Recently the world bid farewell to a brilliant psychonautical pioneer. Claudio Naranjo devoted his long life to examining the psychotherapeutic potential of psychedelic substances. He also built a paradigm of psycho-spiritual development to counter suppressive standardized educational systems, and taught and wrote about psychotherapy, meditation, creativity, personality typology, and societal dysfunction. Among his pioneering psychedelic therapy research, he coordinated groundbreaking work during the 1960s on the visionary and therapeutic effects of the Amazonian brew, ayahuasca.
Claudio Naranjo changed the world for the better and for this he will be dearly missed. His vast legacy survives him through books and globally instituted holistic educational programs that continue to shape spiritual seekers across the generations. This article serves as a brief overview of his legendary life and deeds.
Claudio Benjamín Naranjo Cohen was born on November 24, 1932 in Valparaíso, Chile. His educational beginnings were in music; he studied musical composition and played the piano with the Chilean National Conservatory. However, not envisioning himself as a musician, and with a desire to serve and heal more directly, he turned to studying medicine.
He graduated as an MD in 1959 in Santiago and started his research with the Center for Studies in Medical Anthropology (CSMA) there. He examined the dehumanizing effects of studying medicine, which is an indication that he had already started questioning the status quo of the educational system during this early period. The consequences of these inquiries would eventually shape the hallmark of his career.
During his research at CSMA, he was also doing his residency in psychiatry and undergoing psychoanalysis with his mentor Ignacio Matte-Blanco. After this he relocated to Ohio State University in the US, where he explored the field of perceptual learning. Then, Dr Naranjo reoriented again, this time toward exploring personality traits and abilities. A testament to his academic brilliance is that at this time he was working and studying with some of the most influential psychologists of the era, Gordon Allport of Harvard and Raymond Cattell of the University of Illinois.
Eventually, he ended up in California, enamored of the atmosphere of the budding counterculture movement in Berkeley and working to help grow the then recently founded, now globally recognized Esalen Institute for personal transformation and spiritual evolution.
It wasn’t long before he started researching the potential of psychedelic substances as therapeutic aids. He participated in Leo Zeff’s pioneering LSD-assisted therapy efforts and later contributed to it with his own research involving harmaline (an alkaloid found in the B. caapi vine that is used for brewing ayahuasca) and ibogaine (the active compound in the sacramental African plant iboga). Claudio Naranjo was the first person to scientifically investigate and describe the effects of the harmal alkaloids and their application in psychotherapy and to run clinical experiments with the extract of the iboga plant.
Later on, in collaboration with Sasha Shulgin from Berkeley—arguably the most important psychopharmacologist to ever live—he was involved in a series of clinical tests exploring the effects of phenethylamines, starting with MDA, a close chemical relative of MDMA. The two researchers are basically responsible for introducing the whole class of empathogenic chemicals to the world, MDMA (or ecstasy) being the most well-known substance due to its wide use on the global rave scene.
Claudio Naranjo’s clinical explorations of MDA, MMDA, harmaline, and ibogaine are covered in his book, The Healing Journey: New Approaches to Consciousness (1st edition in 1973, 2nd edition published by MAPS in 2013). Additionally, he offered some of the first inside looks at the use of ayahuasca by the indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon. It was entitled “Researching the Vine of the Soul”, and it was published in Fate magazine in 1969.
He first presented his research on ibogaine-assisted psychotherapy at the University of California LSD Conference held in 1967 and had given talks at dozens of major psychedelic-themed conferences since. The last conference he presented at was AYA 2019, and it took place just a month before his death. He announced to the audience that this was probably the last time he would address a conference.
In the late 1960s, Claudio settled down in Berkeley, working as a Research Associate at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research and taking over as one of the core successors of Fritz Perls at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. He also became a council member of the Education Policy Research Center, studying the potential of implementing psychological and spiritual techniques in the learning system.
The world broke down for Claudio on Easter eve of 1970, when his only son died in an accident. He returned to Chile and undertook a six-month long pilgrimage in the Arica desert. During this time, he and a small group of students were taught a deep technique of understanding personality types, called Protoanalysis, by renowned spiritual teacher Oscar Ichazo.
Ichazo’s teachings were founded on a personality model he called the Enneagram. Dr Naranjo resonated profoundly with Ichazo’s typology and decided to adopt and adapt it in his further work. He wrote extensively about his understanding of the Enneagram and its comparison to other personality models in his book Character and Neurosis: An Integrative View. According to Naranjo, “this seminal experience marked the true beginning of my contemplative life and of my feeling of inner guidance.”
The period of solitary self-reflection yielded the idea and the confidence for a new psycho-spiritual development platform. In September 1971, the Seekers After Truth (SAT) program was born. Rooted in Naranjo’s psychology of the Enneatypes, and enriched over the last five decades with his and his collaborators’ vast experience with Gestalt therapy, meditation, music, multi-modal communication, and various kinds of theatrical expression, the SAT is now a highly acclaimed retreat program aimed at empowering psycho-spiritual growth and healing of teachers and students alike.
Aside from the US, the SAT has seen success around the globe. Since Claudio started it in Spain in 1987, it has spread to France, Germany, Italy, the UK, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Korea. This international work, along with dozens of books and articles he published in the ensuing years and, as of late, the numerous conferences he addressed, characterized the second half of Claudio Naranjo’s invaluable career.
For almost half a century, Claudio Naranjo worked tirelessly on the reformation of what he termed the patriarchal roots of the global educational system. He strived toward instituting a holistic learning paradigm, one that would focus not solely on the transmission of knowledge, but would support the formation of healthy and expressive individuals whose passion is channeled into developing their unique abilities and revitalizing their respective societies.
Dr Naranjo’s diverse array of interests and vast psycho-spiritual cognizance is reflected in his eclectic bibliography. His works overflow with sage insight, profound awareness of the complexity of human psychology and the world, and an optimistic vision of their betterment. He continued to share wisdom and strived to make the world a better place all the way until his final days. He passed away peacefully in Berkeley on July 12, 2019, at the age of 86.