The new psychotherapy: MDMA and the Shadow

  • by Ann Shulgin
Originally published on Eleusis, n. 3, pp. 3-11, 1995

This is a revised and edited version of a talk given at the Psychoactive Sacraments Conference Retreat, sponsored by the Chicago Theological Seminary and the Council on Spiritual Practices Vallombrosa Center, Menlo park, California, U.S., February 16-19, 1995.

Modern psychotherapy utilizing psychedelic drugs probably began in the early 1960's. MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), now known on the street as XTC, first came to the attention of certain members of the mental health community because of the efforts of one man - now dead - an elderly psychologist whom I shall refer to as Adam.
Adam had been quietly giving mind-expanding drugs to many carefully selected patients and friends, for years, to help them in their psychological and spiritual growth. He discovered the power of MDMA in 1972, through my husband, Sasha Shulgin, who had unearthed ther original German 1912 patent and made the compound in his laboratory. He introduced Adam to it as a possible antidepressant.
Having tried the drug himself, Adam - who had been on the verge of retirement - started a new practice, devoting himself almost entirely to training innovative and courageous psychologists and psychiatrists all across the country, and eventually Europe, in the use of MDMA in therapy. At the memorial service after his death, one of his closest friends told me, "I think that, all in all, Adam trained around 4000 people around the world in the use of MDMA, just in that last dozen or so years".
He began by giving the drug to the therapists, because - in his opinion - no therapist has any business giving a consciousness altering drug to any other person unless he, the therapist, knows its effects in himself. That rule was honored by all who followed Adam in this kind of work, and it still holds. It applies not only to MDMA, but to any other psychoactive drug that is used.
This rule applies most particularly to the drugs called psychedelics, entheogens and entactogens (MDMA is an entactogen). "Entheogen" means "the generation of the God within"; "entactogen" means "touching the self within".

MDMA became a favorite tool of psychotherapistis, beacuse it can be given safely to people who are too emotionally fragile to benefit from any of the psychedelics. There is no loss of control with MDMA, and it produces none of the dramatic visual changes associated with psychedelics, effects which can be disturbing and do not necessarily contribute to the quality of the inner experience.
The general structure of a psychedelic therapy session had been evolving since the 1960's, and when MDMA became available and proved itself to be, indeed, "penicillin fo the soul", there was already a considerable body of experience on which to base the new therapy.

Here, I will give a very brief overview of certain aspects of this kind of work, whether it is done for problem solving or for spiritual growth. For istance, how does therapy with MDMA or a psychoactive drug differ from the generally accepted forms of psychotherapy and hypnotherapy?
If you are the therapist, remember that, before any drug is ingested, a contract must be made - verbally, face to face - with the client, keeping in mind that you are speaking, not only to his conscious mind, but to the listening unconscious.
The contract includes the following rules. The exact wording is open to change, at the therapist's discretion. The content, however, must remain intact.

  1. "All sexual feelings are allowable; they can and should be discussed, but will not be physically acted out here".
  2. "Feelings of hostility and anger are allowable; they can and should be talked about, but must not be acted out against me or my possessions, except in a manner agreed to between the two of us".
  3. "If you (the patient) should see the friendly death door and know that, by stepping through it, can be done with this life, you will NOT do so during this session. You will not end your life in such a way, when you are here with me, because such an act woul cause me great injury, and you will not injure me, as I will not injure you".
  4. "You will swear to abide by these rules, without exception and without reservations".

Rule 1 is self-explanatory.

Rule 2 requires an additional note to this effect: The therapist should, of course, make it possible for the patient to express his anger, to indeed act out feelings of range and desire to kill - if and when such feelings arise in response to unburied memories - by supplying such things as old sheets or pillows to pound or tear, and by coming to an agreement with the client as to when, how, and where this might occur (the therapist may have a special room set aside for this purpose). All this will be carefully explained to the client after the contract has been agreed to.

As for Rule 3: The wording of this rule may sound cold and uncaring, but the patient's reaction will be a sudden shock of understanding that what is being talked about is literally a matter of life and death, and his unconscious mind will register the fact that whatever may happen during the coming session, there are rules that must be followed.
The death door is an actual experience which most explorers in the world of the human psyche will eventually encounter. It takes many forms, most of them gently welcoming, and its message is, "Here is the way back home, when you decide to return". It does not seduce or entice; it's just there. If it appears to a deeply depressed patient, it may mean escape from pain and desolation, and without the contract, the temptation to go through might be overwhelming. Some people have given in to the temptation and been sent back, but we have heard of one - and there may be more - who stayed on the other side of the opening. The therapist in such a case faces not only his patient's death, but the inevitable legal and professional disaster that inevitably results from it.

There are other differences: any session using one of these drugs will take a minimum of six hours (with MDMA), and often as long as eight or ten with a psychedelic. The duration of the session depends not only on the kind of drug used, but also on whether a critical psychological or spiritual problem is being worked through.
Many times, in my experience, the most important emotional confrontations or spiritual battles begin to happen at what should have been the falling-off of the drug effects, during the last hour or so of the session.
Most sessions with a patient or client involve some intense work, which is begun and ended well within six hours and often earlier. However, if a last-minute vital struggle takes place, one of the most important rules of psychedelic therapy is that the therapist - no matter how tired he might feel - MUST NOT cut short the session. He must stay with the client, continue working with him, until the breakthrough has been achieved.
The human psyche has its own private and personal schedule for growth, and will take important steps in its own way and in its own time. The therapist is there to help the process, to devote himself, heart, soul and insight, to guiding and supporting the hard work his client is doing.
When the client, on the other hand, decides he is too tired to work further, that is the signal that his psyche is closing the door and telling everyone, "Sufficient unto the day", and it is only then that the therapist should begin bringing the session to a close.

MDMA is an entactogen, and some people call it entheogen. It is an insight drug, and one of the ways it enables insight to function in its user is that it removes the deep-seated fear most of us feel when we face our own Shadow - to use the Jungian term - or dark side.
In place of fear, in almost every user, there arises a peaceful acceptance of whatever is encountered, and an unaccustomed compassion for himself; in other words, an acceptance of all the aspects of his own nature, giving and selfish, kind and vengeful, loving and despicable.
I have often described this experience of unconditional self-acceptance as, "Being held in the loving hands of God", and it can be considered, in and of itself, one of the most healing experiences any human being can have.
Once he has felt - possibly for the first time in his memory - such absolute validation of the totality of who he is, old habits of defensiveness fall away.
There is less need to protect himself against his own Shadow, his dark side. The therapist should remind him that it's there in him, as it is in every other human being, to serve a purpose, and that purpose is self-protection and survival. Not just survival of the physical body, but also a self-image constructed by the unconscious to enable him to get through life with some degree of self-acceptance.
MDMA will enable him to consider changes he may need to make in himself, without accompanying guilt or self- rejection.
The degree of insight achieved in any session using MDMA or other drugs - such as 2C-B, which is a relatively short-acting psychedelic - depends first of all on the willingness of the patient to face and acknowledge his dark side or Shadow, the repressed, closed-off, long-denied aspects of his nature.
Putting it in Buddhist terms, he is being asked to confront the demons known as the guardians of the gate, and the prospect of seeing what he unconsciously believes to be the core - the essence - of himself as a series of horrendous, malignant, totally unacceptable entities, can bring about a state of fear that has no parallel in ordinary life.

No person can be asked to do the work of confronting his Shadow without being told by his therapist, in advance, that what he will see and feel is not - NOT - the whole truth about who he is, but only one important and essential part.
There should have been a great deal of discussion - before any drug ingestion - not only about the nature and function of the Shadow, but also of the need to feel compassion for the innocent child he had been, and to understand why and how that child developed certain habits of behavior and emotional response to his environment, in an effort to survive in a world he wasn't equipped to deal with or control.
It is in this preliminary discussion that the experience and persuasiveness of the therapist come into play. He himself MUST have had this kind of emotional and spiritual journey, before he asks a client to undergo it.
He must have felt that stomach-churning fear of opening up a view of his core Self that he simply could not have lived with, if it had been, indeed, his true nature. And he should have been guided by a therapist - or friend - who knew how to lead him through this terrifying territory, and out the other side. Only a therapist who has undergone this process of self-confrontation can speak with unmistakable authority and believability to a client who is struggling with intense, deep fears.
All these explanations and reassurances must have taken place before the client makes a final decision about taking MDMA or a psychedelic drug. It is essential preparation, because without it, the drug session might be wasted.
When the unconscious psyche anticipates the possible destruction of a needed and long-nurtured good self-image; when the Survivor hears footsteps outside the massive door that has guarded his monster aspect from view most of his life, one result may well be a complete lack of response to the drug. No insight, no images, no nuthin'.
Or there may be the eruption of an acute anxiety state, which thoroughly blankets any other effects and distracts the attention of everyone involved.

There are other ways in which MDMA or psychedelic therapy (or spiritual growth guidance) differs from ordinary analysis or psychotherapy.
It is essential that the therapist lay aside all preconceived theories and belief systems, either psychological or spiritual, as much as possible. His attitude must be that of a student, learning a new part of the universe, seeing it for the first time. The client is a new world, unlike any other he has previously encountered, and the therapist must be ready to learn a language of symbol and imagery peculiar to that world.
He has to keep his eyes and ears open and all his antennae alert, so that he might begin to get a glimpse of the emotional and spiritual structure and rules of survival that inform life in this unique human landscape.
What the therapist should remember is that the client's psyche contains a part which is a self-healer, and that it is a component of what might be called - for lack of a better term - his higher Self. I prefer to call it the Overseer. He should tell the client of the existence of that healer within, because by doing so, he will help activate it.

There is another rule which I believe must be observed by any therapist undertaking this kind of journey with a patient or friend. He has to be able to feel something very close to love, for the person he is guiding. There should be real caring, and it cannot be simply an intellectual concern for the client's welfare; it must be deeper than that, at the gut level.
Real caring, like love, cannot be forced, as we all know, and the therapist should have sufficient insight of his own to be aware of what his feelings toward the client really are.
If there is hostility or apprehension, he must be prepared to do the necessary insight work to discover the reason for those feelings, to work on whatever projections may be involved, and if he cannot completely resolve them, he should direct the client to another therapist. I'm not talking about such feelings as momentary irritation or impatience; those can come naturally in response to many things, and they don't negate basic love or caring.
It is in connection withi this ability to affirm and care about his patient, that the therapist's own past training with MDMA and psychedelic drugs becomes important. If he has sufficient experience of his own with these tools, he will have - he should have - taken certain spiritual steps which will have brought him to specific places within himself. One of these is the often referre-to "participation mystique", in the words of the great anthropologist Eliade, and it usually happens in the first MDMA or psychedelic experience, if the session is conducted, as it should be, in quiet natural surroundings.
He will have felt the sens of kinship with every living thing, and he will have known - this is deep core knowing, not intellectual knowing - that every animal, plant and human being is related to him. He will have sensed that everything alive carries within it the God-essence, a spark of the Great Spirit, and that indeed we are all highly individual parts of one living, conscious Being.
What may have appealed to him before as nothing more than a beautiful, poetic concept, will suddendly have taken the form of reality, and the profound impact of this realization will have become part of him for the rest of his life.
That is why, once he has had the privilege of being in this place in his soul, he will find it possible to feel true caring, even love, for a client who is preparing to open himself to himself. He will know that this person he is working with is, in spiritual sense, his parent, his brother, and his child.

Since I've touched upon the experience of confronting the Shadow, I should add that there is one important way in which psychedelic exploration differs from, for istance, Jungian analysis, when it involves facing and acknowledging the Shadow.
A Jungian analyst will encourage his client to see his Shadow as clearly as he can - see what shape it takes, sense what its qualities are - and then to continue working on understanding its origins and its functions. Eventually, it will transform into an ally of the whole, integrated, conscious Self.
This may not sound like a dramatically important difference, but a therapist working with MDMA or a psychedelic drug will gently help his client to take one additional step, when he has full view of his Shadow, which - by the way - usually, but not always, takes the form of a large, powerful animal.
He will urge the client to first face, then enter into, the dark figure he is meeting; he must work to get inside the beast's skin and look out through its eyes.
It is here, at this pont, that a battle may have to be fought, because not only does the conscious man have to fight his own revulsion, shame and fear of this forbidden aspect of this psyche; the mind may project upon the Shadow an equal resistance to being seen or touched.
Some people seem to be able, once they have acknowledged the Shadow, to step right into it. Others must fight to get there, with strong, patient, loving support and encouragement from the therapist.
The first response to successful merging is usually astonishment at an unaccustomed absence of fear of any kind. The second is a growing appreciation and then frank exhilaration at the sensation of power - immense, fearless power - which characterizes this creature.
This stage of getting to know the Shadow from the inside may take more than one session, but I have - many times - seen the work completed in one day.
As the client learns to accept and understand his Shadow and its primary goal, a transformation will begin.
Ultimately, the Shadow will take its place as a devoted ally and protector, available - when needed - to the whole Self, respected and validated by the conscious mind, even though it will never be entirely housebroken or have good table manners. In other words, the final goal is identical to that of the Jungians.

In closing, a sad reminder:
Since the Analog Drug Bill of 1986 was passed, this kind of therapy and spiritual journey, using these priceless tools, has been illegal in the United States.
Despite thousands of years of spiritual training using visionary plants, in native cultures worlwide, modern governments have, with very few exceptions, attempted to repress the use of consciousness-opening plants and chemicals, by classifying them alongside dangerous narcotics and stimulates as addictive - which they are not - and without social value.
You might blame an almost universal ignorance on the part of lawmakers, as well as most of the general public, about the psychedelics and their appropriate uses.
I blame something else: an intense unconscious fear of the hidden depths of the human psyche, and an unacknowledged certainty that the Shadow is, indeed, the final terrible, rockbottom truth about the nature of man. This belief, in most of us, has been nurtured in a thousand ways by family and culture, and too often by religion.
It will be up to us - and others who feel as strongly as we do - to find out how turn this around, in our own nation. In many other countries, in Europe and South America, a change in attitude seems already to have begun.
It seems to me that, if the human species is to survive much longer on earth, this kind of spiritual journey, this kind of understanding and transformation of the dark side of the soul, will have to be seen as a necessary part of that human survival.

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