Altered states create an astounding opportunity for growth, healing, and the integration of traumatic experiences. Any number of experiences can produce an altered mental state—psychoactive compounds, breathing techniques, meditation, or even the process of grieving. During such an experience, we are confronted with what we usually hide from ourselves and are forced to reckon with it. Our ability to repress our authentic feelings breaks down, our dominant narratives crack, and the raw truth comes out. In the psychedelic state, a “bad trip” is often the result of unearthing difficult subconscious material, trying to run from it, and discovering there is nowhere to run inside your own mind. In the modern psychedelic renaissance, however, there is a shift to considering such an experience a “challenging trip,” because bringing your awareness to the difficult material presents an opportunity for doing the work of integrating it and healing your psyche. Facing the darkness creates a possibility for growth and transformation.
Suppressed trauma and emotional pain finds one way or another of expressing itself. When your traumas arise, the wise thing to do is to face it and integrate it. Turn towards the darkness, feel your pain deeply, make space for your emotions and respond to them with love, and grieve the tragic situations that led to the trauma in the first place. Do this, and you can experience catharsis and healing, you can move into a new way of being that is healthier, more harmonious and more aligned with the truth. The other option is to become hijacked by fear—to be too afraid to look and, instead, to deny that the horror exists. Against what is best for us, our instinct can be to shove the pain and trauma back into the unconscious with stories of why it isn’t’ real, why it shouldn’t be there, or why it shouldn’t be expressed. Do that, and the trauma doesn’t go away. It stays trapped beneath the surface, leading to sickness and suffering.
Race-based extra-judicial killings by the police have long persisted in the United States in part because so many people and institutions have been willing to push these deaths into the darkness of the national unconscious. The same excuses are made, again and again, and twisted into a narrative of justification for the epidemic of race-based police violence: the victim brought it on themselves, accidents happen, the police were afraid and had no choice. This gaslighting continues until a shot-in-the-back turns into “self defense,” and two hands-up turns into “resisting arrest,” and so the rage, alienation, trauma, and pain of a nation is continually suppressed.
Then, last week, a video emerged of the slow, nine-minute murder of George Floyd, a Black man suffocating beneath the knee of one white police officer while three other police officers looked on, and the facts could not longer be pushed into the unconscious by a narrative of justification. As days passed and the State had yet to bring charges against the police, protest, and outrage over the persistence of racist violence and inequality erupted into one of the country’s largest ever nationwide outpourings of collective grief and pain.
The old mechanisms of repression failed completely, their falsehood laid bare for all to see. The strategy of denial rapidly evolved to focus on the looting by opportunists amidst the civil unrest in order to avoid acknowledging and engaging with the underlying conditions that led to the protests. An instinctive fear reaction may be powerful, but it is not helpful when it comes to growth and healing. Any instinctive need to delegitimize someone else’s genuine emotions in order to preserve one’s own comfort must be examined. This unconscious prioritizing of one’s own fear-based desires over the trauma of millions and the consequences of systemic racial inequality must be overcome in order for any collective healing to happen.
That part of America that suppresses and denies the existence of its own systemic anti-Blackness must look into the trauma, pain, and darkness of its own reflection. It must put down the usual mechanisms of repression and denial, stop making the same excuses, and stop prioritizing its own fear-based desire to return to a situation of normalcy that felt superficially safe for some, at the expense of Black lives. The truly dangerous “emotional” behavior in this moment is not the protests but the prevention of collective healing by denying the reality of Black Americans. Those who do not make space for and respond with love to those in pain, those who do not do the work that is necessary for transformation, are part of the pathology keeping society sick.
An altered state of consciousness is simply an interruption in the mind’s normal processes. America has been momentously interrupted. It has been challenged by the authentic expression of the emotions of a nation in the face of persistent systemic racism that can no longer be denied and suppressed. There is nowhere to run, but there is an opportunity to transform. To do so, we must bring out awareness to the trauma of racism in society, make space for and respond with love to expressions of grief and pain, and do the work necessary to transform ourselves and our society. We must not look away.