We humans need other humans—to call us on our stuff, to name our shadow. To see ourselves as we cannot. To initiate us into new paths and practices. And to support us through the rough ride that ayahuasca can bring, the retriggered trauma and angst-y feelings that can arise.
Let’s take shadow work first. By shadow I mean all the forgotten, repressed, unseen and un-integrated psychic material we’ve left behind in the process of growing up. Very often we need a mentor for shadow work, if not an inspirateur or provocatrice, someone to say, Hey, let’s look at this. Let’s go beneath that instinctive reaction to avoid, and shine a light right onto this dark material. Let’s go into this together, and see what we find.
Exploring the Shadow
Let’s explore this buried material in your psyche, with the compassionate understanding that it’s buried for a reason. It’s unconscious for a reason. Somewhere along the line, this part of you caused you pain, so you stuffed it down, reflexively and unconsciously.
Maybe you weren’t big enough or resourced enough to handle it at the time, so your child-mind cleverly shoved it away. Maybe what arose was unacceptable to family, teachers, friends, society, so you rejected it, just as they did. One way or another, you learned that feeling these feelings, being this way, was not okay.
The shadow is unconscious—literally so. The shadow is simply all that is not known about yourself. And to know that which you do not know, to see that which you do not see, is a true paradox, one that can be resolved only partially, with time and thoughtful inner work. Maybe with a little help from plant medicine, and the support of a good guide.
“Wired for Love”
I believe there’s often great value in working with a fellow human in healing situations. We’re not meant to DIY completely, although modern society may insist we’re supposed to, especially if we’re male. I can think of many times in my life where I possessed the therapeutic skills for the work I needed to do, but it was working with another being that truly opened up the box, generating resonances I couldn’t have received working alone.
Example: I’ve practiced EMDR regularly with my therapy clients, with excellent results. Although the EMDR sessions I personally received in my training were mind-blowing, when I tried it by myself, using bilateral pulsars, nothing much came up.
But when I asked a friend to help me structure an EMDR session by simply tapping on the backs of my hands, the impact of the process was magnified enormously. Even though she wasn’t an EMDR therapist, simply having the sounding board of another being to speak aloud to helped me shift into the healing state.
We humans are intrinsically social animals. Our nervous systems are designed for attachment from the very beginning. Infants can’t survive without contact; chronically neglected children are deeply damaged. We grow through intimate relationship with others, a fact that is becoming increasingly understood in trauma healing work.
Biologically we’re “Wired for Love,” as Stan Tatkin puts it in his excellent book on attachment styles. To ignore this basic fact is either foolishness or false pride based on an illusory independence. We are embodied beings, biologically engineered to be in connection with other embodied beings. Healing often flows more easily when we are connected to others.
A Fearsome Thing
Having a hard time believing this? Look at the traditional indigenous context that ayahuasca is used in—tribal, community, together. Nobody is drinking alone in their living room.
I love Kenneth Kensinger’s account of ayahuasca use among the Amazonian Kaxinawa. He describes the men gathering together to drink at night. When the state of nixi pae, “vine drunkeness,” begins, they frequently arrange themselves along a fallen log, “each one wrapping his arms and legs around the man ahead of him.”
Virtually everyone lines up in this way, clinging to his neighbor. Only the strongest don’t keep physical contact with at least one other person. Ayahuasca is never taken alone. “It is a fearsome thing, I was very much afraid,” Kensinger reports as a frequent comment.
We’re a touch-phobic society, so huddling together in a pile during ceremony doesn’t come naturally to us, and indeed might generate complications. Similarly, seeking post-ceremony support often feels awkward and unnecessary to people intending to nobly DIY.
We can and do, of course, soldier through integration without support. But the light touch of grace frequently arises most readily in connection with another human being. This is what we can be to each other. And this is one of the things integration support can offer, after a ceremony or retreat.
People returning from an ayahuasca retreat often say that lack of support is one of the biggest issues they deal with in the aftermath. As one client noted recently, “I felt really alone and lost after the retreat, with nobody to talk to.”
To go through such profound experiences and be unable to share them feels fundamentally wrong—yet it’s common. The folks back home may fear ayahuasca, misunderstand it as a drug, or simply not comprehend the depth of the experiences that can be unleashed.
To have an understanding ear, someone who relates to your experience and can help guide you through your integration process, is one of the deepest and most common post-ceremony needs I encounter.
How Human Contact Heals Trauma
In a recent iboga retreat, I got another lesson in how essential human support is in working with trauma. I’m used to enduring, gritting through tough situations without asking for help. It’s a deeply ingrained and ancient karmic imprint, to survive on my own, whatever it takes.
This time, as iboga pounded me relentlessly several nights in a row, I emerged feeling battered and psychically bruised. What came up was old trauma that triggered not just terror, but absolute horror. I felt dissociated, fragmented, and strangely numb. In the aftermath, I desperately needed to see smiling faces, feel human touch, hear reassuring voices. I needed to draw on the strength and support of others who’ve seen the worst, and come through.
It was a tremendous relief for me to have two experienced facilitators to talk with, to draw on the wisdom of their years of work. They gave me navigational advice and told me the simple things I often tell my own clients: It will pass. Good work doesn’t always feel good. Give it time. Be gentle with yourself. Things I know very well, in my head—but to let myself not know, for once, and simply receive this at a feeling level as a gift from other humans, was enormously healing.
Through this experience I realized again how soothing gaze, words and touch can be. The support they gave allowed me to move relatively rapidly into a level of integration I wasn’t expecting to encounter so soon. It felt downright nutritious to my soul.
Human contact is an essential element of trauma healing. It has a special power in dealing with the fragmenting energies of shock and horror. Human gaze, human touch, human words can reestablish the rhythms of the nervous system and the ongoing flow between mind and body, releasing the blockages created by traumatic experience.
We humans are wired for love, and we heal through personal connection. Through my own experience, I’ve come to understand this even more intimately. As we lonely and isolated modern people enter more deeply the path of visionary plant medicine, it’s essential to acknowledge our biological heritage as embodied humans designed to be connected, made to give good things to—and receive good things from—one another.