As MDMA-assisted therapy edges closer to FDA approval, interest is growing among therapists for training in the use of the entheogen in their practice. Starting in September, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is partnering with Naropa University, a Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado, to offer a unique training course in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, the second such program to be offered by an accredited institution.
The course will also feature instruction on mindfulness skills in therapeutic settings.
MAPS has been holding Phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD in Boulder as part of the FDA approval process. As it happens, one of the leaders of the Boulder trials, Marcela Ot’alora G., graduated from Naropa’s Masters program in Transpersonal Psychology.
“Marcela had mentioned how she credits her training at Naropa with her ability to sit with patients, holding space, for long periods of time,” said Sara Lewis, chair of Naropa’s Contemplative Psychotherapy and Buddhist Psychology program, and, along with Ot’alora, one of the course instructors. “So we started exploring the idea of doing a training for a Naropa cohort.”
Rick Doblin, MAPS founder and executive director, told Lucid News that several other MAPS therapists and employees are Naropa graduates as well. Doblin believes that Naropa’s contemplative, Buddhist-founded approach to therapy lends itself to work with psychedelics.
“In an eight hour session with MDMA, around half the time, the therapists are just sitting there while the patient has their eyes closed, listening to music, going through all sorts of stuff,” Doblin said. “The therapists kind of need to be in a meditative state.”
Lewis also recognizes a clear alignment between Naropa’s therapeutic methods and psychedelic therapy.
“We utilize an approach called ‘brilliant sanity,’ which recognizes that there is wisdom to be found in trauma, depression, and extreme states,” Lewis said. “In other words, we help clients to see their minds as an awakened place of health and sanity, no matter what is happening. This kind of trust is very compatible with psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.”
While the MAPS protocol already includes mindfulness, the Naropa program “will weave even more training in how to use contemplative practices to ground both patients and practitioners, into the work,” says Lewis. Three additional days have been added to teach contemplative psychotherapy methods.
Naropa was founded as the Naropa Institute in 1974 by Tibetan Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who aimed to bring Eastern contemplative education to the West. The Institute’s notoriety grew when Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman established Naropa’s writing program, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The Kerouac school drew counterculture icons such as Ram Dass, Ken Kesey, Tim Leary and William S. Burroughs to teach and lecture at Naropa. Yet despite its history, Naropa’s partnership with MAPS marks its first public alignment with the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
In its collaboration with MAPS, Naropa follows the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), which since 2016 has incorporated Parts A and B of the MAPS protocol into their Certificate in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies and Research program. Unlike CIIS, Naropa does not offer a full academic program in psychedelic therapy. But that could change in the future.
“A number of Naropa faculty members and students are interested in formally establishing a center for psychedelic studies and doing more work in this area,” Lewis shared. “Following FDA approval, Naropa is interested in exploring how we can create robust training for our students who wish to work with psychedelic medicines more broadly.”
For MAPS, the collaboration with Naropa is part of a larger effort to expand their therapist training programs. “Eventually, we want training centers inside VA systems, inside academic systems,” Doblin said. “We will have our own training program, and we’ll certify these other programs.”
“There’s such an enormous need for therapists, so that’s the limiting factor: to scale the training, making sure the content is consistent with our treatment method,” Doblin said.
While Naropa’s collaboration with MAPS is a practical step toward creating new psychedelic therapy training opportunities, Doblin also views it as a symbolic bridge between psychedelics and mindfulness, which have long been separated by an ideological schism.
“It used to be that if you were a meditator, psychedelics were seen as short-term and not very spiritual,” Doblin said. “Thich Nhat Hanh and others in Buddhism are sort of anti-psychedelic. But that’s ending. Now, there’s more understanding that you can have a lifelong meditation practice, and a psychedelic experience every now and then can help deepen your practice.”
For practitioners deterred by the cost, Naropa established a scholarship fund. The fund gives specific attention to the psychedelic field’s underrepresentation of “persons of color, women, and those who have an interest in LGBTQ issues,” according to the website. Donations are being accepted here.