I’ve been reading Ram Dass’ autobiography, Being Ram Dass over summer. If you aren’t familiar with his story, he made a spectacular transition across decades from being Richard Alpert, Harvard Professor of Psychology, to Ram Dass, a mystic and spiritual leader, after an encounter with an Indian guru called Neem Karoli Baba that changed his life.
Ram Dass brought his own teachings of love, connection and oneness back to the West, and influenced legions of people, myself included, to pursue a life in service to others, seeking to find meaning in what it is to be human.
Richard Alpert had a spectacular fall from grace in what was a stellar academic career. Alongside Timothy Leary, he was sacked from Harvard for research they were running using psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psylocibin. Back in the 1960’s, psychedelics were legal and showing great promise across a number of areas for relieving chronic mental health issues.
Unfortunately, or fortunately if you look at the counter-cultural revolution of the 60’s and its creative legacy today, the drugs ‘jumped the lab’ and ended up being widely used across society, for which Leary and Alpert were seen and blamed as the early ring leaders.
Psychedelics were criminalised in the late 70’s in America and subsequently across the world, bringing an end to some remarkable research (and research teams) and leaving many unanswered questions about the existential and mystical experience of using psychedelic compounds, as well as the neurological benefits to unhealthy patterns of the brain.
Very quietly in the mid 90’s, research into psychedelics began happening again in the US and the UK. Spiralling mental health statistics, increasing treatment-resistant depression and ineffectiveness of common anti-depressant medication, along with significant numbers of returned veterans in the US suffering from chronic PTSD, led to some innovative thinking in how to address what seemed to be a global epidemic of mental health.
Some of the researchers from the original programs, who were now elders of the academic community, were funded by government and private donors to lead research teams to see if the promise of psychedelics still held up in more robust, repeatable, measurable and peer reviewed trials to prove efficacy and safety.
Those programs now have gone to Stage 4 trials, and in some US states and countries in Europe they are now being legally offered as part of mental health treatments, using psylocibin, MDMA and Ketamine with some remarkable results.
The scene is very different to the 60’s. Aside from the tighter regulation, clients are heavily supported by psychologists and counsellors as they undergo their journeys, with strong focus on dosage, set, setting, skills of the practitioner, and integration before and after the session/s.
I came to breathwork and counselling largely due to my interest in the resurgence of psychedelics as a therapeutic tool and their pathways to mystical experiences. In Australia, while we are also undergoing clinical trials and working with other jurisdictions to create a medical and legal pathway for treatment through Mind Medicine Australia, psychedelics are still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance and illegal to sell, use, own or administer to others.
Stanislav Grof, who I have mentioned in previous blogs, was one of the original research leaders in a large European study of the effects of LSD on patients in psychiatric facilities in Eastern Europe. When the study was shut down as the drugs were no longer legally available, he had noticed a particular pattern of breathing in his patients when they were undergoing their LSD journeys, and wondered if that had anything to do with the non-ordinary state of their consciousness.
He developed a breathing technique called Holotropic Breathwork which used conscious connected breath to allow the breather to access subconscious and buried trauma and release it through a tightly curated and supported therapy session which resembled the same experiential arc as a psychedelic journey.
This became his substitute for psychedelics, and is now, decades later, a well-established, researched and proven method for working with trauma, and a variety of mental health conditions including PTSD, OCD, anxiety, and eating disorders. Australia is still a few years away from where the US and UK are, and while we can’t use psychedelics, we can use a combination of counselling and breathwork to surface issues, and then create the set and setting and process using breath for the autonomic nervous system to take over and restore the body and mind to its natural congruence.
Like Ram Dass, while I am dedicated to working with clients to support them to release their suffering, I am captivated by the mystical experience, how we find our divinity and true nature of self and are able to maintain those states without the use of any drugs. When Richard Alpert eventually went to India to talk to gurus and sages and see if they knew more about plant medicines and could enlighten him, he never expected to find the answer he had actually been looking for through the grace of meeting Neem Karoli Baba.
Baba gave him the spiritual name Ram Dass (which translates to servant of Ram, a Hindu deity) and told him that while the ‘yogi drugs’ as he called them could take him to the door of enlightenment, they would never be a lasting experience. This set Ram Dass on a path to discover how to reach that place where he could reside in love and override the suffering of being human.
It was a lifelong journey for Ram Dass, as it is for all of us, to find heaven on earth, a state where we are free from mental anguish and feel conscious and connected to each other and all of the planet. I will continue to closely follow the evolution of Australia’s approach to mental health treatment using psychedelics, and balance the range of modalities available to me to support my clients, with my own practice being here now, and loving, serving and remembering my own divinity.