Calling attention to a gap in scholarship on bad trips among users of psychedelics, Shea argues in this carefully researched and thoughtful essay that we have much to learn from indigenous communities, and in particular from ayahuasca shamanism in Amazonian societies. The piece was written for Prof. David Presti’s and Patricia Kubala’s Spring 2023 Art of Writing class, “Expanding a Science of Consciousness.”
What a bad trip is, and what they mean for those engaging psychedelics, has once again become increasingly important to understand. In the last century the use of and interest in psychedelics in the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) world has exploded. Psychedelics are hallucinogenic and perception-altering substances that, when consumed, can create strong alterations in consciousness (Nichols, 2016).
In the 1950s and 60s, psychedelics suddenly entered the WEIRD cultural sphere and took a hold on a society that, at large, was ignorant of their potential. What has since resulted is a huge diversity in experiences, much of which is seen as positive. However, a not insignificant number of these experiences are negative, falling somewhere on the range of unpleasant to extremely dangerous.
These negative experiences with psychedelics have become known as “bad trips” and there is still no consensus on why they occur. Guesses have been made that things such as family history of mental illness or “uncontrolled settings” might increase their frequency or severity but the evidence for this is equivocal (Barrett, 2017). And despite the harm that bad trips can incur, clinical research has so far focused on the effectiveness of psychedelics in treating certain psychiatric conditions such as depression (Davis, Barrett, & May, 2020). Because of success stories like these there are many who see the potential for healing that psychedelics possess and have called for their use in mainstream clinical practice.
What has not been adequately considered, however, is the potential for harm that bad trips present. Rachael Petersen, in her article A Theological Reckoning with Bad Trips, describes her experience during a clinical trial of psilocybin where she undergoes what she terms a “grief-tinged cosmic panic attack” as she “rocked back and forth,” stammering, “why? Why why why why why?” (6). Petersen goes on to describe other inescapable negative feelings that persisted for many weeks, including a particularly persistent level of anxiety.
Clinical science has no satisfying answer for experiences like Rachel’s or any reliable way to prevent this harm. Being left unaddressed, the potential for bad trips to cause significant harm is very real, especially if psychedelic-assisted therapy moves beyond clinical trials and into use with the general public—a possibility which is looking increasingly likely. And while the WEIRD world does not possess an answer, there are rich traditions all over the world with a wealth of knowledge involving the use of psychedelics.
These traditions come from indigenous communities, some of which have used psychedelics for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the voices of these communities have long been marginalized in the discussion of these substances. In light of this issue’s increasing importance, learning from these traditions comes with a particular sense of urgency. So the question is: “How do indigenous communities deal with ‘bad trips’?”
Of all of the traditions that involve psychedelic use, ayahuasca shamanism in Amazonian societies is probably the most thoroughly studied by western science. For this reason the focus of this investigation will be on these cultures; however, it is important to acknowledge that the term “indigenous” is not monolithic and no less so when speaking about psychedelic use. Indigenous cultures often refer to wildly different groups, both culturally and geographically, which have very little in common with one another and almost universally have extremely different relationships with psychedelics.
That being said, there are certain Amazonian societies which share similar healing practices involving ayahuasca, a mixture of several plants that produce strong hallucinogenic effects and administered by professionals known as ayahuasqueros, or shamans, in order to facilitate communication with spirits. Despite the relatively large body of research surrounding ayahuasca’s therapeutic potential, there seems to be no information about any explicitly negative experiences—“bad trips”—that occur in indigenous communities.
Clinical research journals and ethnographic accounts alike seem to have no mentions of anything resembling a bad trip. This is surprising. As might be expected, there is a wealth of very well documented accounts of bad trips that occur in WEIRD contexts (take Rachael Petersen’s for one). In light of a near total lack of evidence for bad trips in the communities of interest, there should be a change in the question we are asking. What is contributing to the lack of negative experiences in indigenous Amazonian communities that use ayahuasca?
Several reasons could explain the lack of bad trips. It can be taboo and even dangerous for ayahuasqueros to admit that they have overseen a challenging experience. In some communities, such as the Mindurucú, they are often held responsible for misfortunes that might befall the larger community, and depending on the circumstances this may result in their punishment by death (Fotiou, 2016). This could understandably result in a tendency to underreport bad trips. It could also be that ayahuasqueros are better equipped to assist those consuming ayahuasca in dealing with the almost universally intense experiences that inevitably occur. In these societies ayahuasqueros begin a years-long training process guided by a senior shaman, which involves taking psychedelics, practicing specialized protection rituals, and gaining spiritual allies (Lucas, 2003).
Life-long training and mentorship of these practitioners may lead to a minimization in the amount of bad trips that occur as they are much more prepared for the experiences that might result than Western mental health professionals, who may only be required to have 200 hours of total experience, and no requirement to personally engage with the psychedelics (UC Regents, 2023). The total sum knowledge that a psychedelic-assisted therapy training program could impart to their trainees would also be far less when compared to communities that might have countless generations of collective experience to pull from regarding the use of psychedelics. And despite these compelling explanations, this still does not account for the total absence of bad trips from the literature. At least some reports of negative experiences would undoubtedly still be shared with the West in spite of these barriers.
But a much more profound reason might actually be behind this void in the literature, one that is most apparent in a paper written two decades ago. In the introduction to Inanna: Goddess of Bad Trips, written by Maura Lucas in 2003, there are some rare hints about a very important reason for why there might be a lack of bad trips in indigenous communities. As stated before, much of the literature surrounding psychedelics—and ayahuasca in particular—presents their therapeutic potential first and foremost.
This literature tends to minimize the effects of negative experiences and either implicitly or explicitly conclude that the risks of bad trips are outweighed by their potential to heal. This paper, however, presents a very different narrative. It says that many of the experiences that psychedelics like ayahuasca produce will be unavoidably unpleasant. It is often a painful and difficult path to walk, and those who are most knowledgeable and acquainted with psychedelics, the shamans, might initially refuse the call.
To go down the shamanic path requires knowing the dark corners of the human soul. […] Initiation into knowledge is not only joyful and ecstatic; it is uncomfortable. It requires all of your courage and all of your integrity […] Dealing with the spirit world means encountering harmful forces as well as beautiful and ecstatic ones.” (33)
This rather different conceptualization of what it takes to become a psychedelic practitioner begins to reveal what place bad trips occupy in indigenous spaces: that they don’t exist, at least in the way the West understands them. And when you stop looking for bad trips and start looking for other understandings of these experiences, things begin to make sense. In “this worldview, good and evil are not fixed categories but are relational and highly contextual” (Fotiou, 2016, 163).
“Bad” trips do not exist because psychedelic experiences in indigenous communities are not conceptualized in such binary terms, and for that reason neither do “good” trips exist—because things are often not so clear cut. And for that reason psychedelics in these communities may not often be seen as an opportunity to have a discrete experience, such as to inspire personal growth or to cure illness, and neither do they inspire either joy or dread. Rather, psychedelic experiences are part of a way of life that allows a complex, dynamic, unrestricted, blending of the human world and the spirit world. And when you engage with ayahuasca you are not just engaging with a benevolent world of spirits that will guide you, but also engaging with spirits that will harm you and mislead you. Engaging with ayahuasca is opening yourself up to sorcery. Sorcery might be understood as when the mystical becomes harmful, and sorcery is powerful: it can kill you. But it is understood that this power all comes from the same place: its potential for harm and its potential to heal are often inseparable (Fotiou, 2016).
These communities deal with sorcery by protecting themselves with strict rules for their practitioners and participants. They enlist spirit allies, and they understand that sorcery and psychedelic experience is not something that can be opened up and then put neatly away (Kopenawa & Albert, 2013; Fotiou, 2016; Lucas, 2003). Rules like these are not put in place because of any superstition; they are there to protect you from the harm that sorcery might bring. Experiences with ayahuasca may not even be seen as trips, but rather are part of an ongoing dialogue which requires immense amounts of care, intention, and respect because of their often dangerous nature. “Bad trips” as we know them might just be a first world problem.
Making space for indigenous voices is absolutely imperative if the psychedelics movement wants to avoid countless harmful mistakes over the next few years. This movement has paid lip service to indigenous points of view for decades now, but it cannot learn without truly listening. And centering indigenous voices can only be done if they are taken seriously. For one, what is clear from the research is that sorcery is not metaphorical; it is real, and it is harmful. Engaging with psychedelics can mean engaging with sorcery, and engaging with sorcery means engaging with a world that many in the WEIRD world are completely unprepared to navigate.
Clinical science may claim that they can screen out and prevent negative experience from arising, but this is totally ignorant of any indigenous point of view. How will they protect against spiritual attacks? How will they deal with sorcery? As Davi Kopenawa says in his 2013 book The Falling Sky: The Words of a Yanomami Shaman, “it makes no sense to think that the xapiri [spirits] do not exist on the white people’s land. In this distant place as in our forest, the wind does not blow without a reason and the rain does not fall all by itself. […] Today’s white people know nothing about the xapiri who inhabit their land and they never even think about them. […] The spirits are truly numerous there!” (321).
Whether or not clinical science will admit it, the irrefutable truth is that sorcery will touch every individual that engages with these treatments no matter how much they try to control it and it might just continue to blow up in their faces. Until we realize this, “bad trips” will continue to be an inadequate container for these experiences.
Albert, B., & Kopenawa, D. (2013). The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Harvard University Press.
Anthropology IResearch. (n.d.). Sorcery. Anthropology. Retrieved May 10, 2023, from https://anthropology.iresearchnet.com/sorcery/
Barrett, F. S., Bradstreet, M. P., Leoutsakos, J. M. S., Johnson, M. W., & Griffiths, R. R. (2016). The Challenging Experience Questionnaire: Characterization of challenging experiences with psilocybin mushrooms. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30(12), 1279-1295
Davis, A. K., Barrett, F. S., May, D. G., Cosimano, M. P., Sepeda, N. D., Johnson, M. W., … & Griffiths, R. R. (2021). Effects of psilocybin-assisted therapy on major depressive disorder: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA psychiatry, 78(5), 481-489.
Dos Santos, R. G., Osório, F. L., Crippa, J. A. S., & C. Hallak, J. E. (2017). Anxiety, panic, and hopelessness during and after ritual ayahuasca intake in a woman with generalized anxiety disorder: a case report. Journal of psychedelic studies, 1(1), 35-39
Ens, A. (2021). Silencing indigenous pasts: Critical Indigenous theory and the history of psychedelics. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 34(10), 904-914.
Fotiou, E. (2016). The globalization of ayahuasca shamanism and the erasure of indigenous shamanism. Anthropology of Consciousness, 27(2), 151-179.
Lucas, M. T. (2003). Inanna: goddess of bad trips. ReVision, 25(3), 30-40.
Luna, L. E. (2011). Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca: an overview. The ethnopharmacology of ayahuasca, 2, 01-21.
Nichols, D. E. (2016). Psychedelics. Pharmacological reviews, 68(2), 264-355
Petersen, R. (2022). A Theological Reckoning with ‘Bad Trips’ | Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Harvard Divinity Bulletin.
https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/a-theological-reckoning-with-bad-trips/ UC Regents. (2023). Psychedelic Facilitation Certification Program – UC Berkeley BCSP. The UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics. Retrieved May 10, 2023, from https://psychedelics.berkeley.edu/training
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