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How Yoga, Cannabis & The Art of Psychonauting Saved My life

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Like many fellow Americans, I had the cursed blessing of a PTSD-inducing childhood. My dad had been one of the casualties of the Reagan Recession, taking meager jobs far away from our home in the Colorado foothills. With a hair-trigger temper, my mother didn’t have the temperament to raise three children on her own. For years, she would explode into unexpected rages, crashing the vacuum against upstairs furniture, screaming how “worthless” my siblings and I were, and that kind of thing. Over time, the emotional wreckage manifested in a nervous “black bowling ball” of abdominal pain. I suffered from daily panics attacks, chronic depression, suicidal thoughts and physical terror upon hearing footsteps at the front door. Like 60% of adult Americans (according to the latest CDC report), I sought salvation in prescription antidepressants. The symptoms never waned, but these drugs added a mental cloudiness and body numbness that isolated me even more. Fortunately, unlike so many others, my story doesn’t end here. Something else was happening along the way. Estranged from my family, I found a wild, creative expression from the high-adrenaline escapades I initiated with my childhood friends. Night sledding in the Colorado foothills, BMX quarter pipes and daredevil skiing provided more comfort, support, and confidence than church, school or family ever did. Even with the panic in my gut, my thirst for adventure whisked me off to live in Europe and finally New York City, where I studied numerous healing modalities. I clocked in over 100 ayahuasca ceremonies and eventually completed a two-year bioenergetic medicine program to help relieve my PTSD, but after years of nunchucking my inner shadow and demons, I was still suffering from debilitating anxiety, totally incapable of holding a professional wellness practice. All that changed when I joined a friend in smoking cannabis before a vinyasa class. I enjoyed yoga, but never liked the drills: move here, breathe this way, upward this, downward that – yes, sergeant! I also never really got cannabis: hit bong, lose keys, listen to Fleetwood Mac, pine over old girlfriends. But the combo in class was pure joy and evolutionary enhancement. When I stretched into an extra-wobbly warrior-one pose, a cleansing bluish current of light rushed through my spinal column. Tronish green colors opened my chest during back-bends, and orange neon waves tickled my hips in the deep openers. Most holistic modalities discuss the human energy field, but here I was seeing quantum-like waves in my mind’s eye, like some cool-as-shift sci-fi movie. Fusing cannabis, yoga, and energy healing over the next few months, I illuminated chunks of the the black bowling ball until it was down to a manageable, but still annoying, shot-put. Finally, I could move to San Francisco and start my bioenergetic practice. My next breakthrough came while watching surfers carve up the dangerous, barreling waters of Ocean Beach, CA. These extreme daredevils were riding monstrous waves of physical energy, not because they had to, but for the fun and thrill of it. In that moment, I understand that you just can’t ride big waves with a woe-is-me attitude. What if instead of battling my darkness and processing every bit of trauma, I could find the courage, skill, and audacity to surf my roaring emotional currents, not because I had to, but for sheer pleasure. That was the moment I became a “psychonaut.” A popular term in transformational subcultures, psychonauts are explorers of consciousness, studying and navigating the diverse waves of the quantum multi-verse (which modern science is proudly uncovering). These trailblazers utilize mind/body altering tools, such as meditation, yoga, entheogens, and biofeedback machines to accelerate and deepen their journeys. But what being a psychonaut really meant to me was a total attitude adjustment. I had grown up learning disempowering moods from my mother – “life’s hard,” “things suck,” “it will always be this way.” Now, I resurrected that excited 10-year-old who soared high above BMX quarter pipes. Using my cannabis-dosed practice, I embarked on what I called “Zen & the Art of Psychonauting.” Unlike therapy, fun and adventure were priority, just like in surfing. With a burgeoning Tony Hawk-like style and bravado, I’d carve out big moves, sticking the poses, surfing my shadow for a delish adrenaline payoff. Several months in, the results astounded me. The black bowling ball — the nightmare of my 38 years — had eroded and dissolved into tiny, dispersed pebbles; the panic subsided, my mind cleared, and my body felt like one of those Hawaiian power-yogis on Gaiam TV. I encountered a wonderful new feeling – extended happiness. I soon fell in love and kickstarted dream projects with my dream girl. As my capacity grew, so did my ability to love and laugh at most situations. I began having compassion for my mom, and the pressure she must have felt raising three kids mostly on her own. Would I have even learned all that healing and Psychonauting without our troubled relationship? So I reached out to build a friendship, phone call by phone call. Smart, savvy, big-hearted, and hilariously unstoppable, she was really cool, and I soon understood that I had misinterpreted her as a kid. She wasn’t “mean,” nor did she think I was worthless. She was just someone who had struggled with her own intense emotional waves, much like I once did. We eventually became real friends and allies, especially when nerding out on one of our favorite shared interests, American History and the Civil War, which my mother had taught to middle schoolers for two decades. Once, I asked her what she had learned from studying this dark period: “That most humans are generally honorable and good underneath,” she said. I nearly cried hearing that from her. Today, as I continue to expand as a person and professional psychonaut, I discover more and more that my mom is right: most humans are not just honorable, but incredible beings, if you’re wise enough to listen and pay attention. Thanks to “The Art of Psychonauting,” I’m learning to let go of my civil wars and salsa-dance with my inner and outer “demons” until that which terrified me becomes a trusted friend.   Photo credit: Claudia Wheeler-Rappe   —- Jonathan Talat Phillips is author of “The Electric Jesus: The Healing of a Contemporary Gnostic. He is co-founder of PSYCHONAUT PRODUCTIONS and facilitates healing sessions and ceremonies in his SF, and via Skype. www.TalatHealing.com. An earlier version of this article appears on elephant journal.

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