Key Terms and Definitions to Help You Navigate the GTUx Original Psychedelics and Religion

If you’re wondering about the study of psychedelics in the world of religion and mysticism, you’re not alone. This field is rapidly growing and many of the terms may be unfamiliar or new to some of our GTUx community members. To help you navigate the content with confidence and clarity, we’ve created a list of terms used in our newest GTUx Original Psychedelics and Religion with Dr. Sam Shonkoff. From influential people like María Sabina or terms like “set and setting,” this blog post will help familiarize you with the content covered and maybe even spark inspiration for further learning.


General Terms to Know from Psychedelics and Religion

Psychedelics: Refers to a class of psychoactive substances that are radically mind altering. Coined in the 20th century, this term means “manifesting mind,” perhaps referring to deeper layers of the unconscious mind that becomes conscious to the individual during the experience.

Entheogen: A chemical substance that is ingested to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes; literally means that which ‘generates God within.’ This term is often used as an alternative to ‘psychedelics’ in order to emphasize the religious or spiritual power of those substances.

Set and Setting: “Set” refers to one’s cultural background, value systems, past experiences, current mental state, etc. which all inevitably shape one’s psychedelic experiences. “Setting” refers to the conditions of the place where the experience is happening

Psychedelic Guide: An experienced or trained teacher who is present with seekers during psychedelic journeys to help them navigate their experiences and facilitate their learning and growth; this concept plays into the “setting” of “set” and “setting.”

Psychedelic Experience Integration: Incorporating the feelings, insights, or takeaways from a “trip” into the experiencer’s daily life.

Mysticism: Refers to spiritual movements and approaches that emphasize personal, experiential encounters with God, as opposed to mere obedience to traditional doctrines, laws, and authorities; a mystical experience is one of ineffability and oneness (ego dissolution).

Perennial Philosophy: Huxley’s 1945 book The Perennial Philosophy describes a universal mysticism that appears to some degree in virtually all religious traditions throughout time; this is an idea that arises in religious studies.

Esoteric: Something whose meaning is known or understandable to only a select few, often by design; used in psychedelic studies referring to a kind of spiritual experience around a “mystical experience.”


Key Terms Relating to Psychedelic Experiences

Materialism: A theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter; this is an idea that is challenges by entheogens and the mystical experiences the manifest in humans.

Transcendence: Existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.

Ego: Literally the “I,” this is the division of the psyche that is self-conscious and individuated, seeking to control thought, behavior, and “external reality” for personal purposes; often this is what is transcended in a psychedelic experience; the opposite of materialism isn’t spiritualism, instead it is egoism, a structure that keeps us separated from the other and inhibits a sense of connection; many refer to an “ego dissolving” experience on psychedelics.

Ego Dissolution: The loss of one’s familiar sense of self and the boundaries that separate one from the outside world. This can be liberating and ecstatic but can create a great sense of chaos and crisis; a common phrase in the psychedelic community, referring to an experience where one feels unified with everything or so overpowered in some way that your very sense of the self dissolves.

Equanimity: The state of being at peace with and accepting of all experiences, whether “good” or “bad.”

Not Looking in the Mirror: Looking in the mirror during psychedelic experiences can cause one to see themselves in distorted or limiting ways that might trigger haunting or overwhelming thoughts and judgements.

Visionary state: A radically altered state of consciousness where one’s perceptions and thoughts diverge sharply from ordinary reality.

Ineffability: Incapable of being expressed in words; refers to experiences with psychedelics being incapable of being described; something that cannot be described but is felt deeply.

Transcendence: Existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.


Terms Relating to the Field of Psychedelic Chaplaincy

Psychedelic chaplaincy: An emerging field that explores ways that traditions and techniques of spiritual care are combined with psychedelic use and guidance to create a fruitful interplay.

Meaning-Making: The process of making sense out of experiences in order to integrate them into one’s relationships, selfhood, and life as a whole; someone who practices psychedelic chaplaincy can help the experiencer with this process to better integrate the experience into their life.

Reflexive learning: Considering one’s own background and how it may impact the chaplain’s interactions with others.

Spiritual Care: Forms of care that attend to spiritual, existential, or religious questions, especially ones that arise from challenges such as illness, injury, trauma, or death.


Scientific Terms Used in Psychedelic Science

Psychedelic Science: biomedical studies of how we can use drugs (such as MDMA and Psylocibin) to treat neuropsychiatric conditions and other health conditions and to study the brain and the mind as molecular probes of consciousness; often used in conjunction with psychotherapy.

Epiphenomenon: A secondary effect or byproduct that arises from but does not casually influence a process; used in terms of subjective reports in the study of psychedelic science (e.g. reports of people seeing or talking to deceased loved ones during an experience).

Neuroplasticity: The ability of the brain to change in structure or function in response to an experience, in this case a psychedelic experience.

Mechanisms (of Action): A term used to describe how a drug, or other substance, produces an effect on the body.

Epigenetics: The study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code.


Studies and Research Referenced in Psychedelic Science

2006 Hopkins Study: Researchers found that the use of Psilocybin can create mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance; emphasized the conversation between the sciences and mystical experiences.

Good Friday Experiment: A 1962 experiment conducted by Walter Pahnke. Seminary students received either Psilocybin or an active placebo in a Christian religious setting to facilitate mystical experiences; researchers later assessed the participants were far more likely to have a pronounced spiritual experience under Psylocibin.


Key People Referenced in the GTUx Original Psychedelics and Religion

Talal Asaa: a cultural anthropologist who focuses on religiosity, postcolonialism, and notions of power, law, and discipline; said, “There is no sufficiently definition of religion.”

María Sabina: A curandera (medicine woman) from the Mazatec region of Oaxaca, Mexico, who introduced the sacred mushroom ceremony to North American outsiders.

Mazatec: An indigenous people of Mexico who inhabit the Sierra Mazateca in the state of Oaxaca and some communities in the adjacent states of Puebla and Veracruz; the community of María Sabina, who used mushrooms as a way of healing the sick (rather than the Westerners who visited them and took the mushrooms to look for God).

Root worker: Term popularized in the nineteenth century for African American Conjurers who used various techniques and substances, including local plants, to engage with spirits and heal people.

Gabor Maté: A Hungarian-Canadian physician and author who has done groundbreaking work on the lifelong impact of childhood trauma on psychological and physiological conditions; author of the book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which relates to understanding addiction through intergenerational trauma.

Resmaa Menakem: Author of My Grandmother’s Hands, which is an examination of the damage caused by racism in America from the perspective of trauma and body-centered psychology.

Mutulu Shakur: An American activist and former member of the Black Liberation Army; was also known for bringing acupuncture and the five point ear technique to the south Bronx of Harlem to help people detox from heroin addiction.

Aldous Huxley: British novelist and essayist who spent the last decades of his life in California. Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception (1954) recounts his experiences with mescaline, suggesting that the drug induces mystical states.

Stanislav Grof: Czech-born psychiatrist, pioneered LSD-assisted psychotherapy in the United States starting in the 1960s.

William Richards: A psychiatrist involved in psychedelic research since 1963. Now at Johns Hopkins University, Richards is also the author of Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences (2015).

Anton Boisen (1876-1965): A leading figure in hospital chaplaincy and widely regarded as the founder of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE); his work relates to psychedelic chaplaincy.


Cultural and Anthropological Terms of Psychedelics

Intergenerational Trauma: The continued negative impact of traumatic events on the familial descendants of those who were directly stricken. They can be collective or personal experiences; through these experiences we can relate to these in a different way, applies to psychedelic chaplaincy in understanding how someone can help someone after a psychedelic “trip” sit with these experiences and hold the complexity of these experiences and emotions.

Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS): A nonprofit organization to raise awareness and understanding of psychedelics. MAPS was founded in 1986 and is now based in San Jose, CA.

Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines: Produces research on plant medicines and psychedelics, helping propagate academic knowledge in accessible formats.

Cultural Appropriation/”Culture Vulture”: The use of objects of elements from minoritized cultures by outsiders, especially in ways that lack respect for original contexts and attunement to power dynamics.

MK-Ultra: A top secret CIA project from 1953-1973 to identify drugs such as LSD that could be used for the purpose of mind control, information gathering, and psychological torture.

Tune in, turn on, drop out: A catchphrase of the 1960s counterculture popularized by the controversial LSD evangelist, Timothy Leary, encouraging people to use psychedelics to detach from existing social conventions and hierarchies.

“Corpordelic movement”: The rise of corporations designed to profit off the renewed surge of interest in psychedelic experimentation.


Terms Referring to Psychedelic Plants

Coevolution: The evolution of organisms of two or more interacting species in which each adapts to changes in the other; for example, insects and the flowers they pollinate. This also refers to the relationship between humans and psychoactive plants.

San Pedro Cactus: Also called “Wachuma,” a species of cactus that produces the entheogenic substance known as mescaline.

Peyote: A mescaline-producing cactus, indigenous to deserts in the region now called North America

Entada rheedii (African dream herb): Used in African traditional medicine to induce vivid dreams, enabling communication with the spirit world.