policy of wholesale refusal. 

A simple attestation policy (coupled with the DEA’s normal investigatory functions) is what RFRA requires—a burden on the government, not on the religion.  Such a practice follows the proper flow of a RFRA analysis: It presupposes religious practice, places the burden on the government to prove otherwise, protects the individual religious right even during the investigation, and only resolves in favor of the government if the government proves its case as RFRA requires.

Will Soul Quest or any other psychedelic religious group argue these points to a court engaged in reviewing DEA policy? We will have to wait to see. Since there are a few psychedelic religion cases pending in various US courts at the moment, perhaps the time is coming.

About the Author

Gary Michael Smith is an attorney and arbitrator and founding member of the Phoenix Arizona-based Guidant Law Firm. He is also 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 GreenEntrepreneur.  He is the author of Psychedelica Lex: The Law of Psychedelics and teaches a Masterclass in our free course on the legal use of psychedelics, Psychedelics and Religious Liberty in the United States.

What Is Depth Psychology and How Does It Relate to Psychedelics?

illustration representing Jung's theory of the conscious and unconscious to represent Psychedelics Today column "Psychedelics in Depth"

By Simon Yugler

Original Illustration by Martin Clarke

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

-C.G. Jung

This is the first article in a series called Psychedelics in Depth, in which we will explore the many ways that depth and Jungian psychology intersect with the many multicolored permutations of the psychedelic experience.

Our intention is to provide readers with a foundational understanding of the depth psychological tradition, define important terms like shadow or archetype, and explore how this way of interfacing with the psyche can inform psychedelic work for both facilitators and psychonauts alike.

There is a high likelihood we may encounter a mythical beast or two along the way as well. Thanks for being here. Onwards.

When you think about “psychology,” what images come to mind? A person laying down on a couch, talking about their mother? A man with a thick European accent, cryptically jotting down someone’s dreams? Ink blot tests? Cigars?

Believe it or not, all of these clichés come from the tradition of depth psychology. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who’s work we will examine later, were both depth psychologists. But before we get any further, let’s take the advice given to young Alice during her first bleary steps into Wonderland, and begin at the beginning.

What Is Depth Psychology?

Traditionally, depth psychology was any method of psychoanalytic work which focused on the unconscious. Today, the term “depth” is often used as a shorthand for the various permutations of thought influenced by Carl Jung, which can include everything from mythology, to archetypal astrology, to Internal Family Systems Therapy.

Despite Jung’s enduring association with the term, “depth psychology” was actually coined in the early 20th century by one of his colleagues, the Swiss psychoanalyst Eugen Bleuler, who also coined the term schizophrenia.

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Depth psychology differs from other schools of psychology (behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, etc.) in that it takes the unconscious as the primary driving force on our behaviors and emotions. Because it is itself unconscious, the unconscious cannot be known by our usual, logical, and rational ways of “knowing.”

Therefore, depth psychology employs the use of symbols, images, and metaphors to translate the language of the psyche, which historically was approached through dreams and patterns in mythology. Working with myth is one of the hallmarks of the “depth approach,” and clearly distinguishes this field of psychology from others.

Yet it is important to remember that in depth psychology, symbols and images are always used to describe something “as if,” and not as literal representations. This is one of the most important tenets of depth psychology: Images and symbols are used by the psyche to reference something deeper and likely unknown, yet something that our psyche yearns for us to discover. In true depth psychology, there is always space for the unknown.

The etymological roots of the word psychology can be understood as “the way into” or “the study of the soul.” Depth psychology emphasizes this ineffable notion of the soul, and continually places this unknowable facet of the human experience at its core. What this means in practical terms is a focus on the most important and vexing issues which have accompanied humanity since the dawn of time: birth, death, love, loss, mystery, purpose, growth, decay, and the meaning of it all. The very things which make us human.

Who Is Carl Jung?

Carl Gustav (C.G.) Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist who helped shape psychology into the discipline we know today. His method of understanding the psyche, which he termed analytical psychology, forms what is now popularly called “Jungian psychology.”

For many years, Jung was slated to become Sigmund Freud’s “crowned prince” and protege, but their paths diverged in 1912 over disagreements as to the reality of the “collective unconscious,” which Frued summarily rejected. Jung’s insistence that there is an ancient, unknowable, species-wide repository of psychic information which informs the human experience flew in the face of Freud’s increasingly dogmatic theories, which focused on sex and pleasure as the driving forces behind all human behavior.

This break led Jung into a long period of introspection which he termed his “confrontation with the unconscious,” during which he delved deep into his own psyche and imagination. Eventually, this process resulted in his detailed map and terminology of the psyche, his practice of active imagination, as well as The Red Book, and the recently published, Black Books.

For a more detailed account of Jung’s life and work, readers should refer to his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections.

Jung employed a variety of terms to describe his understanding of the psyche and all of the mysterious dynamics he observed within his patients (especially those suffering from severe schizophrenia), and within himself. Concepts such as the collective unconscious, archetypes, the shadow, anima, synchronicity, individuation, and the Self, are all terms that Jung coined and wrote about extensively. They are also topics we discuss in our course that explores psychedelics and depth psychology, Imagination as Revelation: The Psychedelic Experience in the Light Jungian Psychology.

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Yet again, it bears repeating that these terms are to be understood as mere symbols or points on a map, referring to places or dynamics within the psyche that our conscious mind struggles to grasp. Jung himself said, “Theories in psychology are the very devil. It is true that we need certain points of view for orienting… but they should always be regarded as mere auxiliary concepts that can be laid aside at any time.”

Depth Psychology and Popular Culture

While the mainstream psychological establishment has eschewed the work of Jung for many decades, his legacy informs our collective imagination and culture in profound ways, perhaps more than any other figure in the history of psychology.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell drew deeply from Jung’s work, and based many of his ideas of The Hero’s Journey on Jung’s theories. George Lucas consulted with Campbell while creating Star Wars, arguably one of the most significant film series of all time. The poet Robert Bly mentions Jung throughout his book Iron John, which paved the way for the body of work that is now called “men’s work.” Jungian analyst and author Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her enduring text, Women Who Run With the Wolves, worked directly with Jungian concepts to address aspects of the feminine psyche.

Any reference to “archetypes” or something being “archetypal” plainly invokes Jung and his work on these illusive, yet omnipresent patterns of being. The shadow, or “shadow work,” which has become something of a buzzword in psychedelics in recent years, conjures Jung as well. We have a whole course that examines Jung’s concepts of the shadow, the difference between the “Golden” and “Dark” shadow, and other related issues called, Psychedelics and the Shadow: Exploring the Shadow Side of Psychedelia.

Similarly, Jung also coined the term “synchronicity,” which could be defined as a meaningful coincidence, and was a phenomenon that captivated him for decades. Lastly, any reference to “the collective,” harkens to Jung’s notions of the “collective unconscious,” which is a foundational aspect of his psychological model, and which we’ll address in our next article in this “Psychedelics in Depth” series.

Despite all of these enduring contributions, Jung still remains somewhat of a marginal figure. There are a multitude of reasons for this, a major one being that his theories escape empirical measurement, and eventually lead one outside the rational-materialist worldview we now call “science.” Mention Jung’s name in most mainstream psychology degree programs and the odds are you will be met with skepticism. 

James Hillman, who some say was Jung’s last living direct student, offered this extensive “Defense of Jung,” which you can listen to here.

Subversion and marginality have arguably always been at the core of depth psychology. Dreams themselves exist at the margins of our consciousness, and can often direct our attention to marginal areas of our psyche which we would rather not see. Concepts such as the anima/animus, which imply that every male has inside him a female soul (and vice-versa), directly subverts our culture’s basic understanding of gender. Archetypes reveal to us that our personal life story is not a unique, singular event, but rather, connected to a greater chain of human experiences.

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Join us for our course on the Jungian concept of the “shadow” and the many ways it applies to psychedelics, Psychedelics and the Shadow: Exploring the Shadow Side of Psychedelia.

Lastly, depth psychology’s pervasive insistence on the reality of the soul can be seen as a revolutionary act within a culture that seeks to actively deny the very existence of such a thing. The consequences of this denial can be seen within every great historical, interpersonal, and environmental tragedy perpetrated upon people and the planet across time.

Therefore, the significance of depth psychology extends far beyond the confines of the therapists’ office or the university lecture hall, and stretches out into the old growth forests, indigenous communities, and inner cities across the world.

Depth psychology is not just a school of psychology, but a lens through which to intimately perceive and meaningfully engage with the wider world.

Depth Psychology and Psychedelics

Depth psychology offers an immensely useful framework for approaching psychedelic work, both as a facilitator and a psychonaut. Stanislav Grof, pioneer of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and transpersonal psychology and one of our biggest influences here at Psychedelics Today, described the role that psychedelics play as a psychic “abreactive,” meaning that they bring to the surface whatever unconscious material has the most emotional charge. Seen from this lens, psychedelics, which often work directly with unconscious material, could therefore be seen as part and parcel to the larger field of depth psychology.

Interpreting the variety of imagery and experiences that psychedelics can evoke can easily be aided by a grounding in basic depth psychology, especially understanding the interplay between image, archetypes, and complexes. Facing and integrating one’s shadow is a central aspect of both Jung’s work and using the psychedelic experience for personal growth and healing.

Many worthwhile books have been written on the interplay between psychedelics and depth psychology, including Grof’s body of work, Confrontation with the Unconscious, and much of the work by Ann Shulgin, Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner. Yet the interplay between depth psychology and psychedelics offers immense potential in the realms of research, therapeutic methodology, and integration—more so than I believe has been fully realized.

The history of psychedelic research is almost inseparable from the tradition of depth psychology. Stanislav Grof, mentioned above, as well as other early psychedelic researchers, approached their work from a depth psychological lens. Because of certain cultural shifts over the 20th century, current psychedelic research prioritizes quantitative and statistical analysis which can often overlook the highly personal and emotional aspects of the psychedelic experience.

Yet, depth psychology requires us to return to the real, troublesome, subjective experiences of the individual as its primary territory of work, and for this reason offers one of the most valuable lenses from which to view the psychedelic experience. Because, just like human beings, no two psychedelic journeys are alike, since they are in essence reflections of the multifaceted and endlessly mysterious inner world of the brave souls who dare to explore their own uncharted depths.

About the Author

photo of Simon Yugler, a white man with blond hair and a goatee.

Simon Yugler is a depth and psychedelic integration therapist based in Portland, OR with a masters (MA) in depth counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. Weaving Jungian psychology, Internal Family Systems therapy, and mythology, Simon also draws on his diverse experiences learning from indigenous cultures around the world, including the Shipibo ayahuasca tradition. He has a background in experiential education, and has led immersive international journeys for young adults across 10 countries. He is passionate about initiation, men’s work, indigenous rights, decolonization, and helping his clients explore the liminal wilds of the soul. Find out more on his website and on Instagram , Twitter (@depth_medicine) or Facebook.