Counselling, Meditation and Psychedelics

Some of you probably know that, over the past 10 weeks, I’ve been studying person-centred counselling at the CityLit in London.

Some of you are perhaps also aware that I’ve recently (re)turned to mindfulness meditation to manage stress levels, as part of a concerted campaign against elevated Thyroid Peroxidase antibodies in my bloodstream.

And probably all of you know that over the last couple of years I’ve been investigating the transpersonal potential of psychedelics.

What I am slowly realising, however, is how tightly these three areas are woven together.

The importance of counselling to the psychedelic experience

I always knew that my psychedelic experience in Amsterdam last September certainly contributed to my decision to enroll on the counselling course, but now I’m wondering if the connection is stronger than I realised.

A positive psychedelic experience is almost entirely determined by the set (the substance used and dosage) and setting (one’s internal psychological and external physical environment). One element of setting that was particularly important to my experience was the presence of calm and capable facilitators who could hold the space while I temporarily left reality and ego behind.

This is exactly the role of the counsellor following the person-centred approach of Carl Rogers. The Rogerian counseller offers empathy, congruence (authenticity) and unconditional positive regard to the client. The idea is that these core conditions sufficiently ground the client that they are able to find their own way through their problems and come to a place of authenticity and self-actualisation for themselves.

Rather than giving the client any solution, the person-centred counsellor holds the space so that the client can discover solutions that are true for themselves. Similarly, a psychedelic experience cannot be dictated by another person. You will have your own unique experience and encounter whatever is true for you – not what is true for me or any teacher, counsellor or guru. (Your choice of substance will have a say in what you experience, but that’s not my point here!)

The importance of meditation to the psychedelic experience

Researchers at Imperial College have found that the psychedelic experience is most fertile or prolific when in a state of surrender or acceptance. This is where meditation comes in: the mindful practice of acceptance of the present moment.

If you are able to surrender yourself to experience, you are more likely to have a unitary experience under psychedelics. It is these unitary (or mystical-type) experiences that are the best predictors of sustained improvements in mental health and well-being.

The idea that meditative practice facilitates psychedelic experience also chimes with its traditional religious-spiritual use – not to mention the observation that psychedelics and Eastern philosophy, including meditation, seem to walk hand in hand wherever I look!

The importance of meditation to counselling

I believe meditation can also help person-centred counsellors maintain those core conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard.

During skills practice on my course, my mind often drifted away from the listener and onto other things. Am I doing this right? Why am I leaning forward? What’s the observer writing about my performance?

The principles I’d noticed during meditation helped me gather myself and refocus on the listener, allow the skills to act through me rather than being distracted by concerns about my performance.

The important of psychedelic experience to meditation

Psychedelics are certainly strongly positive to your practice of meditation. There is no time or space while inside the psychedelic experience: there is only the here-now, identical to the everywhere-when.

In 2010, I went on a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat in Herefordshire. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life, but I did very little meditation and did not continue the practice after the end of the course. Although I took many valuable lessons from the retreat, I could see no benefit from the mental work of meditation itself.

Fast-forward to 2017 and I resume some form of meditation for stress-relief. But the real breakthrough didn’t come until last weekend at the Breaking Convention, when I sat down in front of a machine fired powerful white LED lights at my pineal gland.

Lucia No. 3 is a light therapy that stimulates something like a psychedelic experience. Although the light is unquestionably white to the outside observer, in my mind’s eye that light split into the full spectrum of all colours and morphed in ever-changing kaleidoscopic patterns.

During a 17-minute session under this light, I had my first experience of true meditation. I wasn’t trying to meditate, but I just noticed that nothing beyond this moment was real. All my tension, anxiety and suffering dissolved, predicated as it was in either past or future. In this moment there was nothing but the shapes and colours in my mind, the sounds in my headphones, the touch of the seat beneath me, and the warmth and scent of the room.

It was a moment of revelation, not unlike the revelations of unity and connection that I felt under psychedelics.

These moments are essential to what Carl Rogers called self-actualisation: a state of flourishing that is the goal of all life on earth. But you can’t access a state of being without knowing that it is there and a glimpse, like I had with Lucia 3.0, makes all the difference.

Knowing that such a meditative state is possible for me without the use of psychedelics has made it accessible in my meditation in a way that it never was previously – not even after a 10-day Vipassana retreat.

The importance of psychedelic experience to counselling

I believe that counselling, meditation and psychedelic use are mutually supporting and reinforcing practices. For some people, including myself, I believe that they are each uniquely essential to self-actualisation.

Psychedelics emphatically open up for the first time previously unimaginable possibilities of being. Meditation can both help you surrender to the potential of psychedelics, and continue the work once you have come back to reality.

Meanwhile, counselling and counsellors hold the space so that there is a reality to come back to. In turn, psychedelic use can show counsellors how to connect with empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard to their clients.

A 2017 Imperial College study found that, after taking psilocybin for their depression, patients reported increased “connectedness” and “acceptance”. My own subjective experience is that this increase is certainly not limited to people with depression. I believe that such an experience would be invaluable to person-centred counsellors.

(And I’m not alone. Dr Andrea Zeuch believes that anyone working in an Intensive Care Unit should have had a psychedelic experience to help them understand and better care for their patients.)

It’s a position that’s hard to explain in writing, so I will leave you with two quotes from Carl Rogers, the founder of the person-centred approach to counselling, and from Alan Watts, a scholar known for popularising both Eastern philosophy and the use of psychedelics.

“Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” – Alan Watts.

“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, “Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.” I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.” ― Carl R. Rogers

I’d be amazed if Carl Rogers himself had never taken a psychedelic!

What do you think?