Katrina Michelle is a psychologist and the founder and director of The Curious Spirit, a transpersonally oriented psychotherapeutic practice that encourages transcendent personal exploration to remedy psychological suffering. She is a holistic psychotherapist currently serving as faculty at Columbia University School of Social Work and The Institute for the Development of Human Arts.
In addition to her practice, she also serves as the director of harm reduction for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and formerly worked as the executive director of the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences (ACISTE). To demystify awakening experiences through storytelling and art, she is also producing the film When Lightning Strikes.
Beginning in the world of traditional social work, Michelle was drawn to transpersonal psychology after her own spontaneous spiritually transformative experience. She now works to help create communities capable of holding these often difficult experiences, as western societies often lack the language and cultural understanding needed to integrate them into daily life.
In this interview, we discuss the place of psychedelics in psychotherapy, how spiritually transformative experiences can be mistaken for ‘mental illness,’ and the various resistances we have to these experiences.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Richard Sears: I want to start by asking how you came to your work. What drew you to transpersonal psychology and your work in harm reduction for MAPS?
Katrina Michelle: Transpersonal psychology, before I knew what it was, was always an interest of mine. It is at the intersection of consciousness studies, philosophical inquiry, behavioral health, and spirituality.
I always knew I wanted to be a therapist, and I went the traditional route of going through mainstream social work school, but I felt that something was missing from general psychotherapy practice, and I knew it was that spiritual piece.
Eventually, I went back to school to study transpersonal psychology. It was actually during that academic endeavor that I realized that what had drawn me to the field all along was my own transpersonal experience. It was what Stan Grof refers to as a unitive experience, which is this unsolicited merging of consciousness with the world around you, this sense of expansion, this open-hearted bliss love state of being, and it was completely ineffable.
It took me over 10 years to even begin to find words to point to it. It wasn’t until a decade later, when I went back to school for transpersonal psychology, that I realized this is what I was here to study.
Sears: Given your training and experiences, what place you see for psychedelics in mental health treatment?
Michelle: We are at such a fascinating juncture because we know that any type of transpersonal treatment really can shift your consciousness, and psychedelics don’t mess around. You can’t hide from them. Psychedelics really cut right through our defenses. They can make us able to see beyond ways that we have patterned ourselves to view in the world. It can also be really scary to be that vulnerable.
That’s why I think harm reduction is important when it comes to psychotherapy and integration. It is a new state of being, and if it’s not held in the right cultural context, it can be challenging for people and can even cause more trauma.
Sears: What about the work of harm reduction? What does that look like in practice?
Michelle: Harm reduction is a rather large field. Psychedelic harm reduction, as we have been doing it at the Zendo project, is really about looking at where people are, coming into their experience, and where they need support. We’ve done that by building a peer support model where volunteers are trained to serve each other.
The work of harm reduction has several parts. The first is preparing for your journey: knowing what substances you’re going to take, exploring considerations about how you’re going to take them, who you’re going to take them with, understanding your family history, what might be triggered psychologically, and whether or not you might have the capacity to manage that. You also need to plan for your care after the experience. The lessons that will come up don’t end with the journey; they can go on for months, years, or even the rest of your life.
Sears: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about integrating these kinds of experiences. Why is it important to integrate these things, and how do we go about doing that?
Michelle: In my experience, it was something that I could not quite put away. It was always there in the back of my head. It would bring me to tears when I would remember it, and I really had no context for it.
My first thought when I came out of that experience, which was really at once fleeting and timeless, was, “Oh, I must be having a psychotic break.” I was about 20 years old. I was at that age where you are more likely to have a break. I was fortunate that I didn’t decompensate, that I was able to hold it together.
There was something powerful about that experience that pointed me toward my journey and my path. Until I was able to name it and have a community around it, I didn’t feel like I was on that path.
It’s similar to any psychedelic journey where you can have this amazing experience. You might even work with it for the weekend if you’re at a retreat, and then you put it away. But if you come home and have people who are willing to support you in processing it, you can really take the lessons and work them into your regular state of consciousness. I think that’s where the growth comes from, taking those expanded states and helping us move them into our daily lives.
Sears: In your view, why do we label some drugs that affect our mental states as therapeutic and not others?
Michelle: The medical model to me, while it certainly has its benefits (I am not somebody who’s antipsychiatry), works by symptom suppression. The difference is that sometimes the symptoms coming to the surface are really there to teach us something. If we can expand our way of thinking about these symptoms–beyond just suppressing the anxiety with benzos, for example–then there is the potential for a lot of growth.
Symptom suppression is one way that we’ve used drugs traditionally in psychiatry. I think this new model with psychedelics is completely the opposite. Instead of suppressing, we’re ripping the band-aid off; we’re looking for the truth, we’re letting it all come out. We’re bringing the shadows out to the surface, and we’re working with them. That’s the therapy. That’s the real work.
It’s not about pushing them back down and going about your day. This is what I think psychology is meant to do: it’s meant to help us be reflective of ourselves and our states and understand what’s coming up and why so that we can ultimately grow and expand and evolve as individuals and as a collective.
Sears: As a transpersonally oriented psychotherapist, how do you understand ‘mental illnesses ‘or psychological suffering differently than the diseased brain biomedical model?
Michelle: Transpersonal psychology is there to empower the individual. It’s not about checking off a list of symptoms and coming up with the diagnosis, which I then ascribe to you, and you carry around like a weight on your shoulder. Some people need that. Sometimes it helps to have a label for it because then they think they have some control over it. That’s fine if that works for you.
I think the beauty of transpersonal psychology is that we could do that too. If that’s what your insurance is going to pay for, I’m happy to give it to you. However, it’s also about looking beyond that and empowering you to find the language that works for you.
I use the work of Stan and Christina Grof and their spiritual emergence lens to really explore what it means to look at these extreme states as potential realities. I think there are ways to do this that are more intelligent and more comprehensive than just the medical model, essentially taking a pill for as long as you can suppress the symptoms and go to therapy.
There is another kind of therapy we can do where instead of suppressing the symptoms, we are diving into the symptoms and looking at what was there. Instead of a reductionist view, I think it’s a more expansive view.
Sears: It sounds like you are describing a holistic approach to mental health. Can you give us some examples of what you might bring into a transpersonal practice? Are there any ways that you bring other orientations into your practice?
Michelle: I do not discount anything that behavioral mental health gives us. Certainly, there are tools there that can be super valuable for people. I don’t discount psychiatry as a whole. I think it has problems, but I think, used with appropriate discretion, psychiatry can play an important role in healing.
Personally, in terms of my techniques, I tap into what I understand to be my own sensitivities. I hesitate to use the word intuition because I think those words can sound flakey and out there. It’s really about tuning in to a person in front of you and establishing communication with them that’s beyond words, beyond the physical.
We know energy is real, and it’s alive. When I’m tuning in to somebody’s energy in front of me and talking with them about what I’m feeling, and they’re reflecting back to me, usually we do go into a bit of an altered state. We’ll start with a meditation; we’ll move into a space of shifting from ordinary consciousness, and then we’ll be in the session. For me, it’s a really organic process. Every person needs something different. I don’t think one size fits all.
Sears: You mentioned earlier you had a unitive spiritually transformative experience coming off of the subway. Could you talk to us a little bit about that?
Michelle: I was probably about 20 years old, and I was just going about my day leaving the subway and walking onto Lexington Avenue in New York. I was suddenly taken into this place that was outside of time and space as I knew it. There was the sense of understanding the fabric of the universe, seeing that all of these strangers around me in New York City are actually all part of me, and I’m a part of them and feeling this overwhelming sense of love and empathy.
This is not the framework that I was coming from. I’m a born and raised New Yorker. We don’t talk like that. For me to suddenly have this spontaneous experience, it was blissful, and it was beautiful.
Then, as I came out of it, it was confusing. It wasn’t something I could wrap my logical mind around. It’s those experiences that people have that can really be catalysts for change. I think it’s the integration that leads to that change. The integration can last a long time, and it can be really confusing.
Not everyone’s experiences are blissful and beautiful like mine. Sometimes it can involve a lot of pain, what appears to be medical issues, but that can’t be diagnosed. We really need a framework to give people language around these kinds of experiences.
Sears: In this answer and your last answer, you pointed to energies and connections that are deeper and noted that you are careful about your language because you may come off as “flakey.” In traditional psychotherapy theories, there is the term transference, which to me seems really similar to what you’re talking about regarding intuition. Traditional theories have this special word that they can use, so maybe they do not have to be careful with their language. In transpersonal psychology, maybe it gets lumped in with flakiness and not being scientifically rigorous. How do you navigate that?
Michelle: I do not know that I’ve had to navigate it too much personally. I think my general rule of thumb is to know your audience. For some people, “transference” would be meaningless. But if I talk about intuition or connection or empathy, they are very present with me, and they soften, and they open up.
Language is important. A word like transference can feel very loaded and hierarchical. As a therapist who wants to approach the people I’m working with as the experts on themselves, coming across with clinical language can make people feel othered.
Sears: How can we recognize these transpersonal experiences in ourselves and those around us?
Michelle: Many people might be experiencing these energetic surges and go to a medical doctor, but there is not usually an answer there. In contrast, a spiritual teacher might describe it as a Kundalini rising experience. We have not completely built the bridge between these ways of understanding energy or spirituality and the medical lens and diagnostic testing. I think, in general, it is a process of dropping our defenses.
People who go through these Spiritually Transforming Experiences (STEs) tend to have significant lifestyle changes. They often will leave relationships they’ve been in for a long time. They will completely change their career path. They will become much less centered around money, status, and privilege and focus on humanitarian causes.
To generalize a bit, people tend to feel connected to something greater than themselves, and they want to be in service of that. When suddenly you don’t have the friends that you’ve had for 20 years, or you’re fighting the end of a marriage or your children don’t recognize you anymore, that can come with its own trauma.
Sears: You’ve mentioned that psychedelics can be a catalyst for these kinds of transformative experiences. Do you know of any other catalysts similar to psychedelics?
Michelle: Meditation is a really powerful tool. People will often have these experiences at Vipassana retreats, where it’s 10 days of silence. Sometimes when you quiet the mind, you get to that state where something else rises. That can be terrifying for people.
Yoga has become a physical exercise and a fashion statement. But yoga is about opening up channels to connect with that higher consciousness. People are going through these postures, and they’re not recognizing that they’re opening up their potential to have experiences that they might not be ready to have. Because again, there’s no language or cultural context in our Western society.
It sounds great to have a blissful mountain top experience, but you can’t control whether or not that’s going to happen.
Sears: Can these spiritually transformative experiences be mistaken by the individuals having them or those around them as mental illnesses?
Michelle: It does happen, and it’s very common. It happens because we don’t have an alternative lens to look through.
Most people will look at somebody having an experience like what I’m describing, and they’ll call it a dissociative state. If it lasts, they’ll put you in the hospital, and they’ll medicate you. That’s a very different way of viewing something that, when held in the right space, can be transformative in a positive way.
Now you give somebody medication that maybe they don’t need. You put them in a hospital, which can be traumatizing for lots of reasons. You give them a diagnosis, and people really do come away with PTSD from not being met and understood.
The challenge is that many of our mental health providers are not necessarily open to this yet. We need to get it into the research. We need to get it funded so that once the research is there, people can start to adopt this and build it into their practices of understanding people in ways beyond what we are trained for clinically in the medical model.
Sears: In your experience, what external obstacles and internal resistances to these experiences are most common?
Michelle: If you are going through something that could be considered a spiritually transformative experience, you might be terrified about what that will mean. It may mean I need to leave my wife or quit my job or give my money away. That’s terrifying. It’s a loss of your ego, how you understand yourself to be in the world. The ego is there to fight.
External resistance similarly could be “I don’t want people to think I’m crazy, so how can I possibly share this with people? I don’t want to be diagnosed and medicated.” People resist, and then this process is halted and cannot move beyond that space of that first experience.
Sears: What can we do to support people around us if they’re having these kinds of experiences?
Michelle: There are depths of pain that we are not accustomed to going to in our society. Yet all of that pain is part of what makes us human.
Nobody is going to say it’s easy to watch a loved one suffer, but I think we also need to empower the people who might be expressing something like this to explore what they want so that we are not dictating treatment to them. It’s a process of trying to work with them in that state, understanding what their intuition is asking for. Do they want to ride this out at home with the people they love? Do they want to go to a hospital and get this medicated away as quickly as possible?
I think part of the challenge in talking about them is that there are so many different types of experiences, and everyone is unique. Giving people alternative lenses, giving people a community that can hold them and supports them, like the Zendo Project, can create safe containers for these experiences.
I think that is the ideal we can hope for: a community that is emotionally intelligent enough and open-minded enough to be able to sit with people and witness them in their pain and in their darkness and allow those to move through them without dictating and mandating treatments, especially if somebody is not a threat to themselves or others. We all get triggered in our own pain by seeing someone else’s. It’s always a journey within ourselves to sit with our discomfort in looking at the people we want to fix.
Sears: Some of our readers have likely had some of these difficult experiences that we’ve been talking about. What would you say to someone that’s had an experience they find difficult to integrate into their daily lives?
Michelle: I think the most important thing is to know that they are not alone. Whatever they’re struggling with, they can find a way to integrate and work through. They just need to connect with the right community, with the right care, and give themselves a chance to finish that process.
This is all complicated by the fact that you probably need to work and support yourself and pay your rent while trying to give yourself the time to ride this out. It’s not something that people necessarily understand and recognize as a disability, but it can be like a disability.
I do not say disability as something with a period on the end. It’s a period of challenge that when we deal with it, we can work with it, and we can grow from it. I think that’s where the work happens. It happens in the darkness; it happens in the pain.
Sears: Have you experienced any pushback, criticism, or consequences as a result of your transpersonal orientation as a psychologist or work in psychedelics?
Michelle: I would say personally, other than maybe some rolled eyes or people who just don’t want to engage in the conversation, I haven’t experienced a lot of pushback in terms of my work on psychedelics.
I think that people still have a lot of fear and old cultural conditioning about what psychedelics are, and that’s understandable. I do think that will change when we have more research and when the research becomes undeniable. That’s not to say everyone’s going to jump out and do psychedelics, nor should everyone. It’s not for everyone.
In terms of the pushback around my transpersonal orientation, the therapists that I know may not always speak the same language, but most people are pretty open-minded, and I don’t take those who aren’t personally.
Sears: Can you tell us about something you have learned in your work that most of us might not know that we could benefit from knowing?
Michelle: I think the main thing is that we as humans are innately intelligent, and I think we do not give ourselves enough credit for the innate intelligence that we do carry within us. I think the body has a way of knowing how to heal itself, as does the mind. I think that it’s about going into murky territory that is unknown.
It can be scary but trusting that if we really allow these natural processes to evolve and unfold and we just clean up around the edges so we can get through the day, I think there are some really dynamic, beautiful things that can come from that.
There is optimism for me about the fact that even when we are completely misunderstood, there’s always somebody out there who can relate. It’s just a matter of finding and connecting with them. Sometimes we all need a little support, and that’s okay.
Sears: Could you talk to us a little bit about the film you’re working on, “When Lightning Strikes”?
Michelle: When Lightning Strikes is a perfect example of us not having lenses for some of these experiences we have been discussing. It follows my friend Kate, who I met because she started describing to me her own Kundalini experience and the pain that she’s been in. Part of our conversation has been about how difficult it is to find other people with similar experiences when she does not have language for it.
The film is really intended to be about that journey. It’s intended to create a context for people who may not have had an experience like this themselves, but if you start to acclimate to the language, you might be able to help somebody in the future by recognizing what it is. Similarly, if you are going through this experience, you can now connect with people and understand what it’s about.
The film is really about our own personal journeys and how we’ve come together to be curious and explore and speak with people who are “experts” because they’ve gone through their own experiences. It’s about looking through the different lenses, the mental health perspective, the yoga perspective, and various spiritual models, and seeing what we can learn while bringing some voice to this topic because it’s not something that people are talking about.
Again, it’s not even something we have agreed upon language for, and I think that’s the first step. We chose the title “When Lightning Strikes” because in all our reading and meeting people along the way, it is the most common way people describe these experiences. They will say, “‘I had a lightning moment,” or “lightning struck my body.”
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations