Empathogens: The Science and the Magic

Empathogens: The Science and the Magic

The etymology of “seminar” is “seed plot,” so I thought it a fitting description of what I am hoping for on Sunday, when I’m going to share something of my own experience with the psychedelic medicines called empathogens. I have concerns with the conversations we now find everywhere on drug-assisted therapies, and drug legalization. I have some science to share. I’ll describe my own experiments, exploring different ways to use the medicines, and offer some practices that resource me. These medicines light up both the serotonin and dopamine systems in our brains and bodies, so we feel both passion and peace, at the same time. Spoiler alert: we don’t actually need drugs to find this. These molecular messengers are part of every being in the biosphere, and the neuroendocrine systems within and between us. How can we use them in ways that help us belong to this global network of our true belonging? Instead, these medicines are getting mobilized to help people tolerate intolerable systems. Are we going to keep our trauma treatments confined to the very paradigms that created all this awful, ongoing trauma in the first place? Register in advance for this meeting:

Trauma-Informed Psychedelics

I understand something of the science, and the magic, of how neuroendocrine systems get recalibrated by rapture.

In an experience of profound trauma, people experience dissociative self-abandonment. We stop receiving messages from the vagus nerve that monitors our inner state. Our souls leave our bodies; we die before we die.

Consciously or unconsciously, people healing from trauma often want to experience dissociative self-abandonment again – but differently – while experiencing pleasure, choice and agency. It makes so much sense, that traumatized people come looking for healing through ecstatic experiences of psychedelics, or s*xual healing. Ecstasy is a form of self-abandonment (the etymology of ecstasy = ex-stasis, “standing outside the self”). Through erotic experiences of orgasm, or through the ecstasy of profound psychedelic experiences, we can feel self-abandonment while we feel efficacy, and relational support, instead of in the agonies of our lonely traumas.

Yes it makes sense, BUT the essence of trauma-informed practice is titration. We carefully introduce experiences, in tiny amounts, while growing capacity. Having a trauma-informed approach means moving at the pace of embodied trust. A too-fast approach can trigger increased dysregulation, flashbacks, mental splitting and emotional precarity. Titration works WITH the body’s defense systems, honouring them, and listening. We wait, until the body – not just the mind – wants more.

Yes, we can collapse the body’s autonomic defense systems with huge experiences of ecstasy, just as we can with awful agonies. Most offerings of psychedelic medicine seem to embrace this path, promising to address PTSD and unprocessed trauma with large-dose experiences of psychedelics. I hear nothing about building somatic capacity, with titration and integration.

Premature ecstatic experiences will feel profound, but they are unlikely to be integrated into long-term change. At worst, they can actively retraumatize. When I first entered the world of sexual healing two decades ago, it was full of similar promises and practices. But we learned – and we integrated new understandings about the neurobiology of trauma, as they emerged. We need to be trauma-informed, if we are to avoid doing harm. Whenever there is unprocessed or ongoing trauma, people need practice listening to the body’s truths. We need titrated experiences of just-enough ecstasy, to align our lives with ecstatic rhythms. We need embodied practice choosing too much or too little, and then feeling empowered and supported to try again, and find what feels just right.

Whether I’m working with the erotic, or with psychedelics, I want to support people in feeling empowered choice and voice. I want them growing their embodied self-trust, and capacity for discerning trust-worthiness in others. This takes actual, embodied practice.

Rewilding Our Bodies and Our Minds

Thinking about how we need each other’s help, to rewild our bodies and our minds….

Trauma keeps the erotic imagination separate from any future we dare dream of.  Minds keep muttering about the damage and the dangers. Bodies dissociate from terrors. We keep desires small. It’s all so wise. Muttering and muting are brilliant neuroendocrine responses to trauma. It’s what keeps us alive, until we find our way home.

But once we are home, we need to co-create the safe-enough, brave-enough embodied practices, that help us come off mute, so we can really know and grieve our agonies, and belong to our own longings for ecstasy. We need embodied experiences that restore integrity, and foster intimacy. We need space and support, so we can rewild our minds, then reach for rapture, inhabit extended climax states, and savour post-orgasmic bliss. Actual practice, in brave-enough, safe-enough relationships, is what lets us fully inhabit our neuroendocrine systems. Instead of muting and muttering, we can soften and soar, as we realign with the rhythms of the biosphere.

An Invitation to Feel Fully

I think most of us already know “We’re on the highway to climate hell,” as the UN Head told world leaders yesterday. We can’t always find words for what’s happening inside and around us, but personal and interpersonal neuroendocrine systems are responding to the ever-increasing danger. Fear is not just a good idea; it is a neuroendocrine response that impacts our souls, our intimate lives, and our relationships in communities. Even as we plan for a possible future, as if climate hell wasn’t already here, or imminent, we are manifesting embodied awareness.
There are unprecedented dangers we cannot escape. With that, there is the question: can we live and die with a full-spectrum neuroendocrine response? Instead of responding to danger with the most contracted parts of our nervous system, as capitalism and colonialism have taught us, can we learn to respond with the more expanded parts of our nervous system? I am attaching a diagram of the nervous system that I hope invites a reach beyond our threat-management responses. We can build our capacities for feeling fully, and expand in both courage and serenity. Experiences of ecstasy and orgasm can be refuge for us – AND they can also be resources. Orgasm is a trustworthy guide of non-equilibrium states, that could help us navigate the frightening, far-from-equilibrium states of the social sphere, the biosphere, and our own intimate spheres. I am going to try to spend 2023 in this inquiry, and I invite you to join me. Can we draw on experiences of courageous ecstatic states, as we navigate unprecedented dangers?

Practice Dying

There are times of the year, times of life, and times like this moment in the history of the biosphere when the when the veil between life and death grows thin. Transitions between life and death get slippery. Ghosts and ancestors come out to guide us. Scary monsters suddenly emerge, and interspecies transformations can delight us. This season – and Halloween, Samhain, the Day of the Dead – remind me to take time to deepen into my personal commitment to practice death preparation.

As they say, what we resist, persists. We live in a culture that fiercely resists dying, as it busily manifests more and more of it. Around the world there is so much suffering and death. Climate chaos and social chaos threaten all our lives, and the whole biosphere. What we accept, transforms. Perhaps a practice of integrating conscious dying into our living can empower us.

Two years ago, I was feeling very fragile, and struggling for breath. I was diagnosed as having a chronic, terminal lung disease, which meant I had just a short time to live. The diagnosis was later reversed and I am fine now. But during the time when my own death felt very imminent, I felt called to meet with a psychedelic medicine called 5meO-DMT. 5meO-DMT is a powerful medicine that has been described as “the God-dess molecule,” and said to offer short experiences of dying.

A day spent in the guide’s studio began with a gentle introduction to the medicine, called a “Handshake,” followed by a deeper dive called a “Hug.” In a final round, called a “Rebirth” dose, I felt myself die into a transpersonal realm where there was no more me, and no more us. For 30 minutes of timeless time, there was only Chaos, non-being and nothingness.
Chaos can be explained by quantum physics, and Chaos theory, but my language is erotic embodiment, and so I will just say Chaos felt like post-orgasmic bliss. Before the beginning of time, out beyond ideas, Chaos is peace seeded with mystery; there are strange attractors and glowing points of light. Chaos is a deep well of ongoing emergence, from which the never-before can suddenly come into being. In the silence of non-being and nothingness, we don’t know how or whether we’ll begin again. What if we rest and savour, as we let our stories fall silent? We might even meet each other in this field beyond ideas, and encourage the emergence of the otherwise impossible!

This past weekend I was thrilled by attending Toad School, where “the Dharmacist” Trina Nguyen and her partner Lucy offer generous teachings and guidance for those who want to explore with 5meO-DMT. They have a counternormative, anticapitalist framework, and a world-transforming vision. I am feeling resourced and excited about integrating the medicine into my death-preparation practices, along with lots of experiences of “la petite mort” aka post-orgasmic bliss.

Going out on a limb….

Going out on a limb here …. and feeling very vulnerable.
I have felt a calling to create a free program on “Ecstatic Belonging.” In creating this, I am drawing on my years of experience as a practitioner and teacher of sacred intimacy, and weaving together other learnings…. from psychedelic medicine, transformative justice and queer ecology.
“Ecstatic Belonging” is the theme that loosely organizes my personal explorations, on my medicine path. I will share how I use psychedelic medicines and somatic practices to rewild my mind, enhance my intimate relationships, and support the co-creation of loving community. Erotic celebration and death preparation practices help me find my way, in the relentless daily violences of capitalism’s crumble. We can learn to live and die in ever-better love, instead of being ruled by fear. We can feel our way to ecstatic experiences of transpersonal belonging, instead of being stuck with the traumatic experiences of belonging that capitalism and colonialism teach us. “Ecstatic Belonging” is a way of life that helps me attune to the rhythms of the wild world, around and within. When we connect ecstasy with equilibrium, there is a truing mechanism for personal and interpersonal neuroendocrine systems. You can register for this free program now and explore the ideas and practices – see if they resonate. I’ll be active in adding ideas and resources, and offering opportunities for connection, through 2023. https://ecstaticbelonging.com/
photo by Grace Hann, from a joyful time of climbing trees together

Finding More Presence with Suffering

I understand how, in the shock of trauma, there is a moment when hyperactivated nervous systems reach a zenith of panic. Suddenly, we experience a dorsal-vagal drop. We abandon our selves. It is as if there is no more separate self to inhabit. We have no ground beneath our feet. There are no boundaries. There is no mind. We exit the storyline of linear time. We cannot act on our own behalf, flee, fight or cry for help. Heartbeat and breath slow down. Awareness of agony is dimmed. We half-die, before we die. Through dissociative self-abandonment, we escape being present with suffering.

It is so merciful that, in the immediacy of trauma, we half-die before we die. But what a loss, if we survive without integrating our traumas, because then we live half-dead, numbed and atomized. Everyone has their own story. For me, there was a violent assault by a stranger, when I was 9 months old, along with a sustained experience of family violence. Dissociative self-abandonment mercifully truncated my suffering. But without context, companionship and culture to hold me so I could mend, dissociation became a lifelong neuroendocrine habit. Like so many others, in a world where trauma and neglect are ordinary and untended, my biorhythms got muted. My body and soul contracted and collapsed; my neuroendocrine system cycled within constraints that kept me from the extremes of feeling fully. Agonies were dimmed, along with ecstasies. I could not be present with suffering.

Last weekend I found context and support enough to come all the way home to my body again. In the arms of lover earth, with the help of psychedelic medicine, somatic sexual wellness, a well-guided temple of courageous companions, and a life full of loving friends, I finally laid still and remembered my infant body being helpless, violated and overwhelmed. I could feel my own embodied kinship with the suffering of lover earth, and all the many beings suffering upon it. I could be present with suffering, because I know I am not alone.

We each have a singular story of suffering, and we belong to a biosphere where there is so much suffering. By knowing we are not alone in it, we can each learn to hold our own in it. Together, we can be present with suffering; we can make it our own.

There is an actual neuroendocrine experience of embodied unity, and we can weave it. Loving relationships, counternormative understandings, somatic practices and psychedelic medicines all help unite us in the experience of embodied love. In love, over time, we can ease out of our atomizing contractions and isolating collapses. We can reach back in time, to hold the suffering of human and more-than-human ancestors. We can reach forward in time, to hold the suffering of generations to come. Together, we can discern the nested rhythms. Extremes of agony and ecstasy can be held, with embodied presence, inside of long arcs of subtle arousal, sustained support, and gentle peace.

Queer Ancestars and Transcestars

Capitalist, colonial culture generates a binary between human and non-human, along with an ever-contested boundary between them. Those of us deemed not-fully-human can get preoccupied with seeking enfranchisement. Queers have been made to dwell outside the margins of “humanity”, alongside other two-leggeds deemed not-human, and all our biological elders, including birds, plants, fungus and frogs, the planet and the stars.

Perhaps if we get less preoccupied with the binary, and make space to feel into who and how we might be without its harmful impacts, we could be resourced by knowing that universe itself is queer and counternormative. According to the laws of physics, it should not exist. Nor should the biosphere. In claiming our queer ancestors, we can join with the more-than-human world in its wild wisdoms. We can seek the companionship of others, lovers, stars and ancestors, in the web of life and death.

I’m hosting a “Queer Ancestors” ritual here next weekend with Daka Ziji What a delight to deepen together into an ancient inquiry: “What is queerness?” “Where do we come from?” Beyond the human-centric, heteronormative imagination of what is possible, there is a whole wide universe to explore.

Traumatic Belonging? or Ecstatic Belonging?

Under the regime of traumatic belonging, each one of us trembles with reasonable terrors of running afoul of social norms. Betrayal and abandonment; dread that we are unloveable; certain knowledge that my bad or your bad endangers me; terror that I am or you are not good enough. Continual self-management so that unwelcome parts stay hidden. Continual punishment of each other’s unwanted parts. We are so afraid of being found out, of making mistakes, and being punished, stigmatized, outlawed. We feel health and success as the oh-so-pleasant feeling of conforming to privileged social norms enough that we can relax awhile, and take a deeper breath. Until we fail, or fall, or do something wrong – and all our provisional belonging ends.

Can we co-create something different? Let’s dream into something we have no cultural, historical precedents for. What is trustworthy community? Can we dare find safe-enough, brave-enough ways to explore, and come together in the transpersonal belonging we access through ecstasies? Can ecstatic practice help us weave creative, supportive communities, where we can be both powerful and vulnerable?

We need commitment to each other, with space to share our vulnerable truths, shame-filled failures, and true longings. We need to be able and willing to make mistakes, and transform our transgressions into teachers, so we can offer each other competent true love. We need commitment to our longings for ecstasy, and then time being satisfied, savouring enough. Maybe if we listen to the ecosystems we are embedded in, and the poetry of differentiation and cooperation in our multicellular bodies, we’ll learn that we already know how good community can be. We are already, at so many levels, so much more than an aggregation of terrified individuals, policing themselves and each other with rules of belonging. Many forms of uniqueness can be valued and supported as empowering aspects of a larger system. A community has emergent, unexpected properties that make the whole more than the sum of its parts. Suddenly, there is ecstasy. Ahhh! We belong.

Going Beyond Consent

We all have a few well-practiced consent competencies. We get lots of experience consenting to touch we don’t want. We allow medical procedures. We accept and offer touch as a way to manage everyday social situations. We somehow survive our childhoods. We learn to endure. We all get lots of training, too, in embodying dominant culture norms. Based on social status, we become well-practiced in offering unconscious appeasements and exercising unconscious entitlements. Wherever we have privilege, we know how to receive the gifts of others’ service – often without even noticing what it is we are receiving, or getting curious about whether or not it is given with full heart. In all the places we have less privilege, we get a lot of practice giving others what they want. We know how to numb awareness of the costs.

I don’t want to demean these awesome consent competencies we already have! I celebrate them. And I want more for us. How can we support each other in getting brave enough to reach beyond consent? How can we co-create space, encouragement, and embodied practice, so that we can bravely notice, and give voice to, the cost of enduring what we don’t really want? How can we love our awesome impulse to endure, and celebrate how often we choose it, because we want space and peace enough for love to grow? Can we get brave enough to vulnerably inquire as to just how we are receiving others’ service, instead of just swimming in unconscious entitlements? Can we simultaneously begin to notice when the unacknowledged service we offer others has corrosive costs?

Going beyond consent requires neuroplastic change. Sometimes this biophysical requirement is just too much for us. We face real dangers, and sometimes we want the peace that comes from just consenting. We do what it takes, to create solidarity, so we have companions to face real dangers with. Other times, our consensual and non-consensual navigations of appeasements and entitlements really does make us deeply dangerous to one another. Even though all this is true, can we keep on wanting, and co-creating space and time, to play in the neural learning zone within and between us? Can we want excitement and ecstasy, along with peace and solidarity? Can we get safe-enough-to-be-brave? Where can we be in an ongoing learning, about living outside of threat-management responses and well-practiced cultural scripts?

Even though I have all my little tools, graphics, and understandings of the psychobiology, and even though I have Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent to guide me, I need help. I need the companionship of friends who help me co-create brave-enough space and time, in the relationships between us, so we can keep on learning. How can my brave learning keep on coming true, today? That vulnerable inquiry doesn’t get easier, and it’s neverending. What am I not getting? What do you want me to know, about what it’s like to be you? What do I dare to vulnerably share, about what it’s like to be me? How do we manage the uncomfortable impacts of courageous inquiry, on our souls, and our relationships? Can we get uncomfortable, and still belong to ourselves, to each other, and the process?