I first wrote The Ethics of Caring (1995, 2017) while working as a senior trainer for the Grof Transpersonal Training and simultaneously taking a traditional ethics education class in graduate school. I realized there were two major gaps in traditional ethics education. Ethics education usually focused on external guidelines, rules, laws, and standards of care. The first unfilled gap, therefore, was that little attention was being paid to our motivations, our semi-conscious and unconscious fears and desires that could unwittingly cause client harm. The second unfilled gap was the lack of information about and experiential training in extra-ordinary states of consciousness. I had observed several well-intentioned, ethical professionals whose client relationships and lives were derailed when potent, unconscious material arose for them while working with a client who was in an extra-ordinary state of consciousness.
The Ethics of Caring: Finding Right Relationship with Clients, from which this excerpt is taken and edited, provides a scaffolding by which to begin identifying and sorting our motivations. It describes fears and desires in seven areas (or centers) of life. Ethical issues tend to arise in the personal centers (Money, Sex, Power) and the transpersonal centers (Love, Truth, Insight, and Oneness.) The book provides prompts for self-compassionate self-reflection in each center, especially with regard to work with clients in profound states of consciousness. The following piece is edited and excerpted from The Ethics of Caring. It concerns our vulnerabilities that are related especially to the Sex Center when we are working with clients in extra-ordinary states of consciousness as professionals or “responsible parties.”
In almost all cases where we professionals have caused harm to those in our professional charge, it was because we just didn’t know better or because we weren’t able or willing to look at ourselves.
In almost all cases where we professionals have caused harm to those in our professional charge, it was because we just didn’t know better or because we weren’t able or willing to look at ourselves. I have come to believe that “willingness” to look at ourselves is the primary key to right relationship—willingness to look, learn, and change. The need for us to do this preventive self-discovery is commensurate with how deeply our clients are going into an extra-ordinary state of consciousness. In psychedelic therapy, it becomes urgent that we find the courage and the means to do self-reflection. “What I don’t know about myself can unintentionally cause you harm” (p. 43).
A prerequisite to that essential willingness is self-compassion. When we are truly loving ourselves, including our vulnerabilities, instead of blaming, shaming, or criticizing ourselves, we will feel secure enough to look non-defensively at our motivations and consider changes in behavior, as necessary, for the benefit of our clients and ourselves. Such self-compassionate self-reflection affects our clients and their therapeutic outcomes at least as much as what we learn from any other part of our professional training.
The responsible party garners from personal experience in extra-ordinary states, and in no other way, a capacity to convey to the client a wholehearted trust in the client’s own healing trajectory in the psychedelic session.
In addition, the professional (or the “responsible party”) in psychedelic work must have the competencies to accompany the client deeply, empathetically, and effectively; sometimes, entering uncharted, even frightening, territory; sometimes, responding at a moment’s notice when the client’s material arises within a session. Those competencies are gained only by considerable personal experience in extra-ordinary states of consciousness. The responsible party must have integrated an expanded map of the psyche and an understanding of the challenges, the pain, and the ecstasy that may be encountered. Most importantly, the responsible party garners from personal experience in extra-ordinary states, and in no other way, a capacity to convey to the client a wholehearted trust in the client’s own healing trajectory in the psychedelic session. The responsible party has the ability to create a safe container for this healing principle to operate, free of interference.
Sexual energy is creative, spiritual energy. Spirit is moving in the body, and the body has sensations and emotions as well as functions. When this energy moves from another Center into the Second Center, the human spiritual energy does not change its essential nature, but its form and expression do change. Clients often become very preoccupied with sexuality and the internal movement of their energy and emotions. In the Second Center, this movement takes the form of sensual feelings, sexual sensations, evocative thoughts and images, deep emotions, and bodily expression. This energy is regenerative and transformative. People whose energy is working in this center have an expanded life force, a libido that can feel unlimited. These clients are often energetically attractive, magnetic, and charismatic. Professionals may feel irresistibly attracted to such clients because of their own longings for energy and transformation, as well as their natural and ordinary physical desires.
Clients may share their vivid sexual dreams and fantasies with responsible parties in psychedelic session or in the pre- or post- sessions. They may speak of the romantic details in their lives, and work on the specifics of past traumas of rape and sexual abuse. Although these latter issues are more about abuse of power than about sexuality per se, they do generate powerful emotions, and there are often details that interface with a professional’s own history to trigger either desire or fear.
Sex is certainly the most prominent area of ethical violation. A great many legal and ethical actions brought against therapists and other professionals are for infractions of the laws and codes that prohibit sex between client and professional. Rutter (1989) in Sex in the Forbidden Zone, writes of male therapists: “When intoxicated by their sexual fantasies, they can easily develop magical feelings of power and invulnerability that cloud their judgment…. He feels either that he is untouchable by the outside world or that the sexual relationship he is seeking is so important that it is worth any risk.” (p. 145). I would add here that this can certainly be true for female therapists as well.
When Money, Sex, and Power issues take on a transpersonal flavor and thus assume the compelling nature of a spiritual calling, it can be quite bewildering.
In work that is not only dealing with the biographical, but also can include perinatal and transpersonal experiences, there are particular ethical vulnerabilities that arise when a professional is working with clients using psychedelic medicines. Ethical issues in the transpersonal centers of Love, Truth, Insight, and Oneness often also involve issues in the personal centers of Money, Sex, and Power. Spiritual longings and fears get mixed up with personal desires and fears in a confusing package. For example, a personal desire for sex may include a spiritual longing for mystical merging and spiritual union. When Money, Sex, and Power issues take on a transpersonal flavor and thus assume the compelling nature of a spiritual calling, it can be quite bewildering.
When a responsible party is working with a client who is full of vital energy, she may unconsciously want to physically connect with that source of vitality. In touching a client, she may be responding unconsciously to her own need to contact the client’s energy tangibly. If a responsible party knows she has a deficit of touch in her own biography and, subsequently, a deep need to be touched, or a deep need to nurture or merge with another, she might be confused about appropriate touching while sitting for psychedelic sessions.
A professional may find countertransference arising in the Sex Center from her own fears, as well as from her desires. She may see the client’s sexuality spontaneously and powerfully unfolding and respond with a psychic tightening of the “therapeutic” reins. She might avoid subjects related to sex, or distance herself from the client. The professional may fear the emergence of strong, spontaneous sexual feeling in her own life. She may intuit that, if she felt such energies, she would not be able to maintain ethical behavior.
The kind of spiritual sexuality I am referring to here is inextricably interwoven into a larger transformational and transpersonal process. Its genesis is a longing for union that takes one beyond the personal, separate identity.
We, as professionals, may long for our own experience of spiritual sexuality. Clients whose energy is in the Second Center may express their life energy in what appears to be a sexual (physical) way, but the spiritual part of it is foremost. They radiate life force and the appealing mystery of that life force. Mere physical libido is not nearly as compelling. Lust is connected to personal desire and the attempt to satisfy it. The kind of spiritual sexuality I am referring to here is inextricably interwoven into a larger transformational and transpersonal process. Its genesis is a longing for union that takes one beyond the personal, separate identity. It involves surrender to the spontaneous, powerful, regenerative forces both within us and outside us. A responsible party watching such a process unfold in a client may long to feel it in himself also. He may be tempted to try to “acquire” it by initiating or acceding to sexual contact with the client who is demonstrating this energy.
Responsible parties also may long to feel the spiritual quality of a psychedelic experiencer’s sexuality directed toward themselves. They can feel the reverence in this energy and may have a conscious or unconscious wish to acknowledge the divine within themselves. If the experiencer is acknowledging her divine nature by projecting it onto the responsible party, and that person is unconscious of her own wish to fulfill this projection, a transference of this kind can be very hard to resist.
In addition to spiritual longings, professionals may have spiritual fears of this powerful, transformative energy. The professional may feel he has a tiger by the tail, or that the tiger has him! The professional may unconsciously try to put the lid on the client’s evolutionary life force because it is frightening to him.
This hallucinogenic quality of projection in extra-ordinary states can be pronounced when someone has taken psychedelic medicines.
This hallucinogenic quality of projection in extra-ordinary states can be pronounced when someone has taken psychedelic medicines. In such circumstances, the client may project, see, or sense intangible qualities, such as love or the divine nature in the professional. A therapist might be able to utilize these projections therapeutically when there is minimal countertransference, but the involvement of the Sex Center energies in extra-ordinary states makes the honorable therapeutic path more slippery. A hallucination, which is so subtle that it is not even perceived as a hallucination, creates confusion between the inner and outer realities. Accepting and acknowledging erotic transference and countertransference may be difficult enough under ordinary circumstances in therapy or spiritual counseling. It is especially difficult when it is intertwined with spiritual devotion, shared transpersonal experiences, and psychedelic experiences, where both the experiencer and the responsible party in the “field” of the experience may also feel outside of time and the consequences of ordinary states of consciousness.
A hallucination, which is so subtle that it is not even perceived as a hallucination, creates confusion between the inner and outer realities.
Professionals can be proactive in several ways in investigating their own longings, desires, and fears around the body, physical sex, spiritual sex, touch, and vital energy. Because the Second Center contains pitfalls that are terribly dangerous, both therapeutically and professionally, professionals are wise to seek out prevention in the form of ethical training, experiential training in psychedelic sessions, consultation, and supervision.
I highly recommend forming and participating in regular peer supervision groups. Members of such groups of colleagues commit to being willing to do self-reflection and receive feedback. Such groups might also have a mentor, an outside professional consultant to call upon as needed. Ideally, the groups would be diverse in gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity, and provide those perspectives and others to their members. When members tell the truth, are able to hear the truth about themselves, change accordingly, and make good choices, they increase their own self-awareness and skills, reduce the possibility of client harm, and increase benefit to themselves and their clients.
Excerpted (and edited) from The Ethics of Caring: Finding Right Relationship with Clients (Hanford Mead, 2017). Used with permission of the publisher.