#9 Finding meaning through psychedelic integration: Part 3
How to move past resistance and integrate specific experiences based on the holistic model of body, mind, spirit, community and environment.
|Jul 9, 2020||4|
This is part 3/4 on integration. Read part 1 on the meaning-making aspect of integration. Part 2 covers the philosophy and steps of integration. In part 4 you’ll be hearing from psychedelic integration therapist/member of the Imperial College psychedelic research team, Michelle Baker Jones.
A little over a year ago, I reached a critical point in therapy. After years of inquiry, I found myself in a strange place: I had a very clear and detailed map of my past and how it was influencing my present, and what I needed to do in order to move forward. But somehow I couldn’t. I felt stuck and frustrated with my lack of progress. This went on for a while, until, during one session, I heard myself say to my therapist: “I just don’t know who I’d be without all this ‘stuff’”.
By ‘stuff’, of course, I meant the pain and trauma that had made the subject of my therapy, and, as I was beginning to realise, my identity as a misunderstood, wounded child. Yes, my ongoing depression and anxiety were inconvenient, but they were familiar. A large part of my identity was unconsciously built around them, from the music I listened to, to the clothes I wore, the books I read, how I showed up in friendships, what kind of partners I went for and so on. And some of that was genuinely great.
So it was quite a relief when my therapist chuckled and reassured me that letting go of ‘the bad stuff’ didn’t mean I’d lose myself. Phew - I didn’t have to give up turtlenecks or my The National vinyls! Just some of the parts that didn’t serve me could finally die, to make room for new, better things. What a revelation.
Integration is a death-rebirth process
“We are not meant to stay wounded. We are supposed to move through our tragedies and challenges and to help each other move through the many painful episodes of our lives. By remaining stuck in the power of our wounds, we block our own transformation. We overlook the greater gifts inherent in our wounds - the strength to overcome them and the lessons that we are meant to receive through them.” - Caroline Myss, Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can
One of the reasons psychedelic therapy can sound scary (but also makes it so effective) is that it reveals the truth of our lives in such a way that our desire to change suddenly outweighs the comfort of our dysfunctions. And this is when integration comes in. With the help of practices, a therapist/coach, a group or even a friend, we can create the supportive environment in which deep transformation can unfold.
While some of the practices involved in integration slowly and gently chip away at our old selves - the way meditation and yoga will help you become more present, compassionate and embodied over time - others will imply more immediate acts of change. Sometimes you’ll need to quit a destructive habit, distance yourself from a relationship, change careers or even just let go of a past hurt or a belief in order to make room for growth. Old parts of you will need to die so that new, happier and healthier parts can blossom.
It’s really not revolutionary, as we know that the only thing we can bet on in life is change. As Carl Rogers said, “The good life is a process, not a state of being”. Our lives are always in flux, as circumstances change and we adapt to them. But integration is our chance to get ahead of it, and do it on our terms.
What are you willing to let go of?
“To make room, it is enough that objects be removed. Room is not brought in from elsewhere.” - Sri Ramana Maharshi, Be As You Are
Before I started my psychedelic journey last year, I was a proud militant atheist and materialist. Ideas like reincarnation, cosmic consciousness or spirituality made me laugh, and, on worse days, inexplicably angry. And then I had my first mystical experience, and I pretty much dropped the atheism overnight.
It’s not that I necessarily think that I found the one, single truth of the universe. In fact, along with atheism I had to let go of my certainty. But between being an angry, arrogant person who thought she knew better, but quietly sank into despair over the meaninglessness of everything, and being open to believing in something larger than me and this material world, I’d rather take the route that makes me a happier and kinder person, and gives my life a lot more meaning (and also comes with pretty rocks and nice-smelling incense).
The inherent polarity of life means that every gain is also a loss. Sometimes the gains are so great that we don’t even think about the losses. But other times the trade-off doesn’t seem immediately beneficial. Your integration may push you towards exploring more meaningful work, but you might not feel ready to let go of financial security and the identity you’ve built around your career. You may feel ready to forgive your parents, but you might find it difficult to take sole responsibility for your life. You may feel ready for a loving relationship, but you might not want to give up the beliefs about yourself that kept you from entering one in the first place.
Awareness of resistance to integration
“We become free by transforming ourselves from unaware victims of the past into responsible individuals in the present, who are aware of our past and are thus able to live with it.” - Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child
This struggle can show up in integration as resistance. Dr. Jessica Katzman refers to it as the therapeutic bends - the period of confusion and difficulty experienced by some people when having to adjust to… a good life. It’s silly, but even good change can be stressful. “These reactions can range from over-reliance on older coping styles that no longer match one’s current state, to the distress that comes from the loss of a habituated identity” - if you’ve been depressed for a long time, you probably don’t know how to function as a happy, motivated person. Your mindset may have changed, but the life you’re coming back to is still one built around depression.
The danger with these therapeutic bends is that you could easily slip back into old behaviours, rather than slowly learn a new way of being. You may think that you were better off before, when you were managing your pain or avoiding it altogether (and maybe you were, but was it sustainable in the long run, and how do you know it wouldn’t get worse?).
This resistance can show up as dismissing the validity of the insights from your journey or making excuses for not maintaining a practice. The reason behind it is not that you’re hopelessly broken, but rather that your ego is doing its job. The ego’s role is not to make you happy, but to create and hold on to a stable identity. So any practice that involves changing an aspect of you will be threatening to the ego’s sense of self that, for better or worse, helped you make it here. So you will resist it.
Resistance as spiritual bypassing
A trickier way resistance can show up in integration is spiritual bypassing - this is when spiritual practices are used to avoid the pain and darkness by projecting positivity, light and #goodvibesonly. But just because you don’t look at it, it doesn’t mean it goes away.
People can sometimes emerge from psychedelic journeys believing they’ve been completely healed, or, even worse, enlightened, without realising that they only got a glimpse of an experience, and that the work is just about to start. And this work always requires that we face the darker, shadow sides as well as the light. As Jung said, we shouldn’t aim to be perfect, but to be complete.
Moving past resistance
Avoiding resistance is obviously futile, as resisting resistance is basically swimming upstream against a part of you that doesn’t want you to get better. Instead, you can start by just becoming aware of what part of you is resisting integration, and investigating why. Usually, these parts only want to protect us, so be kind to yourself as you investigate why healing your emotional wounds or improving your life situation feels threatening. Working with a therapist or coach should help you work with your resistance and keep you grounded in your intentions.
But sometimes resistance feels too powerful. In this case, maybe finding out what is keeping you from being your happiest, freest self is enough for this journey. To move forward with integration, all parts of you need to be on board, because all of them need to be integrated too.
A holistic view of integration
Even though it may sometimes feel like we’re only living in our heads, our lives span five essential levels that are tightly integrated: the body, the mind, the spiritual dimension, the community, and the environment. A disturbance in one of these layers will trickle down into all of them, knocking us off balance. Through integration, we seek to address all levels - we heal from the inside out, allowing our newfound sense of wellbeing to ripple out into communities and environment. I’ll share a few ideas on how to integrate these experiences, based on Françoise Bourzat’s guidance in Consciousness Medicine.
“We are matter, kindred with ocean and tree and sky. We are flesh and blood and bone. To sink into that is a relief, a homecoming. Mind and spirit are as physical as they are mental. The line we’d drawn between them was whimsy, borne of the limits of our understanding. Emotions and memories, from despair to gladness, root in our bodies. Bone-deep love, heartbreak, the ‘hardened heart’ of Pharaon - we’ve used language like this forever and now we grasp its sense. Our brains lay physical pathways and take bodily direction. Our bodies are longing and joy and fear and a life-long desire to be safe and loved, incarnate.” - Krista Tipett, Becoming Wise
Books like The Body Keeps the Score have managed just through their titles to bring into the mainstream a very important idea: our bodies are incredibly intelligent, and they process and remember everything we experience. The stagnant energy of traumas, unprocessed emotions and experiences remains stored in our bodies as knots, tension, chronic pain or other conditions. When psychedelics unlock our inner healing intelligence, our bodies begin to release this stagnant energy through shaking, tremouring, yawning, teeth chattering, retching or crying.
Integrating the body is all about learning to turn our attention towards it. Just the way we learned how to read other people’s body language to understand whether they’re interested or bored, embodiment is about learning your own body’s language. Once you do, the integration practices become intuitive and you’ll know how to best support your body’s needs. Like van der Kolk says, “Self-regulation depends on having a friendly relationship with your body. Without it you have to rely on external regulation — from medication, drugs like alcohol, constant reassurance, or compulsive compliance with the wishes of others.”
Here’s some examples on how to integrate body-centered experiences:
If your journey has been about experiencing contraction and pain in your body, integration could be about learning how to sit with these sensations and seeing what’s behind them. Intense physical activity can help release further tension, while gentler practices like massages or hot baths can help further soothe a contracted area. Yoga, when movement is paired with the breath, can soften muscle tension and support the slow release of traumas.
But if your journey has surfaced feelings of numbness and disconnection, integration will be about mindfully enhancing your senses: walking barefoot, singing, receiving massages, exploring intuitive dance practices or nurturing your body with good food, breathwork and stillness.
Restoring a sense of safety in the body after a journey that processed trauma or abuse can be done by seeking out non-sexual cuddling and soothing practices like yoga that slowly allow you to trust your body again.
Journeys that bring back your sense of vitality in your body can be supported by playful practices like spending time with friends, exploring sensuality and sexuality (ahem, mindfully), finding what food nourishes you, and expressing your creativity.
“It seems that gradually, painfully, the individual explores what is behind the masks he presents to the world, and even behind the masks with which he has been deceiving himself. Deeply and often vividly he experiences the various elements of himself which have been hidden within. Thus to an increasing degree he becomes himself - not a façade of conformity to others, not a cynical denial of all feeling, nor a front of intellectual rationality, but a living, breathing, feeling, fluctuating process - in short, he becomes a person.” - Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person
Perhaps the most obvious of all, the integration of the mind refers to healing the emotional and psychological aspects of ourselves through the insights we experienced on the journey. These insights provide us with new understandings of our stories, which allows us to rewrite them with more compassion for ourselves and the people involved. This process takes time, so give yourself space to sit and ponder them.
If your journey has brought up a lot of fear and panic, integration will focus on understanding their source. Were you overwhelmed by the amount of unfelt emotions that surfaced? Were you releasing the frozen energy of fear from your body? Or was it a response to the unknown, as you were trying to control your journey? The point is to not push the fear away, but to actively process it and to get comfortable with it.
A journey of personal confrontation can stir feelings of intense shame about your own behaviour. In this case, integration is crucial, as unresolved feelings of shame can actually make things worse. The focus should be on stepping out of victimisation, or the tendency to punish ourselves further. An integration therapist can support you as you face the truth and move through shame in a healthy way, and then set up an action plan for change. This could be joining a support group for addiction, practicing honesty or starting therapy to better understand the behaviours.
Emotional opening and releases on psychedelics can be exhausting, so integration can focus on soothing and expressing the released material creatively. The energy that was released can be used to create new habits. But if the process didn’t complete on the journey, integration should focus on resolving the opening. This could entail inner child work, EFT or EMDR for trauma release, somatic experiencing or even confronting the person who hurt you, if appropriate.
If your journey has shown you that you’re worthy of love, then integration is all about building and maintaining self-love in your life. Gratitude practices, treating yourself to nourishing food, beautifying your home, experiencing joy through dancing, singing or creating art, doing yoga or your favourite type of exercise are just some ideas to get you started. You’ll know better than anyone what makes you feel all loved up inside.
If you had a transpersonal experience where you embodied a person from a different point in time, a plant or an animal, in integration you can focus on why this specific vision came to you, and what it could teach you. My experience of being a plant taught me how much I enjoy just being, away from my thinky mind. A vision of an animal like a slug or turtle may point to taking things slow - but in the end it’s all about how you relate to these symbols. Integration practices beyond talking to your therapist could include drawing that specific vision, spending time with an animal you saw, or filling your house with plants.
And finally, if memories of childhood came up during the journey, these can be integrated through further therapy by discussing the events or expressing the feelings that came up. Therapies like Family Constellations can help you understand your family dynamics in a more playful way, or writing a letter to your younger self or doing inner child work can help you connect more experientially with the little version of you that came up.
“The real practice is living your life as if it really mattered from moment to moment.” - Jon Kabat-Zinn
Consciousness-expanding experiences like a mystical experience or ego death are usually catalysts for a more spiritual life. When we get to see for ourselves what lies beyond what we call “ordinary” consciousness, deeper questions about our purpose and the meaning of life emerge.
Sometimes they’re a welcome revelation, in the way I dropped atheism without any regrets. But spiritual openings can also be frightening, and need quite a bit of support to be integrated well. Regardless of the psychedelic experience, integration is about using these openings as inspiration to find and create the sacred in our everyday lives - it’s a practice that implies routine, to support us on our path.
A psychedelic experience that reveals a desolate, flat inner world can represent the lack of meaning we have in our lives by our disconnection from spirituality. It usually comes as a warning against a life relying too much on materialism, greed, appearances and a false self. A therapist or coach can help you find practices that nourish this inner world with respect to your own views. Reading about different lineages and practices can help you find something that resonates with you, without feeling too woo-woo. For me, beginning with more secular practices like meditation and yoga have helped gently open up to spirituality, on my own terms.
If your journey brings you back to a former spiritual framework that you were brought up in, integration is about reconnecting to the positive values and aspects that it represents for you. If you previously resisted this framework, look at what was it that you didn’t like. In many cases it could be the authoritarian way it was preached, or the way people in your culture interpreted it. Now is your chance to reconnect with this framework and do it your way.
But what if your journey brings up an unfamiliar tradition? It’s not uncommon for people to see symbols or scenes from a completely unknown mystical tradition or religion - in which case, use this as a chance to learn more about a different culture. Spirituality is what you make of it, and there’s nothing wrong with building your own flavour of it by combining elements from different traditions.
If you’ve become or seen a spiritual deity like Jesus or Buddha, it’s very important that integration focuses on grounding you. While it’s completely true that we’re all divine, an over-identification with these symbols can be dangerous. Instead, focus on how you can embody the values of the deity you saw in your day-to-day, and reconnect with them in meditation or prayer.
If your spiritual opening is destabilising and interfering with your life, you’re probably going through a spiritual emergence/emergency. These are difficult experiences that eventually can lead to much deeper meaning, but need a lot of support to move through. I know, cause I’ve been through one. To integrate these, it’s best to work with a transpersonal therapist or spiritual coach who can guide you and help you stay grounded.
Beyond these integration ideas, you can support your newfound spirituality by creating a sacred little space for it in your home (aka an altar), practicing meditation or prayer, listening to podcasts about it or exploring different ideas from teachers on YouTube. Some of my favourites: Russel Brand, Teal Swan, Byron Katie, Tara Brach, Eckhart Tolle, Secular Buddhism, Alan Watts, Deconstructing Yourself, On Being podcast.
4. Coming down to community
“It is through our relationships with the many people of our lives that we do much of our healing.” - Francoise Bourzat, Consciousness Medicine
We already discussed how our Western world lacks the community aspect in regards to psychedelic use and integration. While it’s tempting to see integration as a solitary, inner practice, perhaps shared with a therapist or coach, transforming our insights into new ways of being in our relationships and communities is incredibly valuable.
Our involvement in community is a spectrum, ranging from isolation to becoming so lost in our relationships that we never face ourselves. Integration is about finding a balance between giving and receiving, self and other, and showing up in relationships in a way that allows our newfound insights to ripple out positively into the world.
A journey that brought up feelings of isolation can be integrated by, first of all, examining the root of it: perhaps your shyness is related to a childhood of neglect, or maybe your loneliness is due to the walls of isolation that you built in order to protect yourself. This realisation can be integrated by reaching out to friends, joining activity groups around hobbies like hiking or comedy, taking classes, and exploring the reasons behind your isolation in therapy.
Difficult relationships can come up for healing during psychedelic journeys. Gestalt therapy and Family Constellations can help you explore the root of difficulty in relationship, and find resolution within yourself. Otherwise, a therapist or coach can guide you to write letters, begin dialogue or seek mediation to heal a particular relationship.
Feelings of belonging during a psychedelic trip, like a mystical experience, are an invitation to explore this connectedness in your everyday, or a celebration of your existing efforts. They could also warn you against losing yourself too much in your community, in which case integration will focus on establishing boundaries. Your therapist or coach can help you look at how you engage in community and what role you tend to play, and guide you towards joining groups, initiating events, or changing the way you show up in relationship.
An awareness of interconnectedness, of feeling connected to all humans on earth, can be integrated by looking at how you relate to people of different nationalities, races, genders, political orientation etc. It can be an invitation to support the less privileged by volunteering, actively supporting causes, being more generous.
“Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”- Zhuangzi, The Butterfly as Companion: Meditations on the First Three Chapters of the Chuang-Tzu
Psychedelics can reveal how the ways we live and organise our homes tend to be a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. Cluttered, messy, dirty homes usually signal a similar internal space, or a lack of interest in ourselves. Our Western lives have been increasingly luring us into disconnection from our environment, and we’re just awakening globally to the consequences of our lifestyles. A deeper connection to nature can be incredibly healing, and can start with our immediate space.
If you’ve merged with a natural element in your journey, as in you’ve become a tree, a river, a bird or so on, talk to your therapist or coach about what this vision might mean to you. For example, a tree could teach you about stability and strength. You can also connect with the element by researching it, spending time with it, cultivating a relationship with it in your everyday or watching documentaries about nature.
Realising that your home or office environment is toxic and has an impact on your mental health can be integrated by a reevaluation of the space. Decluttering, beautifying the home, bringing more art and plants inside and keeping the space tidy can inspire our journey of integration by creating an environment that reflects our desired states.
A journey that shows you your responsibility for nature can be very empowering in changing how we engage with the environment. It’s important to allow yourself to feel the grief associated with the state of the planet, but then to move on to actions. These can be on a global scale, like supporting organisations that work with conservation and environmental protection. But you can also focus on your own little patch of land, by picking up litter in your neighbourhood, recycling, switching to biodegradable products.
But integration sometimes is about knowing when to stop, or take a break.
Psychedelic journeys are eternally fascinating, and the promise of new insights, new worlds and exciting visions can sometimes trick us that the world “out there” is much better than the one down here. Even intelligent visionaries like Timothy Leary and Ram Dass fell into the trap of wanting to stay “high” and bypassed the true meaning of these experiences, only for reality to hit them even harder when they came down. You see, it can happen to the best of us.
The point is never to remain stuck in transcendence. As humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman reminds us, self-transcendence is just a step towards the ability to find beauty and wonder in the everyday - that’s Maslow’s plateau experience.
In an essay about his spiritual emergence, philosopher Jules Evans confesses that he no longer searches for transcendent experiences. “I am content to try to be a human, to try to be kinder to myself and others”. Almost ten months from my last journey, I’m playing with a similar kind of meaning, and I’m pretty damn content about it.
“Just because this reality is not how we think it is, that doesn't mean it's not real and loveable. We are spiritual and material beings. We have to make the best of both worlds. - Jules Evans, Breaking Open
Dept. of further investigation
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