NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Iboga Healing and the Collective Unconscious

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It’s not like a psychedelic experience is easy to forget. You can blast into ineffable bliss, drop into the pit of Hell, have long talks with the lizard people, or just deeply recall that yes, all you really do need is love. And then you return to the vibrational backwater we call Consensus Reality. The memory fades, and those secrets of the universe that were so important are now at risk of being filed in your brain as just one more episode of “that crazy night on ayahuasca.” Does that the genie have to go that far back into the bottle?

And it is not just the spiritual information that sometimes falls foul of the return trip. The emotional healing of plant medicines and psychedelics can also wilt under the sensory barrage of regular life that Shakespeare called “the wreckful siege of battering days.” In a culture where you can still go to jail just for taking spiritual medicine it’s no surprise if the subsequent healing process gets lost, and your inner system reverts back to its pre-psychedelic setting.

Now meet Josie, who shows there is nothing inevitable about this. Josie took ibogaine, which besides making you trip a very long time, has the peculiar chemical aside of helping you get off drugs, especially opiates. In the post-ibogaine work Josie and I did together, she didn’t just elude that Great Forgetting, she reached back into her iboga experience and reignited its healing process.

As a kid, Josie had been on a personal mission to figure out what most pissed off the grownups, so she could then go do it. Her grandma said to her, “Ever since you learned to walk, you’ve been walking away,” and that was pretty much the truth of it. She started doing drugs at 13, and by the time she was 17 she was coming out of a long stay in one of the harshest reform schools in the country, with all the drug problem a rebel without a cause could ever want.

Roll forward through 18 more years of heroin, cocaine, chaos and bad choices, and she found herself at the Oka ibogaine treatment center in Costa Rico, puking her guts up, tripping madly for two days, and finally getting to be drug free. When Josie came back home she flipped her life script around, got into therapy, trained as a counselor herself, and didn’t think much about dope any more, at least not seriously.

But the spiritual side of ibogaine kept calling to her, and eight months later she went back to Oka, this time to help other drug users through their detoxes and to get a psycho-spiritual, or psychedelic therapy, treatment for herself. As she prepared for it, Josie set the intention to be open to whatever the medicine might want to show her, and for her healing to “go up to Level II”. What happened next fell into the “you may just get what you ask for” category.

As Josie slipped into the vision state in this second treatment, she started to see memories of early childhood sexual abuse that she had no conscious memory of. It was almost like a movie going on in front of her, except that she was both the suffering little girl in the pictures and she was her grown self watching. Josie had the strong impression that it was important to see this through to the end, but she had no idea how she was going to withstand the horror of doing that.

Then suddenly all around her, spirit beings in the form of owls appeared. These owls were of all different types – the Saw-Whet, the Burling, the Spotted Owl, the Barn Owl, and more. They grouped together and made a circle round the frame of her personal horror movie and let Josie know that they were there as her guardians. They checked in with her every once in a while as the movie went on, asking are you sure you are ready to go on with this? Do you need a break? And with their help she reached the end, knowing that all the toxic memories had at last been uncovered, and nothing more was left hanging over her.

When Josie surfaced back to regular consciousness a lot of her long-term personal stuff now made sense – why she was so repulsed by her uncle, why as a child she sometimes ran off in the night time to the local playground and camped out there for the night, and why her fuck you attitude to the world had been so enormous. But most of all, her crazy drug habit now made complete sense, as all through her life she had used the big fuzzy blanket of heroin to comfort the inconsolable little girl inside her.

Back home in the States though, Josie was not feeling the least bit cosmic and enlightened. In fact she was massively freaked out. She connected with a family member and found out that they also had been abused by this same uncle, so she knew her vision was not the product of a fevered brain. The emotions Josie had been medicating all her life were now out there full force, and a relapse to her go-to coping mechanism of heroin suddenly loomed as very real and very possible. On the other hand though, the medicine had opened the connection between her and the faraway little girl, so that something might now be done for that little one.

Enter Holistic Psychotherapy. Holistic Psychotherapy is a term people have started using for different amalgams of therapy that take into account the whole person – mind, body and spirit – and not just our talking apparatus. The kind of Holistic Psychotherapy I do uses several methods from inner-directed therapies like Internal Family Systems Therapy (which I used with Josie), shamanic techniques, meditation, and some techniques given by the plant medicines themselves. It works well with psychedelics because it goes to the same place they do, and it talks in the same figurative language.

So in our next Holistic Therapy session I invited Josie to go inside herself and notice what was going on in there. It’s not an elaborate technique. She closed her eyes, took some slow breaths, paid attention to her body sensations, and opened herself to whatever images wanted to come up. As she loosened from the normal state of “think-think-think,” she saw the little girl who had been abused. The girl was camped out under the slide in her local playground in the nighttime, pretty scared, but determined not to go back home. Josie went up to her in the darkened playground and in the home movie of her mind’s eye, started making friends with her young girl self.

As they chatted away, they noticed that all around the playground, instead of the usual houses, an eerie kind of fairy tale forest had appeared. They decided to explore the fairy woods, and as adult Josie and the girl went walking together through the trees, the little girl poured her heart out about how awful it had been for her to not be able to tell anyone about her abuse. Hardly more than a baby, it was way beyond her to rock the grown ups’ world so profoundly.

Then she said something that adult Josie hadn’t properly understood before – that keeping the secret to herself was equally impossible. Bearing its weight all on her own would have shattered her reality, so instead, through a supreme act of will, she had buried her secret so deep inside it went beyond speech, beyond thought even, and at last beyond memory itself. And there, like hidden poison, it rankled at her heart, never letting her trust or be fully at ease again.

But now that lonely little girl at last did have a person she could trust, someone who would hear out the horror of her secret and still love her. That someone of course was her own adult self, and when the girl reached the point where she had said every single thing that was on her heart and mind – then at last she could start the process of letting go of the pain that had been gnawing at Josie all her life.

In a clearing in the woods, among the fairy tale trees, Josie and her little girl began their internal ceremony of releasing. That was when the Owl Brigade reappeared, the same spirit creatures who had guided her through the initial revelation of abuse in her ibogaine experience. They formed a circle round Josie and her little girl, providing them with the safety that was needed. Then a second circle, composed of Josie’s ancient and recent ancestors, appeared around the owls, making it a double wall of protection.

To release something, it’s good to have a concrete image of what you are letting go of. So I asked Josie to invite the little girl to take a look over and around her body for anything that was not really part of her, anything that didn’t really belong there. As the little girl scanned her body, she focused on the feeling of keeping everything stuffed inside. That feeling was centered in her throat, where she found a walnut shaped thing that functioned like a cork in a bottle, plugging up all the bad memories and shame.

Now that the little girl had told her whole story to someone, she no longer felt defined by her abuse, and could let go of the plug that bottled in all her toxic feelings. While adult Josie held and comforted her, the little girl coughed and vomited till the walnut came up out of her mouth and landed on the ground. Then the little girl and adult Josie wrapped it with string, picked a spot together, and buried it, so the Earth could absorb that dense nut of congealed energy. After that they shook and danced away the fear, panic, anger and shame that the walnut had bottled inside them, till these bad feelings were all gone into the air.

On the imagination level there was now an empty space in the little girl’s throat where the toxic walnut had once been. If it was left that way, the walnut could return, if only out of emotional force of habit. So the little girl invited courage, honesty with herself, and self-confidence to fill that empty spot in her throat, letting her speak her truth and move through the world with new-found assurance. Once that was done Josie thanked the little girl, the Owl Brigade, and her ancestors for their help, and then came back to the room and our ordinary reality.

Was every bit of Josie’s healing work with the little girl finished in one session? Not at all, in fact a relationship was begun that day, not ended. But the destabilizing horror and confusion were gone, and the abuse was no longer an unexploded bomb, sitting around in the personal luggage of her life. The little girl was released from hiding, and became part of Josie’s whole person.

Psychedelics are one of the possible waystations in our spiritual/emotional journey, and with a good setting and a clear intention, they put our healing into a brief but incredibly productive overdrive. What Josie shows is that the medicine does not necessarily drop you down at a neat and comfortable end point, and the work we do after we take the medicine can be as powerful as the medicine itself. It was in the Fairy Wood of her own imagination that Josie completed her healing.

That place Josie went to has been called by many names. Indigenous people call it the spirit world, some call it the dream time. The psychologist Carl Jung called it the Collective Unconscious, and the poet William Blake named it the Holy Imagination. It’s a place we entered at will in childhood, that time when absurdly happy was a normal state of being, and ordinary adult-style consciousness registered as boring and painful. Our modern culture tolerates that kind of access to the Holy Imagination when you’re three or five years old and perfectly harmless, but after that it does everything it can to educate us out of such dangerously empowering spiritual connectedness.  

Even so, we still have far more capacity for accessing the Holy Imagination than we think. And it’s often very simple – all we need do is give ourselves a proper invitation to go inside. Josie’s work, and the work of many other people, shows that after the medicine, we can re-explore the experience and bring it to completion. We are more alive than we sometimes realize.

Henry David Thoreau said, “Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.” As we search out our own little girls and little boys in shadowed playgrounds, in shrouded rooms, lost somewhere in a garden, I wonder if we can unburden ourselves from ancient terrors, and begin to talk to each other in that astounding and real language Thoreau talks of. Can we conspire together to make a jailbreak from this cultural detention center of power, violence and consumerism? Can we stand up as our true selves? We have every resource we need to do that.

As Josie passed through the dusty gates of the Holy Imagination she joined a team of many other spiritual travelers that goes maybe all the way back to antler-clad shamans drawn in Paleolithic cave paintings. Josie’s owls had, in a way, been waiting for a long time. Let us call out to more helpers of the spirit and invite them over the border, so they can float silently from their world into ours. We welcome you. We ask that you help us feel the joy of being inside of mystery, where we are small and the forest is endless.

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