People who use psychedelic drugs for entheogenic purposes tend to also have heightened spiritual development, according to new research published in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies. The new findings provide insight into how entheogenic drug use is related to spirituality and psychological well-being.
The term “entheogenic” refers to substances, plants, or practices that can induce altered states of consciousness, spiritual experiences, or mystical insights. The word “entheogenic” is derived from the Greek word “entheos,” which means “god within,” and “genesthai,” which means “to generate.”
Entheogens have been used for centuries by various cultures for religious, shamanic, or healing purposes. Some well-known entheogens include ayahuasca, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, and iboga. These substances are often used in traditional ceremonies or rituals, where they are believed to facilitate a connection with a higher power.
“I am interested in this topic for a number of reasons,” said study author Kevin St. Arnaud, an assistant professor at Concordia University of Edmonton and a licensed psychologist. “I’ve been heavily influenced by the work of the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who noticed that many people in his clinical practice were facing feelings of insignificance, depression, and hopelessness, which he believed were related to ‘spiritual problems.'”
“Jung felt that the emergence of these spiritual problems and existential uncertainty was brought about by the decline of belief in, and practice of, traditional religion. In Jung’s view, traditional religious systems had lost their capacity to provide modern individuals with answers to the ultimate questions we humans face. Instead, Jung argued, we must look within for answers to the spiritual and existential problems to which we are all heirs.”
“Psychedelic drugs have a long tradition of use for spiritual purposes, and my belief is that contemporary societies should be afforded access to substances which can facilitate our direct and personal encounter with the Sacred, unmediated by the dogmas of organized religion. I believe that it is imperative that we reincorporate entheogenic spirituality back into contemporary society in a serious and judicious manner.”
In the new study, participants were recruited through online communities of drug users and religion and spirituality forums and asked to complete an online survey. In total, 1,216 individuals consented to and began the survey, and 684 participants finished the survey and were included in the analyses. The average age of the sample was 25–34 years, and most participants were located in North America.
The survey included questions about the frequency and motivations of drug use, the degree to which participants experience problems stemming from drug use, and the degree to which they reflect on and integrate drug use experiences into daily life. The survey also measured spirituality, meditation practice, trait openness, awe, mystical experiences, psychological distress, satisfaction with life, psychological well-being, and psychospiritual development.
The researchers compared entheogenic drug users with non-entheogenic drug users and non-drug users to assess differences in spiritual seeking, self-transcendence, psychological well-being, and psychospiritual development across these groups.
While some individuals who reported using classic psychedelics reported that it was never or almost never motivated by entheogenic intentions (meaning they did not use the substances for spiritual or religious purposes), the majority of individuals (about 75%) reported that their use was at least sometimes motivated by entheogenic intentions.
Entheogenic classic psychedelic use was not significantly related to age, financial stability, or gender, but it was weakly positively correlated with education. The study also found that individuals who identified as Buddhist or as “spiritual but not religious” were more likely to approach their psychedelic use with entheogenic intentions, while those who identified as having no religion or being neither religious nor spiritual were less likely to do so.
Individuals who used classic psychedelics with entheogenic intentions tended to use these substances moderately and infrequently. They reported using psychedelics 10-19 times in total, with 3-4 uses per year, in both group and solitary contexts, using moderate to large doses, and always reflecting upon and integrating their experiences into daily life. However, some individuals reported negative impacts on psychosocial functioning due to psychedelic use.
The researchers found that entheogenic psychedelic use was correlated with greater spirituality, meditation frequency, and openness to experience. It was also correlated with greater satisfaction with life and psychological well-being.
Furthermore, entheogenic psychedelic use was positively correlated greater psychospiritual development. In other words, those who reported using classic psychedelics with entheogenic intentions were more likely to agree with statements such as “I have the sense I have developed a lot as a person over time,” “I feel that my individual life is a part of a greater whole,” and “The truth I see in other worldviews leads me to reexamine my current views.”
“Psychedelic drugs, when used cautiously, deliberately, and with the proper set and setting, can be used to foster a direct and personal relationship with the Sacred, Holy, or Divine, however conceived,” Arnaud told PsyPost. “This personal relationship may facilitate personal and spiritual growth, and in some cases may help to alleviate psychological or emotional issues.”
“It’s important that we counter the pervasive narrative that drug use is inherently destructive or abusive. Although drug abuse is, of course, a concern, it is also true that various drugs can be used in a responsible manner, and some can provide deeply spiritual and life-affirming experiences.”
While the study sheds important light on the use of psychedelic drugs for entheogenic purposes, the findings come with some caveats. The sample was self-selected and may not be representative of the general population of psychedelic users or of the broader population. Additionally, the study was cross-sectional in nature, which limits the ability to draw conclusions about causal relationships.
“It is very difficult, if not impossible, to conduct experimental studies of psychedelics outside of a strictly clinical context,” Arnaud explained. “As such, this study is cross-sectional and uses survey data. As a result, it’s hard to infer causality. We still need to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between entheogenic psychedelic use and these various beneficial outcomes.
“It could be that entheogenic psychedelic use promotes psychological and spiritual development. Or, it could be that individuals already demonstrating a high degree of psychological and spiritual development choose to use psychedelics with entheogenic intentions. Or perhaps some interaction is going on.”
Despite the limitations of the study and the need for further research to establish causality, the results suggest that entheogenic psychedelic use may be positively related to psychological and spiritual development.
“A medical/therapeutic context does not appear to be required to gain benefits from psychedelic substances, assuming that they are used carefully and with due diligence,” Arnaud told PsyPost. “Of course, these substances are very powerful and can cause harm when used recklessly. We should think of drugs as tools. Take a scalpel, for example. It can be used to maim or even kill, but, on the other hand, can be used to save lives by excising tumors.”
“In the same way, when psychedelics are used carefully and judiciously with a serious, spiritual intention, they may be of spiritual and psychological benefit, even when this use occurs outside of the confines of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. The medical community should not have sole legal access to these substances.”
The study, “Entheogens and spiritual seeking: The quest for self-transcendence, psychological well-being, and psychospiritual growth“, was authored by Kevin O. St. Arnaud and Donald Sharpe.