Human use of psychedelics—and their connection to spiritual experiences—appears to predate recorded history. From prehistoric murals in present-day Algeria and Spain depicting use of hallucinogenic mushrooms to the Lakota Sioux tradition of haŋblečeya (or vision quest) to the Mayan “mushroom stones” of Guatemala, human use of psychedelics crosses continents, cultures, and centuries.
Despite their historical ubiquity, however, the realm of psychedelics remains shrouded in mystery—and even some suspicion. A cursory examination of anecdotal reports helps illuminate the reason for this mistrust. In the United States, political and social campaigns have spread a lot of misinformation, raising fears of permanent psychosis or a “bad trip,” causing many people to avoid psychedelics altogether.
Or worse, first-time users swear off hallucinogens forever after spending their trip terrified or filled with existential dread due to misguided negative context from the War on Drugs. It seems that psychedelic compounds have the power to lead us to enlightening highs and terrifying lows in equal measure, and much of that has to do with our existing knowledge and beliefs about psychedelics themselves (this is why we are such big proponents of psychedelic integration).
How do psychedelics open this potential in our minds, for better or for worse? How do our minds work under the influence of psychedelics? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we navigate psychedelic experiences consciously, in a way that gives us the most illuminating experience possible?
Here, we’ll explore the role of psychedelics in the exploration of the mind. We examine scientific research alongside historical and cultural context to shed some light on the strange, ethereal realm of psychedelics.
Psychedelics in Modern Research
The unpredictable nature of both natural (fungi and plants) and synthesized (man-made) psychedelics has given them something of a forbidding reputation in modern consciousness. While research on these compounds and the experiences they yield is helping to dispel some of these misconceptions, there are anecdotal, spiritual, and intangible effects of psychedelics that simply don’t translate well into quantitative data, the kind of tangible information researchers love best.
This makes all the sense in the world—after all, how could one possibly convey all the nuance and complexity of a trip by rating their experiences on a 1-10 scale? The gold standard of empirical research carries some caveats when applied to psychedelics—how do we quantify the intangible aspects of our experiences, and then use that data to demonstrate patterns in psychedelic use (and the potential benefits such use may provide)?
Researchers are working diligently to improve our understanding of the actions of different psychedelic compounds on the brain and body. This work is valuable and important, as it helps to illuminate the different mechanisms by which psychedelics like psilocybin, ayahuasca, peyote, and LSD alter our consciousness.
A growing (and compelling) body of research suggests that psychedelics can be helpful in healing trauma, alleviating depression, breaking addictions, and even coping with our own mortality. This research is invaluable and carries the power to help incorporate psychedelic therapies into modern medical, psychiatric, and spiritual practice.
However, this research isn’t able to fully explain psychedelics as a spiritual and self-exploratory tool. For that, we must leave the data tables and charts behind and delve into the realm of cultural anthropology.
Psychedelics in Spirituality: The Lakota Sioux Haŋblečeya
With some notable exceptions (as was the case in 1799 when an unfortunate family inadvertently—and thankfully rather hilariously—embarked on a psychedelic journey after eating a meal made with mushrooms foraged from London’s Green Park), psychedelic experiences tend to be something we seek out consciously.
This principle is borne out across different cultures that span the globe: psychedelic journeys are intentional, and usually taken as part of a defined ritual with the support of others in the community. This intentionality, however, hasn’t fully translated into modern America, where social and recreational use of psychedelics is popular.
Consider, for example, the haŋblečeya tradition of the Lakota Sioux and related North American indigenous tribes. This rite of passage is a tradition commonly referred to as a “vision quest” (a notably Western term, not an indigenous one) in which the person undertaking the psychedelic journey (the seeker) works with the tribe’s Holy Man to embark upon, return from, and process the lessons of their journey.
The following description is superficial (entire theses have been dedicated to exploring these ritual experiences in the context of Lakota Sioux spirituality), but is intended to reflect many of the concepts and patterns we see in spiritual practices involving psychedelics across different cultures.
These rituals often involve peyote, a plant-derived psychedelic native to much of North America, but may use other psychedelics or, interestingly, no psychedelics at all (as intentional fasting and meditation can bring about hallucinogenic visions without the use of a psychedelic substance). Generally, the seeker requests the guidance of the Holy Man and, after receiving his blessing, undergoes a ritual purification before embarking on their journey.
This purification practice takes place in a sweat lodge, a structure built (often by the seeker themselves) for this express purpose. Purification is a communal activity, where members of the seeker’s tribe smoke ceremonial tobacco together and reinforce their interconnectedness with the tribe. The Inipi ceremony is then performed as a rite of purification before the seeker sets out on their journey in earnest.
The seeker then leaves the close communal embrace of the sweat lodge and embarks on a journey to a secluded place, perhaps a mountaintop or secluded clearing. Usually, this place is chosen in advance of the journey (and is frequently prepared by members of the seeker’s community).
When the seeker arrives at the isolated place of their choosing, they stay and pray for a vision. These visions may come in many different forms and are unique to the seeker and that particular journey.
After the seeker has received their vision, they return to the sweat lodge (sometimes alone, but most often accompanied by tribe members who have gone to bring them home). The seeker then relates their vision to the Holy Man, who will help the seeker to interpret what they have seen, heard, and felt, and understand the lessons in those messages. The seeker then returns to their community, carrying the knowledge they have received, to incorporate that knowledge into their public and private lives.
The importance here is that this rite of passage is performed alone, yet with the full support of the seeker’s community. This is where the magic of intentional psychedelic use lies. Without this communal support, it’s easy to feel lost, disturbed, and confused about the whole experience.
This is the exact reason we started Psychedelic Passage, to ensure that all seekers feel supported on their psychedelic rite of passage. Our shamanically trained practitioners will help you prepare for your journey and integrate the experience afterward—just like the Holy Man would for the Lakota Sioux people.
The Human Experience of Psychedelics
The Lakota Sioux ritual shows us some of the core elements of intentional psychedelic use and the best processes to keep ourselves grounded throughout bewildering psychedelic experiences. It’s a clear example of effective strategies to encourage an experience that is more enlightening than terrifying, and that example begins and ends with community.
The psychedelic experience is understood as a spiritual journey to open the seeker to knowledge and understanding they could not otherwise access. This journey must be taken alone, but at the same time the seeker is never disconnected from their community. It is this community that prepares them for the journey ahead, that supports their quest for understanding, and that guides them back to the realm of the mundane safely.
Through the Lakota Sioux haŋblečeya, we see the paradoxical nature of psychedelic journeys—solitary and communal, magical and mundane, controllable and uncontrollable, perceptible and incomprehensible. This chimeric quality makes discussion of psychedelic experiences—and their place in modern life—difficult to talk about meaningfully, especially those who have never had an intentional psychedelic experience themselves. That would be like trying to describe the color blue to someone who is colorblind.
Psychedelics exist in a nebulous, ever-shifting, non-dichotomous space—they’re profoundly human that way. While that space can feel intimidating and even overwhelming, it’s also thrilling and teeming with possibility. If you are feeling overwhelmed, we suggest contacting one of our psychedelic integration coaches today.
Psychedelics, like humans, have enormous potential that can be used for good, or not-so-good. As such, it makes sense to hold space for nuanced discourse around psychedelics—their efficacy, their safety, their therapeutic applications, their risks, and the variability of the experiences they open our minds and senses to.
Modern Psychedelic Practice
Psychedelics can open us to levels of understanding that escape us otherwise, spurring both cognitive and conscious processing. This altered state of consciousness can make us receptive to knowledge from both within and beyond ourselves. Sometimes referred to as the concept of the higher self, this effect of psychedelics can be extraordinarily healing.
Today, ongoing scientific research is verifying the benefits of psychedelic use that certain indigenous cultures have known for centuries. And if America stays on trend, we may experience a beautiful integration between Western medicine and ancient plant healing that may make these treatment alternatives more accessible.
While the specific feelings, sensations, and hallucinations produced by any given psychedelic vary from person to person, there remain many universal themes. Feelings of connectedness, wellbeing, and a higher purpose are often reported in psychedelic-assisted therapies, and these effects can be used to combat depression, heal trauma, and release emotional pain.
Many different psychedelics (psilocybin and ketamine among them) are finding their way into psychiatric practice. While it’s far from mainstream, a growing number of mental health practitioners are recognizing the therapeutic potential of psychedelic-assisted therapy techniques and incorporating them into their work with clients, with compelling results.
Individual accounts of psychedelic-assisted therapy show promising potential to help people recover from trauma, process grief, and reduce (or even cure) depression and anxiety. Psychedelics are also being explored as a part of palliative and hospice care to ease the transition between life and death and help people find true peace at the end of life.
Microdosing of some psychedelics also offers interesting possibilities, potentially treating conditions like depression, ADHD, OCD, PTSD, and anxiety—and perhaps others—without producing visual or auditory hallucinations at all. As our understanding of the role of psychedelics in healing (and the relationship between physical and mental health) evolves, so does our understanding of our own minds.
While psychedelics have been largely relegated to hippie and fringe “woo” culture in Western ideology, mounting research suggests that these substances have genuine power to help us heal, understand, and improve ourselves. These paradoxical compounds act chemically to produce sensations and experiences that defy comprehension and yet make perfect sense.
This intersection of the tangible with the impalpable is exciting territory, with much to be explored and many questions yet to be answered. And though there is much to be discovered, many people are safely using psychedelics intentionally to improve their mind, body, spirit, and lead more fulfilling lives.
If you’re interested in how to use psychedelics for healing, we’re here to help. We facilitate preparation, integration, and community so you feel supported on your psychedelic rite of passage—just like the Lakota Sioux tribe. Schedule a free call with one of our psychedelic integration coaches to get started today.