The day before I met Katrina Michelle, a holistic psychotherapist currently serving as faculty at Columbia University School of Social Work and The Institute for the Development of Human Arts, I took a huge dose of LSD in preparation for one of the one-on-one sessions that she offers in order to get to the bottom of it all.
Eyes closed and careering through ancient mystical shapes and patterns. At one point, I was floating in space and communicating to three generations of maternal energy; my ancestral lineage in stasis and floating on discs. One long ecstatic WOW that blurred and bled through saturated love. Time seemingly infinite and in feedback. I was at the centre of my own universe. As everyone is. Letting go, far beyond the dawn of time and to the trembling point of atomic structure itself, of birth in its purest sense.
It was Funkadelic and their song Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts that helped me overcome the initial overwhelming scrambling of sensations. George Clinton, the glorious shaman, and his call to ‘rise as high as your dominant aspiration‘ granted me poise and groove.
‘You gravitate to that which you secretly love most’
After having a spontaneous mystical experience in her early 20’s, Katrina Michelle did not quite yet know what had hit her as she left the subway and climbed out onto a busy New York city street. She describes no less than “a sudden knowing of the fabric of the universe and the interconnection of all life. A zoomed-out and cosmic perspective that lasted for a moment and was yet timeless. A deep knowing, a deep awe, a deep beauty. A heart-opening empathy love for all of life”. Having studied psychotherapy, she began to delve deep into the work of William James, the father of American psychology, who gave meaning to this tremendous expansion of consciousness that, out of nowhere, left her shell-shocked body as quickly as it had appeared.
It made sense for her to go back to school to study transpersonal psychology in order to understand what had happened that day. As she explains “It is possible to find development beyond the ego-self, to higher states of functioning; to the same states that psychedelics can give access to”. Katrina Michelle entered this visceral state that she describes without the use of any substances. She acquired the perspective of self beyond the body and expanded her perspective as if it were a gift, giving her a sense that there was “a greater reality than micro-small ego, way beyond my cultural standards and expectations. It gave me a chance to really see how humanity is a living organism as interconnected as cells of the body, all impacting one another with perfect grace”
‘Be careful of the thought-seeds you plant in the garden of your mind
For seeds grow after their kind’
As difficult as it may be to use intellect or language to point at these states of mind, Michelle has dedicated her life in attempting to do so within her professional practice. Finding ways to heal those who come to her for understanding, helping guide them from the narrow ways of seeing the world outside of the limitation of western norms, and allowing her patients to transform as they wish. Some choose to use psychoactive substances such as LSD or Psilocybin to take a shortcut to these states but as Michelle makes clear, the realm of expanded awareness can be achieved “through breathwork, meditation, yoga practice or even fasting”.
Those who are prepared to take that trip do so not only to heal trauma but to find meaning for themselves in this world. “The way I work with people is through education, helping them prepare for whatever they might expect,” she explains. “But I don’t use drugs with those who visit my practice, that is something they will do independently”. Once they return, having had their expanded conscious experience they get to sit with someone who can build context from what they have encountered.
‘Free your mind and your ass will follow’
Katrina Michelle settles down to hear of my trip and asks a simple question:
“What is the meaning you would like to take from what you experienced?”
I think that to fear death is meaningless. The universe was in me rather than the other way around – which is just as any religion would tell you I imagine. In this timelessness that I was occupying, I was beyond my physical self but in a place that I will probably still occupy one way or another once my so-called life is extinguished one day. After the infinite endless stuff though came the human stuff like how from mother to child, pain is handed down. Pain being an accumulation that has been received across time. Like Larkin said – “They fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do”
This profound ancestral understanding of genetic memories. It’s fascinating. Not fearing death, trusting your body, understanding that you are carrying the pain of generations and how you decide to navigate and contextualise it. How you release it. Time is not linear. The question is can we heal ourselves and heal the generations before us? This could be a question of quantum physics if I am indeed here physically based on the genetic material of generations before me.
It is a thought that I have played with since that session. I have dwelled upon what we carry around within us. As Michelle states “whether a conscious memory or not, trauma may be revealed during your journey. Something difficult may have happened in your past but once it is revealed it deserves a space to be explored in a way that you can hold, so that it doesn’t create havoc in your life”
if we are willing to lean in, beautiful things can happen, beautiful things also include the shadows and not just the joy.
Michelle goes further, “We are taught many ways to avoid our truth – defence mechanisms have their purpose after all. They serve to protect us until the ego is ready to navigate it, and again it is important to be cautious about diving into a journey like this. Psychedelic drugs are truth-tellers, they will show us things that we may not want to see as they strip away the layers of our defence – we are opening up our minds and taking out the armour so that we may have a direct account of what is real. From there, if we are willing to lean in, beautiful things can happen and beautiful things also include the shadows and not just the joy. This is just as beautiful as the blissful radiant experiences that one might have. Even when we are having the most difficult trip there is some lesson that we can take back with us. There is always learning to gain from it once we work through it. It is all down to how we choose to frame it.”
Perhaps the concept of the ‘bad trip’ is the unwiring and rewiring of all of the bad learning or indoctrination that you have suffered. All the unpleasant stuff you have squashed into your subconscious in the maze of habit that you may not have the courage to escape from. It is hard to hear the truth at the best of times, let alone when transplanted into a fantastical and infinite world. From my personal trip, I found a deeper acceptance of loss and that no matter how difficult it is to watch the energy ebb away from the people we love the most, in this deep endless connection to everything, holding on to these material thoughts seemed meaningless. Life felt not as finite as I once held it.
I ask Michelle where she would like to take her practice and what of the film she has in development. “We are heading into a time where people will be more accepting of psychedelics and the benefits of therapeutic healing. The more that research shows the benefits of therapy, the more the stigma is reduced. In turn, the more we change the laws around psychedelics the more people will have equal access to them. We can then build an infrastructure of support within our communities. For me, our communities need to reconnect with humanity, reconnect with our sense of shared values. We need to shift our culture by shifting our consciousness. So that it is no longer about individual healing and more about our cultural healing – that expedites healing for everyone. We have all been confronted with death, fear and confusion recently – all of these things can be an opening for spiritual inquiry. My film shows that there has to be pain and loss and suffering to get there. The path is not always smooth but we wish to give people language and context beyond what is offered by mainstream culture. Western medication is only about symptom suppression. We need to stop that.”