Psychedelic Therapy For Addiction: A Rite of Passage

Updated: Sep 18, 2018

For centuries, visionary plants like iboga, ayahuasca, peyote and others have helped people attain a sense of identity and purpose, and thereby connect to a meaningful and satisfying way of life. In other words, these ancient plants bring about healing by facilitating rites of passage, and that is exactly what is needed in the treatment of addiction.

Addiction invariably arises out of a frustrated need to transform the experience of life into one that is meaningful and fulfilling; it comes from an urgency to escape the torturous mental narrative that makes us feel as though we don’t belong and aren’t good enough. Rites of passage therefore provide a way out of addiction by generating a complete restructuring of the ego, transforming the way we perceive ourselves and converting this harmful inner narrative into one of self-love and unity with the world around us.

However, simply ingesting a visionary plant or psychedelic does not automatically create a rite of passage, and the communities that have successfully used these substances for so many years are well aware that their healing power is derived from the way that they are integrated into communal life.

Benjamin de Loenen is the founder of the International Centre for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS), an organisation that works to integrate plant medicines like iboga and ayahuasca into Western society. He says that in a traditional iboga healing ceremony in a Bwiti village, “the whole community comes together and supports the person taking iboga through their death and rebirth experience, welcoming them back to the community with a new identity.”

By crossing over to the realm of the ancestors before returning to the land of the living, the initiate comes to understand his or her ancestral connection to the rest of the community, and joins the group in walking a shared spiritual path. This enables a reframing of their entire life history and notion of who they are, transforming the way they experience their presence in the world and removing their sense of isolation and disconnection.

However, psychedelic treatment for addiction often lacks this communal aspect. According to de Loenen, “the idea which has been set is very much that of the quick fix, that you can just take these substances and be cured. But this just isn’t realistic.”

“The experience itself can make you feel better for a while, but it is too individual. Addiction involves a lot of social components and family dynamics, and these problems often continue after treatment which is why people relapse.”

"The experience itself can block withdrawal, reduce craving, provide new insight into ones life-choices, and help people to process the trauma and negative emotions they carry. But if other aspects of drug dependency, like financial issues, problematic family dynamics, lack of purpose in life or a negative home environment are not addressed, the relief will most likely be of temporal nature."

De Loenen says that the rite of passage element - and the social support that comes with it - that is so crucial to Bwiti healing, is lacking in Westen contexts of treating addiction, whereby patients generally turn up at a clinic, undergo an ibogaine treatment and return home, without any community support in the recovery process.

“If we develop more comprehensive approaches to addiction recovery that incorporate bio-psycho-social strategies and potentiate forms of community and family support to people going through these processes, the benefits will be greater and more lasting.” explains De Loenen.

If we in the West are to successfully treat addiction using ibogaine, ayahuasca or other psychedelics, we are first going to have to learn how to use these substances as tools to bind people together, rather than as gateways to individual transcendental experience.