Trauma-informed Ayahuasca integration: why we need to create a culture of impeccability

Atira Tan

Atira Tan

May 29, 2018

What you will be learning

In this article you will come to appreciate how important it is for ayahuasca retreat facilitators to be aware of trauma, understand how it works, and create a professional that adequately addresses the needs of those using plant medicines for trauma and healing purposes.

Many of us spend our lives collecting experiences. We jump from opportunity to task, to person to place collecting memories, stories and forging relationships. We are the best collectors, but we’re not necessarily apt integrators of our experiences.

And for good reason.

Understanding Trauma takes Time

It takes time, patience and resilience. Integration requires that we begin to feel more and analyze less. The rhythm of our city dwelling is often not the most conducive to quiet reflection upon a course of action that, informed by our learnings, moves us closer toward who and how we want to be in the world.

When someone decides to come to an Ayahuasca retreat in Peru to try sacred medicine, in most cases, it’s a conscious choice to experience deep spiritual, mental and physical healing. In the absence of both trauma-informed practices that support the integration of the psychedelic experience, and a regulatory board, or a code of ethics that ensures participants are respected and guided by qualified, ethically minded facilitators, we are at risk of collecting sacred medicine experiences, like shells or driftwood without fully embodying the knowledge, insight and wisdom received. Which, of course, has significant implications not only for ourselves but for our communities as well.

My interest in trauma-informed Ayahuasca integration was piqued after witnessing through my own journey with psychedelics, the absence of trauma-informed group facilitators. This absence meant that these facilitators were unequipped to respond effectively or at times, appropriately, to the traumatic experiences of their participantsIt was not uncommon for me to witness someone undergoing a profoundly cathartic experience or becoming overwhelmed, and for the facilitator to diminish the magnitude of the experience by failing to treat it with the therapeutic tools required to help them manage the trauma of it.

In observing these facilitators through my own lens as a trauma-informed clinician, I could see that the general attitude towards the trauma incurred by participants was that it was just “something that happens” in the course of taking psychedelics like Ayahuasca and that the participant should be both prepared for that as well as knowledgeable about how to integrate what they’ve just felt, seen and heard. For me, this attitude wasn’t and isn’t good enough.

Unlike many other therapeutic professions, such as counseling and psychology, there is no code of ethics that governs or regulates the facilitation of sacred medicine experiences. This means not only are there no standard training or qualification requirements but that facilitators are not bound by a legal duty of care to their participants. While we might agree that it should be a given that facilitators treat both the medicine itself, the ceremony and the trauma incurred by their participants with reverence, respect and care, it isn’t necessarily always the case. The absence of a code of ethics or regulatory board means that questions related to consent, touch and confidentiality in the context of a sacred medicine experience are not being discussed and that there are no scrupulous standards to provide practitioners with a foundational set of ethical principles to underpin their work.

Sacred medicine has such profound potential to change lives for the better, we know this firsthand, however, it has become difficult for participants to place their faith and trust in an industry where a trauma-informed approach toward integration, an official regulatory body and a code of ethics is unavailable.

In short, the goal of integration should be for the insights received through the sacred medicine experience to be embodied and made a living reality, instead of becoming a collection of experiences which gradually fade into the background of our lives.”

Ayahuasca Integration

The cost of not committing as an industry to trauma-informed integration practices, is that deep and important universal wisdom may not weave into the fabric of people’s everyday lives to promote meaningful change in the world. Integration, in an unregulated sacred medicine culture, is perceived at best, an add-on. It’s not as well understood in Ayahuasca circles, and for that reason, trauma-informed Ayahuasca integration work does not receive the attention both within ceremony and without. We need, therefore, to better understand the importance of integration and what it might, context depending, consist of in order to begin to conceive of it as equally as important as the medicine itself in promoting deep healing.

Integration, in my role as a trauma-informed clinician, is about supporting my clients to become an embodiment of their insights. If, within the context of the sacred medicine experience we can turn our insights into a living reality, one that we use to create new behaviors and ways of responding to difficult people and circumstances in the busyness of our everyday, we’ve become an embodiment of our insights.

For example, when encountering a familiar situation that previously unsettled or confused us, we might choose to respond to it in a different, more intentional way. Or alternatively, we might find ourselves with the courage we never before to change our thoughts, actions and behavior and to veer down a new career or relationship path which is more aligned with who we are and how we want to be of service in the world.

Integration is, therefore, a process, a perpetual unfolding, and not a final destination. It can take years and may never reach a peak of complete resolution. I speak here, not only as a clinician but as a participant. When I was younger, I took LSD and was transported to phenomenal places. I learned a great deal about the universe through these experiences. At the time, I was a part of a small, close-knit group that would take LSD together.

We would meditate and were very intentional and responsible for our psychedelic use. I distinctly recall this one trip where I tuned into this voice that said to me, “Atira, you really do know a lot about the universe already and we are not going to show it to you anymore because you need to live what you know.” After receiving this insight, LSD never worked for me again. I never again reached a state akin to that reached before. And I have not taken LSD again since. I instead chose to take what amounted to over fifteen years of my life integrating this knowledge. I learned to embody the knowledge gleaned through my experience of LSD and made it into what I term my “living reality.”

Learning to embodying one’s sacred medicine insights in a holistic way, that is, with the full participation of one’s body, mind and spirit and to have it manifest externally through one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors may be a lofty aspiration, but it is achievable, and what I consider to be the ultimate goal and guiding premise of any successful Ayahuasca integration practice.

Integration in Practice

In my work as an integration therapist, I frequently observe the mind grasping and understanding an insight that has been gleaned through the sacred medicine experience, coupled with a failure by the body to follow suit. The principal modalities that I use in my work are therefore ones that intend to support the process of embodiment, rather than disembodiment through mental analysis.

Somatic Psychology approaches, such as Somatic Experiencing ®, are my preferred methodologies because they target the nervous system and our body’s awareness. The experience of taking Ayahuasca is itself somatic-based, that is it works very much through the intelligence of the body and the cells. A participant may vomit, defecate, experience hot and cold sweats, scream, laugh or cry. Ayahuasca works as a somatic experience and therefore needs to be married with an equally somatic integration and holding approach.

If we return to the ceremonial experience for a moment, we may be better able to comprehend how the modalities described work in practice. If, for example, a participant experiences an overwhelming surge of grief and despair during or shortly after ingesting Ayahuasca, oftentimes, no amount of talking will help.

Somatic Psychology approaches are therefore suited to the resolution of such feelings and the integration of key learnings because they succeed in, what we term, “finishing a trauma cycle,” by re-regulating and reducing the arousal of the nervous system. Somatic Experiencing works at the level of the “felt sense” and supports the resolution of confronting feelings and the integration of vital insights by supporting the participant to return to their body, not their mind in order to make meaning from and about their experience.

Past clients have described Somatic Experiencing as opening up a kind of “spaciousness” within. And when that spaciousness has been created and felt into, the mind is quick to follow and begins to integrate one’s key learnings. In short, once the body understands and has made meaning from an experience, the mind will rapidly follow. We are, however, more accustomed to wanting to talk through and analyze such experiences, which may, in some contexts proffer resolution of trauma, but in the long term, particularly within the context of the trauma that emerges for those seeking deep healing through the use of psychedelics, the trauma must be resolved on the level of the felt senses if it is to become holistic healing, or one’s “living reality.”

With this first premise, we also understand that participants may be hyper-aroused, extra sensitive and easily triggered, or they may be shut down, easily overwhelmed, or confused.
We, therefore, respond to participants to consider these experiences and provide support by building the safety and orientation to the present.

“When a deeply held traumatic memory or feeling surfaces often the medicine itself may not be sufficiently able to resolve the grief, loneliness and fragility that has emerged.”

A Culture of Impeccability

As described, Somatic Experiencing is a trauma-informed methodology that helps to resolve that which remains unresolved by the medicine itself. Trauma informed therapies are vital for helping to promote what I have termed here an “embodied reality,” by operating on the level of the felt senses, not the mind. They are, in my own work at AYA Healing Retreats and elsewhere bound up together with my duty of care and what I take to be my ethical responsibility to my clients.

My hope is that other practitioners and facilitators will also begin to recognize the salience of such methods for supporting the successful and enduring integration, as well as the wellbeing of their participants and that we can, together advocate for a regulatory body and formalized code of ethics that succeeds in building the trust and credibility of the sacred medicine work we know is vital for the health of our culture in the West.

The attainment of a new “embodied reality” should be what drives us to seek out and participate in the sacredness of these ancient rituals in the first place; not the desire to collect an experience, only to package it up and shelve it. When we pursue and persevere with the work of Ayahuasca or psychedelic integration when we commit to creating a new “embodied reality” we can begin, ever so incrementally, to realize our potential in the world, that is, our own innate power to effect radical shifts in our communities.

By bringing more ardent attention and reverence to the importance of integration in tandem with the ceremonial aspects of Ayahuasca we can begin to transcend our egocentric world by making true and meaningful contributions to others who are less fortunate than ourselves. In short, by creating a culture of impeccability within the sacred medicine community, we can begin to create a culture of impeccability, of excellence and compassion where it matters.


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