Chaplains Are Learning to Become Psychedelic Guides
This article is part of a series called God on Psychedelics. Join author Don Lattin for a Twitter Spaces discussion about this series on religion and psychedelics on Thursday, May 12, at 8:00 pm ET / 5:00 pm PT. Click here to join.
From Harvard to Berkeley and back to Boulder, a robust conversation has begun about bringing trained chaplains into the burgeoning network of those offering psychedelic-assisted therapy and spiritual care.
Chaplains are often ordained in a specific religious tradition, but are also trained to care for people of other faiths — or no faith — in hospitals, prisons, universities, and the military.
Whether it’s counseling families who have just lost a loved one in the emergency room, or dealing with soldiers recovering from the horrors of war, chaplains help people get through the most traumatic events of their lives.
“Chaplains already have significant training in being present to transpersonal experience,” said the Rev. Jamie Beachy, a longtime chaplain and ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination.
“People at the end of life often have deep experiences of those who have passed on before or communication with God in their dreams. That territory is very familiar to chaplains,” said Beachy, speaking over Zoom in a March interview.
After working for years as a hospital chaplain and training for inter-religious spiritual care, Beachy now directs the Center for Contemplative Chaplaincy at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is also working as a co-therapist with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) as part of its ongoing clinical trials of MDMA-assisted therapy to treat survivors of extreme trauma.
In Berkeley, chaplaincy is one approach offered in a training program organized by the University of California’s new Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics and the adjacent Graduate Theological Union (GTU).
In September, the Berkeley center will launch its Certificate Program in Psychedelic Facilitation. It is designed for “advanced religious, spiritual care, and healthcare professionals working in areas such as chaplaincy, ministry, medicine, nursing, mental health counseling, psychiatry, and social work.”
“Chaplains are trained in cultural sensitivity and giving spiritual care to anyone,” said Sam Shonkoff, a professor of Jewish studies at the GTU who works with the new center. “They hold space for whatever comes up — death, birth, sickness. Psychedelic work can have all those qualities.”
At Harvard, Rachael Petersen, a graduate at the Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions, has been trying to build bridges between psychedelic guides and seasoned chaplains.
“A lot of these research institutions and universities that are doing psychedelic work have trained chaplains — but they are not talking to one another,” said Petersen, who is also the psychedelics and religion program director at the Riverstyx Foundation.
“I have spoken to so many professional spiritual caregivers who sit with the dying and the dead, or who sit with people going through profound, non-ordinary experiences,” she said in an interview in February. “We want to integrate that with psychedelic research.”
The Rev. John Mabry, a retired pastor with the United Church of Christ, trains chaplains at the interfaith Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley, where psychedelics have also become a new topic of conversation.
“There is definitely a spiritual component to psychedelic work,” he said. “You’re having an unmediated experience of the All. It’s going to have religious connotations. Training people to companion others through that experience seems an awful lot like chaplaincy to me.”
Mabry — a spiritual director who has personal experience with psychedelics but is not a guide himself — stressed the importance of not “projecting your own paradigm” onto the client or patient — whether that is in a traditional chaplaincy role or guiding someone on a psychedelic journey.
Berkeley Rabbi Michael Ziegler, who has spent the last four decades leading ceremonies in expanded states of consciousness, wholeheartedly agrees with that sentiment.
When working with people who are dying, Ziegler said in a March interview at his office in Berkeley, “you listen to people and offer your presence. You meet them where they are. You’re not going for some bedside conversion.”
Ziegler said the same skills are needed when sitting with someone having a psychedelic experience.
“The natural impulse is to get involved or try to be helpful or make meaning,” he said. “Really skilled sitters have a super light touch. It’s a meditative experience to sit in service for someone for eight hours on a mushroom trip with a booster. You’d think it’s super easy, but trust me, it’s not.”
Ziegler is a disciple of the late Ralph Metzner, who worked with the psychedelic pioneers Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a Ram Dass) at Harvard in the early 1960s.
Metzner and others stressed that psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers of whatever preconceived ideas and expectations a person brings into a session.
“On psychedelics, you are extraordinary suggestible,” Ziegler said. “Anything you drop in there is going to blossom.”
Ziegler has compiled a series of video interviews with seasoned psychedelic guides and posted them online, which he calls the Guiding Presence.”
“Today, it seems like everyone and their dog are calling themselves entheogenic guides and psychedelic therapists,” he said. “Training programs are popping up everywhere, and most offer no practice experience in leading trips — just clinical theory.
“We had the meditation fad. We have the yoga fad. Now we have the psychedelic fad,” he said. “People are out there saying, ‘the mushrooms told me to be a shaman.’ Are you kidding me? It’s all so immature. And it’s dangerous.”
Ziegler hopes new programs like those at University of California and GTU, at Naropa, and being considered at Harvard and Emory University will bring a bit of gravitas to this work.
“This is not the Church of the Frisbee,” he said. “It’s Harvard. It’s Berkeley. This is the beginning of a serious conversation about how to sacrilize the use of psychedelics in service of meaning making. In ten years, these initiatives will bear fruit.”
A few years ago, Ziegler was called to the death bed of a longtime rabbinical friend. The night before the rabbi died, he sat with his family through a MDMA experience in which they reaffirmed their love, forgiveness and reconciliation for their father.
“He passed away the next day, and went out with a low-dose shot of ketamine, in place of morphine,” Ziegler said “For me, that’s the holy of holies.”
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Theologically and politically progressive seminaries such as the Unitarian Universalist’s Starr King School for the Ministry in Oakland have led the way in conversations about chaplaincy and psychedelics. Adjunct faculty member Ayize Jama-Everett, who teaches a course called “The Sacred and the Substance,” hosted an April 19 webinar where graduates of the school talked about their spiritual callings.
The Rev. Emily Webb, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and hospice chaplain, said she hoped that those pushing the medical model of psychedelic care could be more open to ancient wisdom traditions and “indigenous ways of knowing.”
“We have an enormous crisis in mental health — particularly among young people, the elderly, and populations that are marginalized,” she said. “Therapy that costs $225 an hour, once a week, is really failing…I hope I can be an advocate for moving the medical model more toward a community-centered, peer-led model, a decriminalization model, a shared-knowledge model.”
Anthony Graffagnino, an Interfaith-Quaker chaplain, has worked with researchers at the UCSF Medical Center, working to develop “a spiritual assessment model for chaplains serving in psilocybin therapy contexts.”
The panelists were asked how their psychedelic experiences have come to shape their theology. Graffagnino’s answer:
“I now believe that that god, the goddess, the divine, the sacred that we encounter comes from within and without. The magic and the beauty that we encounter comes from within and without. The healing and insight and wisdom that we encounter comes from within and without.”
Chaplaincy and psychedelics was also one of the topics discussed at an April 22-24 “Religion and Psychedelics Forum” sponsored by the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicine.
Religion scholar Erik Davis, who co-convened the conference with Chacruna leader Bia Labate, said the model of the “chaplain” is in some ways a better one than that of the “therapist.”
“One of the great problems with psychedelic mainstreaming is, ‘Who are going to guide all these people?’ All these training programs are popping up and naive people are jumping into the space without the decades-long practices that are helpful for doing this.
“The model of chaplaincy is a beautiful and powerful one to approach how people are able to integrate psychedelics into their lives…The secular mantra of wellness, of psychological healing, is great, but it only goes so far. We have no choice but to dive into these sacred waters.”
In a panel at the Chacruna conference, Petersen and Beachy were joined by two other chaplaincy experts.
The Rev. Caroline Peacock, an Episcopal priest, is the director of Spiritual Health at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta. She is doing research on the experience of chaplain guides in psychedelic assisted therapy in healthcare settings.
Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, a professional chaplain who is a Muslim, is also an assistant professor of practical theology and director of the Interreligious Chaplaincy Program at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Abu-Shamsieh, who said he has no personal experience with psychedelics, stressed that the efforts to train psychedelic chaplains through his GTU program and University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco are still in the early stages.
“Not all faith communities support the use of psychedelics, including my community,” he later explained. “Members of these communities might seek psychedelic experiences, and there is a need to train chaplains to offer religiously and ethnically competent care.”
Leaders at the center in Berkeley and at the medical school at University of California in San Francisco say their new training program, offered in partnership with the GTU, will allow some trainees to safely and legally be administered psilocybin through a study approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
It will “offer opportunities for healthy volunteers to access first-hand experiences” with psychedelic drugs. “Medically eligible trainees may volunteer as participants in the study, thereby increasing their personal knowledge of psychedelic substances and their capacity to support others accessing psychedelic care.”
Dr. Brian Anderson, a faculty member at UCSF and an investigator affiliated with the Berkeley center, stressed that “participation in the certificate program is neither a requisite for, nor a guarantee of, being selected for volunteering as a subject in psychedelics research.”
Because of legal restrictions, some early training programs in this field, such as one at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco, have not been able to offer these first-hand experiences.
UC education professor Tina Trujillo, who heads the Cal training program, said the new effort will have “a nuanced understanding of psychedelic facilitation,” along with “skills-based training in mental health, professional spiritual care, and the scientific research that seeks to understand how psychedelics may affect health, well-being, and the mind.”
Organizers of the Berkeley center have sought to incorporate the scientific, spiritual and shamanic — approaches that have increasingly found themselves at odds in the “psychedelic renaissance.”
According to the course prospectus, graduates of the program “may also be eligible to participate in an immersive learning experience in Oaxaca, Mexico.”
“This pilgrimage will provide first-hand educational experiences with the historical and spiritual origins of the Mazatec mushroom traditions, from the perspectives of local indigenous healers, scholars, and other community members.”
The Berkeley center reports that it has received $7 million from five philanthropic donors, including an anonymous five-year, $5 million pledge from a contributor seeking “to advance the center’s mission of research, training, and public education about psychedelics and their roles in society.” Author and fitness expert Tim Ferriss has donated $800,000 to pay for psychedelic reporting fellowships at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The largest publicly identified donor is a nearly $1 million grant from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation. That money will be used to develop an online “Psychedelics 101” course by UC Berkeley neurologist David Presti and other faculty affiliated with the center.
Just the fact that the University of California even has something called the Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics is fairly amazing, but in some ways not surprising.
In 1965, just a couple years after the fellows at Harvard College dismissed the infamous Timothy Leary as a lecturer in clinical psychology, the self-described “high priest” of the psychedelic counterculture issued a prophesy.
Leary, who began his doctoral studies at UC Berkeley in 1947, is remembered today for a controversial psychedelic career that began with a poolside magic mushroom trip in the fall of 1960 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with Psilocybe cubensis scored off an old curandera, a Mexican shaman Leary called “Crazy Juana.”
Speaking at a 1965 conference in San Francisco, Leary said, “I predict that within one generation we will have across the bay in Berkeley a Department of Psychedelic Studies. There will be a dean of LSD.”
It was a long time coming, but it is here and it is now.
Join author Don Lattin for a Twitter Spaces discussion about this series on religion and psychedelics on Thursday, May 12, at 8:00 pm ET / 5:00 pm PT. Click here to join.