In recent years, I have found more and more people mentioning in private therapy how they had found some relief from suicidal thinking, depression, anxiety and chronic pain from using psychedelic medicine. It’s important to note that they had taken the medicine in a setting conducive to insight, healing and personal growth based on a lot of personal research before self-administration under the care of a trusted other.
Many other students over the years have mentioned to me how psychedelic medicine had opened them up to other states of consciousness and how they had found the practices of yoga and meditation as a consequence of wanting to understand or inhabit these states of consciousness more frequently in daily life. With the research and efficacy around psychedelic medicine growing, I started looking further into its potential as a cure for mental health disorders, particularly suicidal tendencies.
Having lost my sister to teenage suicide at the tender age of 15, I have been committed over the last two decades to suicide prevention. Personally and professionally, I have looked far and wide to remove the root cause of any mental suffering. I live by Buddhism’s four noble truths and am deeply committed to Yogic self-inquiry.
Whilst I don’t feel that psychedelic medicine could have saved my sister at that particularly young age (nor is it a wise decision for anybody under the age of 25 years to engage in such practices whilst the brain is still in formation), we now know that the prescribed anti-depressant, Zoloft, certainly was not the proper medication for her young mind. In fact, it is no longer prescribed for young people as it is known to cause suicidal tendencies in our youth. To give you some insight into her quick decline on the anti-depressant, our family had only two weeks from her depression diagnosis, including the medication prescription, to her death. For these reasons, I have been very interested in reducing suicidality and mental health issues as naturally as possible with yoga and meditation over the last twenty years, wherever possible and without using pharmaceuticals.
In the years just passed, a returning male client who had previously attended private trauma-informed meditation & yoga therapy filled me in on some of the more fascinating details of his recovery process. He had been suicidal, without the ability to work at all. He said he had received six months’ grace from suicidal thinking. I was deeply intrigued.
There were two factors in his recovery, he mentioned, both of equal importance to him:
- He self-administered psilocybin in a safe and trusted environment following our private meditation session.
- He also mentioned he had never received the present-moment compassion I had offered him in a one-to-one meditation session. I would not proclaim that was my doing, but rather the deep essence of yogic presence that we know truly heals. Of course, the therapeutic relationship is the most imperative factor in the healing process.
While my client’s suicidality did return six months later, with continued meditation and a second dose of psilocybin, he is ready to return to work. It has seemed to work better for him than the anti-depressants by a long shot.
The more I continue to talk to others who have taken psilocybin medicinally, I hear claims that their low-level anxiety or social anxiety is completely healed. Two women I know with decades of life between their respective ages claim the same: their eating disorders were forever cured as they gained insight into the condition’s root cause, and their false sense of separate self-identification disappeared.
For two years now, I have been quietly considering running a course in Psychedelic Integration Therapy simply because of the therapeutic potential and growing body of research, even without ever having tried the medicine myself. Some of my conservative family and friends urged me to put the idea to rest. Seven times over, I shelved the project. But with the recent legislation of the Psilocybin and MDMA in Australia, I am now taking some gentle action to open up the conversation for Yoga and Meditation teachers, as many turn to these practices with the same intention: to reduce suffering and mental health conditions, to raise awareness and to elevate consciousness. Whilst I agree more with the use of naturally occurring psilocybin over the synthetic drug MDMA for reasons outlined above, I have included an objective view of the two legalised substances now therapeutically administered in Australia in this article.
In Australia, qualified psychiatrists are now authorised to administer these substances to patients. The use of these drugs in a controlled medical setting will be limited to treating post-traumatic stress disorder and treatment-resistant depression, respectively. This decision was made in response to the lack of treatment options available for patients with specific treatment-resistant mental illnesses.
Before we peer more into the Western Research behind psychedelic medicine and psilocybin, let’s look back at the History of Plant Medicine in Yoga and Buddhism.
What is the history of plant medicine in yoga?
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer insight into the historical use of plant medicine in yoga. The first sutra of the fourth chapter on inner freedom (kaivalya) describes how to attain supernatural abilities and a shift in perception (siddhi) to thin the veil of ignorance.
Yoga Sūtra Chapter Four verse 11
janma-oṣadhi-mantra-tapaḥ samādhi-jāḥ siddhayaḥ ||1||
Accomplishments arise from
birth, blessed herbs, sacred formulae, self-discipline and integration.
Patanjali suggests that spiritual attainments can be achieved through various means. These include medicinal plants, incantations, fervour, and meditation. Although there are multiple interpretations of this sutra, it is evident that Patanjali acknowledged the potential of medicinal plants in promoting health and insight. This indicates that medicinal herbs (oṣadhi) were accepted and integrated into the spiritual practices of ancient yogis.
The late yoga historian and Indiologist Georg Feuerstein further elaborate on the use of plant medicine in yoga. He notes that the ancient drink or brew known as “Soma” was used by sages and rishis to bestow health, communion, strength, and visionary wisdom. Soma was believed to have a consciousness-altering effect that brought forth “skilful visionary thought” in Vedic seers. The drink was often combined with mantra yoga, which involved prolonged and concentrated chanting in daily rituals. In the Vedic tradition, Soma was regarded as the “nectar of the gods” or Amrita, which purified and healed the body while opening the inner landscape of heart and mind. The use of Soma and other entheogenic plants in ancient India is well documented in Rigveda, one of the oldest Hindu scriptures.
What is the history of plant medicine in Tibetan Buddhism?
Psychoactive substances have been used in some Tibetan Buddhist practices, particularly in the context of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism. These substances, often called “sacred medicines,” are believed to facilitate spiritual insights and experiences.
One example is using a psychoactive substance known as “dutsi” or “yartsa gunbu” in Tibetan Buddhism. Dutsi is a fungus that grows in the high-altitude regions of the Himalayas and is valued for its medicinal and psychoactive properties. It is often used in Tantric practices, such as the practice of Chöd, which involves the visualisation of offering one’s body to spirits and deities.
Another example is using a substance called “chang” in Tibetan Buddhism. Chang is a fermented beverage made from barley or rice, and it may contain varying amounts of alcohol. It is used in some Tantric rituals and is considered a sacred substance that can help practitioners achieve spiritual insights and overcome obstacles. Though alcohol is undoubtedly distinct from psychedelics, especially as it relates to mystical experiences, other examples exist of ancient cultures using alcohol for ceremonial purposes. For example, there is evidence that the ancient Greeks brewed a special beer that contained ergot, a fungus that grows on some crops that includes the same chemical compound as LSD2. This psychedelic beer was then used in spiritual rituals at Eleusis2. There is no evidence that a similar brewing method was used for “chang”; a similar tradition may exist, which would explain the sacred relationship the Tibetan people had with the brew. (Yoga Australia comments wisely on the modern use of alcohol in yoga and whilst I don’t personally condone the practice, it’s curious to view the historical context broadly).
The Vajrayana Buddhist Tantras also refer to “amrita,” a nectar with the literal translation of “immortal” or “deathless”. (Amrita noted above is found in the Vedic tradition). This nectar was consumed during rituals and is linked to “spiritual intoxication” within the practice. In the biography of the scholar Gampopa, it is mentioned that one of his teachers expressed the belief that attaining Buddhahood was possible by consuming a unique medicine pill and “would grant immortality akin to the eternal radiance of the sun and moon”. This statement alludes to the Vajrayana tradition’s practice of rasayana, also known as alchemy, which involves the creation of specific potions or pills. As explored in M.L. Walter’s research on Indo-Tibetan rasayana (also a revered practice in Ayurveda), the ingestion of these substances was believed to fortify the practitioner and enable the attainment of siddhi while also guiding them towards the ultimate spiritual objective.
Controversy in Yoga and Buddhism around the uses of Plant Medicines
In the Yoga tradition, plant medicines are not explicitly discouraged but are also not considered a necessary part of a spiritual practice. The emphasis is placed on developing a deep understanding of the self and the universe through meditation, pranayama, and asana rather than external substances. All can be attained through natural means.
In some traditions, using these substances is seen as a way to expand consciousness, deepen spiritual experiences, and facilitate healing. However, in other traditions, using these substances is considered a form of spiritual bypassing, where individuals attempt to bypass the hard work of spiritual practice and personal growth by relying on external substances. One school of thought is that meditation should be practised without any aid, and the only medicine we take into the body is one’s breath.
The use of psychoactive substances in Tibetan Buddhist practices is not without controversy, and there is an ongoing debate within the Buddhist community about the appropriateness and safety of such methods. Some practitioners argue that using these substances is essential to certain Tantric practices, while others say that the risks outweigh any potential benefits. Ultimately, the use of psychoactive substances in Buddhist traditions is a complex and nuanced topic that requires personal consideration and reflection. Western research may help some decide whether the ancient rishis and seers were valid in their pursuit.
Current Evidence-Based Research on naturally occurring psilocybin
Psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in some species of mushrooms, has been shown to mimic serotonin in the brain and promote neuroplasticity, or the adaptive rewiring of neural pathways. Clinical psychologists who have been in the field for many decades, such as Dr Bill Richards, continue to espouse that there is a compelling spiritual healing aspect to psychedelics3. Clinical trials using psilocybin to treat depression have shown promising results, outperforming standard therapy and SSRIs. Furthermore, psilocybin is effective in treatment-resistant depression4. The most effective treatment involves a combination of psilocybin and talk therapy, with evidence of long-lasting results. Something interesting to note, highlighted through the work of Dr Andrew Newberg, is that both meditation and psilocybin elevate serotonin levels, precisely what SSRIs are meant to do5. This evidence highlights how both these more natural remedies address the same issue at greater efficacy than the artificial alternative. Psilocybin also increases general communication across brain regions while decreasing the communication between some and reducing the hierarchical differentiation of unimodal and transmodal cortices6,7. These brain changes are sure to cause alterations in conscious experiences and can facilitate cognitive flexibility, which is helpful for those with major depressive disorder8.
According to Dr Andrew Huberman, the experience of taking psilocybin also provides an opportunity for individuals to learn new relationships between different sensory and emotional states, which can persist long after the psychedelic journey is finished9. Current clinical studies are exploring the use of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression, cancer-related depression, and major depressive disorder4,8,10,11. Newer studies are also examining the potential for psilocybin to address alcohol abuse, tobacco addiction, OCD, and other conditions12–15. These findings offer hope for treating depression and other related conditions with psilocybin therapy.
The key features of a successful psilocybin trip may include a sense of unity, spirituality, and ‘boundless oceanic states of bliss’. These experiences are often accompanied by a reported ego death, where the individual’s sense of individual self is replaced with a more all-encompassing sense of identity16–18. People often report gaining deep insight and learning about one’s life, seeing through mind-made egoic problems. This often results in people labelling their psychedelic experience as deeply spiritual and meaningful. A study by Dr David Yaden, Dr Andrew Newberg, and others found that the religious, spiritual, or mystical experiences induced by psychedelics tend to be more intense than those caused by non-psychedelic means19. Evidence like this shows the profound impact psychedelic use can have in one’s pursuit of truth or enlightenment.
The relationship between psychedelics and deeply meaningful mystical experiences propels inquiry into how these compounds influence brain activity. A research study by Dr Barnett, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, Dr Anil Seth, and others observed that psychedelic activity decreases directed functional connectivity between brain regions while increasing signal diversity, as observed through Lempel-Ziv complexity20. The measure of Lempel-Ziv complexity can also be a measure of brain entropy21. Another study by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, Dr David Nutt, and others highlights how brain function defined by higher entropy resembles a more primitive form of consciousness, one older than our more modern state of consciousness22. They highlight in this paper how lower entropy tends to describe conditions of sleep, hinting at the idea that higher entropy describes a state of being more awake. Keep in mind that the research of Dr Anil Seth proposes that the brain is a “beast machine”, generating a predictive model of sensory information to understand the world that we then experience as consciousness23. This concept of consciousness as it relates to the psychedelic experience, forms some exciting conclusions. Though not necessarily the findings of Dr Seth himself, we can theorise here that psychedelics cause changes in the brain to allow our “beast machine” to produce an even more accurate interpretation of reality. This would explain why those with profound psychedelic experiences often describe the experience as deeply meaningful and authentic.
What are psilocybin’s lasting effects on neural brain networks?
Psilocybin has been found to have lasting effects on brain networks, with research indicating that it not only expands functional connectivity in the brain while being consumed, but these changes can persist even after the medicine has worn off. The goal of psilocybin is to adaptively rewire the brain, leading to new and exciting ideas that are accessible after the journey, ultimately improving brain function. Furthermore, psilocybin has been found to positively impact depression by initiating a neuroplasticity process that can lead to new learning and thinking patterns8,10. Psilocybin has shown solid clinical applications in treating cancer-related depression, anxiety, and treatment-resistant depression, with moderate evidence for alcohol use and tobacco addiction and low evidence for OCD, demoralisation from AIDS diagnosis, cluster headaches, and migraines12–15,24–26. The findings from current evidence-based research offer hope for treating depression and other related conditions with psilocybin therapy. However, it’s essential to continue studying psilocybin and its potential for addressing other conditions, such as alcohol abuse, tobacco addiction, and OCD.
Psilocybin is a natural tryptamine that is very similar to serotonin, which is a neuromodulator found in the brain and body27. The active compound in psilocybin is called psilocin. Serotonin has many vital bodily functions, including regulating mood, causing feelings of satisfaction, and producing pleasure. Psilocybin works mainly by binding to the serotonin 2A receptor, creating specific neural pathways long after the drug has worn off28. The neocortex, which is responsible for perception, sensation, understanding context, behaviour, thoughts, and speech patterns, has many of these receptors. When psilocybin is used, the brain shifts from being more segmented to more integrated, resulting in altered states of consciousness. Interestingly, the higher concentration of serotonin 2A receptors in the visual cortex is why psilocybin can trigger visual hallucinations. These visual hallucinations are interesting scientific phenomena currently being studied with and without psilocybin. It is proposed that astute meditators are prone to seeing all as light. Moreover, neuroscientists now claim that the brain hallucinates reality. Long-term meditators are proven to have higher overall serotonin levels, which increase during and after meditation. Serotonin acts as a neuromodulator in the temporal lobes, influencing the flow of visual associations and generating extraordinary visual experiences, such as reported in Buddhist literature and by Yogic sages such as Paramahansa Yogananda and Ramakrishna.
Dr Matthew Johnson is a leading researcher in psychedelics, having studied the spiritual and mystical experiences induced by psychedelics. His research has shown that psilocybin can produce profound and lasting changes in personality, attitudes, and behaviour and a greater sense of connection with others and the universe at large29.
The purpose of psilocybin is not just to rewire the brain but to adaptively rewire it. This means inducing neuroplasticity, which creates new and valuable ideas that can be accessed even after the experience. As a result, this leads to improved mental health and functionality in the long run30.
Referencing the research on the vast interconnectedness of fungal networks discussed in the film Fantastic Fungi, we can speculate how spirituality and science of inter-being merge. It is possible that the extensive neural network of the brain-body merges with the remarkable fungal network we encounter daily, resulting in heightened connections. The fungal network is affected by our presence in every moment, whether taking a walk in nature or simply taking a breath in and out. The fungal network sends messages throughout its comprehensive network via the “wood wide web”. It could be seen as an extraordinary advancement in communication between humans and nature. To understand this deep interconnectedness, I highly recommend watching the film Fantastic Fungi, Official Film Trailer | Moving Art by Louie Schwartzberg.
Current Evidence-Based Research on the synthetic drug, MDMA
MDMA, also known as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, is a synthetic drug classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States due to its high potential for abuse and lack of accepted medical use. However, in Australia, MDMA has been legalised for use in a controlled medical setting to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and treatment-resistant depression. Studies have shown that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may be effective in treating PTSD and may have therapeutic benefits for psychiatric disorders characterised by disrupted brain connectivity.
Dr Matthew Johnson (mentioned above) is a prominent researcher in psychedelics. His research includes exploring the use of MDMA, Psilocybin, and LSD and their potential therapeutic benefits. His studies have focused on treating addiction, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. In one study, Dr Johnson and his colleagues found that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy reduced PTSD symptoms in veterans and firefighters who had not responded to traditional treatments. After two months of treatment, 68% of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD. Another study investigated the safety and effectiveness of psilocybin for treating nicotine addiction, showing that 80% of participants abstained from smoking six months after treatment, compared to 35% in the control group29.
Dr Johnson’s research has also focused on the safety of psychedelics and their potential risks when administered by trained professionals. One study found that psilocybin had a low risk of adverse effects when administered in a clinical setting.
Overall, Dr Matthew Johnson’s research has significantly contributed to our understanding of the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and their safety in a clinical setting. His studies have demonstrated that these drugs can effectively treat various mental health conditions and produce profound and lasting changes in personality and behaviour. Despite the legal restrictions on MDMA in the United States, research in other countries continues to explore its potential benefits, and ongoing studies may provide further insights into its therapeutic uses.
Psychedelic Integration Therapy for Allied Health Professionals, Yoga & Meditation Teachers
Psychedelic Integration Therapy is a growing field that has emerged out of the need to provide supportive lifelong practices to individuals who have turned to psychedelic medicine for healing. Many people seek to replicate the elevated states of consciousness experienced during their psychedelic journey without the continued use of external substances, which is not recommended or needed. Spiritual disciplines such as Yoga and Buddhism have long recognised these elevated states of consciousness. Samadhi or meta-cognitive states of awareness can be equally achieved through a lifelong dedication to meditation, yoga, mindfulness, compassionate presence, and self-enquiry.
Unfortunately, mental health and allied health professionals are often ill-equipped to support individuals during the integration phase of their healing journey. To bridge this gap, education and training must be provided to mental health professionals, Doctors, Psychologists, Counsellors, Researchers, and Senior Yoga Therapists and Meditation teachers. This will enable them to share their evidence-based knowledge of psychedelic integration therapy and provide the necessary psychological support and wise counsel to those who seek it. Yoga and Meditation teachers with proper education or via decades of experience can play a crucial role in helping those who experience the dissolution of self, “boundless oceanic consciousness”. This may also include yogic practices that reinforce the positive researched measures of psychedelic use, including heightened interpersonal closeness, gratitude, meaning and purpose, forgiveness, death, transcendence, daily spiritual faith and coping19. These states of awareness are often described in these spiritual traditions, and those who have been working on these elevated states of consciousness for some time may hold the key for those who have not. It is wise to note here that traditionally, the Tibetan Buddhists or Vedic seers took medicine to bring back insight or healing to the patient needing a cure for an ailment. So for those who walk this Yogic or Tantric path themselves, understanding integration is vital to supporting others scientifically and spiritually.
The future direction of Psychedelic Integration Therapy will focus on recognising and honouring the traditional uses of psychedelic medicine while supporting its integration into modern mental health research and healing. It will require a collaborative effort between mental health professionals, researchers, and traditional practitioners to create a comprehensive approach that addresses the individual’s holistic needs. By placing science and spirituality side by side, we can provide an incredible merger offering the necessary support and guidance for individuals to achieve lasting healing with profound insight, personal and spiritual growth.
To see psilocybin administered by psychiatrists in trials and the profound impacts it can have on one’s sense of well-being, even with a terminal diagnosis, watch ABC’s Australian Story.
About the Author
Celia Roberts runs the BioMedical Institute of Yoga & Meditation (BIYOME) in the foothills of Brisbane, Australia. Celia is a Senior Yoga and Meditation Teacher, Yoga Therapist, and Ayurvedic Practitioner with a degree in BioMedical Science. She invites people from all walks of life to merge science and spirituality to improve their health and well-being, ultimately knowing depth, stillness, and compassion within. Find out more: https://biyome.com.au
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- Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. Hohm Press, 2001.