Psychedelics, drug effects, and psychotherapy

Yes I (proudly) admit it: I am a child of the sixties.

I was at Harvard when the Leary debacle happened; I met Richard Alpert before he became Ram Dass. My first acid trip was in 1968, after I moved back to London.

My psychological suffering led me to explore many forms of therapy, and in 60s London there were many available: Bioenergetics,  Psychosynthesis, encounter groups, meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi…. I explored them all. I used LSD in the same context, as a tool for inner exploration. (On the right: Timothy Leary at Millbrook in full Guru mode)

When the legal crack-down on psychedelics happened, with LSD classified with heroin and cocaine, I was outraged, and saddened for the future of research into the mind. The crackdown had strong political overtones; it was part and parcel of governmental opposition to the 60s ideology of personal and spiritual liberation and the questioning of traditional social and psychological structures. Although academics and therapists were already exploring the immense positive potential of the psychedelics, suddenly all that research came to a halt, and personal exploration went underground.

I always believed that eventually psychedelics would resurface. I felt that they were invaluable for the development of psychology and psychiatry. Orthodox psychology, based thoroughly in traditional science with its Cartesian dualism, was (and largely still is) like biology before the microscope, or astronomy before the telescope. It is based on the study of a tiny, superficial, constrained portion of the mind, taking a limited part for the whole.

Brave and dedicated souls like Rick Doblin and Charles Grob continued to fight for psychedelic research; and finally, over the past 5 years (and 50 years since Leary’s expulsion from Harvard), psychedelics are back with a vengeance! An increasing surge of scientific studies is documenting the profoundly beneficial effects of the psychedelics and debunking the negative myths and propaganda. Over the decades, people who use psychedelics are in better mental health, less likely to suicide; psychedelics promote neuroplasticity, increase connectivity in the brain, enhance creativity, can quickly resolve clinical depression, and do not cause psychosis! (On the right: fMRI of the brain on LSD compared with normal; colors indicate increased connectivity.)

My favorite fun fact, which I came across in a Time-Life nature book in the 70s: spiders given LSD weave a web which is more complete and well-structured than their ordinary web! Yes it’s true!

We talk about the “effects” of a drug. Caffeine makes you alert, Ambien makes you a racist (oh no, wait, that was just Roseanne…), ether puts you to sleep. These effects have fairly straightforward neurobiological pathways. But is clear that the psychedelics are in a different class. A psychedelic trip is an extremely complex and unpredictable unfolding of experience, better described as a process triggered by the drug rather than an “effect” of the drug. And, this process is similar to the processes triggered by various spiritual/psychological practices, such as intensive meditation, a good therapy session, a vision quest…. The way I see it, all of these trigger, or unlock, an innate, inherent self-healing process in the mind. Actually, to say “mind” is not accurate; a crucial aspect of this process is that it restores a mind-body unity that centuries of conditioning has disrupted. The experiences during a trip can involve profound alterations in physical experience, inner sensation, physical ability; I remember one early trip where I was suddenly able to do Yoga poses previously far beyond my ability (no, really!)

This leads me back to the topic of therapy—“psychotherapy” we call it, as if it were just about the psyche–and it’s medical cousin, psychiatry. When I moved from London to the States in 1967, a priority for me was finding a good therapist. I went to one, and asked what kind of therapy he did. Bioenergetics? Psychosynthesis? Gestalt? “Well, I went to school for counseling, I have a PhD”. Not quite the answer I was expecting, but OK, give it a try. After a couple of sessions of get-to-know-you chit-chat, I asked when we would actually be doing some therapy. A confused look came over his face: “Well, that’s what we’ve been doing!” WHAT?! Giving advice is your idea of therapy?

To this day, most psychotherapy in the States focuses on changing consciously held beliefs and thought patterns. Although in some cases this can be useful, it is also very limited. More profound forms of therapy, which can catalyze genuinely transformative journeys, do exist: Somatic Experiencing, Hakomi, AEDP, to name a few; but, reminiscent of the repression of the psychedelics, these therapies get marginalized. Research funding is hard to get, they are rarely mentioned in popular media, and (tragically) they are not made available to veterans struggling with PTSD.

The use of psychotropic (as opposed to psychedelic) drugs in psychiatry is a hit-or-miss affair, often based on bad science (there is plenty of evidence for this statement). These drugs are blunt instruments, often with subtle side effects or hidden harms (although to be fair, they can also be life-savers). Their mechanisms of action have nothing to do with the psychedelics, which are more like keys which unlock doors than bandaids covering wounds.

My sincere hope is that the re-discovery of the psychedelics presages a flowering of a genuine psychology, one which embraces the vastness of human experience, one which no longer separates mind from body, and which no longer sees humans (or animals) as biochemical mechanisms. Authentic psychotherapy must support the inherent striving towards wholeness which gives the universe meaning.

Neuroscience: The Good, the Bad, and the Transcendent. Part 2: Dualism and Non-dualism

As neuroscience has turned its attention to
feelings,
consciousness,
the self,
it has become clear that a lot of simple everyday concepts
that we all (scientists too!) assumed were valid—
—are not good descriptions of what is really going on in the mind and brain.

This is HUGE. These insights, although hard to digest,
point towards a whole new way of experiencing.

For instance, basic concepts like
“perception”,
“action”,
“thought”,
“emotion”,
“I”
“it”
turn out to be flawed.

Stunning! Who’d‘a thunk?

These concepts separate and distort the underlying reality,
which does not divide things up into separate categories like this.
These categories are relics of a dualistic way of thinking.

(Image: Birds by M. C. Escher)

We need to find a different way.

 

Another example of the dualistic bias of our conceptual mind.
is the tendency to think of the brain/mind as modular,
with separate regions performing separate specialized tasks.

This is only a small part of the story.

In reality, The brain/mind operates as a coherent whole,
Not separate from body and environment;

more like an orchestra, or the ripples on the ocean
than a machine or computer.

The more awake you are, the more connected the brain is;
this means that large areas vibrate at the same or similar frequencies,
this is the same principle behind musical chords that sound pleasant (consonant).

In addition, the more awake & balanced you are,
the more brain activity hovers
“on the edge of chaos”;
poised between too much order & too little,
at the “Goldilocks” place!

This “Natural State” is inherently pleasant, just like a resonant chord. (On the left: Antique Sound, by Paul Klee)

Moving into this connected state
necessarily must involve mind, feelings and body;
separating them inherently reduces connectivity!

When the whole system works without obstruction, we call this the Natural State.

In this state, we are fully connected, acting effortlessly & spontaneously, without inner conflict, and fully integrated with the environment.

Unfortunately, we are not often in this state!
Everybody gets in their own way, more than we realize.
The essence of Bodymind Training is
to learn how to let go of interference
and move towards the Natural State
in all situations of life.

Below is a little map:
Through Bodymind Training
we can move into the Natural State directly
through experiencing the wholeness of our being in the moment:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing solidly on the earth,

floating lightly towards the sky,

open to what is all around us.

 

 

 

More about this “map” to come–stay resonant!

NEUROSCIENCE—The Bad, the Good, & the Transcendent. Part II
As neuroscience has turned its attention to

feelings,
consciousness,
the self,

it has become clear that a lot of simple everyday concepts
that we all (scientists too!) assumed were valid—
—are not good descriptions of what is really going on in the mind and brain.

This is HUGE. These insights, although hard to digest,
point towards a whole new way of experiencing.

 

For instance, basic concepts like
“perception”,
“action”,
“thought”,
“emotion”,
“I”
“it”
turn out to be flawed.

Stunning! Who’d‘a thunk?

These concepts separate and distort the underlying reality,
which does not divide things up into separate categories like this.
These categories are relics of a dualistic way of thinking.

We need to find a different way.

Another example of the dualistic tendency of our conceptual mind.
is the tendency to think of the brain/mind as modular,
with separate regions performing separate specialised tasks.

In reality, The brain operates as a coherent whole,
Not separate from body and environment;

more like an orchestra, or the ripples on the ocean
than a machine or computer.

The more awake you are, the more connected the brain is;
this means that large areas vibrate at the same frequencies,
or even multiples; this is the same principle behind musical chords that sound pleasant (consonant).

In addition, the more awake & balanced you are,
the more brain activity hovers
“on the edge of chaos”;
poised between too much order & too little,
at the “Goldilocks” place!

This Natural State is inherently pleasant, just like a resonant chord.

Moving into this connected state
necessarily must involve mind, feelings and body;
separating them is obviously not connecting them!

—When the whole system works without obstruction, we call this the Natural State.
In this state, we are fully connected, acting effortlessly & spontaneously, without inner conflict, and fully integrated with the environment.

Unfortunately, we are not often in this state! Everybody gets in their own way, more than we realize. The essence of Bodymind Training is to learn how to let go of interference and move towards the Natural State in all situations of life.

Below is a little map:
We can move into the Natural State directly
through experiencing the actual wholeness of our being in the moment:

Standing solidly on the earth,
floating lightly towards the sky, and
open to what is all around us.

NEUROSCIENCE-The Bad, the Good, & the Transcendent. Part I: The limitations of the dualistic world-view

Neuroscience—the word itself carries an air of authenticity
an esoteric & authoritative flavour
which (seems to) legitimise any cultural dish to which it is added.

Science, the arbiter of truth & reality,
focused on the brain itself, the organ of consciousness–
what could be more compelling?

With a build-up like that, I am obviously about to take it down a notch or two.

There is a lot of “Neuroporn” out there:
seductively clear hard factoids,
which usually involve a narrow & stereotyped view of brain & mind.

Although they are rapidly evolving,
the current tools of neuroscience are very blunt instruments—
or, cannot be used with humans.

But certain branches of contemporary neuroscience
are even more fascinating & important
than most people imagine!
Recent developments in neuroscience
offer nothing less than
a reunification of the long-separated realms
of science & spirituality.

Science is fundamentally based on the idea of objectivity.

From its earliest formulation by Galileo,
….it aims to remove bias & opinion
…….& to move towards the objective truth of reality
by a systematic process of hypothesis, experiment, & outcome.
The result is a set of laws,
formulated in mathematical terms,
E = mc2
                predicting the processes of objective reality.

Gravity:
it’s not just a good idea…
it’s the law!

This approach has been stunningly successful,
but with a big caveat:
by its very nature, this process cannot deal with “subjective reality”,
as science require removing the observer (the subject)
from the experiment.

This has led to a dualistic,
and ultimately untenable,
view of reality, dividing reality into

objective &
                        subjective,

with the latter very much the “weak sister”.

In the mid-20th Century,
……..attempts to establish a rigorous science of psychology
……..……..led to the absurdities of Behaviourism,
……..……..……..which denied the reality of feelings entirely.
Although that madness is in the past,
……..to this day some aspects of mainstream psychology
……..……..have an awkward gloss of abstraction & dehumanisation;
……..……..……..which, when you think about it,
……..……..……..……..is natural for an endeavour
……..……..…….……..………that aims to make humans
……..……..……..……..……..……..into objects of study.

“Yes, very interesting (I guess), but what does it have to do with me?”,
…….. I imagine you might say.
Well, more or less everything.

Most of our unhappiness & discontent
……..is based on our fixed dualistic view
……..……..of the world & ourselves.
We have learned to create
……..an apparent separation between
……..……..mind & body,
……..……..thought & feelings,
……..……..self & other,
……..……. my group & your group,
……..……..self & world,
……..……..ego & the Divine.

These disconnections cause a poorly regulated system,
……..which is not able to settle into comfort & ease,
……..……..nor to respond vigorously & effectively in a crisis.

In the early 20th Century
……..came the first intimations of
……..……..the limitations of the scientific approach;
……..quantum theory still challenges our assumptions
……..……..about the separability of the observer from the thing observed,
……..……..& the existence of objective space & time.

But of all the sciences,
……..neuroscience meets this challenge most directly.

Neuroscience simply cannot get away with
……..denying the reality of feelings & of consciousness;
……..& yet it is based in a method
……..……..which has denied these very things.

In its earlier phases,
……..neuroscience confined itself
……..……..to investigating behaviour:
……..……..the processes of stimulation & response,
……..……..……..in simple organisms
……..……..……..(oh, the poor mice!)

Later, it focused on
……..the more superficial aspects of mind:
…….. “cognition”, a poorly defined word
……..……..which referred mostly to conscious rational thought.

But here is an interesting recursion:
this rational, thinking mind is thinking about the rational, thinking mind.

The conceptual mind has to put things in neat categories—concepts—
……..& find simple, linear connections between them.
……..It can’t really handle a lot of complexity.
So,  if this is a limitation of the conceptual mind,
……..is it right to impose this simplistic categorisation
……..……..on the mind itself?

(Hint: the answer is NO!)

To really understand mind and brain,
……..we need to go beyond dualism
……..……..and find a new way of thinking
……..……..……..which includes both science and spirituality.

Read Part II to discover how the latest developments in neuroscience do this.

After the National Qigong Association conference

Just back from the National Qigong Association East Coast conference. Overall, an enjoyable and productive time! Mardi and I gave a presentation, early in the conference, based on the sequence of our published papers; you can see the Power Point here. We were delighted with all the positive feedback and interest, and look forward to continuing the conversation with others who are engaged in bodymind work.

Chris Bouguyon, current president of the NQA, presented about his work with first responders, particularly police. With a background in law enforcement, he has “street cred.” He is currently involved in a fairly large clinical trial of Qigong for first responders, which is wonderful! How long will it be, I wonder, until this is standard training?

Much qigong training is closely related to the “internal” martial arts—this means the martial arts which emphasize centering, grounding, interoception, intention, and the use of core breath power rather than the peripheral muscles. (Breath power is a specifically defined skill, which I will write more about later.) In qigong, and of course our Bodymind Training, one can learn these skills without the need for learning martial arts, cutting down immensely the time required and making these skills much more accessible. In the martial context, the centering etc. shows one how to remain calm, flexible and aware even under great pressure; this of course is exactly what first responders need. And really, these skills are so easy to learn with the right instruction!

For instance, just bringing the attention to your center of gravity (just below the navel, in the middle of the body) will immediately move you towards a calmer, more alert state, ideal for handling crises. (My “right instruction” comment covers how exactly to locate the center, when this practice is NOT a good idea, and the difference between paying attention TO, and paying attention FROM, this region of the body.) Contemplate the sketch to the left, and feel what happens in your body.

Now, back to the conference. Each day there were a variety of workshops offered, and the instructors lined up at the start of each day to describe their offering. I made my decision by looking at their postures. Francesco and Ambhika really stood out (pun intended). Ambhika in particular was grounded, radiantly open, and balanced around her centerline. It turned out they were presenting about the link between Qigong and Yoga, which intrigued me, so I opted for their workshop series. Although I was curious to hear a systematic framework for the overall topic, I found them both to be wonderful human beings, with an extraordinary depth of experience and a wise and balanced view of the world—in other words, they agreed with me 😉. But the relationship between yoga and qigong remains a very complex issue for me.

For me personally, the highlight of the conference was Mingtong Gu, a Chinese Qigong Master now living in New Mexico. I had heard of him before, and was deeply impressed with him in person. He radiated happiness and well-being, but not in an obnoxious or oblivious way; he is very aware of the need to embrace all experience, the painful and the pleasurable both. In the few personal interactions I had with him I felt that he was authentic and genuinely present. He was very generous with his time and his teaching, and is actively using the web to make his teaching more widely accessible. Dr. Gu shares our interest in developing videos to teach qigong and Bodymind Training—he told us, “Everything can be taught by video!” And we hope to prove him right!

I came away with feeling that Bodymind Science and Bodymind Training has a lot to offer that was not obviously present at the conference. People seemed hungry for sophisticated information about how to conduct scientific studies, as well as about the neuroscience of qigong and the use of sophisticated video techniques; we hope to have future opportunities to present about this. Current developments in neuroscience and neurophenomenology, as well as the neurobiology of trauma, in many ways provide a Western scientific vocabulary for translating, and in some cases expanding, the traditional teachings of qigong. The potential integration between traditional qigong and current biology-based, somatic therapies (notably Somatic Experiencing), is particularly interesting to me. Somatic Experiencing offers an extremely sophisticated and precise, neuroscience-based approach to even the deepest levels of the human psyche, and also resonates with qigong in the aspiration of its practitioners to high personal and moral development.

Stay Tuned!