The core therapeutic issue for most of us is that we yearn to be loved and accepted for who we are. Ideally, this need should have been fulfilled during our earliest years in a secure relationship with our parents, but that’s often not the case, and so we search for feeling loved in romantic relationships. However, finding unconditional love in adult relationships is rare, and when bad behavior is involved, such as alcoholism, it’s downright unrealistic.
The same core issue surfaces in psychedelic therapy with the added intensity of psychological regression. In ayahuasca ceremonies, people sometimes view visionary home movies of their childhood while maintaining an outside observer’s perspective. At other times, they relive a childhood event as if it were happening in the ceremonial moment; they regress in age to the time of the scene. Either way, ceremonies often open up deep feelings of wanting to be accepted and loved.
The therapeutic issue of needing to be re-parented was recognized with the earliest psychedelic research, when the tradition was established to use a male and a female sitter, who represented kind, caring parents. This made perfect sense in the fifties when the therapeutic orientation was primarily psychoanalytical. However, this tradition has continued into the current research labs, where the orientation is psychopharmacological or neurological. Everyone seems to respect the value of having a male and a female present for the duration, whether or not they agree with the psychoanalytical theory behind the tradition.
Betty Eisner, one of the earliest LSD psychiatrists, wrote about the importance of bodily contact between patient and analyst especially when the patient was regressed to childhood. Similarly, Joyce Martin, a British analyst from the sixties, provided physical mothering during LSD sessions when the patient was regressed. Swiss psychiatrist Friederike Fischer follows in this tradition; she holds and rocks the client during drug sessions, and so meets the person’s “longed-for healing experience of letting himself be held by his mother or father.” The willingness of analytically trained therapists to venture into the no-man’s land of physical contact illustrates the revolutionary nature of early psychedelic therapy.1 2 3
Ayahuasca is different. In ceremonies, whether in a shamanic or church setting, this type of physical therapeutic intervention doesn’t happen. The corrective experience that can happen with ayahuasca is very similar to what psychotherapist Ann Shulgin described in MDMA-assisted therapy sessions. As pure MDMA helps to reduce the fear and loathing of the shadow parts of the person’s personality, “there arises a peaceful acceptance of whatever is en- countered, and an unaccustomed compassion for himself, an acceptance of all the aspects of his own nature, giving and selfish, kind and vengeful, loving and despicable.” From a Jungian point of view, this kind of experience evokes the transcendent function that encompasses the polarities in the personality, allowing for a higher level of self-acceptance to emerge.4
Shulgin described this experience as “being held in the loving hands of God, one of the most healing experiences any human being can have.” The therapeutic value of this “experience of unconditional self-acceptance” and “absolute validation” spontaneously leads to the falling away of old, defensive habits.
In Shulgin’s description, this experience goes beyond the re-parenting that other psychedelic therapists have advocated. It’s spontaneous and can’t be initiated or even facilitated by the therapist; it’s no longer just a psychologically corrective experience but an ecstatic encounter with the Divine.
Discerning a psychological experience from a numinous or spiritual one is a critical skill for a therapist working in psychedelic realms. If someone has been age-regressed and physically nurtured during a psychedelic session, the therapist can feel free to explore this experience over many therapy sessions in a process of psychological integration. It takes time and many rounds of asking self-reflective questions: How did that feel? Could you let that feeling sink deeply into your body so you can feel it in your bones? Now that you know what it feels like to be so well-nurtured, how do you view your mother and father? How were your parents nurtured by their parents? How has the need for loving acceptance played out in your adult relationships? How do you think your need is different now? How will this difference in you make a difference in your current relationships?
However, if the psychedelic experience was “being held in the loving hands of God,” the therapist should only say, “Wow.” No exploration, no verbal integration. At most, the advice might be to “hold that experience in your heart.” The person might want to do a drawing with oil pastels, write in their journal in prose or poetry, listen to music, walk in the garden, or dance in the woods. A compelling urge for creative expression often arises out of the depths. On the other hand, any traditional, verbal therapeutic approach to such a numinous experience, even with the best of intentions, could dilute or corrupt it or, even worse, diminish or undermine the experience.
How does the therapist know how to discern a psychological experience from a numinous one? The only way is for the therapist to be personally familiar with these interior territories. A naïve therapist might misinterpret the spiritual experience, downgrading it to something psychological with which he or she is more familiar and more comfortable. No one who’s experienced this level of numinous love wants to be told it was a fantasy or wish fulfillment.
Also, the person should not tell and retell his or her experience of cosmic love, turning it into just another self-aggrandizing story. My advice “to hold the experience in your heart” is literal. A person should keep it internal, only externalizing it in creative expression. The experience will continue to work on the person from the inside in its own time and way. In the case of Grandmother Ayahuasca, the experience of feeling loved by her will both deepen and expand. Trust this process, nourish it with attention, notice subtle changes, and cultivate gratitude for the unfolding process.
What sometimes follows is a gradual rearrangement of inner architecture with a new benchmark for feeling loved. The old self-schema — “I’m unlovable or not good enough to be loved” — might morph into “I’m lovable and deserve to be loved.” People who feel in their heart of hearts that they deserve to be loved will make different decisions in both friendships and romantic relationships. They’ll have a different standard for how they want to be treated by themselves and others. There will be less likelihood of continuing to act out a repetition compulsion — choosing a partner similar to one of their parents who will trigger childhood issues of neglect, rejection, or abandonment. In other words, a person will be reprogrammed, and this transformation should be observable in neurological changes in the architecture of the brain.5
This article was excerpted from the book Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety. Copyright © 2017 by Rachel Harris. Printed with permission from New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com
- Eisner, B. (1967). The importance of the non-verbal. In H. A. Abramson (Ed.), The use of LSD in psychotherapy and alcoholism (pp. 542-60). New York: Bobbs-Merrill. ↩
- Martin, A. J. (1967). LSD analysis. In H. A. Abramson (Ed.), The use of LSD in psychotherapy and alcoholism (pp. 223-36). New York: Bobbs-Merrill. ↩
- Fischer, F. M. (2015). Therapy with substance: Psycholytic psychotherapy in the twenty-first century. New York: Muswell Hill Press. ↩
- Miller, J. C. (2004). The transcendent function. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ↩
- Karisson, H. (2011). How psychotherapy changes the brain. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved May 11, 2017 from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/psychotherapy/how-psychotherapy-changes-brain. ↩
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