Guided Psychedelic Sessions

Originally appearing here. What is the optimal use of psychedelics, not only to cure human maladies but also to enhance human capabilities? This is the question considered by Jim Fadiman, a Stanford Ph.D. in psychology, in his new book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys. Fadiman believes that psychedelic molecules such as lysergic acid diethylamide are potential blessings cast into the shadows by hysteria in the 1960s and thus almost wholly lost to legal use, and thus to science, for close to half a century. The question, he implies, is not whether the molecules will nonetheless be ingested, but the extent to which they will be used optimally (or at least, as scientists would say, “non-trivially”). With Willis Harman, then a professor at Stanford and later head of the Institute for Noetic Sciences, Fadiman did pioneering research on the enhancement of creativity by guided psychedelic sessions. The subjects were not “hippies,” but engineers, architects, and other professionals who were asked to bring difficult problems on which they were working. An echo of this research appeared in a Fortune magazine column that envisioned a center at which people in business and the professions could, in guided psychedelic sessions, seek solutions and even competitive advantage. On a continuum from recreational use to the kind of blazing spiritual experience described by Stan Grof and hundreds of others, this would fall somewhere between the extremes. Helping engineers solve problems sounds more socially productive than having a good time, less dramatic than shifting an entire worldview. Along with organizations such as MAPS and the Council on Spiritual Practices, both headquartered in northern California, Fadiman has gathered detailed guidelines for people who choose to take psychedelics and those who guide them. His larger purpose, he says, is to enhance human capabilities. Fadiman’s book tells several stories, all deeply engaging. The first is practical advice about how to set up and run an optimal session. (His own first “trip” was guided by Richard Alpert, who later became Ram Dass; and among the people Fadiman has guided is Stewart Brand, who started the Whole Earth Catalog.) While not advising anyone to take drugs, Fadiman has helped people who have decided to ingest these substances to have the best possible experience. Second, he collects brief excerpts from trip reports by the pioneers such as the author Aldous Huxley, Rabbi Zalman Schachter, founder of the Jewish Renewal movemenet, and Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions. Third, Fadiman considers how to do faster and more effective therapy with the help of psychedelics and other drugs. Some returning vets and many others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): research suggests a role for MDMA-assisted therapy. Fourth, not unlike the current research at Johns Hopkins on mystical-like experiences on psychedelics, Fadiman explores the “sacred” possibilities. I gather that what Fadiman would like to have happen is the training of a network of entheoguides modeled on the best practices, but not controlled by political entities that rule by fear and that, in a democracy, must answer to people whose fear they inspire. While the book is predominantly by Fadiman, it includes chapters by other scholars and thinkers such as Alan Watts, Willis Harman, and George Leonard (author, with Michael Murphy of Esalen, of The Life We are Given). It awakens many questions that flared briefly in the 1960s. The Huffington Post publishes a strong review of James Fadiman’s pathbreaking new book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys (available in the MAPS Store).