#40 Constraining the psychedelic mind with ritual and cultural contexts
Cultural Neurophenomenology of Psychedelic Thought: Guiding the “Unconstrained” Mind Through Ritual Context (Ch. 41) by Lifshitz, Sheiner, and Larkin, pages 573-594
Although not as well-known as its neurophenomenology (or as Laughlin & Rock  call it, “cognitive neurophenomenology”) cousin, there is something about cultural neurophenomenology that continues to prod me, something about it that my gut tells me most cognitive neurophenomenologists ignore and that should be considered when discussing psychedelic states of consciousness. Lifshitz, Sheiner, & Kirmayer (2018, 573) neatly describe what their text is about:
“The chapter reviews research on these substances through the lens of cultural neurophenomenology, which aims to trace how neurobiology and sociocultural factors interact to shape experience; … Tapping perspectives from the social sciences, the chapter underscores how culture and context constrain the flexible cognitive states brought about by psychedelics. This integrative approach suggests that seemingly spontaneous psychedelic thought patterns reflect a complex interaction of biological, cognitive, and cultural factors—from pharmacology and brain function to ritual, belief, and expectation.”
“We approach classical serotonergic psychedelics in terms of cultural neurophenomenology, which aims to trace how neurobiology and sociocultural knowledge and practice interact to give rise to experience” (Lifshitz et al, 2018, 574).
In their text, they speak about how psychedelics unconstrain brain and mental processes, evidence suggesting how one’s unconstrained mind is beneficial to creativity, mystical experiences, and therapy, and what we can learn from trying to constrain the chaotic and unpredictable psychedelic mind through the use of ritual and cultural control mechanisms. I should have read this paper for my master’s thesis since I wrote about exactly this; however, instead of talking about rituals and cultural cues to control the intoxicated mind, I asked how we might use techniques and technologies to control the unconstrained mind. Techniques and technologies are undoubtedly culture specific and can be used ritually. From a cultural neurophenomenology standpoint, Lifshitz et al (2018) use the example of the Santo Daime religion that combines Brazilian religious practices and Catholic doctrine with ayahuasca. I’ve taken ayahuasca before. I would find it difficult to sit in a room with a congregation all on psychedelics, focusing my attention on singing, chanting, mindful navigation of the experience, and other procedures that claim to ground individuals during their psychedelic experiences. But maybe I feel this way because I’m not trained in such practices; I have no firsthand experience of taking psychedelics within a framework of ritual, as in me participating as one of many people in the ritual. Rituals have been done by wiser others (guides, shamans) in my presence, but I didn’t understand what or why they did what they did.
When it comes to discussing the ritualization of such unconstrained mental experiences, there are so many variables at play. There are too many personal/individualized perspectives brought into the experience. Liftshitz et al (2018) quote Leary, Metzner, & Alpert’s book, The psychedelic experience: A manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. They quote Leary et al (2007) saying that “set” refers to preparation, personality structure, and mood, while “setting” refers to physical, social, and cultural factors. It is this last part that caught my attention. Lifshitz et al (2018) do not delve into this observation at all, so I will here. Cultural is not limited to just one’s setting; it is also part of one’s set or mindset. I would argue that culture overarches both set and setting. For example, there will be striking differences between a Westerner’s and an ayahuasca shaman’s preparation, personality structure and mood at the time of ingestion. Both persons are embedded in different social and cultural contexts, which will affect set and setting in top-down fashion. We cannot limit cultural factors in directing the psychedelically unconstrained mind to setting alone.
Lifshitz et al (2018) go on to compare the ritual practices from the Santo Daime religion with psychedelic scientific clinical practices. Each experience will be different. Each experience installs controls for participants. Even though the clinical setting has controls, I doubt they are like the controls developed in ancient traditions. Traditional users have had thousands of years to perfect their means of control through trial and error that most likely resulted in unexpected deaths or people losing their minds. When such occurrences happened, they knew not to try that experimented with technique again or play that particular musical tune. I just thought of the Japanese poem writing technique called haiku. There is something about putting restrictions or boundaries upon which one can perform or experience something, a feeling, a wordsmithing experience. For example, my method for writing these blog posts is stream of consciousness. I don’t feel constrained or compelled to make every sentence perfect although I polish them afterwards. The technique allows me to write freely in a flowy way. Haiku, on the other hand, is rigid, containing three lines of 5 x 7 x 5 syllables or words. I’m not too sure how the method works; all I know is that it boxes in, confines, that which can be communicated because the technique demands it. With this in mind, I’m curious how (sub)culture-specific rituals work during psychedelic experiences. First, why do they work, what is special about them? Second, are some cultural perspectives in how they view the world, their worldview, more conducive to controlling altered states of consciousness? It is one thing to learn how others use ritual within their worldview and cosmology and quite another to embody these rituals, as in these rituals are extensions of one’s being, one’s ancestral lineage, representations and manifestations of deeply held values and beliefs systems.
“Thus, promoting healing with psychedelics likely requires constraining the unconstrained mind through symbolic situational cues and embodied rituals that emphasize the potential to move from maladaptive patterns toward constructive states and behaviors” (Lifshitz et al, 2018, 576).
Notice the word “healing” in bold above regarding the significance of what they say. We can swap out the word “healing” for anything, such as navigation, exploration, sense-making, [insert your word here], etc. As well, let’s just delete the first four words of that sentence. Now we’re getting somewhere. It is possible to constrain the unconstrained mind; or as I would say in the context of control: it is possible to at least partially control the psychedelic experience through symbolic cues and rituals. Further questions now arise: how do we know whether handed down means of constraint are effective; what else can we do to constrain the sober mind that would likely affect the experience elicited by the intoxicated mind; what are the similarities and differences between traditional and modern users of the same psychedelic in addition to psychedelic-specific rituals tailored to it; can rituals be decoupled from the culture that created them; to what extent has a particular psychedelic affected the foundations of that culture implicitly and/or explicitly, therefore we know not which came first and what influenced the genesis of each?
As you can see, and as I now see at this point in the stream, the above cultural neurophenomenology considerations on psychedelic use is laden with causality dilemmas and paradoxes, some of which we will likely never answer. I think we must ask ourselves: how is the sober mind constructed and constrained, how do these psychedelics unconstrain the mind, and then what rituals and cultural cues can be added to the recipe of intoxicated/unconstrained mind to usher one’s mind toward a healthy, constructive, and fear-limiting experience? I find cultural neurophenomenology, especially in the context of psychedelics, to be more abstract than the normal abstract philosophy I generally consume. But it is so interesting, and I look forward to reading more about this. I hope someone does further research in this field as I would be very keen to read more, especially how it might compliment cognitive neurophenomenology.
Laughlin, C. D., & Rock, A. J. (2013). Neurophenomenology: Enhancing the Experimental and Cross-Cultural Study of Brain and Experience. In H. R. Friedman & G. Hartelius (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology, (261-280). Wiley-Blackwell.
Leary, T., Metzner, R., & Alpert, R. (2007/1964). The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Citadel Press.
Lifshitz, M., Sheiner, E., Kirmayer, L. J. (2018). Cultural Neurophenomenology of Psychedelic Thought: Guiding the “Unconstrained” Mind Through Ritual Context. In K. C. R. Fox & K. Christoff (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Dreaming, (573-594). Oxford University Press.