One of the hottest topics in modern psychology is utilizing psychedelics to aid psychotherapy. Renowned forensic psychologist Stanley Brodsky, a regular member of my forensic thinktank at Harvard Medical School, suggested I interview Rachel Harris about her new book. I am glad he did. Research is being conducted on the potentially beneficial use of substances like psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and MDMA in a controlled environment. In recent years, it’s gotten attention for its efficacy in treating treatment-resistant depression and PTSD, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety. Related to this is the psychedelic underground, a movement that similarly wants to use these substances to improve lives but takes a different, more spiritual approach. I spoke with Rachel Harris, who has experience in both, about this exciting world. Rachel is the author of Swimming in the Sacred: Wisdom from the Psychedelic Underground and Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety. A psychologist who has been in private practice for 40 years, she spent ten years in an academic research department where she published more than 40 scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals and received a National Institutes of Health New Investigator’s Award. Rachel splits her time between an island in Maine and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Rachel interviewed numerous elders in the psychedelic underground for her book, Swimming in the Sacred. Each had to have a minimum of twenty years of experience. What she came away with was a map of an interconnected world. According to the most common perspective in the underground, psychedelic journeying is about individual healing and making a difference in the wider world. They see their work as sacred. This extends to their terminology; many in the underground use the word “entheogen” rather than “psychedelic” to connote the connection to divinity they hope to achieve. Their physical presence is part of their practice, in contrast to the increasing popularity of Zoom therapy sessions, and they journey extensively before working with others so that they can understand what someone may be going through without needing to be under the influence themselves.
This practice of a sober guide observing a person under the influence, called “trip sitting” in recreational circles, is one of the many indicators Rachel recommends for assessing someone you’re considering working with. Because psychedelics are illegal, this kind of work is unregulated. For some, the secrecy is an advantage, allowing them to maintain a personal, spiritual connection that can’t be quantified through traditional scientific methods. Rachel reports that some practitioners want to remain underground even if psychedelics are legalized nationwide. However, this lack of regulation can be exploited despite attempts to maintain mutual accountability.
Greater danger comes from those who intentionally abuse their power. One of the reasons why psychedelics have a bad reputation is their history of abuse. Similar to the therapeutic practice of clinical hypnosis, in which a person’s mind can be perilously open for undue influence, psychedelics can be used by predatory authority figures to make others vulnerable. The MKUltra CIA experiments seeking methods to create Manchurian Candidates using LSD and other methods of mind control were a governmental example of this abuse. Charles Manson also used psychoactive substances such as LSD and datura on his followers, directing some of them to kill. Some shamans in the underground have been known to add datura, a potent deliriant, to ayahuasca mixtures to take advantage of women who come to journey alone. Western women who travel for the opportunity are at heightened risk. Rachel advises anyone interested in an ayahuasca journey to do their due diligence and use trustworthy people before booking. As in most undergrounds, it’s all about who you know.
Also dangerous are legally sanctioned practices that have insufficient safeguards for their patients. Because the demand is so great for this new approach, aspiring therapists can get certified through online courses with little to no contact with the actual substances. Ketamine, which is not psychedelic but rather a dissociative drug, has been legalized and is sometimes used in place of psychedelics. While this can be helpful, some patients may abuse mail-order deliveries of this drug.
Despite these problems, the future of psychedelic healing is bright. NYU and Johns Hopkins have studied psychedelic therapy with impressive results. At NYU, terminal patients who were paralyzed with fear and depression facing the end of their lives were able to reconnect with their loved ones and make peace with death after a guided session and debriefing. At Hopkins, patients dealing with nicotine addiction were given up to three doses of psilocybin and then had their urine tested in follow-up appointments. Almost 70% of the patients had maintained abstinence a year after their quit date. Although the exact mechanism is unclear, the evidence is strong. As we wrap up, Rachel brought up Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD. Like the practitioners she interviewed for her book, he took the drug throughout his life, up to his final trip at 97.5 years before his death. The medicines, Rachel says, bring different openings and different transformations at different times of life. The influence can be received one way at 25 and another at 65, both giving beauty and meaning.
Psychedelic journeying can be used for good or ill, like any kind of influence. We’re fortunate to have women like Rachel Harris, who is a scholar-practitioner, to pass on knowledge about how to tell the difference.