Menacing spider shadow

Spiritual healing: how not bypass?

Our coach Mia Ganda goes through the concept of spiritual healing and focuses on the Spiritual Bypass topic. “…it is not that setting out on a spiritual path clears up all psychological problems.” — Brant Cortright.

I came to this conclusion personally. After I almost jumped from a boat into a very likely piranha-infested tributary of the Amazon River, in the midst of the Peruvian rainforest. Subsequently having crashed into the river’s embankment, we picked up an additional passenger. A hairy, hand-sized, black tarantula, stood in sharp contrast to the man’s white polo shirt, whose shoulder it was now sitting on. Not only was I terrified, but I also sobered.

…it is not that setting out on a spiritual path clears up all psychological problems.” — Brant Cortright


The multiple shamanic healing ceremonies had not cured the arachnophobia. Despite the fact that several specimens appeared throughout the traditional curing rituals. And notwithstanding the fact that I was certain I had addressed, worked through and thereby eliminated my fear.

Before illustrating this process of deep enquiry and spiritual healing further, a short remark on phobia. It is a fear that feels disproportionally more substantial than the threat that triggered it in the first place.

For those readers utterly unaffected by arachnids, feel free to substitute spiders with snakes, flying, the dark, public speaking, intimacy, heights, abandonment, rejection, death or anything other that sends your heartbeat racing and stifles you with terror.

In the preceding days of the boat incident, at the Shipibo Healing Centre, I had actually encountered dozens of spiders, or what I now prefer to call ‘spider spirits’. Dozens of these eight-legged animals approached me, crawled on top of me and even inside me.

Lastly, I had actually turned into a tarantula myself. Standing in front of myself on my now eight legs, looking up at myself (the human) through my now four pairs of eyes, “feeling” utter puzzlement, as to how I (the human) could possibly be so afraid of myself (the spider) since the mere size difference between us spoke volumes against it. “Impossible!…Turning into a spider…” you may think. Well, in the shamanic world, nothing really is.

Hallucinogenic healing limitations

Fear, of course, is irrational and going through this experience during my third shamanic healing ceremony depicted my personal nightmare. It was terrifying to the point of wanting to pass out, simply so that the hallucinogenic journey would end. I did not lose consciousness. Curled up on my mat, in the middle of the rainforest, the Ikaros (healing songs) of the shamans sounded distant. Even though they sat right next to me. I surrendered to the frightening experience and looked my trepidation straight in the face.

Allowing this process, so I felt assured, would help me to let go of this phobia. It enabled me to establish a fundamentally different relationship towards spiders. Instead of emotions of terror, would be based on understanding, compassion and the feeling of love.

According to clinical psychologist Brant Cortright, who includes a spiritual perspective in his work, hallucinogenic healing has certain limitations with regard to its effects on psychological healing.

State Dependent Learning

Firstly, the concept of state-dependent learning should be mentioned.

Learning in this context encompasses emotional and intellectual memory.

In an experiment during which rats under the influence of consciousness-altering drugs such as LSD, cocaine or alcohol had learned to navigate a maze, failed to run it, once the effects of the drugs had worn off. Yet, the rats managed to remember how to navigate the maze perfectly well again, once they were under the influence of the aforementioned drugs. (Cortright, 1997)

Whilst under the effect of the traditional plant medicine ayahuasca, I felt emotionally equipped to tolerate numerous spiders Not only in my immediate environment but also actually crawling on top of me.

When during the experience I turned into a spider, I had the realization that we (the spider and I, and in fact every other creature in the universe) ultimately were infused with the same spirit. And there was not really anything to be afraid of.

Cortright explains whilst there might be profound understanding, which appears life-changing throughout a hallucinogenic experience, this insight does not naturally translate into respectively adjusted behaviour in normal states of consciousness. (Cortright, 1997)

Hence, my urge to immediately jump ship, on that boat, a couple of days later.

Psychological expansion

Several sources suggest that whilst not a panacea, altered states of consciousness can indeed be beneficial in accelerating the emotional learning or rather healing process within the psychotherapeutic environment.

Having experienced the psychotherapeutic environment both as a client subsequently to a shamanic healing retreat and as a coach to people, who had recently returned from their shamanic healing experiences; the tremendous benefits and immense potential in realizing psychological expansion became obvious to me on numerous accounts.

The crucial element of reaping the betterment appears to be proper integration after the experience though. And several tools remain at our disposal to do so.

Yet, it also helps to have awareness of some of the constraints, psychedelic healing poses.

Ego Bypass Instead of Personality Growth

A second restriction of psychedelic healing, with regards to psychological improvement, is that the drugs allow bypassing of the ego and its defence mechanisms.

An essential milestone within the science of psychology was Freud’s premise of the ego’s defence mechanisms.

Accordingly the ego, in an unconscious process, applies a set of tools (i.e. denial, suppression, projection). Which ensures that overwhelmingly upsetting emotions or thoughts are averted. This in turn allows us to navigate our day-to-day, without feeling in constant crisis mode.

On one side, Freud was able to link psychological disorders in persons to disturbing thoughts or emotions. On the other side, he inferred that working with those suppressed thoughts and feelings held the potential for psychological healing. (Vaillant, 1992)

In my hallucinogenic state, I was able to access a traumatic experience I had in a pet shop, as a seven-year-old, which I had long forgotten. Too small to see what the older kids were gushing about, upon being lifted up, I suddenly came eye to eye with my first tarantula. Being up close and only separated by the glass of the terrarium it was sitting against, the sight of the animal shook me to the core. I tried to wiggle myself out of the hands that held me up close against the glass, a probably perfectly natural reaction. But without success and to the utter bemusement of the person holding me up.

Dealing with the ego

As stated above the consciousness-expanding experience allows a person to circumvent the defence mechanisms of the ego. And henceforth to access the original uncomfortable sentiment.

Dealing with ego is an essential part of bringing about psychological growth though. Consequently, when it is blocked during the hallucinogenic experience, most of the psychological growth process is excluded. (Cortright, 1997)

Whilst under the influence of the traditional healing brew, I was able to access and feel the emotions of the initial spider experience with full force. And therefore realized that at no point a real threat was posed. Once my ego defence was functional again, I fell into old fear structures.

In order to allow the ego to grow and mature, it is imperative to continuously work with the insights gained during the shamanic ceremony. Ego growth in this instance does not imply an over-identification of the self with the ego but auspicious psychological development.

Spiritual Emergence

A further form of eluding psychological growth aside from the bypassing of the ego is called spiritual bypass.

Shamanic healing ceremonies that include working with hallucinogenic plant medicines can lead to abrupt spiritual emergence.

What oftentimes is a gradual development of slowly integrating spiritual awareness into the “normal” state of consciousness, through a steady practice of meditation, prayer and other contemplative methods, can be infinitely accelerated through psychedelic drugs. And can bring about a sudden and vigorous shift in access to spiritual consciousness.

I had the most profound episode of spiritual emergence during my second to last healing ritual, in my time in Peru. Whilst, before that moment I had already experienced gradual states of unity and connection with my surrounding, this particular evening was a complete game changer. Being naturally prone to doubting spiritual phenomena and having a tendency to intellectualise the unexplainable (as really I’m doing by writing this article), the ability to turn into and properly sense like a spider, a couple of nights earlier, already seemed close to the edge.

“I” could be everything or nothing at the same time

That, however, was only a foretaste to the full-blown ego dissolution that I participated in during the aforementioned shamanic healing ceremony. Nothing of my ‘Self’ remained. And as frequently described by people who had similar experiences, our notion of language does not suffice for the attempt to paint a picture of what had actually happened that night.

It was an ineffable experience of pure, universal consciousness. “I” could be everything or nothing at the same time. When in fact there was not even such a concept as time.

There seemed an utterly positive and especially peaceful quality to this state. Underlying all of this was a strong presence of what I cannot shirk but describe as the energy of love. It was overwhelmingly beautiful.

In the days following this particular ritual, I carried a sense of peace, trust, respect, and staggering gratitude for forming part of creation.

Whichever issues I had come to the Peruvian jungle with to work on, the fear of spiders being one of them appeared utterly petty against the backdrop of having gone through the experience of absolute unity.

As a psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom notes: “If we climb high enough, we will reach a height from which tragedy ceases to look tragic.”

Likewise, if we broaden our perspective and view spiritual emergence against the backdrop of karmic concepts, for instance, purification through spiritual emergence at the momentary cost of psychological health can be considered the ultimate goal. Paying karmic debt on the spiritual level at the expense of temporary detrimental psychological health might appear a sacrifice worthwhile taking. However, how can we know karmic forces exist for sure and that we will be rewarded for our current suffering in the next lifetime?

and spiritual bypass

The massive influx of spiritual energy might be beneficial on the spiritual level. But this does not necessarily translate into immediate psychological benefits. In fact, the process can be extremely overwhelming and unsettle psychological functions, possibly fragmenting the self. ( Cortright, 1997)

In my case, upon returning to London, I flat-out refused to address any of the topics I had brought to the jungle with me, to work on. I definitely preferred to explore the exquisite worlds of inner visions and vast emptiness through vigorous meditation practice. Rather than coming to terms with some of the uncomfortable realities, or joys of living in a material world.

Admittedly, meditation and especially yoga did help to transition back from the Peruvian into the urban jungle. And by and large, I am a great advocate of meditation practices, yet everything is in moderation.

Reactions to profound spiritual emergence vary. Some people for instance following a transcendental experience become enamoured with realizing they have distinct spiritual powers. And might then suffer from temporary ego inflation.

In spiritual bypassing, a person resolves to defence mechanisms rather than addressing psychological unpleasantries that have been brought up through the shamanic healing process. Embarking on the process of developing a healthier version of the self is secondary. And it appears far more preferable to poodle around in the spiritual realms ( Cortright, 1997).

Common spiritual bypass and avoidance tactics are:

  • Strict focus on the “here and now”. And thereby not allowing to transform the relationship from a negatively charged situation of the past into an integrated experience that carries an attitude of acceptance and psychological growth as fundament.
  • Unwillingness to express anger (even when appropriate) out of perceived compassion for others. Rather than feeling, acknowledging and accurately expressing it, anger is suppressed and festers.
  • A disproportional attitude of forgiveness. Forgiving persons without having worked through uncomfortable feelings of pain, anger, shame, and guilt can be a form of denial and detachment.
  • Detachment from people and materialistic things can be disassociation in disguise. A person might not be willing to own up to their true needs or have fear of intimacy.
  • Focus on being of service to others, whilst neglecting one’s own personal needs.
  • Overemphasis on the teaching of a situation. As opposed to allowing and experiencing and thus processing an uncomfortable moment, whilst it is taking place. (Cortright, 1997)

Recognizing some of the common tactics of a spiritual bypass is important in order to make the most of any form of spiritual ritual that brings about rapid spiritual emergence.

Acknowledging the ploys of avoidance can help guide a person towards a higher level of both spiritual and psychological integration. And ultimately allows us to get on with our lives.

Taking Action

“The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.”-Oscar Wilde

A common phenomenon, when working with traditional plant medicines, is a shift in perspective with regard to one’s purpose.

I felt a deep sense of connection with my surroundings. At some point, I had a vision of a future human society, technologically highly advanced and with people living in perfect harmony with each other and the global ecosystems. Having experienced this place so clearly, my immediate sense was that I wanted to contribute.

However, upon returning to London, rather than enthusiastically beginning to take steps towards creating a better world, I initially felt stuck and did not know where to begin. What I saw in my utopian vision could not possibly be achieved during my lifetime. And trying to take even the smallest action, felt overwhelmingly discouraging and pale in comparison.

Although shamanic healing rituals often provide very clear insights as to which actions need to be taken by a person, people frequently struggle to implement their visions. They thus remain a fantasy that is not grounded in reality. Attempting to remove the alleged barriers that stand between them and pursuing their dreams, people therefore oftentimes return to participate in further healing ceremonies. And this well before having integrated the lessons of their last ones. In this way, they perpetuate the paralysis of not taking action in the material realm. And thereby forfeit grounding their insights in the physical world.

Altered States

Lastly, in relation to hallucinogenic healing, it is worth remembering that when working with state-altering drugs, the state is indeed altered.

What might seem blatantly obvious is easily forgotten in the post-ceremonial retreat glow.

The psychiatrist Stanislav Grof one of the pioneers with regards to linking psychological healing to altered states of consciousness stated “…that psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and medicine or the telescope is for astronomy.”

Whereas under the influence of hallucinogenic substances, it might appear to a person that the whole truth is being revealed. Especially when going through an episode of unitive consciousness. However, it has not yet been established whether that is indeed the case. Psychedelics provides but one lens through which we can experience the world.

We do not know yet, why certain parts of consciousness are being highlighted during the healing experience. Whereas others might be obscured. (Cortright, 1997)

Spiritual bypass – Verdict

Viewing spiritual healing ceremonies against the backdrop of psychological healing is important. However, a psychologicalisation of spirituality should not be in the foreground.

In his volume The Spectrum of Consciousness, Ken Wilber opens with the following quote by Frithjof Schoun: “There is no science of the soul without a metaphysical basis to it and without spiritual remedies at its disposal.”

In my view, Shamanic plant healing ceremonies do provide valuable spiritual remedies and an opportunity for psychological growth. However, we should be aware of possible psychological pitfalls along the way. And whenever possible counteract those with proper integration work. Thus allowing us to experience our physical existence courageously and wholeheartedly.

Since the ego structures throughout hallucinogenic experiences are relatively weak, persons are reasonably prone to be influenced by others. Those during and in the aftermath of the experience.

This psychedelic-induced suggestibility was traditionally used to pass along cultural values through initiation rites and thereby strengthen group cohesion. In that respect, elders in indigenous cultures played a significant role in managing and regulating transcendental experiences. (Dobkin de Rios, 2009)

Today regulation and management in the aftermath of the traditional healing rituals seldom is an inherent feature of the healing services provided.

Braking up old patterns and ego structures as part of shamanic healing rituals can be a frightening process. But on a psychological level, it provides an opportunity to come to terms with essential parts of the self that might previously have been neglected.

Whilst the spiritual infusion did not turn out to be an immediate antidote to the existential uncertainties of life I have been worrying about and did not cure my anxiety around spiders. The traditional rituals and ongoing integration did provide a more meaningful perspective on life, as well as a greater sense of purpose.

In today’s Life

Determined to create little aspects of the idealistic world I experienced in my vision, I still draw on the insights and actively work with some of the elements, yielded from my time in the Peruvian jungle.

And the spiders? A few months after I returned to London, I came eye to eye with Tarantula Kate at London Zoo’s Friendly Spider Programme. She was soft like a kitten and incredibly alluring. Who knows, perhaps the Peruvian spider spirits did prepare me for this delightful encounter after all.

If you’re curious about integrating spiritual experiences, you can browse our community of coaches and find someone who can help you find a better perspective to integrate your psychedelic experience fully.

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