New research is exploring whether group sessions with psychedelics can lay the groundwork for building peace.
Personal psychedelic experiences can be profound, with some individuals reporting lasting shifts in perception and empathy which carry through to everyday life. But the impact of collective experiences is less clear.
One Imperial researcher is digging deeper by exploring whether ayahuasca ceremonies in the Middle East, in which participants share a potent psychedelic brew, can have a lasting impact and deepen relations between different groups.
He says his work, published this month in Frontiers in Pharmacology, suggests that profound psychedelic experiences can lead to lasting shifts in perception, helping to bridge long-standing social, political and cultural divides.
Ryan O’Hare spoke to Leor to find out more about the project and the potential psychedelics hold for conflict resolution and long term peace-building.
Q – Your latest research focuses on the experiences of groups who drink ayahuasca together. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
LEOR ROSEMAN: So the project was interviewing Israelis and Palestinians who drink ayahuasca together, and we wanted to see how it affects relational processes.
I teamed up with Antwan Saca, a Palestinian peace activist, and Natalie Ginsberg, who is the Policy and advocacy director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
We wanted to explore the potential role of ayahuasca in shifting attitudes and relations between groups embedded in conflict, or with deep ethnic and political divides, such as the long-running dispute between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.
It's observational research of groups of Israelis and Palestinian – mainly through interviews, but some participatory observation as well.
The idea was to get out of the lab and therapeutic setting – which is usually more intensely personal, private psychedelic experiences – to explore the group process and relational aspects.
This is one of the underlying things which we argue in the paper, which we have just published. I wanted to get away from just talking about the inner spiritual or psychedelic processes and to see how psychedelics affect social elements.
There is a notion that setting and context affect the psychedelic experience. So as we investigated this unique context, we were expecting to see unique experiences influenced by the political environment.
Q – Were these group sessions specifically designed to resolve conflict? Or were they more social and spiritual?
LR: No, they're not purposefully for peace building or conflict resolution, it just happens to be that Israelis and Palestinians are in the same group, and usually Palestinians are a minority in the groups. So it provided an additional level of complexity for study.
The paper focuses on the experiences themselves and not necessarily changes that occur through this process, but what happened during the rituals and the main themes that emerged.
For example, one of the themes we see is what we call a unity-based connection. It’s this idea of psychedelics peeling away identity.
We can compare it to other psychedelic research, where it may be similar to ego dissolution, but here it's like identity dissolution. The idea of a unity of experience, a feeling of oneness, a feeling of togetherness, can be very strong in these moments.
For example, a Palestinian participant from the West Bank reported:
“…when the journey starts, everything just goes into a state of Unity, to the energy that exists between us. We stop viewing each other as you’re Israeli, or you are Palestinian. We stop viewing each other as male or female. We don’t view Muslim [or] Christian, it all melts, like melts down, and dissolves through the journey.”
Q – You mention a deep connection and peeling away identity. Are there any other themes specific to the group setting?
LR: One of the other common aspects we see from the groups is connection based on cultural and religious diversity, which includes a strong recognition of differences between member of the group.
So these ceremonies are participatory, which means that it's not just a facilitator that leads them, people get involved.
There's usually a period in the ceremony where the stage is open for people to bring their own prayers, music, songs or whatever they want to bring. Many times that allows an intercultural exchange through music, in this case music in Hebrew or in Arabic.
Many Israeli participants described how listening to Arabic music for the first time in these ceremonies can create a sense of peace in the ceremony and open-heartedness, so in this altered state of recognition lead to a moment of strong hope.
Like this example of a reaction of a Jewish participant to Arabic singing:
“Suddenly you hear the language you most hated, maybe the only language you really hated, and suddenly it is sending you into love and light, and that's the way it always is. Whatever the song, whatever the words, you melt- that's it that's our peace, to sit and listen to a song in Arabic, that's peace.”
Q – We know ayahuasca is a very powerful psychedelic, so do hallucinations play a part in these experiences?
LR: Yes, so revelations or visions was the third key theme we found in the study.
In this setting, we noticed visions which were related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so they have a kind of political content and are usually triggered because of the context.
These events, which we called ‘conflict-related revelations’, were rarer than the other themes, but they could be very transformative for people and the group when they occur.
For example, on one occasion, a group of Palestinians cried from grief in the ceremony and that affected an Israeli. It triggered for him a ‘vision’ in which he saw himself doing a house arrest as a soldier, and then he saw this whole event again from the side of the family and empathised with their pain and loss. So it's these vivid, highly politically-charged visions.
We had a related example from an Arab-Palestinian man from the West-Bank who saw himself as an Israeli soldier. He said:
“I had this weird experience of being in the body of an Israeli soldier. It was like seconds of experience – the whole experience was the eye coming down to look for shooting and as the trigger is pulled, that’s it, there is no seeing after…I could feel him after, this is painful.”
In another example, there were Palestinian women who saw visions of the bleeding soil, mothers who sacrificed their children, and cycles of war, trauma and conflict on the land. These visions implied the need for transformation of the relation to the land.
Such revelations can create certain change for the individuals who experience them, and to the group of people around them. They create a different awareness of the conflict, and might even lead people to develop a ‘mission’ in life to end the conflict and the occupation.
Q – Could these findings have broader implications, or is there any way this group psychedelic setting could help people to overcome conflict?
LR: It’s an interesting idea and one area we explore in the paper is the potential of working with psychedelics for peace-building.
But in this sense, it's important to remember that peace-building is not just a process of making friendships or creating group harmony, it's also addressing longstanding social and political aspects, so psychedelics could help to achieve that deeper understanding.
If we look at the context of Israel and Palestine, for example, a lot of conflict resolution groups, especially when they're organised by Israelis and regardless of psychedelics, they can be criticised for creating just a sense of momentary harmony and friendship.
Whereas Palestinians may want to join such groups to talk about more structural injustices, like occupation or subjugation, and the need for decolonisation. Creating a momentary harmony between groups may actually create an illusion of equality which prevents real and lasting impact, like attempts for larger liberation and changes to deeper structural inequality.
I would stress that psychedelics are not a solution in themselves, but potentially a tool which could help. They can create a strong group bonding, and they can help groups address conflicting political issues through new insights and revelations which can occur with psychedelics.
Like in psychedelic-assisted therapy, the integration of the experience is crucial. How to integrate insights into action and real life changes.
Such form of psychedelic-assisted peace-building should put emphasis on drawing practical applications from any psychedelic induced insights. Therefore, psychedelic-assisted peace-building should be grounded with sociopolitical awareness, and if it doesn’t it might just create ‘spiritual bypassing’ of political concerns.
Q – What sort of context would lend itself to real world applications – for example, could we see psychedelics playing a part in the political process?
LR: In theory, psychedelics have the potential to bring more empathy and understanding to political processes. This is their potential for creating harmony, connection, and understanding of the other side.
They can also be used to work towards liberation and understanding of systemic concerns. Within the Amazon, ayahuasca has been used by indigenous and mestizo people in reaction towards colonialism, in political ways. Both by creating strong group bonding and identity to resist the colonisers, but also in attempt of building bridges. In many ways, psychedelic use in the west has some political history as well.
Though legality is obviously an issue with the classification of substances, it’s possible to see a future where there's a potential of working with them in such relational processes.
Psychedelics are often seen in the context of personal growth or healing, but within the group context we need to expand this to understand each person in relation to, and part of the collective.
Context is important with ayahuasca, and indeed all psychedelics. If people have group experiences - such as the ones described here - but they are framed through an ‘apolitical’ lens, they may dismiss their experiences or avoid examining any sociopolitical importance or deeper meaning.
So any intentional and impactful psychedelic-assisted peace-building should be grounded in a framework which includes the political context, and that could invite more integration of historical or political events, and moments of recognition and revelation.
In practice, it could be that people who work on collective political issues could potentially use psychedelics for gaining sociopolitical insights and for building bridges.
For instance, leading up to a peace process there is a potential there because the experience itself relates to cultural identity, the history of the conflict or the collective traumas.
It’s not an easy area to broach and there are no easy fixes for conflict resolution and long-term change. We’re not suggesting psychedelics are a quick fix, but some of the elements and experiences we report here may help to shed light on how people relate to one another, and may even lead to deeper understanding and lasting change.
Dr Leor Roseman is a Research Associate in the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.
‘Relational Processes in Ayahuasca Groups of Palestinians and Israelis’ by Leor Roseman et al. is published in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology.
The research was supported by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and Moshe Tov Kreps.
Article text (excluding photos or graphics) © Imperial College London.
Photos and graphics subject to third party copyright used with permission or © Imperial College London.
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