The Western world’s psyche is not doing so hot right now. Children and adults are overmedicated on pharmaceuticals, depression and anxiety are rampant, and addiction is reaching epidemic proportions. Could it be that our collective neuroses are due to us missing something fundamental about life? Clearly something needs to change for things to get better. According to psychotherapist Neal Goldsmith, it’s in how we understand the stages of human development, and how our tribe responds to meeting and transcending the challenges that appear at each of those stages… and of course, psychedelics help quite a bit too.
Neal M. Goldsmith is a clinical psychotherapist and author of the book Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development. He is also an organizer behind the Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics conference which is coming up this October in New York. Neal’s unique experiences with both psychotherapy and psychedelics lend some fascinating insights into what it means to live and grow in a society where our cultural perspectives and practices have gone astray. We caught up with Neal recently to discuss the nature of human development, and how psychedelics can play a key role in taking individuals and the larger tribe to the next level.
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Neal. Can you describe what neurosis is?
Neurosis rhymes with psychosis, and is a diagnosis. It is, essentially, unconscious behaviors that are linked to early childhood experience. I think it’s ridiculous, actually, that we pathologize neurosis, because in my perspective these developmental challenges are normal and natural. If everybody’s got it, then it can’t be a sickness… and everybody’s got it. Everybody. So it’s not really some kind of condition that’s away from normalcy; it is an integral part of our developmental process.
Development does not move in a smooth 45 degree arc- it’s like a stairway. You go along relatively unimpeded for a while in your development, then you get to the age of 13 or so and puberty hits, and you hit a wall. You don’t know where you are, and everything is different than how it was on the horizontal. But the wall isn’t an infinite wall, it’s just a vertical part in the stairway. So you keep beating your head against the wall and eventually, through reconfiguration to a greater level of complexity, you find yourself on the next horizontal. And from that vantage point, when you look back down at what you were beating your head against, you say “oh that’s obvious” because now you’ve transcended to the next level.
So then you walk along nice and smooth for a while again, and now let’s say you get out of college and reach a wall again. You wonder “Who am I, what am I doing? What will I do for a living? I don’t know who I am.” It’s terrible and scary, and you think “I wanna stay how I was. I don’t want to leave, this is scary.” But you have to, and so you find yourself in that quantum leap again at the next level. And then the next level comes when you get married, the next level when you have a child, the next level you’re an elder, and so on.
In tribal societies, each of these stages of transition in life were facilitated by a rite of passage, usually with the presence of a visionary plant as a loosening agent. This entheogenic plant would loosen your identification with the prior identity, and through an overnight ceremony- with drums, parents, chief, and shaman all present, and while you’re tripping of course- you’d awaken the next day into being a man, or becoming an elder. In the modern world, we have these same needs, but there’s no rites of passage. We wonder why kids are going to EDM shows, taking drugs and dancing. These are self-created rites of passage that represent an attempt to recreate that a bit.
But in our culture, when a young person of 12 or 13 is feeling weird, depressed, or anxious, their parents take them to a doctor. Then they get prescribed pharmaceuticals, which relieves symptoms so the child feels leveled out again- but then where’s the pressure to recombine and reach the next level? So our pharmaceutical approach actually retards normal development by viewing these challenging stages as pathology and calling them neurosis.
Absolutely. In tribal societies, visionary states- however induced- are very important for the individual, but they also have a social component too. It’s not just an internal process for the initiate, but also for the society around them recognizing that change. And that’s something we’re also missing. There are a lot of people self-initiating-
… and keeping it a secret.
Exactly- or only being able to share those experiences within a subculture, rather than within the broader culture.
You’re so right. You know, it’s even further along than that. It’s not just the idea of other people becoming aware of our internal change and supporting it, it’s actually the society as a whole changing, beginning with that person. It’s a process that the whole organism goes through, because that person is part of the larger body, the whole tribe. It’s really better thought of as one organism.
Switching from the social to the personal: during a recent talk of yours, I heard you mention that once you started taking psychedelics again in your 40’s, you had a profound realization into the differences between the core of one’s being and the shell that we put around it. So I wanted to ask- what is the essential difference between what you learned about the psyche through decades of education and practice, versus what you learned during these psychedelic experiences?
It’s so true in my experience- the differences between factual knowledge and direct epiphanies with psychedelics. There are many ways to reach those direct illuminating epiphanies, but psychedelics are probably the most immediate and reliable way, which is why they are used by so many societies.
I’ll give you an analogy, one of heading up a mountain, which describes our process of personal and spiritual maturation. On this mountain path it gets cloudy, and you can’t see the peak because you’re not there yet, but you’re told it’s there, and you believe it’s there. Just like any mountain pass, sometimes you go up, sometimes you go down, you’re not going upwards the whole way. And it’s up in the clouds so you can’t see far, but you can see a few feet in front of you. So you take a psychedelic, the clouds part, and for a moment you see the peak. Then, even if the clouds come back, you know the mountain is there. You don’t have to measure it or find it on a map, you’ve seen it yourself. That’s a different kind of knowing than if you just saw it on a map. The two versions have to converge. Both kinds of learning are really important.
I think we don’t incorporate the more experiential kind of learning into our society as much as we should. We are very operant in the way we try to transmit information, settling for a map rather than a direct view.
We are very grateful to Neal for taking the time to speak with us. Be sure to check out his book Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development and the upcoming conference in New York Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics.