I like to think that before I took magic mushrooms, I was a good therapist: compassionate, committed, and continuously striving to improve my skills. But my experience on a July night in 2018 contributed more to how I conceptualize my work as a healer than any amount of education, reading, or workshops ever could.
I was a late comer to the psychedelic world. I was fifty-nine when I attended a legal psilocybin retreat in Jamaica, motivated to experience first-hand this medicine that had shown such promise in helping individuals with end-of-life anxiety, treatment-resistant depression, and addictions. As a therapist working with individuals with complex trauma, especially survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I’d become frustrated with the slow pace of healing afforded by conventional therapy and psychiatric medications. Was this really the only option for my clients?
After my first (3 gram) dose of psilocybin, I understood why many individuals say that one intentional session with psychedelics is like years of traditional therapy. Accompanied by my intrepid facilitator, Dan, I released deep grief over the deaths of beloved family members and healed long-festering childhood wounds. By the second psilocybin session, it was clear that I was tapping into the experiences of the other group members, a not uncommon phenomenon with psychedelics, which tend to erode our false sense of separateness from others, to dissolve, as Alan Watts expressed it, “our skin-encapsulated ego.”
Before my third dose of psilocybin, I offered up the intention that I might help other members of the group heal. The mushroom responded by catapulting me for four hours into the bodies and psyches of my new-found friends. In feeling their pain as my own, suddenly the notion of an empathetic presence took on new meaning.
PTSD and suicidal despair are no longer abstractions. In that mushroom trip, I felt myself transported into the body of the rape victim scrambling away from her assailant. I went numb like the little girl whose father creeps into her room each night. I writhed with the guilt and despair of the man who watched his best buddy walk into enemy fire. This was not heroic on my part. I asked the mushroom to help me heal others and this is the gift I received. Does this make me a better therapist, a more compassionate human? You bet.
The Importance of Silence
On my retreat, the immense therapeutic value of silence was communicated to me through an unexpected source-- lizards. In Jamaica, they were everywhere: Eyeing me from the branches of the ackee tree; basking on a near-by rock; observing me in the outdoor shower. They possessed a kind of preternatural stillness, a necessary patience. While on mushrooms, I was struck by the power of their silence, and intuited that the lizards were there as teachers. I asked a local craftsman, Errol, to carve a lizard for me. Back in New Jersey, I placed it on my office desk to remind me of the importance of silence and stillness in therapeutic work.
Too often in therapy sessions, I found myself eyeing the clock anxiously, focusing on tackling treatment plan goals and “getting the work done.” I had forgotten the power of silence-- how suppressed feelings can bubble up when given the space; how healing it can be for the client to weep or rage while the therapist simply allows the necessary emotions to flow, without need to explain or make it better. A comfortable silence can provide what psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott referred to as a “holding environment,” in which the client feels safe and is given time to reflect. This pause also allows me to better tap into my own healing wisdom and intuition. My wooden lizard reminds me to pause, to observe, to let the client’s process unfold in that rare oasis of silence.
Faith that All is Unfolding as It Should
One of the challenges for many therapists is compassion fatigue, also known as secondary stress reaction. Listening to heartbreaking stories of trauma all day can take a mental, physical, and spiritual toll. Although I was rigorous in my self-care routine, too often my heart was heavy in trying to comprehend why some individuals carry such heavy loads. How do we remain buoyant when the scope of human suffering threatens to capsize us?
One of the greatest lessons I have learned through the mushroom is that the world is unfolding precisely as it should be. There is an undeniable wisdom, intelligence, and cohesiveness in the web of existence, in which we all play a part. And in each moment, we have a choice-- will we contribute to the healing of the world, or will we create suffering?
There is peace in this for me. I don’t have to beat my fists against the heavens, demanding How? and Why? Trungpa Rinpoche wrote, “There is no cure for hot or cold.” Things simply are. The mushroom has allowed me to accept that an innate wisdom is in charge. That allows me to better maintain equanimity, roll up my sleeves, and with as much grace and good humor as I can muster, get on with the work.
Healing My Own Wounds
It is essential that therapists tend to their own healing. The experience of having been in therapy allows us to empathize with our clients’ struggles and to understand how challenging it can be to lay oneself bare to a stranger. Therapy helps us to heal childhood wounds, examine our blind spots, and learn how to accept feedback. I have been diligent over decades in “tending to my garden,” but the healing I have received through the mushroom has exceeded my wildest expectations.
With each successive psilocybin journey, I have learned to relax into the experience, no matter how painful or confusing. I trust that the mushroom has a higher wisdom, and all is unfolding as it should. As we say in therapy, you must feel it to heal it.
It is the healing and insight I have gained from magic mushrooms that has empowered me to work more skillfully as a therapist. It is a great privilege and responsibility to work in this field. I am often humbled by the trust my clients place in me, and I am honored to create space for their pain and their triumphs.