Latest posts by Dr. Gabor Maté (see all)
- Deep Ayahuasca Healing and the Truth of Who You Are - March 18, 2017
- The Medicinal and Spiritual Powers of an Amazonian Brew - December 26, 2016
“I hadn’t seen my brother in person for almost seven years,” Celine wrote, recounting her second ayahuasca ceremony.
I remember on that night Dave (the ayahuasquero), removed the space in my heart I had filled up with brotherly replacements. I cried so hard while it was happening. It truly felt like heart surgery, with his songs as the anesthesia. As he was working over my heart with his hands and voice, I would feel the pain of the substitutes leaving, and the ache for my actual brother, and then the huge sense of relief that there was all this space for him.
Near the core of all of us wounded human beings there is an emptiness we fill. We fill it with an artificial self-image, with compulsions and behaviors that try to conquer the gap by getting us love, attention, value, power, meaning. Try as we might, these simulacra can never satisfy our true needs. As Celine discovered, once we are able to remove the false substitutes with which we seek to obliterate that aching emptiness, space opens up for who we are, for the true self—that is for love, belonging, and relief of becoming, again, truly vulnerable. For we were vulnerable and open once, before the world hurt us so much we had to abandon authenticity to escape the pain.
The result of that original flight from self shows up in addictions, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, or in stress-induced physical illness such as cancer, autoimmune disease, neurological disorders, and other chronic conditions that can affect almost every organ system in the body. Far beyond the ken of mainstream medicine, such a perspective is grounded not only in ancient traditional wisdom, but also in modern science that has, beyond any debate, demonstrated the unshakeable unity of emotions, mind, and body.
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That so many people are now looking to traditional shamanic wisdom for healing—or, in some cases, to the insights made available to us by modern psychedelics—owes much to the failure of Western medical practice to grasp that unity. Spectacularly inventive and successful in many ways, especially when confronted with acute health crises and challenges that originate outside the body, such as infections, Western medicine too often fails when it comes to chronic conditions of psyche and soma. We are largely helpless in the face of what we cannot cut out, burn with radiation, or poison with pharmaceuticals. We manage symptoms but cannot get at causes.
The words healing and health find their root in the Anglo-Saxon word for wholeness—no accident, since the source of much illness is precisely the loss of wholeness induced by trauma, whether subtle or overt. That loss, too, is the source of the distress that many of seek so fervently to escape by the many seductions Western culture offers to the emotionally and spiritually bereft. As the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has written,
Basically, all emotions are modifications of one primordial, undifferentiated emotion that has its origin in the loss of awareness of who you are beyond the name and form. Because of it’s undifferentiated nature, it is hard to find a name that precisely describes this emotion. “Fear” comes close, but apart from a continuous sense of threat, it also includes a deep sense of abandonment and incompleteness. It may be best to use a term that is as undifferentiated is the basic emotion and simply call it “pain.”
One of the main tasks of the mind is to fight or remove that emotional pain, which is one of the reasons for its incessant activity, but all it can ever achieve is to cover it up temporarily.
What Celine found—what many people are able find aided by plant teachers and other effective psychedelic modalities under proper guidance—is at least some taste, some glimpse, some experience of that true self that we are before we became attached to what never was us: the name and form the world gave us and with which we identify and hold on to so desperately. And therein lies the possibility of liberation: to become ourselves once again or, more accurately, to remember at last who we always are.
Robine, a woman who since childhood had considered herself disfigured owing to a neurological condition that caused an asymmetry in her visage, found that her beauty is not defined by the configuration of her facial muscles:
Ayahuasca showed me that the deepest point of nourishment in me, what makes me feel alive, is my heart’s desire and capacity to connect with people in their dark corners. At the same time, I have the desire and capacity to connect with people from a place of beauty in me; the place in me that allows me to see their bravery, courage, and possibility. I learned that beauty is not a happening or an experience (or even in the smile that I wish for on my face). Beauty is something that is in me, a lens through which I am able to see the world and the people around me. I still want that smile but the smile is not what would make me beautiful or the thing to rely on to help me express or connect to others. I discovered that the gentlest acts of self-compassion are the greatest assets to connecting to beauty, being empathetic, energetic, and intentional in my own work and in my work with others.
What is it about psychedelics that offers such gifts? Why, as a Western-trained physician, do I find the healing retreats I lead with the ayahuasca brew the most exciting work I engage in, even though I do so only two or three weeks a year? Why do many others follow the same path? In the mind-identified culture of the left-brained industrialized world we have forgotten that true wisdom arises from deeper within us than our conscious thoughts and formal learning. We forget, in fact, that our conscious thoughts and bookish learning often mask our hidden fears, motives, and pain. And they also distance us from our innate desire to connect with that ineffable Something that is greater than the egoic little self that is driven to control our inner and outer realities. By manifesting the mind—the fundamental meaning of the word psychedelic—the plant teachers and their modern man-made relatives takes beyond, beneath, and above the shallow perceptions that govern us, into the deeper truths of ourselves, of nature, or the world.
We all know cases of healing through psychedelic work that Western medical science, narrowly applied, cannot explain—even if that same science, properly regarded, can supply us with the answers. And those answers all rest in the unities, fully demonstrated by research, mentioned above. But it’s not the cure or remission of diseases that most interest me, as much as I celebrate them when they occur. What inspires me most is the wholeness, re-experienced, of the human beings who intrepidly embark upon the healing journey.
Rachel, a woman in her forties who has been undergoing treatment for advanced breast cancer, wrote me recently about her ayahuasca experience.
In ceremony, I was able to confront ghosts that haunted me most of my life. I won’t say that they were eradicated, but my thoughts and feelings towards myself, my life, my relationships are viewed with deep compassion, and I now see those situations, and people as teachers that lead me to heal.
Two days before I was diagnosed with cancer I was talking with a friend at work. She told me a story of a woman who had cancer. As I sat and listened to her, I told myself, I have cancer. I knew it intuitively. I was in the emergency room 2 days later having my right lung drained, filled with cancer cells. Since that time, I’ve woken every day and the first thought that popped into my head was, I have cancer. After the sixth ceremony I woke up and for the first time, I thought, I don’t have cancer. I can’t describe the peace I felt in that moment.”
I wish I could assure Rachel that her cancer has been definitively cured. As a physician trained in healthy skepticism I cannot promise that, though I do hold out the possibility of it, given what I understand about the effects of mind and soul on the immune system. What I can assert is that her life, no matter how long and what it may bring—uncertainties in all our lives, no matter what our health status today—will now have the potential of being infused with vitality and fullness and authenticity and, yes, with peace: qualities she gave up long ago owing to childhood trauma. When she states, “I no longer have cancer,” what she is really saying is that she no longer identifies with her disease. Whatever the status of the tumor that has riddled her body, Rachel is no longer a sick person.
Hence, this is what I wrote Rachel in response:
I’m so very happy to learn of the healing you have found—that healing is the peace you have experienced. However it goes for you from hereon, please do what you can to remember, maintain, and cherish that peace. That is the true you—the true self we have all lost along the way but which is never gone, never destroyed, and always calling to us, no matter what we experience. I salute you on your courageous work and intrepid journey.