March 10th, 2021
By ~ Joy Jech
Artist of Beach Painting Unknown
There is a meeting of souls that happens sometimes, an unspoken sisterhood that dances with recognition. My sister-in-law and I have a special saying about who we are to each other; "sisters beyond blood." For us, our ethereal sisterhood has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with the heart and the spirit. Of course, if you're an atheist like our family friend Idun, you might see this phenomenon differently. She might call this "a meeting of like-minded people in this one tangible life."
My biological sister and I go way back. Since our mother was a baby, we were there together, nestled in the hammock of her ovaries. To be fair, our brother was there too, but this is a story about sisters. Unlike boys who produce sperm throughout their lifespan, baby girls are born with all of the eggs they will ever have. Over the course of a female's lifetime, these little bundles of DNA will drop one by one into her womb with the fullness of each passing moon and the invitation to bring forth new life.
Our grandmother, Anita, was born in Eden, Idaho, on November 24th, 1917. Depending on how you define the self, in a purely biological way, if nothing else, half of my mother was born that day, right along with our grandmother. Practically microscopic, my mother waited there silently, patiently for twenty-three years. Until, with the Zen-like precision of the Tao, she chose the perfect moment to let go. She was rewarded for her superb timing and made whole in a sweaty matrimonial moment of rapture. Her gooey, complete, and perfect self was finally born on December 5th, 1940.
Science tells us that by this day, my sister and brother and I were all cuddled up together inside of her ovaries. Well, half of who we would one day be, anyway. Following in her footsteps, we quietly prepared for our entrance into this world. Waiting, we were there the day our mom learned to walk, the day she got bit in the butt by a horse, and the day she almost drowned in the irrigation ditch but was rescued by their ranch dog, Pepper. We were there with her as she walked for miles to school every day in the deep snow of Pendroy, Montana, where she was sometimes teased and called "Carrot Top." We were there for her heartbreaks, her triumphs and fears, and even on the lonely nights. We were there.
My sister Jenna was eight years in front of me in line for life. I imagine this must mean that even when we were huddled together in our mother's ovaries, she was already ever untouchable.
When I was little, whenever Jenna would allow me to be in her presence, I was momentarily relieved of my lonely childhood. Since most of that time she was a teenager, it was not as often as I had wished. In those precious moments, I tugged on her coattails and looked up to her decisive face, scanning for clues as to who I might one day become.
My relationship with Jenna shifted in my teenage years as we started to spend more time together. One hot summer night, I brought some LSD with me when I visited her in Seattle. In general, Jenna was pretty straight-laced, but I had a way of rebel-rousing her to explore the inner worlds that psychedelics offer. We sat on the old carpeted floor of her apartment, coloring and talking about our family dynamics. The window was open, and the breeze brought intermittent wafting of cigarette smoke from the passers-by. Jenna's smile seemed to take up her whole face when she brought up the time I took the Green Tortoise hippy bus from Seattle to Santa Cruz to visit her there at college when I was just thirteen. "Remember how we cruised all over the streets of that city? Me on my bike and you in rollerblades. I pulled you along as you hung on to the back of my seat for dear life!"
"Yea, that was so fun!" I was fond of that memory, too, since it was the first time in my life she had let me into her world. Then my enthusiasm dropped to a more serious tone. "Do you remember how on one of those excursions you asked me if I would be sadder if you died or if mom died?"
"Of course I remember; you answered mom." Jenna wrinkled her forehead and shone her electric eyes at me in a put-on pout.
"Yea. And then when I asked the question back to you, you said you would be sadder if I died because we are sisters. You said, 'We have our whole lives together. Mom is going to die one day, but we will still have each other.' I've been thinking about that lately, and I get what you mean now."
She grinned up at me and winked. "Good! I knew you just needed a few more years to come around. Now, pass me the red, will you?"
At some point, we decided to venture through the University District's streets to find the grocery store. Our eyes were playing tricks on us in the dark. Thinking we saw gang activity, we ran and hid behind a car only to look again and realize it was merely regular people out walking just like us. We fell to the ground behind the car in hysterics before we were able to collect ourselves enough to make it to Albertsons.
On another visit to Seattle, while waiting for my sister in her fifth-floor apartment on Capitol Hill, I decided to stroll down the hall and knock on her friend Idun's door to kill some time. The two of them had just returned that summer from two years of college in Marburg, Germany, where they met. They had hit it off so swimmingly that Idun decided to come back to Seattle with Jenna, where they could move into the same apartment building and explore the city together. To a young untraveled high school student like myself, Idun and Jenna were cultured and intriguing. Jenna was studying foreign language and was on a mission to travel the world and become a Spanish teacher. Idun was a librarian, a historian, and becoming a German translator. They were both fluent in three languages.
Tap, tap, tap, "Hello?" I called out over the loud music. The door swung open, and there Idun stood in a messy old classic apartment full of books. The mix of musty with new paper smell alone transported me back to my last trip to the library. There were books everywhere--on the bookshelves, on the coffee table, and the kitchen table. One wall was made up of bricks entirely and met a well-worn wood floor also scattered with books. As she scurried, tripping over her novels to get to the stereo and turn it down, I called out, "Cool tunes! What band is this?!" When she spun around to reply,
"The Ramones!" I could not miss the way her chestnut brown hair danced about her, draping clear to her knees.
My eyes grew wide with amazement. "Oh my God! Your hair is so long!" She shrugged and started spinning the substantial mane into a twist that would land almost to the top of her head. Even though Idun had a gregarious and enchanting cadence about her, she also had just enough humble nerd vibe going on to put anyone at ease. And her smile did not hide from her face often, exposing her zest for life. Everything interested her. To my pleasant surprise, this included me.
Sauntering toward the kitchen, she looked back at me, "You want a beer"? The sparkle in her eye said it all. This was a meeting of two rebellious young women. Okay, so one of us wasn't quite a woman yet, but Idun had a way of making me feel like we were standing on even ground. I tried to sound cool, "Sure." She handed me a Heineken and raised her's high in the air, "Prost!" I lifted my bottle, and that was the start of our sisterhood.
From that point forward, she came with Jenna to the family farm for almost every gathering we had. Each year that passed, she became further etched into our family tree. Since she wasn't blood, nor was she married in, she couldn't be one of the leaves. So we carved her name into the trunk.
After the family festivities at Christmas time, you might have found Jenna, Idun, and I "prosting" in the hot tub at the farm on Dry Slough road under a dark and star-splattered sky. Together they told me stories about Germany and their travels across Europe. Jenna described the cultural differences. "It's more crowded there, and people don't care if they get too close to you the way they do in the states. At the grocery store, someone might bump into you, and they won't even bother to say 'excuse me.'"
Idun clarified, "Yea, it's not considered rude. It's just a completely different relationship to personal space. You get used to it." She went on, "They also go naked or topless a the beaches there. Bodies are not over sexualized in the same way they are here."
Although Jenna and Idun had inspired me to travel the world, my fate turned in a different direction when at age twenty, I gave birth to a fiery redheaded baby boy. I named him Mountain and raised him on my own while going to midwifery school in Portland, Oregon.
At some point, Jenna met her goal of becoming a high school teacher, was married, and bought a house in the outskirts of Seattle. When she had a son, we welcomed another redheaded baby into the family, Julian. Idun moved into a small bedroom in the upstairs of Jenna's house and was like the Aunt everyone wishes they had to Julian. The two of them became very close. This room was much smaller than her old apartment, so there was less space for the books. Now her books might as well have been very thick wallpaper because you couldn't see past them to the walls. When I traveled from Portland to Seattle to visit my sister, I often ended up hanging out up there with Idun drinking Corona after my sister had gone to bed.
Inevitably, Idun would end up giving me some sort of history lesson until we could hear the birds chirping outside her window. On one of these nights, we scoured through an old box of family photos and letters from the late eighteen hundreds. Idun told me all kinds of things she could decipher about our family history by looking at the pictures and reading the letters. "Your family had money. You can tell by the clothes they are wearing and all the photographs. You wouldn't be able to have so many photos taken in that era if you didn't have the money to pay for it either. And most people didn't." I was fascinated by all that she knew. Of course, I didn't remember everything from the lesson the next day, the hangover took care of that, but somehow that didn't matter. Idun was a blast to be around, and her thirst for knowledge infected me.
She used to tell me, "You Jech's are the smartest people I know. I wish I could be as smart as the Jech's." I tried to let her words settle somewhere into my feelings about myself, but I couldn't help but think that was crazy. She was the smartest person I knew. What I had learned in my youth from the media and school socialization was that what mattered for girls was to look good. But Idun planted a seed in me that I could own my intelligence. And intelligence might even be cool.
When Mountain was nine, we started receiving boxes of books in the mail from Idun. They were all for him, and he devoured them. To name a few of the books she sent; the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, and The Carpet People by Terry Pratchet. When many things in his life were hard, he now had books. Mountain climbed the rungs of the lifeline she threw him, and chapter by chapter explored other worlds. After that, on our trips to Seattle, it was him that spent time with Idun into the wee hours of the morning. She searched universities abroad online to expose him to all that was possible for his future. She turned him onto Bollywood movies, more and more books, travel stories, and culture, all with that great big laugh of hers.
These shared times waxed and waned. Over time when the stark differences between Jenna and I began to reveal themselves, they just waned. On the path of life, my sister has always paved her road wide like a five-lane highway that goes on for miles. She laid out a clear plan for achieving exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted it. After high school, she went to college, traveled, became a teacher, bought a condo, found a husband, bought a house, and then had a child. All destinations were tidy and clearly marked. It was almost like this approach allowed her to fasten her seatbelt and switch into autopilot whenever she wanted to. It was her way of taking care of herself. We came from a "take care of yourself" kind of home.
My way is different. I came into this world with a machete in one hand, a blazing torch in the other, and headed straight for the jungle. I cleared as I went and made decisions on the fly. An obstacle? I'd find a way around it. I was like a girl on fire, moving with the shifting wind. Driven by a thirst for thrill and intimacy in human connection, I went by feel.
I wanted to confide in Jenna about the challenges of my untethered life, but when I tried it seemed to make her feel uncomfortable. Over time, I stopped sharing and mostly listened. Our connection eroded in the wake of this new dynamic, and we visited each other less and less.
On one of these infrequent visits, I stopped in Seattle to see Jenna on my way to our mother's place in Skagit Valley. Pulling into her driveway, I turned off the car, threw my tote over my shoulder, and made a break for her covered porch. I knocked and shivered while watching the drops of rain slide down the tendrils of my hair and scatter onto the deck. Staring at the plants in terracotta pots surrounding the entrance, I wondered how they felt hearing that rain pelt loudly on the glass ceiling while they sat thirsty right underneath yet unable to drink. Maybe they feel quite like I do, I thought.
The door swung open. Jenna greeted me with a smile and her flashing blue eyes. "Come on in! Let me take your coat. You want some hot tea?" Heading for the heater vent in the living room, I gratefully accepted. The wood floor was hard under my weight, but I welcomed the warmth pushing through the duct and onto my back. My eyes rested on a familiar painting she had brought back from Mexico years before. Diego Rivera's iconic image of a native woman wearing colorful traditional Mexican attire knelt and seemed to offer me the bouquet of Calla Lilies she held in her arms.
"Tea's ready!" Jenna appeared at the dining room table, holding two steaming mugs. She started telling me about some issues arising between her and Idun. "Idun is reading the books to my son that I should be reading to him. I feel like she's taking my place with him. She doesn't ask me first if I want to read him classics like The Lord of The Rings. She just gets started, and then I can't take over because she's so damn good at all the different characters' voices; I just can't compete." Her eyes turned glassy, and her words caught in her throat before she shifted to something less personal.
"It drives me crazy that she refuses to drive. She's still harming the environment. She's just using my gas and my time to do it! She and my husband are now at odds too. I don't know how I can keep the peace in my marriage with her living here." She paused, taking a sip of tea.
I took a deep breath considering her words. I myself was gasping for air caught in life's undertow. Still, I tried my best to sympathize. "That does sound hard. But, you two have been great friends for a long time. I'm sure you can work it out."
She batted the idea away. "I don't see how." Then she lamented about some other friendships she had been trying to form who weren't reaching back to her with the same enthusiasm. I listened and offered feedback for a while until my thoughts drifted back to the plants on the covered porch and how they couldn't even get a drink in this downpour with that damn glass, sealing out the sky.
She must have noticed my retreat because the "what's been up with you lately" formality flew from her lips. I took a deep breath while my inner self warned, don't do it, don't do it. She doesn't really want to hear it.
Then a flood of words burst from my mouth with the momentum of an old and tired hope to be heard. "I don't know what to do. I don't think I can stay with my husband. He used to be so good with Mountain. But now that Mountain is getting older, Gemini is isuddenly the one acting like a teenager. His emotions are all over the place, and the other day he actually called Mountain an 'asshole.' I can't keep…"
My words were cut short by her tension. "It sounds like you should see a therapist." She had a shut-down look in her eyes. The kind of self-preservation that I had seen so many times before. In that look lived the expanse of the Skagit River by our mother's farm. She stood casually on one side, and I knelt on the other.
Clearing my throat, I looked away. "Maybe you're right."
She stood and gathered both of our empty mugs, "I need to make a trip for groceries; you want to come along?"
"Sure," I shrugged.
It wasn't long before Idun moved out of Jenna's place. Jenna and I continued to stoke the embers of our friendship over family get-togethers just enough to keep it from going out entirely. Idun no longer came with Jenna to the farm for the holidays. Our lives got busy. And that's how Mountain and I lost touch with Idun, the wild intellect who inspired us to recognize our own intelligence.
My marriage dissolved, but my midwifery practice thrived, and I loved my work. One night I lay in bed with my youngest boy sleeping beside me after a long day of prenatal appointments. Scrolling through Facebook on my phone, I came upon a rare post from Idun. My breath froze as my mind processed the words I read on the screen. "I have terminal brain cancer (seriously terminal!) WISHING YOU ALL WELL."
Glioblastoma is a fatal brain cancer that causes the affected person to rapidly lose their mental faculties, followed by a slew of unthinkable symptoms until they find their way to their grave.
Reading through the comments, I discovered she had already had surgery to remove what they could, but the doctors gave her less than twelve months to live. I did not comment on the post. It seemed too big to touch when I hadn't even seen her in a couple of years. No, this needed direct contact.
I immediately thought of Jenna. The next day I called my sister for the first time in over a year to see if she knew about Idun's condition.
"Hello?" Her voice on the other end wasn't warm, but it was not curt either.
"Hi," I stuttered slightly, getting the first words out. "I was calling because I saw on Facebook that Idun is sick. Do you know about this?"
A short silence was followed by, "In the last couple of months that she was here, she kept telling me she was having seizures in her brain. I couldn't see anything happening. I asked her what she wanted me to do about it. If she was having seizures in her brain, then she should see a doctor! I didn't know what to think, but what did she expect me to do? You know Idun; she's eccentric and set in her ways. She wouldn't see a doctor. Just like she will never cut her hair and never get a car. That's all I know. I haven't talked to her since she moved out." This time, a long silence as I realized Jenna did not know Idun was terminal.
"Jenna, she has brain cancer, and she is going to die. You need to reach out to her. You will never forgive yourself if you don't make things right with her before she dies."
Her cavalier attitude turned to shock, "Wait, what?!"
"Jenna, I am so sorry."
A few days later, my phone rang. "Hey, Jenna!"
She got straight to the point. "I tried to reach out to Idun. I called, I sent a card and went to her house. She won't speak with me, and she definitely won't see me."
"Really?! Why not? I can't imagine how scared she must be right now. I'm sure she will come around. Don't stop trying."
A few days later, my mom came to visit us in Portland. She had brought Jenna's son Julian to say goodbye to Idun over lunch on her way. She discovered Idun was planning an assisted suicide and had picked out a date, 11/11/2014, Veteran's Day. The thing Idun valued the most in this life was her mind. I had a pretty good idea why she made this decision; she wanted to go before it did. But I was still stunned to hear we didn't have months to reconnect. We only had a couple of days!
I went for a walk through the neighborhood and called Idun myself to say goodbye. My feet crunched through the afternoon sunlit piles of yellow, brown, and golden leaves fallen beneath the deciduous trees. With heart-pounding palms sweaty and my breath quick, I gathered the courage to hit the call button. What can you say to someone you love who's leaving this world in a couple of days? While on the phone, she invited us to come to her "Last Night On Earth Party." I said we would be there.
I went back into the house to make sure Mountain and my mom wanted to come. Neither of them hesitated to start packing their bags. The next day we drove straight to Seattle to meet "the party" at the boardwalk. On the way there, we sat in heavy silence.
After parking the car, I stepped onto the city street and took a deep breath of fresh ocean air. Looking up at the stars sparkling in the night sky, our reason for being there felt like a dream.
When we found Idun among all the people, I noticed there was something different about her. And it was more than her missing hair. She had a radiant presence that seemed to live in the acute awareness of her own transience. She appeared to meet the fullness of the moment with her whole being. And her diagnosis did not diminish her big welcoming smile. Running her hands across the smooth roundness of her head, she moved first to embrace Mountain. Now, at sixteen, he towered above her, and she looked small in his arms. It was hard to believe she would just be gone tomorrow.
When a person's fate allows them to see death approaching, there is a unique invitation to step completely into the present moment. There is no longer a future to consider. And maybe the past becomes like a fading dream. Idun took this opportunity and claimed these last moments among us.
About twenty people in the party started walking along the boardwalk in small groups of three or four. The marina lights reflected and danced upon the water as she moved between us along the strip that hugged the Puget Sound.
Being cold is something I typically avoid at all costs. I'm skinny, and it makes my bones hurt. As we walked, I found myself thinking, I wish I had worn different shoes and thicker socks. My feet are so numb! Why would Idun want to be so cold in her final hours on earth? Just then, guilt rode in on the frigid wind that pressed my back, slipped up my jacket, and invaded my warm body. How dare I wish to rush any part of this? Just because of my frozen feet!? This is Idun's last night on earth!
When she joined up with our small group of three, we split off one at a time so she could have a little time alone to talk with each of us. When it was my turn, she took my hand, and we walked and talked about the sculptures of marine vessels that we passed along the way.
"So, what's new with you?" She asked me after a while. What I was doing seemed irrelevant, but I told her how I had just bought a sailboat and planned to get rid of all my belongings and sail it back home to the San Juans to live on it there.
"That is so cool! I love sailboats!" her voice pushed into the wind and met my ears just like it would have on any other night. I forgot about my freezing feet and slipped into her moment in its totality. From this silent space, her vulnerability emerged, "I can't believe my time is up," her voice cracked slightly to eke out the words.
I squeezed her hand. "Me neither."
We didn't talk of Jenna. Maybe I should have brought it up, but I knew that her response or lack thereof to Jenna's attempts at reconnecting was her choice, and she must have had her reasons. I wasn't there to talk her into anything. I was there to love her, support her, and honor her.
After a couple of hours passed, we turned around, and Idun escorted the group to the Chowder House for dinner. When I walked through the door, the warm air hit my face, and the chorus of people talking under the soft light offered a welcome and soothing ambiance. We all huddled by the door, waiting as Idun spoke with the hostess. Then we followed her in a single file line and made our way to one very long table in the center of the restaurant. I happened to be right behind Idun, so I had the privilege of sitting next to her in the middle. This is so much like The Last Supper, I thought as I took my seat. I felt both lucky and unsure if this spot would have been better suited to someone else.
Her sister and mother sat across the table. It was the first time I had met her family. Her sister was beautiful and kind with a big open smile like Idun's. But her quivering lip revealed the grief behind it. Her restless eyes jumped from mine to the chandelier and back down, landing on Idun.
Most of the other people there were friends from her book club, and the conversation centered mostly around books. Idun told me she had been up all night the night before so that she could finish a great read, Transitions by Ian M. Banks.
"I had to find out the ending!"
Feeling more than I wanted to, my insides quaked and refused to settle. As the waitress made her way around the table, I felt a familiar eagerness to order a beer. She took Idun's order before she got to me, and I noticed that Idun did not order a drink. Peculiar, I thought, she loves beer!
I was not dissuaded. "An IPA, please. I'll go with your Space Dust."
Once the waitress had passed us, and everyone else was still distracted ordering or choosing their food, I asked Idun why she hadn't ordered a beer. "I quit about a week after discovering I was terminal. For as long as I am here, I want to feel everything. As much as I love the taste of beer, it doesn't allow me to do that," she said.
"Good for you," I responded sincerely and searched my reservoir for any motivation towards my own sobriety. When the waitress came back around and set my foaming cold beer down in front of me, I looked at Idun, who was already wholly engaged in a conversation across the table. Then I looked back down at my beer. Maybe I'll quit tomorrow, I thought.
When my glass was empty, I excused myself to use the restroom. Exiting the bathroom stall, I found my mom and Idun talking in hushed tones in front of the sink. They moved over so I could wash my hands, and then I joined them. Idun was talking about tomorrow evening's plans for her death. Without thinking, I spoke from the heart.
"Do you want us to come, Idun? To be there for you tomorrow?"
A tear escaped down her cheek, which was countered by a smile. "I would like that."
"Then we'll be there," My mom said. I nodded and we all hugged.
When we arrived at Idun's house the next evening, she graciously greeted us at the door. "Come on in! I'm so glad you could make it! I guess you already met everybody last night." There were flowers on the coffee table and about ten people sitting around talking. If we hadn't known we were going to a unique kind of wake that would start just a couple of hours before the guest of honor would die, we might have thought we were showing up to a birthday party.
Idun was a gracious host, "follow me, and I'll show you to the snack table." We followed her into the kitchen, and I asked her where the bathroom was. Pointing to the stairs, she fluttered away to do some more mingling. There was a spread of baked goods laid out across the table. We stood in front of it and looked at each other. None of us made a move on the food. Instead, we awkwardly started making our way back to the living room. "I'm gonna run to the bathroom; I'll meet you guys in there," I told them.
I walked up the stairs and saw two women who hadn't been out with us the night before sitting at a small table. Without thinking, I asked the casual question, "Bathroom?" pointing around with my finger. As they looked up to reply, I noticed they were carefully involved in pouring powders from tiny capsules into a cup. For a second, I froze as I realized it's the Death Doulas.
When I returned to the living room, I sat next to Mountain on the floor. My mom was sitting next to us on the couch. I reached for a small photo album displayed next to the flowers on the coffee table. When I opened it up, Mountain and I discovered photo after photo of my sister Jenna. Jenna and Idun in Germany, Jenna and Idun in Seattle, Jenna and Idun on Orcas Island, Jenna and Idun at Dry Slough. Among the photos there were some sprinkled in of just about every member of our family on various adventures which Idun had joined us on.
One of her roommates leaned over and said, "She looks through this album every day." My mom looked over at me in curiosity, wondering what the roommate was referring to. I handed her the photo album. When she opened it and flipped through the first few pages, our eyes locked in mutual disbelief. Our shared exchange seemed to ask, If she was looking through this album full of Jenna pictures every day of her final few months on earth, why did she refuse to see her? Why did she refuse to make amends?
Just then, Idun squeezed through Mountain and me and made her way to sit next to my mom on the couch. After a few minutes, my mom started to rub Idun's back. At which point I heard Idun say, "Don't do that. It will make it too hard to go."
"Okay, I understand," my mother lowered her arms. I looked down, pretending not to notice, and fell into my thoughts. I wondered if maybe for the same reason she couldn't let my mom rub her back, she couldn't make amends with Jenna. Perhaps she loved her so much that making their relationship right again might have made it just "too hard to go."
Suddenly I heard the sound of Idun's loud jest toward Mountain, "You don't know the chicken dance?!" Then she promptly jumped up and announced, "Everybody, here is your lesson in the chicken dance!" Then singing a tune, she unabashedly bent her hands in towards her armpits and started flapping her arms like wings, shimmied down, and shook her tail feathers. A few of us jumped up to join her, and for a brief moment, we all laughed and forgot the evening's plans.
The next thing we knew, we were all following her down the stairs and into the basement. A couple of glaring fluorescent lights in the background hardly cut the dark and musty overtone. There was a tall workbench table against the corner. Grime and cobwebs streaked the windows. She didn't hesitate to take her final seat on the bench. "I meant to spruce up the place, but I never got around to it." She laughed, wiping a few of the cobwebs away with her hand. "You know the original owner of this house used to work down here. He was a maker," she told us as she reached up to tap the old cracked hanging light that now swung softly above her head.
Mountain, my mom and I held on to each other as we stood witness among the other guests gathered around Idun. Her voice filled the dingy space, "Mother, will you please tell us all again? What is the prognosis of this disease?"
Scientifically, her mother answered as if she was a physician making her rounds, "Idun has been diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive malignant brain cancer. There is no treatment for this disease. If left to run its course, the patient will endure a slow and painful death."
Wasting no time, the two Death Doulas came forth. One of them held out a cup of liquid poison, "Are you ready?"
"Yes." Without a moment's hesitation, she knocked back the liquid as if it were a shot of whisky. The room fell quiet. Idun cut the silence. "Well, don't just stand there. Somebody say something."
No one said a word. So I offered Idun an adventure upon which to rest. "We will be sailing our boat to the San Juan Islands soon with your name on the side. Picture the sails full with the swift wind, cruising through the waves in the sun. Of course, there will be whales. We will prost to you, Idun Reisender."
Her last words were almost curious, informative; they echoed against the cement walls. "I'm starting to see double." And then she fell back onto the table, dead.
Her mother and sister let out their repressed sobs in unison, and someone asked that we give the family some space. That was the last time we saw Idun. Everybody but her immediate family made our way back up into the living room and sat in silence for a while before we began to share Idun stories.
Mountain and I drove back to Portland the next day. I had mothers on the verge of giving birth to see. I had brand new babies just a few days old to check up on.
There were things that occurred in the aftermath of Idun's death that I was not expecting. As I went about my days, my mind replayed a loop. Idun was sitting there talking to us and joking one moment; she drank the poison and then fell back dead. This imagery haunted me. Over and over, the scene repeated for weeks as I tried to wrap my mind around the finality of death.
During this time period, I discovered there are many ways besides death to lose someone. You see, something else died along with Idun on 11/11/2014. My relationship with my sister Jenna would never be the same. To my surprise, my being there for Idun in those final moments was like a hot iron in my sister's side. The embers of our relationship turned to ashes. I discovered coming to life through the same set of fallopian tubes doesn't exactly exempt one from this kind of loss. The bond between sisters turned out to be as fragile as the eggs we rode in on.
When I tried to explain and offer my empathy for my sister's pain, she shut me out. Similar to the way Idun closed the door on her. On the surface, it may seem like she shut me out for a different reason. But Idun's choice was universally human. However good something feels-- it has the equal potential to hurt when it comes to it's inevitable end. Sometimes we turn away from our heart's longings because to let in all that love; we have to risk everything. Our open hearts break. So let them break because, alternatively, a closed heart shrivels.
I never got to tell my sister about the photo album or my reflections on why Idun wouldn't see her. Although I suspect our mother must have at least told her about the photos because somehow, my mother and Jenna found a way to repair this wound. I don't know why Jenna forgave our mom and not me for being there for Idun. I am left wondering and making up my own versions of her truth.
In my life, I have been faced with the option to find forgiveness for some unthinkable grievances or to carry the burden of resentment. What I have learned about forgiveness and letting go of pain inflicted by others, whether intentional or not, is that we do the work of forgiveness when the relationship is important enough to us to push through the pain and find our way to the other side. But for whatever reason should we choose not to let go and forgive, it is our own heart that suffers.
My wish for you, dear reader, is that you cherish your sisters. When death comes, don't let it drive a deeper wedge between you and the living. Receive its lesson of impermanence and embrace your loved ones with your whole heart, knowing that none of us will live forever. As for Jenna and I, our story is not yet over. Maybe we will find our way back to each other before this ride of life is through. Maybe we will end up back where we started, kicking it in the ovarian hammock together, waiting for another turn. Or if you see things through the atheist lens that Idun did, this is our one chance. This could be your one chance. Let's take it. ~ Joy Jech
In the 2013 article, ”Can MDMA Play a Role in the Treatment of Substance Abuse?” by Lisa Jerome*,1 and Shira Schuster2 and B. Berra Yazar-Klosinski1 they report that in 2010, ”an estimated 23.1 million individuals aged 12 years or older (9.1%) were in need of treatment for a substance abuse disorder, while only approximately 11.2% of those needing treatment (approximately 1% of the general population over 12 years old) received treatment .”
MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of addiction just might bring the much needed relief of treating substance abuse to millions. Through rigorous scientific research, psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD's effectiveness for treating addiction has been revealed. ”A recent meta-analysis of randomized, double-blind, controlled studies suggests that people diagnosed with alcoholism reduced alcohol use after a single exposure to LSD .” Since MDMA is an entheogen that is similar enough in effect to psychedelics, researchers began to wonder if MDMA may also play a role in addiction treatment. Like an old married couple, addiction and trauma are intricately tied. So too, separating the effects of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies on addiction and PTSD may prove to be a challenging if not impossible task. However, because trauma and addiction are so causational, it may not be necessary to tweeze the two apart when it comes to finding effective treatments. What treats one, will naturally affect the other.
MDMA's value in assisting psychotherapy is not new on the scene. Lisa Jerome, and Shira Schuster et al. inform, ”MDMA was used by some psychotherapists as an adjunct to psychotherapy, prior to becoming a Schedule 1 controlled substance due to extensive use in non- medical settings [15, 17-19]. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, therapists around the U.S. combined MDMA with psychotherapy to address neuroses, relationship difficulties, psychological problems, and PTSD [20, 21].” Because of MDMA's euphoric effects, the biggest concern posed for the use of MDMA in addiction treatment is its potential for being an addictive substance itself. The article, ”Can MDMA Play a Role in the Treatment of Substance Abuse?” posits, ”While MDMA appears to be a promising treatment for at least one psychiatric disorder when combined with psychotherapy, it also possesses moderate abuse potential.” And yet other studies have supported the notion that intention for its use as a therapeutic drug may minimize if not void its potential to trigger addiction. Authors point out, ”In another study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in people with PTSD, urinary drug screens taken during follow up assessments were all negative .” While euphoria will undoubtedly be part of the experience, during an MDMA facilitated psychotherapeutic session clients may experience a range of emotions, including painful or fearful memories. This challenging faucet of the MDMA psychotherapeutic use, in theory, mitigates the risk of future repeat "high" seeking behavior.
How Does MDMA Work to Treat Substance Abuse?
MDMA decreases activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that detects threats. With the amygdala less active, feelings of fear are reduced. MDMA affects facial expression threat signals, decreasing the subjects' ability to detect anger on the faces of those around them. This decrease in facial threat expression perception means the subject feels more trusting, open and close to the people around them and therefore more likely to open up about their trauma. In couples therapy, it means that the defenses which have built up between the couple come down. In the article MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD: Are memory reconsolidation and fear extinction underlying mechanisms? they explore the specific actions MDMA has on brain activity.”Studies in healthy individuals have demonstrated that MDMA mediates emotional memory processing. MDMA reduced left amygdala response to angry facial expressions (Bedi et al., 2009) and caused unpleasant memories to be rated as less negative, visualized as less activation of the left anterior temporal lobe and greater activation of the superior frontal gyrus/dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014).”
Studies show that MDMA increases empathy and prosocial behavior. The exact mechanism of this function is still being investigated. We do know that MDMA increases both serotonin (the feel good hormone) and oxytocin (the bonding hormone). Studies done on rodents with MDMA and an oxytocin receptor agonist that blocks the production of oxytocin, have shown no increase in prosocial behavior. This points to MDMA's action of increasing oxytocin as the key feature for the prosocial aspect. Oxytocin alone has decreased self-administration of methamphetamine in rodents which has led to the proposal of Oxytocin itself as a potential treatment for substance abuse and PTSD. While many studies point to MDMA's action on decreasing amygdala and hippocampus activity, some studies do show increases in anxiety. With the amygdala quiet, it seems unlikely that an increase in anxiety would be chemical. Nevertheless, Lisa Jerome, and Shira Schuster et al. assert, "MDMA produces increases in positive mood, energy, and anxiety, and like psychedelics, it induces altered perception, which can include viewing events, thoughts or feelings in a new way [22, 45].”
Could it be that MDMA's action of increasing activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) stimulates memory recall which facilitates the unearthing of traumatic memories to be processed? In this process, an increase in anxiety may be a natural byproduct, however much less than it would be to relive the traumatic event unassisted by the MDMA. According to Wikipedia, ”An important function of the DLPFC is the executive functions, such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, planning, inhibition, and abstract reasoning. However, the DLPFC is not exclusively responsible for the executive functions. All complex mental activity requires the additional cortical and subcortical circuits with which the DLPFC is connected. The DLPFC is also the highest cortical area that is involved in motor planning, organization and regulation.”
A Shortcut to Classical Conditioning - Exposure Therapies
Horses are a prey animal with an enormous amygdala. For this reason horses live in a heightened state of fear much of the time. They need this fear detection superpower in the wild so they can detect the presence of a predator early enough to have a chance at getting away. In the human-horse world, there is a common practice of desensitization. When a horse is scared of something, which could be anything from the sound a tarp or plastic bag makes to a riding lawn mower, the more exposure to the scary object the better. It's not safe for humans to be around horses that spook at the drop of a hat because they are upwards of a thousand pounds. If they get so scared they run in a panic, the handler might get run right over. To minimize this risk, the handler will intentionally expose them to the scary object, wait for their fear response to relax ever so slightly and then retreat from the scary object, take a short break and then go back to the scary object again. The repetition of this process allows the horse to make new associations with the scary object. After they have been exposed to it a hundred times and their handler was right there with them to protect them, they learn that it's not a scary object after all and trust is built.
There is a similar process for treating PTSD, called Classical Conditioning. In the article MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD: Are memory reconsolidation and fear extinction underlying mechanisms?, they explain "The process of learning through repeated exposure to the conditioned stimuli without encountering the unconditioned stimuli is known as extinction and leads to reduction in the fear response while leaving the original fear memory intact (Ponnusamy et al., 2016).” Imagine a war veteran who has just returned home from Iraq walks down the street and immediately hits the deck when he hears the sound of a car backfiring. This is a conditioned reaction related to trauma. This same veteran will need to be exposed to many sounds like this without anything around him blowing up or anyone getting shot in order to recognize he is now safe even in the presence of sudden loud noises. Expounding on this, the article explains ”Exposure therapies used to treat PTSD aim to extinguish fear by presenting fear-triggering cues in imaginal narratives and reality-based situations while the person is in a safe setting.”
The effects MDMA has on memory recall coupled with the feelings of euphoria and safety that accompany it allow for this exposure therapy to unfold over the course of one treatment. When the clients can recall trauma's that happened a decade ago as if they occurred just yesterday and process them without the triggered fear response, without feeling unsafe, the effects are lasting. ”In context of PTSD treatment, the authors suggest that reducing details of emotional events may be advantageous to re-encode trauma memories with novel emotional associations.” (Allison A. Feduccia a , Michael C. Mithoefer, 2018) ”Hypothetically, when trauma memories are retrieved while under the influence of MDMA during therapy, a strong prediction error is generated by the unique internal state of MDMA-stimulated elevation of neurochemicals/hormones and the supportive therapeutic setting. This mismatch of experience, i.e. recall of memory with strong fear/anxiety vs. recall with additional emotions such as love or empathy, would allow for an update of information through molecular mechanisms.”
Life Stories, Personality and Memory Re-consolidation
Epictetus said, ”Circumstances don't make the man, they reveal him to himself.” Similarly esteemed personality psychologist Dan Mcadams tells us that our personality resides in how we tell our life stories and the meaning we give to the events of our lives. Memoirist William Maxwell is quoted in the book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), "What we...refer to confidently as memory... is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling." Memory research has revealed that memory is subjective and dependent on self-concept, confirmation bias’ and the avoidance of cognitive dissonance. Personality has been shown in large part to be genetic. Through genetics and epigenetics our families stories about the way we see ourselves in the world are passed on to us. Studies have shown entheogens have the power to change our epigenetics; the codes on top of our genes. Could it be that this happens by giving us access to a new way of telling our story? MDMA assisted psychotherapy supports us in doing just that through memory reconsolidation. The article MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD: Are memory reconsolidation and fear extinction underlying mechanisms? explains it this way, ”The term, memory reconsolidation, describes a type of neuroplasticity that involves the process of an established memory being reactivated, destabilized, and then modified or updated with additional information.” Furthermore, ”Once a memory becomes destabilized and labile during a therapy session, MDMA may influence activity in neurocircuitry necessary for learning and memory.” This approach is based on observations that the pharmacological effects of MDMA in this setting facilitate a variety of therapeutic experiences. These typically include reprocessing of traumatic memories with clearer recall and increased equanimity without emotional numbing or dissociation.“
The need to belong is one of the most fundamental aspects to our well being. In Elliot Aronson's book,The Social Animal, he writes about the consequences of a lack of belonging, “On a less extreme level, feeling socially disconnected can cause people to lose the ability to regulate their emotions and control their attention, behavior, and impulses. Rejected, isolated students tend to do worse on tests, eat more junk food, and behave more aggressively than do students who feel part of a group.” It should be argued that Aronson's examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Some people may eat more junk food, others may inject heroin, smoke crack or imbibe large amounts of alcohol. The bottom line is that feeling that one doesn't belong deregulates emotions and often leads to self destructive behaviors. The closeness, lack of social anxiety and connection one feels while undergoing MDMA assisted psychotherapy begins to open the door to social belonging. People feel accepted and seen for who they truly are. Just a few hours of experiencing this can have an enormous impact on the individual's overall sense of belonging. The article Can MDMA Play a Role in the Treatment of Substance Abuse? asserts, “People report experiencing greater compassion, feelings of sociability, closeness and empathy for others and themselves while under the influence of MDMA [39, 52, 65, 68-70].”
A renaissance of the effects of MDMA assisted psychotherapy on PTSD, addiction and couples therapy is well underway. In stage three clinical trials, the compound's unique impact on memory reconsolidation, reduction in fear response, feelings of closeness and self compassion is evidenced in helping individuals rewrite their narratives and the meanings they give to the traumatic events of their lives. This aid in assisting people to process and re-code their painful experiences is promising for the treatment of PTSD and addiction therapy alike. The sense of belonging that one feels during the MDMA assisted psychotherapy sessions ripples out into real world social confidence and self acceptance.
RE-WRITING OUR RELATIONSHIP TO SELF:
Moving From a Domination, Separation Narrative to Cooperation and Wholeness
Department of Psychology, Evergreen State College
ILC - Becoming Whole: Stories of Contamination and Redemption
Sponsor - Dr. Mark Hurst
September 1, 2020
The stories that we tell about ourselves lay the foundation for how we see ourselves. What we believe about ourselves impacts every area of our lives. Post-traumatic growth depends on our ability to develop self-compassion and self-acceptance. Could it be that our culture's historical storyline is impeding our movement towards wholeness? A few of the many practices touched on here to invite wholeness after the fragmentation caused by trauma and abuse cycles are; Equine Therapy, Shamanic Soul-Retrieval Practices, Dan McAdams Life Stories Interviews, Psychedelic Therapy, and Writing. Many traditions share a common belief that trauma results in fragmentation. These shared beliefs have spanned centuries and are explored in the pages that follow. Across the ages, animals, particularly horses, have been a popular metaphor for examining the inner workings of the mind. It is a fitting metaphor as horses and humans have been in close relationship throughout the ages. Given the massive size of the horse's amygdala and it's hyper-vigilance as a prey animal, it is only natural that they would stand to represent the non-conscious part of the human mind. However, before we take these metaphors to heart, we should examine their cultural origin. Metaphors are a powerful tool for aiding us in making sense of our reality, and they are fundamental in our storytelling. Dan Mcadams said in a lecture at Monmouth College (McAdams, 2017, 06:28), "We make ourselves whole through stories, by constructing internalized and evolving life narratives. These stories are heavily shaped by culture. Indeed we borrow from our culture to make our stories. These stories help to explain ourselves to each other and ourselves, and they provide our kind of messed up lives with a certain kind of semblance of meaning and purpose." If what Mcadams proposes here is true, then it is worth examining our culture's underlying belief systems. What are the messages woven into the fabric of our stories? Could we be attempting to make ourselves whole with the wrong story? Are we inadvertently telling a story that further divides us from ourselves? This article examines the cultural underpinnings of the messages we feed ourselves and offers a framework for a new script. One that shifts the metaphors to tell the tale of a healthy and compassionate relationship with ourselves.
Keywords: self-compassion, self-acceptance, fragmentation, trauma, cycles of abuse, wholeness, integration, cultural narrative, storytelling, equine therapy, natural horsemanship
Examining Cycles of Abuse Embedded in Our Cultural Narrative
In the book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt draws upon the insight of the Buddha in comparing the nature of the mind to a wild elephant (Haidt, 2015, p.15). Thereby, meditation itself is like the rider, working on mastering the elephant (the non-conscious mind) through the practice of meditation. Jonathan tells us how "Plato used a similar metaphor in which the self (or soul) is a chariot, and the calm, rational part of the mind holds the reins. Plato's charioteer had to control two horses: The horse that is on the right, or nobler, side is upright in frame and well jointed, with a high neck and a regal nose; . . . he is a lover of honor with modesty and self-control; companion to true glory, he needs no whip, and is guided by verbal commands alone. The other horse is a crooked great jumble of limbs . . . companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears—deaf as a post—and just barely yields to horse-whip and goad combined" (Haidt, 2015, p.16). Let us examine this metaphor for a moment under the lens of trauma cycles.
Yehuda Berg (n.d.) says, "Hurt people, hurt people. That's how pain patterns get passed on, generation after generation." This cycle of violence and abuse often also applies to animals. Dogs raised for dog fighting are beaten and abused. This kind of treatment produces an untrusting, unruly, and vicious animal. Now that we have established this cause and effect connection, we can not help but ask, 'What happened to Plato's horse to make him so shaggy, indecent and unresponsive to the most brute of commands?' Remember, we refer to the horse here merely as a metaphor, representing the aspect of our consciousness that may be out of control and deemed unacceptable. So, the more direct question is, how have we treated this part of ourselves to make this aspect of our consciousness behave this way? Why have we been beating ourselves up? We might think any compassionate person would hear this metaphor as a way of addressing ourselves (or a horse) and think it absurd; a whip? The truth is, however, that our culture has normalized the "whip." The western world has normalized a narrative of domination. Underlying our reference frame is the patriarchal assumption of control and domination as fundamental to getting our needs met. This mindset has worked its way into our stories and has shaped how we see life and ourselves.
Like a parent passes values down to their child, generations pass down these fundamental cultural belief systems unwittingly to the next generation. These foundational messages of our cultures' shared reality are so much a part of us; they ride in on our epigenetics' very codes. For this reason, we often do not even notice them, especially when their effect is so close that they are occurring within our society's narrative. If we want to break the cycle of abuse in our society, we must first break the cycle of abuse within the individual. That means we need to establish a relationship of trust and acceptance of every aspect of ourselves, not just the parts we like or the socially acceptable elements.
Haidt (2015, p.15) tells us about Freud's horse and handler metaphor for representing human consciousness. "Freud said that the mind is divided into three parts: the ego (the conscious, rational self); the superego (the conscience, a sometimes too rigid commitment to the rules of society); and the id (the desire for pleasure, lots of it, sooner rather than later). The metaphor I use when I lecture on Freud is to think of the mind as a horse and buggy (a Victorian chariot) in which the driver (the ego) struggles frantically to control a hungry, lustful, and disobedient horse (the id) while the driver's father (the superego) sits in the back seat lecturing the driver on what he is doing wrong. For Freud, the goal of psychoanalysis was to escape this pitiful state by strengthening the ego, thus giving it more control over the id and more independence from the superego." (2015)
Like Plato's metaphor, Freud's concept is born of a mindset bent on control being the given method to manage these oppositional internal forces. Freud's take provides a window into the dominant foundation of the core beliefs of his era. His depiction of the ego as the only rational one sets us up to identify with this aspect alone. The basic dynamic presented paints a picture in which these "other" aspects are seen as separate from the core of who we are. In The Social Animal, Aronson & Aronson tell us, "Once a person differentiates between us and them, the stage is set for stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and the rationalizing that follows" (2018, p. 271). The "us and them" tribal thinking model that Aronson & Aronson wrote about is being played out internally in how we perceive and treat ourselves. As long as we continue to accept this as the framework for self-analysis, we will continue to pit ourselves against ourselves in a constant inner battle of wills. This old-school baseline for self-analysis is our culture's foundation for understanding our conscious self's relationship to our non-conscious self. Our work now is to re-vision those core beliefs and heal the abused horse that lives within us due to these ingrained narratives.
A New Vision of Partnership Within the Self
In considering Haidt's description of Freud's conflict-oriented analogy, let us rework the point of resolution. What if the answer lies not in control but in teaching the ego leadership skills and softening the ridged superego? This approach requires us to put down the whip and spurs to stop the practice of demonizing the once considered mangy horse in our own consciousness.
A New Metaphor - Natural Horsemanship
Instead of approaching ourselves with control and domination as if our conscious self or our ego was the alpha, we might meet our non-conscious self with the passive leadership described by Mark Rashid in his book Horses Never Lie. "In the herds that I had a chance to work with, it was evident that seldom, if ever, was the chosen leader the alpha horse. Rather, it was a horse that had proven its leadership qualities in a quiet and consistent manner from one day to the next. In other words, it was a horse that led by example, not by force." ( 2015, p.41). In this way, through the nearly lost ancient practice of Native and Natural Horsemanship, we may initiate a new metaphor representing the cultivation of a compassionate, trusting relationship with all aspects of ourselves.
Native Americans carry a legacy of mastered natural horsemanship. We can learn how to re-imagine our story from the wisdom they hold. In Gawaini Pony Boy's book, Horse, Follow Closely, he writes, "The war pony was companion, best friend, soul mate, and teacher. Most important, the war pony was kola: a friend with whom you could face many encircling enemies. The word "kola" is not normally used for animals but is reserved for human brother-warriors. In using kola as a descriptor of their relationship to their horses, Native American warriors acknowledged their horses' equal status as brother-warrior" (2020, p.162).
The modern-day natural horsemanship movement has borrowed from this sacred approach to renew this reverent relationship with horses. The field of psychology would do well to extend this analogy further into the stories we tell ourselves about human consciousness. May we see the non-conscious aspect of our mind as kola ("a friend with whom you can face many encircling enemies,") instead of a shaggy-eared beast that must be controlled (Gawani, 2020, p. 162). In life, we will undoubtedly face many "encircling enemies" or challenges. When we accept our non-conscious aspect as "kola," we may begin to realize the importance of a compassionate relationship with ourselves.
Our limbic system is a non-conscious network involving our instincts, which are critical to our survival. Let us consider this when we dream up metaphors to base our relationship with our instinctive self. Gawani Pony Boy tells us that "Once they began to use and depend on horses, Native riders realized that their success and even their survival depended on the relationship they built with their horses" (2020, p.151). The same thing is true for our relationship with our non-conscious mind. This knowledge offers a good reason to treat that aspect of ourselves with respect and reverence.
Learning to Lead with Love
Native peoples knew, "A horse needs a leader. If he does not have a leader, he will become the leader. In fact, the success a rider has in his relationship with his horse is proportionate to the degree in which the rider is able to be the leader" (Gawani Pony Boy, 2020, p.206). Plato and Freud had it partially right. The rider and the driver of the chariot do need to learn to be good leaders. However, a good leader does not do so by use of domination, power, and control. A good leader leads by example. This is why the conscious mind needs to choose where it places its attention. Attention with intention is the act of leadership through self-regulation that will help guide the non-conscious mind where we lead it. An article by Steven Stosny Ph.D., entitled, Self Regulation states,"Research consistently shows that self-regulation skill is necessary for reliable emotional well being. Behaviorally, self-regulation is the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values. (Violation of one's deepest values causes guilt, shame, and anxiety, which undermine well being)" (Psychology Today 2011). To motivate us to act in our own best interest, we must first see the unseeable aspect of ourselves as a friend and guide rather than a conflicting force.
Consider the following instruction from Horse, Follow Closely as a new metaphor for how we might obtain passive leadership and begin to re-write our relationship with the non-conscious mind. "In the very beginning of relationship development, it is important for you to be the leader your horse is looking for. When you and your horse are standing in a training arena, your horse will usually first exhibit his leadership qualities by walking or trotting, high headed, around you. When you do not follow as he expects you to, he may begin to question his own position in the herd. He will begin to pay more attention to you by pivoting an ear toward you, looking at you, or possibly turning to face you. At this moment, take the leadership position by physically putting yourself in a position of leadership. Walk in front of your horse, expecting him to follow, and he will." (Gawani Pony Boy, 2020, p.290)
In an interview with the Psychedelic Times, war veteran and plant medicine rights advocate, Matt Kahl gives an animal analogy of his own for the ego aspect of mind (2019). "I liken it to an attack dog. You've got this big powerful dog that is on point and always there to see where the threats are in your environment, and if you don't provide your dog with good leadership by being that alpha, then your dog is going to literally run every single interaction that you have for the rest of your life. It's going to bite people, it's going to be aggressive, because you're not taking charge— you're not stepping up and saying, "Hey! I appreciate your energy, love your enthusiasm, go sit back down." Dogs need that, and your ego needs that too— your ego needs to be told when to sit down, shut up, and listen." Matt is still using a domination model with his choice of language. And he still sees an aspect of the self as a vicious animal we must control. However, he gets closer to the mark when he addresses the need to express appreciation and love for the self's ego element. Furthermore, he is right about our conscience self needing to learn how to be a loving leader and companion to our non-conscious self.
Learning to Listen with Love: Respecting Our Inner Guide
Even though native people understood that horses need a leader, they also knew another critical side to this relationship. Gawani Pony Boy explains, "Native American riders, who only had access to horses for one hundred fifty to two hundred years, did one thing better than most, thereby becoming the greatest horsemen this continent has ever seen—they viewed their horses as guides and they listened to their horses" (2020, p.346). We can adopt this practice by becoming a leader to our non-conscious minds while at the same time, recognizing this elusive aspect of ourselves as a valued guide and Kola.
Neuroscience has uncovered this connection. In the article, "Why the Brain Knows More than We Do: Non-Conscious Representations and Their Role in the Construction of Conscious Experience," by Birgitta Dresp-Langley they state, "How the different cognitive worlds interact to produce successful adaptive behavior at the least possible cost is not known, but a large number of studies have shown that non-conscious brain processes influence perceptions and representations embedded in ongoing conscious experience" (2011). Evidence that our non-conscious mind influences our conscious mind reveals that this relationship flows both ways. Understanding this symbiosis shows us how critical it is that we find a way to befriend the non-conscious mind.
Beyond Metaphor: Natural Horsemanship as Equine Therapy - A Mirror Into The Self
Horse Trainer Stormy May set out to discover a softer approach to interacting with real horses. "The Path of the Horse" is the documentary I made while I was searching for ways to understand horses and work with them without using pain, coercion, or force." (2012, film description). This journey taught her many new things about herself along the way.
Wilson writes in his book Strangers to Ourselves, "But here's the problem: research on the adaptive unconscious suggests that much of what we want to see is unseeable. The mind is a wonderfully sophisticated and efficient tool, more so than the most powerful computer ever built." (2004, p. 15) He goes on to say, "It can thus be fruitless to try to examine the adaptive unconscious by looking inward. It is often better to deduce the nature of our hidden minds by looking outward at our behavior and how others react to us and coming up with a good narrative. In essence, we must be like biographers of our own lives, distilling our behavior and feelings into a meaningful and effective narrative. The best way to author a good self-story is not necessarily to engage in a lot of navel-gazing introspection, trying to uncover hidden feelings and motives."
As it turns out, horses may be able to help us out with this. Equine therapy has proved to be one way to peer into this hidden aspect of our consciousness by observing the horses' response to us. In the documentary "The Path of the Horse," Stormy May travels the world to interview revolutionary minds in rekindling the lost art of natural horsemanship. She shares her revelations about what horses provide for us," Until I became aware of how horses mirrored the thing in me that I needed to look at, I would continue to be frustrated by my expectations." (2012, 20:46) This statement reveals that beyond providing a metaphor, developing a relationship with actual horses is one thing that can help us to see the unseeable within ourselves.
In the same interview mentioned prior, war veterans Matt Kahl talks about his equine therapy experience for treating his PTSD. His description illustrates how we might approach the abused shaggy-eared Plato's horse within. "Towards the end of the process, we actually got to work with a few horses who had PTSD. Now horses normally are kind of in a constant state of PTSD: their amygdala is huge in comparison to the rest of their brain, and they are almost always in a state of fight or flight— they are prey animals, you know? So they are always trying to check their environment, trying to see what's dangerous out there— hypervigilance. And that's one of the big things we have as a problem with PTSD in the military— we're very hypervigilant. When you come into contact with this creature that's just naturally like that, you have to learn to work with it and not trigger it into these fight-or-flight moments." (The Psychedelic Times, 2019)
Trauma Fragmentation and the Path Towards Integration
Plato and Freud's archaic control models of looking at the inner workings of the relationship to self contradict the number one principle that is agreed upon across many modalities to encourage trauma healing. That principle is integration. Across modalities, it is known that trauma creates a kind of fragmentation. The path to recovery and thriving in the aftermath of trauma lies in bringing the lost or separated parts of ourselves back together to create wholeness. While the belief systems and language for expressing the concept of fragmentation vary, the common thread is unmistakable.
Three Stories of Fragmentation From Ancient to Modern Times:
In the book Horse, Follow Closely, Gawani Pony Boy tells us, "Coup, a French word meaning touch, was a way of dishonoring the enemy by touching him. The belief that a warrior could obtain some of the soul of his enemy, as well as some of his strength, courage, and energy, motivated warriors to count coup whenever the opportunity arose. Coup did not always precede the death of the enemy but was also used as a warning to the enemy to get out of Native American territory." (2020, p.176)
The Shamanistic Way
In the book, Waking The Tiger; healing trauma by Peter Levine, he writes about ancient shamanic approaches to healing trauma. "The methods used over the ages by medicine men and women are varied and complex. However, these diverse rituals and beliefs share a common understanding of trauma. When people are overwhelmed, their "souls" may become separated from their bodies. According to Mircea Eliade[ 5] (an important scholar of shamanistic practice), "rape of the soul" is by far the most widespread and damaging cause of illness cited by shamanic healers. Missing important parts of their souls, people become lost in states of spiritual suspension. From the shamanistic point of view, illness is a result of being stuck in "spiritual limbo." He elaborates on the remedy, "In shamanistic medicine, since disease is attributed to the soul having strayed, been stolen, or otherwise dislocated, treatments attempt to capture it or "oblige it to resume its place in the patient's body." (1997, p.57)
Story Telling Stories Integration Explained by Dan McAdam's Using the Metaphor of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:
A few years ago, Dan McAdams gave a lecture at Monmouth College on the Self as Story. He opened this talk by examining a concept expressed in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, "Voldermore wants to live forever, so he splits his soul into pieces and hides them in objects. Even if his body is destroyed, he reasons, a piece of him will live on forever in" the Horcrux," which is the name for any object in which a person has concealed a part of his soul. Harry must find Voldemort's seven Horcruxes and destroy them. Now, most of the wizards do not approve of Voldermort's efforts to attain immortality. You must understand, Professor Slughorn explains that the soul is supposed to remain intact and whole. Splitting is an act of violation. It is against nature. As a young wizard, Voldemort is fascinated by this idea. "How do you do it?" He wants to know. "How do you split your soul into pieces?" By an act of evil," answers Slughorn. "The Supreme act of evil. By committing murder, killing rips the soul apart." So early in his wizarding career, Voldermore studies the darkest and most forbidden magic. He learns the specific spells that need to be invoked after you murder somebody so that the piece of your soul that is torn off in the murder may be safely encased in the Horcrux.
Now the author here, JK Rowling, is suggesting that there is something horribly unnatural, something not quite human, about trying to split your soul into pieces. And so for Muggles and wizards the world over, the soul symbolizes unity and wholeness in the person. 'Rather than splitting into pieces,' professor Slughorn says, 'The natural thing to do is to bring yourself together, to bind yourselves together to unify your lives.' But how would you do that? You could ask professor Slughorn, "how would you do that?" How especially do we find unity and purpose in modern life when the world wants us to do so many things?" (2017, 03:48) McAdams seems to be implying here that there could be more causes of this soul splitting or, in modern terms, this disconnection of self than merely the extreme act of murder. He quickly moves to the idea that the world is vying for our attention at every turn, causing an experience of divided attention at the very least. In a world so full of options and attention grabbers, "How do you find your vocation, your calling, what you think you were meant to do and be in life?" (2017, 06:03) McAdams says he is skeptical about the idea of a soul. However, he believes that life is a chaotic experience in which we may feel disoriented, and telling our stories has the power to re-integrate our experience and our sense of self. (2017)
The Dissociation of Perpetration Trauma
Let us look at something McAdams did not elaborate on regarding Voldermort and his intentional soul fragmentation brought about through evil acts. Voldemort's archetype points to the trauma the perpetrator experiences in the act of perpetration. Culturally we agree on the trauma that victims experience. However, we give little credence to the trauma cycle, which is alive in the perpetrator. Quite possibly, it is the perpetrator who is the most traumatized and fragmented of us all. Freud and Plato's analogies paint the ego or conscious self as the perpetrator. It is our conscious self that carries the whip after all. The perpetrator within has experienced the initial trauma of victimization. This initial victimhood, in turn, causes them to pay this abuse forward. Remember, "Hurt people, hurt people" (Yehuda Berg, n.d.). Once this cycle starts, every time they commit an act of abuse or violence on someone else, they suffer in the dissociated self-betrayal it takes to commit such atrocious acts. This self-betrayal fragments the perpetrator further each time. Dan McAdams writes about this phenomenon in his book, The Redemptive Self. “Once sin enters the story, furthermore there seems no getting back to the original goodness. Innocence lost is lost forever. Human actors seem doomed throughout the Old Testament to repeat their contaminations again and again. One step forward, two steps back. Around and around.” (2006, p.213)
Veteran suicide is a growing problem. Following their orders, these people were swept up in the groupthink of "acceptable" and expected violence during war times. Many vets are attempting to numb their pain with the use of heavy pharmaceuticals. Through these drugs, they try to rest their minds from the horrifying memories and thoughts of violence witnessed and violence enacted on others. One of these painful memories is shared in James Pennebaker's book, Opening Up by Writing it Down, "There was a burst of gunfire, and my buddy fell to the ground, half of his head blown off. I looked up and a [North Vietnamese soldier] was running into a shed carrying a machine gun. I ran to the shed, jumped through the door and fired, hitting them in both legs. It was a woman who had shot my buddy and who was bleeding on the ground. We stared into each other's eyes. I ripped off her clothes and made love to her. Before I knew it, I could hear choppers overhead—ours. I pulled out my knife and slit her throat. I loved her. I killed her." (2016, p.27) Somehow in his account of this terrible act, he recalls a feeling of love for her as he was committing these unthinkable acts of violence. If this is not a clear example of disassociation, what is? It is war crimes like this one that causes a deep battle within the consciousness of veterans. How can a person who has done such things learn to accept and embrace his whole self? How can he not cast that part of himself out, deeming it forever unacceptable? And if he can not forgive and accept his whole self, then the cycle in his life may repeat in one form or another. “Sometimes the story seems to move in a vicious circle. Traumas, disappointments, failures and losses from the earlier chapters of the story reappear and play themselves out again and again and again in later chapters.” Wrote Dan McAdams in The Redemptive Self (2006, p. 218). McAdams calls this a “contaminated life story” (2006). He recognizes, “Soldiers came home from the front only to find they could not leave the trenches and the gasmasks behind. Many experienced flashbacks about the war, reliving traumatic scenes in their dreams and in waking life. Expressing symptoms of what we now call post traumatic stress disorder, many of these men seemed compelled to repeat or relive the past again and again, even though they did not want to do so” (2006, p.218) The modalities that follow offer differing paths back to wholeness to break this cycle.
Accepting Ourselves After We Have Hurt Others
Some veterans with PTSD have had positive experiences of regaining wholeness through varying modalities.
Somatic Experiencing offers powerful insight into healing after we have rejected a part of ourselves. Waking the Tiger, by Peter Levine, explains Somatic Experiencing is a presence-centered body-awareness therapy. Through attention and acceptance of the felt sense, we can summon an inner re-enactment of our past while staying consciously present with our body’s experience. This can help us accept ourselves and release the trauma that gets trapped inside the body, which often manifests as disease (Levine, 1997). In The Redemptive Self McAdams tells us, “Freud speculated that many cases of repetition compulsion may represent efforts to undo or master the past. By replaying the frustration or traumatic scene again and again, the person may be unconsciously trying to loosen the grip of the event upon his or her entire personality” (2006, p. 221). Levine put it this way, “The phenomenon that drives the repetition of past traumatic events is called re-enactment. It is the symptom that dominates the last turn of the downward spiral in the development of trauma symptoms. Re-enactment is more compelling, mysterious, and destructive to us as individuals, as a society, and as a world community” (1997, p.170). Frequently during the traumatic events of our lives, we disconnect from our body’s felt experience. By doing this, we are disconnecting from ourselves. The result is fragmentation. Somatic Experiencing can help us to reclaim our fullness even in the face of tragedy. It works by providing us a framework to take charge of the way we express re-enactment, on our own terms. This allows us to break the cycle and relieves us of the non-conscious drive to continue the pattern out in the real world.
Equine therapy is, in many ways, an aid to Somatic Experiencing. Spending time with horses encourages body-centered awareness and authenticity. Equine therapy can help us learn how to invite our whole selves in. In the "Path of the Horse," Linda Kohanov talks about the relationship between the way we have been treating our horses and the way we have been treating ourselves. "Partnership begins at home in the biggest sense of the word, at home in your own body, recognizing that your body is the horse that your mind rides around on. In the past, we have treated our bodies like we would treat an unruly horse. We would reign in our instincts and our emotions, and our intuition, and mistrust it and treat it like it was not at all a source of wisdom" (2012, 36:33). As was discussed earlier, horses mirror back to us what is going on in our emotional body and quite possibly our non-conscious processes. Horses are only interested in authenticity. If we are not willing or able to be completely honest with ourselves and what we are feeling in a particular moment, a horse will tend to be disinterested in connecting with us. When we are authentic with our experience, including the painful stuff, horses tend to move towards us to connect. In this way, they offer us an invitation to bring our whole selves to the relationship.
Psychedelic Healing in the form of psilocybin and ayahuasca has been shown to help veterans with PTSD. There are currently many studies underway which are showing promising results from using the drug MDMA in conjunction with psychotherapy. Part of what is so powerful about MDMA therapy is that it reduces fear and increases empathy. This unguarded state often opens the floodgates of all the secret, painful experiences we have been holding to be expressed and finally shared.
Life Stories Interviews McAdams addresses the power of sharing even the darkest aspects of our past in The Redemptive Self. “How do we try to decontaminate the past? How do we seek to undo the bad that has already been done? When we feel that we may be partly or largely responsible for the bad outcome that occurred, when we feel that it may be, in some sense, “our fault”, we may seek to confess” (2006, p. 224) He goes on to say, “Confession may assuage the guilt and shame a person feels for having committed an immoral or unfortunate act” (2006, p.224). Life Story Interviews, The life's work of Dan McAdams is a process that has been researched extensively and has proven to be instrumental in creating integration and wholeness.
Writing to release the heavy burden of the secrets we keep has shown empirical and academic evidence to support us in healing from severe trauma. James Pennebaker’s book, Opening Up by Writing it Down echo’s McAdams sentiment but offers a different format for accomplishing this. “Talking or writing about upsetting things can influence our basic values, daily thinking patterns, and feelings about ourselves. In fact, there appears to be a basic need to reveal ourselves to others. Not disclosing our thoughts and feelings can be risky for our mental and physical health. Divulging them can be healthy” (Pennebaker, 2016, p. 1).
Each one of these modalities helps us tell a new story, a story of unity and inclusion. This new narrative must invite even the once patronized, beat down mangy beast within us to the table. Consider that Plato's shaggy-eared horse and Freud's unruly id horse analogies are stories at their core. (Haidt, 2015, p.15) These are the stories with which we have based our relationship with our non-conscious self. These are stories seeded with separation and the need for control and domination. This foundation sets the stage for the stories we tell about ourselves. Could it be then, that we have been trying to make ourselves whole with the wrong story? This ancient story we are still telling is a story that, at its core, assumes the worst of ourselves and drives this idea of separation from self even deeper into our experience. If we want to invite integration after trauma we must acknowledge we have been telling a fragmentation story. Carl Jung was a revolutionary thinker. While the scientific psychology community may not recognize his work as being based on science, in his time, he attempted to steer us towards telling a new story. Alan Watts expounded on the shift toward self acceptance that Jung brought to our culture in a Tribute to Jung Lecture named Why You Must Accept Your Evil Side, ”He understood that an integrated person is not a person who simply eliminated the sense of guilt or the sense of anxiety from his life, who is fearless, and wooden and a kind of sage of stone. He's a person who feels all these things but has no recrimination against himself for feeling them.” Later on in the same lecture Watts says, “The recognition of the fact that behind the social role which you assume, behind all your pretensions to be either a good citizen, or a fine scholar or a great scientist or a leading politician or physician or whatever you happen to be, behind this facade, there is a certain element of the unreconstructed bum. Not as something to be condemned and wailed over. But something to be recognized as contributing to one's greatness and to one's positive aspects. In the same way that manure is contributing to the perfume of the rose.” (n.d. 4:47) The first step in becoming whole is to start telling a different story, one of unity, trust, and acceptance.
Dan P. Mcadams Lecture at Monmouth College (2017). The Self as a Story https://youtu.be/ySDUoyL3KHg
Dan P. Mcadams (2006). The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By. Oxford University Press.
Jonathan Haidt (2015). The Happiness Hypothesis; putting ancient wisdom to the test of modern science. Cornerstone Digital.
Yehuda Berg (n.d.) Quote by Yehuda Berg: “Hurt people hurt people. That's how pain patter...”
Elliot Aronson & Joshua Aronson (2018). The Social Animal, p. 271. Worth Publishers.
Mark Rashid (2015). Horses Never Lie:The Heart of Passive Leadership. Skyhorse Publishing Company, Incorporated.
Gawani Pony Boy (2020). Horse, Follow Closely - Native American Horsemanship. Kosmos.
Matt Kahl and Westley Thoricatha (2019). Equine Therapy and Ego Destruction: Interview with Matthew Kahl on Veteran Suicide Prevention and Psychedelics Psychedelic Times.
("Why the Brain Knows More than We Do: Non-Conscious Representations and Their Role in the Construction of Conscious Experience”, 2011, an article published in the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at Montpellier 34095, France, written by Birgitta Dresp-Langley) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4061785/
Timothy Wilson (2004). Strangers to Ourselves: discovering the adaptive unconscious. Belknap.
Stormy May (2012) [video]. The Path of the Horse - Full Length Documentary. Youtube. (https://youtu.be/TQUMAJCh1fA)
Peter Levine (1997). Waking The Tiger; healing trauma: the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books.
James Pennebaker (2016) Opening Up by Writing it Down: how expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. The Guildford Press.
Alan Watts Lecture (n.d.). Why You Must Accept Your Evil Side. Youtube. https://youtu.be/htNZR5OXrac
Unity Consciousness Through Quieting the Default Mode Network - The Wonders of Psilocybin
From MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Study) to Harvard, to Yale to Johns Hopkins University, to the University of Zurich, the study of psychedelic therapy is exploding across the academic domain, and the results are legitimizing. These groundbreaking studies have revealed some profound common threads between reports and brain scans of long-term meditators and those partaking in psychedelic therapies.
From the fourteen-month follow-up interviews with Roland Griffiths's 2017 study participants, some words echo the theme of Positive Psychology concepts. "The part that continued to stick out for me was "knowing" and "seeing" and "experiencing" with every sense and fiber of my being that all things are connected," "The sense that all is One, that I experienced the essence of the Universe and the knowing that God asks nothing of us except to receive love." Furthermore, "The feeling of no boundaries - where I didn't know where I ended and my surroundings began. Somehow I was able to comprehend what oneness is." 1 Johan Hari writes about these findings in his book Lost Connections - Why You're Depressed and How to Find Hope, "As he read through this, Roland noticed one thing in particular. The way people described feeling when they took psychedelics was strikingly similar to the way people said they felt if they had a deep, sustained program of meditation." 2 (276) "Roland was curious to learn whether there was any connection between the experiences long-term meditators were having and the experiences people have when they are given psychedelics. If these are two different routes to feeling the same thing, would that help us figure out what was really going on? "2 (276)
The John Hopkins University study, "Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors," 1 done by Roland Griffith, involved 75 participants who were separated into three groups of 25 each based on six factors to keep the groups as balanced as possible. The factors were; gender, age, lifetime psychedelic use, baseline lifetime Hood Mysticism Scale score, baseline frequency of meditation, and staff judgment about whether the participant was especially likely to engage in spiritual practices. That last factor seems highly subjective for a scientific study. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to have a strong influence on the study's outcome. The group was overall highly educated at 87% with a college or postgraduate degree. They had a mean age of 42. 31% were practiced meditators; however, the mean time for meditation practice was only once a month before joining the study.
The three groups received different dosages of psilocybin and differing levels of social support. Low dose with standard support, high dose with standard support, and high dose with high support. Standard support consisted of 7 hours and 20 minutes of one on one time throughout the study up to 6 months after. The high support group received 35 hours of one on one time through 6 months post-study. A general spiritual meditation practice was introduced to participants one month before the first dosing session and two months before the second. All participants were given the book, Meditation: A Simple 8-Point Program for Translating Spiritual Ideals into Daily Life by Eknath Easwaran. Dosing sessions took place in a living room type setting with an eye covering to minimize external distractions. Participants wore earphones with the same classical and world music playlist played for each of the participants. Seven hours after dosing and once the effects had worn off, the participants filled out four questionnaires: Hallucinogen rating scale (HRS), 5-Dimension Altered States of Consciousness (5D-ASC), 9 - point Mysticism Scale, and the States of Consciousness Questionnaire (MEQ30). There was an interesting finding shown in figure 2. of the "guide ratings of volunteer and mood assessed throughout the psilocybin session." 1 Of the three groups, the level of the positive emotional experiences of Joy and Intense Happiness, and Peace and Harmony, in all three dosing categories, it was the groups with "standard" and not "high" support that scored the highest. This finding speaks to a level of personal agency that may contribute to these emotions. Alternately, in the MEQ30, all five factors of Mystical Experience, Positive Mood, Transcendence of Time and Space, Ineffability, were elevated the highest in the high support groups. Even though these categories are not entirely alike with the positive emotions I listed above, they are all in effect, of the positive emotion scale; therefore, it is curious that the contradictory findings were revealed for this particular questionnaire. Perhaps it has to do with the difference between the self-reporting system of the MEQ30 and the guide/observer's reporting system of the latter.
Essentially, the results show that the high dose groups, both with standard and with high support, showed significantly higher lasting positive psychological effects. "Similar findings were shown for the percentage of each group providing strong endorsements of these same three dimensions. For example, 12%, 76%, and 96% of the LD-SS, HD-SS, and HD-HS groups, respectively, rated the experience(s) among the top five most spiritual experiences of their lives, with 0%, 40%, and 56%, respectively, indicating it to be the single most spiritually significant experience of their life." 1
The Harvard study," Functional-Anatomic Fractionation of the Brain's Default Network," 3 shows with brain scans the default mode network is composed of two cores; the posterior cingulate and anterior medial prefrontal cortex. The posterior cingulate cortex is responsible for the perception that distinguishes us from another person or object. The medial prefrontal cortex is responsible for our perception of time. Brain scans show there are two known things that shut down the default mode network; meditation and psychedelics. Ordinarily, when the brain is not engaged in a task or specific function, the DMN runs wild. In the meditation community, this is often called "the monkey mind." Through meditation, especially concentration practice, we learn to bring our mind back to a certain point of attention. The Buddha used the place on the nose where the breath enters through the nostrils. This practice is called Vipassana Meditation. When we sit in meditation and watch our thoughts arise, we witness the DMN in action until the brain calms down. When we choose not to follow the impulse to become absorbed into our thoughts but instead continuously turn our attention back to the sensation at the nostrils as the breath enters and exits, we begin to quiet the DMN. For some, the DMN calms down in a matter of minutes. For others, it may take years of practice for it to settle down to a significant degree. When the default mode network shuts down, we lose our perception of ourselves," other," and time.
Gary Weber Ph.D. has said in Happiness Beyond Thought a Practical Guide to Awakening, "We have found in the on-going Yale study that experienced meditators can permanently change their DMN to one that does not have the randomly wandering self-narrative, as mine has done, to one of stillness." 4 The Yale study he speaks of, "Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity," 5 was able to confirm through brain scans that the DMN of Gary Weber and other long term meditators had, in fact, been deactivated.
If meditation and psychedelics alike have the power to still the default mode network, the next logical question is; what happens when these two modalities are combined? Lukasz Smigielski, Milan Scheidegger, Michael Kometer, and Franz X. Vollenweider of the University of Zurich Switzerland sought answers to this very question when they conducted the study, "Psilocybin-assisted mindfulness training modulates self-consciousness and brain default mode network connectivity with lasting effects." 6 Picture a serene meditation center located in the Swiss Alps with silent participants dressed in monks robes during a five day silent Zen and Vipassana traditional meditation retreat, which included sitting meditation, walking meditation, physical mindfulness work, and psilocybin. "Both psychedelics and meditation exert profound modulatory effects on consciousness, perception, and cognition, but their combined, possibly synergistic effects on neurobiology are unknown. Accordingly, we conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study with 38 participants following a single administration of the psychedelic psilocybin (315μg/kg p.o.) during a 5-day mindfulness retreat." 6 Participants had a collective active high level of meditation experience with a mean average of 5,600 hours of meditation experience. Each participant had little to no psychedelic experience before the study. These were fifteen-hour days of meditation, which began with three days of pre-psilocybin mindfulness preparation. On day four, a double-blind placebo-controlled administration of psilocybin or placebo was administered, and the same daily mindfulness practice activities of the retreat were carried out. Day five was a deep meditative integration day. Brain MRI scans were collected on the day before and after the retreat. At the four-month post-retreat mark, a self-assessment was done by participants as well as close family and friends regarding psychological well being, behaviors, and attitudes using the HOOD mysticism scale. The psilocybin group scored much higher on this HOOD assessment than did the control group. Also significant was the observed lack of anxiety, which can be present to varying degrees in other psilocybin study settings. The lack of anxiety noted offers strong evidence that a mindfulness centered approach to psilocybin therapy may be a highly beneficial method. Each evening of the retreat, participants filled out a "depth of meditation" questionnaire. Depth of meditation scored higher across the board in the psilocybin group than that of the placebo. Also, higher levels of ego disillusionment were reported in the psilocybin group. The MRI findings showed decreased activity in the default mode network in both the placebo and the psilocybin group, with a more significant decrease shown in the psilocybin group. The reduced activity in the DMN is a groundbreaking discovery for depression recovery. The Default Mode Network is the network involved in maladaptive self-referential processing associated with depression. "The study highlights the link between altered self-experience and subsequent behavioral changes. Understanding how interventions facilitate transformative experiences may open novel therapeutic perspectives." 6
The study's findings support the theory that compounding effects of meditation and psilocybin together have a more profound impact on the default mode network than meditation alone. "Psilocybin administered in a mindfulness retreat setting significantly potentiated positively felt states of ego dissolution (i.e., OSB, oceanic self-boundlessness) compared to the placebo." 6
In his forward of The Translucent Revolution, Ken Wilber asserts that psychedelics can open people to unity consciousness differently depending on their current outlook. "If you are in an ethnocentric stage of development and you have a unity-state experience of being one with everything, you might interpret that as an experience of oneness with Jesus and conclude that nobody can be saved unless they accept Jesus as their personal savior. If you are at an egocentric stage and have the same experience, you might believe that you yourself are Jesus. If you are at an …integral stage …you are likely to conclude that you and all sentient beings without exception are one in the spirit." 7 (22) Could it be that the meditation component included in the University of Zurich study brought the study subjects into an "integral stage," and thus, the psilocybin group had the outcome of sensing that "all sentient beings without exception are one in the spirit?" 7 (22)
The reports of unity consciousness activation by way of the therapeutic use of entheogens are numerous. A questionnaire study post-psychedelic therapeutic session punctuates this in The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide "What single event or insight, if any, during the LSD experience do you consider to have been of greatest meaning to you?" are of sufficient interest to be worth summarizing briefly." 7 Out of 158 people, 53 reported the same answer, "Experiencing an underlying reality, a sense of oneness with all of life, of unity and purpose, of love, of the presence of a Higher Power." 7 (302)
Johan Hari, in Lost Connections, adds to the scientific findings of ego disillusionment, "They found that if you give people psychedelic drugs—mostly LSD, which was legal at the time—under clinical conditions, you can fairly predictably cause them to have what feel like spiritual experiences. You can make them feel they are transcending their egos and their everyday concerns and connecting intensely with something much deeper—with other people, with nature, even with the nature of existence itself. The vast majority of people given the drug by doctors said that it made them feel this way, and that the experience seemed profound to them." 2 While Hari's intent is to point out the antidepressant quality of psychedelics, the terminology, "cause them to have what feels like a spiritual experience" may be missing the mark. Perhaps instead, there exists in the human brain, something like a separation valve; the DMN. This separation valve acts as a veil or a filter, which prevents us from seeing things as they truly are, all one consciousness. In this sense, when we deactivate the DMN through meditation or plant medicines such as psilocybin, the blinders are removed, making visible the spiritual experience which is always present. Instead of plants as a way to "make them feel they are transcending their egos," the plants are lifting the filtered glasses of the ego."
Our confirmation bias acts as the seal on the envelope of our perceptions. William James is quoted in Ram Dass' book Be Here Now," 'No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question, for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. They may determine attitudes, though they can not furnish formulas and open a region though they fail to give a map.' At any rate, concludes James, 'They forbid our premature closing of accounts with reality.' In spite of what he said, we've closed our accounts with reality (most of us)." 8 The newfound access to science-based research regarding the use of entheogenic medicine alongside meditation may very well be that map we need to get us past our individualistic closed" accounts with reality" and thereby open us up to the awareness of our greater oneness.
The Scientific American published an article by John Horgan shortly after the death of Baba Ramdass that tells the story Ramdass himself has told in many of his lectures. It is a story about what happened when he gave a very high LSD dose to his spiritual guru, Maharajji, in India. "The guru asked him for the "medicine." Then they sat in Satsang all day together, and absolutely nothing happened." LSD didn't affect Maharajji, Ram Dass implied, because the guru already had such a profoundly mystical outlook. This message corroborated the overarching theme of Be Here Now, that spiritual practices such as meditation and yoga can induce the same powerful mystical states as psychedelics but in a more stable, permanent fashion." 9
It has been said that lasting change happens through repetition or impact. Change through meditation occurs over a long period of time. Through repetition, we can create lasting brain changes in which the default mode network is turned down. Long-term meditators may experience a sense of oneness as this occurs. The sense of "selfness" dissolves. In this case, meditation is the cause of change through repetition. Psilocybin and other psychedelics create brain changes that happen quickly through impact. As Roland Griffith was quoted yet again in Lost Connections, "If meditation is the tried and true course for [discovering this]," Roland said, "psilocybin surely has to be the crash course." 2 When used in combination, the results have shown to be substantial for creating lasting psychological benefits. When our sense of self and otherness dissolves, we experience a state of ultimate connection with the world around us and our fellow human beings. In this sense, maybe meditation and psychedelics have the power to cure us of our egos' tendency toward "othering" and, therefore, help us heal the wounds of division, like racism, sexism, ageism, and every other "ism" known to humankind.
I've been thinking a lot about control and belonging lately and wondering how they relate to the dichotomy of freedom versus safety, especially in our current cultural experience of COVID-19. There is a lot of struggle between the two in the media, on social media, at the grocery store, and displayed at a diverse array of protests. Some people appear to be ready to accept the "new normal" of restricted movement, mandatory mask-wearing and mandatory "vaccination" in the name of safety. Others vehemently oppose the removal of these "freedoms" and would rather take their chances with the virus than lose a shred of personal agency. Freedom is a form of having control over one's life. Whether it is scientifically sound or not, there is a message of safety in the action of wearing a mask and vaccine passports in order to escape the virus and protect others from it. There is also an element of safety (virus escaping aside) that masking and the receiving the injection has on our sense of belonging. Belonging represents safety in the sense that we find safety in the herd. Baumeister elaborates on belonging in his article, The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation, "The innate quality presumably has an evolutionary basis. The desire to form and maintain social bonds has both survival and reproductive benefits." Conforming to the rules of the group not only gives us a sense of belonging, but our desire to belong is also enmeshed with our need for safety. Elliot Aronson has described this dichotomy of needs in another way in his book, The Social Animal, "One consequence of the fact that we are social animals is that we live in a state of tension between values associated with individuality and values associated with conformity."
Aronson uses a story from humorist James Thurber's autobiography to discuss this topic further in the chapter on conformity in his book, The Social Animal. If the group around us is running in one direction, is it safest to assume they must be running from something dangerous and join the crowd? Alternatively, we could choose to be individualistic at that moment and declare our freedom to do our "own thing." But if we are wrong, the consequences can be deadly. Adding another layer to this decision-making process is considering whether or not our choice to buck the herd may cause harm to others. This is the conundrum of our present-day situation. To mask or not to mask. To be injected or to trust our immune systems. At the very least, those decision call into question the impression of the potential for causing harm to others. Aronson describes this well in a different context, "That conformist reflex was undoubtedly crucial in our hunter-gatherer past; indeed nonconformity can be disastrous. Suppose I suddenly decide I am fed up with being a conformist. So I hop in my car and start driving down the left-hand side of the road—not a terribly smart or adaptive way of expressing my rugged individualism and not very fair to you if you happen to be driving toward me (conformist-style) on the same street."
On the other hand, Elliot warns, "Sometimes the need to conform will even silence an individual's certain knowledge of a forthcoming disaster." Evolutionarily speaking, our inclination towards conformity has proved to be a successful survival skill. Aronson also points out that historically, our tendency to conform has equally had devastating consequences. He cites the example of what occurred in Nazi Germany, among others, "In his memoirs, Albert Speer, one of Hitler's top advisers, described the circle around Hitler as one of total conformity—deviation was not permitted." Indeed, the Nazi’s had a phrase to justify and conceal their intentions for the Jews, ”für ihr sicherheit” which means, ”for your safety.”
I've been spending some time with horses lately. Horses are well known for their representation of freedom. However, they are also prey animals and find their safety in the herd. One interesting thing about horses is that what they really want from humans is the promise of safety. These prey animals will acquiesce to the will of their human captors but not without gain. In a sense, they revoke their freedom in trade for safety. Once in the safety of the pasture or the barn, they no longer have to worry about survival in the same way. Their handlers meet their food and water needs, and protection from other predatory animals is established. This is quite appealing to vulnerable animals.
What about human animals? We are at the top of the food chain because of our brains' capacity. But we are also incredibly vulnerable, naked, delicate creatures. Desmon Morris goes into great detail regarding this unique quality of our species in his book, The Naked Ape, "The temperature-controlling devices are of vital importance, and the possession of a thick, hairy, insulating coat obviously plays a major roll in preventing heat loss. In intense sunlight it will also prevent over-heating and damage to the skin from direct exposure to the sun's rays." Our vulnerability goes far beyond our hairlessness. If we were alone and naked in a field with no weapons, our food chain status would suddenly drop significantly. Part of what keeps us a dominant animal is our connection to each other. Our society and culture functions in a similar fashion as does the horse and it's handler.
As long as we go along with society's rules, we get to enjoy a certain amount of safety and security. What we trade for that sense of safety are varying degrees of freedom. In 2020 as the media bombards the citizens with mortality reminders, real or imagined dangers lurking behind that conceptual curtain of security in our perception has ballooned. The media has thereby increased the appeal for safety in the human brain. The prospect of trading more personal agency for greater protection from the looming threat seems logical. In this sense, all that a manipulative social system has to do to gain greater control over its people is to present a more significant outside threat. As society adds more and more rules to its domain, the human-animal looking for safety will gladly follow each additional restriction and willingly succumb to submission.
On the other side of this spectrum, we have the freedom fighters. Many of which appear to be of the right-wing ideology (at least that is what is portrayed in the media). It is suspect that some of their behavior may be motivated by the need to display Sociopolitical Control. According to the article, "Desire for control, perception of control: their impact on autonomous motivation and psychological adjustment" written by, Camille Amoura, Sophie Berjot, Nicolas Gillet, Emin Altintas, "Sociopolitical Control refers to the individuals' attempts to defend their personal goals and values in the political and social world." Many people representing the right wing group have shown up at various state capital buildings across the country with their assault rifles to protest and rebel against the societal force of law that threatens their personal agency. What the media has not portrayed is that many have protested the same removal of freedoms in a more peaceful fashion.
Through fear tactics, the media puppeteer and its comrade social media seem to have convinced us that the majority of the left-wing has taken the safety the new rules offer and willfully given up their freedom to do so. While we are told the right-wing hasn't taken the bait or at least doesn't value society's protection but instead sees the government as the threat itself (What the media doesn't point out is that there are more than a few genuinely rogue non-partisans who oppose the mainstream storyline). Prominent social psychologist Jonathan Heidt talks about this polarization phenomenon in a recent interview in The Atlantic. "And when you look at the people who are loudest on Twitter and elsewhere, it's quite clear that this pandemic is turning into just another culture-war issue, where people on the left see what they want to see and people on the right see what they want to see."
Social psychologist Elliot Aronson expands on the driving forces behind this phenomenon in his book, The Social Animal. "These tendencies helped keep us alive when we fought with stones and clubs, but over the millennia the human tendency to see the world in tribal, us-and-them terms has laid the foundation for conflict, political division, hatred, and war." Our us-and-them tribal mind drives the stake of our confirmation bias' deep into the ground of our selective thinking. Thus, through the "us" group of our choosing, our biases and values become firmly rooted in our constructed reality's groupthink structure. Elliot defines it this way, "groupthink: a kind of thinking in which maintaining group agreement overrides a careful consideration of the facts in a realistic manner." This oppositional nature of politics is far-reaching, and the chasm that divides us appears to be growing deeper every day.
Those with a greed-driven intent have indeed been using the science of Social Psychology to weaponize against us our human needs for control and belonging for quite some time. Intentional societal manipulation has been in play, at least since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. This phenomenon has been made clear in "The Century of The Self - Happiness Machines" documentary. One iteration of this manipulation was the "Torches of Freedom" slogan calling for women to pick up the habit of smoking. In this example, "Torches of Freedom" preyed on the personal agency aspect of control. The control over one's life to do whatever they want, to have the freedom to smoke. Once enough women fell into the trap and started smoking, it's enticement would expand to include filling the need for belonging, since everyone was doing it. Knowing of the capitalistic manipulative nature of the media, it is a wonder that most educated people still take what they hear on the media as gospel and still believe the powers that be have the people's best interest at heart.
Looking through today's pandemic lens, the media’s use of the words "for your safety," might be interchangeable with the words, ”control over the population.” It all depends on what is true. And how are we to know what is true, when we know that the media has been manipulating us for their own interest at least since the Industrial Revolution? In the face of a global pandemic, public relations has aptly targeted our need for personal control and safety alike. In the article "Desire for control, perception of control: their impact on autonomous motivation and psychological adjustment," they explain this universal need well. "Personal Control is close to SE (Bandura 1977; Skinner 1996). It refers to the individuals' perception (or belief) that performing the required behaviors can lead to the desired outcome. In other words, personal control is a judgment that one has the ability, resources, or opportunities to take action to increase the likelihood of obtaining positive outcomes or avoiding negative ones" (Thompson and Schlehofer 2008, p. 42). Take wearing masks, for example. Wearing a mask in public has become one of those new societal rules that we must abide by. The idea is that if we wear a mask out in public, we are gaining some sense of personal control in the hopes of a more favorable outcome. From a psychological perspective, regardless of the efficacy of masks to prevent viral spread, this "perception" of control may very well be helping people maintain their sanity in the midst of what otherwise feels like a completely out of control situation. Since science is ever changing and by no means free from political bias, there are a plethora of scientific studies that support both the idea that masks do help and also the idea that they are making things worse. But for this specific psychological exploration, that particular debate is beside the point.
What if someone is not agreeable with trading their freedom for the safety of the herd or society's rules and regulations? What if they don't believe the media messaging and the imposition of fear? One might choose to head to the Capital wielding semi-automatics. This certainly is not a very diplomatic option. So, what can they do if they don't agree with the ideology of toting big guns around to prove their freedom? What of the citizen who respects the needs and feelings of those around them and yet also desires to maintain their own need for personal agency? Going back to the analogy of handler and horse as a metaphor of society's hold on the individual, this nameless character might feel like a captured horse who senses that its handler's intentions are impure. After all, it is the building of trust that makes this arrangement work. Building real trust with its people is something the United States government has failed to achieve in any real way.
The contrast of Sweden's response to the pandemic is stark. There appears to be mutual trust between their people and their government. Instead of mandates, they have simply advised their citizens to take common-sense precautions, and the people have gladly agreed. This difference may be attributed to the theory of external justification versus internal justification. In the book The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson defines external justification as "a person's justification for his or her dissonant behavior that is situation-determined." He describes internal justification as "the reduction of dissonance by changing something about oneself (e.g., one's attitude or behavior) in the direction of one's statements." A government like the USA who uses mandates and fines, and scare tactics to impose mask-wearing, provides plenty of external justification to wear a mask. External justification works so long as the person thinks someone may be watching who could impose consequences if they don't wear a mask. But since it requires no personalization of the decision, the person is likely not to wear one when they think no authorities are looking. Contrarily, a country like Sweden has offered its citizens the opportunity to formulate internal justification. With no outside threat of consequences, if a person makes the initial choice to wear a mask despite it being uncomfortable, they will have to increase their internal belief in the benefit of wearing one. They will naturally do this to reduce the experience of cognitive dissonance that choosing to wear a mask even though it is uncomfortable, may cause. A causality of this as Aronson points out is that, “It is those who are threatened with mild punishment who develop a dislike for the forbidden activity; people who are severely threatened, if anything, are even more drawn to the forbidden activity.” Therefore the Swedes who were under mild to no threat of external punishment, if they have ever worn a mask, are more likely to continue to wear a mask even when they think no authority is looking.
Due to the mistrust between the United States government and its citizens, some may resist submission to either party and their groupthink agendas. However, as much as any of us claim to be non-conformists, rugged individualists, we still can't extract the particular spice that is ourselves from the soup of the society we swim in. Like it or not, we do not exist as sovereign animals. We are "Social Animals." As Fyodor Dostoyevsky puts it in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, "Rebel comrades are after all, not natural friends, not community, not family but merely, unchosen, inescapable company." In this sense, we may be inseparable from the herd and yet left with a feeling of being tribeless.
One of the most significant ways we are intertwined with society at large is through the media. Indeed it is striking to realize the impact of "media contagion." And the effect it has on the emotions and actions of those who are tuning into it. Which incidentally is almost everyone. Aronson writes about the impact of "Emotional Contagion, which occurs when one person's emotional behavior triggers similar emotions and behaviors in observers." He gives the example of the spike in teen suicide that followed the sensationalized media coverage of four teenagers who died after carrying out a suicide pact in the 1980s in New Jersey.
In another example, Elliot wrote about the cyanide-laced Tylenol that killed seven people in Chicago in 1982. Even back then, when we didn't yet have internet or social media, the media's message of these poisonings we're unavoidable. This caused mass paranoia, and people began going to the hospital for every little discomfort, afraid they had been poised. Aronson expands on media manipulation as he tells us, "when the media bombard viewers with bad news about crime and terrorism, people will overestimate the prevalence of violence and disaster." In 2020, one could insert "COVID death tolls" into that sentence as we can see the effects of hysteria, causing some to wear masks even while driving alone in their vehicles. While Elliot referred to the perception of violent threats in the country, it stands to reason that anything repetitious that instigates a person's fight or flight response would have the same effect. He goes on to say, "Such coverage obviously presents a distorted picture of the world." Aronson points out, "It is good to be informed, and the media play a crucial role in keeping us informed. However, there can be a downside to this kind of exposure, as well. Whether it is intentional or not, repeated vivid imagery of this sort shapes attitudes and opinions."
One human cognitive skill of efficiency that we use regularly is called Availability Heuristics. “The availability heuristic is the tendency to predict the likelihood of an event, or judge how risky it is, based on how easy it is to bring specific examples to mind.” When we are bombarded with media messaging, whatever the message is, it will be readily retrieved through heuristics causing us to psychologically inflate its prevalence. This is one of the ways we make sense of a world in which we are continually required to ingest enormous amounts of information and make decisions based on that information. Awareness of the way external input affects our world view is paramount. But is awareness itself enough to reign in its effect on us? Or is it better to turn off or at least dial back the amount of media and social media we ingest?
Turning off the media may not be enough, either. We will be presented with choices like, should we send our children to school wearing masks all day? We may wonder what kind of psychological impact will this have on them. Perhaps this is the era where the commune will thrive. If we can not separate ourselves from the masses with whom we disagree, we might consider looking to create smaller communities of like-minded individuals with whom to strike the perfect balance between safety and freedom. Maybe this is our best option, considering how populated the planet has become and considering Elliot's assertion that human groups work most optimally with 150 or fewer members. "A useful implication of knowing the 150-person limit is that human organizations function better when they don't get too large when they can operate like communities rather than bureaucracies. Small schools have lower rates of violence and absences, better relationships, and higher-quality learning than larger, impersonal schools do. Being mindful of the limitations of our evolved hunter-gatherer minds provides ways of optimizing our lives and institutions." (Kindle location 502) .
To escape society's grip, we would need to develop a self-sustaining model of life. This would have to entail learning to live off the land, growing our own food, and developing our own form of government. However, we need to be ever mindful of our susceptibility to entrapment as it relates to cognitive dissonance theory. Even if we decide to join a smaller unit of communal living and renounce our larger society, we are still susceptible to the problems associated with groupthink mentalities. Aronson defines entrapment as "the process by which people make a small decision, justify it, and over time find themselves increasingly committed to a belief or activity." He describes this entrapment process to be precisely the way many cult leaders have gotten their followers to commit terrible atrocities.
To achieve harmony, peace, freedom, and belonging in just the right ratios, we will inevitably face the centuries-old human quest for Utopia and Self-actualization. Maybe it comes down to mindfulness and balance. Through mindfulness, we can gain awareness of our evolutionary biases born through cognitive dissonance theory and question our own perspectives. And if we are smart, we might adopt the strategy of the first president of the United States. In The Social Animal, it states, "As the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin75 pointed out, it was precisely for this reason that Abraham Lincoln chose a cabinet that included several people who disagreed with his policies about how best to end slavery." We can follow suit by including in our innermost circle those who are like-minded and also those who hold different perspectives from that of our own.
In conclusion, whether we call these diametric concepts, "safety and freedom," "control and belonging, or "conformity and individuality," just like horses, humans require a healthy balance between each. We are made from the fabric of our culture as much as we are a part of it. Like one piece in an elaborate quilt, we are bound together. Our humanity's very nature is to find ways to cooperate as we can not change the truth of our interdependence. And yet we all require the respect and dignity that can only be found in the personal agency to decide how we want the stitching and design to look on our particular patch of life.
1. Baumeister - The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation
2. The Social Animal by Elliot Aronson
3. The Naked Ape - Desmond Morris
4. "Desire for control, perception of control: their impact on autonomous motivation and psychological adjustment" written by, Camille Amoura, Sophie Berjot, Nicolas Gillet, Emin Altintas * "SE refers to "the belief in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations" (Bandura 1995, p. 2)
5. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The whole world walked into a cinema
All were enthralled in the show
So absorbed were they
they forgot they paid the dough
They began to believe
This story was their life
When an actor yelled out, “Shooter!”
You can imagine the strife
The whole world ran out of the theater
and poured out onto the streets
They all scattered and scrambled
to get home for relief
To shelter in place
The big plan
Was to isolate
With the world
On the run
No one stopped
To scout the gun
No one looked around at all
In their minds, their neighbors
One by one did fall
They battened down the hatches
They closed up all the walls
They turned on their televisions
To see the news of the streets
To no one's surprise, they saw
The gunman on their screen
The death toll was rising
The people were scared
By way of the panic
Prefrontal cortex impaired
All the while the film kept
Lacing through the reel
Which fed their adrenaline
And told the people how to feel
Someone flipped a breaker
And the screen went black
With revolution calling
The reel fell off the track
The streets were empty
The sky was blue
The animals aplenty
They knew just what to do
They knocked on their neighbors doors
And exclaimed, “Come out and play!"
It was only a movie
"Come out and seize the day”
The people poured out of their houses
The oceans were clear, the rivers too
The sun was out and shining
The sky was crystal blue
Just when they
Were wondering “how?”
The projectionist pulled back the curtain
And took a bow
Imagine each of our lives was a flower. Now, imagine each petal that unfolds when the flower blooms represent the choices we make in our hearts along the path of life. The thoughts we choose to think. The emotions we allow and release. The actions we take, or the stillness we embrace. Life itself is exponential growth. From cell division to the reproduction of plants and animals, we are destined to expand in every way.
Our lives are the blossoming of a flower with trillions of petals. The intention we put into one petal informs the next. Opening us up to greater and greater capacities for love, light and healing. Or, alternatively exposing us towards escalating hell realm possibilities. This is true of our lives as individuals and this is true of our experience as a collective in the way that we affect each other. Humanity is like it’s own version of a field of wildflowers. Our individual capacity to open effects those around us. This is the reason why every choice we make matters.
This concept is otherwise known as The Butterfly Effect. Coined in 1972 by meteorologist Edward Lorenz. He tied this idea to chaos theory and was pointing to the relationship of all things great and small. Such that something as small as a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the globe could lead to a hurricane on the other. This is the reason why everything we do or don’t do matters. Even the innermost shift that no one from the outside can see, can have a tremendous impact on our world. If each of us could really grasp this and take it to heart, we would understand the immensity of our own power. When we collectively wake up to this truth and claim it as our birthright, we will heal the planet and humanity will step into it’s divinity.
The following is a skimming of the surface of the very complex story that has been the last twenty years of my life. Some of the events and choices that opened each petal in their perfection were of the light. Some unfolded greater traumas. This is the life path that led me to wake up to my own personal power as I receive it with gratitude from the Source of All.
When I was just beginning my adult life in this world, I was blessed with a beautiful and fiery red-headed baby boy who was born in the school bus I was living in at the time. I named him Mountain. Obtaining an education as a single mother is something I never could have prepared myself for. Nevertheless, my tenacious nature carried me through. My journey has come full circle from 2002 to 2020.
Evergreen State College was my introduction to the world of higher education. The two short years I attended back in 2002 had a lasting effect on not only my own life but the people whose lives I have touched along my path. I took a class called, “The Politics of Prison” and applied the knowledge gained in the class to my strong interest in women's rights in childbirth.
I created a non-profit organization called, “The Birth Attendants” which served incarcerated pregnant women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Gig Harbor. First, I created a pregnancy support group within the prison walls. Then established a doula program in which we attended and supported these women during their hospital births. These laboring mothers were mistreated and often even chained to the bed. ( You can watch a short animation film which was created later all about, “The Birth Attendants” project here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1Ngtl_x0go ).
I left Evergreen while The Birth Attendants was still young to follow my interest in birth. It was then that I attended a midwifery school in Portland, Oregon. The Birth Attendants program is still serving incarcerated pregnant women today.
After four more years of education at Birthingway College of Midwifery, and completing an internship, I earned my Bachelor of Science in Midwifery Degree and became a licensed midwife. I traveled to a remote town in the mountains near Cuernavaca, Mexico and studied with a traditional medicine woman and midwife. After that, I worked for eight years at a birth center in Portland, Oregon.
Behind closed doors, much of my love life and private life was traumatizing. In the midst of my schooling and training, I had many destructive romantic relationships in an attempt to fill the void of masculine love in my life. Finally, I met someone I wanted to create a life with and I had another beautiful baby boy. He was born at home in water in Portland, Oregon in 2011 on a bluff overlooking the Willamette River.
I ran my own private midwifery practice, “Blossom Midwifery”, out of an office in our home. I was the breadwinner, the mother, the book keeper, and the midwife. I worked hard every day and all through the night many times over. While some elements between my new partner and I were in alignment, our alchemy was short lived. Realizing our incompatibility, we dissolved the relationship between us, two and a half years after the birth of our son. I am proud to say that we maintain a healthy co-parenting relationship to this day.
In total, I have attended close to four hundred natural births, most of which were water births. To witness and guide at the pivotal moment of birth and see a woman’s transformation into motherhood has been a spiritual gift beyond measure. I have resuscitated babies who struggled to enter this world safely. I have wept countless tears for the ones I couldn’t save. I have been steeped in the gnarly political climate of women-rights in childbirth and have experienced first hand the modern-day witch hunts which silently wreak havoc on personal freedom and the right to a non-violent birth experience.
I have experienced the way a group of persecuted people often turns against each other, believing their ability to stay safe lays in finding fault and placing blame among themselves. Modern-day witch hunts are akin to modern-day slavery. The way in which the prison-industrial complex targets people of color and socio-economically challenged demographics is merely one grotesque tendril of a very large web of hidden fascism.
It was during my education at Evergreen in my Politics of Prison class that I first began to understand the way in which these oppressions covertly underpin our society. The time I spent as a midwife gave me first-hand experience of this phenomenon. I have had to face the personal trauma of these experiences and learn how to transmute them into the strong character which I have become.
I have lived through years of sleep deprivation and devotion to protecting a mother’s right to give birth any way she chooses. A guardian ever in awe, I stood in the wake of the power and wisdom their bodies wielded. Quietly, I greeted new life into this world with the tenderness of the one who mothers the mother.
However, after this outpouring of loving service, I came to an impasse. The politics of midwifery became too great a burden upon my psyche, my family, and my health. The need for tending to my own personal healing finally became loud enough that I had no choice but to answer the call. I walked away from midwifery having made a lasting impact on the many families I have served. And with a heavy heart to heal.
In 2016, I relinquished my worldly possessions and bought a sailboat. In search of peace and healing, with the help of a skilled skipper, I took her across the Columbia River Bar. We went offshore through the Straight of Juan de Fuca and arrived at my home town destination of Orcas Island, Washington. There, I lived on my boat for two years with my second son who was five years old at the time. As it would turn out, living on a boat with a small child alone in the dead of winter was not creating the life of peace that I had been looking for. This time I had to take up my sword against the elements. I experienced increasing stress every day as we faced challenges of power outages and frigid conditions.
I worked at a local restaurant as a waitress. I was in a state of humility as I felt these witch hunts had squelched my spirit and that my hard-earned education lay in waste at the bottom of the ocean I had crossed. During this time, I felt completely defeated in life. All of my education, my service of women, my service as a mother, all of my striving had left me alone, broke and cold. But as Rocky Balboa says, “Life’s not about how hard of a hit you can give. It’s about how many you can take and still keep moving forward.”
In December of 2018, we moved in with my current partner on the dry and healing land of Orcas. In January of 2019, I sold my sailboat. Once a symbol of hope, freedom and a fresh start was now an albatross removed from my neck.
While the move was grounding and a step towards the direction of setting down roots for the first time in my life, I faced some very personal and painful traumas this year. I also watched my stepfather who had been both my beloved hero and the greatest villain in the story of my life, die before my eyes.
In an instant, the life and love I had been seeking relentlessly for the entirety of my years on this planet shattered across the landscape of my heart. The shock of disillusionment was excruciating. But like the aftermath of a forest burned to the ground, new life emerged in me. In my darkest hour, I was sent the most compassionate spirit teacher and many angels living in human form and in nature. The light was shone upon the path back to myself. My true Self. The Self that I had misplaced around the age of five.
I began to heal my relationship with my mother. I quit using alcohol to numb the pain in my heart and made a choice to turn and face the hurt that simmered deep within me. Making the decision to walk through the fire of the emotions in me, was the thing my inner child had been waiting for me to do all along. She no longer has to be alone with the shock of waking up in this world of dichotomies. She has me now.
I started a new entrepreneurial business, (www.joyjech.com) and began to heal through my art and creativity. Art has been a fundamental therapy for my integration.
I was born a healer. Without regret, this healing energy has moved through me and into others countess times in this lifetime. However, something changed in 2019. I learned to pour this healing power into my own self. A new awareness has arrived, showing me that the more I do this for myself, the stronger my ability to heal others grows. I have always known this intellectually but now I have come to a deep understanding that it is the inner work in each one of our psyche's that effects the most change on the outside.
There is a new calling in me to pursue an education focused on psychology so that I can take this understanding to the next level. It is now that I will pursue through Evergreen, a second bachelor’s degree, to put me on the track of my new goal of obtaining a Ph.D. in psychology.
2020 is my diving board. I am so ready to dive into the warm waters of self-exploration, expansion, creativity, connection, and increasing neuroplasticity! The flower of my life, my heart, and my soul is ready to bloom unabashedly. I have become my own midwife, providing the space I need to feel safe to open to this life.