Ecological Awakening and Psychedelics: An Interview with Dr. Brian Stafford, Part II of II

“Psychedelics and Depth Psychology: Treatment and Transformation in an Animated Cosmos” is a Graduate Certificate in Psychedelics and Depth Psychology that will be offered online by Pacifica Extension and International Studies over 13 weeks, with Brian Stafford being one of the instructors. The course will introduce essential topics in the current medical/psychiatric model of treatment and research as well as a deep dive into the indigenous history of these medicines, their cultural significance, and original worldview of the cosmos that challenges current Western societal perspectives. It will be held June 5, 2024 – August 28th, 2024. Register now! 

Angela: Your work with eco-depth psychotherapy and your emphasis on soul initiation in the context of nature makes me wonder how you view and teach the aspect of psychedelics in terms of the interconnection of both human and nature in this world of ours. Is there a connection between your work in eco psychology and psychedelics?

Brian: There is, definitely. I left academia because I didn’t feel we were helping transform the culture; it felt like we were pawns in keeping it going, with big pharma taking over, and insurance trying to get people back to work in jobs that were soul crushing. I wandered into a group doing transformational work in Colorado, and it shifted my consciousness, and it was from prolonged experiences in nature and fasting in nature. There are techniques of creating trance states that help us reconnect with ourselves and with our conversation with mystery and nature. All of that seems to have been lost over the last thousand years. We find ourselves living in very poor relationships with aspects of ourselves, with Earth, with each other, and we are disconnected from the sacred. Modern psychiatry has had an aversion to spirituality. So that kind of training showed me what could happen in non-ordinary states of consciousness. Not everyone can travel or camp or spend 11 days in the wild to engage in these experiences. One of the many gifts of psychedelics is that they can provide a relatively quick and extraordinary shift in consciousness within the course of several hours, a shift in consciousness that can be life-changing and transform the way we experience ourselves in this world.

Angela: Much of scholarship at Pacifica looks at psyche as something that extends to the world around us, to the natural world, so that when we walk in a forest, the forest is “walking” with us. In the case of plant medicine, does this take on a sense of partnership in a therapeutic sense? Is it the patient, the sitter, and the plant working together, a trinity of sorts?

Brian: Part of the importance is the concept of set and setting, which came out of the 60s. The set is your mindset, which Timothy Leary described as what you bring to the session, what you’re hoping for, what’s your intention. The setting is the physical setting; we’ll go more into depth into that in the first or second session. If you’re in a clinical setting, you’re not in nature, and what you’re focusing on is not connection to other things beyond yourself but healing your depression, or trauma. Historically, the plant allies were always taken in the nature, usually as part of a group ceremony. And, they were used for healing, interpersonal connection and also for divination. I’m hoping psychedelics go beyond this clinical environment and lead us back to a reconnection with nature and with the animated cosmos. That’s what we’re hoping for and that’s why we’ve brought in experts on animism and shamanism, because one of the powers of these medicines is to let us experience the world as much bigger than we thought it was. That the cosmos is much more filled with love than we thought it was. That’s where psychedelics can bring us into individual and collective transformation, by bringing us back to an alignment with the vast Cosmos and the Earth. That’s my hope, that the medicines won’t lead to individuals “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” as Timothy Leary preached, but they will lead us to open wider, both within and without, and to show up as agents of cultural regeneration. I sincerely hope that these experiences and the way we relate to these experiences won’t lead to governmental backlash again. I’m hoping these medicines, used wisely, with practitioners who know these states, can shift our consciousness to know this cosmos is filled with sentience and love and change our relationships with Earth, ourselves, and each other.

Angela: I understand that you’re working on your first book on eco-mystical experiences. Can you tell us a little bit about this and whether or not the therapeutic value of psychedelics is part of it?

Brian: I’m writing a book currently title Pathways to Ecological Awakening: Finding Our Way Back Home and Into the Future. In this book, I tell stories of individuals who had a mystical encounter in nature, an experience that helps them realize that their primary place of belonging is Earth, not the human community. All humans are born into that consciousness and culturally indigenous people—nature-based peoples—never lose that sense of belonging. Most of us in western cultures lose this eco-centric consciousness by Age 6 and most never find their way back to it. But some do. There are various paths to ecological awakening and ecological consciousness. One of the observations I’ve made through reading and interviews is that this shift can happen with psychedelics, an experience of ecological awakening.

The primary challenge of our age is most humans living from an ego- or anthropo-centric consciousness. Again, we are  all born into eco-centric consciousness, we know we belong to Earth. But many of us have lost that sense of belonging, that knowing that everything belongs and is kin. This ecological awakening is something I found my way into in my first vision fest, where I experienced returning to the earth in a way I didn’t know was possible. It was life-shifting for me.

I began to wonder what was really happening with people. Would it be possible to not focus so much on symptoms and pathology but on reconnecting individuals to aspects of themselves and also to nature.  If we can change our experience with nature and ourselves, do these so-called symptoms of anxiety and depression go away.  So, what if we focused on expanding on consciousness rather than decreasing symptoms.

During the writing of this book, I also  realized that this nature-connection was something I’d been tracking my whole life, deeply drawn to people with a deep spiritual connection to nature. I began to research and find moments when historical figures and other individuals had this realization that Earth was primary and how that shifted their lives. Psychedelics might have been a big part of the environmental movement in the 60s. These medicines have the capacity to shift individuals so that we might, eventually, have a predominance of eco-centric consciousness which can lead to ecological citizens and an eco-centric culture rather than a fairly sick ego- and anthropo-centric society.

“Psychedelics and Depth Psychology: Treatment and Transformation in an Animated Cosmos” is a Graduate Certificate in Psychedelics and Depth Psychology that will be taught June 5, 2024 – August 28th, 2024. Register now! 


Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.


Dr. Brian Stafford is a licensed pediatrician, adult, adolescent, child, infant, cultural, and perinatal psychiatrist, having trained at the Tulane School of Medicine and School of Public Health, the University of Kentucky Triple Board Program, the University of Cape Town, and the Tulane Infant Institute. He practiced as an academic psychiatrist for 20 years at the Tulane School of Medicine and at Children’s Hospital Colorado where he was active in clinical work, research, education, and building systems of care. He was endowed as the inaugural Anschutz Family Chair in Early Childhood Psychiatry in 2011. Soon thereafter, he heeded what Joseph Campbell names “the call to adventure” and wandered away from academic psychiatry and retrained in Eco-depth psychotherapy and Nature-Based Soul Initiation Guiding at the Animas Valley Institute where he is now a Senior Guide, Trainer, Board Member, and Director of the Wild Mind and Eco-Awakening Training Program, a wholistic eco-depth psychotherapy training program. He completed his psychedelic training at the California Institute of Integral Studies / Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies joint Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy and Research Program. Brian resides in Ojai, California and teaches human development, psychopharmacology, and psychedelics at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He also guides vision fasts and other nature-based and soul-oriented programs around the world with the Animas Valley Institute, and facilitates psychedelic preparation, individual and ceremonial group journeying, and integration. He is also a writer of poetry, creative nonfiction, and essays, as well as over 50 academic articles, essays, and chapters on human development, eco-therapy, and psychedelic topics. He is completing his first book on eco-mystical experiences.