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Are There Enough Secular Psychedelic Retreats?

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in this article
  • Introduction
  • The Need for Secular Psychedelic Retreats
  • Common Spiritual Frameworks at Psychedelic Retreats
  • Where to Find a Secular Psychedelic Retreat

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Chemical Collective or any associated parties.

Introduction

Choosing a psychedelic retreat can be difficult. It’s always recommended to read reviews and get recommendations, as these can indicate a retreat’s commitment to safety, ethics, expertise, comfort, preparation, and integration. But in addition to this, one should know what kind of frameworks the facilitators use when holding ceremonies. At best, the use of certain techniques and spiritual ideas may simply not resonate with you; but at worst, they could ruin the experience. 

In this post, I would like to focus on the idea of secular psychedelic retreats. We could broadly define these as those that offer a ritualised, facilitated group psychedelic session, but which aim to avoid contextualising the session within a particular religious or spiritual belief system. I am particularly interested in the question of whether there are enough secular psychedelic retreats. Many retreats – and here I’m talking about ceremonies outside of a religious tradition, such as the sacramental use of ayahuasca by Indigenous Amazonian groups and ayahuasca churches – do appear to be biased towards certain spiritual ideas.

The point of this post is not to argue that one kind of retreat is better than another, be it on a metaphysical or therapeutic level. Rather, I believe it’s important to examine whether psychedelic retreats currently reflect the plurality of beliefs amongst attendees and would-be attendees.

Many people interested in, seeking out, and attending psychedelic retreats are secular by nature. If the approach of a retreat does not reflect this – which applies to any other belief system, or lack thereof – then this may serve to alienate, confuse, or unsettle attendees. You also don’t want to waste your time and money on a retreat that isn’t suited to you, so it’s best to find out all the details of their approach beforehand.

The Need for Secular Psychedelic Retreats

The number of people identifying as not religious has grown significantly over the last 50 years. Included in this group are ‘Spiritual Nones’, or those who identify as ‘spiritual but not religious. The latter group are characterised by a range of spiritual beliefs and practices. Spiritual Nones may hold certain beliefs that distinguish them from those with secular and naturalistic views, such as a belief in a higher power, a non-traditional conception of God, supernatural forces and entities, and certain aspects of New Age spirituality (e.g. reincarnation and the healing power of crystals). According to one survey, 80% of Spiritual Nones believe in some form of the supernatural.

However, those with a secular, atheistic, and naturalistic outlook can also (meaningfully) identify as spiritual but not religious.

The philosopher Chris Letheby has argued in favour of naturalistic spirituality (that is, spiritual experiences, beliefs, and values without belief in the supernatural). And he uses psychedelics as an exemplar of how a naturalist can be shifted towards a more spiritual life, without changing their metaphysical views.

Drawing on the work of other philosophers, such as Jerome Stone and Thomas Metzinger, Letheby outlines some of the core features of naturalistic spirituality:

  • Enlarging our sense of connection (e.g. becoming more connected to our bodies, senses, feelings, values, self, as well as to other people and the world at large)
  • Aspiring to greater things 
  • Enquiry, or asking the big questions (related to ultimate reality, meaning, or purpose)
  • Breaking through the narrow walls of the ego (or enlarging the self), which is related to increased connection and aspiration

A secular spiritual person may seek out a spiritual experience at a psychedelic retreat but will likely want to avoid places that rely on the supernatural side of spirituality, which may involve concepts like spirits or the divine. Of course, a secular person may end up having encounters with a presence or entity, but this does not necessarily mean they choose to view their experience in supernatural terms. Secular psychedelic retreats would cater to these types of attendees.

These retreats will also appeal to Nones more generally. After all, many people seek out psychedelic retreats for psychological healing and self-exploration. Enhanced spirituality may end up being an unintended consequence of the retreat, but the main motivation behind attendance is nonetheless relief from some type of emotional distress (e.g. depression, grief, anxiety, PTSD, or addiction).

If there is a dearth of secular retreats, then this will ultimately limit secular people’s options for therapeutic psychedelic sessions.

There are also psychonauts who are interested in exploring their minds more deeply but in the context of a ritualised, guided, and supportive psychedelic session. The group setting could be a plus too, as this can add a sense of bonding and social unity. However, psychonauts differ in their philosophical views.

This is why the subreddit r/RationalPsychoanut was created, to attract those who are uncomfortable with the woo-woo and pseudoscience that surrounds much of psychedelic culture. (Some may not like to self-identify as a ‘rational psychonaut’, as this might feel arrogant or dismissive of other worldviews, but the general idea of a rational approach to psychedelics can still be appealing.) If secular psychonauts struggle to find psychedelic retreats that lack woo-woo and New Age ideas, then there is certainly a gap in the market for more secular variations.

Common Spiritual Frameworks at Psychedelic Retreats

A large proportion of psychedelic retreats may centre their ceremonies around certain ideas – often borrowed from Indigenous plant shamanism but other mystical and supernatural worldviews as well – which will not resonate with all attendees. Beliefs in spirits, discarnate entities, Cosmic Consciousness, Divine Reality, the soul, astral travel, chakras, and the afterlife may be commonplace in the psychedelic community, but these are not universal beliefs.

Moreover, even if notions like plant spirits, the spirit world, dark entities, and supernatural abilities exist in Indigenous cultures, this does not mean all retreats should take them on board. Many Western retreat goers do not subscribe to these ideas, nor should they be expected to accept them in order to benefit from psychological healing and self-exploration.

It would also be judgemental to insist that the only ‘authentic’ psychedelic experience is the one most closely aligned with Indigenous belief systems and practices. (See this article from anthropologist Evgenia Fotiou on how the Western obsession with so-called authentic, traditional ayahuasca ceremonies can lead to the fetishisation of Indigenous cultures at best and serious physical or mental dangers at worst.)

Constant references to energies, Gaia, Mother Ayahuasca, or the Divine will simply be off-putting to many people who are interested in using psychedelics in a ceremonial context. Many psychedelic retreats also use techniques, healing modalities, or spiritual practices that secular people may feel are misaligned with their views and preferences. These may include Reiki, energy clearing, and soul retrieval. Retreat facilitators might make pseudoscientific claims as well (such as the ability of ayahuasca to cure certain illnesses). Some people who attend ceremonies are uncomfortable with the supernatural and woo-woo side of psychedelic ceremonies, which makes them wonder where they can find a secular retreat that avoids these ideas.

Where to Find a Secular Psychedelic Retreat

It appears that there aren’t many secular ayahuasca retreats from what I can see. This is understandable, given ayahuasca’s rich history of spiritual use. The ayahuasca experience is also, for many psychonauts, wrapped up inextricably with notions like spirits and Gaia (owing to its tendency to produce ecologically-based insights and visions).

However, many Westerners attend ayahuasca retreats for their therapeutic potential: the healing of emotional pain. It would be a shame if secularised ayahuasca retreats didn’t become more commonplace, given it would attract people who might otherwise give the ceremonial experience a miss. Similarly, many psychedelic retreats offering San Pedro cactus, which contains mescaline, make reference to spiritual concepts such as Grandfather Spirit. I don’t want to make a judgement on such concepts; the point here is that people with secular outlooks should not feel that a cactus ceremony is not for them just because they don’t subscribe to the idea of a distinct spirit connected to the plant. Mescaline is a neglected tool for healing. Its benefits, like those of other psychedelics, do not depend on one’s pre-existing metaphysical beliefs.

Fortunately, secular psychedelic retreats do exist. As a 2022 paper published in Anthropology of Consciousness states:

In addition to ceremonial and clinical approaches, a third and emerging option is that of secular psychedelic retreat centers. These retreats forgo the direct implementation of ritual and spiritual practices as well as psychotherapeutic interventions. Rather, the focus of these retreats is on providing guests with an opportunity to step away from their regular routines and lifestyles to engage in a psychedelic experience that could be healing, transformative, or recreational…These retreats are tailored to individuals looking for social support, a safe environment, and guidance to experience psychedelics.

It seems that there are many more secular psilocybin retreats than there are ones featuring ayahuasca and San Pedro. Legal psilocybin retreats (using either mushrooms or truffles) operate in Jamaica, the Netherlands, and the state of Oregon. Psilocybin mushrooms (as well as other natural psychedelics) have also been decriminalised in a number of US cities, which means that psilocybin retreats can operate without interference from the law.

You might be wondering what a secular psychedelic retreat looks like exactly. Let’s take Odyssey – the first legal psychedelic retreat provider in the US – as an example. This Oregon-based retreat, which offers both private and group psilocybin sessions, takes an evidence-based approach. In other words, they draw on insights from psychedelic clinical trials to help deliver the safest and most beneficial experience for attendees.

This approach includes clinical trial-informed screening and intake, as well as protocols rooted in the scientific literature. They don’t, however, rely on the kinds of spiritual concepts that might be off-putting to secular people. Instead, they refer to research on the therapeutic application of psychedelics and note that their guided psilocybin experiences can offer a range of benefits (which can fit into a naturalistic worldview). These benefits include a renewed zest for life, addressing trauma, overcoming grief, unsticking oneself from deeply entrenched thought patterns, reconnecting to oneself, and self-growth.

Several other secular psychedelic retreats also draw on best practices from clinical trials, such as Synthesis, a legal, professionally-guided psychedelic retreat based in Amsterdam. Like Odyssey, they do not rely on supernatural concepts but instead suggest that psilocybin can offer participants personal growth, emotional breakthroughs, positive change, an increased sense of well-being, increased positive mood, greater connection, and reduced stress and worry.

One might imagine that clinical trials and psychedelic therapy would be entirely secular in nature.

Otherwise, clinical trials could be accused of being biased, and psychedelic therapists might be criticised for not respecting the plurality and diversity of their clients’ beliefs and perhaps even imposing their own metaphysical beliefs onto them. Yet both clinical trials and psychedelic therapists have been accused of not being secular enough.

In their article ‘Moving Past Mysticism in Psychedelic Science’, James W. Sanders and Josjan Zijlmans criticise the classic mystical experience model used in clinical trials, given how it can be associated with supernatural or nonempirical belief systems. The psychedelic researcher Matthew Johnson has also raised concerns about the inappropriate introduction of religious/spiritual beliefs of investigators or clinicians during trials, as well as the commonplace addition of Buddha statues in the session room.

The researcher Ann Mithoefer said at Psychedelic Science 2013 that she had incorporated “Native American tradition” into the MAPS trials of MDMA-assisted therapy. This involved “offer[ing] animal cards or runes”, despite the fact that this is “not part of the protocol”. Her husband – and fellow researcher – Michael Mithoefer stated this can “help with the anxiety.

The idea of ‘inner healing intelligence’ is also commonly applied in MDMA- and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. I wrote a piece with Jules Evans for Ecstatic Integration on this topic. If the concept of an inner healer is taken literally, and imbued with mystical connotations, then this variation and use of it might not sit well with secular clients.

This is not to say that all psychedelic therapists and psychedelic retreats should secularise their approach as much as possible.

I’m all for a diversity of approaches, with the implication being that anyone, regardless of their background beliefs, will be able to find a guided psychedelic session that appeals to them. But what does seem to be an issue in the retreat space, specifically, is a lack of high-quality secular psychedelic retreats.

A large (and growing) number of Westerners aren’t affiliated with any religion, and many in this group are atheists, agnostics, naturalists, or spiritual (but don’t believe in the supernatural). With psychedelic drug laws increasingly being relaxed, new retreat centres should consider whether their centres will appeal to these kinds of clients. This will also be important from a harm reduction standpoint. If people experiencing emotional distress can’t find a psychedelic retreat that resonates with them, then they may be inclined to use psychedelics on their own, perhaps with less attention paid to safety measures, the setting, and emotional support during and after the experience.

Sam Woolfe | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective | www.samwoolfe.com

Sam is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to David via email at blog@chemical-collective.com

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s83qpr
1 month ago

Interesting article

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