The use of psychoactive plants or “entheogens” in therapeutic & “spiritual” practices is a relatively new phenomenon in Western society, where such practices, more readily associated with the traditions of indigenous people, have historically been treated as antithetical to Christian ethics. Over the course of the past two millennia, every effort was made to eradicate the use of “entheogens” by midwives, lay healers and shamans from religious and healing traditions that formerly coexisted with Christianity, or came to be viewed as competing with it. Historical evidence suggests the involvement of these traditions in the Inquisition’s efforts to eradicate competing healing practices. The Catholic Church took a dim view of these traditions that sustained the independence of the laity in spiritual and health matters. Such independence was viewed as a serious affront to the authority of the Church and the Christian faith, amongst others due to the fact that health and fortune were construed as implicitly moral, conditions that were evidence of divine intervention. Sickness and misfortune were therefore construed as the wages of sin, while health and good fortune (including wealth and possessions) were interpreted as signs of virtue and God’s grace. Female healers were especially vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, since their gender allegedly associated them with the ‘Fall of Man’ or ‘Original Sin’ and their sexuality and the ability to bear children were viewed as both sources of power over men and as sources of temptation.
Outside Europe and the reach of the inquisition, the use of entheogens by indigenous peoples persisted and persists until the present day, despite rigorous efforts on behalf of colonial authorities to eradicate it. The history of the contemporary use of entheogens may be said to have begun with the discovery of LSD-25 by Dr. Albert Hofmann in the 1940’s. By the 1960’s the use of LSD had spread beyond clinical settings where it was used experimentally by doctors and psychiatrists. The dissemination of LSD amongst youngsters who did not conceal their disaffection with Western materialism and warmongering led to controversy. International treaties were put into place in an effort to eradicate use and trade in psychedelic drugs, however a small but significant number of people had come to see therapeutic benefits and a spiritual meaning in their psychedelic experiences. Despite the fact that very little was known about the indigenous use of psychoactive plants at the time, a small number of Westerners began exploring these traditions. Unknown to them, syncretic forms of such traditions were evolving both amongst Native Americans and in the depths of the Amazon forest, where rubber tappers and indigenous people were in contact with each other.
A second ‘wave’ of psychedelic exploration began during the early 1980’s when growing numbers of people began to be acquainted with such syncretic entheogenic religions, in which the use of psychoactive plants combined with Christian doctrines. The contemporary use of entheogens may owe more to the influence of indigenous and syncretic religious forms than to the hedonistic psychedelic drug use of the 1960s. The influence of Brazilian ayahuasca traditions is particularly notable in that these traditions had through various political and legal procedures acquired some legitimacy in Brazil. The spread of these traditions from Brazil overseas to the US, the Netherlands and even Japan, has led to a series of legal confrontations over religious freedom, resulting in a series of verdicts that appear to recognise the legitimacy of the use of entheogens and the role of altered states of mind in religion and spirituality.
Our work with entheogens is based on the transpersonal psychological concepts developed during the 1960s, rather than on religious concepts such as those of the Brazilian ayahuasca traditions. These models provide a comprehensive understanding of the effects of entheogens and psychedelics and the basic mechanisms involved in human development. They therefore provide an effective means of understanding and dealing with the symbolic content and manifestations of psychedelic visions and physiological responses.
Transpersonal psychology is premised in part on models proposed by Stanislav Grof, who first used LSD25 in psychedelic therapy during the 1960s. Grof later proceeded to develop breathing techniques to bring his patients into contact with the transpersonal realm.
These breathing techniques appear to confirm the basic premise that much of human behaviour and psychology is formed during the pre-natal and birth stages of life. Grof divided the period of conception and birth into four distinct phases, the Birth Perinatal Matrixes, each of which manifests certain positive and negative aspects relating to physical health, sexuality, and spirituality amongst others. Working with memories and physiological patterns relating to the BPM phases is extremely effective in allowing patients to access core memories stored in the physical body and limbic/nervous system. Such material lies at the very root of health and psychological problems. We refer to Grof’s book “Beyond the Brain” for a better understanding of the topic.
The Birth Peri-natal Matrixes:
According to Grof, psychedelic experiences trigger the emergence of material relating to the biographical details conception and the birth process. There are many areas that this model seems to explain that conform not only to a psychological models but also to spiritual concepts. Both religious doctrine and the BPM model presented by Grof put trauma at an age that precedes the formation of the ego (in the transpersonal realm) Thus the early trauma of separation from the mother and expulsion from the womb may be one and the same as illustrated by the metaphorical tale of the fall from grace or the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Such traumas may be considered to be universal existential conditions.
Birth Perinatal Matrixes one through four; conception, associated with oceanic bliss, onset of labor, associated with feeling confined or trapped, the descent through the birth canal, frequently associated with a heroic struggle, and finally birth; liberation. Each of these phases is identified with its own system of condensed experience (COEX).COEX systems are organized around around a ‘root experience,’ formed when a powerful and emotionally charge experience is imprinted. Subsequent experiences are associated with the original memory, so that powerful emotional responses may be triggered by apparently unrelated stimuli. Individuals are usually unable to remember the moment of birth, even if it is experienced consciously. At birth, the child possesses no language with which to articulate its experiences, and they are quickly buried under the influx of impressions from its new environment.
The BPM experience is a major source in the formation of identity. Grof observes that experiences from this phase of life have a persistent influence on behaviour, relating not only to the formation of identity, but to political views, hygiene and social behavior. The suggestion is that human behavior is determined by a number of biological conditions providing a unique perspective for understanding some of the serious problems we face today, including environmental and political ones.
The artwork below illustrates some of the feelings experienced under the influence of LSD, and identified by Grof as associated with the various phases of birth.
Ancient ceremony, modern setting.
Our Ayahuasca ceremonies are planned BPM related material in mind. In keeping with the attempt to promote awareness of the singular importance of birth related material, we continue to refer to a wealth of literature supporting Grof’s findings. Ayahuasca provides us with a powerful tool with which to explore memories of the BPM phase, so as to understand how they affect our life. AOS© rituals have evolved as a safe and effective means of confronting emotions relating to our earliest impressions, as well as increasing self-awareness, exploring consciousness, conscience and social and political issues relating to human development.
Distinctive ritual forms.
Our ritual forms are very different from those proscribed by the Brazilian ayahuasca traditions. In searching for a ‘ritual’ form, we have departed from the religious form, retaining only what is practically required for the safe and orderly conduct of the ceremony. In doing so we are possibly exploring and evolving the spiritual and psychotherapeutic traditions of the future. The AOS© ritual form is able to grow and adapt because of strict adherence to ethical standards comparable to those that apply elsewhere in the modern world, particularly in medicine, law and psychiatry. If you are interested to know more about those ethics, please read the manuscript ‘Entheogens, Society and Law, which can be downloaded from this site. A brief overview is provided below, courtesy of the Council on Spiritual Practices:
Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides.
[Preamble] People have long sought to enrich their lives and to awaken to their full natures through spiritual practices including prayer, meditation, mind-body disciplines, service, ritual, community liturgy, holy-day and seasonal observances, and rites of passage. “Primary religious practices” are those intended, or especially likely, to bring about exceptional states of consciousness such as the direct experience of the divine, of cosmic unity, or of boundless awareness.
In any community, there are some who feel called to assist others along spiritual paths, and who are known as ministers, rabbis, pastors, curanderas, shamans, priests, or other titles. We call such people ‘guides': those experienced in some practice, familiar with the terrain, and who act to facilitate the spiritual practices of others. A guide need not claim exclusive or definitive knowledge of the terrain.
Spiritual practices, and especially primary religious practices, carry risks. Therefore, when an individual chooses to practice with the assistance of a guide, both take on special responsibilities. The Council on Spiritual Practices proposes the following Code of Ethics for those who serve as spiritual guides.
- [Intention] Spiritual guides are to practice and serve in ways that cultivate awareness, empathy, and wisdom.
- [Serving Society] Spiritual practices are to be designed and conducted in ways that respect the common good, with due regard for public safety, health, and order. Because the increased awareness gained from spiritual practices can catalyze desire for personal and social change, guides shall use special care to help direct the energies of those they serve, as well as their own, in responsible ways that reflect a loving regard for all life.
- [Serving Individuals] Spiritual guides shall respect and seek to preserve the autonomy and dignity of each person. Participation in any primary religious practice must be voluntary and based on prior disclosure and consent given individually by each participant while in an ordinary state of consciousness. Disclosure shall include, at a minimum, discussion of any elements of the practice that could reasonably be seen as presenting physical or psychological risks. In particular, participants must be warned that primary religious experience can be difficult and dramatically transformative.
Guides shall make reasonable preparations to protect each participant’s health and safety during spiritual practices and in the periods of vulnerability that may follow. Limits on the behaviors of participants and facilitators are to be made clear and agreed upon in advance of any session. Appropriate customs of confidentiality are to be established and honored.
- [Competence] Spiritual guides shall assist with only those practices for which they are qualified by personal experience and by training or education.
- [Integrity] Spiritual guides shall strive to be aware of how their own belief systems, values, needs, and limitations affect their work. During primary religious practices, participants may be especially open to suggestion, manipulation, and exploitation; therefore, guides pledge to protect participants and not to allow anyone to use that vulnerability in ways that harm participants or others.
- [Quiet Presence] To help safeguard against the harmful consequences of personal and organizational ambition, spiritual communities are usually better allowed to grow through attraction rather than active promotion.
- [Not for Profit] Spiritual practices are to be conducted in the spirit of service. Spiritual guides shall strive to accommodate participants without regard to their ability to pay or make donations.
- [Tolerance] Spiritual guides shall practice openness and respect towards people whose beliefs are in apparent contradiction to their own.
- [Peer Review] Each guide shall seek the counsel of other guides to help ensure the wholesomeness of his or her practices and shall offer counsel when there is need.
This draft for public comment was released 10 August 2001. The current version is available on the Internet at www.csp.org. Copyright © 1995 – 2001 Council on Spiritual Practices Permission is given to reprint this Code, provided that the text is reproduced complete and verbatim, including this notice of limited permission to reprint.