The oceanlike immensity of joy
Arising when all beings will be freed.
Will this not be enough? Will this not satisfy?
The wish for my own freedom, what is that to me? – Shantideva1
How many of us psychedelic users can find some empathy for the idea of “putting it in the water supply?” Not for the reprehensible tactic, but for the underlying fantasy that, if enough people were initiated into the mysteries, we could save the world together. When we take a psychedelic, we feel this possibility deep in our bones. We sense the lock-and-key fit between the immediacy of our psychedelic experiences and the urgency of the species-level problems we face. These substances change us, while showing us the need for a global shift that reaches far beyond our individual selves. Our own healing leaves us with a more impassioned ache for the systemic changes that would heal our collective life as well.
For many, our collective liberation will come on the heels of legal psychedelic psychotherapy in the United States, which will give record numbers of Americans the chance to experience MDMA and psilocybin. Excitement has built2 3 4 around the empirical finding5 that depressed patients who received two doses of psilocybin reported durable attitude shifts toward a greater sense of connectedness to nature and away from authoritarian ideals, like xenophobia and ironfisted leadership.
However, inadequate attention has been paid to the fact that psychotherapy is our culture’s very particular take on how healing and change should happen – one that has co-evolved with our values and molded itself to a certain status quo.
But are better attitudes enough to save us from the dual colossi of climate change and fascist strongman politics? We know that much of what comes out of a psychedelic experience is only as impactful as the integration that follows it. Our integration practices are what bridge the chasm between felt experiences and the changes they inspire. And, for the clinical protocols seeking FDA approval, this integration will be administered by an institution that has been seen by many as the natural home for psychedelics within American culture: Western psychotherapy. However, inadequate attention has been paid to the fact that psychotherapy is our culture’s very particular take on how healing and change should happen – one that has co-evolved with our values and molded itself to a certain status quo. Our decision to wed psychedelics to it will thus have a profound impact on the ways in which we will allow them to change us. Psychotherapy is home to many biases worthy of critique, but perhaps the one most threatening to our hopes for a psychedelic transformation of society is its bias toward individual solutions in lieu of collective ones.
Individualistic Bias in Western Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy is, at its most basic, a set of techniques for attending to suffering at an individual level. Even group or family modalities serve the well-being of the individuals present, not the larger social systems around them. This may seem like a trite, unproblematic thing to observe. But there was nothing fated about our choice to frame our dominant response to suffering in this way.
The roots of psychotherapy’s individualistic bias can be traced back earlier than field itself, at least as early as the nineteenth century.6 Americans were reeling from the alienation brought by the Industrial Revolution and the traumatic tears to our social fabric wrought by the Civil War. To fill the void left by our lost spirit of communal interdependence, self-help technologies arose, such as mesmerism, mind-cure, and the mental hygiene movement. What they had in common was that they taught Americans to reframe the adversity of the era as an internal problem with individual-level solutions. This mirrored the shift in societal power dynamics occurring at the time, as the newly ascendant class of advertisers and industrial managers was all too happy to help Americans learn that the one thing they could change was themselves.
When psychoanalysis, the first major school of psychotherapeutic thought, arrived on our shores in the early twentieth century, its methods were quickly brought in line with our predilection for personal solutions.
These developments set the stage for the rise of American psychotherapy as a formal institution of individual healing for society’s discontents. When psychoanalysis, the first major school of psychotherapeutic thought, arrived on our shores in the early twentieth century, its methods were quickly brought in line with our predilection for personal solutions. In Europe, psychoanalysis had been a disruptive cultural force whose revolutionary potential was a hot topic of debate among Marxists. On American soil, it quickly became a tamer set of self-improvement strategies that emphasized adapting oneself to a social context taken as given. Behaviorism, a homegrown contemporary of psychoanalysis, shared this tenet of changing an individual’s response to conditions that were beyond their power to change. Humanistic and existentialist psychologies—the “third force” in psychology that arose in the 1950s—rejected the mechanistic language of their predecessors but further enshrined the individual as the domain for change.7
Multicultural competency training has become its own essential force within American psychotherapy, but the focus it has brought to cultural context has mainly served to help therapists attend to individual lives in a more contextualized way. Approaches that aspire toward collective transformation have also arisen in recent decades but have had little discernible impact on the way our culture does psychotherapy in its hospitals, clinics, schools, and private practice offices. The century of momentum behind the individualistic bias has proven to be too much to overcome.
So, for over a century, American psychotherapy served as our society’s curator of individual-level solutions for many of our systemic problems. While it has helped many in this role, its more insidious fruits are very clear in the present day. Consider how many of our lethal epidemics—depression, suicide, addiction, gun violence—have systemic causes that get lost in our public conversations about increasing access to the panacea of mental health services. For these and many other issues, we have hamstrung our imagination for broader change by locating the root of our suffering within the individual.
If you were to approach 20 random Americans and say to them, “I am miserable, I feel alone, I am overworked, and I don’t have what I need to better my situation,” it would be striking if one of them raised the possibility of organizing collectively.
If you were to approach 20 random Americans and say to them, “I am miserable, I feel alone, I am overworked, and I don’t have what I need to better my situation,” it would be striking if one of them raised the possibility of organizing collectively. The majority would likely ask, “Have you tried talking to a therapist?”
How This May Limit Psychedelics’ Disruptive Potential
Psychedelics, coming to us by way of American psychotherapy, are set to inherit this individualistic bias. If they do, insights about our interconnectedness and relatedness to nature will be mined exclusively for the contributions they make to personal-level healing rather than considered as data that could drive the construction of a better world. In a word, they will be “psychologized.”
For instance, imagine a person suffering from depression who undergoes psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. In the session, he transcends his ego and finds his awareness expanded to include an entire ecosystem that is contaminated and on the brink of collapse. From this vantage point, he is able to experience its toxicity as something his human nervous system can understand: immense suffering. He shows up to his first integration session distraught about what he felt.
Within an individualist framework, his therapist may respond in a number of ways. She might see this experience as counter-therapeutic and try to talk him away from it. She may ask questions that draw his attention to the affect he’s experiencing in hope that the deeper (read: personal) meaning will reveal itself. She may interpret it as expressive of inner conflicts or early life material as she would a dream. Or maybe the moment will be taken as an opportunity to practice a distress tolerance technique. At best, the therapist may simply sit with him in the anguish, steadying herself in the faith that this is some mysterious part of his healing process.
Psychedelics warrant a more expansive model of healing that leaves space for individual experiences to contribute to collective transformation.
What all of these responses have in common is that they take an experience about a large-scale injustice and make it about the patient. Such psychologizing is in line with what American psychotherapy has evolved to do. Psychedelics warrant a more expansive model of healing that leaves space for individual experiences to contribute to collective transformation. The direness of our current problems demands this as well.
Liberatory Praxis in Psychedelic Psychotherapy
Is there room for such an expanded notion of healing in American psychotherapy? In a word: almost! As mentioned above, the field’s individualist bias has been increasingly recognized and critiqued in the past few decades by an array of dissident voices within its own walls, including feminist psychologists, Marxist psychologists, liberation psychologists, and critical psychologists. Many of their developments, if applied creatively, could point the way to a less individualistic approach to psychedelic psychotherapy.
As an example, among many, let’s consider the idea of critical consciousness-raising, a form of radical praxis that was first developed by radical educator Paulo Freire (1970) and finds its clearest elaboration for psychotherapy in the work of liberation psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró.8 Freire coined the term to refer to a three-step process of supporting individuals in becoming aware of the structural conditions they face, helping them build the self-confidence and motivation required to change these conditions, and co-determining how they might effectively do so. In Martín-Baró’s approach, therapist and patient work together to recognize and unravel internalized forms of oppression in patients in order to turn them outwards to the world as agents of sociopolitical change who are “in charge of history.” The desired outcome of this expanded take on healing is a patient who has not just healed their own trauma but has taken steps to uproot the conditions that set the stage for the traumatic event in the first place.
Now, imagine what the introduction of a critical consciousness-raising lens to psychedelic psychotherapy could look like. Imagine if the client who felt the pain of an ecosystem was invited to explore and confront the layers of culturally-enforced not-knowing that have hid his nature-relatedness from him and others? What if his therapist asked, not just about the benefits that this relatedness bestowed on him, but also the responsibilities? What if his therapist supported his post-session development in a way that held solidarity as equally important as individuation?
We would be acting on the opportunity to create the kind of healing that our world needs right now. And we would be doing justice to these awe-inspiring substances that we know can do so much more than “reset” a stuck brain.
Strikingly, this shift would require only a small, achievable step away from our current practices. It can be done now, and it can be done ethically. It need not come at the expense of the client’s personal healing. If there were a conflict between an individual and a collective focus, the former would win out, but we are likely to find that they overlap more than they diverge. There would be no added “pre-programming” of people’s experiences with a demand for a collectivist focus. The therapist need only to keep an ear out for any elements of the client’s experience that may speak to collective concerns and to explore the client’s openness to using it to benefit the collective good.
The Mushroom at the End of History
Perhaps this critique is too pessimistic, and psychedelics will burst free from whatever trojan horse they rode into our society to disrupt our dysfunctional systems. Maybe it is enough to simply “bring people to the medicine.” I hope so.
Perhaps the old adage about the impossibility of dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools applies here, and Western psychotherapy needs a deeper disruption from outside of its own walls.
But, if anything, I fear that the suggestion put forth here won’t go far enough. Perhaps the old adage about the impossibility of dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools applies here, and Western psychotherapy needs a deeper disruption from outside of its own walls. There are plenty of indigenous notions of interconnectedness that could gainfully subvert our individualistic models.9 10 11 There has been an inchoate call in the conference presentations of many psychedelic researchers to open ourselves up to indigenous wisdom as our culture’s use of psychedelics enters its turbulent adolescence. Maybe this is the lesson we most urgently need to learn at this juncture. The time is now, since, in the words of psychedelic psychotherapy-skeptic Terence McKenna (1995), “we don’t want this to end in a toxified garbage pit ruled by Nazis, but that is the way we may well be headed. … We need a pharmacological intervention on anti-social behavior or we are not going to get hold of our dilemma.”
Art by Marialba Quesada.
- Shantideva. (2006). The way of the Bodhisattva. Boston, MA: Shambala. ↩
- Gunther, M. (2020, January 25). Could psychedelics heal the world? Medium. https://elemental.medium.com/can-psychedelics-heal-the-world-4ea4d5339a89 ↩
- Peck, J. (2020, February 15). Psychedelics for systems change: Could drugs help us save the planet? OpenDemocracy. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/psychedelics-systems-change-could-drugs-help-us-save-planet/ ↩
- Ratner, P. (2018, January 28). Scientists find magic mushrooms could help fight fascism. Big Think. https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/scientists-find-magic-mushrooms-could-help-fight-fascism ↩
- Lyons, T., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2018). Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 32(7), 811–819. ↩
- Cushman, P. (1996). Constructing the self, constructing America: A cultural history of psychotherapy. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Longman. ↩
- Prilleltensky, I. (1994). The morals and politics of psychology: Psychological discourse and the status quo. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ↩
- Martín-Baró, I., Aron, A., & Corne, S. (Eds.). (1994). Writings for a liberation psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ↩
- Bourzat, F. (2019, April 5). Sacred mushrooms of the Mazatec tradition: Transforming the inner landscape of the human psyche. Chacruna. https://chacruna.net/sacred-mushrooms-of-the-mazatec-tradition-transforming-the-inner-landscape-of-the-human-psyche/ ↩
- Feinberg, B. (2017, April). Conflict and transformation – Mazatec & outsiders’ views, mushroom use in Huautla. Paper presented at the 2017 Psychedelic Science conference, Oakland, CA. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOJNAqneL1o ↩
- Katz, R. (2017). Indigenous healing psychology: Honoring the wisdoms of the First Peoples. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press. ↩
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