“Rites of Passage, Ritual, and Self-Medication”
Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development (Inner Traditions, 2010), by Neal M. Goldsmith, Ph.D.
Beyond the issue of the clinical applications and psychedelic research, enormous issues of personal freedom are at stake. Researchers require academic freedom to choose the focus of their research and funding to support it; the clergy must defend the right of us all to define our own spirituality, including their own right to be trained with these remarkable spiritual tools; clinicians are ethically expected to provide their patients with the most effective treatments available and patients have the right to receive that state-of-the-art treatment; and individuals should be able to freely experience rites of passage. Yet all are barred from doing so for political, ultimately fear-based reasons. As discussed above, there are tribal roots to these policy issues. Humans seem to have the need and propensity to go through rites of passage: a deconstruction of our current personalities, followed by— with the guidance and the help of our communities—a reconstruction of personality at the next new level, from birth to child, to youth, marriage, parenting, elder, to deathbed.
These needs are still with us. The rave phenomenon is a good contemporary example. Young people are re-creating tribal rites of passage, but without explicit community support and without knowledge of the hard-won safety and efficacy guidelines that evolved over thousands of years in the tribal context. Controlling these substances can have a pivotal impact on our internal freedom, for example, to pursue unpopular meditative traditions.
It’s arguable that the whole rave scene and the use of psychoactive drugs like MDMA at raves are actually acts of self-medication at the cultural level—youths crying out for a structured, ritualized way to grow, to deconstruct their mental concepts and then reconstruct them at the next developmental level. With psychedelics, we have an opportunity, over time and as a society, to recover a safe and effective way to help ourselves through our rites of passage, both individually and as a society.
The Ten Lessons of Psychedelic Psychotherapy, Rediscovered
Lesson 6: Ritual Can Transmit Prior Wisdom & Guide Successful Practice
The UDV ayahuasca churches are good examples of a modern approach to psychedelic ritual in a churchlike setting; another example is the Native American Church and their prayer service using peyote as sacrament. All three accepted, legally sanctioned churches are modern, syncretic creations combining elements of Christianity with elements of the native pantheon of spirits and tribal ritual. In creating such a vehicle, these churches have borrowed perennial truths and religious elements—in whole or in part—chosen rituals, and developed symbologies and ways of interpreting spiritual experiences that reflect, preserve, and transmit their values and successful practices.
Over the decades of modern research, the psychedelic community has learned to benefit from the accumulated wisdom of previous practitioners—for example, to have procedures, guidelines, logistics, set and setting, and security in place. In a sense, methodological protocols and guidelines for successful clinical practice ARE our modern-day rituals—practices honored for their effectiveness in producing specific states or outcomes, repeated over generations, with only slow accretion of newly accepted innovations. The use of standardized practices (rituals) in psychedelic therapy provides a way to inculcate dramatically, to imprint, safe and effective methods. When we require careful preparation, support, a positive set and setting, follow-up, and the like, we are engaging in ritualized behaviors that reflect, preserve, and transmit our values and successful practices.
Today, ritual in psychedelic therapy can offer an outlet for needs formerly met by highly organized, highly ritualized religions, such as shamanic practices or traditional Catholicism. Yet we must remain flexible, as some individuals may not respond well to ritual. Even so, metaprotocols for specific types of needs, such as for church study groups, substance abusers, teenagers, newlyweds, and the dying may provide valid and reliable procedural anchors with which to successfully bring psychedelic practice to the general population.
Tribal rituals instantiate the trial-and-error discoveries of ancestors. Western science uses laboratory controls to compare multiple treatments simultaneously (call it “horizontal” research design), while tribal comparisons of multiple practices occur over millennia of experimentation (vertical design). Nonetheless, the results of tribal experimentation over time concur with—and indeed can guide in their contextual wisdom—results only now being seen in Western research.
Rituals organize rites of passage, helping the community navigate the individual or age cohort from one stage of life to. Rite-of-passage rituals symbolize and transmit time-honored truths about another the nature of each stage in life and the mind-sets and practices most likely to facilitate successful transition.
On the other hand, tribal ritualized practices tend to be more formal and deterministic than much of Western psychotherapeutic practice (if not Western religious practice). In part to address this perceived rigidity, scholars at the Council on Spiritual Practices in San Francisco are attempting to create a modern psychedelic religious ritual that is profoundly meaningful, but not dogmatic.
As good global citizens we are compelled to actively apply these findings to improve the world. It’s important, too, for us to speculate about the future of psychedelic therapy and policy, and whether the reintegration of psychedelics into Western civilization could provide a rite of passage for our culture as a whole, elevating us to a new, integral level of society.