Changes in Spirituality Among Ayahuasca Ceremony Novice Participants, Stephen M. Trichter, 2006

Changes in Spirituality Among Ayahuasca Ceremony Novice Participants

Stephen M. Trichter

A Clinical Research Project Submitted to the Faculty of Argosy University, San Francisco Bay Area
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for The degree of Doctor of Psychology

Point Richmond, California
Copyright May 2006



Context of the Problem

Psychiatry and clinical psychology have developed with the aim of relieving maladaptive psychological symptoms, partially through the use of medical technology. Presently, the field encourages the use of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety agents, and antipsychotics to relieve symptoms from which patients suffer. Despite continuous breakthroughs in psychiatric medicine, many writers feel that this approach is questionable. For example, there are many other psychoactive compounds that could be used in taking a different approach to relieving patients’ mental anguish. This approach would be to give the individual new tools and a new perspective, as opposed to providing temporary chemical relief.

One group of compounds, often called entheogens, from the Latin, meaning “god within,” may harness the power of increasing spirituality, and strengthening an individual. These compounds are more typically referred to as psychedelics or hallucinogens. Some of these, in particular ayahuasca, have been used in sacred healing rituals in shamanic cultures for centuries. Ayahuasca’s historical use in a wide variety of communities of spirit is evident in the literature (Luna, 2000; Wilcox, 2003). Shanon (2002), in his research conclusions, describes the spiritual power of ayahuasca :

“Personally, if I were to pick one single effect of Ayahuasca that had the most important impact on my life…I would say that before my encounter with the brew I was an atheist…and when I returned back home after my long journey to South America, I no longer was one. Likewise, a significant number of informants I have interviewed indicated that the main lesson they received from Ayahuasca was religious or spiritual.” (p.260)

Problem Statement

The general mental health community is unable to utilize certain substances as potential resources to help the clients it serves because, arguably, the healing power of these substances is often ignored and restricted by government agencies. The war on drugs, as manifested through both Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) and Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) tight control over psychedelic substances in clinical research, prevents researchers and clinicians from utilizing potentially therapeutic tools in the evolution of both psychiatry and clinical psychology. As a result, limited amounts of research can be done looking at the effects of these substances on the human psyche. Often the exploration of the effects of psychedelics on spiritual experience is done through individual case studies. Many of these studies are not controlled and have flawed designs. In addition, most of the literature on ayahuasca and spirituality is taken from an anthropological and/or philosophical perspective (Andritzky, 1989; Krippner, 2000; Metzner, 1998 ). It is my contention that an overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that the ingestion of psychedelics in certain circumstances will increase spirituality and well-being. Therefore, I believe it is necessary that more empirical research be done, exploring ayahuasca’s potential for increasing an individual’s spiritual growth.

Purpose Statement

This study aims to challenge previous conceptions about psychedelics from the perspective of conservative politics. By exploring the potential benefits of spiritual wellbeing that ayahuasca participants may receive, this research will help pave the way for new opportunities to study the medicinal uses of ayahuasca and other psychedelics in mental health research and clinical practice. The purpose of this study was to ask the question: Does participating in an ayahuasca ceremony change participants’ subjective experiences of spirituality, and if so, how? For the purposes of this study, spirituality was defined as one’s focus on, and/or reverence for, openness and connectedness to, something of significance believed to be beyond one’s full understanding and/or individual existence. This may include one’s relationship with God or what one understands to be their own spiritual being or process. It is hypothesized that participating in an ayahuasca ceremony will change the spiritual experience of ceremony participants in a positive direction, leading to a greater sense of spiritual well being.

Significance Statement

It was anticipated that findings from this study would create new insights into potential therapies in the field of psychology and psychiatry. First, I surmised that the research may shed light on spiritual experience in people’s lives. Questions have been raised in the field about the importance of spirituality and the contributions it has to make to one’s life perspective. This research hoped to answer some of these questions while providing new understanding of how spirituality contributes to one’s outlook on life.

The study also explored the impact on spirituality of participating in an ayahuasca ceremony and raised new questions concerning the value of ceremony participation. There is a growing movement in the Western world to incorporate various indigenous healing ceremonies into one’s spirituality. This research examined one aspect of this phenomenon and reported on whether or not participating in ayahuasca ceremonies affected one’s spirituality. In addition, I felt that the results of the study may show how an experience with an psychedelic can produce significant changes in an individual’s
spiritual life.

Finally, I hoped that this study would lay the groundwork for further research in psychedelics studies, the connection between psychedelics and spirituality, and the value of spirituality in psychotherapy and in engendering personal growth. Examining spirituality is a challenge for research psychologists. I hoped that this research would be a contribution to the growing literature on how best to approach the question of spirituality, from a psychedelic perspective, in doing clinical research.