Psychedelic experience inducing plants have been ingested by humans since the dawn of man—and some experts suggest our exposure to them is directly responsible for our cognitive development that make us so different from the rest of life on earth. Cultures have and continue to embrace the remarkable healing benefits and deeply personal awakenings offered through psychedelic journey medicines such as ayahuasca, ibogaine and psilocybin mushrooms. And research has made some startling discoveries recently in using the modern street drug, MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), commonly known as Ecstasy, in effectively treating Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
To understand the relevance of MDMA's use in treating psychological trauma, we must journey back before plants were drugs and considered criminal, and understood simply as powerful organic healers and windows to the soul—teachers and guides for individuals as well as the collective consciousness of entire tribes.
The Amazonian brew, ayahuasca (eye-ah-wahska), has long been revered by South American cultures. It has inspired invention, art and music, and a respectful embrace of nature and community that has thrived in these traditions for millennia. Ayahuasca's magical life-changing secrets have sent modern Westerners deep into the rainforest to drink this mixture in an effort to treat cancer and other ailments, coming out both physically purged and personally transformed by the intense hallucinatory visions often revealing clarity about their own purpose and spirituality. Likewise, many have journeyed to Africa to ingest Ibogaine with the Bwiti tribe to treat heroin addictions, or sat with Huichol Indians in peyote ceremonies. Even the milder marijuana is now on the verge of being sold alongside over-the-counter meds. It's decriminalized in some parts of the U.S., and sold legally for a number of medical conditions in others, and has long enjoyed legal status in countries like Amsterdam, which boasts some of the lowest drug crime statistics in the world.
The advent of industry led to powerful synthetic chemistry lab knock-off versions of plant medicines, like LSD, which in addition to being the drug of choice for the 1960's "tune in drop out" revolution, was also used throughout the 20th century by the governement and psychological researchers.
MDMA's benefits were discovered by accident. The Merck pharmaceutical company developed the chemical in 1912 in trials for another medication, and it sat virtually untested until 60 years later when MDMA founds its way into the hands of Alexander Shulgin. A former Dow chemist who tested the drug on himself resulting in a euphoric state, a "cleanliness, clarity, and marvelous feeling of solid inner strength," he wrote after his first trip.
After MDMA became illegal and classified as a Schedule 1 drug in 1985, Ecstasy became a popular party drug in the 1980s and 1990s even amidst a reputation of leading to brain and neurological damage (although street Ecstasy is often cut down containing little if any MDMA). But therapists saw another option and began successfully treating veterans and patients who had survived abuse, rapes and other tragedies.
Thousands of practitioners have been using MDMA in underground clinics for decades. But the risks are warranted they say, noting that patients who took MDMA reported feeling more self-respect, compassion and full of love. Rape victims and anorexics with body image issues finally felt comfortable in their skin. Married couples successfully saved relationships by using MDMA to recover buried feelings not felt since honeymoons.
MDMA provides its users with a surge in serotonin and dopamine—the feel-good neurochemicals that reduce our sense of pain, elicit pleasure, happiness and feelings of being in love, without the involuntary hallucinations common in other psychedelic drugs. It temporarily suppresses function of the amygdala, which is responsible for feelings of fear and anxiety. Traumatic memories and apprehensions associated with patients' negative experiences are numbed during an MDMA session. It can also pose great risks, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, difficulty breathing, and if mixed with some antidepressants, it can even lead to death.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies' (MAPS) top priority since the 1980's has been funding clinical trials of MDMA as a therapeutic tool to assist psychotherapy treatment of PTSD and other illnesses. According to their Web site, "Companies cannot profit off of MDMA because it is only administered a limited number of times, unlike most medications for mental illnesses that are taken on a daily basis." Which may be why MAPS is the only organization funding clinical trials of MDMA therapy in the world.
Charles Shaw, author of Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality and director of the companion film project says that a rescheduling of MDMA is likely in the future, "Because of the severity of the veteran [PTSD] problem, and because Israel is already using it successfully."
Though MDMA is being embraced by many therapists, the majority of mainstream psychologists point toward PTSD successfully being treated through behavioral therapies such as Prolonged Exposure in as little as 4 months, and they suggest there is no need for MDMA or other controversial drug treatments. But Shaw says that "MDMA is empathogenic and is very conducive for being guided through emotional traumas by a therapist because participants are more trusting and in a less defensive state so they can achieve a lot in a short session."
And what's happening with patients who use MDMA is consistent with what's been documented by tribal cultures using psychedelic plant medicines for thousands of years. Those feelings of euphoria, love and compassion reported to help individuals process their own traumas also help to reconnect them with people they love, make them generally less stressed, and have healed long-standing physical and psychological ailments, and, perhaps most significantly, it opens them up to those invisible realms of what it means to be a human processing the inherent struggles and joys of simply being alive.
As we see with recent movements in organic agriculture and passion for developing deeper ecological connections experienced through eating locally, growing our own and eliminating processed foods, there are vital lessons to be learned from the earth's medicines too. And even if the portal to do that right now is with a synthesized drug, it perhaps is just a catalyst to a greater web of consciousness connecting humans to themselves, each other and the entire universe in a more organic way. Says, Shaw, " MDMA was given to us for a reason."
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