In this episode, Paul F. Austin, founder of Third Wave, and Marcela Ot'alora, researcher and MDMA therapist, discuss some unexpected similarities in the insights gained through isolation and psychedelic experiences.
Marcela Ot'alora is a researcher, artist, and MDMA therapist dedicated to the treatment of trauma. She was a co-therapist in the first government approved MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study in Madrid, Spain and is the Principal Investigator of the Phase 2 and 3 MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trials in Boulder, Colorado.
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00:00 Paul Austin: In today's episode, we have Marcela Ot'alora who's a psychotherapist and installation artist. Marcela worked as a co-therapist in MAPS very first government-regulated MDMA assisted psychotherapy in Madrid, Spain. She served as the principal investigator for MAPS phase II MDMA assisted psychotherapy study, and is currently in the MDMA healthy volunteer study that's in phase III in Boulder, Colorado. Marcela is also a trainer and supervisor for therapists working on the MAPS studies.
00:29 PA: Welcome, to the Third Wave podcast. I'm your host, Paul Austin, here to bring you cutting edge interviews with leading scientists, entrepreneurs, and medical professionals who are exploring how we can integrate psychedelics in an intentional and responsible way for both healing and transformation. It is my honor and privilege to bring you these episodes as you get deeper and deeper into why these medicines are so critical to the future of humanity. So let's go and let's see what we can explore and learn together in this incredibly important time. This podcast is brought to you by Sovereignty. They blend ancient eastern plant medicine with highly functional bioavailable cannabinoids. This is by far the best nootropic supplement that I've worked with in recent memory. I've cycled through probably 12 to 15 different supplements specifically for sleep, because I have a hard time winding down at night, and I also wear the Oura Ring. So I test and measure my sleep quality.
01:41 PA: And since I started working with Dream, which is one of the two supplements that Sovereignty offers, my Oura Ring sleep score has increased consistently, and I've woken up feeling a lot more refreshed and ready to go. So they have two different supplements, one is Purpose, that's great for daytime alertness and focus, and it includes seven plant-based ingredients, and what I just mentioned is Dream, which is meant for nighttime relaxation and rest, restorative and rejuvenating sleep with CBN. And not only my personal example, but Sovereignty tested it on hundreds of people with Oura Rings and found that 76% of people had improved sleep in some capacity. So if you're interested in finding out more about Sovereignty, for our listeners, they have your favorite money-back guarantee if you purchase Sovereignty supplements and you don't like it, and it's not the best supplement you've ever had, they will not only replace your money, but they will also purchase your supplement of choice. So you can go and find out more information at sovereignty.co/thirdwave. That is S-O-V-E-R-E-I-G-N-T-Y.co/thirdwave. Third Wave's podcast is brought to you by Magic Mind, called Silicon Valley's new morning elixir by Forbes.
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03:38 PA: Hey listeners, I'm your host, Paul Austin, here with episode 98 of Third Wave's podcast. We're almost to 100. For the 100th episode, we're gonna do something special. We haven't fully confirmed what that might be, but it'll probably be a live Q&A or webinar or live podcasts we'll figure out how we wanna go about that, but that's something exciting that's coming up. And in today's podcast, I had the chance to sit down with Marcela Ot'alora. So before COVID entered our world, Third Wave had plans to host the Becoming Whole Conference in Boulder.
04:19 PA: We were gonna host this in May, 2020, and Marcela was slated to be one of our speakers at this conference because she is based in Boulder. And unfortunately, we had to cancel the conference because of COVID, but I still wanted to reach out to Marcela and have her on the show to talk about her work as a psychotherapist, her work as a MAPS trainer and supervisor for the therapists who are working on the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy studies. So we had a chance to sit down for about 45 minutes in total. Marcela is so kind and so sweet and so easy to talk with, and this was right after COVID hit. I wanna say in mid to late April, so fresh off of that, we had a lot of thoughts and ideas and interesting things that we brought up as a result of that. So, especially if you are interested in becoming a psychedelic therapist or training to become a psychedelic therapist, or even if you're just generally interested in psychedelic therapy, this will be a phenomenal episode for you to dive into. So without any further ado, I bring you Marcela Ot'alora.
05:29 PA: Okay, so Morita therapy.
05:31 Marcela Ot'alora: Morita therapy stems from this philosophy of really distinguishing between what is it that we want and what we're doing. That a lot of times, simplistically, it's like if you're doing the dishes, you might not want to be doing the dishes, but you're doing the dishes. And so how do you come to terms with that? That you're actually doing the dishes, and it's not about I'm doing the dishes and therefore I can think even of good thoughts, I can think about God or I can think about a spirituality is... No, it's like, actually, I'm doing the dishes. But the program is like a month program, where the first week, you're in complete isolation. You're in this room, you don't have anything to write with, you don't have anything to read, you don't talk to anybody. Somebody brings you food and leaves it in the door and it's really about being with yourself, really understanding and being in a safe container. They know... Of course, if you need any help at any time, but really understanding that you can... What it's like to listen to yourself.
06:37 MO: And we're having a little bit of that, but the reality of it is that it's not really. We have the internet, we have the television, people are doing FaceTime, people are... You can go out for walks. There are so many things that we actually can do that it really is not an imprisonment. It's not at all. It's like house arrest.
07:00 PA: Right. Yeah.
07:01 MO: Yeah, and so then that comes with a whole bunch of different things and to see it in perspective of people who... There was a letter that was written by a man in Colombia who was kidnapped for a year. And he lived in this little tiny room, dark, for an entire year where he didn't hear any voices even of his captures. And it was like his experience now, it's like... What's really important? What's really important here? And I would have given anything to be able to talk to my family. To be able to know that they were okay. And so it's still this privilege.
07:40 PA: Well and it's like after coming out of deep psychedelic experiences in the past, I'll only speak for myself, whether it's Psilocybin or Ayahuasca, oftentimes the first urge or intuitive desire that I have is to connect with people that I love, whether that's close friends or whether that's a partner, whether that's my family, and speaking...
08:02 MO: And why is that?
08:05 PA: It's because that's where my bonds are. So that's where I've developed healthy attachments, and what makes me feel most human and most me.
08:15 MO: Yeah. You really get in touch with what's essential for you. Yeah.
08:22 PA: And that's what COVID seems to be stripping away, and there are exceptions, like you were saying, 'cause people can still distract through FaceTime or we can go for walks or whatever, but it strips away all these non-essentials where everyone thought oh... For example, maybe a corporate work environment, there was this pay... There was this pilot of, I gotta go to work every day and I gotta do this, and now people are realizing, oh, I can actually do a lot of this from home. I don't need to spend all that energy going and moving and talking, interacting, socializing, 'cause there's no FOMO anymore. There's no fear of missing out, 'cause there's nothing to miss out on at this point.
09:04 MO: I know. It has so many pieces. Are we valuing differently? Is it changing the way we value things and what are the things that we value? And I'm so aware of the lack of alignment that we have been in in the world, and does this bring some equilibrium to that? And how do we hold those privileges because it's even a privilege to stay inside. We hear, "Stay inside, stay inside." But that's a privilege, because there are some people who don't have that privilege, and if you don't have anything to eat or to feed your family, you're not gonna stay inside. So it's also a privilege that we have those of us that can actually do that and eat and enjoy and begin to ponder, fruitful pondering on what is it that is essential. Like you said, what happens a lot of times coming out of a psychedelic experience of like I connected to think, I feel my connection to people, to things, to the world, to the planet, and even the suffering of that. Then a lot of times people describe the psychedelic experience as really connecting to the suffering of the Earth, of the planet, of what we're doing, so then you feel that sense of connection, and hopefully, this is something that is doing that and that connects us to what others are needing in the moment as well.
10:38 PA: Yeah, I was talking with a friend and he was like this is sort of our global initiation. It's like everyone's finally needing to come to terms with who they are. And I saw an interesting statistic even that came out of China, where after COVID passed in China, divorce rates skyrocketed because people were at home all the time and they realize, "Oh, I'm not... I can't avoid this anymore. I can't ignore whatever that is."
11:08 MO: That's true, and at the same time, the other aspect of that is how we need to... That we need to have conversations that are more interdisciplinary. That it is not just a politician speaking or not just the scientist speaking, but that it's really about the people, the psychedelic community speaking, the artists speaking, the sociologist speaking, and that it's about everybody contributing to a different piece of it. Because at the same time, the statistic of people getting divorced and we're also having people who are being abused who then need to stay at home with abusive partners or abusive relationships or kids being sent back home who have been abused or... We're also creating that.
11:57 PA: Yeah, you're also obviously a therapist who works with people who have PTSD with MDMA. I'm just curious, how is this impacting your world? What's been coming up for you?
12:11 MO: Yeah, personally, I'm doing some sessions online, and so I'm grateful that I have my job, and I kept saying to people when they were asking, wow, this is just like a different kind of tired at the end of the day. I have a different kind of tired than I am if I see clients in my office. And I couldn't really relate it, except to like oh the computer, I'm oin the computer too much or something, but what I realized is that the connection that I have with my client in the office is a very give and take. It's something that it's sort of like it comes and it goes out to them, and it comes from them, and it keeps doing this very beautiful dance of getting nurtured and nurturing, and getting nurtured and nurturing. Seeing and being seen, and I find that for me, that gets interrupted with the camera, with the video, and so I don't quite get it back, and so then I feel like I'm just depleting myself. I'm giving something and it's not fully... It's bouncing back a little bit and I'm not quite... That dance has been interrupted, and I think that's the tiredness that I feel. I'm not getting as nurtured from the work as I would be in my office.
13:33 MO: So I think that's an impact that it's had on me, that I'm conscious of and I'm working with and I connect, but it's not in the same way. And then in terms of the study, there are some things that we can still do and there are some delays, but there's still lots of things that we can also do online that we can also connect with participants and be able to do some work. And we are sort of in transition between studies right now, and so ending a study before we start another one, which is exactly the same, it's part of phase III. And so I think there will be some delays, but we are able to then still reach out and connect and not feel like we had to bring things to a halt, and that's a privilege. I'm very grateful to be able to do that. And there has been some very sweet, beautiful connections that can still happen.
14:28 PA: Good, good. And how has it been in Boulder generally just in terms of where you live and the energy there?
14:33 MO: Yeah, we live in this very privileged place where it's felt more through conversations with people from elsewhere or connecting with friends who were doing peer supervision and talking about what's going on for clients, going to the supermarket, it just seems like there's not that... We can get things. We can get things, and there are people in Boulder who can't, and it's harder to see those people. There's such a segregation that... The impact that it's having on, for instance, the Latino community that I work with, and it's a big impact. And I was just reading something that said that it's about... Around 10 million people in the US have applied for unemployment. That is amazing. That is incredible.
15:35 MO: So the impact of that and the impact of listening to this woman from Mexico, she was saying there are seven million people in Mexico that live day-to-day, that lived out of just selling something in the street, and none of those people can make any money. So what is happening to those people? So I feel the impact more that way than I do within this community where we feel pretty safe, and it just seems like we're eating, so many of us are still working and we're doing what we can, and respecting, but it's not felt in that way, it's almost like it's... We hear it. It's not touching right here.
16:23 PA: Not touching that. Yeah. And that's more like with COVID, there have been a lot of restrictions put into place, the physical distancing, the isolation to minimize the contagion, and so we're not seeing, for example, as many deaths as we could have seen, which is a positive thing of the physical distancing and the isolation. But what it feels like is a lot of these, what I'm calling second order consequences. So if COVID is the first order, the second order is the depression and the unemployment, and like you were talking about before, higher levels of domestic abuse, there being issues with food security and do people have enough to eat. And this is also... We already had a mental health crisis, and it's just going to get worse as a result of this. So that's even with this work, with psychedelics, it gives me hope. Again, I'm just looking for silver lining to a large degree.
17:34 MO: That's good because we do need to stay positive. If we don't and we panic, then we can't help anybody including ourselves.
17:45 PA: How are you looking at that? What are some of your silver linings in this process?
17:50 MO: What are my silver linings?
17:54 PA: Or what are you grateful for? Or what's come up in that? Maybe the positives.
17:58 MO: Yeah, I think feeling that our blinders can come off, that sometimes happen with psychedelics. That in that sense it's similar in that way, like when blinders come off, what do we see? What do we really experience? And what do we think is important, and how do we see our planet and each other? I keep thinking that when I really check in with myself somehow I knew this was happening. This was going to happen. I think we all do. We knew... We call this in or somehow we're familiar with it. It's not so unfamiliar that it came out of nowhere and so... And it's such an amazing thing that here is this virus... It's affecting the lungs. And then on the contrast, the lungs of the Earth are vibrantly breathing, are being able to breathe. And so there's that contrast. And so the silver lining is like, "Wow, we affect a lot." We have a big impact and can we see that and we also... That the solutions are not necessarily so far-fetched or so extravagant or so out of reach.
19:23 MO: I think about... I was looking at a picture of my hometown, Medellín in Colombia, and there's a river that goes through Medellín. And that river is very polluted, and it's always really dirty and dark, and within five days of them being in confinement, the river was crystal clear. Five days. And I remembered being with my grandmother when I was five years old and her taking me to the river, and it looked like that, 55 years ago, it looked like that. And connecting to that and going like, "Wow, it just doesn't take that much, really." So I guess my silver lining is it doesn't take that much if we collectively can do something for the Earth and for each other and for people who need it, and it just doesn't take that much. It's a shift. Can we make that shift in our mentality? Can we...
20:20 MO: One of my very, very favorite saying, it's an African saying, and I'm not sure of what country in Africa, but it says, "I store the excess of my weight in the belly of my neighbor." How can we get to that? So that's my silver lining.
20:41 PA: A couple things that came up for me in that. I think one is, in a way, what's happening to us, what's happening to our lungs with COVID is a mirroring of what's been happening to the Earth and her lungs.
20:54 MO: Yes. Yes, absolutely.
20:56 PA: And then with the Australian bush fires and the Amazon fires.
21:00 MO: Yes. Yes, and how, boy, the Earth, how forgiving it is and how it can just return to this place so fast, so fast, like the pictures of... I'm mostly... I'm just connected with pictures that I see from Colombia because it's my way of being connected with my country and places where I used to go, where there's no longer a lot of wildlife, and wildlife is coming out. And there were some dolphins that were coming to this area that hadn't seen dolphins in a really long time.
21:33 PA: Venice. I think it was the Venice canals that that was seen.
21:37 MO: In that one also, somebody mentioned about that. And this one in this little town in Colombia in Bahía Solano.
21:43 PA: That's beautiful.
21:46 MO: Inside this beautiful dolphins returning. And so I guess the silver lining is like, it's not that far fetched, it's not that complicated. It's just not that complicated.
21:55 PA: And then I think that's the lesson, is this returning to natural law, which is that... I love this book by Daniel Quinn called "Ishmael." The main protagonist in that book is talking to a gorilla in a cage, and the gorilla is essentially explaining to him like, "Look, you humans, if you try to inflate above your humanness, you will just create significant damage in the long term, and this whole part of becoming human is grounding."
22:26 MO: Yes.
22:27 PA: Right? And what we've been on a kick for for the last 100 years is grandiosity and over ego inflation and inflating above all the suffering.
22:39 MO: Yes.
22:39 PA: Now what this is doing is it's actually getting us to ground back in both our own individual suffering and our collective suffering. And this is where... I mean, MDMA is interesting, but even the plant medicines, whether it's Psilocybin mushrooms or Ayahuasca, they do that in many ways, they ground us. So those of us who've been working with psychedelics, this is sort of like... Like you were saying, it's like we kind of expected this and we had an intuitive sense that it was coming, and what... We can adapt to it, and the Earth can adapt because it has that natural way of being, so...
23:21 MO: Yeah. Yeah, and indigenous people I know, like the Arauco Indians in Colombia, when they've done psychedelics, it really is really deeply feeling that suffering of that grandiosity and what that has done and can we be more humane. And it's really around absorbing and expressing that absolute devastation and pain that some of these cultures... There's cultures that have been doing this for so many generations of, "I am doing this to actually collectively feel the suffering of the Earth for you, for all of you." Like monks that have spent their entire life meditating and praying for the Earth. They're doing it for us, to give us collectively this other sense that it's not felt. I mean, it's not seen, but it's felt, it's underneath.
24:23 MO: And one of the things that I... I think probably the part like when you say, "What do I hold on to or what do I... How do I see the silver lining?" I'm not sure who said this, this in reading so many things about the virus and things, but it was like this fear of like, we weren't prepared for this, we weren't prepared for this. And he said, "What if this is the preparation? What if this is the preparation, and that we have this opportunity to then prepare and to heal and to come down from that grandiosity and to feel our humanness?" Yeah.
25:01 PA: And to feel the suffering and the pain and all these things.
25:07 MO: Which is what happens in healing with psychedelics, that it is about feeling it. It's not about getting rid of. It's not about getting rid of. It's about alchemy, it's about transmuting. Yeah.
25:23 PA: I'd be curious a little deep. When you're working with someone in a therapeutic context, than with MDMA or Psilocybin, it's different, the MDMA [unclear speech] different. How do you as a therapist, create that container to allow people to go through that suffering and help them transmute it?
25:46 MO: I think believing in them and in their capacity to transmute what is there for them to transmute, and also by holding that safe container where it is, where everything is invited, anything is possible. The suffering can be there, and can be held, and I can share in holding that suffering with them as well, and to really be present with it. This way of being with... Without doing anything. It's not about doing or even having a place to get to. It's just that with them, feeling the extent of their suffering, the extent of their joy, the extent of the connection and disconnection, that with all the same material that before was taking them to the same place, and it was just becoming the cycle of self-harm in some ways, that they're arriving at a different place, that's transmutation.
26:54 MO: You have the same set of circumstances, nothing has changed. Your experience was exactly the way it was before. Nothing has changed about that, but what has changed is your arrival point, where do you arrive with those same set of circumstances.
27:12 PA: So let's bring that one step further into what's going on with COVID, because a lot of people are now going through that process. They're going through their own suffering. There are probably a lot of people who are also distracting, but for the most part, it's difficult to distract from the gravity of the situation. So what would be your... As a therapist, as someone who has been doing this work for a number of years, how can people hold space for themselves and hold space for others as they're going through this, what are maybe even just general self-care tips about how do we stay regulated, how do we hold on to things or just go with things? What's that? What's that process?
28:08 MO: Well, I think one of the beautiful things that has happened throughout this experience and in this virus is that there are so many people showing up to share whatever they can. I have friends who are doing self-exercises, tools, going through them and putting them online, so people can join and people can do, maybe at the same time be able to do a grounding exercise or a breathing exercise together. And there are so many of those that are happening, or they invite different practitioners to do a yoga class or a meditation class. I was just looking at one from Pema Chödrön, and I was like, "Oh, she's gonna be online." And you can do a meditation with Pema Chödrön, which is something that a lot of people don't have access to it. I was hearing about this dancer who just gathered and put together this links of all the dancers, all of the people in the world who are dancers who are offering classes. And she put the link together so that at any time on a night, it could be in the middle of the night, you can click to a dance class because it's a different time zone some place else, and they're doing, it's the middle of their day and they're doing that dance class.
29:34 MO: I was hearing about somebody doing holotropic breathwork, and there were 600 people that attended the holotropic breathwork experience, and so this collective place of being able to connect through this healing, in healing ways. I think that those are really important. It is important to connect with people and to even look at these very funny things that come out, and people can laugh, and people can share and do those things. But to really go into ourselves, to know that it is shared. So in the psychedelic experiences, when we say it's not just the MDMA, it's everything that is included, which is... It's MDMA, it's the two therapists in the room, it's eight hours with the participant, it's all that... It's a safe container.
30:25 MO: All that allows for that participant to be able to have the room to go into that experience. And which are the ways that we can do it now? We can do it collectively, knowing that we can be internal, but know that everybody else is maybe doing the same hour, and I think that's so powerful. In Columbia, they did this thing, where at 8 o'clock, three days ago or something, at 8 o'clock at night, every single person was gonna go out in the balconies and clap for all the medical personnel that had been working so hard and all the nurses and the doctors and everything. Everybody was out in their balconies, and everybody clapping at exactly 8 o'clock at night, and people were filming it and putting it online, it was so profound, and they showed the doctors and the nurses, and they were all crying, and it's such a beautiful way to connect and to really feel deeply, and to know that everybody's feeling with you.
31:26 PA: And this is the paradox that often comes up in psychedelic experiences, it's we're totally alone. And we're absolutely interconnected to everything else.
31:38 MO: Yes. Yes.
31:39 PA: And I think about the virus and it's like we were talking about at very beginning of this conversation before we recorded it's that polarity.
31:46 MO: It's a time of cooperation and conflict and tragedy and opportunity and storm and calm that we can really collectively learn from both, and also balance each other with both. That illusion that we're separate, it's like no man is an island, but we don't take it in, and it is a complete illusion. And that we don't really have a huge impact on one another, and our planet is such an illusion that I hope it's being re-evaluated.
32:21 PA: So how do we integrate that? How do we integrate those extremes? The polarities? Just as an individual, how do we come to terms with that.
32:33 MO: So, I'm thinking about it from the psychedelic work, that it's about not getting rid of something, that it's about not trying to change something. Not trying to change your experience. I think a lot of times with trauma, we try to change the experience. Can we look at it from a different way where it is not quite so painful that it didn't really happen that way? Or always trying to look for something. And the reality is that healing begins to happen when there is no need to change the experience, but that we can actually hold that pain, that we're so afraid of that pain, but if we really sit with that is so hard and devastating and painful, if we sit with that, and at the same time, at the very same time, there's this other part that is the connection, the interconnectedness, the effect that we have on each other, the love that is there, that is so universal. All of that is there at the same time.
33:34 MO: And I think that's really felt in a lot of times in psychedelic experiences that you have that, you're holding both of those exactly at the same level. And one is informing the other and one is supporting the other so that we can deal with the pain, if we're also holding on to the other.
33:57 PA: Yeah, it's sort of like what's coming up for me is I know a lot of people right now are going through emotional swings. They're feeling both the incredible suffering that's going on, I think the more predominant sort of feeling right now as we adjust and adapt to this new reality that we all live in. There are people who I would consider myself to be one of them is, I'm finding this to be an incredible type of opportunity. And even though I know that for me personally, I'm aware that my mom works in healthcare, my sister works in healthcare, and I have 95-year-old grandpa, and there's also that potential. And so what I'm hearing from you is just understand that feeling all of that, the range is okay. And giving ourselves basically permission to feel that and not feel the need to disconnect from it or numb from it or the things that probably many of us have been doing for so long already, which is how we got in this mess [unclear speech] money.
34:54 MO: Yeah, and that is, if I'm not gonna feel the extent of the tragedy and the pain of all the people suffering, then I can't experience the other either. I can't experience those opportunities and those joys and the connection that I can deal with myself, that I can actually walk outside and that there is so quiet, it is so quiet and so beautiful and the birds are coming. And I can't do that fully, if I can't do the other fully, and so the numbing doesn't know just the tragedy and the pain, it numbs the joy and the love, and the beauty as well.
35:38 PA: I think that's a great way to wrap it up.
35:41 MO: I hope you stay really safe and well connected to yourself and to others and feeling the love.
35:51 PA: Yeah. It is a blessing to be here with a really good friend. Because just I have someone to watch movies with at night and we cook together. I'm not... He's a guy. I'm heterosexual, so it's not... But the companionship, it's so nice to have another person who's there, so. I feel very grateful for that, and I'm also very grateful that I have... One of the reasons, why I have done so much in psychedelics and especially health and wellness is more of my focus, it's like how can it help us to be very well, both of my parents are healthy, even though they're in the mid-60s, they're healthy. My sisters are healthy, my sisters are married to their husbands who are healthy. I also know that there's that strong familial structure. I'm from west Michigan from Grand Rapids where they are. And sort off that's another nice element.
36:46 PA: And this just helps to... I think crisis like this cut out the excess. Even something that's silly as like, I'm going through my phone and deleting all the apps that I never use.
37:00 MO: Exactly. Yeah, so cleaning. You're cleaning your space. This is a great opportunity to clean our spaces and to really honor that. My mother would always say like, my church, people say, "Why don't you go to church?" I come from such a Catholic country, and we weren't Catholic and it's only 3%. And so people say, "Why don't you go to church?" And she said, "Because on Sundays, I clean and my house is my church." Exactly. We need to just really feel that and be able to do that. So cleaning your app. It's perfect. Any little thing that we do.
37:35 PA: Yeah. Just getting rid of the excess. So thank you.
37:38 MO: Thank you.
37:39 PA: Thank you, for listening.
37:39 MO: Bye.
37:39 PA: Bye Marcela.