My first psychedelic experience was with mescaline. I loved it – a gentle opening into a rich reality I’d never known. A few weeks later, I took LSD – not so gentle but a more profound opening. Then back to mescaline for a few more trips. This was 50 years ago when I was 17 and before marriage, family and career took over. Forty years later while living in Peru, a Shaman introduced me to Ayahuasca – not gentle but intense openings for sure. Over the last 10 years, I have had a number of truly rich and healing psilocybin experiences – my new personal favorite.
I have come to see these psychedelic experiences as transformative shifts of perspective – higher mountain tops with broader vistas. And although separated by many years, it seems one experience built upon the other to establish a higher vantage point from which to view reality and my place in it. There has also been a great deal of healing on several fronts for which I give psychedelics some credit.
Yet, I wonder how my life may have been different if I had had a “map” of how psychedelic experiences bring about such profound openings. What if this map showed me how to stabilize this broader perspective in my everyday life? What if I had understood then what psychotherapists now know about how psychedelics can provide a unique opportunity for changing our conditioned beliefs thereby facilitating our psychological and emotional healing. What if this map showed me how to use psychedelic experiences to begin to “re-parent” myself? “If I only knew then what I know now….”
I’d like to share part of the map of a psychedelic journey that I’ve been sketching out over the past few years drawing from both personal experience and from my work as a psychotherapist and life coach. I’ll focus on three key points on this map: attachment issues, brain lateralization and meditation practice. We’ll see how connecting these points can reveal a promising path for healing our earliest and deepest wounds.
Attachment issues develop during the first 18 to 24 months of life and arise primarily from problematic parenting. We are instinctually driven from a few days of life to establish connections with others in order to ensure our survival. We seek safety, attunement (subtle connection), being received with joy, help with affect regulation (understanding and expressing emotions) and knowing that someone has our back.
On a preverbal level, we know what we need and know if we are getting it or not. As our very survival is at stake, when we don’t receive enough of these basic supports from our parents as an infant and toddler, we can become desperate and do whatever we need to do to adapt ourselves to these shortfalls and become “who we need to be” to get enough acceptance and support to survive.
Attachment issues impact social interactions with family, peers, authority figures and others, and they shape our self-concept and distort our perspective and expectations of ourselves and others. As young children, we move out into the world with this “conditioned self,” interacting with others in the ways we learned that we must in order to feel safe, attuned….
The underlying beliefs and this pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving stays with us through adolescence and, if not addressed, into and through adulthood. More than our “true self” (who we are in the absence of conditioning), this conditioned self chooses our friends, intimate partners and career while shaping our sense of meaning and purpose in life. This restrictive pattern is housed primarily in our left brain. Let’s see how this is related to the healing potential of psychedelic experiences.
Two Very Different Sides of the Brain
The brain processes and manages information coming in from our experiences differently in the left and right hemispheres. In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist explains that the left brain identifies the objects we see, hear, taste, touch, smell and imagine and forms them into a collection of somewhat isolated “facts.”
We also have a natural tendency to seek information to confirm what we believe based on this collection of facts. From this, our perspective can become more and more narrow over time – “I know what I know and am not interested in learning anything different.” Tragically, this process can lead to a stronger identification with our conditioned self. We can then become increasingly controlled and limited by this process, allowing our true self to fade away. Not a good thing!
In contrast with the left brain’s focus on details and learning more and more about less and less, the right brain provides us with a broad perspective of our experiences. It provides a more complete understanding of the facts held primarily in the left brain, recognizes patterns and relates past, present and future. From this position we can begin to re-parent ourselves, to discover what’s been missing from our early development and to find it now within our true self – where it’s been waiting all along.
The Role of Psychedelics in Shifting to the Right Side of the Brain
Here’s where psychedelics come in. A sufficient dose of a traditional psychedelic is often followed by a mystical experience. This can include a dissolution of the ego (primarily left brain) where all the conditioning from infancy until now falls away and is no longer experienced as being “me.” When primed as to what to look for and how to work with what is discovered (from the right brain perspective the psychedelic experience allows), we can objectify our conditioning and have insights into how we came to be who we think and feel we are. We can take the conditioning process less personally and forgive ourselves and others. An appreciation for the gifts and challenges of our life, even our dear ol’ Mom and Dad, naturally arises.
Also, at this higher state of consciousness, a profound, clear sense of who we really are presents itself – which from the perspective of the contemplative level of practice in the major world religions is some version of “One with all that is,” the eternal “I Am,” an aspect of non-dual reality. It’s an experience of being whole and complete, connected in a deep and lasting way to everyone and everything – no boundaries, no fear. We know on a deep level that all of our needs are being met. So naturally, our attachment issues can fall away, at least for the moment. The experience is so very real and different from the restricted sense of self that it can shift our self-identity in a lasting way – we are safer, clearer and freer than our conditioned inner child ever imagined.
An example of re-parenting would be intentionally shifting to this broader perspective when we notice a triggering of our attachment issues. We can then replace the old conditioned, mindless reaction (e.g., shame, fear) with a healthy mindful response (e.g., self-soothing). We are beginning to establish new, healthy conditioning. Of course, we need to stabilize at this broader perspective in order to be our own ideal parents as we follow all the “layers of the developmental onion” down to the core. Now, let’s consider the role of a disciplined meditation practice in this healing process.
Stabilization of this Higher, Potentially Healing Perspective
Meditation can be a key factor in the stabilization of the healthy, potentially healing perspective that arises during a psychedelic experience. I have found personally and professionally that when a disciplined meditation practice is combined with skillfully chosen and well-integrated psychedelic experiences, the potential for on-going healing of attachment and other psychological and emotional issues (including developmental and other trauma) can be significantly enhanced.
Mindfulness meditation conditions us to be fully present in the current moment without adding the usual overlays and distortions of decision, judgment or commentary onto what’s arising into our awareness. Through regular practice, we train the mind to settle and focus, strengthen our discipline and become more comfortable with our discomfort. We can move from conditioned reactivity to skillful, intentional response in meeting the challenges of our lives and with the process of deep healing.
Mindfulness training and the resulting changes can be a key element in the re-parenting process. Awareness that these mature, healthy beliefs and behaviors are coming online, our inner child can begin to feel safe, connected and supported, leading to an inner sense that an ideal parent is taking charge. A very good thing!
Moving from mindfulness to more comprehensive forms of meditation practice (e.g., Integral Zen) can guide us into a broad perspective that is similar to what’s discovered during a carefully conducted psychedelic experience. As we continue to grow in our meditation practice, we can begin to stabilize at this broader, clearer perspective from which our re-parenting can be more effective.
An ever-evolving version of this map can be found on my website including more information on the components mentioned above including guidance in establishing a daily meditation practice. I hope this material will help you have a truly safe and productive conscious-expanding experiences.
Brown, D. & Elliott, D. (2016). Attachment Issues in Adults: Treatment for Comprehensive Repair. W. W. Norton & Company.
Gunarantana, B. (1996). Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications (revised and expanded edition).
McGilchrist, I. (2019). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press, expanded edition.