I woke up this morning thinking about my 2008 PhD research (Harris). I spent months living on a road protest site and I recalled how bonding that was. And then it dawned on me; I’d missed a fundamental aspect of the research; the power of community. Living together and working to save the land from a road project united us in a deep and powerful way; it created an embodied connection. That brought to mind an online psychedelic integration meeting I was in last week. Over 50 people came together for ten days of psychedelic training and experiences, and one of the key themes that emerged from our first integration meeting was the power of the community we’d created: There were even suggestions that it was more important than the psychedelic experience itself.
A pattern suddenly appeared, like seeing saltwater suddenly crystalize as it reaches a critical point of saturation: the liminal space of protest camps, communitas and millennia of human experience all highlight the power of community. I’d completely missed that in my PhD thesis – written fifteen years ago – because it’s so obvious. It’s like the imaginary fish who doesn’t notice water because it’s all around. While this is an exciting revelation, it’s a huge subject and will slow down work on the book I’m writing on the embodied pathways of connection. For now, I’ll just highlight a few of the threads I’m following.
Community is fundamental to indigenous healing and “the traditional use of psychoactive plants can help to enhance it” (Ona, Berrada & Bouso, 2021). Despite the importance of community for psychedelic work, it’s frequently lacking in recent approaches. Jules Evans said it well: “At the moment, psychedelics offer a very modern sort of religion – long on ‘experience’, short on community. That risks exacerbating the loneliness and isolation that cause a lot of our suffering in the first place” (Evans, 2021).
However, the ACER model of integration created by Ros Watts has community at its heart: “It is this collective aspect that, although proven to be of great benefit to overall wellbeing, is often missing from the Western model of healing” (https://acerintegration.com/). Ros is ahead of the game: She recognized the central role of community early on and made it the foundation of her work. This is a radical move in the Global North, where the psychedelic substance is typically the star of the show.
Maureen O’Hara and John Wood observed some extraordinary experiences in the person-centered ‘conscious communities’ they studied. They found that individual participants often became “deeply attuned to themselves as individual centers of consciousness” and “interpersonally attuned to each other in an ‘I-Thou’ relationship”. Yet at the same time everyone was “attuned to the group as a whole entity”. People tapped into “deeper levels of empathy and intuition”, accessing “extraordinary” levels of perception “that went beyond ordinary Western ways of knowing”. Members of these communities “frequently attained spiritual trance states usually achieved only after decades of meditative practice”. There seems to be the kind of expansion of individual consciousness “beyond individual ego-boundaries” (2005) that I’ve modelled using the cognitive iceberg.
A 2021 research paper on psychedelic communitas concluded that we may need “to question some of the fundamental cultural assumptions from, and into which psychedelic therapies are emerging – so that psychedelic treatments may not merely remain a “chemical holiday” … but instead, foster meaningful connections within relationships and communities” (Kettner, et. al. 2021)
The profound power of community highlights a tension within psychedelic research. The Western psychological approach typically studies an individual’s psychedelic journey in a clinical setting. This is rooted in a psychology “based on the individual as self-contained, as atomic – a self which fashions itself as separate from the other” (Bhatia, 2020).
But this idea is deeply flawed and psychedelic research is widening the cracks. Sometime soon there may be a crisis, a paradigm shift driven by new scientific evidence. The notion of the autonomous individual, so precious to the ideology of the Global North, will become exposed as nothing more than a hollow ideological myth.