Creating Sacred Space for Psychedelic Therapy: Towards an Informed and Inclusive Approach
Stuart Sarbacker, PhD, Associate Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Philosophy, Oregon State University; Andrea Perez, Oregon State University
Over the past two decades, a massive cultural shift in both scientific and popular culture has given rise to a so-called “Psychedelic Renaissance” or “Second Wave Psychedelic Movement.” Building on the work of scientists such as Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University and Charles Grob of UCLA, advocates of emergent psychedelic therapies have sought to transform psychotherapeutic practice through careful scientific study, thoughtful efforts in public relations, and through transforming legal structures. One of the most intriguing aspects of the emergent research has been the relationship between therapeutic outcomes and self-described “religious experiences.” Griffths, for example, has argued that participants in psilocybin-based therapy that have had self-reported “mystical experiences” demonstrate especially profound positive shifts in their mental and emotional life following their session. More broadly, psychologists are recognizing the value of having opportunities for participants in psychedelic-assisted therapy to have access to religiously informed counseling; one manifestation of this is the development of “psychedelic chaplaincy;” another is in the use of religious iconography, symbols, and objects within the spaces utilized for therapy sessions. In this paper, we will examine the role of religion in—to use terms of art—the “set and setting” of psychedelic-assisted therapy. In particular, we will examine the question of how participants may or may not be “primed” for their experiences through their conversations, discussions, and education prior to the session and the ways in which the physical space of the session serves to condition psychedelic therapy experiences through referencing of religious iconography, symbols, and objects. Building upon this, we will explore some of the debates about the inclusion of religious thought and objects in such therapeutic environments, including the question of the value, or lack thereof, of a “white room” experience; the “suggestibility” factor in psychedelic experiences and the risk of abuse; the potential for appropriation and commodification of religious symbols; and the challenges of making emergent therapies accessible to diverse BIPOC constituencies. As is the case with larger medical and hospital culture, carving out spaces for spiritual life in psychedelic therapy is clearly important in providing meaningful and holistic care. We will argue that this calls for an informed, critical approach to the process is essential for avoiding the pitfalls of overdetermination, appropriation, commodification, and exclusivism in the delivery of psychedelic-assisted therapy. On this basis, we will suggest a ten-point pedagogy for the instruction of psychedelic facilitators that will support a culturally and religiously literate, sensitive, and inclusive approach to the process.