Sacred plant medicine and spirituality. Psychedelic drugs, politics and pain reduction. Psychedelics in Psychotherapy. These are three of the five very serious courses offered by Psychedelic Studies at the University of Ottawa, the first in the country. This micro-program aims to prepare students for a very near future in which these drugs would be common in the treatment of addictions, anxiety, obsessive disorders or depression. And it would also be used for assisted death.
On January 14, Health Canada authorized doctors to request access to psychedelic drugs. The use of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and MDMA (ecstasy) is now legal as emergency treatment for patients who have not responded to traditional approaches. This opening is seen by many as a step towards the legalization of some of these drugs for therapeutic use, confirmed by more and more studies.
Predictable news in the eyes of Anne Vallely, co-founder with Monica Williams of Psychedelic Studies. At the University of Ottawa, these studies bring together psychology, religion, anthropology and neuroscience. The professor of religious studies and an anthropologist by training, interested in altered states of consciousness and mysticism, believes that it is this intertwining of disciplines that allowed the creation of the program.
“In my department, I could not have established this program of psychedelic and spiritual studies; those words are taboo in religious studies,” said Ms.I Vallely, as if that vocabulary implied that pink elephants were studied there.
up to the domain
Spirituality, university taboo? “Yes, believe the professor. It is the collaboration with the Department of Psychology, which brings their “scientific credit”, that makes them accepted. Let’s study archetypes in psychology, shamanism, let’s compare different mysticisms… Some are allergic to these words. »
With students, this new program is, on the contrary, very popular, she continues, and particularly welcomes psychologists and social workers. An upcoming Master’s program, based in the Department of Psychology, will accommodate more students.
Lucia in the sky with diamonds
How to create a program on psychedelics at a university? In her very soft voice and smile, Anne Vallely explains, “I have spent most of my career studying Jainism, that minority tradition in India, which has six million followers, and which, like Buddhism, emphasizes meditation and not violence against living beings. »
For Jains, “the process of dying can be a time of understanding, awakening, realization,awakening : when the body weakens, the eternal soul – “Jiva” – can become stronger. For them, death can be a strong spiritual experience, leading to liberation or a good rebirth. They believe in reincarnation. It can be a time of joy for the dying person and those around them. »
“In our society, it’s completely different,” continues the trained anthropologist. Here, we have the phobia of getting old, the phobia of death. This has a huge impact on how we die. This view contributes to the existential anxiety that most of us take for granted” and which, ultimately, is not the case in all cultures.
Anne Vallely knew this Western fear of death. But the contrast with Jain rites hit her the hardest when, ten years ago, she accompanied her father to unannounced palliative care. “My God! Depression and anxiety were completely normalized there! Everyone was affected by it, because here we are just our bodies and when our bodies break, it’s all over. There’s a lot of additional suffering caused by our society denying the spiritual dimension of life. death,” she said.
“But death remains shrouded in mystery, and we still know very little about consciousness. Recognizing the mystery is a great help to the dying. And psychedelics allow that. That’s why I got interested. »
“There is fascinating research from Johns Hopkins University and New York University where patients with stage 4 (advanced) cancer, who suffered from a lot of anxiety, were given a high dose of psilocybin. The results were exceptional: these substances have the ability to offer these people an experience of transcendence. »
A significant majority of patients in the Johns Hopkins study saw a marked improvement in their anxieties for up to six months after taking a single dose of magic mushrooms. The subjects “reported experiences, under the influence of psychedelics, of the death of their ego, explains M.I Vallely, which is certainly terrifying. They found themselves crushed, destroyed, but still present. Many have completely lost their fear of death during this experience.”
Another aspect that fascinates the professor of religious studies is that, in these studies, “even patients who declared themselves atheists use sacred language to talk about their experience with psychedelic drugs. Some will even say that they had the experience of God. »
“That’s when the subject began to interest me deeply”, continues the researcher. In our society, we will not start going to church, we will not turn to the religious, we are a very secular society, very secular. Perhaps psychedelics are something we can explore to make our relationship with death more serene. »