"Life lived in the absence of the psychedelic experience that primordial shamanism is based on, is life trivialised, life denied, life enslaved to the ego." ~Terence McKenna
The topic of psychedelics is a hot one, especially today with the increasing number of news reports, documentaries, research publications, podcasts, and interviews that surface the internet and social media. On 1st July 2023, Australia became the first country in the world to legalise medicines containing the psychedelic substances psilocybin and MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) to be prescribed by specifically authorised psychiatrists for the treatment of certain mental health conditions. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has permitted the prescription of MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. These are the only conditions where there is currently sufficient evidence for potential benefits in certain patients.
Given the mental health crisis the world is currently in, there’s no understating how great this news is. While there is still a long way to go before we live in a society that knows, acknowledges, and uses these substances respectfully, this new legislation is a start in the right direction. It’s difficult to be certain about research publications, studies, and claims, especially where the human mind is concerned. Variables such as the set-up of the study, the prospect of placebo effects, the nature of the substance, strain or species, and the patient’s mental state, all must be accounted for when deducing any findings.
People unfamiliar with psychedelics, often have a knee-jerk reaction at the thought of a ‘drug’ that leads to these feelings or sensations. This is due to the general perception towards drugs from media, movies and news that leads to an umbrella categorisation of all drugs being the same ‘bad substance that one should avoid at all costs’. Drugs can be classified under many categories: legal and illegal, controlled, pharmaceutical, recreational, and depressants to name a few. Boxing them all under one label is not a useful way of understanding what they are and aren’t capable of.
It's worth noting that we live in a society where alcohol, sugar, and tobacco are openly consumed and talked about, without any of the stigma associated with them as with drugs. One might argue that there is a growing consensus and awareness about the disadvantages of tobacco, sugar, and alcohol through advertisements, campaigns, and rehab centres. However, given the significant power these substances hold in our modern-day economies, they most likely will never go out of business. Governments know that banning these will not only reduce a healthy portion of their tax revenue but also give rise to more black market activity than there already is. Tobacco was found to kill over 8 million people in 2022, alcohol killed 3 million, sugar-related diabetes and kidney diseases killed 2 million, while drugs were found to kill less than a million, about 500,000. These figures are from the World Health Organisation (WHO), so I want you to know that I’m just as sceptical about the data as you are. However, even if we account for inaccuracy in the figures, give or take 20-30% of discrepancy in the figures, or even 50%, there’s still a stark difference between the number of lives taken in each case. Of course, this doesn't include the most potent addiction of all - social media, which may not have a death toll like the ones above but doesn't do much to improve our overall well-being either.
Despite this, we see designated smoke breaks throughout the day where people socialise, sugar being distributed and consumed wherever we turn our eyes, and every party or gathering with alcohol as the showstopper. Social media is taking over the world, one tweet, or rather one thread at a time. Talk about drugs, however, and that's when the flinching begins. This often stems from a lack of awareness about the substances, and in some cases, ignorance as well. These numbers don't mean that drugs are necessarily better than other substances, but they should tell us a bit more about what we ought to be talking about or learning about.
What are Psychedelics?
Psychedelics are a broad class of drugs defined by their ability to induce an altered state of consciousness. Numerous clinical successes have spurred a renewed interest in developing psychedelic therapies. However, a unifying mechanism that can account for these shared phenomenological and therapeutic properties remains unknown. In popular culture, psychedelics are typically associated with warped visuals, perplexing behaviour, and mind-bending experiences they can lead to. For some, these alternate states of consciousness can be deeply meaningful—and sometimes challenging.
The species of Magic Mushrooms known as Psilocybe cubensis, is a naturally occurring mushroom. For millennia, cultures and communities across the globe have used these mushrooms in both spiritual and medicinal contexts because of their properties. It's also worth noting that these are not 'unnatural' either. While some psychedelics are synthetic, others are literally plants found in nature. Examples include Psilocybin, the Peyote cactus, and the Iboga shrub. These plants are significantly more natural and devoid of additions than 99% of the food found in your local supermarket, including the fruits and vegetable section. The morning coffee and food you consumed throughout the day most likely contained more preservatives, fillers, artificial ingredients and ‘unnatural’ substances than these do.
Psychedelics such as Psilocybin, MDMA, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), MDMA, Ketamine, and Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which is the active component in Ayahuasca, are known to produce alterations to sensory, self, time and space perception that are “so alien to everyday experience that they shed new light on the workings of these everyday mental functions”. Of course, these substances are not without their risks though, and that’s where the topic of psychedelic integration comes in.
In order to facilitate the lasting personal and habitual changes psychedelic therapy can provide, integration is an essential component of that process. Psychedelic integration is the process of interacting with material that emerged in altered states of consciousness. Think of it like discussing your thoughts after an incredible, mind-bending movie with your friends right as you leave the theatre. Transformational experiences —psychedelic-assisted or otherwise— wouldn’t be possible without the deep work that follows them. The days and weeks following psychedelics can hold their own significance. The subject may notice an internal shift, feel different, or see the world and others in new ways. Or, it’s possible they don’t notice much change at all, and carry on as they were. Psychedelic integration is a topic of boundless complexity, and that’s what I will be discussing today with my guest.
For this topic, I was fortunate to speak with Dr Bianca Sebben. Bianca is a psychologist whose approach to wellbeing can be described as holistic, in that it incorporates body, mind, spirit, community, and the environment. Her work is involved with complex trauma and disassociation and supports clients prepare and integrate their experiences with non-ordinary states of consciousness including psychedelics, plant medicine, breathwork, and meditation. Bianca holds a number of professional qualifications, including a Bachelor of Psychology Honours from the University of South Australia, Masters of Clinical Psychology from the University of Southern Queensland, and a Doctor of Philosophy Indigenous Psychology from the University of South Australia and is an EMDR-accredited practitioner.
Do we need psychedelics?
Think of a time you were doing something you love. That might be playing a musical instrument, exercising such as running, yoga, or playing a sport, writing, watching a movie, meditating, or anything. Was there a moment during the activity that you felt completely absorbed in it, to the point where you lost track of time? Where you were in some way, connected to the activity itself, and were enjoying every moment of it? That is essentially what mindfulness is all about.
At the thought of taking psychedelics, people who have had experiences like the ones described above might be inclined to say - "I believe in more ‘natural’ ways of achieving these states, and that I don’t think taking a substance is necessary to feel that way.” They’re partly correct, but one note to make about these experiences is that there is no one right way of doing things. People across the world from different cultures have talked about different ways of practice and traditions that have worked for them. In the case of mushrooms, as described earlier, they’re not ‘unnatural’ either. Secondly, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work when it comes to the human mind. Meditation is powerful, but not everyone is capable of sitting and meditating for minutes and hours at a stretch. Similarly, sports and arts are not everyone's cup of tea. Labelling this as a lack of effort or discipline doesn’t help either, because we’re talking about different minds and altogether, different experiences. In that case, psychedelics can offer a gateway to these states in one sitting, without needing to reach for them ever again.
So no, we do not need psychedelics to feel this way, but since when do we only do or take things that we need? Technology is the best example. We don't need it, but given how helpful technology is, it would be inefficient on our part not to use them. Similarly, we don’t need to earn a 6 figure salary to make a living for ourselves, we don’t need multiple friend groups to be happy, we don’t need a wardrobe full of clothes and shoes to look good, we don’t need to eat a large pizza and a cheesecake to satiate ourselves, we don’t need to drink alcohol to have fun - we do them anyway. Psychedelics are no different.
René Magritte - La Reproduction interdite (Not to Be Reproduced), Brussels, 1937
Like in most other areas of life, managing expectations with psychedelic consumption and treatment is an essential part of the process. Because of the growth in psychedelic discussions worldwide, there are lots of expectations floating around about what these substances are capable of. These expectations range from positive to negative, right from yearning to try mushrooms because people have only heard good things from others to a reluctance to try them due to a fear of having a ‘bad trip’. While discussing anecdotal experiences has its place, it’s important for anyone to do their own research and seek help when needed, especially if they’re considering trying their substances. It’s easy to think of popping a pill at a party, whether you’re levitating with nothing but love and joy for those around you, or you feel the significance of your existence come crashing down on you like an avalanche, there’s no going back. Different dosages, strains, potencies, sets and settings, all play a part in one’s experience. It’s next to impossible for two people to have the same trip.
Having a discussion about these can be difficult, given that consumption is illegal in most parts of the world. Even though a difficult trip or ‘bad trip’ may happen, integrating before the trip is a helpful way to prepare and mitigate the potential impact of the trip, if things go south. People are different, and different personalities will respond differently to experiences. No two integration sessions would be the same either as a result.
“If you’ve got people who are quite high on neuroticism, or low on openness, or people that need to be in control a lot, they’re going to struggle with this concept of surrendering, to allow their egoic mind to soften. That can be an incredibly harrowing experience to have, even if you’re surrounded by lovely facilitators in the right set and setting. I work with a lot of people who have had these challenging experiences to help them find safety in the present, and unpack what’s happened.”
We all tend to have certain defence mechanisms we’ve built up for ourselves, a veil that is intended to shield us from what’s out there, or so we like to believe. People who like to think of themselves as being in control all the time, feel that they are the ones in charge of what they’re doing and that they’re responsible for how others perceive them, to an extent at least. For example, they may say certain things that they don’t truly believe, just to create a certain impression to the other person. Or, they may do something to please or annoy someone else, to form a different impression, you get the idea.
Our masks cover our true beliefs, desires, and perception of the world, and we preserve that during our day-to-day lives. Psychedelics, depending on the specific type, source and potency, can be powerful substances that have the potential to blast through these defence mechanisms in a way like none other. That’s where the integration comes in, is to prepare the mind for what can happen before the trip, and also allow it to calm itself down after the trip is over. In many ways, it’s providing reassurance that they’re not alone, and helping them come back to ground level in cases where the subject feels overwhelmed by the whole experience.
“There are instances where people experience HPPD - Hallucinogenic Persistent Perceptual Disorder. People can have visions or somatic symptoms or existential dread, flashbacks to particular parts of the journey that can be very distressing. Then there are general risk factors like a family history of schizophrenia where overdosing is a possibility. There is a potential to use too much of a good thing.”
In any instance where a psychedelic session is held in an organised manner, it’s important to find out as much information about the services as possible. How are the facilitators trained? What kind of support is going to be available? What’s the plan for integration afterwards? While it’s easy to be tempted by the fancy marketing and promises that often come with retreat centres and experiences, engaging with somebody to plan the integration and/or harm reduction can help ensure safety and support.
The gut feeling also should not go unnoticed here. There are cases where scepticism about whether it ‘feels right’ to go ahead with the experience can help. If you or someone else is about to try a substance but leading up to it, it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably best to go with the gut feeling and give it a pass. While this can be difficult to do, especially if you’ve flown halfway around the globe to a certain country, paid a hefty sum, and hyped yourself for this experience, tripping if you’re not ready or have a pretext about not being ready can have dire consequences.
Mother Nature and her resources
When it comes to resource use and allocation, we as humans have a long way to go. Natural resource depletion and exploitation is an active problem that concerns all of us for the years to come. As mentioned earlier, these substances are not new, but rather, we’re just catching up now. The Westernisation of psychedelics and treatment has resulted in psychedelic tourism and capitalism, where the demand for experiences such as Iboga or Ayahuasca retreats is increasing by the day. While there are organisations that are working on ensuring sufficient recovery of these resources, there’s also a need to preserve the cultural aspect of these medicines in the communities that have relied on their use for centuries.
On the flip side, one might argue that the capitalism and tourism aspect of the industry also brings with it a steady source of income for these groups and communities. The money is an unavoidable consequence of any trend or high-demand topic. The important aspect is to find a balance through responsible tourism, where organisations who are responsible for these tourist activities also have plans for reparations and reciprocities to the communities that they’re drawing from. Ideally, no culture should have to lose access to their sacrament in order to make a living, psychedelics are no different. If the goal is to make these medicines accessible to as many people who need them as possible, then measures to account for longevity must be taken into account, both from a cultural, and a sustainable perspective. With substances like these, a ‘less is more’ approach can help. Depending on the region you’re in, these plants may not be abundantly available, and taking as much as you need, can ensure that someone else who may need it as well, has access to it. After all, no one should be denied the power these substances can offer.
Psychedelics are slowly being welcomed back into the conversation sphere. There’s a lot more to learn about these plants and what they’re capable of, and a lot of unlearning to do, especially around drugs and their roles in societies. Change is happening, slowly and steadily.
Until then, conversation is all we have. Hopefully, the day isn't far when these substances are a respected part of society. Only then will the magic reveal itself.
Check out this podcast episode for the Ideas & More show on Apple Podcasts & Spotify.
I offer my sincere gratitude to Dr Bianca Sebben for joining me. Her website can be found here.