Excerpted from the paper

Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism

Journal of Psychoactive Drugs Volume 30 (4), October - December 1998

Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.



When the fantastically potent mind-altering qualities of LSD were first discovered, at the height of World War II in a Swiss pharmaceutical !ab, they were characterized as "psychotomimetic" and "psycholytic." The prospect of unhinging the mind from its normal parameters for a few hours to simulate madness interested a small number of daring psychiatric researchers as a possible training experience. Predictably, this possibility also intrigued the military and espionage agencies of both superpowers, especially the Americans. Considerable research effort and expense was devoted for about 10 years to determining the most effective surreptitious delivery systems to unsuspecting enemy soldiers, agents or leaders, for maximum confusion, disorientation or embarrassment (Lee & Shlain 1985). Ironically, and fortunately, it was the capacity of LSD to tap into the hidden mystical potentials of the human mind that ruined its applicability as a weapon of war. Rather than making subjects predictably submissive to mind-control programming, LSD had the unnerving propensity to suspend the existing mental programming and thereby release one into awesome worlds of cosmic consciousness. The military was not prepared to have soldiers or espionage agents turn into mystics.

The first research papers that came out of the Sandoz labs, where Albert Hofmann had synthesized LSD and accidentally discovered its astounding properties, described it as bringing about "psychic loosening or opening" (seelische Auflockerung). This was the psycholytic concept that became the dominant model for LSD-assisted psychotherapy in Europe. In psycholytic therapy, neurotic patients suffering from anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive or psychosomatic disorders were given LSD in a series of sessions at gradually increasing doses, while undergoing more or less standard analytic interactions using a Freudian perspective (Passie 1997; Grof 1980). The rationale was that through the psycholysis, the loosening of defenses, the patient would become more vividly aware of his or her previously unconscious emotional dynamics and reaction patterns (presumably acquired in early family interactions), and such insight would bring about a resolution of inner conflicts. The Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, working within this model, made the startling discovery that in such a series (involving increasing doses) there could be an even deeper psychic opening--to birth and prebirth memories. After resolving the conflicts stemming from the Freudian dynamics of early childhood, patients would find themselves reliving the significant sensory-emotional features of their birth experience--patterns to which Grof gave the name perinatal matrices (Grof 1985).

More or less simultaneously with the psycholytic approach being developed in Europe, the psychedelic model became the preferred approach in Anglo-American psychological and psychiatric circles. The English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, who worked in Canada with Abram Hoffer on the treatment of alcoholism with LSD (and who provided Aldous Huxley with his first mescaline experience, immortalized in The Doors of Perception (Huxley 1954), introduced this term in an exchange of letters with Huxley. First used in the treatment of alcoholics, where it was thought to simulate the often life-changing "bottoming out" experience, psychedelic therapy usually involved one or a small number of high-dose sessions, during which the contents of the unconscious mind would be manifested in the form of vivid hallucinatory imagery, leading to insight and transformation (Passie 1997). A second center for psychedelic therapy and exploration developed in the early sixties in Southern California, where Sidney Cohen, Oscar Janiger and others began providing psychedelic experiences to their clients in the Hollywood film, arts and media community (Novak 1997)--work that brought considerable publicity and notoriety to psychedelics.

The term "psychedelic" was adopted by Timothy Leary, Frank Barron, Richard Alpert and the Harvard research project, which did one of its first research studies on the production of behavior change in convicts, and started publishing the Psychedelic Review. Apart from the prison project, Leary's work focused not so much on treatment or therapy, but rather on exploring the possibilities and values of the psychedelic experience for "normals" (mostly graduate students) as well as artists, musicians, poets and writers, when provided in a relatively unstructured but supportive, home-like setting. The concept of "consciousness expansion" was introduced for these experiences, which could be usefully contrasted with the contracted, fixated awareness characteristic of narcotic addictions, as well as obsessions and compulsions in general (Metzner 1994). Leary was also responsible for introducing and popularizing what became known as the "set and setting" hypothesis, according to which the primary determinants of a psychedelic experience are the internal set (intention, expectation, motivation) and the external setting or context, including the presence of a guide or therapist (Leary, Litwin & Metzner 1963).

The psychological research on psychedelics, as well as the psycholytic and psychedelic psychotherapy applications, have been well summarized and reviewed by Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar (1979/1997) in their book Psychedelics Reconsidered. The history of the introduction of LSD and other hallucinogens into American culture with its many extraordinary and unforeseen social and political consequences has been described by Jay Stevens (1987) in his book Storming Heaven. Leary's own story of these events in which he was centrally involved is told in his own unique, provocative and tricksterish style in his several autobiographies, most particularly in High Priest (1968/1995) and Flashbacks (1983).

A significant extension of the field of psychoactive-assisted psychotherapy occurred with the discovery by chemist Alexander Shulgin of a variety of phenethylamines, such as MDA, MDMA, 2-CB and others, which bring about an expansion and centering of awareness primarily on the emotional or heart-level, with minimal or no perceptual changes or other-worldly consciousness (Shulgin & Shulgin 1991). For this reason, to distinguish them from the classical hallucinogens, some have suggested the name empathogens ("generating a state of empathy") for this class of substances. In particular, MDMA (which also became known as Ecstasy or E, and as such has come to play a central role in the hugely popular rave culture) was used with impressive success in psychotherapy--often facilitating a significant opening of relationship communication and helping in the healing of disabling trauma (Saunders 1993; Eisner 1989; Adamson & Metzner 1988).

Despite the seeming theoretical and practical differences between the psycholytic and psychedelic approaches, there are a number of significant fundamental conclusions and directions which they share, and which I would now like to summarize. These are all features of psychoactives-assisted psychotherapy that distinguish this modality from other uses of mood-altering drugs such as tranquilizers or antidepressants, in which the patient or client takes a pill and goes home:

(1) It is recognized that psychotherapy with hallucinogens invariably involves an experience of a profoundly expanded state of consciousness, in which the individual can not only gain therapeutic insight into neurotic or addictive emotional dynamics and behavior patterns, but may come to question and transcend fundamental self-concepts and views of the nature of reality.

(2) It is widely accepted in the field that set and setting are the most important determinant of experiences with psychedelics, while the drug plays the role of a catalyst or trigger. This is in contrast to the psychiatric or other psychoactive drugs (including stimulants, depressants and narcotics) where the pharmacological action seems paramount, and set and setting play a minor role. The set-and-setting model can also be extended to the understanding of other modalities of altered states of consciousness, involving nondrug triggers such as hypnosis, meditation, rhythmic drumming, sensory isolation, fasting, and others (Metzner 1989).

(3) Two analogies or metaphors for the drug experience have been repeatedly used by writers both in the psycholytic and psychedelic paradigms. One is the amplifier analogy, according to which the drug functions as a nonspecific amplifier of psychic contents. The amplification may occur in part as a result of a lowering of sensory thresholds, a "cleansing of the doors of perception," and in part be due to not-yet-understood central processes involving one or more neurotransmitters. The other analogy is the microscope metaphor: it has repeatedly been said that psychedelics could play the same role in psychology as the microscope does in biology---opening up to direct, repeatable, verifiable observation realms and processes of the human mind that have hitherto been largely hidden or inaccessible.

(4) Again in contrast to the use of other psychiatric or psychoactive drugs, it is widely recognized that the personal experience of the therapist or guide is an essential prerequisite of effective psychedelic psychotherapy. Without such prior personal experience, communication between the therapist and the individual in a psychedelic state is likely to be severely limited. This principle implies also that a significant role for psychedelic experience could be in the training of psychotherapists. The vast majority of psycholytic and psychedelic therapists would of course not sanction the taking of the drug by the therapist together with the client.

(5) Access to transcendent, religious or transpersonal dimensions of consciousness can be attained. That mystical and spiritual experiences can and often do occur with the use of psychedelics was recognized early on by most researchers in this field, thereby posing both challenge and promise to the psychological disciplines and professions. Albert Hofmann has testified that his ability to recognize the psycholytic properties of the LSD experience was based on its similarity to his childhood mystical experiences in nature (Hofmann 1979). Stanislav Grof found that after resolving biographical childhood issues, and then the perinatal traumata, individuals would often find themselves in realms of consciousness completely transcendent of time, space and other parameters of our ordinary worldview (Grof 1985). He gave the name "transpersonal' to these realms of consciousness and "holotropic" ("seeking the whole") to the predominant quality of consciousness in these realms, as well as to other means of accessing these realms, such as certain breathing methods (holotropic breathwork).

Timothy Leary, stimulated by his association with Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith and Alan Watts, devoted considerable time and energy to exploring and describing the spiritual and religious dimensions of psychedelic experience. This work resulted in adaptations of the Tibetan Buddhist Bardo Thödol (Leafy, Metzner & Albert 1964) and the Chinese Taoist Tao Te Ching (Leafy 1997) as guidebooks for psychedelic experience. Based on his initiating experience with Mexican magic mushrooms, it would also be true to say that Leary was the first person to recognize and articulate that the fundamental mystical vision that emerges in these states is an evolutionary remembering--an experience of reconnecting with our biological and cosmological evolution. In other words, he realized the experience went beyond the personal and cultural developmental issues that usually concern psychologists, and that the language of mystics and shamans in our time was basically going to be the scientific language of evolution.



Adamson S. & Metzner, R. 1988. The nature of the MDMA experience and its role in healing, psychotherapy, and spiritual practice. Revision. 10(4): 59-72.

Eisner, B. 1989. Ecstasy--The MDMA Story. Berkeley, California: Ronin Publishing.

Grinspoon, L. & Bakalar, J. 1979. Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered. New York: Basic Books

Grof, S. 1985. Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Hofmann, A. 1979. LSD--Mein Sorgenkind. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Leary, T. 1997. Psychedelic Prayers and Other Meditations. Berkeley, California: Ronin Publishing Co.

Leary, T. 1968/1995. High Priest. Berkeley, California: Ronin Publishing.

Leary, T. 1983. Flashbacks. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.

Leary, T. Litwin, G. & Metzner, R. 1963. Reactions to psilocybin administered in a supportive enviroment. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 137:561-73.

Leary, T. Metzner, R. & Alpert, R. 1964. The Psychedelic Experience--A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New Hyde Park, New York: University Press Books.

Lee, M. & Shlain, B. 1985. Acid Dreams. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Metzner, R. 1994. Addiction and transcendence as altered states of consciousness. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 26 (1): 1-17.

Metzner, R. 1989. States of consciousness and transpersonal psychology. In: R. Vallee & S. Halling (Eds.) Existential and Phenomenological Perspectives in Psychology. New York: Plenum Press.

Novak, S. J. 1997. LSD before Leary--Sidney Cohen's critique of 1950s psychedelic drug research. Isis 88: 87-110.

Passie, T. 1997. Psycholytic and Psychedelic Therapy Research--1931-1995. Hanover: Laurentius Publishers.

Saunders, N. 1993. E for Ecstasy. London: Self-Published.

Shulgin, A. & Shulgin A. 1991. PIHKAL--A Chemical Love Story. Berkeley, California: Transform Press.

Stevens, J. 1987. Storyming Heaven--LSD and the American Dream. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.


NOTE: the balance of the paper presents background on the author, Ralph Metzner, and extensive coverage on shamanic rituals of healing and divination. Quoting Metzner, "A generation of students and researchers in anthropology and ethnobotany was inspired to explore the roots of humankind's involvement with psychoactive plants in shamanism. These works ranged from Wasson's rediscovery of the pre-Columbian magic mushroom cult, and Harner's early work on the role of hallucinogens in European witchcraft-shamanism, to the work of sober researchers like Weston LaBarre, Richard Evans Schultes, Claudio Naranjo and Peter Fursh, as well as the more fantastic and imaginative writings of Carlos Castaneda and Terence McKenna. 

The major characteristics of traditional shamanistic rituals are described, and many of the practices are described in detail, including the use of peyote by the Huichols of Mexico the Native American Church in the United States, three legally organized churches in Brazil based principally on the use of ayahuasca, and others. Attention is also give to set-and-setting rituals that have become popular in the Western world, such as the raves which combine Ecstasy (MDMA) with the continuous rhythmic pulse of techno music. Metzner describes his own work as concentrating on a kinf of hybrid of the psychotherapeutic and traditional shamanic approaches. He has observed over 100 such circle rituals, in both Europe and North America, involving several hundred participants. Plant entheogens used have included psilocybe mushrooms, ayahuasca, San Pedro cactus, iboga and others. His interest focuses on the nature of the psychospiritual transformation undergone by such participants. For further details, please consult the original paper.


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