Krista Tippet, in her podcast On Being, starts each interview with the same intriguing question. “What are your early memories about spirituality in childhood?” Here at the close of seven decades, this query set me to wondering. My challenging childhood surely had its share of blessings: my parents cultivated an incredible appreciation for the natural world. We spent many days at beach, on lakes, in woods. Much of it camping before camping was even a thing. I have a poem about God and the ocean written when I was nine.
Another blessing: my dad was the constantly questing engineer, always finding ways to encourage an empirical curiosity about the physical world. I found myself naturally drawn to educational choices that fostered this fascination with the physical, especially via biological sciences. With time, this focus narrowed into all things human body and the science/magic of healing. Somehow entwined with nature and God, science and magic and body was always the dance, alive in my earliest memory, perhaps a way of losing myself, transcending the empirical world. Before I knew what I know now, Gabrielle’s quote was at work in me: “Set the body in motion and the psyche will heal itself.”
It has been a decades long and winding road skirting the edges twixt science and spirituality. Some might imagine a conflict between the two. But as my personal pendulum has swung back and forth multiple times over the years, I no longer see these two ways of knowing as mutually exclusive. I am reading Michael Pollan right now, who is quite the scientist. In How To Change Your Mind (highly recommended) he says, “they [science and spirituality] can inform each other and correct each other’s defects and in that exchange help us to pose and then possibly answer the big questions we face.”
The subtitle of this book is What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence. That’s a mouthful. In case you don’t know, therapists in legal research settings as well as underground since the ‘50s are using psychedelics in conjunction with therapeutic technique to create transformative healing experience. Emerging for me over and over as I read are two distinct parallels to my work in the world as physical therapist, 5Rhythms guide and yoga facilitator and the work of these specialized therapists. First, from the therapist perspective…time and again Pollan returns to the importance of set and setting to the therapeutic process. Clearly articulated intention going into a session (set) and skillful, mindful holding of the container (setting) are fundamental to the healing process whether it’s working with a yoga student, a conscious dance practitioner, a physical therapy patient or a counseling client. Set and setting. Think back on your own personal experience as receiver of healing sessions. It is always obvious if one or both of these elements are lacking and this can profoundly impact outcome.
Second, from the student/patient perspective. Mystical experience, whether it is drug-induced or movement practice induced, has potential to create healing. Toward the end of his book, Pollan gathers up all the threads of mystical experience he has explored, via research, interview and personal tripping. Get ready for this compiled short list and notice how some may be your own threads that have emerged from movement practice over time: ego self-transcendence, inner environment enrichment, generation of new meaning, unitive consciousness, “an acute sense of the astonishing mystery of everything” (Huston Smith), a sense of interconnectedness with nature and all beings, feelings of joy, blessedness, satisfaction. Whew. Awe-inspiring. Literally. Awe is one way of summing up the entire kit and kaboodle. We can make choices to turn toward things that inspire awe. In any given moment we can pause, breathe, look up and out at the glory of which we are part.
Even rats will choose awe. There’s a well known lab study with rats where given a choice between self-administering food or drugs, the rats quickly addict themselves, to the point of death. Many people have heard about this study. What is less known is the follow up study. “If the cage is ‘enriched’ with opportunities for play, interaction with other rats, and exposure to nature, the same rats will utterly ignore the drugs and so never become addicted.” Isn’t that incredible?
It has been an enriching summer for me, filled with awe and good chunks of rest. I’m writing from the beach just south of Santa Cruz, the sight and sound of waves back dropping these musings. I’m entirely ready to return to the work of providing exquisitely safe space, holding an over-arching intention for us to be inspired, cultivate a sense of wonder, or as Joseph Campbell would advise, “follow your bliss”. We begin again this Sunday. Let’s be awe-inspired together…it’s just better that way.