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‘Changing Our Minds’ explores psychedelic drugs and spiritual healing

Religion can likely benefit from psychedelics, and now clergy can help prove it.

BERKELEY, Calif. (RNS) In his new book, “Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy,” award-winning author and former religion reporter Don Lattin looks at how therapy sessions with psychedelic drugs are helping heal the psychological and spiritual woes of cancer patients, alcoholics, war veterans and the seriously depressed.

As Lattin details in the book, there are sometimes positive spiritual and religious changes for those who take these drugs under clinical supervision — a key component of the treatment. During sessions to treat addictive behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, some patients report everything from a greater “oneness” with the universe to visions of Jesus on the cross.

Lattin, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, is about to embark on a summer book tour that will take him from the Telluride Mushroom Festival in the Rocky Mountains to a psychedelic consciousness convention in London. He sat down with RNS to discuss the changing attitudes toward these drugs — psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”), ayahuasca (a psychoactive tea brewed from two Amazonian plants), MDMA (“ecstasy”) and more — and how they can bring religious and spiritual insight to some.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Members of an ayahuasca church taking psychedelic tea as a sacrament in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Tom Hill

How is taking psychedelics therapeutically different from taking them recreationally?

Well, the first difference between recreational use and the clinical trials now underway into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is a difference of legality. Taking these drugs for fun is illegal, not to mention dangerous because when you buy psychedelics on the street you are never sure what you are getting. The clinical trials are legal — approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The purity and the dose are clearly established. Many people in my book are trying to overcome some serious psychological problem, or they are people in ayahuasca churches who are seriously trying to commune with God. Both are in it for the long term and will tell you this was not always a fun or easy experience. But it was cathartic. It was healing. This is not the way most people take psychedelics — many thousands of people take MDMA (ecstasy) every weekend and most have a good time. The difference here is the intention — healing or insight — and that those who take these medicines or sacraments are being guided through the experience and get help to integrate whatever insights they have into their real lives.

Speaking just about those seeking a connection to God — is taking a pill to do that just too easy?

“Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy” by Don Lattin. Image courtesy of Synergetic Press

There is some truth to that critique. Someone in my book calls the psychedelic experience “gratuitous grace.” In a recreational drug context, it is too easy, and it becomes too easy to just dismiss it as some weird experience. But people in some of the clinical trials I write about say what they experienced in a couple of sessions with a therapist and psychedelics was like 10 years of normal therapy. It can take less time. But psychedelics are not a magic bullet. They can show you another way to be. They can be an opening, that is all. The goal of a lot of this work, whether it is therapeutic or spiritual, is to help people make some lasting changes in their lives. They (researchers and spiritual guides) are trying to take psychedelics more seriously than one does at a party or a concert or a festival. Even though it can take one to a mystical place, the goal is to bring all this back down to earth.

Drugs are chemicals. Can God — or any experience of the divine — be reduced to brain chemistry? Are such experiences “real”?

You can have a mystical experience through lots of different means. You can have it by fasting — a very accepted practice in almost every religious tradition. What happens when you fast? Things happen in your brain, a biochemical reaction. If you go on a hardcore meditation retreat with sensory deprivation, you are having a biochemical reaction in your brain. So whether it is through fasting or meditation or drugs or plant medicines, I believe what is happening in your brain is the same — an alteration of consciousness through brain chemistry. It can happen through prayer and through meditation, and it can happen with psychedelic drugs. That is why the experiences are so similar. But the rubber hits the road with what you do with the experience. Does it make you a better person, kinder, more aware? (Religion scholar and mystic) Huston Smith used to say of psychedelics, “It is not about altered states, it is about altered traits.”

Is there a role for organized religion to play in destigmatizing these drugs?

Don Lattin, author of “Changing Our Minds,” discusses the therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs at Books Inc. in Berkeley, Calif. RNS photo by Kimberly Winston

There are actual churches in the U.S. that can legally have psychedelic communion with ayahuasca under a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, but they must be affiliated with one of two Brazilian sects. Outside of those brands of “organized religion,” I don’t see much destigmatization. Religious leaders, like a lot of other people, have a very black-and-white attitude toward drugs. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins is doing a study of religious professionals with clergy burnout to see if these substances could revive their interest in their calling through a mystical experience that might hit the reset button for them. But he has found it very hard to find clergy who want to volunteer. That said, I think psychedelics are slowly being destigmatized by the universities and medical centers across the country that are sponsoring research. People’s minds are changing about these substances when used in the proper context. The media coverage of the clinical trials has been very positive. At the same time, I think it is important to say these drugs are not for everyone. They are probably not for most people. But there are a large number of people these medicines can help.

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

41 Comments

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  • Better living through chemistry. Wasn’t that Dow Chemical’s slogan at one time? Humans have been using the psychoactive approach for tens of thousands of years. Remember Jesus went without food and water in the desert sun (the drug-free variation) long enough to have hallucinations (or visions or epiphanies or spiritual enlightenment) which included imaginary conversations with the ruler of the world.

  • I said hallucinations from being deprived of food and water. This is a common religious rite that Jesus the man went through just like many before him and after him. When the Lakota and other Native American men went through the process they got a vision of their animal spirit guide – way cooler than talking to Satan.

  • Again, why would God need spiritual enlightenment. Jesus was always God while here in the flesh.

  • I would note that the ancient Greek word Pharmacopeia when rendered in English literally translates into “divination,” which is a practice prohibited by scripture, suggests that such methods ought to be entered into with great caution, if at all. I would argue that the exercise creates the potentiality for demons to gain a foothold within the precincts of one’s soul. I willingly accept the scoffs and derision of those who hold a putatively rational mindset, please spare me your brickbats. In any event, metaphysics aside, as one who had some particular familiarity with psychoactive drugs in my youth, I would declare that a large flashing sign, “CAUTION” ought to be considered here. Let us not forget the damage done to people by the CIA and the US Army back in the 1950’s when extremely poor protocols were used in such instances.

  • That belief doesn’t jive with the reasons and experiences of the man Jesus’s sojourn into the wilderness.

  • Of course it does Jim. He is God. The reason he was in the wilderness was to be tempted by satan. Satan was just too stupid to realize he was trying to tempt God – especially when satan tried to give him the world……lol…..

  • I know some people say religion is the opium of the masses but do they really have to make it literal? This just gives atheists the ammunition to indict the religious of irrational thinking due to being under the influence of drugs.

  • Edward, this is from my family biography, which I completed about a year ago. Quite the longest thing I ever wrote.

    I took a fair number of acid trips which, if done properly, can help you find the still, quiet, knowing center from which you finally see yourself without the masks, illusions, rationalizations, and deceptions. Most importantly, you can see the totality of the anger, hurt, and betrayal in your life, and learn to ask, “So what? What are you going to do now?”

  • It has been thought that John of Patmos, author of the book of Revelation, was working under an altered state of consciousness due to the use of entheogenic plants. It’s all speculative of course, but he does make reference to eating a “little scroll,” which tasted sweet like honey then turned bitter in his stomach. Rev. 10:9-11. The equally trippy Ezekiel also was told to eat a honey-tasting scroll when prophesying. Eze. 2:9-3:3.

  • Indeed, and why is it said of the Divine Son, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man”? (Luke 1:52)

  • Philippians 2: 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

    He had it with Him all the time and chose not to use it, Jim.

  • Exactly. Thus in his true act of being human he submitted to all the ways and needs that humans have to live, thus “growing” spiritually, from boyhood to manhood, would be well in keeping with his work on earth.

  • Spiritual enlightenment is just for those who don’t know, it is also, and all the more, for those who know and desire to deepen their experience and knowledge (Romans 12:1-2).

  • Romans 12:1-2English Standard Version (ESV)

    A Living Sacrifice

    12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.[b] 2 Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
    Absolutely, but Christ knew what he was emptying himself of and Who he was offering Himself to.

  • You’re the one who made the distinction “Because Jesus probably did grow in wisdom and stature, but Christ didn’t.–Sandi Luckins

  • Your Luke 1:52 which is actually 2:52 – was when the Lord was teaching as a child in the temple. He pleased His Father.

  • lol………I’ll repeat it for you
    “Your Luke 1:52 which is actually 2:52 – was when the Lord was teaching as a child in the temple. He pleased His Father.” And He was probably growing in esteem with men. That doesn’t split Him into two people.

  • Your help is from the Lord. Ps 121:2 – English Standard Version
    My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

  • O You’re right it is Luke 2:52 which depicts Jesus after the Temple incident and in Nazareth where is he grew in wisdom (fear and admonition of the Lord) and stature (probably physical as well as honor), and with favor with God and men. (grew in wisdom, stature, and favor with God) sounds like spiritual growth in involved in that to me. You said Jesus probably did but Christ didn’t. Now you’re saying they’re the same.

  • Yes. He was always Christ. The only form they knew Him as was Jesus (except the Father), grew in stature and wisdom, in their eyes. He will always be Jesus Christ. He grew in favour with God, but not the same as man, since God knew Him from the beginning. Maybe for what He was doing here on Earth, perhaps.

  • I agree with caution but I am aware of LSD being used successfully in treating people deemed criminally insane. And I remember reading Carlos Castaneda books way back which also required knowledge of or interpretation as to meaning.

    But I am curious as to what you think about the practice of meditation.

  • Some Christians have a problem with the idea of meditation, I do not, if some protocols are observed. If one posits an unseen spiritual realm, populated by both beneficent and evil beings, one must guard against deceptive influences. I believe, and I’m no expert metaphysician, that if in the meditative process one empties one’s mind, that is, enters purposely into a “neutral” state, one risks inviting unclean spirits into one’s soul…I mean, something has to fill that space, Nature abhors a vacuum. If, however, one meditates upon a portion of scripture in order to gain greater insight into its meaning, one is guarded and protected by the Word of God. I hope that is a full answer to your curiosity.

  • It may be argued that such trips can only be interpreted personally and individually. Some seem to have nothing but good trips, others, both good and bad. I would think that anyone whose initial trip was bad would likely refrain from further experimentation. For my part, because of my spiritual perspective, as noted in my earlier post, caution on both the metaphysical and psychological fronts remains in order. Just my 2 cents.

  • The thing with drugs, as with so many experiences one has in life, is that they usually can make you however you already are, just more so. When I was in law enforcement, my crazy clients who used psychotropics usually became more crazy. I was pretty sure that that was one of the reasons they chose to use the,. Despite the evidence in front of them that it was perhaps not the best idea. My friend now with Alzheimer’s, who has always been stubborn and unwilling to do something new, is 10 times worse than he was even five years ago.

    For me, the drugs I took when I was young made me far more inclined to investigate the spiritual aspects of life in this universe, which is why I am how I am today.

  • I don’t think there’s any question that drugs, especially psychoactive compounds, have a profound affect on perceptions and thought. As to your friend’s Alzheimer”s, is the worsening of his usual behavior a function of his therapeutic treatment, or of the disease itself? In a more humorous vein, you referenced “clients” in your law enforcement career, is that a more modern take on “perps?”

  • It’s more a function of that “becoming more so” than anything else. He prides himself on never taking pills and disdaining most medical care. He can be sick for weeks because he believes that all he needs to do is get exercise and eat properly. He won’t rest. He refuses to notice that not resting doesn’t work.

    And you had it exactly right about the clients. We called them Clients because it was the accepted usage. But among ourselves, it was always “don’t call them Clients. Clients are people who pay their bills.”

  • Thanks Ben for the explanation of your friends plight. And I couldn’t help but laugh at your answer to my question about “clients,” I needed that. BTW, I don’t know if you’re a sports fan, but congratulations to the Warriors for their 2nd NBA Championship in 3 years. I mean, Gertrude Stein was famous for her, “There’s no there, there,” which people have interpreted in different ways. In any case, something was missing. Oakland hasn’t had much good press for a considerable time. As a long time resident, how do you feel about your home city? I’ve wanted to ask that for a long time.

  • I love living in Oakland. I lived here now for 19 years, and wouldn’t move back to SF even if I could afford to. We often eat out on our deck or our garden from May through October, and occasionally in the other months. You can’t do that in SF.
    I love san Francisco– don’t get me wrong. But it is very expensive there now, and there are way too many people– about 100,000 more than when I bought my house here. There are an estimated 37,000 cars more because of Uber and Lyft– this is a town which is famously inhospitable to automobiles.
    Oakland has improved dramatically since I first came to the Bay area 42 years ago. Jerry Brown as mayor changed a lot of what was wrong with the place. The weather is better here, which is a big plus.

  • Thank you for your response. From trying in the past, know it is hugely difficult to empty my mind. I was originally given the instructions to use Marantha – an Aramaic word combination found two places in Scripture I believe.

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