Overcoming Trauma With Ayahuasca


Episode 23

Rachel Harris

Psychologist Rachel Harris, PhD, author of Listening to Ayahuasca, talks to us about the psychotherapeutic benefits of the ayahuasca ceremony. We hear about her transformative experiences with the ayahuasca spirit, and discuss how the psychedelic experience can help heal our psychological issues, with the right setting and guidance.

Podcast Highlights

Listen to the podcast to hear about:

  • Our parents being the source of all our trauma?
  • Someone reliving their worst nightmare every single time they took ayahuasca
  • Learning to overcome our personal dogmas using ayahuasca
  • Ayahuasca being the third part of a therapeutic trio
  • Challenging experiences having the most potential for healing

Rachel graduated from college in 1968, and studied in a residential program that focussed on meditation and bodywork. It was this training that gave Rachel a foundation for a different way of thinking from most psychology graduates. Since then, Rachel has worked for 35 years as a psychotherapist, specializing in psychospiritual development and transpersonal psychology.

Rachel had her first spiritual experiences with psychedelics in 1960s California – but it wasn’t until 2005 that she participated in her first ayahuasca ceremony. She drank ayahuasca with Ecuadorian shamans in Costa Rica, and was entranced by its therapeutic potential.

The ayahuasca ceremony can be particularly useful for the healing of trauma, says Rachel. Ayahuasca can help people to witness traumatic events in their lives, as if watching a film. This can allow therapists to do some effective work, and help people see their trauma from a new perspective. This can be really helpful for healing, says Rachel.

Rachel’s first ayahuasca experience took her back to the passing of her father. It helped her understand the terror she had felt at the time. She felt she had shared in her father’s death experience, and describes floating in the “cosmic silence” in pure ecstasy. She calls it a “lesson in how to die.”

It’s this kind of experience that could make ayahuasca an incredibly meaningful tool for psychotherapists.

Finally Rachel tells us about the occurrence of challenging experiences (aka “bad trips”) with ayahuasca. In her experience, every bad trip ends with the statement, “But I learned so much and would do it again.” Challenging experiences are unpleasant because they’re hitting on our psychological issues – but they can be a great source of healing.

Rachel’s book, Listening to Ayahuasca, is available now.

Podcast Transcript

0:00:29 Paul Austin: Hey, and welcome back to the Third Wave Podcast. For those of you who are listening and haven't heard this yet, we will be switching the name of the Psychedelia Podcast to Third Wave, re-framing psychedelics. So that's kinda the new thing that we're going over. That was a team decision that we made, and that's what we're doing from this point forward. With that being said, I am recording this podcast from Berlin, and I will be here for the next couple of weeks. So if any of you are listening to this and you live in Berlin, drop me a message and we can meet up at a park or plan something while I'm here in Berlin. I'll be here until June 6th.

0:01:03 PA: Other announcement based on that is on June 8th, I will be doing an event in New York City called Psychedelics for Professionals, it'll be about a two to two and a half hour workshop seminar at The Alchemist Kitchen in New York City. Tickets are $20 if you pre-purchase, and $25 at the door. I will be there with Neal Goldsmith who some of you know, he has been on the podcast before. Erin Sharoni, who is a journalist, has worked for various magazines, has written for Huffington Post and Time and is pretty active, or has been active in the music scene in Miami, and other places. And then Nicole Hardwick who has experience with Ayahuasca and we'll be talking about her experiences.

0:01:40 PA: So if you live in New York City, or if you live around New York City and you're going to be in town on June 8th, I highly recommend going ahead and purchasing tickets for that workshop. You can find them in the show notes, otherwise just Google Psychedelics for Professionals: Third Wave, and you'll be able to find that event. And you can buy tickets, again, on June 8th The Psychedelics for Professionals, it starts at 7 PM at the Alchemist Kitchen in the East Village, New York City. Let's keep going. I don't have a lot of time so I'll be brief this week.

0:02:07 PA: The big news for this week in Psychedelics is the Global Drug survey, came out for 2017. I'll just read you the overview of what it is. They gleaned data from 150,000 people and they included data from about 120,000 people who filled out the survey, they addressed 18 different areas, over 25 countries and they're only sharing a fraction of what they actually have on the site. So, the findings are somewhat interesting. I'm obviously most interested in the survey data on psychedelics. So I think the biggest takeaway from this survey was that mushrooms are by and large the safest recreational drug that people are using. There's very, very few incidences and very, very few emergencies with people who are taking mushrooms. And even those who do have challenging experiences oftentimes, as Roland Griffiths has mentioned from Johns Hopkins, those challenging experiences are actually some of those meaningful experiences that people have on psychedelics.

0:03:06 PA: So it's just about re-contextualizing those experiences and understanding that bad doesn't... Difficult doesn't necessarily equate to bad. And that's important to remember if you're doing psychedelics or if your friend has had a psychedelic experience or if you're planning to do one is difficult does not equate to bad. And this is why I think the term, bad trips, is even a little bit misleading. We should call them challenging experiences because from challenging experiences, we grow. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." And I think that's important to remember with psychedelics, that they're incredibly safe, especially psilocybin and LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and LSD. There's basically no toxic dose that you could consume with either of these substances. They're incredibly safe, they're non-toxic, they're non-addictive. The only concern with them is not creating in the appropriate container, not creating in the appropriate set and setting to have a good experience.

0:03:56 PA: And the other concern is your ego. Your ego is being threatened, it's being dissolved. You might shine a light in certain dark places of your psyche, of your consciousness that you didn't really want to look at. And so it's important to remember that we need to contextualize that, and it's critical to integrate the experience and talk to people afterwards. So I think that was the biggest take away from the survey. Just some interesting other tidbits, in terms of respondents to the survey, there were 36,000 from Germany. 13,500 from Denmark, which was really interesting. And then they only had like 10,000 from the US, 6,000 from the UK, 5,500 from Canada. So there was a serious lack of respondents from the United States.

0:04:33 PA: I think this Global Drug Survey would get enormous help from carrying out a better promotional and marketing campaign and spending serious money and actually getting a lot more data, and facts, from various sources. And I think that could significantly help improve the impact of a survey like this because to be honest right now, I'm reading through the survey. And, while overall, the content is good, it just... The way they put it together is very messy. The PDF has a number of spelling errors and a number of logistical errors, a number of punctuation errors. It doesn't look professional, as professional as it could be. If you're presenting something like this, it needs to be as professional as possible and that includes typos and punctuation and other little things.

0:05:11 PA: So this is something that I often think about in the psychedelic space. I think that professionalism is becoming more and more prominent, but there's still a lack of professionalism in the psychedelic space. And that means the way that you talk to others, and the way that you talk to people about this. Like minimizing conspiracy theories, that's a issue that I see in the psychedelic space is there are a lot of... There are quite a few people who I've spoken to who are leaning towards conspiracy theory stuff, like chemtrails and 9/11 conspiracy theories and other things that I seriously doubt the credibility of. And when that is publicly talked about outside of the psychedelic space, it reflects poorly upon those who are doing serious work.

0:05:52 PA: I think... There was this New York Times article that came out a few weeks ago after the psychedelic science event and there were a lot of people who weren't happy with the New York Times people. People who are very active in the psychedelic space. And you'll hear this in the the podcast that we have with Rachel coming up, we talk a little bit about this. And the question that I think about that is, "Well, okay, you're not happy, but are you not happy because it's inaccurate or you're not happy because the public doesn't perceive the psychedelic fringe as we'd hope they would perceived us?" If you read that article, it's actually just a very objective view of how mainstream culture perceives the psychedelic fringe and that should have people in the psychedelic space concerned. Because so much emphasis has been placed on the science only track right now, psychedelics has a public relations problem. We have not done the necessary work to build those bridges with mainstream culture and relate to them. And so this is, I think, going to be an increasingly important issue going forward is how do we contextualize the science to empathize and connect with others? How do we look at winning not only the minds, but most importantly, the hearts of people in this kind of movement of sorts.

0:06:52 PA: And so, I think listeners, if I can get you to think of one question is how do we do that? Because psychedelics have... They have a public relations problem at the moment and they will continue to have one if we continue to follow this one dimensional path of science only, because science is great, it's excellent. But by itself, won't do the necessary work that needs to happen to really integrate, reintegrate psychedelics into our culture and society. So that's that, that's this week in psychedelics. Check out the Global Drug survey of 2017.

0:07:21 PA: Now, brief intro for the podcast. So for this week, I interviewed Rachel Harris. She talked to us about the psycho-therapeutic benefits of the Ayahuasca experience. Rachel Harris is the author of Listening to Ayahuasca. And so in our talk, we don't get too much into that because part of the reason why I have guests in the podcast is because I'd like the listeners to purchase the books and support these authors. I think it's another part of the psychedelic space that's important to remember. The more people who are making a living while doing this, the more momentum that we gain, so I think it's important to support one another.

0:07:51 PA: So anyway, in this podcast, you'll hear about her transformative experiences with Ayahuasca and also her extensive experience as a therapist working with clients who have had Ayahuasca experiences. So in this, we discuss how we can heal our psychological issues by reliving past traumas in the psychedelic experience with the right setting and the guidance and particularly how Ayahuasca has helped people to do that. So I think this is a show you'll really like, especially if you're interested in Ayahuasca. This is one of the few women interviews that we've had. I want to do more and I would really like to do more. So if you're listening to this and you have recommendations or suggestions of other women we should interview, please write us an email and let us know. Because the challenge for me is just, it can be difficult to find women to interview and I would like to interview a lot more. So that's this week, that's the intro. So enjoy the podcast with Rachel Harris.


0:08:55 PA: Let's start with, who is Rachel Harris, what's your background and how did you get originally interested in Ayahuasca?

0:09:02 Rachel Harri: Well, I think the most important part of my background is the least academic. And that is when I graduated from college way back in 1968, I went directly to the residential program at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. And that residential program... This was a study program that was a real residential program; six months, 11 of us, and we worked with all the leading therapists of the day, and we were together as a group for 50 hours a week working on ourselves and the main focus was meditation and body work. So that gave me a foundation for different ways of thinking about things than most people who were trained in traditional graduate school programs. I remained on the Esalen staff for a couple of years and then I eventually had to work my way through graduate school, which was not easy [unclear speech] background. And so instead of doing clinical work in graduate school, I switched to research. So my PhD is in research and I worked in a research office for a decade. But I always maintained a private practice and did workshops because of the Esalen background. I tended to people who were well-functioning and wanted to work on their psychospiritual development in one way or another.

0:10:24 RH: And I felt very strongly about my gathering experience in autoing psychotherapy. Working with people regarding their family of origin, their relationship issues, this was sort of the basics of psychotherapy. And I feel that that foundation, as much as the late '60s and the Sarah Foundation, really gives me a different perspective on psychotherapy following Ayahuasca experiences or any psychedelic experiences. So I think that's the most important. I worked 10 years in a research office. During that time, I published a bunch of papers and received an NIH New Investigator's Award. But in total, most of my life has been spent in private practice psychotherapy so that's about 35 years. I have to be transparent about my age with all these dates and things, but that's a lot of time in psychotherapy listening to people. And because I dealt with select group of people, basically people who were relatively high functioning and interested in their own psychological and spiritual development, it gives me a unique perspective when asking questions about, how does Ayahuasca work? What happens after the ceremonies? So those were really my questions.

0:11:43 PA: So let's get into that a little bit more just going into... You said you graduated in 1968, or you were out in Esalen around that time.

0:11:53 RH: Yes.

0:11:53 PA: Did you have some personal experiences with psychedelics in the '60s and '70s that when you later started looking at Ayahuasca, were helpful in becoming curious about Ayahuasca, or was Ayahuasca really the first psychedelic that you became interested in?

0:12:10 RH: No. In the late '60s in California was pretty active when it came to psychedelics. And at Esalen, I had... It wasn't just feeling, we had a very spiritual approach back then even to psychedelics so we were very careful. And we were in, of course, a beautiful setting and careful how we used them. And it was not recreational use, it was really intentional spiritual use. And so that was my orientation and my experience. I spent many years with a household and married, raising a daughter who's now 35 years old. And what happened was, I was in private practice in Princeton University and it was the middle of winter, I was looking for a beach vacation. So I found this beautiful retreat center in Costa Rica, and I arranged for a week of retreat at what I thought would be a great beach vacation. And a few days before I was ready to leave, one of the organizers called and asked if I wanted to participate in the ceremonies. And I brilliantly said, "What ceremonies?" I had no idea what I signed up for. So this is exactly the opposite of what I tell people to do. I really give advice, people should be very careful and check things out and take really careful referrals so they know what they're getting into.

0:13:31 PA: And the truth is, I sort of serendipitously found my way into this experience. So my background in California in the '60s, of course, I said, "Oh yes, I'll do the ceremonies." And then I had to look up what Ayahuasca was and learned as much as I could about it, which wasn't much over a decade ago. And so that's... I wish I could say I felt consciously called but the truth is more that if I was called, it was a surprise to me. And that's more the truth of the matter.

0:14:02 PA: I think that seems to be the case for a lot of people with psychedelics. I was talking with a friend the other day and I brought up this commencement speech that Steve Jobs had at Stanford in 2005, which is, I'm paraphrasing here, but it's like, "If you follow your intuition and you follow that process, you often can't connect the dots looking forward. But when you look back on how things happened, you can kinda connect the dots, in terms of why you are where you are now." And for me, that's been a fairly powerful leading message, in terms of my youth and what's going on now, in terms of a more chaotic work environment. We're dealing with a lot of disruption, a lot of innovation. And it seems like it's helpful to do what you did back in the '60s and '70s, and what you're obviously continuing to do now; go with your heart, go with where you think things are leading. And then when you look back on it, you'll realize, "Oh, I'm in the position that I'm in because of whatever reasons, because of how things ended up developing in my life. And I think psychedelics help us to have more courage in following those intuitions because we realize they're grounded in not necessarily societal or cultural expectations, but they're grounded in something that's more useful and that is more permanent in a way.

0:15:24 RH: Well, you know, there's this wonderful phrase from Jungian psychotherapy, where Jung writes about the meaning of destiny and what does that really refer to. And he says, "Destiny is really the rising up to meet what's happening." And so, it's the willingness to say, "Yes," to perceive what's happening. And then say, "Yes." Of course, there's discernment at this decision or there needs to be at least. So there's this sense of this meeting of what they're rising in the culture, in the universe, and the individual discernment to say yes to it. And [unclear speech] for this last dozen years or so, when it comes to Ayahuasca, I've been saying yes to what I feel have been my instructions. We'll put it that way.

0:16:15 PA: Let's talk a little bit more about Jungian psychology, because you seem to know what you're talking about. And I've read the Red Book, I've gone into some of Jungian's work. What's your understanding of Carl Jung within a psychedelic framework, meaning how do you feel like some of his thoughts or belief systems fit into what we might experience on an Ayahuasca trip, for example?

0:16:38 RH: Well, he says that Red Book is, in other words, the work with his spirits Filamin, that he goes into in the Red Book. That that's the basis for his whole psychotherapeutic approach. So you read the right book, and you can see how psychedelic his drawings are. He was in archetypal realms, that that's where the psychedelic world is. It's, in part at least, it's in archetypal realms. And when I was looking at ways to understand, how does Ayahuasca work, how it does such varied things with different people at different times. It's totally unpredictable, even with the best of our intentions. How do we understand what's happening? And Jung is very good at talking about different levels.

0:17:23 PA: And actually, Stan Grof and his descriptions of different matrix's. He's talking about different levels too and it's really helpful for us to know, am I dealing with material from my childhood, from my family of origin? Am I dealing with other worlds? Am I dealing with archetypes? Is this a mystical experience of some sort? There are all these different levels and it's really important in our own work after the ceremony to understand that we're working with many levels simultaneously. And, of course, in psychotherapy after A ceremony. Not just integration but ongoing psychotherapy, it's really important for the therapist to realize that there are these different levels, we can connect with clients on these different levels, from within ourselves, and yet we're working simultaneously together. So I can give an explanation of that. Is that making sense to you? Should I continue?

0:18:21 PA: Well, yeah, no, you've done a great job of describing the framework or the context. Yeah, and so going into a concrete example I think would definitely be helpful in terms of...

0:18:31 RH: Yeah. Yeah, so I was doing what was supposed to be a research interview with somebody, but I couldn't control my therapeutic instincts. This was a 20-something woman, talking about her encounter with the Divine Feminine during an Ayahuasca ceremony. And how inspirational that was and it was helping her become the woman she wanted to be, and that kind of thing. And she went on talking about this for quite a while and then I just couldn't control myself any longer, and I said, "So, how's your relationship with your mom?" And she burst into tears. And so you can see immediately there is real legitimate work at a spiritual archetypal level, that she's doing that will make a difference for her in her life. And yet, she hadn't done the basic homework. At 27-28 years old, most people haven't. It's the work on our relationships with our parents, and individuating from them, resolving unmet needs and unfulfilled feelings. And how do we communicate with these people and how do we set boundaries and become our own person? And she had all that work ahead of her. And there is no shortcut around that level of work.

0:19:44 PA: So that's what a spiritual bypass tends to be is when we wanna avoid part of our psychological work that's unpleasant for one reason or another and we shift to a spiritual or archetypal level. There's the unfinished business will emerge in our life one way or another.

0:20:02 PA: And do you think that this sense of unfinished business, especially when it comes to familial relationships, specifically parents, do you think that's at the core or the crux of a lot of the trauma that people deal with and heal from when they use Ayahuasca? Or do you think there are additional levels in terms of our disconnection from ecology, in terms of our disconnection from other aspects? If you had to give some context around that.

0:20:27 RH: One of the effects that we really can report is that people after using Ayahuasca, people do become more ecologically-minded, more connected to nature, and they value nature more and people become active in working in ecological ways. So that is a result, whether that's her explicit intention or not, is beyond me. I mean, somebody in one setting, asked me, "What Grandmother Ayahuasca has to say about the stock market?" And I felt, "Well, you know, [chuckle] that's beyond my pay grade." And so asking about her intentions, we can imagine what they are. I mean, I think Dennis McKenna has basically said that these are her intentions to help us heal the planet and it does look like we need a good bit of help. But psychologically speaking, I have to say that the primary work that we all need to do is the work on our family of origin and our childhood. And in that I would include ancestral work, extended family, and some of it may be at the level of trauma, and then there can be other reasons for trauma beyond the family, but still it's how did the family support us through that trauma? How did the family handle the trauma? As children, we're embedded in a family and so our family history is really critical.

0:21:45 PA: And although these concepts that you're discussing right now in psychotherapy, have been around for a long time, this sense of healing ancestral trauma in the sense that we aren't really an individual, but instead we exist in a web of relationships throughout time and space to some degree. This is at the core of my understanding, at least is at the core of transpersonal psychology, which in the past has been kinda like looked down upon by the scientific community, but I think it's making a revival...

0:22:12 RH: Well, it's pretty well-established. There's a journal and there's a group within the American Psychological Association for transpersonal psychology. So it's not such an outsider anymore. It may not be talked about. There may be just a few programs, doctoral programs in transpersonal psychology, but it's pretty much established itself in the profession. So I think we need to acknowledge that. I mean, those are the key professional things that happen, that it's a professional group within the American Psychological Association, and they have their own journal and there are a number of graduate programs that specialize in transpersonal psychology. But if you were choosing a therapist, you'd have to look pretty far and wide to find someone who's experienced in those realms.

0:22:57 PA: So I guess my question leading up to that is do you think that will change as psychedelics become more integrated into mainstream culture?

0:23:05 RH: I don't think it's just psychedelics. I think there's more recognition and conversation about extraordinary experiences that are often called religious or spiritual. The Gallup poll and the Pew Research Center have both asked, "Have you had a religious or spiritual experience in your lifetime?" And half of the population says, "Yes." I think the culture is ready to talk more about these unusual experiences that are really not as unusual as we think. If half the population is having spiritual experiences, it's time to talk about them. And that's what I'm hoping will really make a difference and that it's certainly related to psychedelics and doesn't need to be. The astronauts who looked from space, looked back at the planet from outer space and saw this beautiful blue marble. You remember the photos that they sent back...

0:24:00 PA: Oh yeah.

0:24:01 RH: Of Earth hanging in space? I mean, that perspective changed consciousness. And those astronauts reported a spiritual shift in their lives, and that was I think in the '70s. So this has been going on for a while. It's just, I think it's reaching a point where as a culture, we're more ready to talk about it and I don't really wanna tie it to psychedelics, even though it's related, it's something that's happening spontaneously anyway from a variety of different sources.

0:24:32 PA: Now, I'm curious, do you know where the idea of capturing that picture came from? Are you familiar with that story?

0:24:39 RH: No, are you? Do you know that story?

0:24:41 PA: Oh, yeah, and it's a good one because it's about psychedelics. And so Stewart Brand...

0:24:46 RH: Okay, go for it.

0:24:47 PA: Do you know who Stewart Brand was?

0:24:48 RH: Yeah, sure, sure.

0:24:49 PA: So he had The Whole Earth Catalog and he was tripping on LSD one day in the Bay Area, may had been Menlo Park, and was up on a rooftop and noticed the curvature of the earth and thought to himself, "Why don't we have a picture of the entire earth?" And he thought it would do a tremendous job of raising consciousness from an ecological perspective. So, he basically did a cross-country tour where he handed out petitions to start asking NASA and the government to provide us a picture with the earth. So when the astronauts...

0:25:23 RH: Oh my goodness.

0:25:24 PA: Went up in the '70s, they took this picture and so that was influenced by psychedelics. Now, I learned this from James Fadiman's book, The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide, so he tells this story in there. I'm really glad you brought that up because I think you're right, this isn't just about psychedelics. At the same time, we've had this terrible stigma and taboo against psychedelics so it's almost like a lot of people in the psychedelic space are overcompensating now for having a lack of a voice in the past. And so balancing that out, I think with an understanding that psychedelics are one modality, but not the only and sometimes not even the best one for individuals, is a really important conversation to be having.

0:25:43 RH: Yes, and the same conversation is how psychedelics have played a role behind the scenes and there's been more written about that, but this is a great NASA story, it's really a wonderful story.

0:25:43 PA: Yeah, I like it, but I wanna get back to where we were with talking about Ayahuasca and I had a specific question in mind related to the growth and interest basically in these psychological areas and issues. From my understanding when, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but from my understanding when we treat the individual as an individual, including the issues or the trauma that they're dealing with, we don't often have enough context to get to the core of the root of the trauma. So with talking about...

0:26:53 RH: Wait, wait, wait, that's quite an assumption. Where does that come from?

0:26:56 PA: I don't know.

0:26:58 RH: Because most of the work with trauma is done in individual therapy.

0:27:02 PA: Sure, sure, sure, sure. But I guess my assumption is that that trauma comes from existing within a web of relationships and people, so although the therapy is aimed at the individual, the reason they're going through that healing process is because they have been, I guess, traumatized because of the relationships that they exist within, whether that's through the earth, or whether that's through their family, or whether that's through other things.

0:27:29 RH: Well, psychological trauma is pretty specific that really relates to PTSD, and it really involves an experience of feeling that I'm going to die, and I don't mean a psychedelic 'I'm going to die', an experience in real life where the trauma the person is in is so drastic, that they really... It's like facing a loaded gun that, well, this is it, so whether the trauma is sexual trauma or PTSD from war experiences, it's generally that the person's psychological structure is so overwhelmed with experiencing the threat of immediate death, that it registers in the history, in the mind as a traumatic experience. So I'm not really talking about the trauma of being disconnected from nature, I'm talking about serious psychological trauma where the person feels... Where they disintegrate in the face of the threat of death, and that's what child abuse is, and that's what trauma from war feels like, it's that immediate threat of annihilation, and the person shatters.

0:28:38 PA: And so why do you think then, why is Ayahuasca so effective at helping people deal with these traumas?

0:28:45 RH: Well, from what I heard about people re-experiencing traumas is there are two major ways they re-experience a trauma in a ceremony, and one is they relive it, they're in it again, and they relive it, and that can be helpful if the person is gaining new information because a lot of trauma is registered in the body, and it is the details or even the existence of the trauma can be unconscious. And so encountering that experience and reliving it in a ceremony brings back far more detail, but that's a pretty tough thing to go through, and people do go through it in ceremony. I remember interviewing one woman who said, "I kept reliving the trauma. Every time I'd go into ceremony, I had to relive the trauma," and I told her she really needed psychotherapy, that at that point the ceremonies were re-traumatizing and she had to find therapy that would help her get out of that loop.

0:29:43 RH: The other way people experience trauma during a ceremony is they watch it as if it were a movie, so there's some distance from it, and that allows a lot of psychological work to be done even in the ceremony, spontaneously, because it's their adult self watching what happened to them as a child, or even their adult self in a safe setting, watching what happened to them when they were in the trauma and not in a safe setting. So there's some protection for them to have a different perspective and inner resources available to them that might not have been available in the moment. So someone can watch and experience of what they know as child abuse when they were a child, or a rape or a war scene, but they're able to say to themselves, "I'm an adult now, I'm in a safe setting, I can see what happened to me." People report this in a lot of different ways, that some people even say, "I had some feeling of compassion for my perpetrator, for the person who was harming me. As I watched this, I realized how damaged that person was."

0:30:50 RH: And so the perspective begins to shift and change, and people begin to see things differently, and then remember things differently, and have a different attitude about the traumatic experience. So things begin to shift, often spontaneously, and often with therapeutic help after a ceremony. So you begin to get a sense of how complex this is and how it takes time to shift... To sift, rather, through the layers, and shift perspective. That's when I begin to say, "Wait a minute. It's not just about integration. For some experiences we really need to be held in a container of ongoing psychotherapy that's able to work with these levels."

0:31:33 PA: And so from your experience then, what's a good balance for people, ceremonies, to psychotherapy? Obviously with a lot of the research that they're doing, for example at Johns Hopkins, those are integrated to some degree where they give someone the psilocybin and they have people there sitting for them, taking care of them, and then they're doing follow-up psychotherapy afterwards as well. With people who are going...

0:31:58 RH: Well, they're doing follow-up supportive counseling. It's not really... It's very time-limited...

0:32:04 PA: Is it? Okay.

0:32:04 RH: Goes on for a couple of months, yeah. So it's really not ongoing psychotherapy. And what... If you look for it, what you'll begin to hear either from some of the research teams or in some of the research articles, is that the subjects, the people undergoing this psychedelic experience, often ask for more, they often ask for more sessions. So the framework that the Hopkins team is developing is all about the complete mystical experience as the critical therapeutic variable, and there's no question that that's a life-changing experience. That is a replication of studies from the '60s. It's being well established in research terms that that's a life-changing experience. As they begin to work with a wider range of people, I hope what will resurface is the psycholytic approach that was prevalent in Europe in the '50s and '60s, and this is more what MAPS is using with what they call MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. In other words, they're not just looking for a complete mystical experience, they're using the MDMA experience to facilitate the psychotherapy process. And that's what psycholytic therapy was, it was lower doses for one thing less likely to result...

0:33:19 RH: In a complete mystical experience, but more available to the process of ongoing psychotherapy. And there was no routine answer to your question about how often, so it was very much kind of decided between the therapist and the client how often a psychedelic experience was needed. And I think this is often how people report, "Well, I felt it was time to go back into ceremony." Or there's a sense of, an inner sense of knowing and I would encourage the therapist to follow that. And yet there are times when... I was working with one person, and I tried different psychotherapeutic approaches, and finally I got to, "I think you need to drink more Ayahuasca." That there was a real process happening in the ceremony itself that suggested this person needed to go back into ceremony. So it's very, very individual and at the discretion of both the client and the therapist together.

0:34:16 PA: And are there any leading indicators, so to say, where someone, for example, I was at the World Ayahuasca Conference in Rio Branco, last October, and I remember watching a presentation from ICEERS. And one of them spoke about how there was a woman, when they were collecting survey data in Barcelona who said she had done Ayahuasca like 30 times in 60 days or something crazy, like a lot. And basically someone at ICEERS was like, "Okay, you should stop drinking Ayahuasca," because she was reporting these negative consequences of having done it so often where she was confused, and she was lost, and she didn't really know what was going on because she had been drinking it so often. At the other end, you have people who are hesitant to even try it once, so to say. What for you might be a leading indicator that if people have done it a couple times and they've gone through a ceremony that, "Okay, now is a good time to maybe seek out some psychotherapy to look at how we can integrate these processes or these experiences that happen?"

0:35:17 RH: Well, I think you gave a great example from ICEERS. That's a great example of someone needing to take a break and needing more help to integrate the experience and really work on the material. And the example I gave, where someone has repetitive reliving of traumatic events, I would also stop and do some therapeutic work. So you're asking an interesting question, but it's very difficult to delineate how the process of psychotherapy unfolds.

0:35:47 PA: Sure.

0:35:48 RH: There are no exact rules. I mean, when they look at... Even when they do research, looking at which approaches in psychotherapy are more effective, what they always come back to is the relationship, that the therapeutic alliance is what's really critical. And so often that's about similarity between therapist and client, the sense of unconditional regard and trust, a sense of security with that person. There is a sense that within that therapeutic alliance, the person is able to go through what's called a corrective experience where they're in a relationship that is... The relationship itself is therapeutic. And so the research tends to really emphasize the relational aspects of psychotherapy. And that's why I said I think what's most important is that together, the therapist and the client decide when the person needs another ceremony. It's not the therapist's decision based on a list, it's within the context of the relationship that the two decide, "Yes, I need another ceremony." The other thing that in the midst of my research is, and this is changing the topic a tiny bit, just another facet is I was wanting to interview, these are underground therapists working with Ayahuasca or other psychedelics, and I wanted to interview them. And my question was, the most general question, "What's different about this process?"

0:37:17 RH: And finally, I interviewed a woman who was working primarily with... Or solely I should say, with Ayahuasca and she said to me, "You're asking the wrong question," which is, of course, every researchers nightmare. "You're asking the wrong question. You should ask about the therapist connection to Ayahuasca." And then she talked about something that I had experienced too, but she really focused me in a really important way. And that it's... Especially with Ayahuasca... And I don't know that this is true with other psychedelics. With Ayahuasca it's about the relationship to the plant medicine itself. And the way I've experienced this with people, even over the phone talking with people, is I almost... There's sort of the connection... They're connected... They have Ayahuasca in their blood, so to speak. They have... Ayahuasca is present in them, it's present in me, even though we're both completely sober, neither of us is drinking it, but there's that imprinting of Ayahuasca. And it's almost as if I have an experience at having a co-therapist in the process. So it's no longer just two of us. There's a sense of a third being present in both of us and present in... To the relationship and to the process. And that's what this very experienced therapist was talking about. It's the therapist's capacity to maintain that connection to the medicine and connect to the client with that presence working for both of them. That's a very different concept.

0:38:47 PA: Would you say that's... I know the book that you've written, it does focus on Ayahuasca. Would you say that's true of other psychedelics as well? Or do you think there's something... I don't know if special is the right word, but something particular about Ayahuasca itself?

0:39:02 RH: Well, certainly the presence of a plant spirit. This question has just not been asked with other plant medicines. And it would be an important question to ask. In my original research, on the advice of a female shaman, I asked the question, "Do you have an ongoing relationship with the spirit of Ayahuasca?" 70% of 81 people, that's an N of 54 responded yes, they had an ongoing relationship with the spirit of Ayahuasca. They communicated during meditation, in dreams, in quiet moments. They could always turn to her for help and guidance. It was a relationship that was very alive in their inner world. I have never heard this about the chemical psychedelics. I don't... There's Father Peyote. I spoke the other day with a therapist who is very dedicated to mushrooms and she certainly feels that she's being guided by plant spirits. But we have not asked in a research study, "Do you have an ongoing relationship?" So we don't really know the percentage of people who would say yes to other plant medicines. It's a good question.

0:39:18 PA: Yeah, and I... I think probably part of the reason why we don't have clarity on that is because by and large a lot of people who are using plant medicines... I think a lot of them are using Ayahuasca, meaning Peyote is used much less often on a global basis than Ayahuasca. You know there are Ayahuasca circles all over the world. There's only a handful of Peyote circles that I know of, and they're largely in Mexico and Central America.

0:40:37 RH: And Arizona.

0:40:38 PA: Arizona.

0:40:38 RH: But there are plenty of people eating mushrooms.

0:40:41 PA: There are. And so, that's what's interesting and is... A lot of the people who are eating mushrooms, they're not doing it in an indigenous context. They're not doing it with an understanding or an educational framework of "This is a plant medicine and it does have a spirit." There are people who do that. But for example, the first time I ate mushrooms I was 19 and in the... Or in the basement of a fraternity house.

0:41:04 RH: [chuckle] Oh, dear.

0:41:04 PA: You know what I mean?

0:41:05 RH: Yeah. [chuckle]

0:41:06 PA: And I was sober. Mushroom was the only thing I had. It was with two close friends so it's not like... The... And setting was manageable. But there was no sense of an indigenous context for it. And you even... In Jamaica where psilocybin mushrooms are legal to consume, the locals there perceive mushrooms as black magic. They try to stay as far away from possible as mushrooms as they can. So I think that's part of the difficulty with mushrooms is, they don't really necessarily have an indigenous context outside of Oaxaca and even then that lineage doesn't really exist anymore. It does a little bit, but it's not as prevalent as Ayahuasca or Peyote necessarily.

0:41:30 RH: Right. And I really sincerely hope we don't lose that informed ritual context for Ayahuasca. Certainly, I had someone describing a ceremony to me a few weeks ago where he said the leader of the ceremony was like a DJ. [chuckle] He played music. And that misses an important element of the traditional Ayahuasca ritual. And these rituals, from my point of view, can't really be... The pieces of the ritual can't be divided. It's a holistic experience where the medicine is part of that holistic ritual, but that songs are important, the traditional songs, the way the shaman works with energy. This is all part... And it's a whole in itself. And I hope in our American way we don't downgrade this holistic ritual. On the other hand, I have to say that the same guy who was telling me about this DJ ceremony he went to, he was reporting important psychological and spiritual healing. And so I have to say, "Well, it is working," but with canned music, "Oh dear." So I hope that in our western world we can appreciate and respect and preserve the holistic nature of a ritual and that the kind of shamanic training behind that capacity to manage energy during a ceremony that that takes decades to learn.

0:42:39 RH: I read about a six-week training program to become a shaman if you go to Peru. And I thought, "Oh dear, that's not exactly how it works." People live with their mentor and they train for decades. So I hope we in the West can appreciate the apprenticeship involved in learning how to travel in these worlds.

0:43:15 PA: And based on your understanding of Ayahuasca and its indigenous context, I think it goes without saying that Ayahuasca will continue to grow in popularity because of its efficacy in dealing with a lot of these issues that we've already been talking about. This is a big question, so you can corner it off anyway you wish. But how do we manage that growth so that we don't lose the indigenous knowledge and the indigenous ceremonies while still making the medicine available to, ideally, as many people as possible or as many people as who would like to use it for healing?

0:43:36 RH: Well, again... That's like the stock market question. It's way beyond my pay grade. I wish I knew, but it's pretty clear nobody's managing this process that's happening. But the one thing of course, that I want... And this is really challenging, is I hope for more research about Ayahuasca. And the difficulties in doing research are all about potency and dose. We're not even able to control that for a controlled research. So we have a lot to learn about how to work with this medicine scientifically, as well as spiritually.

0:44:10 PA: I think you're right about that. Yeah, there is... And I feel like this concept of science and spirit... My hope is that... Is where a lot of this is going is we'll find a feasible marriage between the two. Where we can understand that they aren't mutually exclusive and that understanding one helps us understand the other to some degree.

0:44:42 RH: Yes, that is the hope.

0:45:00 PA: It's just a matter of if we can do that in time. And I think that, of course, remains to be seen. Let's talk a little bit about your personal Ayahuasca experience because we haven't really gotten into that much. You mentioned a little bit in the beginning about your introduction to psychedelics and being in California and the body work that you did. When did you first start drinking Ayahuasca, and what was that experience like for you?

0:45:08 RH: Well, this was in Costa Rica in 2005. And this was supposed to be my beach vacation.

0:45:25 PA: Ah, okay. Yeah.

0:45:31 RH: And so there I am in a ceremony. And so the intention I said was I wanted to go back to the day or two before my dad died. I had brought him home from the hospital. He was under hospice care. And I was listening to his death rattle fill the house. It's a very intense experience. And I was just in the house walking from one room to another and all of a sudden I realized I was way out of my body, zooming up through space. And I became immediately terrified. And I brought myself back down, sat down in a chair had some tea. All the usual grounding stuff. But I felt unfinished about that experience because my fear aborted to take of the experience. And I also didn't know what happened to me. And this is part of... In our culture, we have to become more fluent in extraordinary experiences. And I had a whole bunch of very sophisticated spiritual friends who I talked to, until one friend finally said to me, "You went part way with your father." Then I realized that was it. It was what Ray Moody eventually began to call a shared death experience. Enough people began to report this to him, that he developed a new category. And no wonder I was afraid. What if I had continued traveling through the universe would I have died? And so it was pretty scary.

0:47:00 RH: So when I found myself with this sitting in a ceremony, my intention was to complete this experience. And so I relived... This was a re-living. I was again in those days right before my dad died. I had again my final loving conversation with my father which was so therapeutic at the family level. That's my individual history level to say goodbye again to my dad. So there's that level of healing. And then I also again shot up through the universe... Into outer space basically. And this time I completed that trip and I floated. Well, there was no longer an I, so there was just this floating in the darkness of the cosmos with twinkling stars around. But just the essence of a cosmic silence and floating and darkness basically. And it was ecstatic, it was the ecstatic darkness.

0:48:00 RH: And, when I came down I felt... You know how you feel after an experience like that, it's just... It's an exalted feeling, an intense gratitude for the opportunity to complete that experience in such a wonderful way. And I also felt then reflecting back on it, that I got this lesson in how to die. This one client of mine from an indigenous culture, he says when someone in his extended family dies the family says, "Well, so and so has gone travelling." And that really felt literally that sense of a cosmic traveling. And so, this intense ecstatic experience bonded me to Ayahuasca from the very first session.

0:48:43 RH: And, the next morning I had tons of questions to ask the indigenous shaman. And there was a translator translating questions but, even with the translation across languages the shamans had no interest in my therapeutic questions. There... It was just a different cosmology, a different worldview; it made no sense to them basically. And pretty much I realized, "Oh, my questions are so culture bound, they're so bound by my life and training as a therapist, they're Western questions. If I want to study this experience in any kind of way, I have to focus on what's it like for Westerners? How do we understand this medicine that is crossing cultures into our world? And how do we understand what it does for us? At that point, I had no idea so many of us would report this relationship to Grandmother Ayahuasca that is not a normal part of our Western culture. So my work has always focused on how is this medicine being used in North America specifically? But that was my first experience and I've heard other people talk about their most bonding experience with this plant spirit was the very first experience.

0:50:00 PA: And what are some of those... If you could recount maybe just two or three of those stories, what are some of the most impactful stories that you've heard about Ayahuasca and what it's done for an individual?

0:50:13 RH: I've heard wonderful stories but, they seemed to be so skewed. Everyone had a great healing, ecstatic, spiritual experience. I intentionally began to search for bad trips. And I would find people who reported, "I had a bad trip." And then after the end of the description of it and everything, they would say... There's always this sentence, "But I learned so much from it, I would do it again." And so, I think I have a section in the book where I talk about my bad good trip. And this is also in a way bonded me to the process of working with Ayahuasca where I experienced one of my core issues, and continued to work with this because these core issues never disappear completely. We're always working on our core issues in one way or another. It's just a question of how much that psychological complex runs our lives, how much we act it out. But I had a trip where I was convinced that the shaman were trying to kill me. Now, [chuckle] they really weren't, I can add that. But I really thought they were. And because I'm not much of a warrior I just collapsed and gave up. So the next morning, I basically looked like hell. And the shaman took one look at me, and the helpers took one look at me, and everybody started doing healing energetic work on me.

0:51:29 RH: It's a good thing I didn't look in the mirror I think at that point. But I must have looked like death warmed over basically. And so, immediately, these people who I thought were trying to kill me were trying to help me, were trying to heal me and clear out my energy. And... They worked for hours. They took turns. And so, that's what's called a corrective emotional experience that I had to realize, that next morning. That my interpretation, my assumption that they were trying to kill me was part of a paranoid delusion, that that wasn't so at all. And that these were the very same people who were working very hard to help me. And that has left a real healing impression on me as well. That's been very important for me. And so I joined the other people who talk about their bad trip because really, that was not a fun night, that was really pretty awful. And then how important that experience was for me, and how healing it was.

0:52:30 PA: And just to clarify, what was the importance of it? I'll kind of jump in on this as well. I've had obviously some challenging experiences where I reflected on them later. I kind of played armchair psychologist to myself and thought, "Oh, that's why I was going through that experience. That's why this happened. Oh, that's what was going on." And, "Okay, I cleared up that blockage or that trauma or whatever it might have been, and I'm much more free now as a result." Was it something as significant as that, like a complete shift in perspective, or was it more just an understanding that by going through the experience and reaching that low bottom point and still being fine that you knew that you could handle that challenge or this context going forward?

0:53:17 RH: No, it's far more than that. A corrective emotional experience is an intense relearning. So my assumption was, "These guys are out to harm me." And that can be traced to my childhood, where I had an older brother who was out to harm me. And so that has been a projection that I've projected on to other men in my life, that intention to harm. And so when I projected that onto the shaman, and then they proved that they were out to help me, that's what a corrective experience is. When there's an assumption in someone's worldview that's rooted in trauma, as part of the architectural structure of their personality, the way they see things, the way they construct their world. And here I had living proof, a corrective experience, that that assumption on my part was incorrect. And I could begin to see the shamans differently, the men who were helping them differently, I could begin to see men differently in my life.

0:54:26 RH: I could even begin to reflect on my ex husband differently, which trust me was a major miracle. And so there's this shift in perspective of my present relationship with men, my future relationships with men, and even my past relationships with men. That's... A corrective experience like that reorganizes the entire personality. So that's a huge therapeutic event. And I wanna add that as a therapist, I have a lot of friends who are therapists and when I returned to the States and I talked to people... To my friends, my therapist friends, we did a lot of therapeutic conversations about this. And I've had other experiences in actual therapy where this same issue was worked on in a slightly different way, but again with a corrective experience. And so there's this ongoing unfolding of our core issues, our central issues in life, that just continue to unfold that they don't disappear, but the role they play in our lives changes. And it's that corrective experience, that alive, emotional, intense experience in the here and now begins to shift the programming. I hope that explains it to you.

0:55:45 PA: That goes into where I wanted it to go. This concept of having a corrective experience. One follow up question that I have then is...

0:55:52 RH: And let me just add something there...

0:55:54 PA: Sure.

0:55:54 RH: Is that a corrective experience is not an intellectual insight, aha. It's a direct emotional felt experience in the here and now, experienced in the body.

0:56:07 PA: That's an important distinction, I think. That's a very important distinction. And this is what I experienced on a very personal level when... I'll kind of go into this as well. When I was 20, I had a mushroom experience, that was harrowing. And I basically was paranoid that all my friends were the police and that they had tricked me into eating mushrooms with them and that since I was doing drugs I was a bad person, and I deserve to go to jail or whatever that might be. So it was just this intense, intense paranoia. And that stemmed, I realize from an experience that I had six months prior where I was basically traumatized by law enforcement from an experience or a contact with them. And that bad trip happened, that challenging experience happened when I was 20. Five years later, I found myself in San Cristobal in Mexico, and I smoked DMT for the first time. And I relived that felt paranoia and that felt experience that I'd had in a mushroom trip, five years previous. It was almost exactly the same emotion that came up. And I was with a close... A friend of mine at the time, who is now one of my closest friends. And what's nice about DMT is it's quick, it's like 10 or 15 minutes.

0:57:19 RH: Yeah, right. [chuckle]

0:57:21 PA: It's not like...

0:57:21 RH: It's not hours.

0:57:22 PA: Three or four hours. And I came out of that, and I was anxious, I was sobbing and crying. And I had this friend who was right there, who basically just talked me through the experience. And I realized that at the core of the trauma was this shame of drug use in a culture that doesn't accept the fact that psychedelics are acceptable. And it wasn't... I had intellectually known that the prohibition of psychedelics is a failure and it doesn't rationally make any sense. But it wasn't until I felt that experience that it really clicked for me. And I wanna lead into a final question then, from your understanding of Ayahuasca experiences and the people that you've spoken to, are these corrective experiences, these challenging trips that people have, are they ultimately more impactful than positive experiences or not necessarily?

0:58:14 RH: But I just wanna say one thing about your experience that you were lucky and also what a bonding experience you had with your friend that has led now to this wonderful relationship in your life, and you were lucky. And this points to the importance for us as a community to take more care about never leaving anyone alone.

0:58:35 PA: I think that's important. Yeah, that's important.

0:58:36 RH: I know... Some people insist they can work with these drugs or entheogens on their own in the privacy of their home, but it's fairly unpredictable who's gonna get caught in one of these experiences. And all the work with safety and harm reduction is about having a sitter with you. And so here you had someone who took that role upon himself immediately. And that's very important. And I think we all have to be more aware of how important that is for all of us in ceremonies. And I'm glad you had that experience. It helps heal something in you.

0:59:12 PA: It did. It absolutely did. And we did another DMT ceremony a few days later. And after I'd gone through that experience I was... I had the same friend who was sitting for me. And I was obviously hesitant to go through that experience again. He coaxed me up to it... He didn't coax me. He allowed enough space where I can make my own decision, and I decided that I would go through with it. And it ended up being one of the most blissful, amazing experiences of my life because, like you're emphasizing, he had been there for me. Sitting for me when I was going through one of the most harrowing experiences, even if it was only for 10 minutes or something like that.

0:59:51 RH: Yeah.

0:59:51 PA: I had just mentioned I've had blissful experiences with these substances, LSD, mushrooms, and I've had really harrowing experiences with psychedelics as well. And from my perspective it seems like the blissful experiences were more impactful for me outside of the single harrowing experience that I had where a friend was with me. So I'd had other really bad trips before that. But I had no context for it. I had no integration for it. And so all I did was repeat that because I had no way to understand it. So with that framework, what's that relationship between good experiences and bad experiences? What's the utility of having this peak mystical amazing experience compared to a corrective, challenging experience, so to say?

1:00:42 RH: This is in all the literature, whether it's psychedelically induced or spontaneous, is people who report these mystical experiences, these ecstatic experiences, they generally say, "This is one of the most important experiences in my life." They say this 20 years later and it shifts the way they live their life. There was research on what was called a quantum experience, which was a spontaneous spiritual experience, no drugs involved. And some ambitious researchers found enough people to interview. And what they reported was there's a pattern of a shift in values. People changed how they lived their lives. And they were less materialistic and more values driven, and more interested in relationships and quality of life. So they shifted to more spiritual values in general. So it changes the whole trajectory of their life.

1:01:37 RH: I remember one radio interview I heard of a military... I think it must have been Navy or Air Force pilot. And he had a mystical experience, a near death experience, flying. And he thought... And he said, when he got married he told his wife on their wedding day that he loved her, and he thought this was sufficient. [chuckle] So 30 years later, he has this experience and he says, "Now I tell her every day that I love her." That's a shift in values, it's a whole shift in perspective and a whole shift in emotional availability that changes his life, changes his marriage, it changes his way of being in the world.

1:02:17 RH: But I wanna say something about the challenging trips and our other phrase for bad trips, is we all have challenging or bad trips. They're by definition that, because they're hitting on our psychological issues. Whatever our challenging trips are, they're challenging because they're highlighting something about us psychologically. And certainly, there are so many paranoid bad trips that people report. But it's generally connected to us in a certain way. My paranoid bad trip is very different from your paranoid bad trip. And so each of them is psychologically meaningful to each of us in our own way. And each of us, it relates back to family of origin. When you're talking culturally about how drugs are denigrated, and psychedelic explorations denigrated, it's dangerous and illegal thing to do. But it's worth exploring how that cultural norm was communicated to you through your family and how your parents see this exploration that you're doing and basically dedicating your life to. So there're levels of working with these bad experiences and challenging ones, and how to make the most of them. They don't all resolve in corrective emotional experiences. That's just one thing that happens in the context of therapy. But generally there's a standard therapeutic component of a challenging trip.

1:03:42 PA: And I think that's a great way to end. I know we're nearing the last of our call time. So I just wanna... I wanna thank you for coming on the podcast and sharing your story. And before we leave, could you just share with our listeners where they can find you and your book?

1:03:57 RH: Well, I have a website, listeningtoayahuasca.com. It's the title of the book. And so I keep trying to put things on the website that are helpful and it includes the presentation I just did it at MAPS, for instance. And I'll be putting other things on as well.

1:04:14 PA: Great. So Listening to Ayahuasca is the book that Rachel Harris wrote, and you can see it at listeningtoayahuasca.com. And you can also purchase on Amazon and we'll provide a link in the show notes. So once again, Rachel, thank you so much for joining us.

1:04:27 RH: Thank you, Paul.

This Week in Psychedelics

The Third Wave’s founder, Paul Austin, will be speaking at the “Psychedelics for Professionals” event in NYC, on June 8th.

The Global Drugs Survey has released its 2017 results – find out more here!

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