- Expanded States of Consciousness for Healing and Growth - September 11, 2020
- Sacred Mushrooms of the Mazatec Tradition: Transforming the Inner Landscape of the Human Psyche - April 5, 2019
Through our healing process, expanded states can teach us to have compassion and love for the child who endured and invite our healthy, original self to trust in life again.
Perhaps the greatest gift expanded states of consciousness offer is the opportunity to reconnect with the aspect of ourselves that is always already whole. Beyond the wounds and belief systems exists an original, essential being. This is the self that remains unscathed, wise, and healthy despite all we have endured. It is the innocent self that entered childhood, expecting the environment to be safe and loving and caretakers to be respectful and kind. Through our healing process, expanded states can teach us to have compassion and love for the child who endured and invite our healthy, original self to trust in life again.
It is true that personal exploration can be quite rewarding through a commitment to regular psychotherapy. However, expanded states of consciousness tend to open people up to a level of deeply visceral and direct experience that is difficult, if not impossible, to reach through regular therapy. It is my experience that the healing accessed in expanded states goes swiftly to the core of the issue needing attention, making it an extremely effective modality. It is especially useful for addressing preverbal trauma, which talk therapy can rarely access. However, it also means that this therapeutic approach calls for an extra level of caution and attention with aftercare and integration. The content of our experience in expanded states is almost always pointing us toward more balance. Though we do not always get what we ask for, we always get what we need.
Some people might argue that healing through expanded states of consciousness and, in particular, the use of entheogenic plant medicines is a shortcut; that it truncates the slow, intricate unfolding of the psychological narrative that long-term psychotherapy offers. I agree that the daunting task of meticulously sorting through our childhood suffering, figuring out who we are and why we are here makes it tempting to find a quicker way to attain inner peace. After all, who would want to revisit the fear of their inner child in the grasp of a violent mother or re-experience the feelings of disgust at having had their body touched in abusive ways? Who wants to remember the loss and grief of their dream family being split apart after a bitter divorce? It is understandable why no one would want to return to their most painful memories.
An intentionally guided journey into an expanded state of consciousness is the fiercest, most honest way to explore the roots of suffering that I have thus far found.
Yet, paradoxically, it is my experience that by revisiting these painful memories with love and compassion, liberation from their haunting is possible. An intentionally guided journey into an expanded state of consciousness is the fiercest, most honest way to explore the roots of suffering that I have thus far found. It brings us face-to-face with our psychological wounds and the way they appear in our body as tension, numbness, and dissociation. An inner journey encompasses the multilayered experience of human life. We can reach the undiscovered corners of our psyche in a way that remains unmatched by other therapeutic modalities. Perhaps it is a shortcut, but if we are suffering so much that it prevents us from having a healthy, happy life, what is wrong with a quicker and more efficient way to heal?
Another argument against entheogen-assisted journeywork relates to its spiritual component and is called spiritual bypassing. A feeling of oneness with the universe may temporarily take precedence over negative or uncomfortable emotions, but once the feeling recedes, the person returns to their previous state. To avoid feeling our discomfort, ennui, or despair, we may try to “bypass” it with more heightened states. However, I would argue that it is advantageous to include a spiritual dimension to our healing.
Connecting with a spiritual dimension of a transpersonal nature does not necessarily signify a pattern of refusing to face our psychological reality. It can actually offer a glimpse of hope to people in a state of despair as they prepare themselves to process challenging memories or experiences. Of course, it is crucial to return to the personal in a healthy and integrated manner after connecting with the resource of the spiritual or transpersonal.
I want to emphasize the fact that one is not required to ingest a psychotropic substance in order to reach an expanded state of consciousness; there is a diverse array of techniques that can access subterranean layers of the psyche, release long-held physical tensions, and open someone to a profound spiritual experience. That said, within the variety of techniques that function to expand consciousness, the depth that is accessed directly corresponds to the chosen technique.
For a person who is just beginning to explore, a seminar in intuitive painting or a one-day meditation retreat might be an appropriate introduction to their inner world. Other people who may be more familiar and at ease with experiences of inner exploration might benefit from a daylong sweat lodge or a weeklong dance retreat. For those who are prepared to dive into the vast regions of their unconscious (assuming they have access to adequate guidance and support), an inner journey supported by a psychotropic plant medicine can guide them into deeper layers of their unconscious and possibly to a place of transformation.
It is not so much about what we will see or whether we will completely resolve our issues; it is that we are willing to look inside ourselves and re-establish contact with the abundant dimensions we contain.
On the most basic level, the willingness to explore the inner worlds contained in our consciousness can bring us healing. It is not so much about what we will see or whether we will completely resolve our issues; it is that we are willing to look inside ourselves and re-establish contact with the abundant dimensions we contain. The courage to go in and look deeper into ourselves is our liberation. It is in the journey that we find redemption, not in the destination. The courage we gather to face the fear of our vastness is what sets us free. We are never guaranteed that we are going to “get somewhere” but we make the attempt of showing up for ourselves, and this is often what heals us.
If we want to know the courage that is contained within our being, we are going to have to engage with the fear that we encounter as we approach the unknown.
My teacher Pablo used to say there are two essential fears in life: fear of madness and fear of death. These are the two primary fears that we face when we turn toward the inner layers of our psyche, especially in explorations that include ingesting psychedelic substances. We are all afraid that we will lose control and go crazy or enter some vast unknown space and simply cease to exist. Pablo used to say that the two virtues to hold when entering our infinite inner world are faith and surrender. If we want to know the courage that is contained within our being, we are going to have to engage with the fear that we encounter as we approach the unknown. Even if we are fortunate enough to contact an inner space of peace, the habitual ego structure with its strategies of control and protective mechanisms will reconstruct itself, even after experiences of extraordinary opening. I believe there is no simple solution besides going inward and facing this fear over and over. It is through cultivating the courage to meet ourselves that we are liberated.
Expanded states of consciousness teach us about surrender—for regard- less of the modality chosen, our normal defenses, self-protection, and control mechanisms are encouraged to relax. If the technique used is the ingestion of sacred plant medicine, it will inevitably bring us to a surrendered state. It is difficult to resist their effect on our physiology. We can fight the experience, or we can surrender to it. Surrender includes not lying about passively giving in or giving up. Surrender is a combination of active receptivity and curiosity toward whatever shows up. Acceptance does not mean that we have to like what appears, but it means that we stay present with it anyway.
There are infinite layers of surrender. Surrendering to life means accepting life, no matter what it brings—joy, sadness, ecstasy, or pain. Pain becomes suffering when there is no meaning to it. When we find the meaning and understanding of why we are in pain, it ceases to be suffering. When a mother gives birth, there is immense pain, but she knows why she is doing it, so it is not meaningless suffering. There is a purpose, which changes her relationship to it. Pain is by definition unpleasant. It is not pleasurable. We live in a culture where we are told we are supposed to be joyful and comfortable all the time, but that is not the reality of life. Surrender means that regardless of the quality of our experience, we engage with it. We let go of expectation and open ourselves to the present moment, whatever it holds. We walk into the unknown without attachment to the outcome.
Each time we surrender, we see that we receive exactly what we need. We begin to understand how our personal predicaments may be our intelligent co-creation. We perceive how our unconscious seeks healing and wholeness by creating situations that push us to grow. We begin to see the ultimate perfection of our life’s path and that there is a mysterious plan at work. We might not believe that there is a divine entity guiding us, but we may come to realize that there seems to be an intelligence and benevolence to the unfolding of our life. Through practicing surrender, we begin to develop faith in the moment and trust in the unknown.
It helps to cultivate a basic level of faith before entering a process that can bring up heavy psychological material.
Faith can be an active surrender to a greater spiritual dimension, or it can be a deep knowing that our intention will unfold toward our healing. Faith can simply be a belief in the goodness or intelligence of life. If a client comes to a guide seeking healing through expanded states of consciousness, they may or may not have faith in the process. Part of a guide’s job is to bring the faith by remembering their own certainty in the healing potential of the work. Through communicating this sense of faith verbally and energetically, they hold the light that the client might not yet be able to see. It helps to cultivate a basic level of faith before entering a process that can bring up heavy psychological material.
Fortunately, faith is where we naturally arrive after surrendering again and again. When we go through a difficult experience and survive it, we begin to learn that there is something within us that can endure even the most challenging situations. Even if our life feels stuck, we now know that there is still movement and growth, learning, and understanding. Even if we are still confused, we can be certain that we are in the process of evolution. Something inside us knows it and feels it. It might take three months or three years of hard work, but things eventually move with intention and attention. The more we practice surrender and develop faith along our healing path, the more we are able to cultivate them in our daily life.
Art by Marialba Quesada.
Bourzat, F. & Hunter, K. (2019). Consciousness medicine: Indigenous wisdom, entheogens, and expanded states of consciousness for healing and growth (pp 32–37). Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books. Used with permission of the publisher.
Did you enjoy reading this article?
Please support Chacruna's work by donating to us. We are an independent organization and we offer free education and advocacy for psychedelic plant medicines. We are a team of dedicated volunteers!
Can you help Chacruna advance cultural understanding around these substances?