Psychedelics in Unlocking the Unconscious: From Cancer to Addiction – Gabor Mate

By Adem Lewis / in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , /

Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here. Can you hear me okay at the back? Yeah? If the sound doesn’t work for somebody, please let me know. So my subject is the use of ayahuasca in the healing of all manner of medical conditions, from cancer to addiction. You might say, “what can [a plant possibly do] to heal such dire” “and life-threatening medical problems?” Of course, that all depends on the perspective through which you understand these problems. The medical perspective, the allopathic western medical perspective in which I was trained is that fundamentally, diseases are abnormalities that occur, either due to external causes, such as a bacterium or a toxin, or they’re accidental, or due to bad luck, or they’re due to genetics. So basically, the causes of illnesses are outside the usual internal experience, emotional and psychological, and spiritual life, of the individual. These are biological events, so the medical assumption goes. The causes are to be understood and the treatments are to be administered purely in a biological fashion. Underlying that set of assumptions are two other assumptions. One is that you can separate the human body from the human mind, so what happens to us emotionally and psychologically has no significant impact on our health, number one. And number two: that the individual is to be separated from the environment, so that what happens to me if I get cancer, that’s again just my pure personal misfortune, or maybe because I did the wrong things, like smoked cigarettes. But that my cancer may have something to do with the lifelong interaction in which I’ve engaged…with my environment, particularly the psychological/social environment, that doesn’t again enter into the picture. But what if we had a different perspective? What if we actually got that human beings are bio-psycho-social creatures by nature, and I should say, bio-psycho-social-spiritual creatures by nature, which [is] to say that our biology is inseparable from our psychological, emotional and spiritual existence, and therefore, what manifests in the body is not some isolated and unique event or misfortune, but a manifestation of what my life experience has been in interaction with my psychological and social and spiritual environment. Well, if we had that kind of understanding, then we would approach illness and health in a completely different fashion. What if, furthermore, we understood something in the West, which has been the underlying core insight of Eastern spiritual pathways and aboriginal shamanic pathways around the world, which is that human beings are not their personalities. We’re not our thoughts, we’re not our emotions, we are not our dysfunctional or functional dynamics, but that at the core, there is a true self that’s somehow connected to, in fact, not connected to but part of nature and creation. …Illness, from that perspective, represents a loss of that connection, a loss of that unity, a loss of that belonging to a much larger entity. …Therefore, to treat the illness or the symptom as the problem is actually to ignore the real possibility that the symptom or the illness are themselves symptoms rather than fundamental problems. So it’s in that perspective, then, that I’ve come to understand, quite before my acquaintance with ayahuasca, but that’s how I’ve come to understand human illness and dysfunction. [That] is to say that illness and dysfunction represent the products or the consequences of a lifelong interaction with our environment, particularly our psychological and social environment, and that they represent a deep disconnection from our true selves. Now, I mentioned, particularly, cancer and addiction but those are only two examples. Allow me to read you something from an article that appeared in last February’s edition of Pediatrics, which is the major pediatric journal in North America. This is a[n] article from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. It’s called “An Integrated Scientific Framework for” “Striate Development.” Here’s what they say: “Growing scientific evidence also demonstrates” “that social and physical environments that threaten human development because of scarcity,” “stress or instability, can lead to short-term physiologic and psychological” “adjustments that come at a significant cost to long-term outcomes in learning,” “behavior, health, and longevity.” In other words…the emotional and behavior patterns that as young children we adopt in order to survive stresses in our environment allow us to deal with the immediate problem, but in the long term they become prisons. They become sources of dysfunction, illness, and even death, if you’re not able to let go of them. So in other words, what was a short-term state or meant to be a short-term state in a helpful way, when it becomes a long-term trait, when it goes from state to a trait, now it becomes a problem. So let me give you a few obvious examples of that. I myself have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a characteristic of which is tuning out, absent-mindedness. Now, ADD in North America is seen as a disease, and we see many more kids are being diagnosed with it, and now we have 3 million kids in this country who are on stimulant medications for it. The rates are going up and up and up. According to the New York Times last week, 20% of American boys at one point [in] time or another have been diagnosed with it, and 10% [at] any one time are on medication. Three million, at least, are on stimulants right now. It’s seen as a genetic disease. It isn’t at all. What the tuning out represents, as we all know, is actually a coping mechanism. Our brains tune out when the stress becomes overwhelming, too much to bear. At that point the tuning out is a survival dynamic. The real question is, why are so many kids tuning out? What’s happening in their lives? What’s going on is that the stress in this society, and the stress in the parenting environment, is greatly increasing. So the child’s brain is actually affected by the stresses in the environment. Here’s further from the same Harvard article. They talk about brain development, and how the human brain actually develops, and here’s what they say about that: “The architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth,” “continues into adulthood, and establishes either [a] sturdy or fragile foundation for all the” “health, learning, and behavior, that follow.” In other words, the architecture of the human brain is actually constructed by the interaction with the environment. And they continue: “The interaction of genes and experiences literally” “shapes the circuitry of the developing brain, and is critically influenced by the mutual” “responsiveness of adult-child relationships, particularly in the early childhood years.” Well, I can’t make this into a lecture on brain development, but the point is that which circuits in the brain develop, and which patterns are ingrained, has everything to do with the early environment, particularly the mutual responsiveness of adult-child relationships. Therefore whatever interferes with that mutual responsiveness will actually interfere with the brain development of the child, including the neurochemistry of the child’s brain, as well, of course, [as] the psychological emotional patterns. So then, if you look at cancer and addiction as two adaptations to stress, what do we find? Well, prior to my work with addictions, which is my most recent work, and I did that for 12 years, and my book on the subject, I think is available outside, I worked for seven years as the coordinator, the medical coordinator of the palliative care unit at the Vancouver Hospital, working with terminally ill people. Both in family practice and also in palliative care, I had ample opportunity to see who gets sick and who doesn’t get sick. I noticed that the people that got ill with chronic conditions invariably followed certain emotional behavior dynamics that were ingrained in them, so much so that these were unconscious and compulsive and for that reason all the more difficult to let go of. So…who got cancer and who didn’t was no accident, nor was it for the most part genetically determined. I’ve collected a few clippings from the Globe and Mail newspaper, which is Canada’s newspaper of record, or at least it thinks it is. These clippings illustrate the patterns that I found in people that would get sick. I’m saying all this because in talking about my work with ayahuasca, and the potential healing that ayahuasca can induce in people, we have to understand what is being healed here. What is the underlying basis of these conditions? So, these newspaper clippings, then, illustrate something about what I’ve found in people that get sick, chronic[ally]. When I say chronic illness I mean cancer, I mean diabetes, I mean rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), colitis, Crohn’s disease, chronic asthma, psoriasis, eczema, almost any chronic condition you care to name. The first of these clippings is written by a woman who is herself diagnosed with breast cancer. She goes to her doctor, Harold, and you have to know that her husband’s name is Hai, and Hai’s first wife died of breast cancer, and now Donna, the second wife, is diagnosed with the same condition. So she writes, “Harold tells me that the lump is small and most assuredly not in my lymph nodes,” “Unlike that of Hai’s first wife, whose cancer spread everywhere by the time they found it.” “You’re not going to die here,” he assures me. “But I’m worried about Hai,” I say. “I won’t have the strength to support him.” Now what do you notice? What you notice is that she’s the one diagnosed with the potentially fatal condition, and her automatic and compulsive thought is, “all the while that I’m” “getting chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, how will I support my husband emotionally?” So this automatic regard for the emotional needs of others, while ignoring your own, is a major risk factor for chronic illness. These others’ obituaries, obituaries are fascinating to me because they tell us not only about the people who died, but also about what we as a society value in one another. Often what we value in one another is precisely what kills us. The expression “the good die young” is not a misstatement. The good do die young, because the goodness very often represents a compulsive [suppression] of their own needs. So here’s a man, physician, who dies at age 55 of cancer. An obituary says, “Never for a day did he contemplate giving up the work he so loved” “at Toronto Sick Children’s Hospital. He carried on with his duties throughout his” “year-long battle with cancer, stopping only a few days before he died.” So if you had a friend who was diagnosed with the same condition, would you say to him or her, “hey buddy, here’s what you do: you got cancer? Go back to work tomorrow, and [don’t] for a moment” “consider your life and the meaning of your life and the stresses that you’re generating.” “Just continue working while you’re undergoing chemo, radiation or surgery.” So this automatic and compulsive identification with duty, role and responsibility, rather than the needs of the self, is a major risk factor for chronic illness. The next one… [applause] Thank you. [laughter] But if you’re going to applaud every time I say something smart, you’re going to be applauding [the] whole afternoon. [laughter] The next obituary is about a woman who dies at age 55 of cancer. Her name is Naomi. This obituary is written by the appreciative husband. “In her entire life, she never got into” “a fight with anyone. The worst she could say was “fooey” or something else along those lines.” “she had no ego. She just blended in with the environment in an unassuming manner.” Now, I’m sure many of you who are in relationships, sometimes you wish that your partner would blend into the environment [laughter] in an unassuming manner. But the point is that the suppression of healthy anger that this woman engaged in all her life actually suppresses the immune system. I’m not going to go into the details of that, but the science of psychoneuroimmunology has amply shown that you can’t separate mind from the body, and when you’re repressing yourself emotionally, you’re actually diminishing the activity of your immune system. Therefore, you’re less capable of responding to malignancy or to invasion by bacteria. Again, this idea that external things cause illness… Take a condition like the flesh-eating disease, necrotizing fasciitis is the medical term. We think we know the cause: the cause is a bacterium, the strep bacterium. It isn’t, because if we did swaps on the people in this audience, swabs of the throat, or the crevices of the body, we’d identify the strep bacterium probably in 25, 30 percent of the people here. But there’s nobody here with necrotizing fasciitis, nobody here with the flesh-eating disease. In other words, the presence of the bacterium does not explain the disease. What actually happens is that the self-suppressive patterns in somebody’s life at some point will suppress the immune system. And that bacterium which has been living on your body in perfect symbiotic unity with your organism, all of a sudden becomes a deadly enemy. It’s not just the bacterium, but the self-suppression that suppresses the immune system, that actually causes the illness. I’ll read you one more obituary then, and this is almost too incredible to believe, except [that] it is directly from the same newspaper. This is a physician who died of cancer. “Sydney and his mother had an incredibly special relationship, a bond that was apparent” “in all aspects of their lives until her death. As a married man with young children,” “Sydney made a point to have dinner with his parents every day as his wife Rosalyn and their” “four young kids waited for him at home. Never wanting to disappoint either woman in his life,” “Sydney would walk in, greeted by another dinner to eat and to enjoy.” “Never wanting to disappoint either woman in his life, Sydney kept eating” “two dinners a day for years until gradual weight gain began to raise suspicions.” [laughter] Now what this man believed, what he actually believed… Notice that there’s core beliefs under all this. The first one believes that she’s responsible for her husband’s feelings, more than she is for herself. The second guy believes that he is nothing other than his responsibilities and duties and role in the world, that there’s no true self there that he can actually be with and be in touch with. Naomi, the woman, believes that “if I’m angry, I’m a bad person. If I’m angry, I’m not lovable.” “If I’m angry, I’m not worthy, or I’ll be rejected.” And this man believes that he’s responsible for how other people feel and that he must never disappoint anybody. Now these beliefs don’t come out of nowhere. They’re actually coping mechanisms in a certain parenting environment. If the parents can’t handle your anger, if they can’t handle your emotions, if they’re too needy, too troubled themselves, then the child starts taking responsibility for the parent as a way of maintaining their relationship. In other words, the psychological coping mechanisms of the child then become part of his or her personality and these same patterns that helped to cope with the original stress now become the major contributors to his or her illness and possibly death. What we’re talking about here are core beliefs that reflect the child’s early experience, which become ingrained into the brain and body as your automatic and compulsive responses to the world. So that’s my take on chronic illness. You’re beginning to see now how some experience that could enlighten you that you are not those patterns, that can give you a sense that these patterns are simply adaptations, and that there’s a true self underneath that, and if they can put you in touch with the experiences that led you to adopt these patterns, then, perhaps, you can be liberated. Then, perhaps, you can let go. Then, perhaps, you can find the true self that doesn’t have to behave in those ways anymore. That’s where the liberation is. So that’s with chronic illness. Now, addiction. So as Ken mentioned in his introduction, for twelve years I worked in what’s known as North America’s most concentrated area of drug use, the Downtown East Side of Vancouver, where in a few-square-block radius, thousands of people are ingesting, inhaling, or injecting all manner of substances. The question again is “why do people do that?” Why do people do such terrible things to themselves to the point of risking their health? They lose everything; they lose their wealth, their relationships, their families, their homes, their teeth, their dignity, and they still continue with it. The North American answer to that question is twofold. The legal answer, the socially sanctioned answer, is that these people are making a choice, they’re making a bad choice. They’re making a choice destructive to themselves and harmful to others, and therefore the way to deal with it is to deter that choice by means of draconian punishments. Hence, the so-called War on Drugs. But there is no War on Drugs, because you can’t war on inanimate objects. There’s a war on drug addicts, is what there is. As a result of such retrograde social beliefs and governmental practices, the United States, which contains 5% of the world’s population, contains 25% of the world’s jail population, which means to say that every fourth person in the world in jail is a citizen of the land of the free. [laughter, applause] All because of the belief that we’re talking about a choice here. Now, the other dominant belief, which is not identical, and you’d think would at least obliterate the first belief, but it doesn’t, but it’s the one held by most clinicians, most medical doctors, is that addictions represent illness of the brain and particularly on a genetic basis. So the American Society of Addiction Medicine considers that up to 50% of the predisposition to addiction actually is caused by genetic inheritance. That is more forward-looking in a way than the choice hypothesis, because at least you can’t blame people for the genes they either inherit or pass on to others. But it’s no more right than the other hypothesis. Actually if you look at it closely, and if you understand human brain development, to which I alluded a little bit earlier in my talk, you actually realize that if 5% of addictions are genetic, that’s not radical to say, and I doubt that anything more than 5% is genetically determined. In fact, nothing is genetically determined, because we know that even people that inherit genes, and there are some, that predispose, not predetermine but predispose to addiction, some people who inherit such genes in the right environment with nurturing parenting, those genes are never expressed, never activated. In other words genes are turned on and off by the environment. Therefore, what is in the environment, then, that causes the addiction? The belief, again…among the many false beliefs around addiction, is that drugs are addictive. But we know that they’re not. Nothing’s addictive in itself. I mean, is alcohol addictive? But if I asked the question, “how many people have” “had a glass of wine in your life?” many of you would put your hand up. Most of you would put your hand up. But if I asked you, how many of you have had an alcohol problem, a much smaller minority would put their hands up. Now if alcohol was addictive in and of itself, then anybody who ever tries it should become an addict. So the power of the addiction does not reside in the substance. Whether that substance is crystal meth, or heroin or cocaine, cannabis, alcohol, or whether it’s behaviors, like sexaholism, internet addiction, gambling, shopping, work, and so on, it’s not the actual activity or the substance, that induces the addiction. It’s that internal relationship to it, that susceptibility. What creates susceptibility? It’s very simple: trauma, so that the drug addicts I’ve worked with in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver, every single one of them had been horribly abused as children. In [my] twelve years of work there, out of hundreds of women I interviewed, in the course of my professional work, there was not one who had not been sexually abused as a child. Now, early trauma, and that’s not only my personal opinion, it’s also what the large-scale population studies show: not even controversial. [It is] not controversial, but completely impenetrable to the medical profession, and certainly to governments. So the people that are in jail, so there’s a[n] American psychiatrist, Dr. Besser van der Kolk. Many of you may know his work on stress and trauma. He says that 100% of the inmates of the criminal justice system in this country are actually traumatized children. Now, trauma induces its own set of beliefs and coping styles. One coping style is to shut down emotionally so as not to feel. Now you become alien to yourself, so you don’t feel the pain. And as one patient of mine said, very eloquently, pardon the language, that “the reason I do drugs is cause I don’t want to feel” “the fucking feelings that I feel when I don’t do the drugs.” Keith Richards, the Rolling Stone[s’] guitarist, talking about his heroin habit in his book on addiction…sorry, book on his life. Same thing. [laughter] Book on life, he called it…”I suppose” he says, talking about his heroin habit, “it was about the” “search for oblivion,” he says. “The contortions we go through just not to be ourselves” “for a few hours.” Now why would somebody not want to…be themselves for a few hours? Because they’re suffering. And why are they suffering? Because the early trauma, early emotional loss, induces certain beliefs. One belief is that I’m worthless, because children are pure narcissists. I mean narcissists in the pure sense of the word. In other words, when something happens to a child, particularly a young child, it’s happening to him and happening because of him. So if bad things happen, it’s because I’m a bad person. If good things happen, [it’s] because I’m a good person. But if bad things happen I’m a bad person. If I’m hurt, I deserve it. I’ve caused it. I’m unworthy. So [there is] deep shame at the core of addictions. There’s also a sense that the world is indifferent and hostile, and of course, [to] the child who suffers and was abused, the world was indifferent and hostile, as they experienced it. But as the Buddha said…with our minds [we] create the world. What the Buddha didn’t say was that before with our minds we create the world, the world creates our minds. Those minds are then shaped by those early experiences. So to the addict the world is hostile, it’s indifferent, in which he or she has to manipulate and find some way to soothe themselves because there ain’t no soothing in this world, there’s no healing in this world. Those are some of the core beliefs at the heart of addiction. And that there’s a deep emptiness here, because as a spiritual teacher, and this leads me directly to speak about the ayahuasca experience, but as a spiritual teacher here in California said, “the fundamental thing that happened,” “and the greatest calamity, is not that there was no love or support,” speaking of childhood. “The greater calamity which was caused by that first calamity is that you lost the connection” “to your essence. That is much more important than whether your mother or father loved you or not.” In other words, the greatest loss that we endure is the loss of connection to ourselves. That’s then where we experience that deep emptiness that we’re so afraid of, and that this culture is all about stuffing full of products, and stuffing full of relationships, and stuffing full of activities, and stuffing full of false meaning. But, of course, the more we do that, the more addicted we become, because these things can never be truly satiating. So that emptiness can never be truly filled from the outside. The way through the emptiness is from the inside. That’s where the spiritual experiences and the healing experiences empowered by ayahuasca come into it. My book on addiction came out four years ago now, and I never heard about ayahuasca until after it was published. While I was writing it, I began to get emails and inquiries from people, “what do you know about ayahuasca and the healing of addiction?” I’d say, “nothing. I don’t know anything about it.” A week later [there was] the same question, and this went on persistently for months. I finally began to be both irritated [laughter] and curious. And then, it turned out that there was an opportunity to experience ayahuasca up in Vancouver. A Peruvian shaman was coming up and leading some ceremonies, and I did do a ceremony. I sat there in the dark with my heart open and a feeling of delicious nurturing warmth with tears of joy rolling down my face, and I got love. I also got how many ways in my life I had betrayed love, and had turned my back on it, which is a coping pattern, because when you are vulnerable and hurt as a child, as I was, as a Jewish infant under German occupation in Hungary, then you close down to love, because it’s too painful to be open to it. The ayahuasca got rid of my coping mechanisms in a flash. Then I was experiencing something. I knew then that this is something to work with. Within half a year, I was working with people shamanically trained in the Peruvian [Shipibo] tradition, and beginning to lead retreats. We’ve led a number now, and the results are increasingly, but uniformly astonishing. So I’m going to read you some communications sent to me by people that have participated in our ayahuasca retreats, and then I’ll talk about their experiences, and why ayahuasca is so potentially helpful. All those previous speakers said, nobody should ever say that it’s a panacea. So this is Doctor Frikchevsky, who writes about ayahuasca: “Responsible work with psychoactive herbal decoctions like ayahuasca, similar to” “many forms of meditation, have solutogenic potential,” solutogenic meaning health-giving potential, “i.e. it can enhance physical, mental, and spiritual health, by calling into play” “what is referred [to] as participating consciousness.” So if you can become conscious of your patterns and your beliefs, these core beliefs, and how you attain these beliefs, then you can let go of them. “Rigid feeling, thought and behavioral patterns can unclench, the self can rearrange” “itself and develop its inner and outer resources more deeply.” So there we get to the concept of a true self and one that can be reconfigured or at least rediscovered with the help of these psychoactive plants, particularly ayahuasca. So I’ll read you now what some people have said about their experience at our retreats, and I’ll talk to you more about the retreats and how they function. “The last two nights have been challenging, but I’m getting good practice…negative thoughts” “as they come up. Under the effect[s] I can feel the physical sensation of fear in my gut as” “the thought arises and returns to a safer place.” In other words, when you have a certain thought, you have a negative pattern, when I say negative, I mean a self-defeating, self-deprecating, self-invalidating thought pattern, that’s not just a thought up here. That immediately has a physical impact on the body. You feel in the gut. You feel in the heart. It affects your whole nervous system, your cardiovascular system, your immune system, and this person is getting touched with how their thoughts actually are influencing their body. “In the past I’ve made many bad, irresponsible choices with hurtful consequences” “to myself and others. Despite knowing that right now I’m presented with new choices I can” “make from a place of love towards myself and the people in my life, it’s hard” “to push despair aside, the despair that tells me I will continue to make the same poor choices” “over and over again.” That’s the core belief showing up again, that there’s something wrong with me. But this person, at least, is conscious of it. “The other very powerful moment I had involved looking at the sense of” “being too much for my parents. I know, no matter how much love they…” This is a physician, by the way, who has nearly lost his license because of addictions, and his marriage is falling apart, and he came to the retreat. He thought he had a perfect childhood, by the way. I won’t even go into the details. “The other very powerful moment I had involved” “looking at the sense of being too much for my parents. I know no matter how much love” “they felt for me, they probably were overwhelmed with their own fears and anxiety.” The father had a near-fatal heart attack at age 28. “I’ve experienced myself as,” when this child was one year old. “I’ve experienced myself as too much for the world for a long time,” “and made a grand effort over the years to prove that true, which is why it cracks my heart” “open so wide to feel welcomed in the hearts of you and the people here, knowing that” “my feelings, my hurt, fear, sadness, and need for connection, are not too much.” “I feel that the world can hold me, in fact, always has, and maybe I can learn to hold myself.” “It’s painful to think that Miles, my son, may feel himself to be too much for me.” “I desperately don’t want that to happen. Much love and gratitude.” Five minutes? I thought an hour? Forty minutes? Oh my god. Well, I[‘ve] got to make this quick then. Sorry, I thought I had 60 minutes. Well, I’m going to take a bit more than five, but not as much as maybe I wanted to. I won’t read you the other experiences, but they’re all the same sort, of people experiencing love, gratitude, connection to themselves, experiencing the childhood trauma. My daughter did a[n] ayahuasca retreat. She said that she revisited all the sad places in her childhood. Because I was a workaholic and very stressed, and [a] very undeveloped adult, when I was a father to my young kids, she’s had plenty of sorrow in her life. She said that she revisited those sad places but she did so with the loving consciousness and the empathy and the compassion of an adult. …the brain scans on ayahuasca as done by Doctor [Jordi] Riba in Barcelona, and other people, what you see is activation of the temporal lobe, where childhood memories are stored, of the limbic system, where emotions are modulated and they live, and the front part of the brain, where insight is made available to us. When you can connect the childhood experience, no matter how traumatic…It sometimes comes up for people, some really deeply disturbing traumatic experiences come up for people during the ayahuasca experience. Those experiences may take the form of direct memory, direct recall of an image of what happened to them, such as a body invasion or other kinds of trauma, or it may take the form of really scary images and creatures, but it’s like a dream. In a dream, when somebody’s chasing us, we’re not afraid because somebody’s chasing us; somebody’s chasing us because we’re afraid. In other words, during sleep, the centers in the brain where childhood emotions are stored [get] activated, and then, the brain makes up a story to explain the emotion. I believe that much the same is true of many of the scary visions that people have during the ayahuasca experience. The beautiful images, of course, represent more the core self. So we get to see both what we’ve been running from, we get to see both the experiences in response to which we developed these coping mechanisms that then give us addiction or cancer or other form of illness. We also get to experience that core self, and the beauty of the world as it actually is when we don’t see it through a screen of suffering and misinterpretation induced by early experience. So we get to see both what we’ve been running from and trying to cope with and trying to manipulate, but we also get to see that true connection, that true love, that true beauty, that true vision, that pure insight, that pure strength, that pure compassion. When we do that, we realize we don’t have to cope anymore. We don’t have to run anymore. We can just be right where we are. Now, that’s not to say that because you have that experience, it’s going to stay like that. That takes work. That takes practice. If you don’t put in some practice afterwards, if you don’t get followup, if you don’t get put into the context of your life, this experience just becomes a beautiful memory. But the impact of it will fade. So it’s transformative but it’s only transformative if you allow it to be transformative, and if you work with it to allow it to be transformative. But if we do, it can be very, very powerful, and certainly life-changing for many, many, many people. I have to say something…about context here. My work at these…I don’t lead ayahuasca ceremonies. I’m not an ayahuascero, I don’t chant; I just participate in the ceremonies. Leading the ceremonies are people who wouldn’t call themselves shamans but I would call them that because their work is that effective. They chant and they work with people energetically. And they pick up on people’s energies in the dark. I don’t do that. I pick [up] on people’s energies in the light. I hear it in the tone of their voice, facial expression, choice of words. They sit there in the silence while they chant, and they’re reading the energies of the people as they emanate from each individual in that circle, where there might be 30 of us in the maloca. Then they chant to people specifically, to unblock particular energy blockages. Like with the person with cancer, recently, two weeks after she signed up, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve told you my view of breast cancer, or cancer in general. It’s a repression of anger, is one of the major dynamics in it. The shaman sits there in the dark and feels the blocked anger in that woman’s breast and then works with it to unblock that energy. So it’s not just the chemical effect of the plant, and I’m sure other people have emphasized the same point. It’s the context. It’s the responsiveness and supportive interaction of the environment. And of course, remember what I said about, when I was quoting from that Harvard article, about how the brain develops in response to the mutual responsiveness of child and adult? In the same way, the healing benefit of something like ayahuasca is not simply the chemical effect of the plant, although that of course is inseparable from its other effects, but it’s also the responsiveness of the environment in which people experience the ayahuasca. So the experience has to be in a safe context where there’s guidance. People sometimes have negative experiences, or they think they do, because they have an experience they didn’t like. So they resist the experience. Also the personality has a way of invalidating our essential self. I’ll give you a quick example of that. There was a woman in our most recent retreat who wanted to experience what was blocking her from really engaging with life and herself in a full and passionate way. Next day, she reported great disappointment and even resentment [about] what she experienced during the ayahuasca ceremony. “I just got psychedelic colors. For example, there was this psychedelic Indian elephant.” “I didn’t come here to get a trip with Indian elephants.” The Indian elephant is Ganesh, the god figure, who unblocks difficulties. [laughter] That’s what she experienced, and [in] some part of her brain she knew that, but because she was resisting the experience rather than being open to it, she actually missed the point. Now, that’s okay. If you go through it that way, you’ll still learn what you need to learn. So I’m not negating her experience. In fact, it turned out to be a beautiful experience for her. But people sometimes need the guidance to understand their experience. It’s not enough that they experience; we have to find the meaning of the experience. That’s where my role comes in; that’s what I help people with. But that wouldn’t be possible without the astonishing work done by the ayahuasceros/ayahuasceras that I work with. So it’s an overall gestalt, the plant, the ceremony, the chanting, the energetic work, and the psychological/emotional preparation beforehand, integration afterwards, and the joint exploration and identification of meaning. Thank you. [applause] [moderator:] Thank you Gabor. So, we have 15 minutes for questions, and we have a microphone here. Q: I’d like to second, that was a really wonderful presentation. Thank you. I wanted to ask you…you mentioned towards the beginning of it [that] you had these obituaries and your belief that these psychological mindsets had caused the illness, which makes absolute sense to me, and I wondered, do you know of any research looking at that kind of thing? A: Yeah. There’s a book of mine called “When the Body Says No,” in which all this is laid out in great detail. It just went out of print in the United States yesterday. I don’t know why, because it’s been selling a lot of copies. But you can get them on, the Canadian website of Amazon, It’s called “When the Body Says No.” The book was published 10 years ago now, and yesterday it showed up again on the Canadian national bestsellers list. So it’s doing very, very well; a lot of people are reading it. It’s available in Canada, and a publisher will pick it up again in the states as well, but right now it’s not available in the US. “When the Body Says No.” All the research is actually in there, documented as well. Q: Thank you so much. This was very moving. It’s one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever heard. I am a family practice physician, and I have a special interest in addiction, and I’ve finished your book recently. I am inspired and moved. I guess my question would be, how do we help the medical profession, and I guess the psychiatry profession, how do we help them understand this? Because I am starting to believe that there’s a place for PTSD caused by the medical profession. [laughter, applause] There’s so much damage we can do, but there’s so much good we can do. A: Thank you for the question. It was in San Francisco that I gave a talk at the UCSF department of psychiatr[y] grand rounds. I gave my talk on addiction as grounded in trauma. A doctor there said that the medical profession is trauma-phobic. In answer to your question I can only quote two great American philosophers. One is Yogi Berra, who said that “if the people don’t want to go to the ball game,” “there’s nothing you can do to stop them,” [laughter] number one. Number two, Louis Armstrong, who said, “there’s some people that when you try [to] tell them, you can’t.” So I have no magic formula as to how to talk to the medical profession. What is encouraging is that there’s more and more of this awareness seeping in to the profession from the outside, and more and more work is being done. It’s far from reaching the mainstream yet; it’s far from reaching a tipping point yet. It’s just happening. I think all any of us can do is to contribute to that awareness as best we can with the resources we each may have, and see it as a long-term rather than a short-term goal, and in the meanwhile, not to be discouraged. To say that the medical profession doesn’t get it is like saying that the rain is wet. Of course it is. Q: Dr. Maté, can you make any comment on the relative worth of ayahuasca versus ibogaine in the treatment of addiction? A: Yeah. I’ve had the pleasure to experience both. I wouldn’t say pleasure, actually [laughter] because neither of them make you feel very good in the short term. Ibogaine, which is the active ingredient in iboga, has a very specific function that’s not reproducible by ayahuasca or anything else. Two weeks ago, I presented rounds at CAMH, which is the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, in Toronto, Ontario. I brought to the podium with me a woman who a year ago was on methadone, 80 milligrams a day. She had been for 10 years. Previous to that she was [for] 15 years or so a heroin addict. By some route she got to me, and she asked for a device, and I said, “do the ibogaine, which will get you off your opiates, and then do the ayahuasca retreat with us.” She is now a transformed person. She’s not on any opiates, she’s not on tranquilizers, she’s not on antidepressants, nothing. She’s confident, articulate, and very much herself now for the first time in her life. What the ibogaine can do, is that you can be an opiate addict for a long time and you do ibogaine once, there’s no withdrawal, which is astonishing. You don’t have to go on methadone. You don’t have to go on suboxone. You don’t have to become addicted to another opiate. Now, it doesn’t solve the problem in the long term, because as long as the emotional pain, the dynamics, the trauma-based core beliefs are not dealt with, there’s always a great danger of falling back into the addiction. But it’s got the fantastic benefit of interrupting the addiction, which will give you space to do that kind of work. Then the ayahuasca can come in to support that psycho-emotional-spiritual growth. So I see the two as working beautifully in tandem. But the ibogaine does have that special quality of interrupting the addiction in a spectacular fashion which nothing else can do, as far as we know. Q: Thank you for telling the truth. Why is the truth such a minority position? A: Is that news in the world, do you think? Is that the first time in history? [laughter] As somebody said a couple [of hundred] years ago, if you’re going to tell the truth, you better keep your horse saddled all the time. [laughter] Well, the reason that the truth is not available to people is because people are themselves alienated from their true selves. We lose the connection to our gut feelings, and trauma and emotional loss and suffering, doesn’t ennoble people. Not in childhood. It makes them [defensive] and it makes them deny their reality because their reality is too painful. And so it’s very hard for the truth to penetrate later on, because the defenses are so great. So the greater the defense against truth, the greater the hurt there in the first place. Q: Do you have time for one more? A: Okay, is that a question or an answer? [laughter] It’s up to my boss here. Q: Wonderful, thank you. Permission granted, huh? So I came to this convention…. I come from a family of psychologists, psychiatrists… A: I’m so sorry. [laughter] Q: I need ayahuasca. So I’ve been considering ayahuasca, been on a transcendental shift. I was a pharmaceutical rep and I realized that my life, my body/mind/soul was drained. I was becoming sick, and I left the job. I started being like an attractor force for a lot of metaphysical things. My question to you is how, as I try to decide whether to do ayahuasca, [laughter] I need to move through some of the trauma I had working with doctors, pardon me. So, as I try to decide, how many times do you do it? Do you need to do it multiple times? And if you do it multiple times, is there a detriment to doing it too much. A: Well look, first of all, nobody has to do it…Do you have a call to do it? Is there some deep interest there? Is there something drawing you in that direction? That’s the first question. The second question is, if there is, then what’s in the way of that? What fears are there? What anxieties are there, and what [experience is that] based one? What [are] those fears based on? Maybe you’ve had the experience of supposed healers who have actually end[ed] up hurting you. That’s a legitimate reason to be afraid of some new experience like that. So just examine that. Look at that, and weigh that together. Now, in terms of how many times, I had lunch with two people today. Both of them had been at my retreats. One said, “I’m eager to be there for the next one,” the other said, “I never need to do it again.” So it all depends on where you’re at in life. Now, the one is older, the one who said they won’t do it again, they’re in their 70s, and they really have learned a lot in life, but there was a knot that they hadn’t untied. They came to the retreat, the knot released, they had this breakthrough, [and] they don’t perceive the need to do it again. So there’s no prescription that anybody can give you. Q: Does it make you a stronger healer if you do it multiple times? A: Well look, if you develop a relationship to it, you’re going to go deeper with it, then you’ll be a stronger healer, and you’ll be more healed as well. Q: So there’s no damage to the brain that’s permanent? A: No, there’s no damage. Studies are clear on that. If anything, there’s benefit. In fact, there is benefit. That’s what the long-term studies show. No harm whatsoever. None whatsoever. Okay? Q: Thank you. A: You’re welcome. [applause] There was a documentary on Canadian national television about our work with ayahusaca with a native Indian band in BC, a highly traumatized and therefore highly addicted population. Sorry, no, the documentary wasn’t about that. The documentary was about our work with individuals who are addicted, again, including a native Indian woman, highly traumatized and so on. The results were very good, the documentary was seen by a lot of people, and I received a letter from Health Canada, which is our version of the FDA, telling me that this is illegal, and should I [proceed] with it, I could be facing criminal charges. So that’s the legal situation, both in Canada, the United States, and also in the unnamed country in which I now hold retreats. [laughter] In terms of publicly speaking about it, I don’t have an issue with that. We’re just talking about something that’s potentially helpful. There’s still freedom of speech [on] this continent. But it’s true that [if] people are going to work with it, they actually have to be maybe less careless than I am sometimes in how they speak about it, because there are potential consequences, and people should know that. So thanks. [moderator:] Next question? Q: Yeah, I’m just wondering, thank you for coming, because what you are speaking on is near and dear to my heart. I will be celebrating four years clean and sober from heroin and alcohol through the miracle of ayahuasca. [applause] I pretty much spent from 1988 until 2009 an IV [intravenous] heroin user and IV [cocaine] user as well as a sort of a hopeless alcoholic the last 10 years. Anyway, through an unlikely series of coincidences, ayahuasca found me four years ago. But here’s my question. Thank you for letting me indulge my story. I found that a great ally in the process that AA [Alcoholic Anonymous] outlines, the 12 step process, and the fellowship of AA really helped me take my transformative visions and actually translate them and integrate them into my life. I’ve been surprisingly well-received by all the members of my AA community that privately know of my experience. I don’t share it in a meeting, obviously, but privately they know and they recognize authentic recovery. I was wondering, with the people that you’ve worked with, have you suggested to any of them that they not only implement the action-oriented process of the twelve steps, but actually to form relationships within the more mainstream recovery community? A: Well, fair enough. In my book on addiction, I certainly talk about the 12 steps, and I see them as essential. I recommend them. At the end there’s even an appendix in which I rewrite the 12 steps in language that speaks more to me and perhaps to some other people. So I’m completely in support with 2 caveats. One is that AA never talks about the childhood trauma. So they take the disease for granted but they don’t look at the cause of it, which I think leaves people short of what they fully need for healing. I think that’s something they could easily correct, but they’re not really interested in looking at that as far as I can tell. That’s the first point. The second point is that they have an understandabl[e] but completely mistaken relationship to ayahuasca and other psychedelic substances. They just see them as another mind-altering substance and put them on the level of heroin or alcohol. What they don’t realize, and the reason you can’t talk about it openly, is that it’s not just the substance; it’s one’s relationship to it, so that you can relate to a substance to seek oblivion, like Keith Richards said, or you can [relate] to some substances to gain more awareness…So the addictive use is always to suppress awareness, to suppress consciousness. The spiritual use is to gain higher consciousness. The addictive use is more and more and more, and the spiritual use is as little or as much as I need. But it’s not about the high that you get. It’s about the learning and the opening that happens. So it’s [the] very opposite. But the 12-step groups, for lack of exploring the issue, confuse the two, hence their resistance. So yes, I support them greatly, with those two caveats. Q: I want to say there’s a growing number of people. Because I sponsor people in AA using ayahuasca to work them through the steps, so that’s my private work. That’s my ministry. [applause] A: Great. [moderator:] Okay, last question. Q: Great presentation; thanks. My name is Wes Farr. I’m a psychiatry resident down in Southern California, and some of the things that were just discussed here [make] me a little bit worried that we’re over-endorsing ayahuasca as a potential cure or panacea for a lot of these things. What do you see as the similarities between, let’s say, Timothy Leary’s espousing LSD with this, with ayahuasca. A: Sorry, what do I see as what? I just missed what you said. Q: The similarities between ayahuasca, how we’re describing it, and Timothy Leary’s role in proclaiming LSD as being this panacea? I mean, I see the risks. My reason for asking the question is, I see the risks in maybe making it more difficult for ayahuasca to become a legitimate medicine if we say, “yes, go to these clinics south of the border, where it’s maybe not strictly illegal,” “where people can get away with it. Do it in a ceremonial practice where it’s” “maybe not truly religious. See if you can have this experience.” What do you see as the risks of that? A: Thanks for the question. The first point about a panacea…you probably heard me say that it wasn’t. Did you hear me say that? How many people heard me say that it wasn’t a panacea? Did you hear it? Because your ears were closed, my friend. Okay? You only hear a certain kind of thing. Not only did I say it, the speaker before me said it towards the end of her talk. Any of us experienced with these plants will insist that they’re no panaceas, and nobody should regard them as such. What we see them as is a potential mode of healing that is well worth exploring and offering to more people. It’s certainly that. Panacea? No it isn’t. Now, as for Timothy Leary…[it] depends what view you want to take of him. He was certainly a pioneer. He had certainly had experiences, and he certainly communicated the value of those experiences to a lot of people. He was also a very troubled man who had no balance in his life, who came across like an evangelist, and who I don’t think spoke about these things all that responsibly. That does not mean that there’s no uses for LSD. …I certainly don’t intend to overstate the case, but what I would really warm-heartedly invite you to do [is to] experience it for yourself. See what it’s like, and witness the people that you’re with and what happens for them, and then speak about it. Because from the intellectual point of view, your question is purely valid. There’s nothing wrong with your question. But that intellectual knowledge in which western medicine, in which you and I are trained, is grounded, that intellectual knowledge is only one way of knowing. Other ways of knowing are experiential and intuitive. One of the weaknesses of psychology today is that it excludes those other powerful ways of knowing, number one. And number two: psychiatric practice basically ignores the scientific evidence of the mind-body unity. It ignores the scientific evidence of the bio-psycho-social nature of human beings. Now you say to me, “what’s difference between you and Timothy Leary, who touted LSD, and” “now you’re talking about ayahuasca as a panacea,” which of course, one more time, I insist that I did not. Well, look around you. What is your profession doing? Prescribing billions of dollars worth of drugs for a lifetime. [applause] And I’m not even against the medications. I’ve taken antidepressants myself, with benefit[s], and I’ve taken stimulants for my ADHD, with benefit[s]. I’m not even against them. But our use of them, and our reliance on them as the main modality is nothing short of criminal, actually, given the scientific evidence otherwise. I know it’s easy for me to answer you because I’ve got the podium and you don’t, so I apologize. [laughter] But really, I think the fact that you are here means that you have an open mind. My invitation to you is to keep opening that mind, and to actually immerse yourself in some of these experiences. I think it would really enhance your capacity to be a great psychiatrist. [applause] [moderator:] Thank you everybody for participating.

16 thoughts on “Psychedelics in Unlocking the Unconscious: From Cancer to Addiction – Gabor Mate

  1. 25:58 (A.H. Almaas)
    29:36 Ayahuasca, Salutogenesis and the Need for "Ecological" Approches. by Dr. Franz Friczewski.

    Salutogenesis Latin salus = health and Greek genesis = origin. Antonovsky developed the term from his studies of "how people manage stress and stay well". He observed that stress is ubiquitous, but not all individuals have negative health outcomes in response to stress. Instead, some people achieve health despite their exposure to potentially disabling stress factors.

  2. I'm a huge fan of Dr. Mate's work. This talk was informative and easy to understand for people new to this information. Thank you for uploading!

  3. Through his talks, Gabor Mate has put himself in the center of anti-establishmentarianism. It is no surprise medical or government authorities choose to ignore what he says; he would be too dangerous an opponent, there are too many inconvenient truths in what he says. 

  4. So the people that are in jail, so there's a[n] American psychiatrist,
    23:25  Dr. Besser van der Kolk. Many of you may know his work on stress and trauma.
    23:29  He says that 100% of the inmates of the criminal justice system in this country
    23:35  are actually traumatized children. Now, trauma induces its own set of beliefs
    23:41  and coping styles. 

  5. Physical illness and dysfunction is a manifestation of psycho-bio-social-spiritual problems and a deep disconnection from our true selves. Gabor you're a pioneering genius who cares about your patients and people who are suffering and not interested in profit which is remarkable. Prisons are made and you see through them and show alternatives that are deeply resented and covered up in western societies as pharmaceutical companies are destroying and adding synthetics as the only cure as the agenda they are driven by is always money! what about the people! genius Gabor.

  6. This is a tough pill to swallow… So forget all prior knowledge of living virus's and illness, and believe its to do with a spiritual imbalance within the person. I'm quite interested in the science of ayahuasca but this seems like mumbo jumbo from the start. You catch a virus if you get sneezed on and little invasive critters multiply drastically and attack you from within. Objectively, both sound bizarre but I'm not sure…

  7. To sum it all up… Your mental health and positivity has a direct link to your immune system and is key to staying healthy. Spirituality is a loaded word and has no need in real science though. I'd say.

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