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Psychedelics for Healing Trauma

Recently there has been a lot of discussion on trauma and healing trauma.  Psychiatry, psychology and consciousness studies is expanding its understanding of the psyche as an anomalous structure in which states of awareness in the non-ordinary realms can be made sense of in new ways.  The potential of our human experience has exploded beyond our self-imposed boundaries.   One such area in this field is the use of psychedelics; studies initiated in the modern West since the 1950’s began to explore the expanding perameters of human consciousness to include non-ordinary states of reality as valuable insightful, and healing.

Studies of the brain, particularly the limbic system, show how trauma is not only a mental experience but is also a somatic one and that unhealed trauma continues to have serious effects in the lives and experiences of human beings, potentially lasting the whole life-cycle and causing premature death.   Trauma is not a singular experience, it seems to encompass many states of awareness through different realms previously misunderstood or known only in special contexts such as religious or shamanic, pre-rational awareness.  The worlds are merging and to an extent this is an uncomfortable interface for traditional science which separates spirit and matter, mind and body.

In the 1960’s the anti-psychiatry movement challenged the assumption that mental illness was caused by a blip in the brain of the individual.  Many barbarous procedures were carried out to ‘fix’ the problem: over medication with complex pharmaceutical drugs continues to be the method of choice for consciousness suppression. Continuing to the present day, the solution peddled by allopathic medicine is to first classify and then medicate the faulty brain to bring the individual to ‘normality’, or at least under control and limit disruption to the social order.

Psychiatrists such as R.D. Laing began to explore the deeper meaning behind an individual’s ‘abnormal’ behaviour, suggesting that perhaps it was not so abnormal after all and in fact made perfect sense within the environmental context of the suffering individual.  Naturally this exploration began to look at structures such as the social collective to which the individual belonged, beginning with the family.  Families however belong to cultures and cultures belong to human systems.  This line of enquiry therefore was in danger of questioning the fabric of our social order, or system, and although the movement was limited in scientific acceptance, its essence continued through the work of pioneers in consciousness such as Stanislav Groff.

It seems the issue is hot once more- why is it that certain individuals display anomalous behaviour in an otherwise well adjusted society?  Could it be that what they experience is a normal process of being human and that what has been deemed abnormal or pathological is in fact symptomatic of the damaged soul getting well? And could it be that society is not that well-adjusted after-all? More, perhaps the ‘mad’ person is delivering an important message pointing towards cultural transformation and spiritual wellness? Madness may be the barometer of how out of balance we have become.  There are only so many labels, so many drugs and so much finger-pointing that we can hide behind.

In the last two decades ‘plant spirit medicine’ has exploded into our cultural experience and many individuals, including those usually thought of as belonging to main stream society, have begun to explore the unchartered aspects of their psyche by working with psychoactives.  Historically the prerogative of the pioneering psychonauts of the 60’s and 70’s, psychedelic exploration is finding its way into mass culture and psychotherapy.  Take for example the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies based in California, MAPS is a ‘non-profit research and educational organization developing medical, legal and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful use of psychedelics and marijuana’ (MAPS web-site).  Indeed, there is a new breed of therapists who are placing the psychedelic experience at the heart of the healing experience. The intention of MAPS is for the exploration of consciousness towards individual healing within a safe and controlled environment. Still, many seekers are opting for a more ‘free-range’ experience and are making pilgrimages to countries where plant spirit medicines are an acceptable and sacred part of the culture.

In such an uncontained context so much can and does appear to go wrong, although perhaps the ‘wrongness’ may be viewed as part of the healing…  out there on the fringes there are few blue-prints to work from.  That may be because each individual psyche has its own path to walk, and although the ‘medicine’ opens the individual to deeper insights and awareness concerning his or her unconscious material, ultimately redemption and ‘individuation’ as Carl Jung calls it is very much an individual experience, a path no one can walk for us.

Perhaps there could be an element of risk management and MAPS may have the right idea in trying to contain the experience within a controlled environment. It could be argued however that journeys of the soul cannot be regulated in this way and that part of the process of self-mastery is precisely through surviving the under-world.  That said, I do feel that Shamans, ‘ayahuasqueros’ and medicine men and women from the global south may not have an inherent understanding of the types of splits ingrained within the cultural psyche of the global north – a culture which may be said to be suffering from ‘institutionalised trauma’.  It may be argued that societies belonging to an advanced capitalist paradigm are in fact structured through and maintained by perpetuating trauma and fragmentation.

An important question then appears to centre around the question of integration.  Once a person has seen into and felt into the shadow of their own, and possibly collective soul, how does he or she integrate that insight within a culture which by and large continues to perpetuate the dynamics which cause the fragmentation in the first place?  Once the sickness has been seen and felt, it does not automatically heal, seeing it is only the beginning albeit a crucial stage- feeling is also crucial.  It seems that what we need are facilitator and therapists who, from personal experience and having walked the path themselves, are able to stay present with a person through the various stages of moving from unconsciousness to consciousness, integrating a new way of being.  Birthing a new consciousness does not happen in isolation but neither can it happen in a new wing of an old paradigm.  What we are being called to is a radical transformation that involves everybody.

To what extent can plant medicines initiate change on a somatic, cellular level?  Integration must surely involve the whole person, mind-body-spirit.  Sadly, there are those who fall down the rabbit hole and struggle to come back.  There is also the danger of re-traumatisation.  Cutting edge neuroscience is showing that the way to heal trauma and PTSD is to re-experience the trauma in a safe environment, this resets the wiring of the brain.  Studies show that due to brain neuroplasticity we can literally re-wire our brains and create new neural pathways but to do so we must stay present to our experience even within the overwhelm of triggering.  In this light, we need a new class of therapists, less directive authority and more shamanic guide. Ultimately, I feel it takes someone who has been ‘there’ and understands the cultural context in which the trauma was initiated, or perhaps this is not necessary for the actual healing of the spirit but is, I feel, for the re-integration of unconscious material and learning new ways of being within one’s cultural environment.

This presents the question – in a culture where the indigenous medicine people and healers were systematically persecuted, how do we re-engage with our own cultural wisdom?  It could be by awakening our indigenous heart through experiencing other cultures for whom the healing traditions and the voice of the ancestors can still be heard.