Psychedelic Experiential Pharmacology : Pioneering Clinical Explorations with Salvador Roquet (How I Came to All of This : Ketamine, Admixtures and Adjuvants, Don Juan and Carlos Castaneda Too) An Interview with Richard Yensen, Philip E. Wolfson, 2014

Psychedelic Experiential Pharmacology : Pioneering Clinical Explorations with Salvador Roquet

(How I Came to All of This : Ketamine, Admixtures and Adjuvants, Don Juan and Carlos Castaneda Too)

An Interview with Richard Yensen

Philip E. Wolfson

International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 2014, 33, (2), 160-174.


Richard Yensen was a research fellow at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center from 1972 to 1976. He studied psychedelic psychotherapy with Stanislav Grof, M.D. and other senior staff. During this time he treated patients with substance abuse disorders, cancer, neurosis, and other health professionals seeking a training experience. Dr. Yensen did his Ph.D. dissertation on the use of MDA in psychotherapy with neurotic outpatients and conducted his research at the MPRC. Through many years of experience in governmentsanctioned psychedelic research, he has evolved a non-drug shamanistic psychotherapy called Perceptual Affective Therapy. In the 1990’s Richard was co-holder of IND 3250, an investigational new drug permit issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to study LSD and psychotherapy until 2006. He is currently a licensed psychologist in California and director of the Orenda Institute in Vancouver and Cortes Island, British Columbia, Canada and president of the Salvador Roquet Psychosynthesis Association. He has served on the faculties of Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Medical School in Baltimore.

Keywords : Salvador Roquet, Richard Yensen, R. D. Laing, Carlos Castaneda, psychedelic psychotherapy, psychosynthesis, LSD, ketamine, MDA, ayahuasca, Datura, morning glory seeds, psilocybin

Phil Wolfson : Please tell us about your background.

Richard Yensen : I am a Latino at heart and by heritage. My mother was Panamanian, and I have deep roots in the soil of America Latina. A portion of my childhood was spent in the Panamanian isthmus, that bit of land that connects the two vast continents. There I learned Spanish and came to a certain sensitivity that would lead me to a lifelong embrace of Latin culture and people. This inspired me to bring northern and southern cultures into an inner amalgam of my own making.

PW : When and where did you become interested in psychedelic therapy and plant medicine ?

RY : The desire to incorporate ancient healing practices with sacred plants into modern medicine has been a central passion of mine, as a clinician and psychedelic researcher, for over forty years. I was first ignited to study plant medicine during trips to Mexico, a country that offered me friendship, collegiality, and adventure. Mexico has been blessed with a wide variety of psychedelic plants and ancient traditions that have a great deal of healing potential to contribute to modern psychotherapy. I have often felt, when visiting the first Nations of Mexico, as if I were stepping back into ancient times. The wonder and honor of knowing Maria Sabina, Don Ricardo, Niuweme, and other healers and shamans, has transformed my outlook on the practice of psychedelic medicine.

PW : What role did your contact with indigenous communities play in unfolding your passion ?

RY : My experience among native peoples has taught me that human beings tend toward a meaning-seeking and meaning-making journey during their lives. As individuals, we feel best when we are in touch with our story, our purpose, our unique nature, and can envision with some clarity a meaningful path to guide us. It is truly remarkable that native peoples, from a wide variety of indigenous nations within Mexico, are willing to share the precious keys that open doors to meaning and belonging, to spirit and wonder. The same people offering this forgotten wisdom are descendants of those who were conquered, decimated, and traumatically oppressed by invaders from Europe.

PW : How do you think the use of plant and psychedelic medicines relates to healing trauma ?

RY : Used wisely, sacred plants and psychedelic drugs can offer an opportunity for a deep remedial healing experience, one that repairs despair and annihilates hopelessness with the most meaningful experiences possible. The effects of trauma can persist for up to seven generations after the original insult. Trauma injures the capacity to weave meaning into our lives, it decontextualizes us, injects a
capricious or diabolical element into our consciousness. In the course of losing the ability to create meaning, the individual may well prepare to die of hopelessness, and in so doing, surrender their cultural and personal histories the very source of their precious vitality. I have come to believe that such trauma lies at the core of addiction, posttraumatic stress disorder and some depressions.

PW : Do you think native wisdom can help us adapt to our current planetary challenges ?

RY : Absolutely. We live in a world with excessive environmental stress, collapsing ecosystems, diminishing cultural diversity, loss of languages and ways of being, and the dangerous creation of a global monoculture. At this point in history, it is essential for us to pursue an awareness of, and openness to, prior successful adaptations. In order to gain the perspective necessary to adopt new treatments for trauma, we need to carefully examine the organization of cultures and societies that are able to integrate the effects, insights, and experiences of sacred plants. Indigenous cultures are sophisticated and elegant in their adaptation to the environment: their adaptation is, in my opinion, more complete than our own. The consequences of our poor adaptation are catching up with us. The pressures of expanding populations threaten humanity, as we face the same end story as a colony of bacteria that blindly consumes all available resources on a petri dish until it collapses.

PW : What are your thoughts on Ayahuasca ?

RY : Ayahuasca is an ancient example of the power of an admixture: in pre-Columbian times the Amerindian peoples of the Amazon were, perhaps the first to develop an admixture strategy in relation to psychedelic substances. Their exotic two-plant mixture, called Ayahuasca, was developed without benefit of any modern psychopharmacology or laboratory instruments to monitor purity and without modern understandings of the nervous system. These pioneers were working through visionary intuition, guided by the effects of the different plants they were experimenting with. They came to the idea that one must take the leaves of a bush (Psychotria viridis) and combine these leaves with large chunks of a jungle liana (Banisteriopsis caapi ) and boil them for hours. Banisteriopsis caapi, the vine or liana contains a monoamine oxidase (primarily MAO-A) inhibitor. The properly prepared combination makes this otherwise inactive combination of plants blossom into a psychedelic. Ayahuasca has been used for centuries as an aide to healing (Yensen, 1988). Since the mixture is key to the presence of the desired effects, rather than a modifier of already on-going psychedelic effects, this example is embryonic or prototypical in relation to the subsequent uses of admixtures in psychedelic psychotherapy.

PW : You met Carlos Castaneda while he was still a student. What do you remember about his debuts as a best-selling author ?

RY : Yes—I met Carlos early on my path, as he was still “unknown” as a graduate student at UCLA. He had just published a remarkable little book, Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. My first psychedelic enchantment was with that little rogue. To me, he always insisted that his name was pronounced and spelled Castaneda, not Castañeda. His subsequent fame and fortune were followed by
academic attack and denouncement. The details of sacred plant use in Carlos’ books were inaccurate at best. Perhaps the Yaqui Indian sorcerer/shaman Don Juan may have been a figment of his imagination. Amidst cries of academic fraud, Castaneda’s books persisted on the bestseller lists; his bank accounts grew past the bursting point. This phenomenal success was all the more remarkable because with one notable exception (for Time magazine), Carlos Castaneda did not give interviews to the press, did not permit portraits, did not make television appearances, and over all laughed at the antics of journalists and influence peddlers who pretended to know what was going on in the world. Efforts to bury the popularity of Carlos Castaneda and his books remain unsuccessful to this day.

PW : How do you perceive Carlos Castaneda’s influence in the West ?

RY : Academics focusing on errors and guessing at the location and tribal identity of the sage in Castaneda’s accounts ignore the most important aspect of his books, which is his consummate shamanic act. The details of sacred plant use in Carlos’s books were inaccurate, and whether Don Juan actually existed or was a product of Castaneda’s extraordinary imagination is not even the point. In his books, Castaneda addressed the children of those who won World War II and struggled with Korea. He addressed young men who were being asked to give their lives in a meaningless war in Southeast Asia. He captivated the imagination of a generation that grew up watching cowboys and Indians in movies and television. He took the well-established sense of cultural superiority, the illusion of progress and the notion that material plenty would address all human ills and turned them on their ear. Through his captivating portrayals of dialogues with Don Juan, he craftily suggested that this old Yaqui gentlemen knew something about how to live a meaningful life, about the inner struggles of being human. He intimated that overlooked shamanic wisdom could only be had if one gained membership in another culture. In these accounts, Carlos himself appears an utter fool and thus portrays for us the foibles of a person confronting an entirely new and different worldview. What was most important and improbable, coming from the cultural darkness of the fifties, was the worldwide arousal of an entire generation’s
hunger to know these secrets! In Don Juan’s own terms, Carlos shifted our assemblage point, the place in our mind where we construct reality: he shifted his readers out of a semiconscious, culturally self-centered stance. The view that native people are primitive, dimwitted, helpless and violent was transformed by Carlos, and replaced by a sense of mystery, curiosity and wonder. Now, the natives were suddenly folks who might have the secret of how to live a life of meaning and profound purpose. After reading Castaneda’s accounts, I and many others were influenced to pursue careers in anthropology,
in psychology, in medicine, in literature—often in pursuit of this hidden knowledge and depth held by romantic and inaccessible Amerindians. Mexico was invaded by readers looking for Don Juan, searching for the Mazatecs, the Huichols and the Tarahumara, trying to find the lost meaning of their lives. Later, the search spread to South America. The effects of the hunger and passion elicited by Castaneda have been mixed. Ethno-tourism has become a major industry and is tending to undermine the very societies it seeks to appreciate. Yet, can we imagine a greater shamanic success than the complete rending asunder of the blind conquest of the native peoples of America? In place of the Conquest, there came to be an extraordinary, successful restoration of a sense of wonder and esteem for native people’s nobility, as well as their botanical, philosophical, and pharmacological knowledge. He transformed the contemporary children of the conquerors into determined seekers of native wisdom. This was his stroke of true mastery, his great contribution!

PW : How would you describe the psychedelic therapy methods that were developed at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in the 1970s ?

RY : Experiential psychedelic pharmacology is informed and guided by the subjective experience of the drug recipient rather than relying solely on an objective understanding of drug action. Our psychedelic therapy technique involved creating the safest, most homelike atmosphere: unthreatening, peaceful and kind, a completely supportive field within which to administer a psychedelic drug. Our clinical emphasis was on encouraging the patient/subject to let go into whatever experience arose in the drug induced altered state. Since our patients were utterly safe, unthreatened in the therapy milieu and relationship, they could be conveyed toward transcendence with the aide of carefully selected music (Bonny & Pahnke, 1972). Art was just beginning to be used as well, to facilitate integration (Kellogg, Mac Rae, Bonny, & di Leo, 1977). We felt that our approach would enhance the possibility for the occurrence of a peak or mystical experience! It was also likely that patient/subjects might experience events that could repair emotional wounding from past life trauma. In our most advanced study we were involved with a combined psychedelic and psycholytic technique: cleaning out early emotional conflicts and difficulty using one to three, sometimes up to five drug experiences and aiming for a mystical experience to reintegrate the personality. We were working with LSD, DPT1, and MDA as adjuncts to psychotherapy in separate studies. Our ultimate goal was to create an integrative, healing, and mystical experience for our patients and subjects.