Diving into the unconscious

My first experience in psychedelic therapy was at a ‘discrete’ event, a simple ritual based on the Ayahuasca circles from the Amazon that centred on drinking a potion made from hallucinogenic plants. Researching psychadelic therapy had been very exciting, but when I turned up for my first taste of it I felt quite nervous. There was an element of risk here, after all. I was at an underground ‘Medicine Circle’ and I had no real idea of what was about to happen. It’s one thing to climb up to the diving board; it’s quite another thing to jump off.

All I knew for sure was that tonight I would be ingesting a hallucinogenic drink as part of a shamanic ritual.

The popular term for this psychedelic cocktail, said with varying levels of reverence, was ‘The Medicine’. One reason it was called ‘The Medicine’ was to emphasise that this wasn’t a predictable ‘drug’, such as alcohol, that has recognised effects on the human nervous system.

With psychedelic brews it was impossible to know what the drinker would experience; the reaction depended so much upon the state, conscious and unconscious, of whoever drank it.

Psychedelic therapy, it has been said, ‘manifests the mind’. This ceremony I was attending was specifically designed to give my unconscious a chance to come out and show itself to me. What might be in my unconscious? Oh, just all the things we modern people train ourselves to avoid being aware of in daily life: uncomfortable memories, unpleasant insights and lots and lots of unacknowledged trauma.

Consider that for a moment. Think about some of your uncomfortable facts and issues that you avoid as best you can. Now imagine getting very intoxicated and seeing all that in excruciating detail for a few hours.
That’s why no one need worry about psychedelic therapies becoming the next recreational drug craze. It does exactly the opposite of what most people want from drugs; instead of distracting you from your problems it shows them to you in vivid detail.

Those first psychedelic circles were the beginning of deep emotional mindfulness for me.

Inside I found a huge amount of self-loathing and vast amounts of incoherent rage. Some of my deepest emotions were locked in a weird civil war, stuck in the leftover patterns of my childhood. I carried the sting of ridicule from my early years inside me as a kind of self-hatred, a contempt for my own helplessness and need for rescue. One reason I so struggled with emotional expression because I had an inner voice constantly telling me that anything I felt was ‘stupid’ and mocking me for having feelings.

Now I was connecting with some deep parts of myself after years of unconscious self-loathing and estrangement. The reunion was fiery and angry and crazy, and there was no better place for it than in a Medicine Circle. It was the perfect place to go straight to the intense emotions I was afraid of, and simply bypass all the distracting stories that had built up over the years. All those old stories were my earlier attempts to live with my trauma when I was a kid. Here in the Medicine Circle I could deal with that pain in a much more direct way.

When The Medicine shut down my ego for a while then my awareness was free to rediscover the memories and insights that I habitually avoided.

This was the opposite of how I usually tried to manage my emotions which was by overthinking or telling jokes. Instead I found myself thrown right back into all those emotions I had suppressed decades ago. And I didn’t have to understand details like who did what or how or why; this was about simply becoming aware of feeling, aware of raw, powerful emotion. There was no hiding place for my ego here, it was all about breathing, purging and holding on while the emotional mushroom cloud went up.

Later would be the time for understanding, right now in the psychedelic moment it was about surrendering and breathing and trusting the body to integrate.

I was able to accept all that distress that came up because I could be aware of it. Out of that acceptance came a chance for my body to rebalance, for my nervous system to reprogram itself. I hallucinated profound transformations and this started to overwrite my old childhood conditioning. Slowly, my emotional system was upgraded, and my mangled old neural pathways were cleaned out and upgraded.

Circles became date-nights for me and my unconscious. Early on we fought and raged with each other until we collapsed with exhaustion and healed in sleep.

Over time, however, healthier emotional habits started appearing, first in circle and then they started to appear in my daily life.

When I felt emotional at home now it was easier to sit with the emotion, simply because I had done that so many times in circle. I had worn a groove in my nervous system that was now a fledgling habit of emotional expression. I had hopes that one day it would become a defining part of my character. I felt like I was finally forgiving myself for my past.

In the madness of the psychedelic ceremony it was possible for me to heal the damage left by years of self-loathing and death-worship by dancing with my imagination. Sometimes the dance was cosy and intimate. Sometimes I felt like a baby being carried around as a whole world rushed towards me, but still feeling safe and held. Sometimes that dance was harsh and confrontational, and that made for a night of hard work. It always ended, however, with that feeling of being connected to everything. It felt like a reset; a reminder of what it feels like to be properly relaxed and awake and human.

Slowly I learned that I could feel strong emotion and not be destroyed. I didn’t have to blank out in terror whenever I was triggered. I could stay aware – even when I was in distress – and survive, despite my fear telling me otherwise.

This was about me and my nervous system learning how to find and face unacknowledged trauma; and every single time that happened I grew from the experience, and those fledgling good habits became stronger and stronger.

Don’t fear being upset, I learned. Fighting the experience only created more distress and made me feel my life was in danger; that was the trap to avoid, not the triggers from my past. Surrendering to the physical sensation, on the other hand, gave me the space to witness what was happening and learn from it; to become different to my past and start behaving like a different person.

I learned not to struggle. In the absence of struggle there is peace; but I have to relax for that to happen, and that means I have to trust myself. To do that I have to know myself. If knowledge is power then self-knowledge is self-empowerment.

I found that, time after time, it always came back to Mindfulness. Whatever my state is, if I’m aware then that gives me the opportunity to accept; and that gives me some influence in what happens next.

When I left the circles and went back to ‘the real world’ it almost felt like I was going undercover. I had seen god a few days ago and now here I was trying to remember my shopping list. My journal entries became longer and started to have more doodles in them. I started painting again. Creative expression is a natural anti-depressant, good self care and greatly helps with integration. Painting, journalling, cooking and doodling and singing and dancing and creative writing became my psychological post-circle care and rehabilitation program. They felt like the best response to what I’d been through.

Without fully realising what I was doing I began creating a new me.

Part of that becoming a new me meant looking at the old me honestly and bravely, and that meant facing the truth about my relationship with my family, which is in the next and final extract.

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3 thoughts on “Diving into the unconscious

  1. cheryl laizans

    wow, many many people will be identifying with your story Brendan, your book will help many people to find their way out of mental and emotional problems.

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