Psychedelics, Spirituality, and the Materialist Paradigm of Western Psychiatry

Psychedelics, Spirituality, and the Materialist Paradigm of Western Psychiatry

Psychedelic therapy challenges medical norms, urging holistic healing. Subjective experiences foster spiritual awakenings, highlighting therapy's mystical potential. Join TheraPsil for a webinar on May 21, 2024 with Challian Christ to explore this transformative terrain.
Psychedelics, Spirituality, and the Materialist Paradigm of Western Psychiatry

Written by: Challian Christ, TheraPsil [non-profit helping Canadians in medical need access medical psilocybin.]

How Psychedelics are Challenging the Western Medicine Model

Psychedelic therapy is challenging several long-standing assumptions within western medicine, pushing researchers and healthcare providers to adopt broader and more holistic notions of mental health and healing processes in order to make sense of this new therapeutic terrain. One of the key assumptions being challenged is what is sometimes called the “technological” or “materialist” paradigm of psychiatry. Under this paradigm, mental health challenges are seen primarily as the result of faulty physiological or psychological mechanisms in the individual—so a condition like depression would be regarded primarily as the expression of imbalances in one’s neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. If these imbalances can be fixed using the correct tool (or drug), then theoretically, symptoms should subside.

Within this paradigm, the context for these faulty processes shouldn’t matter, and the way in which these processes are treated should work reliably, regardless of why someone sought treatment, who provided it, or how one felt about it. One shouldn’t have to be excited about taking an anti-depressant medication for it to have a positive effect, and this functionally reduces the person seeking help to a passive recipient of care—a victim of a diseased brain. It’s a reductive approach, but it allows the effectiveness of a therapeutic intervention to be tested reliably, usually within randomized controlled trials. It allows us to test whether improvements to wellbeing are the result of placebo or the direct effect of an intervention, and it provides a strong basis for why the treatment works based on predictable changes in the participant’s biology. 

A huge number of life-saving treatments have been developed using this approach since the 1960s, but occasionally, we develop a therapeutic intervention that’s particularly ill-suited to the materialist paradigm. Psychedelic therapy is one of these.

While psychedelics do have measurable impacts on the body—e.g., stimulating neuroplasticity and neurotransmitter release by binding to certain serotonin receptors—it’s difficult to explain the full range of therapeutic outcomes psychedelics can have based on these physical changes alone. Psychedelic healing processes tend to be highly subjective and idiosyncratic, punctuated with emotional breakthroughs rather than clear-cut corrections to aberrant neurochemistry. The therapeutic potential of these drugs is highly contingent upon where they’re taken, who they’re taken with, and the user’s mindset leading up to the experience, so the experience needs to be carefully programmed to ensure the best possible outcomes. Individuals taking psychedelics are anything but “passive recipients of care”. They are actively engaged in the healing process, co-creating it with the medicine.

Naturally, this makes empirically testing the efficacy of psychedelic therapy difficult, because it’s hard to say where the drug effect ends and where the subjective meaning-making processes begin. In other words, it’s hard to determine how much of psychedelic therapy is psychedelic, and how much is therapy. This is only complicated by the fact that these processes tend to be unlike any other seen in mainstream medicine, not just because of their subjective and idiosyncratic nature, but because they often present as having a uniquely “mystical” quality, meaning they can fundamentally change the user’s understanding of time, space, and self, revealing to the experiencer some higher Truth about the world and their place within it. It is, to say the least, a deeply spiritual experience, and as it turns out, this has an awful lot of therapeutic utility.

Psychedelics and Spirituality

There is mounting evidence to suggest that the most therapeutic psychedelic experiences tend to be “mystical” in nature, precipitating in many a sort of “spiritual awakening” that leads to more positive attitudes toward oneself, others, and improved life-satisfaction.  American psychologist Abraham Maslow even posited that a psychedelic-induced “glimpse of heaven” could potentially prevent suicide, violence, addiction, and existential meaninglessness through a reorganization of values and beliefs akin to religious conversion. But healthcare providers can’t prescribe a “glimpse of heaven” to treat a mental health condition. Can they?

In the growing shift toward secularism in western medicine, spiritual development and healthcare provision have become two distinct enterprises with relatively little crosstalk. Indeed, most healthcare providers receive very little (if any) training on how one’s spiritual wellness plays into their patient’s or client’s overall wellness, and even less in how to work skillfully in mobilizing their spiritual processes to therapeutic ends. Attempting to do so can easily slip into a religious prescriptivism that violates the codes of ethics seen across many disciplines.

But because of how often the spiritual element arises within psychedelic healing processes, psychedelic care providers need to develop unique professional competencies that allow them to help clients through psychedelic experiences that disrupt some of their most foundational assumptions about the world, themselves, and reality. This needs to happen without the care provider casting themself as a savior, guru, or healer. Setting up institutions and policies that teach and mandate these competencies within a medical industry that has traditionally outsourced spiritual and religious matters to chaplains and religious communities is a far more challenging task than most researchers, legislators, and perhaps even clinicians realize.

Psychedelics are stimulating a paradigm shift in western medicine—one which demands a keen awareness of how humans heal, grow, and thrive—one which asks healthcare providers and researchers to see humans as more than biochemical machines—one where the transformative potential of a spiritual experience can be harnessed to aid in therapeutic processes, rather than being shunted to the realm of pseudoscience or attempted thaumaturgy. It may be difficult, but it is possible. 

We are uniquely poised at this point in time to lay a solid foundation in this new era of the Psychedelic Renaissance. Let us work together to take the best part of established systems, do away with what isn’t working, and develop complementary approaches which meet the unique demands of this breakthrough therapy.

Want to learn more?

To explore this topic further, mark your calendars for the upcoming webinar on May 21, 2024 hosted by TheraPsil’s Challian Christ as he discusses ‘Mysticism and Psychedelic Therapy.’

TheraPsil is a small non-profit coalition dedicated to helping Canadians in medical need access legal, psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy and medical psilocybin.

For more information on TheraPsil’s advocacy work and their efforts to promote patients’ rights in accessing psychedelic therapy, visit their website at