There is an emerging paradigm shift taking hold in the treatment of mental illness. It goes by the name of Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy, and essentially involves the ingestion of psychedelics under supervision in a safe setting. Doing so greatly increases the likelihood that the psychedelic experience is one of therapeutic benefit.
Such benefits include the treatment of treatment-resistant depression, fear of death in terminal cancer patients and nicotine addiction. The results from research done so far is very compelling - some cases of which show that three doses can have lasting and sustained positive outcomes, such as an 80% success rate in the case of treating nicotine addiction. And, indeed, that one dose can make a beneficial and lasting impact on those suffering from depression. Such success rates are totally unheard of in the existing paradigm. Similarly impressive results are seen in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With two new research centres now established - one in Imperial College London and the other at John Hopkins University - many more studies are planned.
A quick search on Google or YouTube will reveal hundreds, if not thousands, of personal accounts of the benefits individuals have received from using substances such as ayahuasca (DMT), magic mushrooms (psilocybin) and LSD. These are either microdosed (a small amount - too small to induce any change in lucidity or ability to interact with one's daily life - for enhanced mood, creativity and productivity) or in 'ego dissolution' quantities (a large amount, in a safe setting, with the aim of exploring one's inner landscape and come to terms with difficult areas in one's life, be it a relationship, past traumas, a lack of purpose and meaning, etc.).
Having had personal experience and lasting benefit from the ingestion of psilocybin when I was in my late teens, I have been following this shift in attitudes with great interest. I have enjoyed reading and watching many interviews and personal accounts of these intrepid explorers of consciousness and the nature of their own minds, lovingly referred to 'psychonauts'.
These are not the footloose and fancy-free, and at times irresponsible users of psychedelics that one may assume. These are business executives, parents with busy lives and those suffering with illnesses of all sorts. These are people who realise that there is something missing in their lives, or they simply have not been able to find relief or the cause of their turmoil and pain. These are people who realise that the modern lifestyle is, for many, void of meaning and purpose.
Done responsibly and with an appropriate therapeutic container (such as in the shamanistic rituals of the Andes, Africa and Asia or in the calm setting of any other purposely designed space), these substances can be a catalyst of personal meaning, insight and, above all, healing.
So why am I, a bodyworker, so interested in psychedelic therapy?
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is that the healing potential of psychedelics is so incredibly broad. This ties in strongly with my experience of bodywork, where not only physical, but emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing is amplified and past traumas shed. A state in which insights and learning can occur easily. Although the methods and approaches are different - touch vs ingestion - I believe that there is an underlying mechanism by which healing occurs which both approaches share. Intriguingly, both are also used not just for addressing diseases within the body-mind, but also for the betterment of well people - helping people to tap into the limitless potential that boosts wellbeing, creativity and delivers personal insight.
Secondly, as I have had personal experience of magic mushrooms lifting me out of long-term depression in my teenage years - opening my eyes for the first time to the beauty of nature and art - I know some of their potential. In those years I remember reading an article in the New Scientist about the use of Iboga (a psychedelic used in Africa) in the treatment of heroin addiction. With one dose, heroin users came off heroin without the arduous, painful and sometimes fatal journey of withdrawal that the body goes through otherwise. This deepened my respect for both herbal medicine and what we term traditional or primitive cultures. These people weren't stupid or primitive at all - they just lived differently to us. Indeed, I am now of the understanding that they were far more advanced than us in other aspects. And most, if not all, of which have been documented to use psychedelic substances for healing purposes or initiation rites.
And, lastly, this paradigm shift in the treatment of mental illnesses isn't the only paradigm shift taking place in the field. As I have written about before, the works of Peter Levine, Stephen Borges and Bessel van der Kolk are also coming to the fore. They demonstrate how the body plays a pivotal role in both the establishing and treatment of trauma, and how traumas greatly increase the likelihood of physical illnesses, such as autoimmune diseases and cancer, and mental conditions such as addiction and ADHD. I have a strong belief that these two paradigm shifts are necessary to help address the catastrophic rise in mental and physical illness across the world.
In particular, one theme that keeps coming up from my research on therapeutic and healing psychedelic use is the need for integration.
During the psychedelic experience, one can receive insights about one's behaviour and how this adversely affects one's self and those in one's life. And, if you're willing to suspend your disbelief, these substances can teach us about the nature of what it means to be alive and our place in the world. Such insights are profound and often create a desire to change one's lifestyle and life direction. But I reportedly hear that grounding these insights isn't easy.
Changing one's behaviour, one's reactions, to establish a more compassionate and holistic way of operating in the world is where the rubber meets the road, so the speak. And this is where I believe bodywork can augment and amplify the healing potential of Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy.
Speaking from my perspective as a Zero Balancer, in bodywork we work with the physical body to affect positive change within the client. The changes that occur are not limited to the physical body - far from it. However, because we start with contacting the physical body, there's always a grounded connection in the physical and lived experience of being in the human body.
It doesn't matter where the client goes during the experience. They may go out of body, re-visit memories or places, see visions, dreams or colours, experience emotions, or enjoy a deeply relaxing bodily experience that provides them with much needed rest. It is all induced through conscious, sensitive touch. No matter the experience, each session ends with a clear grounding, so that the experience is integrated into their physical existence.
My theory is that whilst psychedelic sessions can and do elicit profound insights, how they affect one's life varies from person to person depending on how well they can ground their experience in their daily lives. Through bodywork, I believe that it's possible to connect with the person's psychedelic experience - it's qualities, to be more exact - and help ground it into their literal and metaphoric bones, so that it can integrate with their every day embodied experience.
To be clear, the psychedelic experience is internal and whilst the resulting insights can bring changes in perspective, the changes in perspective don't necessarily change one's external behaviours. The inside out approach of psychedelics is reliant on how well connected one's inner life is with one's outer life. Bodywork, on the other hand, works from the outside in. It calls forth that which is internal and can bring it into the external. This is why I think bodywork can be hugely beneficial for those who are struggling to integrate their psychedelic experiences.
As a result, I put out a call on the Facebook page of the Psychedelic Society of Edinburgh (link) a few months ago asking for volunteers to write about their experience of integrating their psychedelic experiences through Zero Balancing. I offered three free Zero Balancing sessions to those willing to volunteer. And one person stepped forward and emailed me. At the time of writing, we have just finished our three sessions and I have no idea what she has written or will write. My hope, however, is that she will agree to my putting it up as a guest blog post on my website.
Even if my theory is not bolstered by the upcoming blog post, I remain hopeful that the emerging paradigms of Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy and bodywork can support each other and work together to assist in healing this fractured world, and the fractured people who inhabit it.
Clients often come to me to release the imprints, the remnants, and the ever present impact of events from the past. Abuses of all kinds, childhood conditioning and psychological patterns that developed as a result of these are the most common. Every one has their story, their pain.
The common notion of the nature of time is that the past is just that, in the past - it's no longer present and no longer affects us - may be true in a mechanical sense. And it's along these lines that you may hear people say, "Get over it," or, "Why does that still bother you?" Other than lacking the obvious compassion, such statements are also factually incorrect. The past is not the past when it comes to the human psyche.
Both Bessel van der Kolk's best-selling book, The Body Keeps The Score, and Dr Gabor Mate's excellent books summarise how the central nervous system still behaves as if the threat of past experiences is ever present, and I would thoroughly recommend people read these books if they want to explore this topic further.
The affected central nervous system, in turn, affects the whole body - including hormone secretions and organ function - as well as our behaviour. Our accumulation of experiences has shaped us, and continues to do so.
Dr Gabor Mate goes on to state how this affects our physical health and leads to all kinds of illness in later life. So, for example, a child who has experienced sexual abuse has much higher chances of experiencing debilitating, chronic and terminal illness later in life due to an almost lifelong exposure to high levels of cortisol.
I would go further to suggest that it's not just past traumas - nor just more extreme cases of PTSD - that affect how the body reacts to life or, indeed, how we react to it. It's just that these cases are more easy to identify and diagnose. We don't need to be war veterans or abuse survivors to warrant the need for therapy.
How many of us have grown up with divorced parents? How many of us have lost friends when moving school? How many of us were rarely heard or acknowledged when we needed it most?
Such events can leave a mark on the psyche and, most importantly, how we choose to react to them becomes an inbuilt coping mechanism for similar events in future.
No two people experiencing the same event will react in the same way. Each will experience their own spectrum of emotions and thoughts. Just like how all our bodies are unique, so too are the range and levels of hormones that are secreted and central nervous system's activity in response to the experience.
These reactions are unique to us and our sense of self is related to how we react to these things.
So when a client comes to me for help with their past, it's my duty to establish as good a working relationship with them as a personality and, most importantly, their body. So we'll talk about the past in the consultation, but what can happen during the bodywork session can be a surprise to some of my clients.
Rather than relieving the imprint of the past, rather than trying to hone in on the 'stuck' emotion, behavioural pattern or memory in order to work with it, what ends up happening - and this is beyond my control - is that the session becomes about helping the client with what's coming up in their future.
To be clear, this is something that can be sensed through touch. Working with the past can and does happen. But this article is about those time when it doesn't. When the client's future direction is what comes to the fore, despite the past being the main theme of the consultation.
The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, what's happening in their lives now and the direction their lives are taking is intricately related to the past. So whilst the conscious desire may be to work on a past issue, what ends up happening is that the session affirms their vision, their dream for their future. In doing so, they are encouraged in a direction that helps them to free themselves from the hangover of the past.
Secondly, it acts as a counterbalance and safety measure to the blaming that can develop. It's easy to end up blaming the past (and others) for who we are now. "My mother never showed me any love so I seek relationships where I am mothered, " or "It's his fault that I am so angry," or whatever it may be. Whilst resentment and blame in this context are usually easy to spot in others, and sometimes ourselves, what's less easy to spot is the distinction between healthy analysis of ourselves and less healthy versions thereof. Ruminating about our past experiences can stop us living the life that we have been gifted and can stop us moving forward toward new potentials.
Both of these are two sides of the same coin. They empower a client to become unstuck. To be freer and easier within themselves so they can take their lives forward in a direction that leads to greater satisfaction, happiness and inner growth.
And ultimately, past and future are two sides of the same coin. They are means by which we relate to the present moment. And it's only in the present moment that our imaginings of the future be made manifest, or that the past can be brought to the surface for healing. And it's only in the present moment that I can work with my clients. I can't travel back in time, nor can I show them their future. All I can do is to work with them, just as they are presented to me, and do my utmost to create the conditions where the best possible outcome arises.
This morning I re-read Jim McCormick's guest blog post and it strikes at the very heart of why I do Zero Balancing and why I continue to dedicate myself to it. Zero Balancing is not just for aches, pains and physical realignment. It's a tool that can deepen our personal development and our understanding of ourselves - helping us to strip away all that we are not, so we are left with a greater knowledge of who we are.
To let go of all physical tensions that are no longer of use or necessary is to let go of all psychological habits or tensions that are similarly no longer of use or necessary. We literally hold our way of being in the world in our body. In letting go of who we were, we are able to re-define ourselves and adapt to the changes of life. This in itself is useful as it makes us adaptable to whatever may arise in our lives in any given moment. And it goes deeper still, we can gain knowledge of why we behave the way we do, to understand what happened in our lives to make us just so and, ultimately, to root it out so we can be more fully ourselves.
How we are now is the sum total of what we have experienced and how we chose to react to those experiences. As we gain knowledge of those reactions and what lies at their core, we find that they were actually choices. Let me give an example.
I was at a Zero Balancing workshop earlier this month and, when I was on the receiving end of some ZB - and remarkable as it may sound - I found myself in the womb. I was conscious that this womb I was in had been occupied before. So I made a choice to fit into the family structure. Whilst this choice of fitting into the family structure was not unreasonable, it limited me nonetheless. I couldn't just be who I am. I had to restrict myself somehow to survive in the dynamics of the family home. With this insight and knowledge - one I was totally unaware of having ever made until that workshop - I was able to forgive myself for making the choice to fit in. Now that I am no longer in the same family home, and no longer dependent on fitting into the family dynamics for survival, it is no longer necessary for me to have that decision at the core of my sense of self.
The result of this insight and subsequent resolution is that I am less concerned about fitting in, in general terms. Fitting into society, fitting into other people's projections of who I am, fitting into any sort of social dynamic. I therefore am able to re-define how I relate to the world around me. And to do so for the first time since I made that initial decision all those years ago.
When we realise that our inner life is dictated by decisions made in the past - however fleeting they may have been - and how we lost some part of ourselves in the process, we begin to realise the potential for change. And that inner change creates an external change in how we relate to the world. Or, if you will, how the world relates to us.
So I am now simultaneously not who I was and more who I have always been. And it's this uncovering of who we really are that is the great work of a lifetime. This is the same self-actualisation that Jim McCormick mentioned in his post. To get there, we need to realise who we are and who we are not. What we are, and what we are not.
It's these what-we-are-nots that block us on our path to self-actualisation.
We are not our traumas. We are not our upbringing. We are not our conditioning. We are not our tensions. We are not our pain; our emotions. We are not our ideas, thoughts or beliefs.
They consume our energy and underpin much of our behaviour. It's through gaining self-knowledge that we can begin to be liberated from their erroneous ways.
And what we are is for us to discover.
Guest blog post by Jim McCormick, Zero Balancing Faculty.
Part of my passion has been to let more people know of the possibilities of Zero Balancing as a personal growth and transformational tool.
One term for this process is self-actualisation. Self-actualisation is a term originally introduced by Kurt Goldstein in the 1930s and 40s, and followed up later by many others, particularly in humanistic psychology by Abraham Maslow. In Goldstein’s view self-actualisation is the “tendency to actualise one’s self as fully as possible, and is the basic human drive.”
Maslow said there are a hierarchy of needs in life and that self-actualisation represents the growth of an individual toward fulfilling the highest needs in that hierarchy: “creative self-growth, finding meaning in life and being.” His belief was that “finding your core-nature that is unique to you is one of the main goals of life.”
The fruits of self-actualisation include knowing and understanding one’s self, being able to be in the moment, a feeling of joy and peace and a sense of well-being that doesn’t depend on what happens in the outer world. A self-actualised person is often involved in the quest for spiritual enlightenment, the pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to and/or positively transform society are other examples of goals of self-actualisation.
To me, self-actualisation is the best route to a successful, satisfying, and rich life. The deep meaning in life comes from being able to listen your core self, “letting the spirits lead the parade” where you feel you are in harmony with both your true inner nature and with the surrounding world.
There are many paths to self-actualisation including meditation, psychotherapy, self-reflection and prayer to name a few. If people have heard of Zero Balancing (ZB) at all they tend to think of it as beneficial for relaxation and certain physical complaints. This would put ZB in the category of massage, chiropractic or physical therapy. What is much less widely known to the general public is that Zero Balancing is one of those tools which is also beneficial for self-actualisation.
Zero Balancing has several advantages over other means of getting to self-actualisation:
All of this is to say that Zero Balancing is a wonderful therapy that deserves to be more known and more used. It feels wonderful; it helps a myriad of problems; and it frees and unifies the body/mind and spirit in a way that permits and encourages self-actualisation.
Jim McCormick practices Zero Balancing and Five Element Acupuncture at Cambridge Health Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Consciousness is a difficult subject. We are all aware of ourselves and the world around us as a result of it, however, what exactly consciousness is remains elusive. And yet each and every one of us knows that it exists simply because we are.
What we also know to be true is that we can direct our consciousness. You may not be aware of your breathing whilst you read this, but by reading these words you might, however briefly, notice your breathing. The stimuli that the written word provides provokes a reaction in what it is we are aware of. Reading a good novel involves our imagination and our feelings, all because we have directed our attention to what it is we see and identified with what we read.
Consciousness is more often than not embroiled in our senses. We are aware of and reflexively react to sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. And our thoughts often do too. We hear a baby crying in a cafe where we were previously enjoying a lovely quiet atmosphere. Almost immediately, up pops an emotional reaction of anger and a thought along the lines of, "Shut up!" Or you may react with compassion and a thought of concern about the poor wee thing.
All too often, just like with reading a good novel or watching a good film, we become identified with these feelings and thoughts. That is to say that we believe our identity to be one and the same as the feelings and thoughts we have.
For those of us who meditate or some other activity that trains a still mind and a calm emotional state, we know this not to be true. If we can be aware of our feelings and thoughts, then we can choose to let our reactions pass us by, in a similar manner, perhaps, as when one notices a foul smell and chooses not to react because there are more important things at hand. You simply notice and carry on.
This can be hugely empowering to realise. Not everyone is happy with who they perceive themselves to be, or how they react in certain situations. There can be patterns of self-loathing, anxiety, rage, or anything in the vast spectrum of human emotions and thoughts.
We can unlearn the patterns of behaviour that make up these undesirable parts of ourselves. And we do this by applying our innate awareness - our consciousness.
In the world of bodywork, where we consciously utilise touch to work on our clients, there are some interesting and unexpected implications to all of this.
1. By utilising touch, we make the client aware of their physical body.
This may not sound like much, but when a client is embroiled in a certain pattern of being - i.e. on a regular treadmill of similar emotions and thoughts that one is identified with - then being aware of the physical body can be an eye-opener because it's not where the attention/awareness/consciousness has been recently. All of a sudden they become aware of where they hold tension and where they don't, what feels good and what doesn't. Just like how many meditation and mindfulness techniques draw one's attention back to the physical body, bodywork does exactly the same. The client becomes aware of, not the fleeting inner experience, but with the tangible physical body.
2. By engaging their consciousness in this way, we make the client aware that they can change.
Let's say we find an area of held tension. That is to say that the client has consciously or unconsciously chosen to tense a particular area, and the therapist can feel this tension using conscious touch. By working with the area and, through touch, suggesting to the client and their awareness that they might want to let this tension go, the result is often that the client's awareness chooses to let go of the tension.
In a Zero Balancing session, there are often a good number of areas of tensions that dissipate. The more they dissipate the more the client's awareness learns that it doesn't have to be stuck in the same ruts, routines or patterns.
3. By building a trust with the client's body awareness, deep and longlasting impressions and self-imposed identities can be altered for the better.
As we continue to work with a client, trust builds between the therapist and the client. And because I'm talking about bodywork, I'm not merely talking of a trust developing between the two personalities involved. I'm talking about a deeper, more subtle trust that develops between the client's body awareness and the therapist's own body awareness. The more we work with a particular client the more this trust builds and the deeper the changes go.
Often the skill of a great bodyworker lies partially in how quickly they can 'earn', 'gain' or 'build' this type of trust. (I use those words with inverted commas because they don't really work. 'Access' might be the most accurate, even if it's still off the mark.)
4. The more profound the trust is, or the more accurate the location and level of touch, the greater the shift in consciousness in the client.
In Zero Balancing we refer to expanded states of consciousness. The Psychology Dictionary defines expanded consciousness as:
"A sensory effect possible from meditation or mind altering drugs where a person feels like his mind has been opened to new awarenesses."
The definition is accurate in that the expansion refers to new awarenesses. Those who work in skilled touch therapies, including Zero Balancing, would add to the list of meditation and mind altering drugs, though. Bodywork can produce similar results.
If a therapist presses in just the right way, at the right spot, at the right time, the client will go into an expanded state. It's not as hard as it sounds because a therapist learns to 'listen' with his or her hands. And expanded states are not as exotic as they sound either. We are all aware of what it's like to be asleep, or to be mentally active in our jobs. These are two different states of consciousness. What we're talking about here is placing someone in a state of consciousness that's outwith their normal mode of operating in the world. In a state where they are not identified with their thoughts and feelings as they are in their everyday state of mind.
Expanded states in a Zero Balancing session are not just common, they are almost guaranteed. That's not to say that everyone will have out of body experiences! Some do, mind, but it's more common for some to experience a silencing of the mind, others a deep relaxation or a growing sense of rejuvenation, and others still have memories flash before their eyes. And the effects vary in their nature and they are never quite the same, but rare it is that someone remains unaffected. (I'd imagine this is possible only if the trust isn't there.)
Being less identified with who you think you are is what allows for personal growth and transformation to take place in a Zero Balancing session. What growth and transformation takes place, exactly, is out of the therapist's hands. It's up to the client and their consciousness to decide in what direction they will grow. But grow they shall.