Psychedelics for addiction and “the freedom within,” with psychiatric researcher Dr. Elias Dakwar

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In mental health treatment today, psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is nothing less than a sensation, and some of the most promising results are in addiction treatment. Droves of people—from researchers and clinicians to underground shamans and private funders—are hailing the re-emergence of psychedelics like psilocybin, MDMA, ayahuasca, and ketamine as a “renaissance.” But despite the hype and money being funneled in this direction, big questions remain. What do these substances actually do? How should we use them? And from a broader perspective, how are we supposed to integrate them into our existing, troubled systems?
Dr. Elias Dawkar is an addiction psychiatrist and psychiatric researcher at Columbia on the frontlines of investigating these questions. He has combined ketamine infusions with mindfulness-based relapse prevention and other addiction therapies and found some stunning rates of recovery. Despite being an accomplished scientist, though, Elias is no reductionist—a clinician and a committed meditation practitioner himself, he has a refreshingly nuanced and integrative perspective on the use of psychedelics. For him, addiction is just one manifestation of deeper efforts to free oneself from a “primordial suffering,” and he offers psychedelics in that spirit: “an opportunity for having the freedom the freedom they were looking for in the first place. The freedom, within themselves, from suffering.” In fact, he also has serious qualms about some of the ways psychedelics are being fit into medicine and the marketplace.
Elias Dakwar, M.D., is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, where he is also affiliated with the Columbia Center for Healing of Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders (CHOSEN). After completing a fellowship in Addiction Psychiatry at Columbia, he began studying the use of ketamine infusions combined with mindfulness training to treat cocaine use disorders. He is now a principal investigator on several large grants evaluating ketamine for the treatment of opioid use disorder, cocaine use disorder, and alcohol use disorder. His work has been published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Harvard Review of Psychiatry, Biological Psychiatry, and other major scientific journals.
In this episode:

- Elias speaking at the Horizons Conference in New York City.
- The connections between psychedelics and other contemplative practices, like vipassana, Vedic mantra-based meditation, and Zen meditation, and how Elias brings mind-body practices into his clinical work.
- Elias’s perspective on recovery and addiction, and making sense of addiction as just one manifestation of a process of suffering.
- Albert Hoffman’s storied “Bicycle Day”, the first recorded LSD trip. (a cool illustration here)

- The Immortality Key, a historical investigation into the role psychedelics have played in the origins of Western civilization

- The pitfalls of psychedelics: at the individual level, attachment to experience and reifying the trip itself. At the social level, how overmedicalization can miss out on cultural and community renewal as part of flourishing.
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