Psychedelic Therapy And Music: Experience As Medicine
Embracing emotion and opening up to experience are fundamental to wellbeing.
Inevitably, however, our fears, traumas and insecurities frighten us into building defence mechanisms that shield us from our feelings and restrict our experience. By clinging to these barriers, we run the risk of shutting down parts of ourselves, disengaging from life and creating an inner void into which the thrill of existence is not allowed to flow.
While many psychiatric drugs serve only to dampen pain and numb the mind, psychedelics and music are tools to enhance emotional processing. When used therapeutically, these powerful medicines can help people to open up once more to feeling, lower their defences and simply be vulnerable. In doing so, it becomes possible to fill that internal vacuum and live a more fulfilling and meaningful life.
Reconnecting With Experience as Medicine
Moving from avoidance to acceptance
Accordingly, participants regularly describe a transition from avoidance to acceptance of difficult emotions while under the influence of psilocybin and other psychedelic medicines.
Increasing emotional processing
These reports are backed up by brain scans which show that psychedelics trigger an increase in emotional processing in the amygdala – a brain region that is strongly associated with fear – resulting in an enhanced ability to work through challenging experiences and traumatic memories. The neural mechanisms underpinning this swelling of emotion are further amplified by music, which is why indigenous healers worldwide have combined psychoactive plant medicines with ritualised musical performances for thousands of years. Highlighting this effect, the authors of Imperial College’s famous study on psilocybin for depression explain how “the emotional tone of the music could lead to a surge of the same emotion, which could lead to memories of childhood when that emotion had been present.” “Music also seemed to provoke emotions that had been long repressed,” they write, adding that “many people referred to some of the darker pieces of music as directing the inner journey toward places of pain and despair.” Having avoided these feelings for much of their lives, participants were finally able to lower their defence mechanisms and open up once more to unconditional experience during their therapy sessions. In doing so, participants began the process of embracing the forsaken parts of themselves and becoming whole.
Dissolving The Ego
The ability to drop one’s defence mechanisms and relinquish the need for self-censorship is primarily facilitated by the archetypal psychedelic experience of “ego dissolution”.
By shedding all personal insecurities and allowing experience to flow unimpeded, psychedelic therapy patients typically encounter a phenomenon known as “oceanic boundlessness”, which in turn leads to a profound comprehension of one’s interconnectedness with all things.
For Participant #3, this realisation marked the cornerstone of a dramatic shift in mental health.
As the above testimony illustrates, however, healing entailed far more than a mere change of disposition; rather, the process involved a radical reframing of the self in the context of something greater.
Anthropologists call this type of transformative experience a rite of passage, and recognise the central role that this process plays in many non-Western medical traditions. Within this framework, healing is brought about via the deconstruction of the ego followed by its reconstitution at a higher developmental level, as initiates shed their insecurities and re-embrace the abandoned parts of their psyche.
The significance of this rendezvous with one’s unabridged self was certainly not lost on British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, who first coined the term ‘psychedelic’ to describe the effects of mescaline in 1956. By fusing the Ancient Greek words “psyche” and “delos” – which translate to “mind” and “to manifest” – he perfectly articulated the way in which the substance strips away the illusory layers of ego and conditioning to leave behind pure, unfiltered consciousness.
It is through this confrontation with one’s naked, unedited self that it becomes possible to see beneath the scaffolding of defence mechanisms with which we isolate ourselves from the rest of existence. As we re-discover ourselves as part of the universe rather than separate from it, we attain a deeper understanding of our true nature and gain the ability to live life authentically, without needing to control or avoid any aspect of it.
Experience a Different Kind Of Medicine
To fully understand the healing power of psychedelics, we must be willing to suspend certain aspects of our allopathic medical tradition and adopt the more holistic philosophy common to indigenous cultures: though illness may manifest as biological or neurological symptoms, dis-ease ultimately arises from existential disconnection and an inability to embrace the fullness of one’s experience.
Rather than seeking to cure the symptoms of any clinically diagnosable disorder, therefore, indigenous healers have used plant medicines and music for thousands of years to help patients embrace their Shadow, re-connect to their authentic self and open up to unconditional experience.
This is what it means to undergo a rite of passage, and, ultimately, this is what it means to heal.