“We need to describe how human beings unfold and become very beautiful when listened to. Listening shows that the nature of human beings is nothing like socialized content. It is a depth of richness that needs only interactive reception to open out, step by step, into a creative self-correcting development with freshly discovered wanting, personal ethics, and unique work in the world.”
In a previous blog, I wrote about my experiences in psychedelic therapy, and the ways that the psychedelic-assisted therapy model by design perpetuates one of our culture’s deepest wounds: feeling alone. In this blog, I want to explore how vital connection, love, belonging, and having the space to be our true selves in relationships with other people is to our healing and becoming truly human.
Loneliness & Truth-Telling
Our human species is in a deep trance of separation, isolation, and loneliness. If this is true, what are we doing sending people off into the eyeshades on their psychedelic journeys? If people want to wear eyeshades during a journey, that’s a different thing than telling them that is how it is supposed to be done. For instance, if there was another model that said the person had to stay in connection or relationship the entire psychedelic session, that too, could be harmful. Authentic relationships let people be how they are, in any given moment. There “isn’t a script,” says Andrew Feldmar. When we write scripts for people, about how things should be done, we box, define, and dehumanize them.
R.D Laing says, “Psychotherapy must remain an obstinate attempt of two people to arrive at a recovery of the wholeness of being human through the relationship between them.” This dominant model of psychedelic-assisted therapy could not be further in its ideology or philosophy from Laing’s quote. The model adopted by Stanislov Grof and Holotropic Breathwork is a transpersonal model, not a model that supports immanence, incarnation, and relationship. Here between us is where life happens. If we want to create a more beautiful world, it is essential that we begin to learn how to be in connection here and now, in this moment, in the space between us.
Although I had an intuition of this deep down, it wasn’t until I did a medicine session with my therapist over zoom in a truly interpersonal way that my deep bone wisdom was able to emerge. In that session, he was fully there with me. He had zero ambition for me to accomplish or heal anything. And yet that zero ambition created space for me to feel my authentic self.
It went like this:
I had gone to the bathroom to pee at least ten times at the beginning of this session, which is common for me in my daily life. I’ve had bladder issues since I was a little girl. At this moment, I could feel that I was nervously going to the bathroom to find a sense of relief from my anxiety.
Finally, I came down and sat in front of the computer screen to look at him. I was overwhelmed with fear, and yet, I could feel that he was up for my truth. He was up for me to be real. I hadn’t ever felt this with anyone before.
“I don’t trust you. I didn’t realize it until this moment, but I don’t trust you.”
He looked at me with utter compassion and understanding, and I felt the safety to keep talking.
All the deep mistrust I developed in my Evangelical familial upbringing came pouring out my lips. How could I trust anyone when the disciplinary tactics of shaming, humiliating, and punishing children were enacted by my own parents, who were meant to love me the most? This is the banal passing of relational trauma from one generation to the next until someone looks squarely at it and is willing to face the full measure of heartbreak. My parents were hurt by their parents, and I was hurt by them.
Finally, I was able to see how this deep wound of mistrust bled into nearly every relationship I’d ever been in. This wasn’t something I could heal inside myself with eyeshades on and music.
As our session progressed, I reflected back on our relationship over the last two years, and realized he never had harmed me or done anything to warrant my mistrust. The spell of denial I’d been under for my entire life, from fear of feeling this particular wound, ended in this session.
If there had been music, if he had asked me if I was avoiding going to a difficult place within myself because I didn’t wear eyeshades and wanted to talk to him the whole time, all the trust between us would have been broken and I would have never had the opportunity to feel this deep wound. If I had wanted to lay down and put eyeshades on and listen to music, but he told me I needed to stay in connection with him, that too would have been emotionally violent. But he didn’t do any of that. He was there as a fellow human to be with me however I was. This is attunement, tracking. It’s something we’re meant to receive when we are little, but for many of us, we were asked to contort ourselves at a very early age to serve the interests of authority figures.
It’s also important to note that I had worked with my therapist for two years before I even ventured into this space with him. This is starkly different from the common set-up, where people have several sessions before and after a journey with a therapist, and then are on their way. Healing relational wounds takes time, no allotted specific time. It takes as long as it takes. The emphasis on quick, fast healing in itself is another form of emotional violence. And I get it; when we are suffering, or see the suffering of others, it’s easy to want to eliminate the suffering as quickly as possible, but this isn’t how it works in my perspective. If you have a lifetime of being treated poorly by people, it’s going to take time in relationship with people who actually respect, care and take you seriously to repair the interpersonal human-to-human wound.
Collectively, we humans have lost the art of connection, and yet loving relationships are essential to our early human development, our health throughout our lifespan, and our healing. In Bonnie Bodenach’s book The Heart of Trauma, she gives sobering statistics on attachment development: 40% of infants do not get the attunement, care and nurture they need to develop secure attachment, and 45% of children have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, which is correlated with later receiving mental health diagnoses. It is well known in attachment research how vitally important connection, nurturance, and care is for our developing brains. Most people suffering with mental illness did not get this kind of attunement and care.
Through Stephen Porges’ work with polyvagal theory, we also know that co-regulation is essential to our human capacity to self-regulate. We are more able to handle stress and emotions in the warmth and nurturing care of another. Co-regulation is an understated human need, and one that may be hard to come by given how unsafe many of us humans feel in the presence of one another. It is our birthright to have loving, attuned, empathic relational connections. Yet many of us do not have the blueprint for what this feels like because of the systemic violence, abuse, and interpersonal harm embedded in our culture and unfortunately, most intimate relationships.
So, what if we told people this foundational truth that co-regulation and attachment theory offers: that the psyche is not inside them, but between us and our interpersonal interactions? That fundamentally, we as a human species have forgotten how to relate to one another through an ethics of care. This is evident in our history of trauma displacement, transcendent spirituality, racism, classism, rape culture, and the desecration of the very eco-systems which support and sustain us. This has been happening for a long time, millennia at the least. Yet, it hasn’t always been this way.
The Root Illness
Psychotherapy is derived from the ancient Greek words psyche (ψυχή meaning “breath; spirit; soul”) and therapia (θεραπεία “healing; medical treatment”). From the etiology of the words, we can presume that psychotherapy has emerged to heal this illness of the soul. If this is true, then we must look honestly at what exactly is the soul’s illness in this time, place, and for each individual being. In my perspective, the illness of the soul has to do with the dominator system the human species has been immersed in for centuries, and the ways this impacts all of us.
In Rianne Eisler’s book The Chalice & The Blade, she writes about two different terms to describe starkly different social systems. Rather than using the word patriarchy to describe the human species’ current system, she specifies our predicament with the word androcracy. Andros, “man” and kratos, “ruled.” The androcratic social system is based on the domination of man over woman, children, and nature. In stark contrast to androcracy, she describes a different social system that has been seen in the neolithic era of humanity, and in ancient Crete. She terms this social system, glyany. Gy derives from the Greek root gyne, or “woman.” An, “man,” and the letter l between the two has double meanings, in English the l stands for linking man and woman through equality, rather than hierarchy. In Greek l is derived from lye or lyo, “to solve or resolve,” or “to dissolve or set free.” She writes, “In this sense, the letter l stands for the resolution of our problems through the freeing of both halves of humanity from the stultifying and distorting rigidity or roles imposed by the domination hierarchies inherent in androcratic systems.”
These are issues of power; the way power has been misused in nearly every domain of human existence in the last couple millennia. Power-over. Domination and submission are the backdrop of how we relate. Although we see this happen in overt ways like war and rape, it happens in subtler ways in therapeutic spaces, with all of the agendas for people to heal, progress, fix, and be saved from their trauma. Much of this is connected to scientific materialism, the myth of progress, patriarchy, and dehumanization. We cannot actually heal when we re-enact imprinted power structures in the counseling room. Our species has a long lineage of poisonous pedagogy, as Alice Miller terms it; childrearing practices that manipulate, contort, shame, humiliate, and punish innocent children, stripping them of their authentic nature.
The way we treat children informs the ways adults in our world relate to one another. When children grow up not knowing they are fundamentally loved for who they are, and that those in power over them will not hurt them, a catastrophe of interpersonal violence haunts them into adulthood. It is this lack of care for the innocent ones among us that perpetuates racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, speciesism, and all the other categories of relational abuse. Psychedelic-assisted therapy is perpetuating this illness in its overtly individual process and failure to recognize that what ails us truly will only be healed through our coming back into connection and creating safe relationships with one another and all beings.
Sing Your Song
Recently I was reading through Mia Kalef’s book The Secret Life of Babies. One of her mentors was Malidome Somé, who taught her a story about how in East Africa a child’s birthdate is the moment she is a thought in her mother’s mind. She learns the song of her child, and then teaches it to her husband, and they sing the song while they make love, and then they teach it to the village. This song is sung by the people to the child throughout their lifespan and again, at this one’s deathbed. It reminds me of the quote by Howard Thurman, the American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, and civil rights leader: “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have.”
It took a long time to begin to hear the song of the genuine within myself. My counseling program at Denver Seminary, along with most of the psychotherapist and somatic therapists I have seen along the way, related to me in subtle dominating and controlling ways. They felt uncomfortable if I wasn’t performing and going along with their image of healing. They perpetuated these systemic power dynamics in our relationship. And I too, early on in my career, perpetuated these dynamics. This is what most therapists are taught to do.
One of my most treasured moments with my current therapist was being in a therapy session with him when a spontaneous melody and song emerged from my lips. I asked him to sing along with me, and he did. We sang the words Shekinah Yahweh together, over and over, like a sweet river of delight. Shekinah Yahweh translates as the light and divine presence of the feminine aspect of God in Kabbalah. It was simple. I could feel he enjoyed being around me with his big smile, swaying shoulders, and willingness to sing with me. There was no technique, modality, parts work, external music, eyeshades. Through this experience I felt myself becoming more human. A huge sigh of relief swept through my heart, and there it was, I could finally relax and just be myself with another person there. I’d been waiting my whole life for that.
If we humans have lost the song of the genuine within us, and do not know how to sing our songs to one another, then setting up a therapeutic model of psychedelic-assisted therapy that silences the client’s voice during the most climactic state of the process needs to be reconsidered. This is not a space that is listening for the song of the soul of the client; rather, it is imposing a song of the therapeutic community onto them, which reinforces this relational dynamic of power-over, domination, and submission—sometimes subtly, sometimes violently. In some cases, the music can be immensely healing and therapeutic for people; I have witnessed this firsthand. Yet I believe if there is music chosen for this experience, the power dynamics at play need to be addressed consciously.
Healing comes through being in connection with people who cherish us and take us seriously. Our deepest wounds stem from the complex violence we currently live under in this androcratic dominating system, and the ways this shows up in our most intimate, professional, and community relationships. If we want to create a more life-enhancing, beautiful world, we need to address this real illness of our times, and how it reveals itself in the most subtle ways. Connection and love are our birthright. We thrive when we feel the freedom to be ourselves around other people, and when we know there are people in our lives who trust, support, and engender our truth and unique creative expression.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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