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Bodywork, Touch and Psychedelic Spaces
Becoming Aware of Countertransference
During a recent Grof Holotropic Bodywork training I had one of those ‘download’ moments. Suddenly, I became aware of the ways in which I have been motivated to offer supportive touch both within psychedelic and birthing spaces. When these kinds of intuitive hits come into view it is as if you have always known this about yourself, however, a moment ago it was nowhere to be found. Typically I brush these insightful moments under the rug and return to ordinary tasks. Today, instead, I want to integrate what I observed.
The topic of supportive touch is overtly discussed within psychedelic settings. The emphasis is to ensure that sitter and journeyer (i.e., client and guide) have a detailed preparatory conversation about supportive touch.
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The guiding principle is: less is more.
The journeyer is assured that while in a non-ordinary state of consciousness (NOSC) they are in charge of directing the amount of physical contact (unless physical safety is of concern).
In my early days of psychedelic journeying, touch was never overtly discussed nor did it occur to me that it should have been. My experiences were facilitated mostly outside of Canada, with a trained medicine man (yes, they were all male), who were all part of traditional plant medicine communities. I implicitly trusted the space holder as a ceremonial leader within his community in the same way that as a young, first time labouring mother, I fully trusted my midwives to care for me with their knowledge and expertise. This kind of relational trust allowed for my system to completely surrender to the challenge of the ordeal (the ordeal being either labour or the medicine).
The fact that we must have conversations around supportive touch is a direct result of the traumas endured due to our culture of separation and colonization. I like to imagine that within an intact culture the conversation around touch would not exist because there would be no risk of harm. Nurturing, supportive, and caring touch would be woven into the ethos. The fear of transgressions, and inappropriate and boundary-violating behaviours, would not exist.
In other words, I dream about a time long ago, before colonizing forces imposed their ways and traumatized people using brute force and sexual violations, in which the community took care of one another and there was no need for such explicit boundary setting. People within this social milieu were held within the embrace of secure attachment and relational trust. Elders, adults, and parents raised children as sacred and central to the community and their foundational belonging needs were met: to be safe, supported, seen, and soothed. Within this ethos, entering the ceremonial space of NOSC would not be at risk of boundary violations, due to the relational trust built into the tapestry.
Today however, within Western dominant culture, things are very different and thus, we must acknowledge the burdens of trauma that are carried into these healing terrains.
As a result of the dominant ways in which transgressions are indeed part of the fabric that forms the Western worldview, we must be explicitly reminded that ‘stop’ or ‘no’ is a full sentence. Since boundaries become porous within NOSC, and unhealed traumas rise to the surface leaving the journeyer vulnerable and exposed, extra care is required to reduce the risk of retraumatization. Sadly, the guide is also at risk of becoming a target of misinterpretations and may misread the cues of the journeyer, resulting in the guide misstepping in the department of supportive touch.
What makes all of this worse and indeed messy, is that sexual violations are happening within these psychedelic spaces. The insidious nature of the colonizing culture has even seeped into some remote communities deep in the jungle. The overarching shadow of power-over and consumption-at-all-costs-for-profit runs rampant throughout the world thus, leaving no other option but to engage in clear communication around supportive touch and consent.
Regardless of the fact that there are clearly stated ethical boundaries pertaining to erotic and sexual touch within therapeutic or healing spaces (under no circumstance is the psychedelic guide/sitter/therapist to engage in sexual relations with the journeyer) sexual transgressions continue to happen.
One is left to contemplate: how do we build relational safety into these spaces within the current context?
To add to the pressure, it must be accomplished within a short period of time, given the fact that for many their experience of psychedelics or breathwork involves a quick coming together over a weekend or maybe a week, followed by a return to participants’ regular lives afterwards. These are real challenges facing psychedelic and healing environments as a result of Western dominant culture and the traumas suffered.
All of this to preface my AHA moment, and although subtle and innocent, it is mixed up with this colonizing mess we find ourselves in.
As a former birth worker, who has experience sitting in the field of birth energy, supportive touch was and is a huge part of the care package. Often, I would have a hand on the labouring mama throughout the entire journey. The hand(s) might be squeezing hips to relieve back pain or offering gentle nourishing care by lightly caressing the forehead or wiping the brow with a cold cloth. Within the field of birth, back in the day, we didn’t discuss touch beforehand. It didn’t occur to me, nor was it overtly taught.
I was guided intuitively and my hands would often become a source of comfort for the labouring mama. There was an implicit agreement between the labouring mother and myself. Birth is a NOSC experience, and I was trained with this notion at the forefront. The intention was always to reduce as much stress as possible for the mother and to get out of the way so as not to interrupt the process that was unfolding instinctively. Within this paradigm of birth, similar to Stan Grof’s guiding principle of the inner healing intelligence, lies a core belief to trust in the birthing process that is unfolding. This belief can be superimposed over the guiding psychedelic principles that both the medicine and the journeyer are intelligent, and healing is unfolding exactly as it is supposed to because the inner healing intelligence seeks wholeness. As such, both healing and birthing spontaneously happen within a NOSC.
All of this to say, when we introduce supportive touch and bodywork into these more vulnerable, energetically open states of being we need to lead with caution and care as a sitter/guide because we may interrupt the process that is instinctively unfolding by injecting our hidden agenda or unhealed parts into the mix (a.k.a. countertransference).
Prior to my insightful download that revealed how I was acting in countertransference ways, I had a couple of experiences that brought this all into focus. One was a recent experience in which touch, in the form of hand holding, was a huge anchor for me during a stressful psychedelic experience. The other was an experience as a sitter, in which I was given permission to offer supportive touch based on my intuition, and the touch was immediately rejected. Finally, woven throughout are my experiences with Grof Holotropic breathwork and trainings that are anchored in a very safe and grounding approach with bodywork as a key component.
All of this to say that my moment of insight revealed to me what was and is behind my motivation and so-called intuition to offer supportive touch–a desire to be nurtured and needed.
I had always thought that my supportive touch was the ‘special sauce’ and a ‘gift’ that offered calming and anchoring care. However, in that flash moment, I understood that my impulse to offer supportive touch was coming from a place of countertransference. I had been leaning in with supportive touch from a place within my psyche that was in need of nurturing touch. This was due to my ‘traumas of omission’ (neglect), as Grof would say. All along I had positioned myself, in my mind's eye, as someone who provides excellent supportive touch. I believed that without this action, what I offered would have fallen short and I would have had nothing to offer that was ‘special’.
When my supportive touch was rejected, recently, my inner part internalized that she had done something wrong and that my intuition had misread the cues. This very small incident, a second in time, haunted me afterwards. I felt shame and wanted to hide myself from the person I was holding space for and this feeling was very familiar. The part that had built herself up to be someone special, who can hold space for NOSC, fell flat at that moment. I noticed all this unraveling within my inner landscape, all the while, maintaining an outer composure to hold steady for the journeyer.
I see now that this inner tension has and had to do with my need or desire to be ‘special’ by the laying of hands with a hidden belief that my hands help the process.
However, this motivation was also met with the fear of being rejected or doing it wrong, and not helping but rather hindering. The key point here is the revealing of the motivating core belief arising from my inner part that carries a wound as a result of neglect which believed that my hands offer relief and even more, act as a healing agent and therefore, are required. Rejection of my hands, in the form of supportive touch, was a rejection of my inner part, triggering the core wound behind all of this. Can you see the looping pattern here?
Since these recent experiences, along with my insightful moment of countertransference, I have been reviewing my ethos as it relates to offering supportive touch within NOSC spaces. At first, I felt shame and humiliation. Quickly, the shame turned into grief for my part that longs for nurturing supportive touch as a soothing and anchoring presence. This part has been in the foreview as of late. And, layers of insight have been unfolding the more I tend to her needs. For this I am grateful.
However, as I reflect on how subtle countertransference can be (it took me over twenty years to see what was driving this belief and behaviour) I humbly acknowledge how important it is to engage in the conversation of supportive touch before entering any NOSC (or life in general). Deeper yet, I see how important it is that we continue to engage in our own healing work.
Considering that transgressions are inevitable and often implicit, motivated by blind spots, I feel strongly that anyone playing the role of psychedelic guide or therapist should take Grof Bodywork training.
Here is why:
Stan Grof’s research and expertise on NOSC through the Western lens is some of the most comprehensive content and knowledge I have yet to come across
The Holotropic bodywork approach is client-directed and does not rely on intuition alone, placing the journeyer in the driver’s seat at all times
The approach creates containment within a solid theory
The premise behind the bodywork is to complete the Gestalt process that is unfolding with the support of the inner healing intelligence
Trust in the inner healing intelligence is foundational
The journeyer uses hand gestures to call in contact and this is agreed upon ahead of time
If the journeyer cannot engage with the hand gestures or is non-verbal, as a result of being in a NOSC, the sitter/guide can move in closer with an open presence, maybe even hovering their hand or presence near the journeyer, awaiting to be welcomed in
Less is more
Bodywork is intensive when indicated, using pressure and counterpressure to help release stuck energy trapped within the body system
Sometimes the bodywork can consist of nurturing holding (especially for those who have suffered traumas of omission) in the form of motherly caressing or hugging, however, this too is led by the journeyer to move towards the offer.
There are always multiple space holders and sitters–many eyes on the deck
At any point the journeyer can stop the contact using an agreed upon word or using hand signals
What has stood out as profoundly different between the Grof Bodywork training and other training I have taken on the use of touch and NOSC, are the overt boundaries and specific method of offering bodywork. Furthermore, the method and theory root the process. Since the trust is placed in the belief that the inner healing intelligence is seeking wholeness at all times and the process is unfolding perfectly there is less room for the guide to engage in grandiosity or specialness. The guide/sitter is to support what is unfolding (and then get out of the way). In other words, my hands are not needed nor the special sauce to any healing or birthing space, rather, they might be used as instruments to help facilitate the inner healing intelligence; thus, it is not about me but is about the journeyer/breather and their relationship with the inner healing intelligence. This is a beautiful ethos.
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