The Influence of Mexican Shamanism in Transpersonal Psychology: Doctor Salvador Roquet’s work.


Conference presented in XIII Eurotas Transpersonal conference, Varna 2011, by Magda Solé and Jordi Àlvarez.

Transpersonal psychology appeared at the end of the sixties as an answer to a series of inquititudes that had arisen in the world of psychology due to the increasing western interest in modified states of consciousness and spiritual experience. As such, transpersonal psychology emerged as an amplification of humanistic psychology, and included in its vision, ecstatic states and mystic or religious experiences.

Various historical factors converged to increase general interest through a series of themes and subject matter that had been up to that time the exclusive domain of a few university specialists. It’s difficult to determine the causes and effects that were the impulse of the moment of change and opening in the 1960’s. These factors were preceded by people like William James for example and his theories on religious experiences, his ingesting of a Mexican cactus button and spitting it out, which was later named after him (Lophophora williamsii). His unsuccessful attempt to eat the button gave rise to the paradigm of the development of investigations that led to the appearance of what we call today transpersonal framework.

Mexico lies to the south of North America, and unlike its northern neighbours, Canada and the United States, it’s a country which is clearly economically, politically and socially underdeveloped, and the differences between the countries was even greater in the decades 1950 and 60’s.

In certain areas in Mexico, it is still possible to find ethnic tribes with a way of life that has changed very little since Neolithic times, both in terms of beliefs and conditions of life.

This, for North American and Canadian researchers, has been and still is, an unending ethnic, anthropological, botanical and archaeological source right next to home. 1938, Richard Evans Schultes, the ethno-botanic pioneer, crossed the frontier in search of teonanacatl, the sacred mushroom, and travelled to a Huautla de Jimenez, a small village in the state of Oaxaca, where he identified the species Psilocybe and the year later Ololiuqui (seeds of the virgin) another sacred plant used in shamanic healing ceremonies.

A decade and a half later, the banker, Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina Pavlovna, following in the footsteps of Schultes, travelled to Huautla in their search for “magic mushrooms”. It was there that they met the famous shaman, Maria Sabina. 1955 they were the first “white” people permitted to attend a curing ceremony in which sacred mushrooms were ingested. Wasson’s experience would untap a great interest in the indigenous Mexican culture, curative powers and sacred plants. Wasson also published articles and books witch created interest and publicity. This was the moment the Mexican became the main centre of investigation into sacred plants and shamanism. Michael Harner, Joan Halifax and Angeles Arrien amongst others also carried out ethnic studies and research into Mexican shamanism.

From 1943 onwards, parallel studies and therapies with substances such as LSD, Mescaline and Psilocybin were being developed. Europe and the rest of the world began to experiment with drugs, which they first called psycolitycs (ego dissolvers) or psycomimetics, and later psycodelics (mind expanders). Stanislav Grof was one of the pioneers in investigation into psycolitic therapy in Prague. He later continued his investigation in the United States, this time with psycodelic therapy. 1967, Grof, together with Maslow, Vich, Sutich, Fadiman and Margulies became the founding fathers of Transpersonal Psychology in California. Experiments with psycodelics profoundly influenced this new vision of psychology and human beings.

In transpersonal psychology, this new group of “healers” were greatly interested in the knowledge that the shamans possessed on how to manage modified states of consciousness and also the plants and mushrooms traditionally used in curative rituals. At the present time shamanic techniques such as the drum or guided visualisations are tools widely used by many transpersonal therapists. In spite of the interest generated by their excellent work, shamanism remains a great mystery due in part to the difficulty of the rational, Cartesian, western mind in understanding the multi levelled Cosmo-vision of the traditional shamanic cultures.

Shamanism represents a Cosmo-vision common to a great many beliefs which coincide in the existence of realities superior to everyday life which are inhabited by beings that influence and reign over different aspects of everyday life. Shamans specialists in the community, who can, through accessing modified states of consciousness, communicate with this superior reality and bring back information that permits them to find and maintain the balance of the group in all things. The Shaman is an authority in the community, appreciated for his wisdom. They fulfil the role of doctors, advisors, psychologists and experts in ritual. Each ethnic group or culture with a shamanic tradition, posses a different mythology and multiple explanations as to the origin of illnesses and treatment. Often in groups of the same ethnic culture, the shamans use different explanations and treatment for the same illness or to tell stories about apparently common mythologies. As a result the comprehension or study of techniques and their why’s and wherefores is practically impossible.

One exception to the rule as far as comprehension, application and the study of this techniques was Doctor Salvador Roquet, a Mexican psychiatrist who managed to maintain an  extended communicative  dialogue with shamans from the Mixes, Tarahumaras, Huicholes and Mazatecos tribes, in an ambit of cooperation not only a therapeutic level, but also at a sanitary, educative and social one.

Salvador Roquet developed a process of interchange with indigenous shamans that led to the creation of a therapeutic and philosophical system, where a real intercultural process existed, not one of imitation or simple reproduction of techniques, but an authentic collaboration. This process was due to the special circumstances surrounding Doctor Roquet’s life.

Born in 1920, he qualified in medicine and practised as an epidemiologist, before working for the OMS. He later qualified as a surgeon and practised as a pneumologist. His work allowed him to contact and work with the most humble levels of indigenous society, through which he gained social sensitivity and respect for the indigenous population and their traditions. In 1957 while he was studying psychiatry, he took part in an investigation into the effects of mescaline. This experience affected him deeply, showing him the therapeutic possibilities of psycodelic substances, in spite of the fact that he was treated for depression for a year after his experience.

In 1964 while travelling in Europe, he met two people who influenced his work and theories. One of them, Alexander S Neill, who he visited in his school, Summerhill, shared with him his ideas of introducing psychoanalysis into parental education and also into Summerhill, his school of love. He also met doctor Robert S Hartmann, father of axiology, who asked him to take part in the application of his evaluation test in a project of a school for parents.

By 1967, the project had materialised in the form of a school “Escuela integral Àlvarez”, which conceived the human being as an environmental, spiritual, bio-psycho-social entity. In this same year, Roquet asked Alfonso Caso, founder and director of the national indigenous institute to introduce him to the famous shaman Maria Sabina, because he wanted to study the ritual of the “magic mushrooms” for their possible use in psychotherapy.

From his first meeting with the priestess and healer, doctor Roquet took various patients to her for a magic mushroom session. His practise of taken patients to see shamans remained a constant in his work until his death in 1995. The chants of the shaman suggested to him that the way to lead his patients through their madness was through the management of music and images. On his return to Mexico DF in 1967 he founded the Robert S Hartmann Institute, and also the Albert Schweitzer civil association to finance a hospital and a school in the Sierra Mazateca. It was in the Hartmann institute that he was able to carry out his sessions with psychedelics substances.

Con Maria Sabina, Maria Apolonia y Stanley Krippner, en casa de Maria Sabina 1980

With some of his colleagues, such as Doctor Pierre Favreau, Stanley Kripner and doctor Houston Clark, Roquet develop a therapeutic techniques that was different from the two existing schools, psychedelic and psycolitic. This technique, which he called Roquet’s psycho synthesis, arose from the synthesis of various methodologies including elements from the two schools and others that he had discovered through his work with indigenous healers.

Roquet’s main focus in psycho synthesis therapy was to sensitise the patient through direct confrontation with his neurosis, which allowed love to arise after contact with his madness and mystic experience. The discovery of ketamine and learning how to use Datura as methods leading to dissolution of ego defence, combined with an elaborated program of sessions using both natural psychedelics like seeds of the virgin or Peyote, and laboratory psychedelics such as LSD or MDMA, this combination allowed him to take the subjects through the different phases of the healing experience with great success.

The psycho synthesis sessions which were carried out at the Hartmann institute, in Mexico DF, followed an elaborate protocol where each moment of the therapeutic process of each patient was constantly evaluated using the Hartmann test. The average length of therapy was a year and a half to two years. During this period, sessions of conventional psychotherapy were cyclically combined with sessions using different substances, and work with shamans in La Sierra or desert.

The Hartmann institute had a specially equipped room for sessions with substances. The room was designed to a achieve moments of cognitive saturation, and was equipped with various music systems, cinema projectors, adjustable lights, colours and tape recorders. Sessions were organized with groups of between 15 to 35 men and women from all cultural and social spheres, with different problems and in different moments of the healing process. He gave each one of them the adequate substance for their therapeutic condition.

From 1967 to 1974 there were 720 sessions of psycho synthesis therapy with 1700 patients. The cure rate was 85%.

The Hartmann institute close in 1974 after Doctors Favreau and Roquet were accused of drug trafficking and acting against public health. Although the drug trafficking charges were dropped, they preferred to close the centre and discontinue sessions with substances, at least publically.

Doctor Salvador Roquet continued working on his theory of personality and developed alternative therapies, like “convivials” or “therapy of death”, without substances to achieve the effects of cognitive saturation, madness, death and rebirth. However right up to the end of his career he continued psycho synthesis sessions with substances in private, in Mexico, the United States, Canada and various European countries like France and Spain. He also continued taking his patients to shamans.

Although he was invited to the third international transpersonal congress, where he surprised Stanislav Grof himself with his working methods, and although he took part in conferences and meetings with newly born transpersonal movement, Roquet never really felt comfortable and remained on the outskirts of the main movement. There were various reasons for him distancing himself from the movement, not least his difficulty in communication, he didn’t speak good English and his methods and philosophy were innovative and controversial.

In 1983 Roquet presented his first and only book “los alucinogenos: de la concepcion indigena a una nueva psicoterapia” to the fourth international transpersonal conference, organized by ITA in Davos, Switzerland. The book, published in Mexico in 1981, was a recompilation of all his methodology of work, statistics, philosophy and conclusions from his days of work in the Hartmann institute. Unfortunately the transpersonal movement distanced themselves from therapies with psychedelics substances because of the laws in force at that time and bad press, and did not serve as the vehicle to diffuse Roquet’s innovative vision of therapy with psychedelics.

Although the work by doctor Salvador Roquet and his colleagues have a number of disciples inspired by them (for example the psychologist Magda Solé), they are in great part unknown by the majority of transpersonal therapists. Most of Roquet’s work is archived and stored in Mexico. This material is made up of hundreds of reports, personality test, slides, films and sound recordings, which haven’t yet been studied.

I believe that his experience in relation to indigenous Mexican shamans was unique and supplied data and knowledge still not integrated into the world of transpersonal therapy.

It is my sincere hope and wish that in some small way my work and research will help this integration.


Jordi Àlvarez Carniago: Psychotherapist. Member of EUROTAS, European Transpersonal Association.



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