Psilocybin And The Cultivation Of Compassion
Psilocybin and compassion are both linked to our ability to feel emotional pain as it arises
By examining this correlation from a trauma-informed, psychotherapeutic framework, we find an understanding of emotional healing and healthy emotional processes, with or without psilocybin on board.
This lecture will explore the essence of compassion and how a lack of it is related to early childhood trauma and emotional repression. Furthermore, it will explore the potential of psilocybin in the resolution of emotional trauma and the cultivation of healthier relationships, as well as the potential of suffering as a necessary skill for being an adult.
What follows is an AI-generated transcript of a lecture titled “The Role Of Psilocybin In The Cultivation Of Compassion and Empathy”, recorded in Stockholm, Sweden on August 13, 2018 and initially released as episode 135 of Adventures Through The Mind Podcast
Being that is was ai-generated, there will be some odd typos and grammatical awkwardness. I trust your capacity to make sense of those bits as they arise. You can also watch and/or listen to it via this link here.
Additionally, there is a Q&A to this lecture available exclusively to my $8+ patrons on Patreon.
Introductions and context setting
And so I ask you to listen to it not as a series of conclusions that I’ve come to … although there’s some conclusionary tonnage to some of the things I say … but more so as a vocalized wondering about a thing. So, further layers of preamble finally settled and established. Here is my talk on psilocybin, compassion and empathy given in Stockholm, Sweden on August 13th, 2018 at the synthesis node. Enjoy!
Well…. we are in for an interesting evening, perhaps … there’s a lot of people here, there’s a lot of attention in the room. Hopefully it’ll sustain for the course … for the duration. And also, interestingly enough, I basically rewrote this whole lecture sometime between Momo and when I arrived here in Stockholm earlier today. So this is going to be somewhat improvised to some extent as we’ll see. There’s some new things. I’m not sure how it’ll all tie in, but I trust the emergent presence of this room to help call it together. Does anyone know anything about me or what I do? Raise your hand. Oh, that’s a couple of you. Does anyone here know anything about psychedelic drugs? Nobody. Okay. That’s tough. That’s tough. It’s a hard sell. But actually, maybe a harder sell is that I’m going to do my best here tonight to make a case for skilled suffering and that suffering is a skill that we all not only should develop … let me take that back. I’m not trying to “should” on anyone here … that it would really benefit us to develop, but actually that the world around us really needs more people with the skill of suffering.
Now, we’ll, like, table that for a second. And warming up. Don’t worry. We’ll get there. We will get there. So I’m gonna make the case for skilled suffering, and I’m also gonna talk to you about how that relates to compassion. And then I’m gonna see if I can weave in, where psilocybin comes into play into all of this and why I think it matters for the world before us and the world that will follow us. But before I get into that, maybe I’ll talk a little bit about myself. Some of you know about me. Some of you are likely just here, because you know, psychedelics and psilocybin is a hot topic and one, maybe, that you’re not getting nearly enough conversation about in your life. And somehow the fact that my name was on a bill here in this particular venue maybe presents me as some sort of authority.
Don’t let that fool you. I’m not, but maybe I’ll make a good case. I run a podcast, I write books. Some of you might have looked at those books back there. And I write articles. I have a YouTube channel. My primary interest, my primary curiosity focuses definitely on psychedelics and has evolved over time as the questions that I’ve asked myself about what it means, not only to trip psychedelics and what the psychedelic experience means, but what it means to be human alive at this time. And what is my responsibility as being a human alive at this time? What is my responsibility, personally, in my family, in my society, and to the world? If there’s any responsibility to be had at all, which again, I’m going to make a bit of a case for that.
As the questions have evolved, the different things have come to the fore, they have come to the front of my attention. And over the last six to eight months, maybe a year, the question of what it means to come of age has made its way to the front. What it means to adults, what it means to be an adult. And furthermore, what has come to my attention are questions around what is this thing, we are participating in this psychedelic culture and what does it need to be a sustainable culture? Because parties are great! Aesthetics are pretty fresh, I gotta say! But that’s not enough to sustain a culture. And academic research, the field of academic research, well awesome … there’s lots going on there to sustain the field of academic research, but academic research isn’t a culture either. What do we need inside of a psychedelic culture to make it sustainable onto itself? To make it a way of life, not just a thing that we participate in, cause it’s interesting. And I think that psychedelic culture needs conversations that ask questions about what it means to be alive.
And so those are the types of questions that I ask on my show, on my podcast “Adventures Through The Mind.” I bring people in from a variety of different disciplines. People who, you know, focus on what might be very explicitly psychedelic. People who lead therapy or do the research, anthropologists, cognitive neuroscientists, but also people that seemingly have nothing to do with psychedelics at all. People who talk about sex, people who talk about developmental psychology, people who talk about dying. Because I think these are all things that do relate to psychedelics. They relate to psychedelics, because psychedelic experience is an experience of being alive and is an experience of life in a new way beyond which our normal baseline consciousness might be able to render for us … without the added support of some sort of exogenous molecule or some sort of physical practice or some sort of stroke of grace at any given moment that brings about what we call and characterize as a psychedelic experience.
So, big questions, big expansions. Still working on my English only 32 years so far. I’ll get there. Well that brings me recently to the question of compassion, which is probably part of what brought you here as well. It’s a hot topic, it’s a word. It’s all about, you know, loving compassion and the so-called spiritual communities. And it seems like an important skill. It seems like research suggests that physiologically creating the neural architecture that enables the experience and the cultivation of compassion happens to have a very positive impact on the functioning of the entire organism. Well that’s interesting.
What compassion is and is not
But what the hell is this whole compassion than? Well, let’s start with what it’s not. Although actually let’s start … and I’ll look at my notes as little as possible, cause they’re just so distracting … but the definition of compassion in the textbook is sympathy, pity, or sympathetic pity, concern for the suffering and misfortune of others. I think that’s partially true and partially wrong, entirely wrong. What compassion is not is pity or sympathy. And I’ll explain to you why in a little bit, but I’ll make that case now. Compassion is not sympathy and it is not pity. And I promise we’ll get to psychedelics, but we need to go, we need to go somewhere else first. So just bear with me.
Compassion is also not empathy. Now here’s where I’ll get a little bit more deeper. Empathy is a automatic response, almost like a limbic resonance that we have with another person where they have particular feelings and we happen to feel those feelings with them. It’s something that we could definitely effort towards or effort against, but it’s not something that we really hold our integrity in. It’s something that’s automatic. It’s like a reflex that we’re either trying to get better at or we’re trying to make, you know, less jerky. How many people in this room are or have met someone, who feels like they’re too empathetic to go to certain places like the mall, for example, or to bars where people are drinking? How many of you have met someone that says: “Oh, I, you know, the vibes are too weird. I’m so empathic that it like hurts to be around certain situations.” Okay, this is actually, you know, it’s common. It’s common. Now there might be a discussion there about how the influences of various toxins that were introduced into the womb as a consequence of the mother’s environment, psychologically, emotionally, and physically might have made it so that the organism is not able to properly block out and be unaffected or negatively affected by stimuli. But we’ll just put that aside for a second. That’s just a little thread that I’ll drop as we together weave this tapestry of some sort of theoretical model that hopefully applies to the lived life. What was I talking about just then?
Excellent, thank you very much. See, we’re in this together. We’re in this together people. So empathy is this sort of automatic thing. It’s not compassion. Now I’m gonna lean into the Dalai Lama, cause he’s a pretty interesting character with a lot of awesome things to say. But I’ll try to do my best not to go into some sort of, you know, diatribe on Buddhism here. But one of the things that the Dalai Lama says, he makes the differentiation between compassion, empathy, saying that compassion contains empathy, but it has the added element of caring.
It has this added element of caring. Now I see that compassion and empathy are different, because empathy is sort of like an automatic reflex that we can’t really control necessarily and we sort of lose ourselves in it. Where compassion is something that we maintain our sense of self in. We are with another person, we’re feeling with them. But there’s a sense of us also being separate, but not separate in a way that we’re dissociated or detached, which is sympathy or pity. Where we detach from the feeling or suffering of another person, in some way put ourselves above them and look down upon them in their suffering: “Oh you know, I just feel so bad for you”.
So compassion isn’t empathy necessarily, and it’s certainly not sympathy or pity and it includes this sense of being inside and centered in oneself as we feel with another person. But what are we feeling in order to have this compassion? Well, to answer that, I think we need to go to the root of what the word means. But of course the word is an abstract symbol, a sound that … an utterance that, you know … we utilize for some sort of strange telepathic exchange between each other that we simply call language. But it also has roots. It also has impact. We are a language creature. The world that we live in … I’m gonna, I’m gonna try to do my best Terrence McKenna here … “The world that we live in is made of language.” All right, giggles. I did good. So the language that we use is important. Even if we don’t understand fully what that language is, they are still spells, incantations that we spit out into the world. And as a consequence of doing so, slightly modulate the way things are into the way things appear to be in our experience, subjectively and intersubjectively in this objective reality.
So the roots of the word compassion go back and … I’m sure many of you speak Swedish here, likely as your first language, possibly other languages in this room, certainly everyone here speaks some degree of English or else you’re thoroughly confused right now … in English, likely also in Swedish, the words that we use today have a path. They have a history. They have a means by which they’ve evolved from where they started into where they are now. And compassion is the same. The root of compassion is in two words, calm and patti or passio. Both Latin, calm meaning “together with” like communication or community. Patti or passio means “suffering” or “to suffer”. So compassion literally means … if we give it a definition based on its etymological history and its etymological foundations … it means “to suffer together with.” Compassion means “to suffer together with.” So that means that the skill of compassion, our capacity to have compassion, is entirely dependent on our capacity to suffer. But what kind of suffering am I talking about? Because there is a whole full array of suffering in the world. Many more than we could probably list here. And I … like yourselves likely or at least many of you … have the absolute privilege to reflect philosophically on suffering.
Getting better at suffering | The two ways to suffer
So let’s just acknowledge that, because as I make a case for skilled suffering, it might be easy to think that I’m in this high end place of like everybody needs to be better at suffering. Well possibly it would benefit us, but it’s those of us who have the privilege of reflecting on these things that … and I’m gonna use the should word … should get better at suffering. Now there is a bunch of different ways to suffer, but I will we’ll call it audacity to break it down into two possible ways of suffering: authentic suffering and reactive suffering. Authentic suffering is being in the pain we’re feeling right now. Reactive suffering is the pain that emerges as a consequence of not being with the pain we’re feeling right now.
Reactive suffering is everything that emerges as we fight against the pain and discomfort that is emerging right now. It’s like an anti-feeling … sort of a feeling that you get instead of being like “Oh you know, this wind sucks. It’s kind of knocking me over being like, I’m gonna push against the wind, I’m gonna push against, gonna push against it.” And it just feels like it’s getting worse, cause you’re trying to run against the wind and you’re getting all fatigued and you never actually let the wind really move you cause you’re just fighting against it. This is reactive suffering. Authentic suffering, being with the pain right here, right now. This is the type of suffering that we need to get better at if we’re going to be more compassionate. But this is a difficult sell because I’m basically saying “Hey, P.S., all those really painful bits, you should actually let that in.” So not only a difficult cell, maybe some of you were like “Yeah, you’re right. Embrace the darkness, decompose the shadow.” That’s the title of my book.
But even inside of that, you must know, you must have experienced how difficult it is to actually let yourself feel things. Like maybe something comes up, maybe some of you have had this experience that I’ve had. Where something happens and sadness comes and as soon as the sadness comes, it’s kiboshed. I don’t want it to be kiboshed. I want to feel that sadness. I know it’s good, right? It’s healthy to be sad. That’s a skill too, and I try, I’m like “Come on”, I just like think about more sad things and I’m trying to like “No, come on, get outta the way automatic nervous system. I wanna feel the sadness right now.” But no, it’s repressed. It’s not so easy to get good at suffering, because most of us in this room, I’m going to gauge, have somewhere between 20 to 80 plus years of certain feelings being conditioned … our nervous system having certain feelings calibrated against. Now this is a sticky situation, because if we can’t feel certain things then we can’t be together with others in their pain. Not in a way that’s truly compassionate.
Now, just not being able to feel it and sort of going a little bit numb, that’s one issue. A whole other issue is, that when the pain that’s coming up is so powerfully charged, that it frightens us … and we know not what frightens us and we know not why we happen to react in a way to protect ourselves from these feelings. We don’t even know we’re protecting ourselves from feelings. We think that it’s that other person’s fucking fault. How dare they, cut me off? “Fucking bastard! I’m just trying to drive here. I hate you fucking guy. I hate driving.” Or maybe it’s something else, you know. Good example might be … no, let’s save that one, save that example. There are two different reasons why we might not be able to feel.
There are two different reasons why we might not be able to be in a compassionate place … to be suffering with another person. One of which is that we’re repressed. It’s the situation I just described to you, which I’m gonna unpack in more detail in a moment. I’m looking at my notes … I promised myself I wouldn’t, but I’m doing it and I’m also just going for it. And like I said, I’m dropping threads and this is not just me. We’re weaving this tapestry together. So if a thread drops and you think is interesting and relevant, it’s likely relevant for more than just yourself. Hang on to it. There’s a Q&A.
So there’s two different ways or reasons why we might not be able to feel our feelings or feel in that suffering together with another person. The first way I’ll talk about last, but it’s basically like we’ve never really encountered anything like that before. It’s just not really there. It’s like I just cannot put myself in that situation. So it’s hard for me to feel what that person is feeling. It’s pretty reasonable. We’re just not at that level yet. We’ve had no reason to go there. The other way is a little bit more insidious. And I think that it is the root cause of a lot of issues in the world, which is that we don’t feel these things because we learned not to feel them. And how we learned not to feel them and what it is that we’re not feeling will sort of define the dynamics in which our “not feeling it” or “not wanting to feel it” or “protecting ourselves from it” will emerge.
I imagine that some of, if not all of the men in this room might have learned something along the lines of: the only appropriate emotions to express as a man are rage and lust. There’s these social conditions that we get in these bullshit gender role things, that emerge as a consequence of growing up in our modern society. But there’s another bit that really touches us very, very deeply. And it comes out of the foundation of who we are, which is a relational being. A relational being that at one point was so vulnerable, it would meet certain death if it were simply left alone for a long enough period of time.
Childhood wounds and the neurological defense against feelings
So let’s go back there. Let’s go back to this moment when we are the most vulnerable. And I promise we’ll get to psychedelics. Let’s go back to this moment where we are most vulnerable. This moment that we just get out of the birth canal. We are very, very small. We’re in a whole new world. And let it be said that everything that happened when we were here … and everything that happened to mommy and daddy prior to this happening … and everything that happened in mommy and daddy’s life all the way back to their childhood and their gestational experiences … and grandma and grandpa’s childhood and so on and so forth, backwards … is a long causal chain of influence that has a direct impact on who you are right now and the context in which you were birthed. But let’s just focus on having been birthed and go from there.
We’re in the world, we have no sense of self. We only have immediate experience of now. We only have immediate experience of now, while also having the absolute necessity of being taken care of because the human baby, the human infant is not developed when it comes out of the womb. Unlike many other mammals that need some care or other animals around the world that need no care but are pretty much like ready to go within a very short period of time … like, get off there, get that prey or eat those greener reason, be that prey, whatever it is … the human mammal needs a lot of care and attention. The modern science, the modern cognitive neuroscience suggests that the full development of the human brain might not actually finish until 25 or 30 years old. Which gives interesting considerations to 21 year olds who feel like they know how to fix the world … but just something to chew on there.
But not until about 25 or 30 do we really fully develop the brain. So what do we have then instead of a womb? Well, we have, we call it a family, a home, a household, caregivers. Another word we could call it is the nest. We have the human nest. There are, I believe, seven essential factors to the human nest according to Darcia Narvaez’ research of small band hunter gatherers over the course of, you know, the thousands, tens of thousands of years that they, you know, evolved prior to our sort of expanding cult of totalitarian agriculture taking over most of the world at this point in the last 10 or so thousand years. But I don’t actually know what those seven things are right now. I’m not really good at memorization. But primal parenting is the name of the podcast episode that you can listen to her talk about it. But the point of the matter is the nest finishes the development. The nest takes care of what the womb would have done if the womb we’re able to house a baby until it was 25 to 30. So what’s the experience of the baby? Well, the experience of the infant, the baby, is very interesting because right at the beginning there’s no real sense of self. There’s just that experience of now.
And not only is there just the experience of now, there’s the important process of what is now kind of frowned upon… being called … it’s frowned upon to call it imprinting now … but something similar to what we understood to be imprinting. We are entirely vulnerable. We’re unable to do anything for ourselves. We can’t feed ourselves, we can’t clean ourselves. We can’t really move around except, you know, like kick our little legs from the belly to the breasts or make these suckling motions. P.S. the first motion, the foundation of movement, your whole movement complexity, your Yoga and your Tai Chi and this like crazy hand dancing, whatever … all of that is an evolution of your ability to move towards the breast.
Yeah, okay. So we basically can’t really do anything. We also cannot regulate our own emotions. Baby cannot calm itself down. It’s entirely reliant on the mother first and foremost, cause the mother is the feeding … this is like biologically … mother is most important. Now I’m gonna say mother and father a lot. That’s very heteronormative, that’s fine. Fill it in with whatever you need to with gender dynamics. That’s just the easiest way to talk about it. So I’ll just go ahead and do that. Mother is number one. Mother is the first person that we are entirely dependent upon. Of course, mother is dependent on a larger ecosystem around her or her own veracity … if she doesn’t have that ecosystem set up for her … for whatever social personal context led her to that place. But we’re entirely reliant on her.
And as we rely on her to help us, we learn who we are and how to navigate this body. Seems obvious, you know … kids, babies listen to us talk and they mimic the sounds that we’re making. They mimic how we walk. You know, it seems obvious in that sense. But I’m gonna bring it to another sense, which is that emotional regulation … and emotions aren’t some airy fairy, you know, thing that just happens. They are a biological process that is measurable in your blood and in the activation of electricity in your skin. They’re a very physical experience and they’re related to the activity of the nervous system. So baby learns how to regulate its emotion in symbiosis to the mother, as the mother calms baby’s nervous system. Baby calibrates its nervous system in proxy to the mother’s support. Now the mother then expands to mommy and daddy, eventually, and then mommy and daddy and uncle and auntie and friend and … all the whole awesome dynamic possible family depending on where you live. Some places like in Canada, nuclear family is pretty hardcore. Maybe that’s the case here, which is totally dysfunctional … but that’s another topic, that’s another thread.
Baby is learning. It’s calibrating its nervous system to take care of itself, including its emotional regulation. Now we missed a bit. Do we go back? Do we move forward? Baby learns to calibrate its nervous system around the mother’s feeling states. The nervous system, which is the physiological responsiveness to our experience of reality … is how we conduct ourselves in the world. The nervous system is the thing that allows us to operate and move through our experience of the world. The nervous system … what I will claim for you here today … would be of a “coin of being” the physiological side and on the … we’ll say more experiential side, I know it’s a faulty dichotomy … other side of that coin would be the self. Baby calibrates its physiological nervous system around the mother’s feeling states. Baby organizes its sense of self around the mother’s feeling states. Baby organizes its sense of self around the mother’s feeling states. Your sense of self was organized around your mother’s feeling states. That’s heavy, right? And very interesting. So let’s go back a little bit. This is the bit that we almost missed, but we didn’t miss it, cause we’re here.
Shout it out, popcorn style. What is the most important nutrient in a baby’s development? Protein…
So I just thought about this great YouTube video. I think it’s called “My new haircut.” I don’t know if you ever saw it, but he’s like “Protein!!!”. Anyways. And he’s so jacked … okay, nailed it. One after another… LOVE.
(Protein is also very important.) We know this, vegetarians know this very well. Okay, love is the most important. Oh, that sounds so hippy dippy. You thought you were coming to some legit science thing! We’re just talking about new age bullshit… No, but really, what does love mean?
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Love is the thing that enables to ensure that baby gets food, gets protein … it gets security, it gets cared for, it gets, its emotional dysregulation regulated. Love is the primary and essential nutrient that opens the gateway to all other things baby needs. It’s also essential in the relational dynamic between parent and child. Unconditional parental love in particular, but love with a capital “L” in general, which is a thing that our nervous system can develop to offer itself and to others … but that’s a thread. Unconditional parental love is very important to the baby. Because not only does it mean, that is what the baby is seeking for to ensure it gets its survival needs. But it’s basically the thing that makes it so … that the goddamn 100th sleepless night in a row and the screaming and the this and the that, it’s the thing that helps the parent actually go “All right, I’m still gonna do this.” Even though oftentimes it sucks. It’s the foundation … it’s the glue that is so strong that it makes all the suffering of being a parent worth it.
Suffering is a convoluted word. All the pain associated with being a parent and the stress, excuse me, make the challenge worth it. So love is an essential nutrient, but love can only flow where love is able to flow. Where love has learned to flow. But all the places that love has not learned to flow, it will not flow. And all the places that love has not learned to flow are all the places that love was not present in times of distress or in times of love’s need.
So here we are, we’re a child. We’re getting, you know, love in some sense. But let’s fast forward from infancy … though we’ll go back later with an example … but let’s fast forward to being a toddler. Now, like I said, love is the essential nutrient for a child growing up and unconditional love from the parent. Now, unconditional love from the parent does not always mean the child gets what it wants. Certainly doesn’t even mean that the parent likes the child all the time. Sometimes this child can be …. I have a nephew, sometimes I’m like, oh God, you’re just striking me up the fucking wall … but I still love him. We can dislike a person’s behavior and still love them. We can dislike our child’s behavior. We can almost like be on the verge of disliking them in general and still love them. Unconditional love does not mean giving the child everything that it wants. For example, it doesn’t matter how much baby screeches or screams, baby cannot play with the shiny metal things. They’re knives. Mommy knows this. Baby doesn’t know this. Baby doesn’t like this. Mommy knows this. This is love. Baby, we’ll say little girl … this is a good example … little girl is not able to have a cookie before bed or before dinner, excuse me.
She really wants a cookie, but daddy knows that she shouldn’t have a cookie before dinner. There’s lots of reasons. I mean, sugar as an extract has a modulatory effect on our dopamine system, that would give us a crazy spike and eventually gives us a drop off like all the best drugs do. And if we give this to a small child, it’ll cause their behavior to become increasingly erratic and we’re really unlikely to be able to like them, well loving them if they’ve had sugar at some point earlier. And it’s likely to damage their neurological development and increase the chances that they’ll develop things like that we will later label as ADHD … because of the critical time of brain development that we were alliterating them with dopamine and changing the way that their dopamine system modulates its own levels. Or maybe, because when we eat sugar, dopamine is the thing that we get, and dopamine is what we get when we eat a whole balanced meal. But if we get more dopamine from sugar, we’re less likely to want to eat a balanced meal. And so chances are parent knows that if it gives baby sugar before dinner, it’s not gonna enjoy dinner. And it’s gonna create a behavioral pattern that leads baby or a little girl towards eating more sugars and eating more crappy food instead of eating whole well-balanced food for the rest of her life. Because she learned that she could just get what she needed. She wanted to feel satisfied with a quick cookie. Baby doesn’t understand all of that. And really it doesn’t matter because baby cannot have … oh, sorry, I keep saying baby … little girl cannot have a cookie before dinner. But god damn it, she wants it. And she is an industrious little girl and she starts getting upset. She starts trying all the tactics she’s seen mom use against dad and dad use against mom. And she starts trying all these different ways to get the cookie and it’s not working. And eventually she gets angry.
She’s in her fire and she’s making a statement for what she wants. But anger is a place where love doesn’t flow for daddy because anger is a place where for daddy love turned to violence when he was a little boy.
And regardless of how it is that he learned to adapt to that over time, he hasn’t dealt with this particular issue. He’s still stuck in this old wound from his own childhood … developmentally stuck there. And when baby gets angry, he goes away for a second and all of a sudden he reacts. And he reacts in we’ll say that he takes a hot route. He weaponizes love and he gets violent, he gets angry with her. He utilizes his anger to suppress hers. He weaponizes love to modulate her behavior in accordance with what he wants, which is to no longer be subjected to anger because he’s triggered or maybe because he learned that that’s the appropriate way that you discipline a child. “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Isn’t that what they say? Good advice from healthy parents, right? P.S. There’s absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever that hitting, I’m sorry, spanking your child has any positive long-term outcome on their behavior.
It’s actually the opposite. There is no science that supports hitting, sorry, spanking as a good way to discipline your child. Just putting that out there. So he gets angry. Let’s say he doesn’t get angry. Let’s step back for a second. Let’s try another one. Maybe instead of going hot, he goes cold. Maybe he learned a long time ago that violence is not the way. He’s not comfortable with anger. He doesn’t want to express his anger, he certainly doesn’t wanna harm his little girl. So he’ll take the more enlightened route we’ll say, and he’ll find another way to modify her behavior and make that anger go away. He’ll dissociate from it. He’ll dissociate from her, he’ll withhold love.
How many of you know what “flat facial affect” is? So it’s something that comes up in autistic children and it’s basically like they don’t show expression on their faces. And this can be really difficult for caregivers cause they never see … cause we learn to respond to faces and how a face responds … we learned that early with the mom, right? And that it’s hard to feel like you’re being appreciated and it leads to burnout. There’s another experiment … and I can’t remember the name of this experiment, but as I describe it, raise your hand if you’ve seen it or heard of it before …. where they take a mother and a child together and they’re doing like mommy child play stuff. You know, mommy’s like “hi, hi” … doing these little facial things, maybe “Peekaboo!”, whatever baby is responding to, also doing the facial stuff. And then a bell goes, or mommy gets a cue in her ear that says: “Go flat.” And baby’s like “ha ha ha” trying to get mommy’s “Hmm, mommy.” … but she just stays flat. Eventually this becomes so distressing for the child, it starts crying. It’s so distressed. It’s like: “Where’s mommy?”
Where’s the love?
Where’s that reciprocal presence? Where’s the love? And then, you know, mommy gets the cue in the ear … because, I mean, it’s pretty old … but it’s probably not a good idea to get these babies that riled up. I mean, cortisol isn’t good for the brain no matter who you are. And so mommy gets the cue: “Okay, now you can respond.” And then baby calms down, gets happy again. So here’s this little girl. She gets angry. She wants a fucking cookie. And daddy takes the non-violent approach, or at least he thinks so. And he goes dissociated. He dissociates from his trigger, he dissociates from her anger. He dissociates, he disconnects love for a second, and he doesn’t care anymore. “No!”, she starts screeching and trying to get that attention to get that anger. “Nope, nope.” She’s got nothing. While there’s two things that could happen here, either she could get so upset that she basically just like has a complete tantrum and maybe he then gets to a point of punishing her, makes her stand in the corner or something. The brain … she gets so upset that she’s no longer using anger as a tactic to get what she needs. She’s literally in a biologically distressed state that she can no longer control for herself. And she’s being physically harmed by being out of control and getting no love and support in the process.
But let’s just say this tactic works. Little girl … tactic works. She stops freaking out. Maybe she just sits down in a lump and just starts crying. And daddy goes “Okay, good lesson learned.” Now she knows she can’t have a cookie before dinner. But what did she actually learn? She learned that angry little girls don’t get love or angry little girls will get violence inflicted against her. Now, in this moment, like in any moment as we’re a child, we learn something. And we learn a provisional thing, we’ll call it a story, a little narrative. And it’s provisional because it’s supposed to be updated. We learn things and then as we get older we realize, yeah, that was a thing. But now it exists in this larger context. So it’s slightly different now and yada, yada yada… Until you have sort of a fairly well working dynamic on your understanding on how to work with relational dynamics and the legal system and … stories from childhood, those first learnings, get updated because they’re provisional. But if the distress that emerges comes up and it feels like life or death, because remember … without love the nervous system knows “certain death”. It learned something there. The story that emerges is a story that we need to know or else we’ll die.
Obviously, a small child isn’t thinking this, this is a biological reaction. It’s an instinct that we can later give words to when we become, you know, adults and can think about it. And I’m giving words to it, I’m narativizing this little girl’s experience, but she learns that angry little girls don’t get love. And that is a story that she holds for the rest of her life. That anger is not okay. But what is anger? Now there’s an example that I can use, but I’m not gonna use it because …. there’s so much and there’s so little. So I’ll just tell you. Anger is the emotion we use to protect our boundaries.
If someone is too close to us … if someone is whatever … if we are in a situation where our boundaries are being threatened … whether it is over who did the dishes, or whether it be over somebody, who’s coming at us in a violent way … anger is the emotion that mobilizes us to fight and protect and establish our boundaries. So if little girl has learned that angry little girls don’t get love and she’s not able to feel her anger and feel safe and loved at the same time … then what is it that she just learned not to be good at: protecting her boundaries. And then later in life, she is seemingly an adult conducting herself however she chose to conduct herself, but seems to have this issue of always picking the same guys who abuse her. Or seems to have this issue where she can’t actually get in any relationship with somebody because she immediately, as soon as she starts to feel close, she has to push away. Because she can’t properly protect her boundaries. Because she learned early on that the things she needed to protect her boundaries would mean that she wouldn’t be loved. And since not being loved meant certain death at that time, then the biological nervous system stays with it. And it’s buried so deep in our psyche and under these heavy walls. Because the story, if the story is questioned, it might mean certain death. So the nervous system, the psychology says: we can’t even question it … we can’t even look at that … we can’t even know that that’s there because that might threaten us. I mean it’s obviously ridiculous.
Now in our cognitive state of mind, well that’s a ridiculous way to handle this situation. But the instincts of the human mind are pretty ancient and they’re not always updated with the next level neocortex, cognitive deconstruction that we can apply to it. So we can’t even see it. We are blind to it. So this little girl is stuck. Now this woman is stuck. She’s carrying something around. She’s carrying the deep pain … she’s carrying the deep pain of not being loved and all the consequences that come from not being loved in her anger and not being able to set up anger. And now she has a lifetime of pain. Now this is the example of a woman or of a female.
This could also be the example of a young man. Let’s take the exact same situation. Let’s say daddy did go with the hot and daddy kicked the shit out of that little boy. Little boy learned something then too, which is angry little boys get the shit kicked out of them. He learns that he’s powerless and can’t question that for a long time. That’s a deep sense of his identity. That’s who he thinks he is. And he gets older, he gets older and he gets older. And maybe now he’s so threatened to express his anger … or actually let’s go this way …. he found a way to adapt to that sense of powerlessness as like a next layer. He learned he was powerless and if he expressed his anger, violence would be acted upon him. And so in order to get his power back, he utilizes his anger to inflict violence on others. So that he can feel powerful. So that he doesn’t have to feel powerless anymore. And so he goes shopping around for, perhaps, somebody who learned that they wouldn’t get love if they expressed anger. Somebody who doesn’t have good boundaries.
Our sense of self, the world, and place within the world as an adult is an echo of childhood
What I’m making a case for you to consider here is that, who we are as adults and the perception we have of reality … who we think we are, what we think the world is, and who we think we are in the world … is actually emerging from a story that goes back all the way to childhood. And in those places, there are places where we have updated the story over time and we have grown … we have matured into adults. And there are other places where the things that we learned in childhood were so dangerous to question that we remained children there. And we know where those places are, because they’re the places that we get reactive to whenever they’re poked. Those are the wounded places. Has anyone had somebody say something or do something that you had some crazy overreactive emotional experience to that didn’t make any sense and you conducted yourself in a way that later you felt deeply embarrassed by. Because it had no place in the situation whatsoever. And maybe you were even aware of it, but you couldn’t stop yourself from behaving that way. Raise your hand! Where there’s reactivity, there’s a wound.
That pain came up and we couldn’t handle it. We responded as emotional children the best we could. But we weren’t responding to what was happening here and now. We were responding to what was happening in the past as if it were here and now. And if we’re carrying around a bunch of unresolved past that’s being triggered by the world around us, we’re very unlikely to be here now with others. We’re very unlikely to be able to be with others when we’re triggered. We’re very unlikely to be able to feel anything that reminds us of that pain and still be contained in ourselves. We’re very unlikely to be able to be with other people’s pain and not get reactive. We’re very unlikely to be able to suffer together with others. We’re very unlikely to be able to respond to the troubles of the world around us if we’re left dealing with a bunch of childish stuff … acting like children when the world is asking us to adult. There’s a personal level of this … I mean we made the example of it ultimately like the weird recipe that cooks up domestic violence in a relationship … but possibly it’s something on the broader scale.
You know, possibly, there’s another type of pain that we could be feeling. That we’re too insecure inside of us to feel … that we can’t really come to feeling, cause we haven’t really had the opportunity to really know that we could be safe and also be troubled and threatened. Say the trouble, the pain that comes as soon as we look at the reality of the world that we live in right now. That’s a pretty nice day. The world was burning a week ago.
There’s a lot of pain there, there’s a lot of desperation there. And maybe many of you in this room you’re pretty goddamn aware of that and you’re doing your absolute best to make change. But there are a lot of people in this world who know it, but they can’t look at it. They cannot look at it. They become desperate. They are blind to the fact that they’re even afraid of it. So I mean, maybe they write off climate change. This is not really a big deal. And they focus on the things that really make them feel secure. Like economic prosperity, right? Or bottled water. Cause it tastes better than tap. Or maybe they’re so desperate … they’re so contained in themselves … they’re so afraid of what they have is about to go away … and they haven’t looked at the reality of why it’s gonna go away and they can’t look there. So they look elsewhere and they blame other people for taking away the only thing they have that makes them feel secure. Which … let’s call that their national identity. And all of a sudden the migrants, the immigrants, the fucking immigrants, they’re stealing away our country. This is my country. I need this. I’m scared and I can’t look at what I’m really afraid of. So I’ll make somebody else to blame. And that would be easy, cause I could just point to the brown person and hate them and problem solved. I can just hate them and fight against them. I don’t have to look at the issues that I have.
So we are in this weird situation in this world. Each one of us is in this situation where we’re adults somewhere and children, somewhere else … emotionally children. But what the hell do we do about it?
Psychedelics and the healing of childhood wounds
Well, you might have forgotten, but we’re all here to talk about psychedelics tonight. Are we not? Okay, psychedelics will save the world. Thank you everybody. Goodnight!
Okay. I’m kidding. I’m kidding. I’m kidding … a timeout? No, no! We’re in it! We’re in it for at least another 20 minutes to half an hour. Or you can go if you want to, but I believe that everybody else might be willing to hang out. It’s up to you.
Alright, but we are almost done here. I know that we’re going deep psychedelics. Now I have the sense that it seems it’s pretty damn hard … even when you have the mindfulness, when you’re in that reactive state … you have that mindfulness of like, fuck, I should not be acting this way … but you can’t stop it, somehow. The defensive strategies that protect that wounded area, that painful place, it has formed the … we will reduce it down, we’ll evade a complex conversation … we’ll just call it the ego. It’s made of the same thing we use to try to dismantle it. It’s like trying to put out a fire with fire. Now it is possible in many different ways to resolve this pain, to get in there, to update that story. But it’s extremely difficult. And often we need help and we need support in this. So this is where I think psychedelics can come into play. Because specifically psilocybin mushroom has this ability to disintegrate our sense of self, to set the energies of the unconscious free, to set free the affective states, the fragmented memories, the strange ideas, the emotions, the feelings. It can set it free. And what we had protected ourselves from can emerge. It can come to the front of our experience. It can be here and now again. And we could be in it … in all its exquisite pain.
But just being in the pain is really not that great. It’s not gonna help us. Because, if we’re just in the pain and the context is the same … to some degree as it was when we were suffering as children … then it’s not gonna change. We need to be able to give ourselves or have given to us by others, that which we missed at the time that that pain was first inflicted. Which was … what did we not get at that time the pain was inflicted? Love! At the time we didn’t get unconditional parental love. Well we don’t need that anymore cause we’re adults. And if we’re looking for unconditional parental love … be it from a politician or a spiritual deity, or from another person … we stay emotionally children. And we don’t actually grow, we just change the seats around like the seating order of how we express our infantile needs for unconditional parental love. What we need is a form of love that can, you know, really be there with us in how we’re expressing our pain, in how we’re expressing our feelings. It can be there with us in that pain. It can see us for it. It doesn’t get lost in that pain with us. It stays with us there, but it maintains a sense of caring.
What we need is a type of love that emerges out of somebody or something … that we can feel that this somebody or something is really there with us in our suffering and that we’re safe and that it or they cares for us. What we need is someone, or something, a form of love that can be with us together in our suffering. What we need is compassion. We need compassion to be infused in the relational dynamic that is present when we’re feeling our pain. Now, this is something that I think is highly plausible to achieve with psilocybin mushrooms.
It’s highly plausible to achieve because first and foremost, the walls that we set up around that vulnerable story, around that pain, because of “certain death”, they dissolve away. And it comes up. Unlike many different forms of therapy … psychotherapy … we’re not trying to poke and prod and like hijack the ego or whatever. It’s just, it’s flying out of us. And there’s a variety of different things that might come up here. And I think it’s very psychologically important because we are narrativizing creatures. We’re creatures of language. We’re creatures of story … telling story in our minds to others might be the thing, one of the fundamental characteristics of our humanity. And so when this feeling comes up, the pain emerges … that’s part of the story of where it came from. Here it is. And if … as it’s coming up … we’re with another person, say a psychedelic therapist or a sitter or a friend or somebody else that’s there with us who can hold our hand … as that pain comes up. As all that repressed emotion comes to the front and we let it move through us. We can be with that suffering and we could feel safe and loved at the same time.
Let’s think of a scenario. okay. Let’s think of a scenario where this might emerge. We’ve taken some mushrooms and we’re kind of like … we’re in the sick of it now. And all of a sudden we start to get the sense that nobody wants us there. Maybe we’re thinking of a memory and the memory is of whatever we got, you know, … a recent memory that comes up and you’re like “Whoa”. Like those people didn’t want me in that experience. Or maybe you have someone sitting here with you, you’re like, they don’t want to be here. It’s like abundantly clear all of a sudden that asking them to be your sitter, they only did it out of like pity or something. They don’t actually want to be there. They don’t actually even like you.
You know, like chances are if it gets any worse, they’re probably just gonna leave and abandon you. And you become pretty convinced that that’s the case. And then all of a sudden, because perhaps you came to a talk like this and you heard me say what I’m about to say, or you read one of my books, you remember that everything that emerges with psilocybin is emotionally honest. And every feeling that you feel is real and meaningful … and in fact more meaningful than it typically is. And that the way that you interpret the world around you becomes … in this strange, heightened and confusing and metaphorical way where most of the things that you’re seeing outside of you are metaphorical representations of inner feeling states that are actually emergent from something that existed before this moment or beyond this moment … so if I’m feeling like they don’t want me and I’ll be abandoned, maybe that’s not about them.
Maybe that’s me. So that feeling grows and we choose to be attentive because we’re like “Okay, no. Then if it’s not them, then I can trust that they’re here with me.” Like they’ve got me, I’m safe with this person. I look at them like this and they go: “It’s okay. You’re safe. Just go with it.” And I go. And I close my eyes and I go with it and I feel into the feelings and I say: “Okay, I’m here. What is this?” And the feeling wells up and there’s this wash of all these strange things. And all of a sudden I’m like a baby and I’m crying and I’m actually crying. And I’m also an adult crying and tripping mushrooms with my friend next to me. And I’m also a baby crying, like … what’s happening? And I’m realizing I’m in a crib.
I’m crying and I’m in a crib and oh my God, there’s so much pain here. There’s so much pain. I’m so alone. Why won’t anyone come for me? Why won’t anyone come for me? I’m screaming and I’m screaming and I’m screaming. And it occurs to me, I’m screaming for my mom. I want her to come for me. I’m scared. I’m in pain, but she’s not coming. She’s not coming. And I get it. I’m in so much pain. All of a sudden my nervous system just completely overloads. The cortisol levels are so high in my brain that I just pass out and I feel this passing out. And I feel this wash of … I will be abandoned. I am worthless. Nobody wants me. And I’m also an adult looking at this situation. And I’m having all these other memories. And these memories are placing me in different people’s experiences. And I’m experiencing things from my mom’s perspective, too. And I’m feeling that she hears me crying and it hurts her. But she learned from somebody else, the way to help a child learn to fall asleep is to let them cry it out. Holy fuck, and now I’m thinking about all the times in my life that I felt like I would be abandoned. All the times in my life that I felt worthless. All the times in my life that I behaved in a way that pushed other people’s way to validate the story I have about myself. Holy fuck, it’s all from this one experience, all this pain. All of this was here. This poor little baby.
This poor mom. She didn’t want this. I don’t want this. And I’m crying and I’m crying and I’m realizing that, you know, there was love. She just couldn’t express it. And that there’s love here now in the form of compassion right next to me. And all of a sudden the tears they finish and they come to a place where all of a sudden that story has changed. And I recognize that the times that later in my life … I recognize that the times that I start to feel like I’ll be abandoned or that I’m worthless … wait a minute, is that just the old story? Is that what’s real now? All of a sudden I have this increased response flexibility to the context of my life that enables me to not be reactive. That enables me maybe to get to a place in my life where I feel fundamentally worthy.
Or I can now build relationships where I don’t feel like I will be abandoned. Or relationships where I don’t feel so vulnerable that I can’t mention that I feel like I’ll be abandoned. That I fundamentally transformed how I view myself from disintegrating the normal patterns of perception and sense of self and allowing a new experience to emerge and … having set and established the parameters, the container, the set and the setting and the dose so that this type of experiential arc could unfold and that the meaningfulness of it could be infused with this sense of love and safety and transformation and change and healing. And then later in life, next time feelings emerge … and let’s let go of this abandonment thing … let’s say it was anger … let’s say it was sadness … let’s say it was grief … let’s say it was whatever it is that emerges … all of a sudden we have this increased capacity to go: “Wait a minute, maybe that’s just from the past!” And I could just be with this cause I know that I’m also safe and loved. Psychedelics, psilocybin, might be able to help us do that in a relational container. But what’s also interesting about psilocybin …
Psilocybin’s supportive presence in the processing of our emotional pain
how many of you have ever had the experience where you felt like there was some sort of magic in the space when you were tripping mushrooms?
Now hold your hand up for a second. Keep them up. Now, how many of you felt like it was some sort of universal force? Now, how many of you have come to say, you know, that might be the thing that other people call God? Oh, I used the “G” words and hands fell down. Okay, I’m not talking about the man in the sky. Shame wagging his finger at you. Talking about an overarching … yeah, you can put your hand down … overarching sense that even in our suffering, there’s something bigger than us that’s going on, that’s holding us in safety and in love. There’s something more … there’s something beautiful … there’s something bigger than our moment of suffering. And that lays a calibration in our nervous system as well. All of a sudden we’ll be able to suffer and feel safe and loved at the same time. We’ll be able to have authentic suffering. We could go: “All right, I don’t have to protect myself from this. I can be with this and I can be with this with others.” And we could be with this together in this.
And then next time something emerges in the reality around us that says: “Hey, here’s a call to suffer. Here’s a call to pain.” You know, here come the migrants … whatever it might be. I trust that most of you aren’t nationalists or whatever they’re called these days. But all of a sudden you can go: “Wait a minute. No, there’s something else here … and I can be with this and I can be with this in a way that I don’t have to be reactive. That this suffering is okay, that I can suffer and I’m okay.” And that we can suffer together and we can also be okay. Skillful suffering is the ability to suffer … as soon as we are called to suffer. We can’t actually suffer … hold on … skillful suffering is the capacity to know where the suffering emerges from and be with it.
It means to be with it, authentically. And if it’s from the past, it means letting it be in the past as it arises in the present. And not holding the present moment accountable for the feelings echoing from the past. But skillful suffering also means that we’re able, because we’re no longer reactively fighting against it, we’re able to let in the suffering that’s outside of us. The things that call us to go: “Whoa, there’s fucking pain here!” That we’re able to call that in and say: “Whoa, okay. Wow, there’s pain here. I can let that in and I can know that I’m okay to let that in.”
Even if what I’m letting in is what seems like the undeniable reality. That the trajectory of our, you know, globalized culture looks like absolute destruction. And there might not be food for my grandkids. That we might be living in like an interstellar dust bowl within one or two generations. And that we can bring that in. We can bring in that type of pain. And we cannot be reactive. We can be responsive. We can attend to it. If we get skillful at our suffering. If we get skillful at being with our suffering. And if compassion is what others need to learn, how to be skillful in their suffering, then we can together learn to have compassion for each other, to resolve and unpack the childish things that we have in the past … so that we can come into adulting in the present. And as adults attend to the suffering of the world at large. And we can respond appropriately to the troubled times that we’re in.
Because right now it feels like we’re falling out of an airplane. And chances are like Daniel Quinn says in the story of B, whoever invented the parachute, it certainly wasn’t somebody falling out of an airplane.
We’re not gonna be able to solve the problems that we’re facing right now if we’re completely wrapped up in reactive suffering and unable to feel the pain, cause we’re dissociating or we’re just so flipped out about things that we can’t think clearly. We’re not gonna be able to do that. We’re only gonna be able to do that if we can have the full capacity of our feeling potential … the full array of our feelings … including the feeling of pain and the ability to suffer together with each other as we show up to the times that we’re in. And be able to make positive change. Now there’s just three more points … I know this is long … you’re sitting, we’re in this together and I applaud your endurance … So I said earlier that there was another way … that we might not be able to feel suffering. There was the repressive bit that we just talked about coming into that. Okay. But there’s another way, which is that we’ve just never really connected with that particular form of suffering. We can’t really feel … we can’t really relate to it. Well, here’s another thing that I find interesting about psilocybin.
Like I said, I believe that everything that emerges is an emotional honesty. And I believe that the psilocybin experience is a feeling experience with all the awesome stuff that’s happening all around us. That’s just part of a parcel where the core of it is this feeling. And when we take the psilocybin, our feeling bandwidth emerges. And since our sense of self dissolves away, we’re able to actually put ourselves into different places. We can actually really reasonably experience things as if we were somebody else or something else … like an animal or some people’s else … like whole movements of people. Maybe we connect with what it feels like to be an entire, you know, like culture of people fleeing war and pain. Maybe we’re able to all of a sudden go: “Oh wow, my feeling bandwidth has expanded so much and now I have the experience of feeling another person’s pain.”
And so next time I’m more capable of being with it. Because that same sense of … hey, we’re also safe and loved … if the psychedelic experience went well and you set up the right containers internally and externally, now we have expanded the feeling dimension. We’ve expanded into things we otherwise wouldn’t have encountered in our baseline reality, because we took something that very reliably disintegrates our normal patterns of perception. So compassion matters. Compassion matters … because we are in trouble. Each of us … in little places and in big places. And compassion … being able to suffer together with … this is the means by which we build beautiful, integral relationships. It’s the way that we are vulnerable with each other, that we really get to know each other, that we could build bonds. It’s also the skill … suffering is the skill that we need to be able to hold, to wield as we face the challenges and the troubles of our time. Which each of us has to do in whatever way that looks like. And I’m not calling you to go on a personal growth mission … to go all the way into all the bad stuff as much as possible … find it all out so you could be the perfect person to show up when the time comes, because personal growth is a pipe dream in some way. And that’s like a reference to opiate pipes. It’s like someday you’re gonna be able to be the perfect person.
“The only thing that grows for itself is a tumor”
Personal growth is so much about me that when the time comes, it’s not really a lot of room for we … one of my teachers, Steven Jenkinson, says: “The only thing that grows for itself is a tumor.”
What I’m calling you to do is right now: “Adult in all the ways you’re able to adult when life calls on you to do so … in all the places that you are not able to adult, cause you’re still stuck in pain do your absolute best to resolve that. And if you are in a place where you are beyond … and there’s somebody in your community who needs that help do your absolute best to adult with them by having compassion for their pain, for their suffering.” And together we might be able to emerge into a world, where we walk around attentive and aware of the complex psychological historical dynamics that give rise to our perceptions of reality.
And that we’ve come to a place in our maturity … in our adulting … that we have such response flexibility, that we’re able to attend, either personally or interpersonally as a group, to whatever issues emerge. That we are able to walk around a culture of people … able to be aware of how the mind manifests … of how the history of the mind and the organism manifests … of how this reality that we experience and what we’re sharing in is an extension of internal dynamics coming to the front. And we’re able to navigate ourselves within it. That we might be able to build a type of culture that’s aware of the manifestation of mind and the play that it has and show up to the world as it needs us with this psychedelic culture.
And that is my talk. Thank you very much.
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