Beyond the Reef: Psychedelics and the Public Health

Jamie McEntee
Mar 14, 2017 · 5 min read

Nothing gets more complicated and difficult to remember than the fundamentals.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always loved children’s animated films: the stories, the characters, the music all carry forward timeless truths from one generation to the next, telling the story of our common life, just as fables and fairytales have always done. These simple stories recall essential pieces of information, placing us in a meaningful context that transcends and contains our daily experience. As a psychotherapist I’ve learned that if we want to stop spinning our wheels and improve our condition — if we want to evolve — we need to access intelligence beyond the scope of where we feel familiar and comfortable. “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” was the wisdom offered by Albert Einstein, a man who knew something about working out problems. What we often lack in times of distress is a sense of ground and context. When you are lost, become like a tree in the woods: stand still and listen…the forest knows where you are.

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My wife and I recently took our daughter to see the animated film Moana. The visual beauty, the enchanting music, but most of all the resonance of its message… Though the story aims towards children and portrays a specific people and culture, I believe the message is for all of us. Especially those of us interested in the current renaissance of psychedelic medicines.

Moana is a Polynesian girl who’s called to defy her culture’s law forbidding travel beyond their island’s protective reef. She must go, for there is sickness spreading across the world, and no island will be spared. With the support of her Grandmother she finds the courage to cross the reef and risk the open sea, in spite of her Father’s prohibition intended to keep her safe. We learn that her people were once great voyagers who’ve forgotten who they are, having retreated into the relative safety of their island. They have forgotten the art of navigating the space between themselves and the greater world that contains them. It takes the existential pressure of impending doom to motivate the heroic effort to restore the heart of the world.

This story is our story, a mythological prod to remember the ways of our ancestors, who knew well how to travel into the beyond. Our ancestors possessed astonishing abilities to navigate across earth and sea, but they also knew how to travel the mysterious inner world of consciousness.

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The use of psychedelics goes all the way back to humanity’s nomadic and tribal roots. Ethnographic research reveals they have held a place of reverence in cultures throughout the world. Derived from the plant world, these substances are traditionally referred to as “ancestors”, and their use seen as pro-social: as medicines that promote healing and social bonding for individuals and communities; that facilitate maturation and rites of passage; that serve as bridges between the strictly human world and the greater world in which humanity is embedded. In modern parlance we speak of “tripping” or “journeying” with these medicines because they take us beyond our narrower self-identity into the collective field.

This pro-social context is mostly lost to modern associations of psychedelics due to their prohibition as illicit drugs. What is not generally understood is that when Timothy Leary in the 1960s encouraged the use of psychedelics as a means to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” it was the first time in known human history that these medicines were used to promote an anti-social message: to abandon social roles and responsibilities, rather than encourage engagement from a new perspective.

Traditional psychedelic use was supervised by experienced practitioners and held in communal space. They were employed as tools to enhance the experience of belonging, to heal and reintegrate traumatized aspects of the psyche. For these integrative benefits they were honored as sacred healers; healing means to restore wholeness. What gave psychedelics the reputation of being dangerous drugs was often the product of poorly supervised or unsupervised use resulting in overwhelming exposure to repressed psychic material. Add to that a culture that is hyper-masculine and obsessed with rational explanation, a culture that has lost the patience and inner sensitivity needed to navigate feelings, and it’s easy to see how threatening the profoundly internal/emotional emphasis of psychedelic experiences can be.

The body politic is sick. When the most influential country of our times awards its highest office to an dangerously immature and shady real estate developer, a man with no experience in public service but rather a history of predatory behavior in his personal and professional life, it is both a profound risk to the public health and evidence of advanced illness. Fortunately, after decades of steady progress from shadow to light, the benefits of psychedelic medicine are rapidly gaining public approval. Just months ago the FDA approved Phase III trials for MDMA (or “Ecstasy”) in treating certain trauma diagnoses. We are a culture rife with trauma suffers. Psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) is recognized in numerous recent studies as more effective in treating depression than its established pharmacological competitors. Depression is epidemic in modern life. Ayahuasca and other traditional psychedelic medicines are rapidly gaining supportive communities, as well as scientific research interest. There are now dozens of published stories about the use of micro-dosing LSD as a preferable treatment for ADHD symptoms. Psychology graduate schools, like my alma mater CIIS, are now offering programs in Psychedelic Psychotherapy. As one therapist I know compares standard talk therapy with psychedelic therapy, “It’s like we’ve been using a teaspoon to clear out psychic muck, when there’s a bulldozer available.”

The heat is rising, the pressure on our current way of life building. And with it the toxicity in our collective psyche is rising to the surface, where it can be addressed and treated, if we are prepared to face it. As more and more individuals and communities are ready to evolve, we are finding the courage and the means to journey beyond the limits of our isolated psychological islands. To find pathways beyond the reef, and restore balance and harmony in our world.

Jamie McEntee

Written by

Psychotherapist, Consultant, and Group Facilitator

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