Psychedelic Chaplains: In clinical trials, a new form of spiritual guide emerges |

TBC Staff

Moana Meadow was 22 when her grandmother died in a hospital room, sitting up, eyes open, gripping the hands of her family members.

“Her spirit left her body like that. In an instant,” she said. “I wasn’t religious, but her spirit felt like it was hovering in the room for 15 minutes. There was this energy, pulsating. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”

Now, the hospice chaplain is interested in helping people through other transitions — the perceptual changes brought on by psychedelic drugs. “Being with people in altered states of consciousness” can be similar to pivotal moments like marriage, childbirth or death, Meadow said, and she is on a mission to bridge chaplaincy and the work of accompanying people who are under the influence of psychedelics.

“Psychedelic experiences, particularly at higher dosages, can feel like dying,” said Sam Shonkoff, assistant professor of Jewish studies at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. “One can feel as if they’re being born. One can feel a sense of existential rupture. To have a chaplain there, who maybe has a lot of experience with sitting with people who are facing death, that can be really applicable to accompanying people who are having these experiences with psychedelics.”

Since the mid-aughts, a tidal wave of scientific research on psychedelics has flooded academic journals with evidence that these substances may be able to provide relief for everything from smoking addiction to anxiety and depression. These benefits arise at least in part, some psychedelic researchers argue, from the mystical or spiritual encounters the drugs can induce.

As a result, academic institutions across the U.S. are launching training programs in which spiritual practitioners can become qualified psychedelic facilitators, paving the way for a new field of psychedelic chaplaincy.

“Some of the questions psychedelic chaplaincy is bringing to the table are some of the oldest questions of all,” said Shonkoff, who pointed out that Indigenous shamans, medicine women and elders have been doing this work for centuries. But the presence of a psychedelic chaplain on these scientific teams is something new.

Meadow, meanwhile, is program director of a new psychedelic facilitator certification program at the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, aimed at people who are already professionals in spiritual care and health care. Graduates may be eligible to apply for a Psilocybin Facilitator License in Oregon or Colorado, which recently decriminalized psilocybin. Religious professionals would be able to act as psychedelic chaplains in health care or research settings where regulations permit.

“At the program that I’m running at UC Berkeley, there’s a clear value on the spiritual aspects of psychedelic work,” said Meadow. “So we’re attracting chaplains to our training program and promoting their expertise in this field as well.”

At both UC Berkeley and Naropa, the programs emphasize the Indigenous roots of many psychedelic practices, which Shonkoff celebrates. “There has been a tendency in this burgeoning field of psychedelic study to try to talk about the so-called mystical aspects of psychedelics without reference to particular cultural and spiritual traditions that have used these substances,” he said.

As states decriminalize psychedelics, said Ron Cole-Turner, professor emeritus at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary who often writes on theology and psychedelics, recreational, ceremonial and religious uses for psychedelics will likely expand. 

“Give us a decade, and I can’t imagine we won’t have well-established opportunities in multiple parts of the United States, definitely Oregon, very likely Colorado and other places … where there will be open, out, legal and reasonably well-supervised and therefore safe pathways for people who just simply want to see if this enriches their spiritual lives…”

[TBC: "America, the Sorcerer’s New Apprentice [was written] for the purpose of informing biblical Christians about the New Age Movement so that they could witness to their unsaved friends and relatives who were attracted to Eastern Mysticism through New Age teachings and practices. Times have changed. Today, the world and much of Christendom are involved in some form of sorcery, as God’s Word has prophesied. We cannot turn this collective inevitability around. Nevertheless, by God’s grace, we can prayerfully rescue individuals from this strong delusion" (2 Thessalonians:2:11).