Mainstreaming Mysticism: Ketamine-Assisted Therapy and Noetic Experiences

April 26, 2024
IONS Communications Team

We’re experiencing a mental health crisis – and the uncertainty in the world doesn’t make things better. Allopathic medicine can be a slow and not always efficient route to treating mental health issues. 

That’s why people are looking for alternative, unconventional ways of dealing with this widespread epidemic. 

One such path is psychedelics. While psilocybin has been under the radar lately, a lesser-known option is ketamine. Ketamine is not a traditional psychedelic but counts as a dissociative anesthetic. In the right dose, the effects are gentler than those of a standard dose of psilocybin or ayahuasca. Ketamine therapy is legal in clinical settings.

IONS hosted a ConnectIONS Live on ketamine-assisted therapy and the associated noetic experiences. All our past ConnectIONS Live recordings are available anytime to members. Watch Mainstreaming Mysticism: Ketamine-Assisted Therapy and Noetic Experiences now!  

The speaker for this webinar was IONS Fellow Michael Sapiro, PsyD. He’s a Zen Buddhist monk and poet, clinical psychologist, psychedelic psychotherapist, transformational coach, writer, meditation teacher and researcher. Michael Sapiro is the integrative psychologist at the Boise Ketamine Clinic where he offers Ketamine-Assisted Psychotherapy sessions. Besides his treatments at the clinic, his main focus is on first responders, special operations veterans, and those in the intelligence community.  

Ketamine as a bridge between mysticism and medicine

At the beginning of the webinar, Michael explains that everything he does is centered around bridging the gap between mysticism and medicine. He mentions how the universe lives through us and explores itself through our consciousness.  He also believes that the true medicines are unconditional love and truth.

That’s why, when we slow down, we are infused with a sense of mystery and peace. When our nervous system relaxes, we can sense this omnipresent connection to what we are at the most fundamental level – and that is healing in itself.

This is a part of why psychedelics can be so transformative. Rightly used, these substances allow us to experience a sense of wholeness, of being unbroken, that is not intellectual but purely noetic. Psychedelics can open us up to the universe and bring us ease, peace, and joy from within. 

Michael goes on to explain that he has been fascinated by psychedelics and their effect since his teenage years. He experimented with LSD during math classes, and organized sittings for his peers when he was 15-17 years old guiding them to connect with their essence. 

Now, he has moved on to work with firefighters, policemen, and Navy SEALs to help them work through chronic exposure to traumatic incidents. 

Why ketamine works

Ketamine reduces nervous system agitation so much that a person can finally feel safe. That’s how it can catalyze post-traumatic healing.

Now, you may think that there are other, drug-free ways of reaching a relaxed state of mind – such as yoga and meditation. Michael makes a point of not discounting those options. He also stresses that ketamine therapy is not for everyone – there are a few important contra-indications. 

But he also explains (around the 14:45 mark) why it can be more efficient than traditional talk therapy or other options:

After a traumatic event, the body and mind respond to everything as potentially dangerous. That’s why it can be hard to work with people who have experienced trauma – the lion’s share of the session goes to relaxing the nervous system and feeling safe enough to open up. And when that state is reached, there’s usually little time left to actually process the events. 

He mentions how his teacher uses Yoga Nidra to reach a relaxed, ketamine-like state but that it’s hard to remain in that space after the meditation. He shares that after one of his ketamine sessions, he managed to stay anxiety-free for 3 weeks after the treatment – which felt miraculous. That said, Michael points to yoga, dance, and tai chi as methods to integrate a ketamine session.

Michael goes on to explain that his own experimentation with ketamine allowed him not to have an exaggerated response to everything. He was raised to use big emotional expressions to get attention, and claims that it feels very calming to have released those emotional extremes. 

Ketamine: A brief history

Around 17 minutes in, he explains how ketamine was discovered in the late 1950s as a sedative used in veterinary medicine. Later on, it started to be used as an anesthetic for humans. The potential healing effects weren’t known. 

That’s when things got interesting: Doctors found that patients who were put under ketamine had strange psychedelic experiences. These were considered unwanted side effects. People reported that after surgery, they experienced mood improvement, decreased depression and anxiety, and increased overall well-being. 

Researchers started to gain interest in ketamine for healing trauma, depression, and suicidal thoughts. But it wasn’t until 2016 that modern medicine began to realize that psychedelic experiences are fundamental for healing.

It is getting increasingly accepted that the psychedelic or mystical experience is not an undesired side effect of these compounds, but it is the very thing that triggers healing. This is where mysticism starts weaving into medicine. 

Beyond the supraliminal

Around 21 minutes in, we’re shown an image of the different layers of the human psyche. The “tip of the iceberg” is the supraliminal. This is our personalities, our personal lives, the space where we experience others as different from ourselves. The supraliminal is grounded on the idea of separation: I am different from you. 

Traditional talk therapy happens on the supraliminal level. That’s why Michael Sapiro no longer focuses solely on talk therapy – it doesn’t reach the depths where true healing and transformation can take place. 

The subliminal is the layer below the “surface” of the iceberg, behind the veil. It represents a sort of shared consciousness with archetypes, images, symbols, and metaphors that have a universal meaning and are deeply embedded within the universe itself. It also comprises spirits, our ancestors, and material from the multiverse.

We can access this space through our consciousness when we go beyond the superficial – this happens in noetic experiences. An example of this could be when we dream: we may find ourselves in a space where the lines between “me” and humanity blur. 

In ketamine therapy, we can leverage the subliminal layer to connect the dots. It allows us to peek behind the veil and realize, “I have this trauma; here’s how it affects my life and relationships.” Psychologically, at the subliminal level, the default mode network is so deactivated that your ego loses control, and all underlying material can rise up. 

Ketamine-assisted therapy

The deepest level is what Michael Sapiro refers to as the “common ground,” or formlessness. This is the source field itself from which everything arises and returns. This is also the space where a so-called ego dissolution or ego death can happen. 

In this space, there is nothing to heal – you are already whole. The common ground is a non-dual, ever-present field of love and well-being. This space cannot be described intellectually – it must be experienced, and a way to experience it is through psychedelic compounds like ketamine.

How to work with ketamine in therapy

Around 26:40 into the video, Michael Sapiro talks about the importance of dosage. Participants need the right dose of ketamine to go over the edge into the psychedelic space – but still be conscious enough to work with him. 

He goes on to say there are three ways to work with ketamine therapeutically: 

  1. The medical model: In this context, out-of-body experiences are considered bad. This type of experience has no element of guidance, but lets the medicine act on its own. However, it is possible to achieve positive changes even in this model.
  2. With a therapist: This model is called ketamine-assisted therapy (KAT). A guide is present to help you relax, let go, and enter deeper into the experience. That said, the role of the guide is more to create safety than to guide the experience.
  3. Ketamine-assisted psychotherapy (KAP): This is the model Michael Sapiro uses. In this model, he helps people through therapeutic work during the experience. The participant gets support in interpreting the symbols and visions in real time. They are also guided to explore what happens in their body and mind as it relates to different areas: their parents, money, and whatever they want to work through.

In all cases, Michael recommends working with a clinic that knows about dosing. Too little can lead to a lack of depth and transformation; too much to a complete ego death, and a space where participants are unable to hold a conversation and navigate their inner world in a constructive way.

Michael Sapiro also discusses the importance of multiple sessions to achieve the desired transformation. The first session is about getting used to the psychedelic space and having someone guiding you. 

During the second or third session, participants often relax so much that the ego starts to dissolve (and sometimes temporarily “die” completely). That’s the space where the heart can speak unclouded. That’s when people start to talk about what they have never told anyone, often accompanied by the words: “I can’t believe I just said that.” 

Because of this, Michael refers to ketamine as a truth serum. He gives us examples of how participants have suddenly shared that they felt burdened by their parents, and that they couldn’t trust men – then almost displayed shock by their own words.

Effects of ketamine

To simulate the effects of ketamine without taking anything, Michael Sapiro then leads us through a meditative experience. You can try this ketamine-like meditation here.  

Around 56 minutes into the video, he describes how this experience mimics the medicine: After 5-10 minutes, you’ll start to notice bodily effects. You feel calmer, and your body becomes heavy. You start to drift and feel at ease.

Then, “stuff” starts coming up in the form of images, visuals, metaphors, and things your psyche wants you to see. You can experience seeing yourself from the outside.

Around the 1-hour mark, Michael answers the question: how long does the journey last? The answer is that it’s dose-dependent. He also touches upon the essential topic of integration. Many people actually feel worse the day after. But that’s them experiencing their baseline. During the experience, they entered an elevated state of mind free from the everyday stressors – stressors we take for granted so much they become “white noise.” They only feel low because of the contrast to this peaceful state.

After the second or third time, participants often mention feeling anxiety but not reacting to it. They sense stressors but their nervous systems react less. This is the essential shift from responsive over reactive, which is indicative of healing – we can feel low without acting on that feeling or judging it.

Ketamine for trauma-healing: A firefighter shares his story

Emergency workers voluntarily undergo trauma on a regular basis. Research has shown that first responders experience about 180 critical incidents, or traumatic events, during their careers. As a comparison, the average person experiences two to three critical incidents in their lifetimes. 

That’s why the potential benefits of ketamine therapy are particularly interesting to emergency workers. One such example is Rob C., a firefighter in Idaho. Rob underwent ketamine-assisted psychotherapy with Michael Sapiro to process some of the trauma he had endured during his career. For the full story, watch the short documentary “An Act of Service”.

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