The core 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 added intensity amid 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 reparented 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.
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 encountered, and an unaccustomed compassion for himself, an acceptance of all the aspects of his own nature, giving and selfish, kind andvengeful, 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.
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 reparenting 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. 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 is “to hold the experience in your heart.” 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.
A spontaneous healing involving the letting go of no-longer-useful defenses, leads to a complete reorganization of the personality. Albert Hofmann, reflecting on such experiences during LSD sessions, said that they can serve as “a starting point for restructuring” the person’s personality in psychotherapy. In current jargon, “transformation is a reboot of our operating system with at least some new programming and sometimes even a change from system 1.0 to 2.0.”
Referring to this seemingly miraculous reorganization, people familiar with the ayahuasca healing process have used terms like recalibrate, restructure, reset, reprogram, reorganize, reconfigure, and rewire the DNA. This experience can take a variety of forms. Recalibration can occur when the ayahuasca designs or the icaros realign energy in the subtle body of a participant during an indigenous ceremony. Or there’s a shamanic sense of physically and psychologically dissolving into energetic vibrations. Others describe elves sweeping clean the inside space of the body to allow for a reconfiguration. Then there’s subtle energy surgery done by machines or other nonhuman entities, often involving chakras like the heart or third eye.
After such revelatory experiences, people report going through a fundamental change. They feel different inside, and the world looks different outside. The question is whether the person needs therapeutic support to sustain these changes. Do they need ongoing therapy to work through issues, explore new perspectives, and consolidate behavioral changes? Another approach to the same question is whether there are neurological changes that accompany such transformations and whether they are self-sustaining. Are the neurological changes permanent for those people who report miracle cures — such as a lifting of lifetime depression, resolution of trauma, and cessation of addictive behaviors, all with little effort?
As a psychologist, I would agree with Hofmann that psychotherapy is needed, especially if the person is unable to sustain the new behaviors. However, as a student of ayahuasca, I understand that it works in a qualitatively different way from other psychedelics, and it just might be that what the person needs is more ayahuasca. The frequency of drinking the medicine can be twice a month for members of ayahuasca churches, and shamanic ceremonies can be held as often as needed. By keeping the medicine in the body, there’s an accumulative effect that strengthens the relationship with Grandmother Ayahuasca and supports the new behaviors.
On the other hand, if the new behavior arises from ego inflation, then drinking more ayahuasca might enable that distortion. After a transformative experience with ayahuasca, some people can be carried away with their own self-importance and leap into precipitous decisions that they later regret.
Major life decisions about family, relationships, finances, or career should never be made while still enthralled with the entheogenic experience. The shaman I work with said his initiating shaman, who still wears only a loincloth and lives in the jungle, said, “Take your time. Ask the spirits again.” A therapist can also help people caught in the grip of such passion to come back down to earth and avoid precipitous decisions, so they can act, instead, with insight and wisdom.
There are times we all need someone to talk to about our inner process, someone who can provide a neutral and objective point of view, and who can cut through flights of fantasy and inflation. Perhaps if Timothy Leary had talked to someone who could’ve helped him balance his enthusiastic ego with caution and humility, the history of psychedelic medicines would have unfolded quite differently.
With or without a full mystical experience, even one ayahuasca ceremony can result in the lifting of depression or anxiety, resolution of trauma, or the cessation of addictive behavior. At this point we don’t know who is most likely to experience such a miracle or who will need repeated ayahuasca ceremonies and psychotherapy to benefit. We don’t know who will have no therapeutic response at all or how to explain such healing when it occurs.
Recent research on psychedelics offers a few clues about how people can be recalibrated or restructured during an ayahuasca ceremony. It certainly doesn’t diminish the sacramental nature of the medicine or the importance of set and setting in determining how the entheogenic effects will be experienced or interpreted.
Copyright ©2017 by Rachel Harris, PhD.
Reprinted with permission from New World Library
Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety
by Rachel Harris, PhD
Used for thousands of years by indigenous tribes of the Amazon rain forest, the mystical brew ayahuasca is now becoming increasingly popular in the West. Psychologist Rachel Harris here shares her own healing experiences and draws on her original research (the largest study of ayahuasca use in North America) into the powerful medicine’s effects on depression, addiction, PTSD, and anxiety.
Psychologist Rachel Harris, PhD, has been in private practice for thirty-five years. She has received a National Institutes of Health New Investigator’s Award, published more than forty scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals, and worked as a psychological consultant to Fortune 500 companies. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit her website at www.listeningtoayahuasca.com