This essay is from an upcoming book, Beyond the Medical Model: Psychedelics for the Betterment of Well People. It is a partial excerpt from a talk given at Psychedelic Science 2023 entitled, “Messages from the Underground and Other Elephants in the Room.”
I would like to start by acknowledging the population of healthy normals who do not fit into a diagnosable category, including Michael Pollan, who sought out underground guides to have the experiences he describes in his mind changing book on psychedelics.
Sixty-five years ago, when psychedelics were still legal, researchers around the world were publishing hundreds of papers on the value of these newly discovered medicines. That all came to an end in the late 1960s, as the Nixon administration declared a war on drugs and psychedelics were classified as illegal and dangerous with no beneficial attributes. Many prominent people, academics, researchers and even the military had already experimented with these medicines. By the mid-60s, the psychedelic genie was well out of the bottle never to be put back.
Leo Zeff was a bright, curious and successful psychotherapist; a Ph.D practicing Jungian therapist. It was Terrence McKenna who named Leo the “Secret Chief.” Leo would go on to become the grandfather of the psychedelic guide and an important innovator of the non-directive style of guiding.
It wasn’t until Zeff had passed to the great beyond that his good and brilliant friend, Myron Stolaroff, wrote his book about him, The Secret Chief Revealed. I met Myron and others who had trained with Leo and came to recognize his influence and importance in the field of psychedelic therapy.
According to The Secret Chief Revealed, Leo first became interested in LSD in 1961, when his patients reported their experiences with the substance. He was “flabbergasted” by what they told him. He was going through his own midlife crisis, dissatisfied with his work as a therapist, smoking cigarettes, and taking codeine for migraines. He decided to try LSD for himself. In preparation for his first psychedelic experience, he read numerous research papers published about this novel substance. As Terrence McKenna often said, if you are interested in psychedelics, go to a library first.
For his first journey, Leo brought with him things that felt personally important, such as his Torah and family photographs. He went on to have what he called a “full trip” on LSD. He experienced what he described as “being in the lap of God and realiz[ing] God and I were one.” The first thing he said afterwards was “Why can’t it be like this always?
A profound healing also happened between him and family members, both alive and dead.
He knew this was what he had been looking for.
Leo developed a screening process and it began with himself. He wanted to be what he called “clean.” He did not want to influence a person’s journey because he felt that the medicine and person had a sacred relationship with each other. It was inappropriate for a therapist to interfere in that relationship. He also was clear about the importance of the guide reflecting back to the client that it is the client who does the work, not the guide, avoiding any kind of ego inflation on the guide’s part.
Before agreeing to facilitate a client’s session, Leo wanted to know why that person wanted to trip. He also felt that the guide should feel a bond with the person who he sits for. Leo would talk to clients several times in advance and find out how they had been working on themselves. He would ask: What did they read? What workshops had they been to? What trainings had they been through?
He would ask about their life history to determine if he felt that bond. Once he was sure that the bond was there, and that the person was serious about their own development, he would proceed.
Leo quickly learned that his traditional therapeutic techniques were not applicable for psychedelic sessions. In fact, he was adamant about that. He put it bluntly: “Traditional techniques do not work.”
His approach was to “just leave them alone,” as he put it. “The God within them knows what’s wrong with them and provides them with whatever they need.” Clients brought their own experiences into the psychedelic sessions. Leo felt that it was a privilege to sit with them while they went through these experiences.
Leo was clear that psychedelic sitting was totally different from psychotherapy, which, unlike psychedelic guidance, relies on the therapist’s direct intervention in the client’s process. Psychotherapy is complex. It encompasses treatment, ongoing sessions, talk therapy, transference, countertransference, archetypes, attachment theories, dreams and more. Historically, it ultimately led to the development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. The DSM V has become the diagnostic bible for all that ails us as modern Western human beings and sets criteria for normalcy.
I don’t mean to imply that there is something intrinsically wrong with psychotherapy, or the field of psychiatry, or counseling for that matter. All therapeutic processes can help facilitate healing and relieve suffering. In contrast, there is currently a popular meme that says one psychedelic session can be like ten years of talk therapy. This may be true, but it is dangerous to set the expectations of the person journeying so ridiculously high. Psychedelics do not always heal a lifetime of wounds in five hours.
When using psychedelics, I have noticed that people will pass through three stages of experience.
Stage one could be called psychic house cleaning. The success of this stage is determined by how much work a person has done on themselves in advance of the session. The house cleaning begins with the psychological healing aspect of psychedelic medicines. Teachings emerge from the basement of our psyche. The experience is psychodynamic in nature and can be personally revealing, healing, painful, embarrassing, awe inspiring, humbling, physically challenging, pleasurable and even mystically magical. Sometimes people cry and writhe around. All the old skeletons in the closet get to come out and dance. At times a person may beg for it to stop. Other times they find their way to forgiving others, and allow forgiveness towards themselves. If they are fortunate and capable of surrendering to the experience – because what they resist will persist – eventually the medicine smiles upon them, and they get to feel a profound moment of gratitude for their very existence and for all creatures great and small, extending to our entire beautiful blue planet.
Yes, psychedelics may fast forward the therapeutic talk therapy process. But the combination of therapy plus psychedelics also raises many questions that are yet to be addressed.
Psychedelics are a great adjunct to traditional therapy, but I question if they should be used with the same regularity as talk therapy. In the highly successful research studies around PTSD, depression, addiction, among many mental health conditions, participants are given one to three sessions with MDMA, psilocybin or ibogaine. Those few sessions are enough to create radically long lasting change. The therapeutic process does not have to continue on for months or years.
I also question whether a therapist should engage in therapy with a client during the psychedelic session. Might it be better to abide by Zeff’s insight that “traditional techniques do not work. Just let the person be, they will be provided with whatever they need.” This non-directive style is not passive, and includes the idea of the “inner healer,” that part of the person that has their best interest in mind. It also provides a number of hours of pre-session therapy, establishes deep rapport between client and guide and provides the client with navigational skills and awareness. Breath is an important component. Memes like trust, open, and let go can be valuable mantras.
But what happens if psychedelics become just another form of psychotherapy? Will people return again and again, weekly or monthly, for more medicine, more therapy, without ever truly being healed? What do we think about the practice of a psychedelic guide who relies upon regular returning clients? Can people actually integrate their experience, and be back for more psychedelics in two weeks or in a month? Should we separate the therapeutic aspect of psychology from psychedelic work and create a different criteria around returning clients? Should we even call it “psychedelic-assisted therapy,” now widely known simply by the acronym PAT? In the early days of psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins, I’ve been told, they intentionally avoided using the word “therapist.” But today we wonder whether psychedelics will end up exclusively in the hands of the medical community. What about the vast majority of people who are not diagnosable and yet benefit from psychedelic use with underground sitters, friends and family (as Bob Jesse puts it, psychedelic use “for the betterment of well people”) or simply for re-creational ( note, not recreational) pleasure?
Of course, these questions lead us to examine issues around the transactional nature of any helping/healing work, and its reliance on a regular returning clientele. These challenges are not limited to psychedelic practice. But the issue becomes more acute with psychedelics because the potential for healing after only a few sessions is so much greater.
So after a number of psychedelic experiences, then what? How many journeys do we need to spend cleaning the basement? If we are truly integrating the revelations of the medicine, shouldn’t we be making progress with our personal issues? If we are not making progress, how does that reflect upon the healing efficacy of psychedelics – and the current myth of the magic bullet, that circulates in the popular press? We all know that psychedelics are not a magic wand, though they are super powerful if the lessons they offer are properly integrated into a change of behavior.
When moving out of the basement and up to the main floor of our psyche, people will begin to transit from the deeply personal and psychological to the second psychedelic developmental stage. This level is all about insight and insightfulness. It is less challenging than the earlier stage, because there is nothing left to fear. The information that comes to a person on the medicine is clear and precise. The message is direct and guiding. The lights get turned on. There is a cosmic hum in the background. This is the stage where major upgrades in the personal operating system go from 1.0 to 2.0. Words like ethical, integrity, moral imperative, love, self acceptance, caring, equality, and future generations begin to take on real meaning; they are no longer abstractions or metaphors. Implementing the insights in order to become a better version of oneself gets locked in.
For people who are in positions of power in society, opportunities to impact the world arise. Businesses can be restructured into healthy forms of capitalism; Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps is a fine example of the re-visioning that can come from psychedelic insight. Social media accounts spewing hate can be shut down, accumulating wealth can turn to philanthropy and the relief of suffering.
This second stage of psychedelic practice opens the lens on reality and moves us out of our interior personal story and into the bigger story of the world. Interestingly, moving out of the personal story relieves anxiety, depression, PTSD, and the critical voice that judges and condemns. Psychedelics are certainly not a magic wand, but they can grant hope and relief. They can uplift the spirit so a vision of possibility can arise as a guiding star in one’s life.
After using medicine to clean up the house of the psyche, with that first drop, or first dose, or first ceremony, it is not unusual for people to feel how worthwhile it is to support psychedelic research. And it is. We think: hey let’s change the laws while we are at it. This feels very important!
And wow, what an incredible community of people we get to meet, be part of and connect with! This feeling of being connected to a larger world, a larger view that is beyond yourself, beyond your immediate family and personal needs, is an important aspect of the psychedelic experience. As Gregory Bateson would put it, the pattern that connects us all allows us to really feel our humanity.
These realizations are direct and undeniable. They can guide us into the third level of psychedelic awareness, which is the realm of the mystical; the perennial philosophy described by Aldous Huxley. They offer a view from the penthouse of the mind.
It was Huxley who reminded the world of the perennial philosophy in which “the physical world is not the only reality. All human beings possess the capacity to know a higher reality and developing this capacity through expanding the mind is the purpose of existence where we get to realize there seems to be something eternal.” Or as Roland Griffiths so acutely asked, on more than one occasion, “How is it we are aware that we are aware?” A truly expanded awareness or peak experience can cleanse the doors of perception and open up a curiosity about the nature of reality. In actuality, these experiences are like a box of chocolates, and you never know what you are going to get.
Leo’s clientele was made up of psychiatrists, physicians, people helpers, government officials, people in high positions and great influence. He apparently tripped and or trained as many as 4,000 people in the U.S. and Europe .
Leo also felt people should experience mescaline, LSD and psilocybin, as well as what he called the psychoactives: harmaline, ibogaine, MDA . He wanted his clients to be exposed to the entire spectrum of psychedelics and to understand the journey from the inside. Take note this was during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1977, Alexander Sasha Shulgin introduced him to MDMA, which was not illegal at the time. Leo loved its effects so much that he delayed retirement in order to share MDMA with his clients and community.
So why was Leo so adamant that traditional therapeutic approaches do not work during the psychedelic session?
I have sat through MAPS trainings for the use of MDMA to treat PTSD, where we watched hours of actual sessions with veterans and victims of sexual abuse. I was often shocked by the questions that some psychiatrists and other conventionally trained therapists would ask after witnessing profound healing taking place before our very eyes. Following traditional therapeutic models, they would diagnose the client with a variety of personality disorders, disassociated behaviors, delusions of grandeur, ego dissolution, and more. Most disturbingly, they often completely missed the fact that healing had taken place as a result of an expanded state of awareness. The client might have had a direct experience of themselves thanks to the MDMA, which took them out of the personal into a transpersonal state, bringing them to a place of equilibrium and relief from suffering. These healings often happened during MAPS trainings with minimal but highly skilled input from their attendants. As Leo said, “Clients brought their own experience to themselves and I had the privilege of sitting with them while they were being experienced.” And yet, the therapists-in-training seemed to have no idea that this healing had taken place. They didn’t know what to look at in order to recognize it.
When we are faced with a transpersonal experience that takes the individual out of the “me” and connects to the collective core of consciousness of a unified field, the psychological aspects of the individual, the narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves, is often healed, transformed, and transcended We become one with everything. Some might claim that, because of the use of medicine, that these experiences are a form of spiritual bypassing. But that misses the point. They are actually profound realizations about the nature of consciousness itself.
I often think that trained psychotherapists may need to un-train themselves in order to become skilled psychedelic facilitators. Their traditional training too often blinds them from recognizing the essence of the psychedelic experience.
The situation is made worse by the illegality surrounding psychedelic use, which makes the current models of training psychedelic guides effectively theoretical. There was a reason Leo wanted his people to experience all of the known psychoactive medicines for themselves. How else can a guide understand the depth or the arc of the different medicines, be it psilocybin, MDMA, LSD or 5-MeO-DMT? How else can a psychedelic guide understand the importance of a challenging or a bad trip if they have not themselves traveled that road? How else can you understand the dismemberment process of ego dissolution and remembrance if you have not ever been stripped bare?
Completing a training program does not automatically make you a skilled guide, and neither does a degree in psychiatry. Certainly trips to the Amazon do not make you a shaman. Skillfulness in a guide is not determined by letters after one’s name. It takes intimately knowing the various complexions of the different medicines, the ability to genuinely feel love in the profoundly intimate space of a journey, and the capacity to be fully present as one human being to another.
As long as psychedelics are illegal, people will continue to be trained as if the map is the territory. Ironically all certified counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists must go through many hours of personal therapy – and then many more hours of supervised training – before they can begin to see clients. In the future, as these substances are rescheduled, perhaps it should be required for all psychedelic guides to go through hundreds of hours of supervised psychedelic experience themselves. This would allow them to understand the differences between medicines intimately, and the variety of states of consciousness that are possible. It would also sensitize them to the role of the guide and how easy it is for the guide to mistakenly lead the witness, so to speak. By this I mean: interpreting what a client is experiencing by projecting our own ideas or philosophy onto them while they are journeying, or even interpreting the session in the integration process. Finding ways to allow the person to make meaning out of their very personal experience is part of the communication skill set of a good guide. Allowing them to connect the dots is an important aspect of the non-directive style of guiding and the healing awareness that is possible.
The map is clearly not the territory. No one should place their mind and psyche in the hands of someone who has only studied the menu, but never consumed the food of the gods. Psychedelic sitters should be experienced. They should strive for what Leo described as being “clean” in how they witness another human being under the very vulnerable setting of a profound psychedelic experience of self discovery. As Leo said, traditional therapist techniques do not work.
I would add that if a psychedelic sitter suggests you schedule another session before you have had the opportunity to fully integrate your experience, don’t just walk away. Run! Find a skilled integration therapist, or explore the experience with your regular therapist, and begin the real work of putting into daily practice what was revealed to you with the help of the medicine. As Black Elk, the Lakota medicine man, said “For a vision to have power, you must perform the vision on Earth for the people to see.” How else do you become a better version of yourself?
Image by Nicki Adams.