The following are my notes from a panel entitled “The Role of Mysticism in Psychedelic Trials” sponsored by the Chacruna Institute on January 13, 2021. These are my notes from the webinar which are my paraphrases and are not comprehensive of all the speakers’ comments. All errors are my own.
Participants: Rachael Petersen, Rita Powell and Joe Welker
RACHAEL: one perspective—we’re a “neuronal soup,” psychedelics are a psychotherapeutic tool—neurons + chemical = therapy, that’s a materialist perspective; but I’ve come to think of it, in addition, as the possibility of direct encounters with other forms of reality, your sense of self, and what it means to suffer.
RITA: raised very secular/atheist; but learning about religion in college learned that YES religion can be terrible and has been used to control people throughout history BUT also there’s “juice” in there, a way of encountering a transcendent dimension of reality that religions have tried to get at. Ultimately, my experience is that psychedelics allowed me access to a realm of reality of which my religious tradition attests but that is not ordinarily accessible.
RACHAEL: important to keep in mind that Rita and I have used language of “reality” and that’s true for us and part of our ontology. BUT it’s important to remember that some people come out of experiences as atheists as once they were believers (because they interpreted it to mean that chemicals can create a God experience) but also the reverse: atheists can go in and come out believers (because they experience ontological realities that they had previously denied).
JOE: critics of religion often attack the strawman version, but a deeper and richer and more nuanced recognition is that religious traditions almost always include pathways of mystical experience. So how might we think about relationship between institutional and mystical aspects of religion?
RITA: religious institutions have terribleness and control issues—every tradition/institution has complexity of being run by people. What kind of containers can hold the widest, most pluralistic range of experiences? Value of institution is like showing you that you have a whole group of ancestors (metaphorically) to whom you are linked. So I see that as a usefulness of religious institutions. The mystical by itself may not be able to fully bring that about. I try to be humble and acknowledge that I might not know 100% of what I need; the traditions help us think about a wider spectrum of answers and perspectives to consider.
RACHAEL: Remember, science itself is an institution. It doesn’t do well with “wildness” either. This is an area where qualitative research is perhaps better equipped to really study these phenomena given the “wildness” of experience.
RITA: Oftentimes in the psychedelic scientific clinical trials, the music playlist includes classical music (often written for religious settings) and explicitly Christian music. This is a prescriptive element that could lead to a religious (and specifically Christian-specific) outcome. That’s something to keep in mind in interpreting outcomes.
RACHAEL: Remember too that the boundaries between science and religion are much less clear than folks in either domain often like to admit.
JOE: think about how you might put your individual sense of spirituality—maybe think about it in terms of your religious rights because U.S. recognizes freedom of religion but not necessarily freedom of spirituality. You might shun the religious label, but it’s the legal vehicle through which this research and these experiences can be advanced.
RACHAEL: chaplaincy—psychedelic chaplaincy is an area worth exploring; they’re folks who are trained to listen and be present, not necessarily to impost ontologies and interpretation.
RITA: I believe that a worldview of reality must account for the reality of the spiritual. That’s something that I hold to.
The participants also discussed possibilities and ideas for “psychedelic chaplaincy”; more on this is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49jAyeoWYYE