This article was commissioned by Synthesis and reflects on a more soulful psychedelic space.
In February 2023, we sent our last newsletter, ‘A Valentine to the Shadow.’
Ironically, a few weeks later, Synthesis almost unexpectedly imploded – except that it didn’t. Numerous events have unfolded in the last 12 months, and we have continued to grapple with questions around Shadow and Ethics. As part of this path, we have sought to attune to what might be unfolding for us, from a place of deep acceptance, openness, and curiosity.
In the words of Synthesis Facilitator and Buddhist Chaplain Daan Keiman, the desire to help is intrinsic but “just as sand becomes a pearl in an oyster, so do challenges open us up to the pearls of wisdom found in facing our problems with possibilities; Friction, the price we pay for authentic and meaningful engagement, is what happens when people from different viewpoints come together to continually iterate on something nuanced and new.”
These different ways of interpreting life and its experiences are what allow a more holistic picture to emerge. In this sense friction is a form of transformation in itself. This was mirrored in our desire to create smooth and comfortable health screening processes, while holding the tension between best relational practices, responsibilities, financial and legal realities, scaling, and ethical shared decision-making – which forced us to integrate, synthesise, and grow.
Our goal has always been to “first do no harm” and we held up this torchlight as we ventured into the unknown, with a willingness to learn. Psychedelic medicines still face a Catch 22: many mental health indications are also contraindications; In the modern West we tend to take a medicalised view of both health and ‘screening’, but there is still very little ‘science-based’ evidence for these best practices in the ceremonial setting. Entheogenic experiences are also varied and unpredictable, a far cry from our standardised pharmaceutical provisions.
We sought a shared ethical liability that honoured and valued the autonomy of participants and empowered them as part of our decision-making process. However, our ability to expansively communicate the risks of ceremonial participation were constrained by the commercial context – limited finances, resources, and time; This is a challenge common to many healthcare providers operating under systemic pressures that affect continuity of care. Synthesis sought to maintain integrity, rejecting around 40-70% of applicants, one of the highest rates in the industry, which ultimately made this arm of the business model unsustainable.
Discerning ‘readiness’ is an inherently relational process that is most effective when we can be in direct conversation with each-other and ourselves. As Psychedelic care entered the mainstream this ‘high touch’ model of interaction encountered obstacles that provoked further questions – why psychedelics? What is their place in our society? What are our intentions, and how do we integrate?
A key challenge in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors is the lack of an integrative language for indigenous spiritual contexts within our Western worldview. This is further complicated by legal stances around who people can access and journey with. The renaissance of our relationship with psychedelics is still relatively recent, stretching back only 3 generations. With this, we have unknowingly grieved the loss of an intergenerational science that extended into deeper realms of life.
These cosmologies, rooted in the harmony and balance of body, mind, spirit and world soul, might be revived through the honour of connecting to communities willing to form authentic and reciprocal alliances. Rather than segregating belief systems that don’t fit, we can weave new worlds and open up real dialogue based on complementarity and building bridges.
Psychedelic medicines have historically been prescribed within the intangible logic of community, which today, is often nuclear and fractured. It was these networks of care that provided the relational insights into health ‘screening’ in context. Relational screening sees the whole person, not just a set of data on a form. In many cases, it is not the medicines themselves that are healing, but the holistic interconnections between the spirits, songs, plants, rituals, and gatherings of open hearts.
In some indigenous settings, healers receive community recognition through lengthy training processes, apprenticeships, and initiation, rather than courses and degrees. This may involve cross-cultural travel to understand different approaches, various lineages, techniques, and methods for sharing other ‘ways of knowing’ and being in the world.
However healers are still human, and while they may be able to offer an extensive array of wisdom and advice for the sacred use of plants, or even to consult in ceremony on behalf of someone, people deserve agency in the narratives and processes that affect their worldview. Honouring other traditions and beliefs is essential but healing starts at home; we don’t need to travel to the Amazon to appreciate the interconnectedness of life.
In challenging our own perspectives and paradigms, we can build the capacity to hold a level of complexity that prevents us from perpetuating systemic patterns of harm. Rooting and reconnecting to the depth within ourselves creates the space to feel – and ultimately to heal. As we have encountered many times along this path, there are few easy answers to the most important questions; but in getting comfortable with the discomfort, we are encouraged to stay with the medicine.
Dr. Kaptchuk, Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard, has shared his concerns that progress has “the capacity to destroy the stuff that has to do with wisdom, preciousness, and imagination – the things that are actually critical to who we are as human beings”, but he also has to believe that there is an infinite reserve of such things that will resist being reduced to simple materialistic explanations.
As we look forwards towards a horizon where the branches of science and technology are set to deliver exponential rates of progress and intelligence, there is equal weighting to be found in glancing back towards the ancient wisdom traditions and symbolism of our long-forgotten roots; putting the care back into healthcare with the softness of the soul.
“I don’t love science, I want to know what heals people” – Ted Kaptchuk, Director of the Harvard-wide programme in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter.