An Empathetic Challenge for Western Culture
Western culture must embrace empathy and tolerance to help integrate the incoming psychedelic worldview-flips
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In the last newsletter, I left us with this question: as psychedelic therapy gets approved and legalization/decriminalization efforts spread across the world, how well prepared are we to support non-physicalist belief changes and worldview flips in the most secular, physicalist society in the history of humankind?
Let me be more direct this time: Will Western culture’s dedication to a physicalist universe — and it’s dismissive, arrogant nature in wielding its beliefs — end up shaming, and possibly even pathologizing, people who have had worldview-flipping experiences? If so, will this disrupt proper integration, and what will be the societal consequences? (Personally, I’m excited for all the new open minds to come, but I’m just thinking out loud here about the unforeseen consequences).
You might be wondering: how is this a new problem? Haven’t people been doing psychedelics for a long time in Western culture? Well, yes, but the people who have done psychedelics recreationally also tended to hang out with other people who did psychedelics and who were, let’s say, more adventurous and open to begin with. But with a venture-backed, and FDA-approved psychedelic movement that is specifically addressing mental health issues, the users/patients will now be the “average Joe” who will be returning to families and communities that are less likely to be on the same worldview-flipped page.
While the worldview flips we see with psychedelics, and other spiritually transformative experiences, can be largely positive for people — such as causing them to be less materialistic, less afraid of death, and more focused on serving others and seeking connection — they can also be isolating. Flipping a worldview is not trivial (like I discussed last time), especially when you have to return to a world where your previous worldview is, well, kind of a bully.
Since modern psychedelic research hasn’t (yet) done a deep dive into the extended effects of transformation, I turned to other known catalysts: spiritually transformative experiences, or experiences that “cause people to perceive themselves and the world profoundly differently by expanding the individual’s identity, augmenting their sensitivities, and thereby altering their values, priorities and appreciation of the purpose of life” (ACISTE). These experiences — sometimes called spiritual, mystical, energetic, ecstatic, peak, emergent, or transpersonal — can arise spontaneously, or from a number of situations: meditation, breath work, intense prayer, near-death experiences, reading spiritual material, sleep, music, yoga, or more.1
With the increase in contemplative practices, the number of Americans who say they have had a mystical experience has risen from 20% in 1960 to over 50% in 2008 (Gallup, Pew). But, with the Psychedelic Renaissance, that’s about to explode.
Western culture, with its materialistic paradigm, does not have a framework for these experiences and as a result, there has been very little empirical research on the broader and longer-term effects of these transformations, as well as on helpful integration practices, or practices that help the person make sense of what they experienced and incorporate it into a sense of wholeness.
By and large, these experiences are deeply healing and mostly ultimately positive. However, transformation is rarely easy. So, I really want to highlight some of the challenges that can arise after a worldview flip. Here are just a few (https://aciste.org/):
Processing a Radical Shift in One’s Reality can lead to:
Having a sense of no longer belonging in the world.
Questioning one’s mental health.
Trying to Share the Experience can lead to:
Frustration over being unable to share the experience due to its ineffable, beyond-language quality.
Alienation, isolation, divorce, loneliness over being unable to share or discuss the gifts, wisdom, information or values with significant others.
Stress over needing to keep such a profound experience to one’s self or that one cannot be true when interacting with others.
Integrating New Spiritual Values and Knowledge with Worldly Expectations can lead to:
Broken or strained relationships with family, religious community, or friends due to changed values and previous worldviews, religious beliefs, attitudes or behavior
Struggles with ego, ego loss, or self-importance.
Difficult decisions with careers, choice of jobs, money, etc. that may run counter to the lessons learned in the experience.
Picture it: prior to the experience, you’ve spent a good chunk of your life with a certain worldview and chances are that the people in your social networks had the same or similar worldviews. But now, you’re different.
Then, on top of being different, your new beliefs are out of alignment with mainstream culture. How does this manifest?
It can manifest as a self-disclosure problem. Jules Evans and Tim Read discuss this in their book Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency,2 where the authors who wrote essays about their ecstatic experiences reported a sense of alienation and loneliness, as well as shame and fear of judgement and labeling. They encountered “strained relationships, break-ups, and botched encounters with ‘experts’ – religious leaders who offer glib interpretations, psychologists and therapists who seem afraid of the intensity of the author’s experience, psychiatrists who ignore the meaning of a person’s experience and simply offer psychiatric labels and drugs.”
Scientists and academics who have had spiritually transformative experiences report that they withheld sharing their own experiences because they feared that they would be misunderstood or ridiculed by others. They also reported feeling dismissed by the medical community, who either brushed off their experiences with biomedical explanations or told them it was all in their imagination.3
Are we surprised? NO.
This is a uniquely large problem for Western society since it is so unfriendly to any kind of worldview that isn’t physicalist or materialist, and (erroneously) defines these experiences as pathologies (we’ll discuss this in the next newsletter). Western culture doesn’t understand these experiences, as Jules Evans so beautifully explained in his recent talk. As a consequence, people with different views of reality feel shame in their identities and beliefs, as well as feeling unsafe to voice them, and rightly so. Minorities make up a good portion of this population. Up to now, they have been easily ignored and dismissed in the West, but with the encroaching Psychedelic Renaissance, this is about to become much harder to do.
I like to think of it like this: it’s like you’ve stepped off solid land and onto a suspended rickety, unstable wooden bridge with nothing but a bottomless abyss below you. Getting to the other side of the bridge means leaving behind a foggy landscape for sunshine-soaked shores. You need to get to the other side (through integration and help), but you’re too ashamed to tell anyone you’re on the bridge because they don’t believe there is a bridge or a sun-soaked shore. So, you’re left alone, scared, and vulnerable on this unstable bridge.
Psychedelic worldview flips are not anecdotal and this is not all hypothetical. There are now an array of studies that show that using psychedelics is associated with having spiritual experiences, and nudging the user’s belief system away from materialism (i.e. the philosophy that reality is composed of physical matter) and toward non-physicalist4 and metaphysical beliefs,5 such as believing in mind-body dualism, existence of spirits, and belief in afterlife.
These are not small numbers, either. In one study,6 86.5% of participants said the experience changed their fundamental conception of reality. A single belief-changing psychedelic experience can make it more likely that participants come to believe that non-human things — such as plants and the Universe — have consciousness. The more mystical the experience, the more ubiquitous consciousness becomes.
So, the question I’m pondering is this: how easy or hard is it to flip a worldview and then successfully integrate it into your life when it goes against the mainstream?
The problem is this: if people don’t have the tools, concepts, and social support to properly integrate the spiritual/worldview aspect of the experience, then we might see a lot of spiritual emergencies, psychological disruptions, mental disorders or even harm to self or others.7–11
I will save the discussion of what does help working through a spiritually transformative experience for a future newsletter, but I can tell you right now what doesn’t help: hostility, dismissal, condescension, and insisting that the person’s experience was “just a product of their mind and imagination.” The question of the ontological reality of these experiences needs to be separate from their healing potential. For individual — and societal — integration, it just doesn’t matter whether spirits exist or the universe is conscious. What matters is that these beautifully vulnerable people receive the loving care they need to reconnect and seamlessly weave the therapeutic insights into the tapestry of their lives. We can’t abandon them on the metaphorical bridge. Otherwise, we will have yet another crisis on our hands — one of mass unintegrated ontological shock. It means having an entire population living with shame of the most profound experience of their lives. But, very importantly, we also can’t ignore the weird stuff that happens in and around these experiences, because while you may not “believe” in them, others experience them as reality.
Some bigger questions loom, too. Will there be a clash of cultures? Will there be a reorganization of social groups as people align with new values? (ugh don’t let any traditionalists read this lest they begin panicking that change is coming). Can we be open to the ideas that these experiences bring forward around consciousness, reality, and the universe?
Or in the absolute least, can we temper our defensive reactions with empathy, and trade our need to be right for being humane? Is Western culture up to the challenge? I guess we’re about to find out.
1. Woollacott MH, Kason Y, Park RD. Investigation of the phenomenology, physiology and impact of spiritually transformative experiences – kundalini awakening. EXPLORE 2021; 17: 525–534.
2. Evans J, Read T (eds). Breaking open: Finding a way through spiritual emergency. Aeon Books, 2020.
3. Woollacott M, Shumway-Cook A. Spiritual awakening and transformation in scientists and academics. EXPLORE. Epub ahead of print 6 September 2022. DOI: 10.1016/J.EXPLORE.2022.08.016.
4. Nayak SM, Singh M, Yaden DB, et al. Belief changes associated with psychedelic use. https://doi.org/101177/02698811221131989. Epub ahead of print 1 November 2022. DOI: 10.1177/02698811221131989.
5. Timmermann C, Kettner H, Letheby C, et al. Psychedelics alter metaphysical beliefs. Sci Rep; 11. Epub ahead of print 1 December 2021. DOI: 10.1038/S41598-021-01209-2.
6. Nayak SM, Griffiths RR. A Single Belief-Changing Psychedelic Experience Is Associated With Increased Attribution of Consciousness to Living and Non-living Entities. Front Psychol 2022; 13: 1035.
7. Clarke I (ed). Psychosis and spirituality: Consolidating the new paradigm. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2010.
8. Miller JS. Direct Connection: Transformation of consciousness. Rutledge Books, 2000.
9. Rock AJ, Beischel J, Cott CC. Psi vs. survival: A qualitative investigation of mediums’ phenomenology comparing psychic readings and ostensible communication with the deceased. Transpers Psychol Rev; 13.
10. Grof S, Grof C. Spiritual Emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. New York: J.P. Tarcher, 1989.
11. Lukoff D, Everest HC. The myths in mental illness. J Transpers Psychol 1985; 17: 123–153.