Psychoactive substances, modern science and therapy – Interview with Dr. Jungaberle

“For me, the core of psychedelic experience is the relativization of the human self, of consciousness, and of the connection with all living things, with nature.”

 

A: Dr. Jungaberle, I am pleased that you took the time for this interview on the occasion of the Congress of the Akademie Heiligenfeld. What significance do the qualities mindfulness, evolution, consciousness, humanity have for you personally and how do you include these areas in your professional fields of action?

B: With this congress, we are in a field in which, among other things, scientific concepts relating to the art of living and lifestyle are examined. That is the difference between the Heiligenfeld conferences and many others. As a human scientist since 2001, I have been very much concerned with how people use psychoactive substances from coffee to the Amazon hallucinogen ayahuasca to get through their lives or develop. This has a lot to do with evolution. Over the last 30 years we have found that many animal species such as frogs, birds, elephants, dolphins and cats use psychoactive substances.

 

A: Can you give an example?

B: Behavioural researchers have found that young dolphins in particular catch pufferfish, milk them and then get into an ecstatic state. After a few hours, they milk the same pufferfish again. There, one discovers a form of use and interaction of different molecules and substances on this planet. Parallels to human behaviour with psychoactive substances can be seen. At the same time, we know little about the consciousness of dolphins. There are also instinctive and basal biological systems oriented qualities related to humans such as social interaction, aggressiveness, attachment and sexuality. This is one of the domains of consciousness changes through psychoactive substances.

In the meantime, several hundred thousand people have drunk a plant extracts that once could only be found in the Amazon Basin, work with this extracts on themselves and experience a therapeutic effect.

 

A: Ayahuasca is also used as an effective therapy for certain traumatic experiences?

B: Exactly. And now it is important that after the worldwide contempt or illegalisation of such substances, the academic systems of universities turn to these areas. There is now high-quality research on the efficacy of these substances. These substances are by no means mechanistic. People can’t get anything into themselves and thus heal their depressions in the sense of a repair or become sustainably more social beings. It depends on the context and the related integration work, which is even more important with Homo Sapiens than with dolphins.

 

A: Probably it also depends on the consciousness and inner development of the therapist who offers this.

B: The Guide. And there we are with the problematic aspects of illegalisation or let’s say marginalisation. Many people associate psychoactive substances with addiction because there are other classes of substances that trigger these processes. That is why it is important that responsible structures, institutions and training for dealing with psychoactive substances should be developed at the social level. Then Western people could use this kind of instrument of consciousness without immediately falling into the clutches of gurus, dubious pseudo shamans and esoteric therapists. Now we have spanned a wide arc. Evolution in my work also means that we don’t just look at people, but understand them as beings in an ecological network.

 

A: What is the scientific approach?

“We are in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance.”

 

B: We are in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance. Psychedelic means: to reveal the spirit. There are now over 30 universities worldwide that are clinically and scientifically researching the basics of this class of substances: These include the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the Imperial College in London and the universities in Zurich and Basel. The Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim cooperates with the MIND Foundation we founded in Berlin. The research interest in psychedelic experience emerged in the 1950s and initially had nothing to do with a youth movement.

We are currently at the beginning of a study that will investigate psilocybin in the treatment of depression. This is the third study of its kind. We want to treat 150 patients with short-term therapy. In this research design, psilocybin is only used once or twice in a therapeutic context in people who already have numerous unsuccessful treatments.

 

A: Are there already first research results?

B: There are already very good research results from America and Great Britain. The American Food and Drug Agency (FDA) has granted psilocybin breakthrough status and released it for a Phase 3 drug trial. The European Medicines Agency, the equivalent of the FDA, has now also approved a European study with psilocybin. We are now also waiting for the approval. Phase 3 means that the therapy will be applied at several different study centres to investigate whether this therapy produces fruit under normal conditions.

 

A: In 2015 you published a book called “Highsein” (Being High), an educational book for young people and adults. For years, we have observed an increase in drug use in everyday life, separate from scientific research. Could the title of the book be seductive and invite people to experience drugs?

B: People do not consume on the basis of a book title. Those who read the book will notice that the chapter “Being High” is about as long as the chapter “Being Down”. Of course, this is not an invitation. We chose the title to make people think. Behind the motivation to be high are human abysses and honourable motives. People often try to be high, to experience a state of lightness, lightheartedness, freedom or enthusiasm in order to repress psychological pain, the unprocessed, the inevitable. This is one side of dealing with substances. I always find it worthwhile to investigate how coffee is handled. A drug is defined as a substance that changes experience and perception. Many people do not perceive coffeine as a drug, although this, as many can confirm, causes withdrawal symptoms, headaches or depressive moods. Caffeine is a stimulant that has a mild antidepressant effect. Many people also seem to consume coffee because of this antidepressant effect, because the given motive to increase performance is no longer scientifically confirmed with regular coffee consumption. People who consume several cups of coffee a day at night are undersupplied with adenosine. Thus, one wakes up in the morning with the need for coffee because one is in coffee withdrawal. This is a homemade withdrawal syndrome that is often attributed to “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep yet, but the coffee wakes me up again”.

 

A: Does green tea also play a role?

B: Similar. The consumption of green tea has a slightly different effect throughout the day. But I would like to answer your question even more clearly. People in our culture have very distorted ideas about these substances. In 1961, the international community reorganised many substances such as opiates, stimulants and cannabis and put bans, the so-called prohibition policy, on a new legal footing. That was wrong.  This form of drug regulation has led, among other things, to illegal laboratories developing a great many new substances. The situation has become more difficult and nobody knows what a comprehensive solution it will be. However, we can assume that the radical police strategies have not been successful. People tend to use psychoactive substances, whether they are banned or allowed. Those who consume such substances are not criminals; their own consumption must be completely decriminalised – as in Portugal.

“Those who consume such substances are not criminals, their own consumption must be completely decriminalised – as in Portugal.”

 

On the other hand, we also have to distinguish between self-treatment and the use of substances in a therapeutic setting. For decades, benzodiazepines and antidepressants have been used by doctors as drugs in psychiatry. Nevertheless, in Germany we have more than 3 million drug addicts who consume drugs in addition to their medical prescription practice. These are desperate people who do not deserve to be dismissed as immoral addicts.

 

A: What has changed in your perception in the last 15 years and also become more extreme? The prescriptions of Ritalin and antidepressants have increased enormously.

It is relatively easy to get a prescription from your physician without being informed what can happen if you take them improperly.

 

B: In the last major WHO report on mental disorders, depression was described as an epidemic worldwide. The danger is very great to individualize this and to “blame” individual people. One sometimes sees it at this congress, where everything is about the consciousness of the individual.

But we are in the midst of a global upheaval that has largely destroyed the cultural conditions under which people have lived for centuries. People today need to be flexible and want to move away from their village or city in order to survive. They lose securities that have been there for a long time. Not that it used to be easier, people have always suffered, but there is a form of speed of change that overwhelms many. The pressure at work has increased, this is measurable, even the expectations at work. Digitalisation has achieved the opposite of what was announced in the 70s and 80s. It didn’t make work any easier, it made it much more complex, much more cognitive. People’s everyday work today increasingly consists of looking at monitors and moving abstract goods back and forth, communication and goods. In many respects, this working practice no longer does justice to the basic human conditions of evolution, our body, being human. Many people react to this with depression and illness, with addiction. Doctors, pharmaceutical companies and university professors should recognise that the substances they have brought to market themselves have become part of the problem.

 

A: In probably all cultures and traditions there was or is an effort to come into contact with altered states of consciousness through ceremonies connected with the intake of certain substances, with the aim of personal and perhaps also social and cultural further development. Do these motives also apply today to people who consume such substances, or is it rather the personal pressure of suffering from which the need arises?

B: May I question your question? Yes, there are traditional societies in which ceremonial ritual forms often prevailed in the consumption of substances. Rarely, however, have traditionally living people taken these substances for personal maturation and development (in the sense of “progress”). These are very new terms from postmodern societies in which individualisation has happened.

 

A: A shaman who now ritualized around a campfire, so to speak…

B: I spent 11 years doing ritual research in a special research area of the German Research Foundation, where we dealt with these questions. Many people have tried to justify the consumption of substances by saying that in all ancient cultures the shaman has always guided something like this. There are, for example, but often in the Amazon tribe the Shipibo consumed only the shaman and not the tribe – or only on very rare occasions. Ayahuasca has been there for at least 1000 years. During initiation rituals from young people to men, for example, the young men should all drink ayahuasca. The boys were terribly afraid of this ayahuasca drink because it was associated with the ancestors, with death and with witchcraft. There are reports that these men were instilled with ayahuasca by force, sometimes even anal. This is far from the romantic notions of a wise man with feathers and rattles performing a sacred act at the edge of a campfire. We must not take the custom of ancient cultures as a model for what we need now. It is interesting to note that ritualization and the social norms that accompany it still have a strong effect. In modern pluralistic societies, such ritualization can no longer be produced. One solution could be for people to come together in institutions such as centres for experiences of consciousness, where the social norms for dealing with such substances are also communicated. But we are much freer to follow such social places or not. These traditional societies were often very brutal societies, where outsiders were also punished with death. So one can learn conditionally from these old cultures, but one should see what is necessary today. Moreover, psychedelic experience that can “reveal the spirit” should not be limited to psychoactive substances. We know today that there are numerous methods such as holotropic breathing, stroboscopic light impulses, simple lying in water in a tank that can produce altered experiences of consciousness. I have written the book “High Being” so that older generations can also talk to the younger ones. The aim of the book is education and prevention. And behind it is not the appeal: Try it all out, but the appeal: Examine yourselves, why do you do it? And if you do, do you achieve your goals with it?

 

“Examine yourselves, why do you do this? And if you do, do you achieve your goals with it?”

A: A man slipped into a schizophrenic psychosis at the age of 40 after years of alcohol and drug abuse. What would you advise from your experience in such a case?

B: So the general way to look at such resumes is to see it as an adaptation disorder: What developmental tasks has this person not solved in his resume? Often there is no identification with the job or there are social difficulties, a lack of development of gender identity, not having found a partner, etc. One can only speculate. But one should not, this is a big mistake, which also many colleagues in the medical and psychotherapeutic field make, who blame drugs for such a derailment. Substances are often used for self-exploration out of curiosity and as self-medication. This sometimes goes wrong.

 

A: Would the MIND Foundation in Berlin be a point of contact?

B: At the moment we are focusing on research. Since the 1970s, no psychedelic therapies have been carried out at German universities. -We will have a phase of at least five years during which patients will initially be treated in university studies. And we are currently concentrating on depression, after which we will probably look at alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety disorders and depression at the end of life.

 

A: You call yourself a prevention practitioner. What do I mean by that?

B: Yes. In 2010, I developed the REBOUND prevention programme together with my research group using European Community funds. REBOUND is a programme that we are currently using in more than 150 German schools. Secondly, we have now developed a version for social work, which deals with youth centres and homes. The 16-session programme for schools is about life skills and also about getting verifiable information about psychoactive substances and starting a critical self-reflection on one’s own consumption of alcohol and cannabis. And last year, the MIND Foundation developed a new program for people who are particularly interested in psychedelic experiences.

 

A: Have you trained teachers as multipliers?

B: Since the German parliament passed the Prevention Act, schools can apply to local health insurance companies for funding for prevention activities. We are a research group that also gets its hands dirty and tries to convey messages in a very practical way right down to the classroom. Often prevention remains on an abstract level. There is catastrophic prevention in many schools, completely unstructured and fragmented in 16 federal states and often the most ineffective concepts are conveyed. There is no system and no courage at the political level to regulate anything here.

 

A: So school does not function as a school for life?

B: Although it is in the curriculum, teachers do not see themselves as lifelong companions. They are often not trained for this and have no time for it in the curriculum stress. In the times of migration, completely new challenges also arise with psychoactive substances, but the problems are much deeper.

 

“In the times of migration, completely new challenges also come with psychoactive substances, but the problems are much deeper.”

 

A: May I ask what was the decisive factor in your personal life to deal with this possibility of consciousness changes and consciousness experiences?

B: Actually, as a child I spontaneously came across this interest in consciousness through an experience of nature in the forest. I grew up in the Black Forest and as a 7-8 year old I had a very intense experience of unity with the forest. The forest as a teacher. And then at the age of 12 I discovered yoga and meditation and started to meditate. It wasn’t until I was 27 that I had my first LSD experience with therapists. I actually came out of the mindfulness meditation corner and to psychedelic experiences.

 

A: This means that there is a foundation in your own development?

B: The foundation is the observation in the process of discipline and has been laid before. This is also an idea or practice that I would like to pass on, even if I am talking about psychedelic experience. I didn’t invent it, many have discovered the connection between mindfulness and psychedelic experience, coming from Buddhist traditions, by the way. There is a very old secret tendency of some Buddhists to experiment with such substances because they manifest the spirit.

 

A: How are the consumption of psychoactive substances, research and mindfulness related? What does this mean for practice?

B: We always have to address the different areas: Therapy, self-treatment, also the celebration and party scene, these are very different social contexts with very different people. In therapy, we teach people basal mindfulness ideas and guide them to practice mindfulness before an experience with a psychoactive substance is even possible. This includes that the different, sometimes chaotic or overwhelming, sometimes biographically long ago trauma-like memories emerge and can be observed with a certain calmness.

These therapeutic episodes, which are to be produced by taking psilocybin once or twice, are embedded in much larger integration training. Part of our team, now formed between the two universities and the MIND Foundation, are supporters of ACT, a third wave behavioural school: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The aim is to develop an attitude with which internal and external processes can be observed without immediately falling into reaction patterns. If a feeling of fear or pressure to fail arises, one should learn not to go straight to the refrigerator and take out the white wine or to react immediately in order to attack oneself or others aggressively, but to accept that all these consciousness phenomena are there. A greater acceptance does not always lead to the symptoms disappearing, but almost always leads to people being able to deal with these symptoms much better.

 

A: This means that this kind of inner observation would be a prerequisite for the psychedelic experience?

B: The relationship is circular. Many psychedelic experiences make people experience for the first time this awareness of “wow, all these inner complex processes are so infinitely wonderful and I don’t have to do everything, things pass by”. Meditation teachers often use the metaphor that the contents of consciousness like clouds pass in front of the observer.

 

A: A kind of inner space of consciousness arises.

B: Exactly, but if you practice this before and after, it is easier to apply this observing posture in psychedelic states as well.

Conversely, the psychedelic experience can increase the interest and motivation for mindfulness practice – mindfulness practice strengthens a positive handling of the psychedelic experience. Of course, as with any psychoactive substance, psychedelics can also be abused. You can abuse coffee, heroin and psychedelics. It always depends on an attentive and also goal- and value-oriented handling of these substances. It is also important to work on the fundamental values that an individual represents and strives for. And it is not uncommon for the real values to be revealed in such episodes of altered states of waking consciousness.

 

A: So also in the sense of an integral model?

B: I have a lively critique of Wilber’s step-by-step model, but a lot of what is said there also makes sense to me. I see development rather as a penetrating juxtaposition with many tendencies towards regression, less as a step-by-step model. Because I don’t believe that there is an automatism of mankind to develop in this direction. I believe that this requires a great effort. It is much more likely that we humans will destroy the planet than that we will save it by leaps of consciousness.

 

A: Does this mean that you are not very hopeful about the future?

We are in 2029, 10 years further, what is your personal vision with regard to the further development of consciousness and also with regard to the field of consciousness research using psychoactive substances?

B: These are two different questions that are interrelated. Not much will have happened in ten years. I hope that Western people, who have the privilege of training consciousness, will pay much more attention to their fellow human beings from other continents and other cultures, because we have developed an esotericism skewer as a negative side effect of a consciousness market. Many of these esoteric skewers practice yoga and meditate from time to time and still buy 15 flights to the Bahamas and Panama. Bringing together ecological action and awareness is a task that we as a society must tackle. Consciousness itself is value-free, neither bad nor good. It depends on the content. It depends on the content. Now to the second question, I believe that psychedelic medicine and therapy can play a role in the treatment and also in the self-awareness of people. I believe that what happens in the ayahuasca scene and in self-awareness groups would be much better accommodated if institutionalized and accompanied by responsible, well-educated people than if people were exposed to chaotic shamans and underground therapists. We are for a legal, safe and evidence-based application in the presence of experts. I believe that the psychedelic spaces of consciousness can make a great contribution to getting out of a mechanical model of being human, to making a connection with all living things. For me, the core of the psychedelic experience is the relativization of the human self, the consciousness and the connection with all living, with nature.

 

“Bringing together ecological action and consciousness is a task that we as a society must tackle.”

 

A: That was a beautiful conclusion. Thank you for the informative and open discussion.

More information:

MIND Foundation: https://mind-foundation.org

FINDER Akademie: https://finder-akademie.de

Interview done by Patricia Lüning-Klemm

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