The Power Dynamics of Psychedelic Therapy

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“Healing is the result of love. It is a function of love. Wherever there is love there is healing. And wherever there is no love there is precious little—if any—healing.”
—M. Scott Peck

I write this because I want people who have gone through the process of the clinical trials, or in the grassroots underground psychedelic movement, to not feel alone if they felt silenced, controlled, or interpersonally hurt. I was deeply hurt and so were several people I love. The way we market and consider the narrative around psychedelics is crucially important. In this essay, I critique the MAPS model, because it is the most widely accepted form of psychedelic-assisted therapy. There needs to be a more nuanced discussion of their harms and benefits, as well as more depth of understanding of how they may be best utilized for each particular person. Because these medicines are so potent and vitalizing, they give us a great chance to open our eyes and see what is really going on here in this world, and to grow beyond old ways of relating that keep us disconnected and separated from one another.

Heal Alone

“Here are your eyeshades, Tara. You can lay on this bed and relax. I will bring the medicine to you in a moment.” My eyes scan the room. There is a tapestry of the Buddha in front of the bed, a red hand-knotted rug below my feet, hanging totems, and a wooden statue of mushrooms.

I look at the black Mindfold eyeshades and notice a flash of queasiness. They remind me of being at Disney World as a child and wearing 3D glasses to watch a film, which I never enjoyed. Compared to the aesthetics of the room, they also look ugly and cheesy. But after watching Fantastic Fungi, and listening to many podcasts, I understand this is how psychedelic-assisted therapy is done. I sit down and wait for the medicine. It arrives. I swallow the medicine and lay back and pull the blanket over my body. The eyeshades cover my eyes and everything turns black. The guide sitting for me presses his finger on the power button of the remote to the sound system, and the room is filled with a light sound of peaceful meditation music.

I start to feel pleasure and heat waves course through my limbs. I begin shaking. There is an electric hum thrumming through every cell of me, and I know from reading Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine that I must be shaking the trauma out of my animal body. Yet beneath the surface, layers beneath my conscious self, a small but excruciating doubt about this healing process is taking root.

It took four years to finally let that feeling in my intuition emerge—and what I learned changed my life and what I understand about the role of therapy.

A photo of one of the comfortable rooms at Johns Hopkins University used in clinical studies to determine the effects of psilocybin and other hallucinogenic drugs. Two guides are monitoring the experiences of the subject, and provide reassurance when the volunteers experience anxiety. (Photo by Matthew W. Johnson)

Eye-shaded and inward-focused, this picture shows a method of healing that recreates what most people in this culture feel most of the time: alone. Perhaps unconsciously, that’s how psychedelic journeys are by design. This loneliness is not merely experienced by those who seek healing, but often the healers, too.

The general protocol for psychedelic-assisted therapy as I experienced it, and which is true in many schools and trainings, is the following: the client enters a room that is aesthetically pleasing, with plants, artwork, comfortable furniture, and a bed to lay on either in a house or in a clinical setting. They ingest ketamine, MDMA, or psilocybin. As the medicine begins to take effect, they pull the blanket over their body and put on eye shades, turn inward, and “heal.” The therapist or the guide is there to support the client, often by gently shepherding them inward, and the music serves as a conduit for an emotional experience with their inner healer. This experience lasts between two to six hours.

This process can be beautiful and revelatory, yet it is often recreating a story: that people need to figure out what is wrong with themselves through self-exploration. I’ve gone through this process many times, and it is through my lived experience that I have formed a different opinion about what is happening. I thought I was healing each time I went “in.” I had mystical, profound, somatic insights, downloads, and connections to celestial and underworld realms deeply hidden in corners of my psyche and body. I felt the full range of emotions, experienced grandiose extrasensory perception, and yet I did not truly feel connected to myself, or others. Because I was so convinced that having and integrating these big experiences was in itself healing, I failed to see how wounded I still was in my day-to-day experience.

Magnolia Fading (Painting by Bry Kring)

The psychedelic container is important. The commonly accepted phrase is “set and setting,” aka the people you’re with and place you’re in, as well as the mindstate you’re entering the experience with. And yet what does this model actually tell us about the perspective of healing of those who created it?

Stanislov Grof, a cofounder in transpersonal psychology with Abraham Maslow, developed holotropic breathwork with Christina Grof after LSD became illegal in the ’60s. The psychedelic-assisted therapy model emulates the set-up of holotropic breathwork with the belief that deep self-exploration can be immensely healing. Although I believe there are many benefits to self-exploration, including learning to feel our emotions and senses specifically, many of our human wounds that shape lives of suffering are relational wounds. I am going to say it again. Our most deeply ingrained wounds as humans are relational. Relational wounds cannot be healed through going inside ourselves; they are healed in emotionally intelligent, loving, non-coercive human-to-human relationships.

I went fully into this process for four years; I wore the badge of doing the “work.” There was a lot from my Evangelical background, my history with bulimia nervosa, and abusive relationships that I needed to understand on a deeper level. It was essential to my process as a healer to continue to unwind my own personal emotional, relational traumas, to ensure I was supporting the people I work with out of integrity. And yet I was actually being drawn further and further away from my authentic self, and rather than finding deeper healing, my romantic relationship and community relationships suffered. It is painful to look back now, and see how all the inner work was a sophisticated show that perpetuated my low self-esteem and reinforced relational dynamics that harmed me.

I was in a reenactment of a chronic struggle I had in Evangelical Christianity: needing to say the right prayer to save me from an eternity in hell. Or, my childhood trauma of feeling like at any moment, if I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, I could be shamed or punished according to the rules of obedience training my parents learned from Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family. If I set the right intention this time, will I finally be healed? If I do the journey, “right,” will my guide like me? In all of these experiences, the message beneath the message was find out what’s wrong with you and fix yourself, you’re the problem.

This model also harmed others I deeply care about and love, which I briefly discuss in my last essay The Hidden Harms of the Psychedelic Renaissance. There are countless other stories from fellow friends and new acquaintances, who’ve told me about the ways this model re-enforced their inner beliefs and wounds that something must be wrong with them because the experience didn’t heal them. Or because they didn’t live up to the subtle or explicit expectations that their therapist and the model of therapy expressed. As one example, the MAPS protocol manual offers this suggestion in response to a client wanting a change in the music:

“If you want to ask for a change in the music that’s fine, because sometimes a piece of music can be distracting or might not fit well with your process. If you find yourself wanting a change in the music, we encourage you to first reflect on whether this desire is motivated by wanting to move away from an uncomfortable feeling or memory that the music is stimulating. If this is the case then, rather than change the music, we encourage you to experience and explore the uncomfortable feelings or memories, rather than attempt to stop them by removing the music that is stimulating them.”

From a cursory reading, this may seem like a normal way to relate to people in therapeutic spaces. But even if it’s normal, is it okay or actually beneficial? In my reading of this text, the therapists have an agenda for the client to process in a particular way. Although in the end, they are meant to let the client turn the music off if they really don’t want it on, the client’s initial disinterest in the music is met with encouragement from the therapists to check in with themselves and make sure they are not avoiding an uncomfortable feeling or memory. In my view, this creates a power dynamic between the therapist and client. It places the therapist in the seat of an expert. Rather than the therapist innately trusting the initial impulse of the client for the change in music, there is an element of mistrust. This kind of questioning of the client will often reinforce their relational and childhood wounds by making them doubt themselves, something many people with childhood trauma already struggle with.

I also wonder, as the psychologist Andrew Feldmar has suggested, if this setup protects the therapist from having to walk into unknown territory with their client, and if not having a script for what is supposed to happen is scary for them. What if the therapist doesn’t have the answers, or cannot fix their clients? What then is the relationship between therapist and client about? In my experience, agendaless presence from another human being is healing. In a world of therapy that is mostly about tools, techniques, and treatment plans, many therapists themselves have not experienced agendaless presence. If a therapist’s value is based on the treatment plan and successful healing of the client, this places an enormous amount of pressure on the therapist, which then prevents them from being themselves. Therapy can then easily become a performance where the therapist and the client are having to act, rather than connect through the authentic truth between them. I am a therapist, and I’ll tell you honestly from my past experience early on in my career, that many of us therapists hide behind the role of healer. Beneath that role is eons of pain, heartbreak, and feelings of lovelessness.

The MAPS research program reinforces this type of therapist-client relationship that I’m concerned about. Because MAPS needs FDA approval for these medicines, their protocol is scientific. Here I have another fundamental qualm as a woman. As a woman, and a feminist, I am tired of our society only taking things seriously if they are “proven” by science. Feminist, poet, essayist and filmmaker Susan Griffin’s book Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her makes it utterly clear that the progression of science has in many ways been at complete odds with more feminine, intuitive ways of being. She details this in exquisite and painful detail as she maps the history of scientific discoveries alongside the burning of Joan of Arc and other witches beginning in 1383 through 1945 when the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima.

It is not that I am against science as an epistemology, but much has been done in the name of science that has catastrophically disconnected us from our humanity.  I believe that the pressure from our cultural systems to convey psychedelic psychotherapy as mostly a scientific endeavor, rather than one focused on poetics, beauty, and human flourishing, is in itself problematic. This is an ethical issue. Science can, and must, be one aspect of our research of psychology, but only with immense discussion, conversation, and nuance on when, how, and in what ways. Otherwise, it becomes another dogma like religion, that makes individuals into a means for the scientific end goal, rather than ends in themselves. Human beings are not science experiments. I do not like being treated like a science experiment. I am not an experiment. I am a living, breathing, human. You are too.

We all long to feel a sense of deep belonging, love and connection to our humanity. Not only did many of us not receive this when we were little and first entered the world, but our human history is also fraught with this interpersonal violence which leaves us isolated and alone. The psychedelic-assisted therapy model fails to accurately apprehend this relational truth, and in fact, often denies it. This is a learning opportunity. From here, we can begin to develop a robust ethic of care in these vulnerable spaces by attuning more to the relational field in psychedelic containers.

Purple Light in Regular Development. (Evening) — South Atlantic Ocean, December 2nd 1884. Studies on Twilight Phenomena, after Krakatoa (1888) (The Public Domain Review)
The Worship of Experience and Childhood Trauma

I kept going into medicine experiences and received huge insights about my life. I would connect to my body with an incredible increase in my capacity for interoception, as well as a multidimensional connection to Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and other spirits, allies, and guides. I accessed memories that were epigenetically transmitted to me; ancestral traumas that had been hidden. This is all valuable, and I do believe there is a place for reconnecting to these multidimensional planes and embodied experiences. But, I want to be clear that transpersonal experiences and even these embodied experiences did not support me in reclaiming my sovereignty as a human being in this plane of existence, right here and now.

As a psychotherapist, I’ve come to see that many of the people I work with who struggle with OCD, anxiety, depression, complex-post traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and addiction have deep childhood and cultural wounds stemming from people and systems that hurt them. Many people with childhood trauma specifically don’t know the experience of what it means to be respected, cared for, and taken seriously by another human being, which makes for very fragile interpersonal territory between them and their therapist. In my personal relationship to my therapists, I too, have traversed this fragile interpersonal terrain.

Many of my revelatory experiences, insights, and connections to celestial realms were all undergirded by a need to “perform,” and do my healing journey “right.” I recognize now that this dynamic was happening in nearly every healer/therapy situation I’d been in, long before I entered the psychedelic renaissance. I believe now that psychedelics accentuated a dynamic that is there in psychotherapy at large, with or without medicines.

Beneath the need to perform and do the journey right, was a deep belief that I was bad and unloveable in relationship to other people. I would never be able to heal this wound inside of myself. I needed to heal it in multiple authentic relationships—romantic, therapeutic, and otherwise. Mature human relationships were not available to me when I first underwent psychedelic-assisted therapy, or before. In fact, the first Counseling Center I worked at after my graduate school was run by leadership that was deeply manipulative, coercive, and emotionally abusive—an all-too-common set-up in mental health clinics.

My Experience

Here is an example of how it often went for me:

I am lying down with eyeshades on.

This music is loud, too loud. I’m too scared to say anything, though. My guide did choose the music, and his choice of music is intentional and is meant to heal me, so I will go along with it. Gosh, I wonder if my guide is bored right now. Am I doing this right?

I can feel that my guide feels that me feeling my repressed anger will heal me. Okay, I guess I’ll start to feel anger.

I can sense that my guide doesn’t like it when I avoid doing “deep” inner work. Okay, I’ll keep feeling rage, sadness, grief, despair. Great. He likes it. He’s supporting me. I can feel he’s satisfied and thinks I’m doing the “work.” I can also tell he doesn’t like when I take the eye shades off. Even though I do not want them on, I’ll keep them on because that is what I am supposed to do. Alright, I guess I’ll keep trying to figure out how to heal on my own, and do what I think my guide wants me to do.

This therapeutic arrangement, the choreography of most psychedelic-assisted therapy, reinforces many people’s earliest wounds. A wound born from being trained to feel their problems are inside them, need to be figured out inside of them, and that relational trauma is something they’re supposed to figure out by themselves rather than

in relationships with people and a culture that supports their flourishing and aliveness. This perspective has deeply unsettling ramifications on a collective social level, including the perpetuation of classism and other social inequalities. Neşe Devenot writes on this extensively.

That quiet voice within me, beneath the outwardly big experiences that seemed healing, longed to just feel loved by another person for who I am. Only later would I come to know that voice as a direct line to my truth, as it was mirrored in a very different type of therapy.

In my next 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.

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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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34 COMMENTS

  1. Why am I seeing a counselor/therapist? I forgot why I started seeing one. Something concerns me. I think I was looking for help to try to navigate through things. I thought maybe it would be a good step in trying to lower the “medication”. Right now I’m getting this feeling of pessimism, hopelessness and sadness. My parents seem to think It’s a good thing to see one. Is seeing a counselor/therapist what I for so long suspected it would be-a dead end? I am forced every day to destroy my body and dull my soul with psycho poison. Is all I’m expected to do is just talk about it? I do not know how to get employment without feeling disconnected to my soul. How in the world do people profit financially from soul work? How in the world can making money help soul development? Something is seriously wrong with this world. Something just doesn’t feel right. I don’t know what it is exactly and I really don’t know how to fix it. Sometimes I get so tired from the hell I feel that seems to come from being in a messed up world. I can’t just go around telling people about it because all I’m going to get in the end is another pill that dulls the pain some more and just kicks the can down the road. My life just seems to be a cycle of getting “medication” adjustments (mostly increases) that dull the emotional and neurological disruptions then a period of feeling “fine” then back to square one of waves of insanity. What in the world am I doing on this earth? Is all this really worth it? Have I done everything I could to get off the psych drugs? Can I deal with all the craziness in this world if I come off the psych drugs?

    I know this is a lot of intense emotions. Sometimes things seem fine and sometimes things seem to go haywire. When I think about my situation though, a lot of sadness and anger pop up.

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    • Jason, I am really feeling the depth of frustration and grief you are experiencing. This world is messed up. Of course, you feel like you are in hell, sometimes. I have also done deep wrestling with the way things are.

      In my own experience, the only way out of my despair, has been through it. I’ve had to feel it all. Thankfully though, I have been held by a few people, not many, who’ve let me be myself in it, and that has made all the difference.

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    • Thanks, Jason, for what you shared about your struggles. I am sorry that you find yourself in such a rut and are losing hope and optimism that you can do anything to improve your situation.

      The thing is, that once you are on a lot of psychotropic drugs and your mental and emotional behavioural patterns have consolidated in a structure that brings you ongoing suffering on the psychological plain you need the patience and the skills of a very old and wise part of yourself – that part that consists of the innate wisdom of the human organism to live on earth since millions of years – to bring you through and out of this.

      My experience is that it can be accessed with everything that brings you back into your intuition, the understanding that nothing is wrong with you or has ever been wrong with you and that step by step by step you will find the patience, the courage, the strength and the resources to find your path to stability, health and satisfaction. Know that you can achieve it and that a journey of one thousand miles begins with the first step.

      For me these resources were yoga, the Buddhist teachings and mindfulness meditation, and very specific Buddhist teachings on how to deal with fear. My starting point were a famous book by the Tibetan-American nun Pema Chödrön When Things Fall Apart and a book by another meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart. To fully be able to cut myself off from any dependency on psychiatric and psychotherapeutic support which did more harm than good to me from the beginning to the end of my orientation towards finding support within that field I took the Wellness Recovery Action Plan Seminar I. offered online by the Copeland Center.

      Coming off the anti-depressants that I was taking at that time was manageable for me to do over the course of two years and with taking up yoga classes 3-4 times a week to balance the difficult effects of going down with the drug. Years later I bumped into the The Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psych Meds which can be downloaded freely on the website of the Fireweed Collective and thought that I would have felt well supported by that guide during the time I was myself tapering off these drugs.

      I hope that one or the other of my ideas of where you could continue your search on your path towards a live that you deserve and that you’d actually enjoy having and living come as an inspiration to you.

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      • I actually wrote to one of the researchers in Open Dialogue that mindfulness can be both helpful and harmful, just as therapy can be both helpful and harmful. Depending on relationships.

        Underlying the writing is the need for an actively curious, caring presence actively interested in one’s emotions, one’s inner landscape. Clinical, intellectual interest only is a betrayal to me. It’s saying, “I’ll play this role for me, so I want you to play this healee role for me”.

        I’ve been in many mindfulness retreats and most are very clinical. Unfortunately they had a dissociative character. Thankfully I’ve been to India and seen other possibilities.

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  2. OUTSTANDING ARTICLE.

    “Human beings are not science experiments. I do not like being treated like a science experiment. I am not an experiment. I am a living, breathing human.”

    “In my experience, agendaless presence from another human being is healing.”

    “Therapy can easily become a performance where the therapist and the client are having to act, rather than connect through the authentic truth between them.”

    “This therapeutic arrangement, the choreography of most psychedelic-assisted therapy, reinforces many people’s earliest wounds.”

    These statements reflect what I intuitively sensed when contemplating psychotherapy and sadly proved to be painfully accurate.

    I deeply resented being told by therapists that I feared vulnerability because that was not entirely true. I did feel vulnerable. I longed and needed to be seen, heard, and most of all respected. But NOT by someone whose job it was to label, drug, and “clinically” analyze me.

    The inescapable POWER IMBLANCE is what makes the performative aspect of so-called “psychotherapy” unavoidable, not matter how well-meaning the “therapist”.

    All it amounts to is objectification.

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    • “I deeply resented being told by therapists that I feared vulnerability because that was not entirely true. I did feel vulnerable. I longed and needed to be seen, heard, and most of all respected. But NOT by someone whose job it was to label, drug, and “clinically” analyze me.”

      Gosh, I am so sorry you went through that.

      In my experience, vulnerability comes when we are around people who, over time, show us it is safe to be vulnerable. It comes through being taken seriously and valued, not through force. It comes through being, “seen, heard and respected,” like you said.

      I’m glad you know this line of truth inside of you.

      Thank you for the encouragement on this essay. I’m glad we share this knowing of how objectifying these spaces can be.

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  3. I started exploring psychedelics several years ago but have stopped because I fell into the “I need to heal” trap. When I first started it was because I felt disconnected and empty, however, I did not take psychedelics to “heal” at this time; it was because I recalled an experience with them 15 years prior that felt profound, spiritual, and meaningful. My first time back was great. I saw it as an exploration of and connection to unknown elements of myself and the universe. It was exciting. Unfortunately, I started to get into the culture of psychedelics — specifically the culture of psychedelic healing. My journeys went from curious exploration to “I need to figure out all my past trauma and release it.” Eventually I was just stuck in this loop of trying to figure out what was wrong with me and why I was bad… I was actively ruining my life to do so too! Yes, during the journey I’d go through intense pain/sadness/anger/anguish/etc — and, yes, I’d also recover from it and feel completely healed and go on to relish in the more mysterious, mystical elements of the journey…. But as you’ve implied in this article: it didn’t really translate to the day-to-day, and in fact I was becoming a stranger to the people I know and basically alienating them. So, I don’t know, just adding this comment in case it helps someone. I would like to return to psychedelics one day, but when I do I’d like to do it in a curious way again without distorting the experience by convincing myself I need it for healing.

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    • Kevin, thank you for sharing your experience. I really appreciate your intention with how you may come to be with psychedelics in the future, from a place of curiosity and exploration rather than feeling like you need to do something to fix yourself.

      When you said this:
      “My journeys went from curious exploration to “I need to figure out all my past trauma and release it.”

      I was reminded of how often in healing spaces, cathartic experience is deeply sought after, but can often be re-traumatizing. I’ve loved reading through Alice Miller’s books over the last year, including her son Martin Miller’s book. She describes in several of her works that “cathartic” and “big emotional” experiences are very rarely healing, and we are left having to go back to more, over and over again. I see this in the psychedelic community a lot. People going back into the journey over and over again, having huge experiences, but nothing really shifting them toward wholeness in their humanity.

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  4. Loved this article! But now I want to hear how the author thinks we can fix this. I would love to have one of those sessions, but I don’t know where or how to do it to find it. Is it in the underground you can find it better? Or do I have to go to Costa Rica to a real authentic place for healing?

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    • Hey Ann Marie.

      Thank you!

      I have another essay coming out on the Winter Solstice, part two of this series. In that essay, I articulate how we might approach psychotherapy/ and healing containers to foster more space for true healing and people to feel their belovedness and humanity. I will be curious what you think!

      I don’t think you have to go to Costa Rica to do this work. It’s just important to find a practitioner or clinic who understands the importance of the relational element here. Where you might find that, I’m not entirely sure. But I found it, so I know more people out there have it.

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  5. Thanks, Tara Rae, for this beautiful blog! I think your insight into the detrimental effect of putting at the base of a healing journey the idea that something is wrong with us within us that needs to be fixed is key.

    However, because it is foundational to the whole realm of psychiatric and psychotherapeutic thinking I have no hope that these fields can be reformed to offer something to people who suffer chronically on the psychological plane.

    I am happy that I understood this fully after many years, decades actually, of being harmed in psychotherapeutic settings because I was able to build my path to wellness and recovery on the resources that I mentioned above. So that eventually I came to a point where I had full understanding why one path worked and the other didn’t. What I have also observed is that the strategies from outside of the mental health field like yoga and meditation that work well in decreasing suffering on the mental plane stop to work as soon as they are incorported into the field and are offered as treatments and are tought by medical professionals.

    I think that without having tried them myself this is exactly what’s now also going on with psychedelics as a tool to foster wellness and recovery.

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    • Hey Lina,

      This is a really interesting insight: “What I have also observed is that the strategies from outside of the mental health field like yoga and meditation, that work well in decreasing suffering on the mental plane stop to work as soon as they are incorporated into the field and are offered as treatments and are tought by medical professionals.”

      Thank you for sharing. That makes sense. The medical model can be so objectifying to us humans.

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  6. “In my experience, agendaless presence from another human being is healing.”

    This is so true, another way of saying “holding pure space for someone as they tease away everything that is in the way of living their authentic life.”

    I am an integrative psychotherapist as well, and prior to that I was an Ayurvedic practitioner. I remember when I was learning about Ayurvedic psychology, and the teacher said one of the most powerful things that you can say to a client when they come to you with emotional pain is “there is actually nothing wrong with YOU, there are just things in the way that we will work on together to remove.” That really stuck with me, as you mention in your article that always feeling like there is something wrong with you, and you have to do things “right” to please the therapist, will never make you feel like you will be okay because it will be needed from someone external. And yet….

    There is nothing more valuable than having an inner sense of safety and love, and part of this experience requires the mirror of someone else giving this to you. Not from someone who has their own sense of unsafety and insecurity, but by someone who has this inside themselves. In my experience, this is rare and I think it’s why there is harm being done not just in the psychedelic field, but in the “healing of humanity” field. Once we have that sense of safety, the feeling that we will always be okay, it simply can’t be taken away from us and we can share that with others.

    “Healing is the result of love. It is a function of love. Wherever there is love there is healing. And wherever there is no love there is precious little—if any—healing.” – Mr. Peck, no truer words have ever been spoken.

    In the meantime, we move forward, and do the best we can, and love ourselves and each other the best we can.

    Thank you, Tara, for writing your authentic truth and experience. It helps everyone.

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    • Debbie,

      I love this: ““holding pure space for someone as they tease away everything that is in the way of living their authentic life.”

      Your ayurvedic teachers sound so loving, wise and relational.

      “There is nothing more valuable than having an inner sense of safety and love, and part of this experience requires the mirror of someone else giving this to you. Not from someone who has their own sense of unsafety and insecurity, but by someone who has this inside themselves.”

      Exactly. In my experience, it is essential to have this mirroring from someone who has already arrived at that sense of security, self-honor, and love to really begin to heal. It is rare in my experience as well to find practitioners with this depth of attunement and wholeness, unfortunately.

      “In the meantime, we move forward, and do the best we can, and love ourselves and each other the best we can.”

      Yes. Hopefully in generations to come, this will be more of the norm.

      Thank you, Debbie.

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  7. What if you have no one? My parents are gone, my siblings are gone, my relatives in another state don’t want anything to do with me because I’m an atheist, no one wants to be around me because I’m so negative all the time (I think the alprazolam I’ve been on for years is why, because I’ve never been like this, but it’s also situational), and because I’m so weird (I have OCD, among other things). I’m unable to leave a bad relationship, live in a motel with him, and I’m so overwhelmed and stressed out.

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  8. Absolutely insightful article, thank you so much! I attest to your observations, having grown up in a household that esteemed feelings above reason, experiences above ethics, and where wild psychiatric trips were kind of sought. I recall my primary parent figure having dabbled in transcendental meditation when I was under five years old, and that was followed by a slew of other “healing modalities” including a strong focus on “breathwork” to elicit a form of “tripping” that could potentially uncover early- and past-life traumas for the sake of what??? Further, that parent got into a kind of “rage room” thing where they’d use bats and tennis racquets to beat on pillows and release repressed anger. It’s been uncomfortable at best for me as a forced participant while still a child, then, in trying to connect with and please that parent, by voluntarily participating as a young adult. Yet, none of that made me feel better, and eventually led to my objectively getting psychiatrically worse for quite a while before finding my way to better healing. Always though, as you wrote, my personal psychiatric challenges arose from feelings of separation and lack of belonging or inclusion, and a sense of alienation. When the community feelings of inclusion were fostered, then the anxiety, depression, trauma responses, and insomnia became settled.

    The parallel you draw here between psychedelic therapy modalities and breath work protocols is striking. I can see the potential for isolation and harm without having attempted psychedelic therapy myself, but having been involved in breath work. Thank you for your insights.

    Also, your statement about “evidence-based” medicine as an anti-feminist concept is very important. I’ve been considering this myself, and am grappling with the fact that medicine loves to embrace the duality of “we’re following evidentiary practices” while also claiming “medicine is an art and that’s why we call it ‘practice’, so don’t blame us when things go wrong”.

    As a feminist, I’ve embraced intuitive approaches, rooted in the ancestral feminine, and with very good outcomes. I served as a midwife for 30 years, outside the medical model, and with excellent quality of care for thousands of people in my community-100% live births, zero preterm births, low rate of cesarean section, very low rate morbidity. What we midwives did intuitively became the basis for many later policy improvements in mainstream medicine, and which they named, “evidence-based practices”, yet the intuitive model is still balked at when it intersects with medicine.

    I’m glad to have discovered MIA and your article. As an activist for medical reform, i look forward to exploring more here at MIA, and becoming a contributor.

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    • Es Vee,
      Wow, thank you for sharing your childhood story with parents who were super into spiritual and the healing arts. This whole cathartic approach to healing: “Further, that parent got into a kind of “rage room” thing where they’d use bats and tennis racquets to beat on pillows and release repressed anger” has never seemed to really foster maturity and health within people. I had to learn this firsthand in my experience with the School of Consciousness Medicine; they were obsessed with big experiences and catharsis, yet everyone continued to struggle interpersonally and harm one another, no matter how many times they fully felt their “rage.” I’m sorry you went through that as a kid; that must have been a full-on mindfuck. It reminds me of R.D Laing’s book Knots.

      “As a feminist, I’ve embraced intuitive approaches, rooted in the ancestral feminine, and with very good outcomes. I served as a midwife for 30 years, outside the medical model, and with excellent quality of care for thousands of people in my community-100% live births, zero preterm births, low rate of cesarean section, very low rate morbidity. What we midwives did intuitively became the basis for many later policy improvements in mainstream medicine, and which they named, “evidence-based practices”, yet the intuitive model is still balked at when it intersects with medicine.”

      This is so beautiful; thank you for sharing. I’m grateful to hear about your personal experience and the ways you felt and lived into your own intuitive knowledge of birthing practices and midwifery. It is so nonsensical how the intuitive model is still balked at when it intersects with medicine. I appreciate empirical ways of knowing, but that’s just it, it’s only one window of knowing, and there are infinite ways of knowing.

      Looking forward to your contributions to MIA.

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  9. My first experience with psychedelics was similar to yours. I was there to heal or get better. I had a guide who was somewhere between psychotherapist and shaman, I never fully grasped what she was, nor did I check her credentials. I was there with her for a couple days with my spouse to heal or retreat.

    The first day, the first experience, like you I had a sense that I was supposed to feel something, or be different, but I wasn’t. It was the same thoughts I always had, and I was maybe a little cloudy, like I’d had a couple drinks. The music became grating. I understood it was supposed to facilitate, but it started annoying me. Similar with the incense. I was uncomfortable where I was and being the subject of attention. I became mildly combative with the guide about the music, and about her need for me to stay on the mat. My feeling coming out of that first experience was that I was ok as I was, and it was the expectations placed on me by my spouse and the guide that were the problem. In a way, I resented her control.

    The second day, we tried different milder medicine, and I got it. I went somewhere I’d never been before, a realm without time or place. I felt connected to everyone I’d ever met, who were there with me on some level, as place and time had become irrelevant. I find comfort in this, even a while after, that I have this connection to everyone, and this realm exists.

    When I could manage to take the eye mask off, and open my eyes, I was back into reality, albeit altered. I could still feel the medicine, things were not as they usually are, but I was who and where I was. With the mask on, I was in my realm. The eye mask was an essential part of my experience. I barely noticed the music but recognized that this might have been how my guide was guiding me in the realm, as she didn’t speak, and with the eye mask on, I couldn’t see her, but I could sense her.

    In the physical world, my spouse became nauseous, and was having issues, the guide was helping them. I reached out, through the space the guide occupied, to try to touch my spouse who was out of reach physically, but I needed to reach out for and try. This seemed somehow forbidden by the guide, who kept the boundaries of that realm, and was there to keep me safe, still though, I yearned for that connection, but I trusted the guide to perform their role of helping my spouse as previously agreed, and went back into my realm without time. The guide was not a person when I had my mask on, as much as a presence, a force. They were to be obeyed, lest the little world I was in should collapse back to reality. My guide became like a master to be obeyed for my own benefit. I accepted her control.

    This experience did help me. After, I cried for the first time in recent memory, years at least. I did all the crying I should have been doing all along as the losses in my life mounted. It was not a panacea, but I feel comforted that this realm exists, and since it is timeless, it does not matter if I go back or when, that realm is always there.

    My guide had said beforehand “we celebrate ego loss” Whether that meant ego in the sense of one’s connection to one’s body and reality, or ego in the way Ayn Rand imagined it, I’m not certain. I might have lost either for a bit. I was not in my body, or reality, I became connected to everyone, and I let my guide have control. For that, her control became integral to the experience. I relinquished my ego while she maintained hers.

    My relationship with the guide remained somewhat adversarial during my time there, although I came to respect her for the force she is. She was into control, controlling the environment, controlling her clients which I came to understand why she was doing it for the safety and well being of her clients, even though I initially bristled at it. It might be part and parcel for that relationship, or it might have been her personality coming through.

    I think I only got to my realm the second time because I’d already been at that place with the guide for 24 hours first. One can not sleep as well the first night in a place as they can the second. There’s an inherent latent anxiety to it. The guide’s subtle need for control heightened my anxiety. The novelty of the experience for me heightened my anxiety. My spouse being there heightened my anxiety. The expectations on me, there, and outside heightened my anxiety. These things contributed to me not getting it at first. Not until I’d had a full day to acclimate to the set and setting, had the experience although not fully, and became a bit more trusting of the guide was I able to fully have that experience in a way that might have been helpful to me.

    If I’d been in the room pictured at John Hopkins, I doubt I’d have gotten it. I’d imagine that room is in a big office building in the middle of a bustling city. I imagine the people would be serious type people, who might try to be accommodating, but their nature would still come through. It would be curious to know if they were researchers, trying to see what would happen, or clinicians trying to dictate healing. My guide was acting as a clinician but probably not as clinical as someone wearing a John Hopkins badge. Maybe if one could be there for 24 hours continuously beforehand, to adapt to that environment, it could work. The study and the method might be suffering from “set and setting” My experience was in a house, in a beautiful semi-rural environment, with sunlight and wind washing over me while I was in my realm. When I sat up, I could see trees and nature outside. There was a cat that wandered about. Set and setting could matter. Even without the psychedelics, I feel my time there would have been beneficial, just for having been in that place.

    It seems like the research into psychedelics is about removing the hallucinogenic component. I don’t know that that would be possible. I think that the benefit I got from it, while maybe from the brain re-wiring or whatever, might be helpful, like if I had micro-dosed. The benefit I feel I got from it, was to go that far to that realm where time and space no longer existed, and I wonder if that would be the case with micro-dosing or if the hallucinogenic component of the medicine was isolated and removed. It seems the FDA and capitalism would want to exert their control to make it no fun, and therefore less beneficial.

    My experience was expensive. It cost as much as if I had gone to the psychiatric ward of a hospital, which my spouse was considering for me. While I have not done that, I have been in them professionally and to visit others, and I wonder if they are healing with their nurse stations encased in glass, the general hospital like environment of them, along with sharing space with people who “may cause harm to themselves or others” The place I went was a house, this was our guide’s vocation, and they were likely able to sustain themselves like this, as long as insurance and lawyers didn’t take too much of a cut. It seemed to me like what inpatient psychiatric care should be. Quiet, reflective, low stress and personal, along with medications that seem to have an effect with possibly less side effects. On the other hand, I recognize that I was not a danger to myself or others, and my condition is maybe not as severe as many. It may not apply to all cases, but I wonder if that sort of model would help a larger portion of people than our current psychiatric model.

    As psychedelics become de-criminalized and accepted, I am hopeful that my experience might become more obtainable to more people. I am not certain I would be comfortable trying the medicine again without some sort of guide, even if it becomes more readily available. My spouse may be able to guide me, I think I’d mainly need someone I trusted who understands the process on some level who would be with it enough to manage the physical world for me while I was in the realm. Additionally that physical space will need to be quiet and comfortable, and uninterrupted by the outside world during that time. If this MAPS study concludes that this is mostly benign with some caveats and possibly beneficial especially with good methods, then it can maybe better the world a little bit once they release it into the world. This to me is the most promising thing happening in psychiatry, although like all other psychiatry, it is not going to work for everyone, and does have potential for malevolence.

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    • Geraldine Sasquatch,

      Thank you for sharing your reflections and your personal experience with entheogens. It sounds like you, overall, had a really lovely experience. I’m glad to hear it.

      I agree with you in this: “The place I went to was a house, this was our guide’s vocation, and they were likely able to sustain themselves like this, as long as insurance and lawyers didn’t take too much of a cut. It seemed to me like what inpatient psychiatric care should be.”

      In my article, when I said that psychology must incorporate poetics, beauty, and human flourishing, rather than just the scientific method, this is what I meant. Environmental psychology has not been studied or taken seriously enough. The poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, in a conversation with Krista Tippett years ago, speaks to the ways the beauty of the landscape unfolds and unravels the loveliness of our soul. And similarly, when we are in a bleak, ugly, desolate, run-down city, entirely separated from non-human beings, our souls suffer.

      Not to mention, in my perspective, the most suffering humans among us have been the most deeply hurt by systemic violence and the misuse of power. And particularly in relationship to other humans. I loved this film, and its poetic drama of showing the human relational predicament, and the strange ways the medical psychiatric system tries to deal with those of us who are most deeply wounded: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4687410/ (Mad to be Normal).

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  10. This article is a good critique of how an indigenous, healing modality, in some contexts, has become medicalized and co-opted by inexperienced guides and greedy capitalism. My pre Christian European ancestors, mostly women, were tortured, hung and burned at the stake… not only because they were independent women and midwives, but also for using the psilocybin mushrooms and other plant medicines that grew on the land.

    Another important point regarding psychedelic plant medicines is that it is not for everybody. Those that do not find benefit with psychedelics should not be silenced in any way. Nor should they ever be told or even implied that there’s something wrong with them for not finding anything beneficial in the experience. Thank you Tara for speaking up in your writing.

    My experience with psychedelics, however, was positive and very relational. The most important parts of the experience was the preparation before the journey and the integration work after the journey that can last for months. I was lucky in finding guides with real presence who told me about the eye cover option as a choice and said I could take them off at any time or not put them on at all. And I could’ve brought my own music if I wanted. I too am a therapist and many of the people I worked with in my 14 years of work we spent some time dealing with the negative experiences they had with previous therapists. These are the therapists that should not be psychedelic guides. Unfortunately that is not the case.
    I am so glad you talked about how important the relational aspect of psychedelic healing work is. For me, I believe the reason I have benefitted from psychedelic journey work is that it was very relational. For example, in the third hour of my psilocybin journey, I asked one of my two guides to hold me for a while, which was deeply grounding and connecting for me. It was the first time that I actually found real medicine. Something that would, and did reduce my suffering without having to deal with side effects or the numbing effects of psychotropic medicines. But it would not have worked for me if the relational aspect was not primary.

    Thanks again for for your thoughtful and connected critique.

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    • Janet,

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I am so glad to hear that your experience with psychedelics was deeply relational, and that you were met in that way.

      I feel so much resonance with you here: “This article is a good critique of how an indigenous, healing modality, in some contexts, has become medicalized and co-opted by inexperienced guides and greedy capitalism. My pre Christian European ancestors, mostly women, were tortured, hung and burned at the stake… not only because they were independent women and midwives, but also for using the psilocybin mushrooms and other plant medicines that grew on the land.”

      I’m reminded of this song by Olivia Fern:

      “Come, weavers of story, art and song
      Let us gather together for the time has come
      To weave a new vision
      For those yet to come
      For we are the ancestors of our great granddaughters and sons.

      Bring your voice, your hands, your heart or your drum
      Whatever it is that you make your art from
      For if we don’t we may well choke
      On all the words we never spoke and all the songs and poems we never wrote, and the fires within will let turn to smoke.

      For a vision, a dream, channeled through a brush stroke, a song or a scene
      Can be the spark that lights the dark we find ourselves in
      Art is and always has been a way for spirit to be seen.

      So come way-showers, weavers of spirit in form, let us gather together around this fire once more singing:

      What wants to come through you?
      Call it in, call it in
      Remember why you came!

      And Sing! even if your voice shakes
      Dance! until your heart breaks open
      Sing! Even if your voice shakes
      We have come to create beauty!”

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  11. Your writing style is vivid and evocative, something I greatly admire. It’s almost poetic in nature actually. Your perspective on the intersection of science and art is true for me (I think they are the same just different nouns!). However, I’d like to expand the conversation to include a crucial aspect of humanity: death. Death represents an ultimate boundary in relationships that cannot be traversed. It leaves us with nothing, but memories etched into our very being.

    Addressing your article, I concur with the notion that truly agenda-less relationships in therapy are challenging to achieve, due to several underlying reasons you’ve highlighted. One significant factor is the asymmetrical nature of the client-therapist relationship, as you pointed out. This imbalance stems from the inherent power dynamics, where the therapist is compensated, and the client is essentially purchasing time and space. They do not know each other than an agenda-based endeavor! This creates a bridge that cannot be seamlessly crossed. That is a harsh reality we must accept as painful as it is – we need a stranger to help us feel our bodies!

    Love is not a purchase-able experience, it is spontaneous which may or may not happen in therapy but if we are lucky may or may not happen in real life! That uncertainty about love is state of vulnerability – the hope!

    In my view, the concept of healing is not something I subscribe to. Rather, I believe in the recognition of our mutual vulnerabilities, needs, and the intrinsic softness that drives us to reach out to others. Yet, in this endeavor, we can never fully connect in the way we yearn for exactly. We are not healed beings; each day, we wake up to an inherent discomfort within our own interoception. Our daily routines, starting from the moment we visit the washroom, only serve to underscore this until our eventual demise.

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  12. First, discovering a balanced perspective in psychedelic healing, particularly through MIA, brings comfort. Thank you for your contribution here.

    I’m posting to add to the dialogue. In particular, I want to point out a less evident drawback within psychedelic healing work: the self-hating produced from the tension between the potential for profound breakthroughs and the notion that the medicine finds you when ready.

    In instances where you don’t have the breakthrough despite many attempts, a paradox emerges:

    1. Healing Breakthroughs: Psychedelics offer potent healing experiences and you as a human with you innate healing intelligence are born to process and heal.

    2. Unrealized Breakthrough: If it hasn’t occurred, it implies a misstep, unpreparedness or just plain flaws

    This dynamic suggests not just personal flaws but a deeper ‘something is wrong with how I’m doing this’ feeling. It can spoil each attempt at a session. This even intensifies pre-sessions if you can even secure the medicine. (Which, in of itself is a closely guarded, culturally exclusive dynamic.

    I’m not sure how to tackle it. I look forward to your other articles and welcome any suggestions.

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  13. Thanks for the article Tara!

    I agree with some of your assertions, especially, the prevalence of healing being approached from a “something wrong with me, let’s fix it,” attitude which is really a schema-basis for Western Civilization.

    At the same time, I am weary to apply the same logic to that schema (there’s something “wrong,” with the “there’s something wrong with me,” orientation as a place people often begin healing modalities from). From an evolutionary perspective, it’s hard to know the long-arc of why and how these schemas develop, and I’ve found in myself, that the “escape” of the “there’s something wrong with me trap,” is mostly found in deeper spiritual surrender, to what is, to that part being there, along with all the rest – to all the pains and ills and beautys and miracles and unjustices on this planet, simply as being so, without trying, at first to change any of it. (And then, of course, the will to change does arise.. but from a different locus). This approach of course can fall into the trope, “the path being the destination,” which I believe is true, when held alongside the destination also at times being important, as the former can also be used abusively. (Really, any “approach” can be abused, hence your call, which I fully agree with, that relational, agendaless presence, is often what serves healing).

    And I feel sad, and I agree, that the agenda-protocol, even if often unconscious, is prevalent in the psychotherapeutic field, again as a reflection of wider mass culture. And, it has not been my experience, at least in the better trainings I’ve been in, that this is what is taught. The trainings and guided experiences I’ve been a part of were all angling towards the agendaless, full-presence and trust, relational healing model, and perhaps I am lucky and somewhat unique in this being so.

    AND, I’d say that my training as a guide began far before I ever experienced psychedelic therapy, and that in many ways, what I really hear you calling into question, which I fully agree with, is the notion of psychedelic guiding training, as a specific, often less than year-long training, when in reality, the best guides I’ve worked with, have been spiritually and cultural/healing arts training for decades as whole human beings.

    As ultimately, as you indicate, I actually don’t believe it’s the psychedelic medicine that is healing, but rather the relationships, between client and self, client and guide, client and the Mystery, extending out towards all other levels of kinship that we experience as human beings. In some sense, I understand that “psychedelic therapy,” at its best, is more about a restoration of kinship, than it is about “healing,” and thus is as spiritual as it is therapeutic.

    And perhaps, stepping away from the therapeutic framework is one path of restoration for the profession. Perhaps, what’s more honest, is that psychedelics are a place to explore being human, a relational creature, and from this vantage, hopefully new iterations of the profession can unfold.

    I’ve been exploring a lot, different iterations of the work, and right now, am most excited about variations of peer-to-peer guiding, which of course, can have it’s own pitfalls, and yet, does level much of the power dynamics of therapist-client, and opens a different kind of healing space.

    I am grateful for your writing, experience and reflection Tara. I find kinship in your inquiries and look forward to co-supporting each other on the wider arc.

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  14. Thank you so much for this article which spoke volumes to me.

    I’ve done MAPS style therapy and had a reaction similar to what you describe. I felt I was doing something I was supposed to be doing for healing – ultimately for others, not for me. Which kept the storyline going that there was something fundamentally wrong with my emotions, with me.

    Until recently I honestly didn’t know it was possible for someone to be attuned, kind, and genuinely curious about the subtleties of emotions. Not just finding the right label so they can say the right thing, but simply an expression of kindness and solidarity. My mother was a counselor and I grew up with this.

    I also have done long meditation retreats without that basic, kind awareness. We translate instructions into what our brain knows, and without kind instructors who really want to *be* with people, it just gets clinical.

    At this point I don’t know where to go, partly because I don’t know who to trust. In most of society, not just the mental health profession, there’s an aversion to raw emotional states. Seeing another therapist would be the worst thing for me given therapeutic abuse. But there still have been wonderful glimpses with psychedelics and mdma – just not following anyone else.

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