Witnessing to The Truly Awful
Mourning with the psychedelic world.
Content warning: this post contains descriptions of spiritual abuse (non-graphic).
This is for, and with, the psychedelic world.
Over the last few months, I have heard from many people in our corner of the universe who are disillusioned, either in grief or avoiding it. I, myself, have been an avoider. No more. Today I will be bearing witness to grief in the wake of disillusionment; disillusion I’m feeling that I know some of you are also feeling. Maybe someone reading this is already years of disillusionment past where I am.
I’m not a moral authority, and I’m not here to make things right. And while I am a Christian, I do not mean or need to come at you “as a Christian.” I need, for myself, to be with you as a peer, because I’ve been your peer longer than this iteration of my Christianity. Right now, nobody needs Christians to try to fix shit. That’s good, because I can’t. I just need to grieve out loud with you as someone who has tried to make psychedelic spiritual communities work, has seen them fall apart, and is worried about the health of our larger collective.
For me, the straws snapping the camel’s spine of psychedelic exceptionalism come from the disappointing reaction to increased reporting over stories of psychedelic sexual abuse—including my disappointment in my reaction. Sure, my reaction has always been at least the requisite minimum of silent disgust and disturbance, followed by private whispering about the tragedy of the situation, even with some solutions-oriented thinking of ideas to be better. And I do believe, despite religion’s many cases of abuse, that healthy and self-critical religious community practice can be helpful.
But this intellectual engagement is not the source of my disappointment in myself and the psychedelic landscape. My disappointment is in our spiritual response, my spiritual abdication of duty. In short, while more people are telling their stories, and some have been working on the sex and power beat for years, I am sad that fear makes some of us spend more time and attention on the drama—or rather, trying to avoid it—than truly reckoning out loud with the spiritual harm caused.
From what I gather, there are some long-running rivalries and grievances in a still-too-small professional landscape that add to said dramatic social dynamics at play. There is also the general impossibility of full transparency and accountability in a criminalized paradigm. Nevertheless, this cannot excuse a culture of inconvenient information being dismissed or not being shared at all, and many people remain straight-up unaware this is a problem above and below ground. Among those aware, I am sensing a growing shared disconnection between leaders and “the community.” Hence, our disillusionment.
I do not want to be a sensationalist. Some of us have been attempting to organize for higher standards of safety and ethics in therapeutic, religious, and other community contexts. These actionable steps are, of course, great and necessary things. But even reform attempts can be spiritual bypassing and perpetuate harm if we do not also devote energy to fully listening and addressing the depth of the pain of victims and survivors and show that we give a damn. If we do not have a culture of sharing the burden that victims and survivors feel, as well as a culture of rewarding inconvenient truth-telling, no ethics system will be effective.
I know I need to do more to name and sit in this situation together. Those of you who are truth-tellers facing pushback need to keep truth-telling, critics must stay critical, and where there is false unity and false integrity, the rousers must keep making falsities into rabble. But these good causes are not my goals today.
The Need to Mourn
I believe if we want to help victims and survivors, if we feel disappointed and disillusioned, we might need to give ourselves the chance to not only grieve, but mourn.
At least I do. Thanks to Ayahuasca circles, I know how powerful the need to grieve is. And so I need to share my heavy heart in hopes that it can find other heavy hearts and feel less alone in its grief. To do so, I need to mourn—to grieve in public.
I usually deny my anger out of learned behavior and false virtue, but I do have some. Some of it is directed at myself, some of it is towards individuals, some of it towards systems, some seeps into anger at the culture and society. So be it. If I am angry, it is an angry love, even at myself. If my lamentations here are performative, strike me down, God, and please use them anyway. Use my performativity as an avatar of someone’s self-permission to let themselves grieve.
Before I mourn, first I do need to confess one thing, and I need to name something about spiritual abuse.
Blasphemy and Naming the Truly Awful
Blasphemy is usually defined as some kind of irreverent disrespect for the sacred. I’ve also learned that the etymological roots of the Greek word for blasphemy, βλασφημία, mean being "slow to call what is truly good as good, and slow to call what is truly bad as bad."
In this light, I must confess that I have committed blasphemy. For I have been too slow to publicly call spiritual abuse by its truly awful name. In doing so, I have also shown disrespect for the sacred.
Spiritual abuse is a profound kind of hurt. There are several definitions out there of spiritual abuse, but as the National Association for Christian Recovery names, it is less a discrete category of abuse than a pervading aspect at play in other forms of abuse:
There is a sense in which all abuse can be spiritual abuse. For example any form of child abuse can do damage to a child’s emerging spirituality. The fact that the damage includes damage to the spiritual self is what makes it spiritual abuse in addition to what ever other kind of abuse is going on.
When I force myself to reflect on it, what makes my heart heavy about spiritual abuse is less about the volume of the power abused than the quality of that power. When someone is under the spiritual influence of a leader, brought into an opportunity for divine healing, they have laid many of their inner psychological protectors down. They have brought their exiled inner child(ren) into a place ready for healing, perhaps for the first time since they were a biological child.
And so I believe that if I want to name what is truly awful about so much spiritual abuse, I must name it as inner child abuse. We as spiritual leaders must recognize that those in our care are often subconsciously seeking secure attachment—if not to us, then through us. We must know what types of relationships are possible with someone sharing a child-like part of the soul made vulnerable. Like biological children, we must know that consensual romantic and sexual relationships are impossible to have with inner children and the adults who trust us with them. And we must be clear that an abused inner child—whether they find more solace in identity as victim or survivor—can never be at fault.
Before I do anything else, I just need to let the weight of that hit me. I need to mourn for those who have suffered, and I need to apologize that I was so slow to recognize how truly awful it is. I can't pretend to know what it’s like. I don’t have answers. I can't fix it. I can’t grieve for you. But now I'm grieving with you.
The psychedelic leaders who have committed spiritual (and other forms of) abuse above ground and below ground are just one set of people causing so many of us to be disillusioned. The prevalence and response to their abuse is just one dimension of our collective further disillusionment in the psychedelic process.
Not everyone will share these disillusionments because, in truth, many of us have opposing commitments; to some extent, we participate in each other’s disillusionment. In doing so, we experience the basic disillusionment that we will never all completely be there for and with each other. We have disappointed each other and we are going to keep disappointing each other.
Some of us are disillusioned that we thought everyone would treat “the work” as sacred.
Disillusioned that few care little more than lip service about indigenous people or the environment.
Disillusioned at the lack of progress and concern for the communities of color most impacted by the drug war.
Disillusioned by how spiritually bankrupt capitalism, in all its healing illiteracy and disregard for our best interests, insists on consuming and scaling human subjects.
Disillusioned at the lack of integration beyond new glimpses of the navel.
Disillusioned by the games and Machiavellian maneuvering between rival subcultures, rival political factions, rival public intellectuals, even rival non-profits. Disillusioned that there are rivalries at all.
Some of us are disillusioned by psychedelic communities just hardly ever working, as we become disillusioned that psychedelics were an escape hatch from our flawed humanity, that we could have our spiritual cake and eat our individualism too.
And if any of you are like me, we’re not only disillusioned with “the movement,” we are also disillusioned with ourselves. I know I must grieve the loss of the myth that there was anything special about my moral goodness. And I am re-learning that part of being a Christian is knowing that some people have experienced you acting like a shitty Christian and you just have to give them that.
All these disillusionments have led to real grief. If not in you personally, in this peer. This grief has included the grief of seeing how psychedelics really cannot fix corruption by themselves, and the grief of no more greener grass to turn to for utopian spiritual community.
Unlike the great hymnist Alanis Morisette, I’m not quite ready to say “thank you, disillusionment” yet. I think for now I just need to let it in.
No Answer to Job
In Carl Jung’s theologically controversial Answer to Job, where his analysis is more art than science, he argues that the Book of Job represented a sort of proto-Nietzschean “death of God” for Judaism and, later, Christianity’s collective consciousness. For the unfamiliar, the basic story is that God uses the perfectly devout Job as a pawn in a wager with Satan, inflicting as much pain on Job as He can to test Job’s faithfulness. When Job tries to argue back near the end of the story, God doubles down and asserts his ultimate authority and rectitude. To many Christians, the book is one of the more disturbing in the canon.
I think it should disturb us—and perhaps, as a reflection of the theological wrestling happening in its time period, Job is meant to disturb us. Because at face value, its depiction of God is as a spiritual abuser.
There is much more to the story; for instance, many Talmudic commentators postulate that the Book of Job is written as a parable, and that Job may not even be Jewish. More relevant to us is what Job’s friends do in the story. Their initial response in chapter two is quite moving:
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
As the story progresses, they do not keep up this model friendship and soon begin taking turns theologically rambling at Job as to why he might have somehow deserved suffering, completely victim-blaming him. They’re so unhelpful that even God doesn’t want to be associated with their rhetoric.
All Job’s friends needed to do is to be with Job as he died to the idea that his life of spiritual service would be what he thought it would be. They needed to witness that the mission of devotion he thought he was on was a fool’s errand, that he was being taken advantage of. God may not have died, but Job’s idea of God did.
I think many of us are experiencing a “death of the psychedelic God,” though most psychonauts do not use the G-word. We don’t have to say much. We just need to say enough to fully bear each other’s witnessing burden.
Is there hope? Somewhere. I can’t clearly see it right now. I can only take refuge in knowing if I could see it, it wouldn’t be hope, for hope that is seen is not hope.1
Spiritual and religious people alike sometimes get on our moral throne and think we have all the answers to justice and mercy that the world desperately needs. But I am reminded of something I heard two years ago from one of my professors, the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts. He said that “the job of a chaplain isn't having the answers, it's being the only person in the room when everyone with answers has left."
I believe that is an aspiration all of us can reach for, and with, each other. I don’t need to try to fix what I can’t. But I can be a witness to impossible situations.