by Richard Yensen Ph.D. and Donna A. Dryer, MD FRCPC


First Nations people of the Huron use the word orenda (oar-END-uh) to summon a mystic influence of incantation. They seek the power that mortals may call upon to combat the blind forces of fate. Orenda is a bitter¬sweet blend of fear and hope—of humility and confidence. Orenda can mean hope, power, focused intention, and prayer to a higher power, without conveying either a sense of helplessness or the overweening pride that Greeks called hubris. Orenda is an invisible power, spirit or energy.

Among the Seneca orenda is the spiritual essence that contains the eternal flame of love where the great mystery lives inside all things. The orenda houses the guiding light and the inner voice that teaches us our potential and our greatest capacity to love and to manifest that love in the world.

Among the Navaho one seeks orenda in a vision quest, it is the spirit and the force of the tribe as a whole, a place where a young person can find the illusive intersection of callings, the life path which is at once most meaningful for them and most beneficial for the entire group.

Our purpose for coming to Cortes Island, BC sprang from our search for orenda, the meaning and spiritual essence in our own lives as individuals and as a family. We wanted to know how we might best serve our collective well being as a people.

Orenda entered Richard’s life in 1967 while he was in college at University of California, Irvine. A course in the psychology of awareness and its text, Altered States of Consciousness [1] , sparked his interest. After a deep journey into self that took him beyond the skin-encapsulated ego he had previously identified himself with, he had the realization that after resolving so many of his inner conflicts there was no other path than to work with altered states to help others do the same. His vision was of working with LSD and other psychedelic drugs to help and heal, to conduct research into the mystery at the core of our consciousness. Return to normal awareness brought many doubts, discussion with friends’ yielded caution toward believing the truth of his vision. Time created even more doubt, trepidation and many struggles, yet by 1972 he was in graduate school and was working at the last government sanctioned psychedelic research facility in the United States, the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center (MPRC) in Catonsville, Maryland.

TOWARD A PSYCHEDELIC MEDICINE: Lessons about Regulation, Relationship & Psychedelics

At MPRC Richard learned that psychedelics could have a remarkable effect on the therapeutic relationship and the process of psychotherapy, they foster a deep amplification of essential elements in the process. This is especially so in a brief intense intervention, one that is designed to alleviate fear, anxiety, and loss of meaning at the end of a life. The process of dying lays bare fear and existential questioning. People faced with their own death are confronted with the last blood mystery of life. What lies beyond this world is unknown and so, shrouded in mystery it remains. We have accounts of near death experiences and the statements of various religions concerning the afterworld but no certainty.

Richard shared the hopes, yearnings and despairs that terminal patients and their loved ones projected onto this screen of unknowing. He knew that a psychedelic experience could provide a glimpse into the process of death, an opportunity to experience a preview of what it is like to surrender the hard won image of oneself to the unknown. This ego death or transcendence is a central axis of the relief that can be provided by psychedelic drugs in a properly managed milieu.

Ego death can be powerful and include physical symptoms such as weak pulse and breathlessness or more eidetic phenomena involving the extreme modification of the usual sense of self or can be more symbolic and integrative.

In this regard Richard recalls the peak experiences of his first psychedelic psychotherapy patients. (Patients discussed in this article have fictitious names to shield their true identities)

Joe was a labor union leader:
Joe called us (therapist & co-therapist) over to the couch. He held our hands. He spoke of being a child, of the difficulties he experienced being poor, of the joys of his profound identification with his father and the struggle that was his father’s. Joe said he was experiencing that his father’s struggle was also his own and at the same time it was the struggle of all men: The struggle to overcome life’s difficulties; the pain, the disillusionment, and the horror of being alive. He described seeing the American flag, stars and stripes; the stripes he described as blood red. Then Joe said, “I feel like I am becoming the blood that flows through my veins. It’s Irish blood! There is strength here, I feel the strength of the Irish people; the noble strength of working men. I can feel the meaning of the struggle, of my Irish ancestors. They are stubborn and strong.” Joe said he experienced the ideals and dreams that brought his people and others to the USA as immigrants. “They wanted to overcome pain, injustice and suffering with their strength, not just for themselves but for all of us. I share this struggle. It has been my struggle to carry forward these ideals through my work with the union.”

Notice the subtle shifts of Joe’s identity. He held our hands and spoke of growing up and gently blended his identity first with his father’s, then with the flag, then with his blood and ancestry, and finally a melding with his life purpose. This ego death is a subtle change in identity and a shift toward a transcendence of his separateness, yet his strong sense of self prevailed through his altruism. Following this Joe recapitulated his entire life trajectory. We shared his deeply emotional reliving of moments of triumph and defeat.

The outcome of this experience, and there was much more than this vignette, was a paradoxical relief from the emotional component of the pain that he felt. He was able to say that although he still felt considerable physical pain, the meaning had changed now that he fully realized the fact that he was dying. His mood was radiant and the family members who came to collect him after the session basked with us in the golden glow of a peak experience. After this treatment his need for pain medication diminished.

Sharon was a medical professional. Her LSD session took place while in hospital. She weighed 80 lbs at the time of this session and was suffering from a lack of red blood cells. Any physical exertion caused panting and an overwhelming anxious feeling that she could not breathe. During the beginning of her LSD session the anguish presented itself in frightening proportions. She screamed out her profound distress! She tossed and turned in the hospital bed while listening to the music we were playing over headphones and wore eyeshades to allow deep inner focus. She suddenly knelt and said, “For once in my life!” She stood up; we supported her to avoid a fall off the hospital bed. The co-therapist and I, each on opposite sides of the bed, held her hands so she could balance. Sharon bent her knees, to bounce on the bed, it was as though she was riding on a moving platform. Her face was radiant! She said, “Finally, in the center ring!” “That’s me, I am a real star!” This remarkable tension posture was maintained for several hours! She no longer needed our help, not breathless or frightened, but instead invigorated, enjoying an effortlessly balanced “ride.” After a lifetime of domination by her older sister and harsh scolding by strict parents she was able to rescue her own essence.

Sharon was suddenly surrounded by lights, smelled sawdust and heard a cheering crowd of admirers. She rode proudly on the backs of three white horses. Her hands extended, grasping the bridles, her feet resting on the two outer horses. She rode around the ring, profoundly satisfied and connected with her heroic self! This experience was deeply nourishing and healing. She enjoyed a radiant, healing glow that endured months after the session.

Her physical condition improved dramatically in the aftermath of the LSD session. She returned to 140 lbs. Sharon’s oncologist focused on his own intervention and concluded this was: “Among the most dramatic chemotherapy induced remissions” he had ever seen!

Experiences such as these are not contained within a drug, neither are they defined by the specific effects of a particular psychedelic drug. Instead they are experiences in consciousness that reflect, through psychedelic amplification, the rapport, emotional nurturing and safety that grew out of hours of preparatory therapy.

There is a special attunement between a psychedelically informed therapist and their patient. The therapist knows, through their own personal experience, the healing depths that are possible for the patient. They know as well that there is no certainty. A peak experience is not something that can be forced; it is a spontaneous event in the on-going consciousness of a well-prepared and supported voyager into the savage and beautiful country of the mind.


[1] A book of readings edited by Charles Tart, Ph.D.

[2] recalling events around and including physical birth

[3] beyond the usual sense of identity within our personal bag of skin, for example identification with animals, plants, mountains, oceans, the planet or even the universe.

Psychedelic medicines are powerful tools that require proper training of therapists for the most effective psychotherapy outcomes to be realized. The nature of training is multidimensional because, in our opinion, it must include a personal psychotherapy occurring within a series of psychedelic sessions for the trainee. The deep experience of psychedelic states and the effective understanding of one’s own psychodynamics on personal, perinatal[2] and transpersonal[3] dimensions is essential for the safe, effective and responsible use of these drugs. A capacity for personal surrender to the effects of psychedelics, including ego-death, is a prerequisite for any effective psychedelic therapist.

The drug war has created such a repressive political atmosphere that proper training has been eliminated. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this repression is the loss of lineage: There is no way for mature psychedelic therapists to legally train new therapists in ego surrendering processes. A generation of experienced therapists is about to be lost.

The Maryland Psychiatric Research Center was the last facility that had financial support and political permission to train its therapists this way. Unfortunately the MPRC closed its doors to psychedelic research in 1977.

It is a good thing that MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) is working with U.S. Food and Drug Administration to secure official permission to administer psychedelic training sessions. One can only hope that a mechanism can be found to allow mature therapists, trained as outlined above, to begin the process of passing on their knowledge experientially through training sessions.

How can a psychotherapist have something to offer the dying? It is only the therapist who has lived deep recapitulation of their early years and a convincing death of their cherished concept of themselves, who can offer solid guidance to a patient in a deep psychedelic session. Through this kind of training a therapist faces death, through the caring assistance of a mentor who has experienced the same depths. By undergoing a convincing personal experience of death “ahead of time” the therapist gains the personal experience necessary to provide compassionate support so patients can fully face the ultimate mystery.

In 1985 Richard had another visionary experience, a second and decisive encounter with orenda:
“My usual sense of myself and my body was obliterated, dissolved into white light. I seemed to be beyond time, beyond space beyond this world and yet paradoxically aware. Consciousness, which seemed to have momentarily paused, resumed with a flood of images and visions of a sick planet earth, beset with pollution and collapsing ecosystems. I felt the earth as a living being and it was sick, dying, asphyxiating. Overwhelming sadness and unbearable loss permeated my emergent sense of being. What could be done about this? Consciousness was as ephemeral as the being of our home planet. Suddenly I was a point of awareness suspended over the green mountains and lush valleys of the Sierra Mazateca in southern Mexico, floating over Huautla de Jimenez, where the eastern and western Sierra Madre ranges meet, the home of my native teacher, Maria Sabina. There, in the clouds, an enormous gargoyle-like figure loomed, the impossible union of four huge, growling and howling wolves, they were joined at the neck. The strangest idea came into my awareness from this figure: Healer’s have territories! The idea seemed patently ridiculous, but it came with an overbearing, powerful, deeply felt sense of truth. As my mind struggled to understand I was thrust into another place: Towering cedars, powerful sense of spiritual home-place, four eagles soaring in a circle overhead, searing intuition that healing of the planet will begin in this place. Enormous, sweet, healing peace!

Strange sense of the fecund odors of somewhat dirty carpet under my nose, sudden return to the ordinary world, incredible sense of humiliation, crushing judgment: “Your grandiosity knows no bounds! How utterly pompous of you to think you might heal a planet! You! You will be lucky to heal a few people in your puny practice as a psychotherapist. Overwhelming shame.”

Two days later, at a seaside resort town near Boston, we were invited to become shareholders in a new educational center in the Pacific Northwest. In a very unusual moment of strong intuition the commitment was made without even seeing the place. When we arrived and walked the land, a stand of cedar trees pointed our eyes upward where there were four eagles circling! The year was 1985 and we were on Cortes Island for the first time.


Drawing on our training with native teachers and in psychedelic research we crafted a sequence of experiences we call The Heart of the Shaman. We have been offering this event as a workshop at retreat centers since 1986. The Heart of the Shaman, although born on Cortes, has traveled to Europe, the United States and South America.

This work is rooted in shamanism, but does not call on us to pretend to be First Nations people if we are not. Instead it allows us to be exactly who and what we are: We are all longing for a sense of depth, wonder and magic. Our souls are deprived of the context of awe that nurtured the humanity of our ancestors. Heart of the Shaman is a deep psychedelic experience that doesn’t require drugs or plant medicines, it uses only the psychedelics that are already in our brains.

The Heart of the Shaman isn’t simply the longest running workshop experience in the history of Hollyhock and a thirteen-year veteran of California’s Esalen Institute, it is much more than a New Age workshop. It is a life-changing journey to our essential self, the source of all things. We are now moving Heart of the Shaman to its new home and this summer from August 5th to 15th we will offer this work at Orenda Institute on Cortes Island!

The Heart of the Shaman process begins as we enter a crafted sequence of experiential vignettes that continually deepen the sense of safety, membership in the group and emotional depth for all present. This is a form of growing; healing and being together that can transform our community and each of us. The healing crucible at the core of the experience is an all-night ceremony and a subsequent integration and transformation process that moves each of us into a sacred sense of being beyond time and space in a place where opposites meld into oneness, a place more real than any other, a place of overflowing love and nurturing. This rebirth into a spiritual realm of profound healing, joy and reverence has been the hallmark of this work for over thirty years.


What is the nature of an alchemical vessel of transformation? It is a vessel whose interpersonal dimension is trust and caring, a series of healing circles of respect, heartfelt story telling and connection. It is the creation of true community where deep altered state journeying can be supported. In this work we use everything available to us to foster this deep and loving journey into the heart and soul of our awareness: Ritual, poetry, music and sound, breathwork, deep tissue bodywork and chaos. This takes place within a digital multidimensional sacred physical temple where energy is raised to transformative intensity through deep altered states of consciousness.


We form a community of commitment to truth, depth and integrity. The ongoing sharing and tribal sense of wholeness draws us together to embody and to share the healing journey. The exquisite insights and healing are not complete without a deep process of integration and sharing. It is this place where the mystical and emotional depths are shared and forged into new ways of being and caring for the world and ourselves.


Sharing from the depth of our being, free of the masks of repression, having journeyed through our wounds into healing and wholeness, with tender and open hearts, we dance and reveal our new sense of self. The joy in this celebration anchors our connections to each other, our individual spirit and the spirit of the cosmos.
Our mission is to offer learning experiences in many different settings that help people to become skillful in using non-ordinary states of consciousness to foster this kind of healing. From our experiences with different teachers and from our research we have found this approach to be specifically healing for trauma and despair in the face of death, addiction, and disempowerment.

Our hope is to expand this work and integrate it with our other healing work on Cortes, to offer this experience, as and engine of meaning and creativity, to our island community in this time of economic turmoil and emotional need. We invite you to join us for a loving journey that is both modern and ancient, renewing and healing, a journey to the Heart of the Shaman. It has taken over fifteen years of effort and skill from local folks helping us to develop a center for research, healing and growing. This provides a home for the Heart of the Shaman in British Columbia.


Dr. Donna Dryer and Dr. Richard Yensen are presenting “Heart of the Shaman: An Initiation Intensive” workshop – Aug 1 – 10, 2019, at Orenda Institute, Cortes Island, BC.

For information and registration, click here