What Is Depth Psychology and How Does It Relate to Psychedelics?

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By Simon Yugler

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

-C.G. Jung

This is the first article in a series called Psychedelics in Depth, in which we will explore the many ways that depth and Jungian psychology intersect with the many multicolored permutations of the psychedelic experience.

Our intention is to provide readers with a foundational understanding of the depth psychological tradition, define important terms like shadow or archetype, and explore how this way of interfacing with the psyche can inform psychedelic work for both facilitators and psychonauts alike.

There is a high likelihood we may encounter a mythical beast or two along the way as well. Thanks for being here. Onwards.


When you think about “psychology,” what images come to mind? A person laying down on a couch, talking about their mother? A man with a thick European accent, cryptically jotting down someone’s dreams? Ink blot tests? Cigars?

Believe it or not, all of these clichés come from the tradition of depth psychology. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who’s work we will examine later, were both depth psychologists. But before we get any further, let’s take the advice given to young Alice during her first bleary steps into Wonderland, and begin at the beginning.

What Is Depth Psychology?

Traditionally, depth psychology was any method of psychoanalytic work which focused on the unconscious. Today, the term “depth” is often used as a shorthand for the various permutations of thought influenced by Carl Jung, which can include everything from mythology, to archetypal astrology, to Internal Family Systems Therapy.

Despite Jung’s enduring association with the term, “depth psychology” was actually coined in the early 20th century by one of his colleagues, the Swiss psychoanalyst Eugen Bleuler, who also coined the term schizophrenia.

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Depth psychology differs from other schools of psychology (behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, etc.) in that it takes the unconscious as the primary driving force on our behaviors and emotions. Because it is itself unconscious, the unconscious cannot be known by our usual, logical, and rational ways of “knowing.”

Therefore, depth psychology employs the use of symbols, images, and metaphors to translate the language of the psyche, which historically was approached through dreams and patterns in mythology. Working with myth is one of the hallmarks of the “depth approach,” and clearly distinguishes this field of psychology from others.

Yet it is important to remember that in depth psychology, symbols and images are always used to describe something “as if,” and not as literal representations. This is one of the most important tenets of depth psychology: Images and symbols are used by the psyche to reference something deeper and likely unknown, yet something that our psyche yearns for us to discover. In true depth psychology, there is always space for the unknown.

The etymological roots of the word psychology can be understood as “the way into” or “the study of the soul.” Depth psychology emphasizes this ineffable notion of the soul, and continually places this unknowable facet of the human experience at its core. What this means in practical terms is a focus on the most important and vexing issues which have accompanied humanity since the dawn of time: birth, death, love, loss, mystery, purpose, growth, decay, and the meaning of it all. The very things which make us human.

Who Is Carl Jung?

Carl Gustav (C.G.) Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist who helped shape psychology into the discipline we know today. His method of understanding the psyche, which he termed analytical psychology, forms what is now popularly called “Jungian psychology.”

For many years, Jung was slated to become Sigmund Freud’s “crowned prince” and protege, but their paths diverged in 1912 over disagreements as to the reality of the “collective unconscious,” which Frued summarily rejected. Jung’s insistence that there is an ancient, unknowable, species-wide repository of psychic information which informs the human experience flew in the face of Freud’s increasingly dogmatic theories, which focused on sex and pleasure as the driving forces behind all human behavior.

This break led Jung into a long period of introspection which he termed his “confrontation with the unconscious,” during which he delved deep into his own psyche and imagination. Eventually, this process resulted in his detailed map and terminology of the psyche, his practice of active imagination, as well as The Red Book, and the recently published, Black Books.

For a more detailed account of Jung’s life and work, readers should refer to his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections.

Jung employed a variety of terms to describe his understanding of the psyche and all of the mysterious dynamics he observed within his patients (especially those suffering from severe schizophrenia), and within himself. Concepts such as the collective unconscious, archetypes, the shadow, anima, synchronicity, individuation, and the Self, are all terms that Jung coined and wrote about extensively. They are also topics we discuss in our course that explores psychedelics and depth psychology, Imagination as Revelation: The Psychedelic Experience in the Light Jungian Psychology.

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Yet again, it bears repeating that these terms are to be understood as mere symbols or points on a map, referring to places or dynamics within the psyche that our conscious mind struggles to grasp. Jung himself said, “Theories in psychology are the very devil. It is true that we need certain points of view for orienting… but they should always be regarded as mere auxiliary concepts that can be laid aside at any time.”

Depth Psychology and Popular Culture

While the mainstream psychological establishment has eschewed the work of Jung for many decades, his legacy informs our collective imagination and culture in profound ways, perhaps more than any other figure in the history of psychology.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell drew deeply from Jung’s work, and based many of his ideas of The Hero’s Journey on Jung’s theories. George Lucas consulted with Campbell while creating Star Wars, arguably one of the most significant film series of all time. The poet Robert Bly mentions Jung throughout his book Iron John, which paved the way for the body of work that is now called “men’s work.” Jungian analyst and author Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her enduring text, Women Who Run With the Wolves, worked directly with Jungian concepts to address aspects of the feminine psyche.

Any reference to “archetypes” or something being “archetypal” plainly invokes Jung and his work on these illusive, yet omnipresent patterns of being. The shadow, or “shadow work,” which has become something of a buzzword in psychedelics in recent years, conjures Jung as well. We have a whole course that examines Jung’s concepts of the shadow, the difference between the “Golden” and “Dark” shadow, and other related issues called, Psychedelics and the Shadow: Exploring the Shadow Side of Psychedelia.

Similarly, Jung also coined the term “synchronicity,” which could be defined as a meaningful coincidence, and was a phenomenon that captivated him for decades. Lastly, any reference to “the collective,” harkens to Jung’s notions of the “collective unconscious,” which is a foundational aspect of his psychological model, and which we’ll address in our next article in this “Psychedelics in Depth” series.

Despite all of these enduring contributions, Jung still remains somewhat of a marginal figure. There are a multitude of reasons for this, a major one being that his theories escape empirical measurement, and eventually lead one outside the rational-materialist worldview we now call “science.” Mention Jung’s name in most mainstream psychology degree programs and the odds are you will be met with skepticism. 

James Hillman, who some say was Jung’s last living direct student, offered this extensive “Defense of Jung,” which you can listen to here.

Subversion and marginality have arguably always been at the core of depth psychology. Dreams themselves exist at the margins of our consciousness, and can often direct our attention to marginal areas of our psyche which we would rather not see. Concepts such as the anima/animus, which imply that every male has inside him a female soul (and vice-versa), directly subverts our culture’s basic understanding of gender. Archetypes reveal to us that our personal life story is not a unique, singular event, but rather, connected to a greater chain of human experiences.

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Lastly, depth psychology’s pervasive insistence on the reality of the soul can be seen as a revolutionary act within a culture that seeks to actively deny the very existence of such a thing. The consequences of this denial can be seen within every great historical, interpersonal, and environmental tragedy perpetrated upon people and the planet across time.

Therefore, the significance of depth psychology extends far beyond the confines of the therapists’ office or the university lecture hall, and stretches out into the old growth forests, indigenous communities, and inner cities across the world.

Depth psychology is not just a school of psychology, but a lens through which to intimately perceive and meaningfully engage with the wider world.

Depth Psychology and Psychedelics

Depth psychology offers an immensely useful framework for approaching psychedelic work, both as a facilitator and a psychonaut. Stanislav Grof, pioneer of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and transpersonal psychology and one of our biggest influences here at Psychedelics Today, described the role that psychedelics play as a psychic “abreactive,” meaning that they bring to the surface whatever unconscious material has the most emotional charge. Seen from this lens, psychedelics, which often work directly with unconscious material, could therefore be seen as part and parcel to the larger field of depth psychology.

Interpreting the variety of imagery and experiences that psychedelics can evoke can easily be aided by a grounding in basic depth psychology, especially understanding the interplay between image, archetypes, and complexes. Facing and integrating one’s shadow is a central aspect of both Jung’s work and using the psychedelic experience for personal growth and healing.

Many worthwhile books have been written on the interplay between psychedelics and depth psychology, including Grof’s body of work, Confrontation with the Unconscious, and much of the work by Ann Shulgin, Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner. Yet the interplay between depth psychology and psychedelics offers immense potential in the realms of research, therapeutic methodology, and integration—more so than I believe has been fully realized.

The history of psychedelic research is almost inseparable from the tradition of depth psychology. Stanislav Grof, mentioned above, as well as other early psychedelic researchers, approached their work from a depth psychological lens. Because of certain cultural shifts over the 20th century, current psychedelic research prioritizes quantitative and statistical analysis which can often overlook the highly personal and emotional aspects of the psychedelic experience.

Yet, depth psychology requires us to return to the real, troublesome, subjective experiences of the individual as its primary territory of work, and for this reason offers one of the most valuable lenses from which to view the psychedelic experience. Because, just like human beings, no two psychedelic journeys are alike, since they are in essence reflections of the multifaceted and endlessly mysterious inner world of the brave souls who dare to explore their own uncharted depths.


About the Author

photo of Simon Yugler, a white man with blond hair and a goatee.

Simon Yugler is a depth and psychedelic integration therapist based in Portland, OR with a masters (MA) in depth counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. Weaving Jungian psychology, Internal Family Systems therapy, and mythology, Simon also draws on his diverse experiences learning from indigenous cultures around the world, including the Shipibo ayahuasca tradition. He has a background in experiential education, and has led immersive international journeys for young adults across 10 countries. He is passionate about initiation, men’s work, indigenous rights, decolonization, and helping his clients explore the liminal wilds of the soul. Find out more on his website and on Instagram , Twitter (@depth_medicine) or Facebook.

Dissociation as Medicine? Exploring Dissociation & Dissociative Psychedelics like Ketamine

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By Rebecca Martinez

How do you draw the line between a healthy escape and a dissociative disorder? And could dissociative psychedelics like ketamine play a part?

We live in a deeply interconnected world. From our ecosystems to our societies, the Earth is made up of living things held in dynamic relationships. We as humans are deeply woven into this fabric. But sometimes, all this connection can be too much to hold. Whether from acute trauma, overstimulation, or constant societal stress, our bodies have built-in intelligence that allows us to dissociate or disconnect from our current experience when we’ve reached our saturation point. 

On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of how we cope with and heal from traumatic experiences has been front of mind. I spoke with somatic practitioner, Claudia Cuentas, MA, MFT, and Psy.D., psychologist, ketamine specialist and founder of KRIYA (Ketamine Research Institute), Raquel Bennett, to discuss the psychology of dissociation, what happens when it becomes a disorder, the healing power of escapism, and where psychedelics like ketamine fit into the conversation. 

Listen to our podcast episode with Raquel Bennett, Properties and Paradigms of Therapeutic Ketamine.

It turns out, dissociation isn’t all bad.

A Term With Many Meanings: What Is Dissociation?

So, what exactly is dissociation? 

Raquel Bennett, who has been studying therapeutic ketamine since 2002 and who teaches the Masterclass on Ketamine in our Navigating Psychedelics for Clinicians and Therapists course, put it this way: “There are different kinds of dissociation or disconnection, including dissociation from your body or bodily sensations; dissociation from your thoughts or awareness; and dissociation from your biographical history, identity, or sense of self.”

Claudia Cuentas explained it another way. “Dissociation is a physiological self protective response, and it is activated when the body feels saturated or overwhelmed by an input or by too much information at once. That information can come from an internal or external stimulus.  Dissociation is our bodies’ ability to remove its attention from the present and take a break, pause and/or, hopefully, recalibrate back into presence. Children do it all the time. That gazing and daydreaming is self-regulating. It is an amazing regulatory system we have.”

While they may look the same from the outside, many experts say that dissociation is different from absent mindedness. Many of us can relate to driving home and not remembering the drive, or checking out during a meeting because we are distracted by something going on in our personal lives. Dissociation is a common experience, and not necessarily a cause for concern. The question is: Is dissociation or the dissociation patterns you have developed to cope with internal/external stressors interrupting your ability to enjoy life?

On top of this, the pressures of modern life can almost be too much to bear at times. We are inundated with unlimited newsfeeds and chaotic information overload in a way that no generation has ever been. What are embodied creatures like us meant to do with the realities of systemic injustice, climate catastrophe, and economic collapse, on top of personal concerns like relationships, mortgages, and health issues? 

In response to these pressures, we’ve normalized a culture of disconnection. Checking out of life may become a habitual way of coping with the strain of daily life: binge watching TV or scrolling on social media. Gaming out. Numbing with drugs or alcohol. Swiping on Tinder. These are activities that put us in passive roles and don’t require our engaged presence or participation. 

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Dissociative Disorders

Tuning out itself isn’t necessarily problematic. When it comes as a response to overstimulation, it serves a purpose and then the person can return to present awareness naturally when they feel ready. However, this disconnection can sometimes happen involuntarily or becomes a default way of moving through life. Often, chronic dissociation comes as a result of acute or ongoing trauma.

For people living with dissociative states, this disconnection from one’s body, mind, emotions or identity can be distressing and have a major impact on relationships and quality of life. They may experience depersonalization (feeling as though they don’t control their body, thoughts or emotions) or derealization (a disruption in one’s perception of reality, as though the world is unreal, hazy or flat). 

Dissociation can show up in a lot of ways: tuning out during a difficult conversation, personality changes, forgetting major memories or stretches of time, difficulty staying present during sex, or feeling unaware of one’s own body. Sometimes these episodes begin in response to overstimulation or an event that triggers traumatic memory or association.

I asked Cuentas how these disorders happen, and how they might be addressed.

“At times, we may feel that life is not that safe or that the present is not that safe. This is especially true when there has not been an ability to heal, digest and process past trauma and understand why an experience was so frightening or difficult. People don’t want to feel present because if they do, they will be overwhelmed by sensations associated with pain, sadness, overwhelm. The body sends a signal to the brain through the nervous system, and the brain and/orr the body disconnect from the present reality. So the mind says, I am going to release attention from the whole system so that you are here… but not here. I am going to keep you safe.. This way, you don’t have to feel the pain you have gone through.”

“Dissociative diagnoses arise when we are using this way of coping as an unconscious default,” she adds. “Sometimes people struggle because they aren’t feeling like themselves. Maybe everything is numb. Or they feel like they are witnessing a facade of somebody else. Most of the time, dissociative diagnoses are connected to intense, deep, unaddressed trauma from very early on stages of life.”

This questionnaire is a useful tool for distinguishing between normal and problematic dissociative experiences. 

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Could Somatic Practices & Dissociative Drugs Like Ketamine Be The Path Back?

According to Cuentas, the way to alleviate dissociative disorders is to increase one’s tolerance over time for sensations that may be uncomfortable or overwhelming, essentially moving through the trauma at a pace that’s comfortable and tolerable to the individual.

“We have to get beyond this self-protection mechanism that kicks in automatically. So how do we decode the experience to relieve the body from the automatic response in order to enjoy the present? If you keep unconsciously self protecting to not feel the pain, then you’re missing everything– joy, love, intimacy, all your senses. You turn off your ability to sense comfortable or uncomfortable experiences, like enjoying a sky full of colors, feeling the softness of your skin, hearing a song and go, ‘wow, I like that’. It’s numbing, and the person may not, at times, even realize.”

Finding pleasurable ways to exist in one’s body is an essential part of processing, healing, and moving through trauma. Many trauma therapists work with a particular focus on the body, known as “somatic” practices. This is essential because, although the mind can check in and out through dissociation, the body carries the load of a lifetime of experiences. Cuentas’ work focuses on the use of embodied approaches, like art, dance, music, drama and storytelling as healing modalities for families and communities.

Psychedelic substances may offer another path to doing this work. Part of the theory around why psychedelics help with trauma is related to capacity building. By promoting states of openness, they create opportunities for people to re-engage with painful or traumatic experiences and form new relationships to these memories.

Psilocybin and MDMA have received the most press in recent years, but ketamine has held a steady role as one of the only legal psychedelics clinicians can currently offer. It’s common to hear people speak about ketamine as a dissociative. I asked Bennett her thoughts on this classification. 

“When you take ketamine, you may be dissociated from your body; in other words, the signals from your sensory input organs may be temporarily muted,” she says. “However, when ketamine is utilized in a physically and psychologically safe setting, people tend to be keenly aware of or connected with their own thoughts and internal images.”

The dissociation felt with ketamine is more physiological than psychological. I asked Cuentas to expand upon this. She explained that, based on a somatic perspective, it seems like ketamine temporarily disconnects the body and the mind, whereas the coping mechanism of dissociation can often disconnect people from their own consciousness as well.

“Seems like Ketamine can turn the body off so the mind doesn’t have to negotiate how to to keep the body safe or what to do with the body’s intense signals of stress, which are common during or after traumatic experiences,” says Cuentas. “So for a period of time, it may not have to navigate the usual intensity and discomfort. If this happens, the mind is released from its usual concerns/stressors, and its attention can possibly concentrate on other sensations or realms of awareness.”

“As the body experiences numbness or dissociation, it is still tracking the experience, but not reacting. When a body is affected by an anesthetic like Ketamine for therapeutic uses, it will put the body in a highly suggestible state,” Cuentas adds. “From a somatic perspective, there is a window of time as a person is coming back to feeling their body again— that is the moment of doing a lot of processing. I believe this is possibly the most effective way to work with ketamine. Whatever happens in this window of reconnection between unconsciousness and consciousness or body awareness, will be recorded in the body. You would have to be intentional because whatever you introduce in that state can have a great impact on your psyche.”


Feeling good is an essential part of our healing.


Returning To Safety From Dissociative Disorders

Dissociation is the human body’s way of trying to achieve safety. As we are unlearning automatic responses that don’t serve us, the need for a sense of safety is still present. How do we develop a sense of safety within ourselves when we can’t guarantee it in our external environment? Therapists refer to resourcing—tools that help people develop a higher tolerance for discomfort. In this way, we can stay in the present moment longer without needing to dissociate.

Especially for people from marginalized communities, creating microcosms of safety, even temporary ones, can be essential practice for dealing with life. These pods of comfort can come from affinity spaces, keeping a close inner circle, getting immersed in something you love, and for some people, exploring altered states. 

In pursuit of safety, a natural response to triggering scenarios is to remove oneself from further harm. However, safety can’t necessarily be achieved in a societal context which is inherently unsafe for many people in our communities. Some people may feel they always have to be shut down or running to escape harm. For these folks, there is an even greater need for networks of support and practical tools that grow the ability to stay present. It can be empowering and freeing to stay present through a practice of pleasure, feeling the body’s sensations, and finding what feels positive and safe in the here and now. 

When Dissociation Can Be a Positive

For those of us not dealing with chronic dissociation, the question to ask is whether we are habitually checking out from the present moment and if so, what shifts in these habits might help us have a more fulfilling quality of life. Perhaps instead of relying on screens or substances to wind down, we could incorporate activities that invite pleasurable presence: music, dance, breath work, meditation, meals, or the company of a loved one. It helps to view this as something to practice, rather than something to be good or bad at.

On the other hand, escapism isn’t always a bad thing. There is agency in choosing when and how to turn off the outside world for a while. In order to absorb the benefits of this freedom, dissociating needs to be something that is consciously chosen, rather than an automatic stress based response. 

In some ways, escapism is a combination of dissociation and resourcing. Tuning out on purpose, or even altering one’s perception, can offer a healthy way to find rest and recovery from the concerns of daily life. It can also help us to remember what it is like to feel good and build capacity for pleasure. Feeling good is an essential part of our healing.

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Grammy nominated singer Jhené Aiko often writes songs about the use of cannabis and psychedelics as medicine. As a mixed race woman of color, she poetically contrasts the peaceful haze of altered states and the harsh realities of the world outside. 

She says it well in her hit, “Tryna Smoke”:

Life’s no fairytale, I know all too well/ Gotta plant the seed sometimes /Then you let it grow

Inhale, exhale some more/ Heaven in Hell/ If you know, you know/ That sh*t is beautiful

You gotta just let it go/ Spark up a blunt and smoke

Similarly, in her song “Bed Peace”, featuring Childish Gambino, she sings:

Yeah, what I am trying to say is/ That love is ours to make so we should make it 

Everything else can wait/ The time is ours to take so we should take it 

We should stay right here/ We should lay right here’Cause everything is okay right here

Conclusion: Dissociation Is Complex

Dissociation is multifaceted. It can signal trauma, offer temporary respite from trauma, and potentially even a path to healing trauma.

Altered states of consciousness, whether from known dissociatives like ketamine, or other substances, give us an opportunity to choose when and how to leave our physical realms and return. They shift our awareness of our spirits, minds and bodies, and often create pleasurable sensations and new insights along the way. 

Cuentas closes our conversation by reminding me that the intentions we bring to these experiences are important. “You are recording information in your subconscious/psyche. So what do you want to put there?” she asks.

We can’t necessarily make the world safer today. So there is power in creating microcosms of the world we are dreaming forward. In creating a practice of pleasure and joy, we’re able to fill our spirits like a well to draw upon during difficult experiences. Perhaps eventually, as these micro-moments of safety and resourcing find their way into our embodied realities, they will spread like mycelium and we will create a world that is less traumatizing to begin with.

RESOURCES

Ketamine risk reduction information from Dance Safe

Firsthand accounts of dissociation

Claudia Cuentas

KRIYA Institute

This article was updated on July 19, 2021 to reflect changes by one of the sources.


Rebecca Martinez is a Xicana writer, parent and community organizer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. She is a co-founder of the Fruiting Bodies Collective, an advocacy group, podcast and multimedia platform addressing the intersections between healing justice and the psychedelics movement. Rebecca served as the Event & Volunteer Coordinator for the successful Measure 109 campaign, an unprecedented state initiative which creates a legal framework for psilocybin therapy in Oregon. She is also the author of Edge Play: Tales From a Quarter Life Crisis, a memoir about psychedelic healing after family trauma, spiritual abuse, and police violence. She serves on the Health Equity Subcommittee for Oregon’s Psilocybin Advisory Board as well as the Board of Advisors for the Plant Medicine Healing Alliance.

Q & A with Keeno Ahmed-Jones: Dismantling the Echo Chamber of the Psychedelic Renaissance

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By Sean Lawlor

Keeno Ahmed-Jones shares her experience trying to instill anti-racism values at a major psychedelics institution, and how difficult it proved to be.

As progressive and inclusive as the psychedelic renaissance purports itself to be, there are continuing issues around understanding, respecting, and making efforts to expand equity and inclusion in psychedelic spaces. Without an honest recognition of how systemic issues are manifesting in the burgeoning psychedelic industry, the psychedelic renaissance will inevitably fail to help our world heal from painful, ongoing social injustices.

In October of 2020, MAPS Canada became the subject of these issues when an Open Letter and Call to Action was published. The authors, Keeno Ahmed-Jones and Ava Daeipour, detailed their efforts to help MAPS Canada implement ethical, socially conscious and culturally sensitive policies and move towards equitable access to psychedelics. These efforts were subsequently obstructed by the organization.

In this interview, we hear from Keeno Ahmed-Jones about her experiences that led to the Open Letter and Call to Action. She shares details of her professional background in education advocacy and policy work, and how it helped inform her endeavors at MAPS Canada.

*Note to reader: This interview took place in March of 2021. In the weeks that followed, a second Open Letter was written addressing further issues with the MAPS Canada board. In the past two months, three members of MAPS Canada’s board have resigned.

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Sean Lawlor: Can you describe how you came to work for MAPS Canada?

Keeno Ahmed-Jones: I moved to Canada in 2018, after being in New York for over 20 years. My professional background is in K-12 and adult education; I’ve worked in public service for a long time, including for major governmental organizations. My first exposure to systemic stratification in the context of educational opportunities was during my tenure at the New York City Department of Education, which, at the time, served 1.2 million school-aged students. I then served for several years advising the Board of Regents and leadership at the New York State Department of Education on programs and policies for adults and out-of-school youth. When I came to Vancouver, my birthplace, I knew of the research that MAPS was doing on MDMA, saw there was a chapter here, and was interested in seeing how I could contribute to their efforts as a volunteer.

Given my background, I started volunteering on the policy committee, but when I saw that they were well situated, I asked if there was a diversity committee. One thing that was very notable to me upon attending the first general volunteer meeting was the lack of people of color in attendance; out of the 40-plus people there, I was one of three in the room from a racialized background. And so, when I found out that there wasn’t an active diversity committee, I started one, which I co-led with another woman, Ava Daeipour, who ended up helping me write the open letter and call to action sent to MAPS Canada. The letter brought into high relief a lot of the issues that I think are endemic not only for MAPS Canada as an organization, but really… you hear the term “psychedelic renaissance” bandied around, and I think that psychedelic renaissance really needs to raise the bar, based on my experiences at least.

SL: Specifically in terms of diversity?

KAJ: Diversity is one element. But beyond that, I think MAPS Canada really had the opportunity to become an exemplar of an organization and, unfortunately, instead of listening to people such as myself trying to inform and educate them on how to become a twenty-first century organization centered on anti-racist values, collective liberation, and the tenets of cultural humility, they really actively resisted that.

I understand their advocacy for psychedelics, but I think there is an essential question that MAPS Canada and other organizations in this space need to ask, which is beyond diversity. “Is the playing field equal?” Every organization, non-profit or not, loves to talk about “corporate social responsibility,” and publicly place those statements front and center, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the gaping inequalities that came to the fore in 2020. The pandemic illuminated a wide chasm that exists between the haves and the have-nots. And the murder of George Floyd compounded that reality into vivid detail for a lot of people that didn’t understand the traumas that people of color have had to endure—and I want to specifically forefront Black and Indigenous folks who have lived under the yoke of that oppression in North America.

But, beyond the logistical hurdles around regulatory frameworks and proselytizing about legalizing psychedelics—and I do understand the passion and advocacy for that—when it comes to eventual access to these novel MDMA and other psychedelic treatments, some key questions need to be answered. Who’s going to be first in line to receive these treatments? Who’s going to be administering them? Who’s going to be doing the integration work? I’ll venture to guess that the clinic up the street from my old office in New York City charging $4000 for a course of ketamine sessions is not within reach for the vast majority of people.

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SL: For folks who are less familiar with the situation, would you be willing to share more about what happened at MAPS Canada, and your experience in the wake of the open letter?

KAJ: I came to my volunteer role from a background where my work was mediated via a policy lens, with a lot of value placed on collaborative and community-based approaches. Gaining diverse perspectives and working within a framework that ensured equity and inclusion was critical because in my work, decisions had the power to materially impact very marginalized people who were already struggling and in need of fierce advocates. And one of the things I came to value through those experiences was being on the ground with people knee-deep in those efforts, including people living those stories of struggle. I find that kind of work not just a calling, but a privilege.

At MAPS Canada, I did not see those conversations happening, frankly—internally or externally. There seemed to be no interest nor engagement. So, one of the things that I started to advocate for early on was introducing a JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) framework, and talking about collective liberation—which were both in various stages of implementation at MAPS in the US, so I thought that both would be relatively easy to adopt. But I was basically told: hold the phone; we are not about collective liberation, and MAPS Canada is not a “save the whales” organization. It was incredible to hear someone actually say that to my face.

After living in New York City, I think I had a bit of a mythologized vision of what life would be like in Canada, to be in a community that I thought had a better, more compassionate understanding of racism and colonialism. And I quickly found that was very much not the case. Rather, it’s been more problematic, because a lot of people are under the delusion that Canada is a post-racial society. Of course, that myth is quickly debunked if you look around, whether that’s at the overrepresentation of Blacks in the prison population, the deplorable treatment of First Nations in the healthcare system, racial inequities in school suspensions, police surveillance, wage inequities, I could go on.

So, while MAPS Canada released quasi-apologetic statements after the open letter came out about having limited staff, and claims about suffering from the affliction of being white with blind spots, and so on [Psychedelics Today tried to find the links to these statements but could not]… a huge part of what occurred, and what is happening across the psychedelic domain, comes down to worldview. It’s a values decision. And, as far as boardrooms of nonprofits and for profits, white voices, most of them male, are what is valued.

And so, instead of true coalition building, stepping down from that pedestal to engage in critical dialogue around equity, access, and reciprocity, there’s a Gollum effect taking place, a sort of metastasizing hunger for the psychedelic gold ring, if you will. There are the pandemic Instagram photos of these same folks in Costa Rica scoping out places for retreat centers, or multinational corporations looking for real estate in the downtown eastside of Vancouver to open for-profit clinics.

Photo provided by Keeno Ahmed-Jones.

SL: Thank you for sharing all that. Once you put out the open letter, was there any change or acknowledgement? I know there was a lot of exposure around it, but do you feel that it was heard?

KAJ: Well, materially, has there been any change? Not to my knowledge. I know that a lot of declarations have been made, not only from MAPS Canada, but other organizations in this space that are adjacent to MAPS Canada. I feel like when an organization goes through a bit of a public relations debacle, like MAPS Canada did, the propensity is to do damage control. And when you have an all-white board, for example, attempts are made to diversify that board. But just because you now have a brown or black face on your board, that doesn’t really mean anything. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

I think there needs to be a radical reimagining of what this “psychedelic renaissance” looks like. Many of these organizations have constructed these top-down, colonial projects with extractive ideologies, have conflicts of interest and undisclosed public/private partnerships, and lack accountability and transparency. Those are major concerns that need to be addressed first and foremost, prior to thinking about whether your organization is diverse enough.

SL: So, the open letter was published in October 2020; what has your focus been? Are you still working in this psychedelic renaissance?

KAJ: I am, and thank you for asking that question. A lot of people have asked me that. I think one of the most brilliant things about the open letter was the support it received from all around the world—including Indigenous activists in Canada, the US, and the Global South. I’ve been in conversation with some of them, including in Canada, who shared their interactions with people in leadership at MAPS before and had less than stellar experiences, and so just did not want to engage.

I do have a project that’s in motion, which I hope to share soon, interwoven with the themes of psychedelics, social justice, mental health, and drug policy.  And I am working with grassroots activists, practitioners, and other bright lights in the space envisioning sustainable models of self-determination and new ethical frameworks.

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SL: I look forward to this project when the time comes to announce it. Last thing I want to ask: As you can probably tell, I am a white person working in the psychedelic field, and I want to keep getting more involved. Looking at the reality that there is a disproportionate amount of white people in this work, what would you suggest white folks in this movement do in order to help change these issues?

KAJ: I love that question and think it’s a good one. Taking the step to educate myself has always been a core tenet of my approach and what I recommend to others. There are so many resources out there on anti-racism. Read books about the colonization and history of the Americas authored by Black and Indigenous authors. Examine issues around white fragility. I think those are solid building blocks.

Being able to sit in that container of self-examination is really important—apart from the psychedelic journeys—because I think a lot of people go to that as a shortcut. But entheogens are not an antidote for racism. MDMA is not some sort of cosmic equalizer.

I think we need to think more holistically about understanding privilege, being in community, and doing a lot of listening. “Why is this space not more diverse?” I think that’s a huge question in these spaces. Why are the people attending these community meetings not representative of this city I live in? Is there something unwelcoming about this space?

I think it has to be a slow, gradual approach. It’s not going to happen overnight. There needs to be trust-building, community-building, and a lot of listening. That really takes time, intention, and effort, and I think it begins with an in-depth examination of privilege. These are deep assumptions and beliefs that people have held onto that have to be challenged.


Psychedelics Today reached out to MAPS Canada for a comment on how the organization has been moving forward since the Open Letters were published and the work (if any) that it is doing to be a more inclusive institution. Their Board Chair, Eesmyal Santos-Brault, provided us with this statement: 

MAPS Canada has made significant changes in the past six months to its leadership, board of directors, governance, accountability reporting, and operational structure, and this work is ongoing. As part of this, we are undertaking the work of creating new codes of conduct, ethics, and practice for all current and future board members, staff, and volunteers. Our current diversity committee, which consists of eight volunteer members (all of whom represent a wide spectrum in terms of age, and self-defined gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background, racial identification, indigeneity, spiritual beliefs, ability, and more) are leading MAPS Canada’s work to articulate and embed our commitment to equity, justice, diversity, inclusion, and reconciliation within the structures of our organization and all that we do, beginning with a new Terms of Reference drafted by the committee in November, 2020. This work is ongoing, and we look forward to sharing our progress in these areas with all stakeholders and the public in the coming weeks and months.


Sean Lawlor

Sean Lawlor is a writer, certified personal trainer, and Masters student in Transpersonal Counseling at Naropa University, in pursuit of a career in psychedelic journalism, research, and therapy. His interest in consciousness and non-ordinary states owes great debt to Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, and Hunter S. Thompson, and his passion for film, literature, and dreaming draws endless inspiration from Carl Jung, David Lynch, and J.K. Rowling. For more information or to get in touch, head to seanplawlor.com, or connect on Instagram @seanplawlor.