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As we forge deeper in the psychedelic movement, and substances like MDMA and psilocybin steadily edge closer to being FDA-approved medicines, clinical research models and paradigms of psychedelic-assisted therapy leave much to be desired when it comes to understanding the spiritual and religious aspects of psychedelic experiences. Chaplains are now stepping up to fill the gap left by medical and psychological models, carving out a space to compassionately support individuals through their spiritual and existential challenges catalyzed by psychedelics.

What is Psychedelic Chaplaincy?

The simple truth is that many people don’t understand the meaning of the term “chaplaincy,” even though the demand for chaplains has been on the rise in recent years. Traditionally, chaplaincy was rooted in Christian and Protestant traditions, with the term “chaplain” being used to refer to a member of the clergy who tended to a chapel. However, chaplains have since branched out and there are now practicing Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and even non-denominational, as well as atheist and multifaith chaplains.

In a dually secular and pluralist age, the scope of chaplains is no longer strictly limited to churches, and they are known to tend to individuals within private institutions, the military, hospitals, hospices, prisons, universities, and beyond. Chaplains are often deeply involved in supporting birth, end-of-life care, and other types of naturally occurring non-ordinary states of consciousness, providing spiritual, pastoral, religious, and ethical care in secular institutions. Whether it be a small crisis around uncertainty or change produced by having a child or getting married, or a bigger crisis such as grieving the loss of a loved one or being diagnosed with a terminal illness, chaplains are trained to help individuals come to terms with a variety of existential crises.

The term “chaplain” is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “spiritual care provider” or “spiritual care practitioner.” Similar to therapists, professional chaplains or spiritual care providers within the US generally need to undertake a master’s degree in theological education, a full-time year of supervised clinical training, and sometimes even ordination, to gain board certification. In addition to academic qualifications, chaplains usually require an endorsement from their religious or spiritual group, adding another layer of accountability within their professional practice towards their community of belonging.

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According to Rachel Petersen, visiting fellow at Harvard Divinity School, Program Director for the Riverstyx Foundation, and spiritual care provider in training, “Psychedelic chaplaincy refers to certified individuals who are providing spiritual care and ethical meaning-making support for those undergoing psychedelic therapies.” Even so, a few psychedelic practitioners of color remind us that psychedelic chaplaincy can also refer to chaplains working with individuals who are undergoing psychedelic treatments that do not necessarily classify as “therapy.”

The term “psychedelic chaplain” seemingly made its debut earlier this year in a discussion facilitated by Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions, exploring the potential role of spiritual caregivers and chaplains in supporting individuals in preparation for, during, and in integrating psychedelic experiences.

The term “psychedelic chaplain” seemingly made its debut earlier this year in a discussion facilitated by Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions, exploring the potential role of spiritual caregivers and chaplains in supporting individuals in preparation for, during, and in integrating psychedelic experiences. In opening the discussion, Rachel Petersen, asks the potent question, “When it comes to these therapies, do we need people who can administer drugs or minister to souls?”

The truth is that there is no clear answer to such a question because psychedelics inhabit a strange, novel territory that resists clear categorization. Are they sacred sacraments that induce religious and mystical experiences? Or are they breakthrough psychotherapeutic medicines that help to treat mental health conditions? And what does it mean for psychedelics to be both?

The need for a psychedelic chaplaincy boils down to questions around what psychedelics are in the first place. Since psychedelics have largely been reabsorbed into the Global North through the framework of science and psychotherapy, they are largely viewed as psychotherapeutic tools that alleviate the symptoms of various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and addiction, by allowing new perspectives to emerge. However, this paradigm of thinking runs the risk of reducing psychedelic healing down to neuronal interactions.

In contrast to the clinical paradigm, models of spiritual care and chaplaincy are less concerned with symptom reduction or treatment. Rather than pathologizing an individual’s experience, they focus on the existential issues and meaning-making sometimes overlooked by the materialist reductionist viewpoint that dominates Western medicine.

Medicalizing the Mystical

In an article written for Forbes last year, Natan Ponieman explored whether applying mystical frameworks in the context of psychedelic medicine was becoming an impediment to the growth of the field. Ponieman specifically discusses the Mystical Experience Questionnaire that has long been used by researchers, particularly those studying psilocybin at Johns Hopkins University, to measure the degree to which participants experience mystical states by asking questions such as, “Did you feel a sense of unity with ultimate reality?”

It has long been thought that the mystical-type experiences induced by psychedelics generate personal meaning and spiritual significance that are the key to the healing value of psychedelic substances. However, some researchers are concerned that blending mysticism and science in such a way poses a threat to the credibility and potential of psychedelic science, suggesting that “the use of the mysticism framework creates a ‘black box’ mentality in which researchers are content to treat certain aspects of the psychedelic state as beyond the scope of scientific inquiry” (Sanders & Zijlmans, 2021).

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In a similar vein, Dr. Matthew Johnson, a psychedelic researcher at Johns Hopkins University, published a scientific article in which he called for secularizing psychedelic medicine, suggesting that one of the major risks for psychedelic medicine is that scientists and clinicians might impose their own religious or spiritual beliefs onto their research design and their clients, providing them with a particular framework through which to interpret their experience. Instead, he advocates that clinicians working with psychedelics should be extremely careful to avoid introducing mystical concepts that have not been validated by empirical science, arguing for a strictly secular approach, leaving religious interpretations to the participant to decipher.

Rachel Petersen is one individual who didn’t feel supported by the current paradigm of psychedelic research, with her interest in psychedelic chaplaincy informed by the lack of spiritual guidance she identified in her own clinical experience.

“I was a patient in a clinical trial for depression at Johns Hopkins, and I had what I feel comfortable describing as a conversion experience,” Petersen shares. “I was very confused because I thought psychedelics were just supposed to cure my depression, but I found myself having a completely different outlook on reality. I felt very uncomfortable with the fact that a neuroscientist and psychiatrist were giving me questionnaires asking on a scale from 1-10, how much do you feel like you encountered ultimate reality?” she added.

For Petersen, psychedelic chaplaincy presents itself as a form of spiritual harm reduction in the current paradigm of psychedelic research. “What’s missing is a rigorous and grounded approach for how to hold space for people to reckon with the epistemological and ontological questions that can arise but not always do arise.”

In his paper, Johnson undoubtedly identifies an important problem that many people encounter in psychedelic states; namely, their heightened suggestibility. As an example, he references the commonplace practice of introducing religious symbols in psychedelic clinical settings, such as a statue of the Buddha, utilized previously by Johns Hopkins, or curated playlists containing religious musical pieces particularly associated with Christianity that have been frequently used during sessions. If a client has a mystical experience, such subtle acts of guidance and symbology could make them impressionable to other beliefs, influencing them to associate their experiences with a given type of religious symbolism.

As a solution to this problem, Johnson proposes that therapeutic practitioners and researchers take a secular approach. However, Director of Program and Product Development for the Synthesis Institute, psychedelic and Buddhist chaplain, and one of the lead facilitators, Daan Keiman, urges us to tread with caution, holding the position that secularism is not existentially neutral and such presuppositions can be harmful to specific clients and patients.

Rather, Keiman advocates for the development of what he calls “spiritual or existential integrity” among psychedelic practitioners. In the paradigm of psychedelic chaplaincy, this means that spiritual care providers of both faith-specific and interfaith approaches cultivate the ability to support individuals regardless of their faith commitments.

“We will need to have a lot of religious professionals that start to help the people from their own faith communities that don’t want to move away from that faith community, understand what psychedelics mean for them” shares Keiman. “However, it is important that the spiritual care provider respects the fact that a client might have an experience that leads them to question or even move away from their tradition. You need to have a lot of humility and openness to be able to do that.”

Should Psychedelic Chaplains Have First-Hand Experience with Psychedelics?

However, in the context of psychedelic chaplaincy, it has been suggested that practicing chaplains have more experience with non-ordinary states of consciousness than the average therapist through their depth of spiritual practice as well as through attending to naturally occurring non-ordinary states of consciousness in birth, death, grief, and loss through their work.

In the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy, there has been a long-established debate as to whether psychedelic therapists should have first-hand experience with psychedelic substances or not. However, in the context of psychedelic chaplaincy, it has been suggested that practicing chaplains have more experience with non-ordinary states of consciousness than the average therapist through their depth of spiritual practice as well as through attending to naturally occurring non-ordinary states of consciousness in birth, death, grief, and loss through their work. Beyond this, clinical pastoral education invites practitioners into a deep sense of self-understanding in order to be better able to attend to the individuals they care for.

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Daan Keiman makes a distinction between the various phases of a psychedelic journey that a spiritual care provider could be enlisted to support. Namely, preparation, the journey itself, and integration. Keiman suggests that, in the integration phase, chaplains could be useful for providing guidance and depth around spiritual, religious, and existential themes, without pathologizing or framing certain problems in a narrow psychiatric interpretation.

“If a psychedelic chaplain wants to work with the preparation or integration, and they have a deep theoretical understanding of what psychedelics are like, I don’t think it’s necessary that they have their own experience, although it is a profound benefit if they do,” he shares.

However, when it comes to guiding individuals through psychedelic experiences, Keiman believes that it borders on being unethical if chaplains and spiritual care providers have not had those experiences themselves.

However, when it comes to guiding individuals through psychedelic experiences, Keiman believes that it borders on being unethical if chaplains and spiritual care providers have not had those experiences themselves. “If you want to be a psychedelic chaplain that guides other people through these experiences, it is incredibly important that you have your own experiences, and have apprenticed with an elder or established professional,” adds Keiman.

Guerilla theologian and community-based therapist, Ayize Jama-Everett, MDiv, MA, and MFA, emphasizes the value in first-hand psychedelic experience on the part of chaplains. “Although no two experiences are the same, when dealing with the ineffable, a shared point of reference can be crucial. And given that not all conscious altering compounds are illegal, it seems incongruous to good practice that the chaplain wouldn’t also engage in this sacred work.”

As such, there are innumerable ways that one can come by experience with non-ordinary states of consciousness that don’t involve psychedelics, including prayer, sensory deprivation, sweat lodge, meditation, and breathwork.

Undoubtedly, chaplains who have actually experienced psychedelics could add another layer of richness to a client’s own experience. However, some are hesitant to suggest that experience with psychedelics is a requirement for psychedelic chaplains. A potential hurdle for chaplains who want to have psychedelic experience lies in their specific faith communities, as many religious communities hold deep taboos and precepts around intoxicating, mind-altering substances, making it hard for chaplains to find training experiences with psychedelics and plant medicines.

There are certain barriers for chaplains coming from institutionalized traditions wanting to have first-hand experience with psychedelics. In Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, there are strong ethical and moral codes and prohibitions in place against inebriating oneself with psychoactive substances. Similarly, there is a massive taboo within science itself around spirituality and religion. Thus, if we actively want to further the dialogue around psychedelic chaplaincy, we need to work to raise the religious literacy within the psychedelic community, while simultaneously working to increase psychedelic literacy within the religious community.

In response to this, Jamie Beachy, PhD, MDiv and Faculty Co-Director at the Center for Psychedelic Studies at Naropa University, says that “Professional chaplains will need to explore opportunities to have psychedelic experiences, and there are often taboos within our religious traditions we will need to look at.”

Beachy hopes that chaplains involved in this work will have humility and a willingness to partner with Indigenous and Earth-based traditions. However, a few psychedelic chaplains of color remind us that this approach should only be advised if the individuals and groups from those Indigenous communities also have a willingness and desire to partner with others.

“Many of our religious traditions do not hold a deep respect for plant medicines,” Beachy shares. “But these barriers are not impossible to overcome, and chaplains are beginning to explore our contributions in research studies and psychedelic therapy teams, as well as through our participation in ceremonial contexts.”

The Future of Psychedelic Chaplaincy

To the extent to which clinical trials continue to set the precedent for what therapy will look like,  many feel that it is imperative to include more chaplains in clinical trials. To date, there have only been a few psychedelic studies that have included spiritual care providers in their protocols.

Looking to the future, it is clear that the psychedelic movement will have to open itself up to the mystical and religious perspectives that chaplaincy has to offer.

Looking to the future, it is clear that the psychedelic movement will have to open itself up to the mystical and religious perspectives that chaplaincy has to offer. However, practicing chaplains and members of religious communities will also have to open themselves up to embracing plant medicines and non-ordinary states of consciousness. Reflecting on this, Ayize Jama-Everett shares, “Those religious leaders of mainline faiths may have to contend with their own mystical traditions, the wisdom of those demonized as ‘heathen’ or ‘apostate,’ and histories of colonization and repression carried out in the name of their faith.”  “Those marginalized groups who’ve kept their knowledge of altered states of consciousness secret will have to evaluate if now is the time to come forward, or if the West still isn’t ready to have this conversation,” Jama-Everett adds.

As we traverse deeper into the territory of the psychedelic movement, we should be careful to ensure that there is an ongoing multi-voiced dialogue that embraces the diversity of avenues through which healing can be found. As we continue to broaden the discussion, making space for both mysticism and science will serve to increase our understanding of what psychedelics can do.

The field of chaplaincy is expanding in powerful ways. In addition to its growing acceptance of alternative models of healing, the field is becoming more diverse; yet, at the moment, the vast majority of accredited chaplains remains white. Organizations like The Association for Clinical Pastoral Education are working hard to change this reality and deepen their institutional anti-racist praxis. It is our hope, and the hope of other chaplains interested in the intersection of psychedelics and pastoral care, that more Black, brown, Asian and Indigenous chaplains of color lead this emerging form of alternative care.

Art by Trey Brasher.

Further Resources:

Beachy, J. (2021). Tending the sacred: The emerging role of professional chaplaincy in psychedelic-assisted therapies. MAPS Bulletin, 31(2). https://maps.org/news/bulletin/tending-the-sacred-the-emerging-role-of-professional-chaplaincy-in-psychedelic-assisted-therapies/

Center for the Study of World Religions. (2021). What is psychedelic chaplaincy? [Video file]. https://cswr.hds.harvard.edu/news/2021/03/08/video-what-psychedelic-chaplaincy

Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. (2022). Religion and psychedelics forum. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/religion-and-psychedelics-forum-tickets-167916720431

Sanders, J. W., & Zijlmans, J. (2021). Moving past mysticism in psychedelic science. ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science, 4(3), 1253–1255. DOI: 10.1021/acsptsci.1c00097


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