You can also listen to this post at: https://medicinepathpodcast.com/podcast/s02e08-wakingupgrowingup
“There is a crack in everything,
that's how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen, Anthem
There are two aspects to personal transformation that are equally important: waking up and growing up.
Waking up starts with the recognition that we’re not living life to our fullest potential and that we’re suffering unnecessarily. For me, this was waking up to the fact that I was stuck in emotional and behavioural patterns that were causing conflict within myself and in my relationships. I could see that these patterns were causing me to react to things people said and did in a way that was creating a great deal of stress and anxiety for myself and others. I could also see how my attempt to manage that stress and anxiety through drinking and other behaviours was just adding to my problems. Being tired and hungover all the time made me more reactive and less able to handle the pressures and challenges of my job and personal life.
My coping strategies were no longer working for me and it was clear that I needed to find another way to live if I wanted to find happiness.
My coping strategies were no longer working for me and it was clear that I needed to find another way to live if I wanted to find happiness. Deep down I knew that it was time to take control of my life and free myself from the patterns that had been running the show for too long. I needed to turn off the autopilot and take the wheel, but I had no idea how to even find the off switch.
Like many people who have had a wake up call, I began to seek out ways to understand what was going on below the surface and find out what was causing all the turmoil in my life. This lead me to working with a counsellor who focused on dream analysis, committing to a regular yoga practice, and eventually working with ayahuasca for many years. Through these experiences I became aware of the deeper aspects of myself and began to make the connection between what I experienced in my body and what was going on in my mind.
As I started to unravel the tension and stress that I’d been holding in my body through a regular yoga practice, it brought up even deeper levels of anxiety and fear.
As I started to unravel the tension and stress that I’d been holding in my body through a regular yoga practice, it brought up even deeper levels of anxiety and fear that I experienced as panic attacks, which often came on while lying in shavasana. Because I didn’t have a relationship with a yoga teacher or somatic therapist to help me understand that this was all part of the healing process, it was a confusing and scary time.
I realized that I need some outside help and found a counsellor who had been trained in Jungian dream work. I’d always had a vivid dream life and somehow knew that I might find some pieces of the puzzle within my dreams. In my sessions with him, I discovered that my unconscious mind had been desperately trying to speak to me through my dreams and show me aspects of myself that I’d been hiding from for years. Through analyzing the images and symbols of my dream life, I began to see how the painful experiences of my childhood were the source of the fear, anger and resentment that had been causing so much distress and disharmony in my waking life.
Through analyzing the images and symbols of my dream life, I began to see how the painful experiences of my childhood were the source of the fear, anger and resentment that had been causing so much distress and disharmony in my waking life.
Encouraged by this work and wanting to go deeper, I returned to psychedelics, which I’d experimented with since I was a teenager, but never with the clear intention to learn about myself. In the first ayahuasca ceremony I attended, I had a profound experience of death and resurrection and a reawakening to my heart, which I realized I’d been disconnected from for many years. This experience gave me a taste of the freedom that was possible and put me back in touch with who I really was at my core, underneath all the stories and beliefs I held about myself. It was an incredibly freeing experience and after that, like magic, the urge to numb myself with alcohol simply evaporated.
This kind of awakening experience can certainly be, as it was for me, profoundly transformative and even create immediate shifts in how we think and behave, but it’s not the end of the road. As I came to see in the following days and months, “waking up” was just the beginning of a much longer process that I’ve come to think of as “growing up”.
As I came to see in the following days and months, “waking up” was just the beginning of a much longer process that I’ve come to think of as “growing up”.
My waking up experiences helped me break through the protective defenses I’d constructed early on to help me deal with the pain of the trauma I experienced as a kid. Breaking through allowed me to reconnect with my true self, but it didn’t make all the thought and behaviour patterns that I had developed in the wake of trauma simply go away. I came to see that early on in my life, I had made an agreement with myself that I would keep people at a distance to avoid further hurt and betrayal. Over the years I built a wall around myself, like a fortress protecting a wounded child king. Every defense mechanism, every avoidance tactic, every coping strategy was another brick in that wall. My awakening experiences may have briefly opened up an aperture and given me a glimpse of the freedom and potential for deep connection and peace that was possible, but it would take years to dismantle the wall, piece by piece, brick by brick. Every callous word that came out of my mouth, every emotional overreaction, every judgment and criticism, was showing me just how much work I still needed to do.
After we’ve had a taste of freedom, we need to do the work of unravelling the stories we tell about ourselves and the world and uncover the source of our reactive patterns and coping strategies if we want that freedom to last.
This is where ongoing psychological work comes in. After we’ve had a taste of freedom, we need to do the work of unravelling the stories we tell about ourselves and the world and uncover the source of our reactive patterns and coping strategies if we want that freedom to last. What I’ve found is that this is really a process of growing ourselves up, so that we’re not perpetually repeating the patterns that were programmed early on in our childhood. Whether we learned them from our parents or developed them to fit in with our family and schoolmates, these adaptations worked when we were kids, and in some cases were even necessary for survival, but at a certain point they keep us from developing real intimacy and experiencing lasting peace and fulfillment in our adult lives.
There are many ways to do the work of growing yourself up, and over the past number of years I’ve explored many of them, from The Work of Byron Katie, to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to Internal Family Systems, to body-centered psychotherapies like Hakomi and Somatic Experiencing, and most recently, an approach developed by Dr. Gabor Maté which elegantly synthesizes many of these modalities into something he calls Compassionate Inquiry.
So, if you’re wondering how to integrate your awakening experience and truly transform your life, I encourage you to explore all the myriad tools now available and seek out an experienced guide to help you navigate this process, preferably someone who has had an awakening experience and done the work of growing themselves up. If you want to improve your relationship with your spouse or find a life partner, seek out a guide who is in a long term relationship. If you want to learn how to be a better parent, find someone who has a good relationship with their kids. If you want to get along with co-workers better and find more fulfillment in your career, find someone who has been there and done that.
Whatever route you take, the bottom line is that while the profound awakenings experienced through yoga, meditation and psychedelics can offer us a taste of freedom and provide us with much-needed inspiration and hope, we need to get our hands dirty and do the work of dismantling the walls that limit us, piece by piece, brick by crumbling brick. It’s often uncomfortable and difficult work to face the fact that we’ve constructed our own prison, but it’s also liberating and empowering. After all, who’s better equipped to plot the escape from prison than the person who built it?
If you’re interested in going deeper into this work and think I would be a helpful friend and guide, I invite you to reach out and book a coaching session with me.
Painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1830