Elizabeth Arnold, Ph.D.

Elizabeth Arnold is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Greenwich Village.She holds an Ed.M. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.
Elizabeth Arnold, Ph.D.

Latest posts by Elizabeth Arnold, Ph.D. (see all)


A colleague and friend referred a shaman to my private practice. We did brief and very focused work in one area of distress. As our work together was ending, she told me about an upcoming retreat for mental health professionals focused on psychedelic medicine, bridging the gap between ceremony and therapy. I understood the potential for this experience to be about healing, at a limbic level, the traumas passed down generationally. I wanted to do this personally, but also wondered how it might change me as a therapist.

Maloca

Now in my hands is a sacred plant spirit in a small glass.Questions and intentions have gathered in my mind in the weeks leading up to this moment in ceremony. Why do I move through the world in a state of fear, with a limbic system in a state of fight-or-flight over-sensitivity? How did I become anxious, with shallow trauma-breathing as a baseline? 

Locking eyes with the shaman who just offered me this sacrament, I set an intention to remain connected to my own deep breathing and to my physical self, whatever unfolds. I ask the spirit: “How did my mind get so disconnected from my body?” and swallow the thick brown liquid that smells and tastes like decomposing organic matter with a swirl of rancid licorice. I surrender my nervous system to this ingestion of liquid plant intelligence, asking the vine of the soul to initiate me gently. I commit to letting my heart be the compass of my own navigation.        

Office

Now I am also a believer that plant medicine is the hope for the future of our planet

My office is in Greenwich Village. My degrees are from Harvard and Columbia. I trained as a researcher, though I gravitated to clinical work, and my experience encompasses PTSD and combat stress, symbolic communication in schizophrenia, inpatient and residential work with children and adolescents, and special issues pertaining to children and adolescents with HIV/AIDS. Now I am also a believer that plant medicine is the hope for the future of our planet.

Through the Looking Glass
Digital Print (2017)

I hope this initial “bridge” paper inspires research ideas about the intersections between spiritual healing, theories of human development, and mechanisms of therapeutic change and human transformation. This paper describes one transformative experience with ayahuasca and the effect on therapeutic work with one long-term patient. The following questions are addressed:

1. How does my access to my own non-verbal, unconscious trauma allow my patients to access their own deeper material?
2. How can we integrate the language of Western theoretical traditions with the mystical, spiritual domains of shamanic healing? and
3. How can we save the living world with what we know about spiritual healing and transformation through love and plant medicines?

Journeying in the Multiverse of Plant Intelligence

I am a very young child and am in simultaneous realities. I am inside a plant membrane and a thin gelatinous liquid moves in a slow current around my curled body. There are different symbols embedded within the walls of this inner membrane and they move with the current, or maybe I’m moving. 

I feel currents of blood moving inside of my veins. I am a glistening container of organs and living matter within translucent skin. I’m inside a plant’s vein and am also inside the ground, safe and tight. I’m curled fetal and new to the world, listening to the sounds of my tribe, swaddled and dry in a soft wrap. I am a beloved baby whose spirit has been called into being by a communal family. 

I vibrate with happiness at being alive and given a personal space to unfold. I feel my place and presence in the web of both human communal living and universal life. I vibrate with a special warmth to Olga’s voice as her icaros rise, circle, and gather from up near the inner conical roof of the maloca. She is Mother and I follow her voice with my whole being. I’m secure in her presence and trust her attunement to me if I feel distressed. I love her with the devotional love of a beloved child. 

Olga’s voice leaves trails of smoke and silk that float up into a web above the group of us who journey on our mattresses on the floor. Her voice-trails form aural tapestries demarcating the volume of space that tethers us as we journey, and within which we can find our way back to our bodies.   

Distortion
Digital Print (2017)

I am in the maloca with 20 other fellow passengers and there are footsteps, whispers, and movements. Other bodies are crying, retching and heaving, turning into animals to roar or wail, vomit or shit the pain and emotional blockages out of their beings. There are lights and shadows on the walls of the maloca and the wind rises many times, coalescing with the jungle’s bird calls and the icaros of the male and female shaman.  

The natural world and I are in a direct and deep conversation. The wind conducts and guides my attention. As it rises, it creates volumes of rustling noise through the maloca’s roof. The wind punctuates my thoughts, underlining and bolding certain image trails with its rising energy and noise. “Pay attention HERE,” it instructs, “You are passing a landmark.” It guides my attention to treasures of love and connectedness to be gathered and held, as I rewire my own self, embedding sensory experiences into new sensory memories. The vine of the soul is helping me grow a protective membrane around my historically, ancestrally, raw nervous system.

A General Theory of Love

now know, in every cell of my being, that I am experiencing a new childhood with a secure attachment, and I cry with gratitude.

There is a resonance between my whole being, the plant medicine inside me, and Olga’s icaros. This is a limbic-level emotional healing through spiritual love that goes beyond my soul’s journey and into “ancient emotional architecture”.1 It is going deep into my ancestral lineage of neglect and abuse. It is growing a membrane around a nervous system that has always been in a fight-or-flight state of hyperarousal. I now know, in every cell of my being, that I am experiencing a new childhood with a secure attachment, and I cry with gratitude.

Here is the bridge between attachment theory and shamanic healing. Here is the potential reprogramming of the nature of insecure, avoidant, and anxious attachments. Here, also, is the creation of Winnicott’s “good-enough holding environment ”as well as the antidote for Masud Khan’s2 concept of “cumulative trauma,” the breach in the mother’s role as protective shield, described below.

Clouds As Waves
Digital Print (2018)

The Concept of Cumulative Trauma

Cumulative trauma “has its beginnings in a period of development when the infant needs and uses the mother as a protective shield” (Khan, 1974, p. 60). When the failures of the mother in her role as protective shield are significant and frequent, it can impinge on the child’s nervous system. The child develops a “special responsiveness to the mother’s mood (Khan, 1974, p. 53-54).” This over-involvement with the mother’s internal state “militates against developmentally arriving at a differentiated, separate and coherent ego. (Khan, 1974, p. 54)” This leads to “dissociation through which an archaic dependency bond is exploited” (Khan, 1974, p. 54) and a premature, false independence created.

I find here the answer to my question: “How did I get separated from myself?”  Influential relationships “leave their mark on a child’s mind. When a limbic connection has established a neural pattern, it takes a limbic connection to revise it” (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2001, p. 177).

The Bridge from Ceremony to Office

My experience of limbic-level healing now affords me an expanded psychological space within myself. I am present now, back in my Village office, with a history of secure attachment. I am now listening and asking questions from that vantage point. Corresponding to my sixth to eighth week of personal integration following ceremony, it is catching my attention that a number of patients are making big personal changes or coming to unique insights, some after years of our working together.

My experience of limbic-level healing now affords me an expanded psychological space within myself. I am present now, back in my Village office, with a history of secure attachment. I am now listening and asking questions from that vantage point. Corresponding to my sixth to eighth week of personal integration following ceremony, it is catching my attention that a number of patients are making big personal changes or coming to unique insights, some after years of our working together.

Sam is a longitudinal patient, a man, now in his 40s, who has been in therapy with me since he attempted suicide as a young man in his 20s. He has left therapy for years at a time, gotten married, had two babies, gotten separated, lost both parents to cancer, and struggled to find a career for himself while grappling with a few addictions. 

In his words, “I feel a little down this morning…. just wish I had work to do. That guilt of me being lazy, of avoiding the hard stuff and my mom yelling at me telling me if I’m not working, it must be because my lazy nature is steering the ship…”

I ask Sam, “Can you act towards yourself the way you wish your mom was towards you? Can you give yourself what you needed?” I would not have asked him this question before ayahuasca. 

He says, “I needed my mom to have the patience or tolerance to sit with me and say, ‘I’m here,’ ‘how can I help?’ Her cocktail, TV, and tiredness prevented her from connecting with me and it DESTROYED me. Until this moment in this session, I haven’t been able to think clearly about exactly what the issue was because it was just too heavy and painful. Yet now, here it is, so simple.”

Colin’s personal insight about the emotional pain he has never been able to touch before now is accompanied by release of emotion through full-body crying. He reports in our subsequent session that he was able to return home that day and work on his online portfolio for the first time.

Now
Digital Print (2018)

As I re-member and re-inhabit more of the psychic home that is potentially within myself, my expanded therapeutic presence can offer that additional space to patients.

My experience of limbic-level healing allows me to ask different questions; questions that arise from my new personal knowledge of what it means to know childhood development through the protective membrane of a more secure attachment. Psychotherapeutic change happens because “one mammal can restructure the limbic brain of another”  (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2001,  p. 177).  I recovered aspects of myself that were “off-line” due to my own trauma and subsequent dissociation and dis-integration. As I re-member and re-inhabit more of the psychic home that is potentially within myself, my expanded therapeutic presence can offer that additional space to patients.

The Living Bridge

We are not dissimilar from plants. Like plants communicating with each other in underground root systems, we communicate through unconscious neural networks. Perhaps the whole idea of the unconscious mind is descriptive of our essential plant essence. We can only tap into the ancestral archaic root system that bonds us all into a living entity and nourishes and sustains us if, as a species, we will let it. 


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References

  1. Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2001). A general theory of love. New York City, NY: Vintage.
  2. Khan, M. M. R. (1974). The privacy of the self: Papers on psychoanalytic theory and technique. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

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