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Working through Near-Death Experiences . . . and not with Psychedelics!

Coming back from the dead is not quite the same as coming back to life.”  Sarah Winman


Psychedelics are the latest rage for working with deep forms of trauma.  This can take the form of an approved clinical trial utilizing MDMA or ketamine with an experienced psychotherapist guiding the patient, or a psychiatrist who is authorized to prescribe ketamine, to black market sources of whatever flavor of psychedelic you want, to various journeying experiences in Indigenous cultures with plant medicines such as peyote or ayahuasca.  Spectacular changes have been experienced after using psychedelics, often with huge releases of long-held trauma energy.  But there are also many potential problems, including going to a place in the psyche and then not being able to come back.  I have been looking at other ways to get the results of good psychedelic therapy for trauma without the potential problems.  Stan Groff, one of the original LSD researchers in the 1960’s, developed a breathwork protocol called Holotropic Breathwork to bring people into a similar state as with psychedelics.  But this protocol is complicated, requires a team of trained facilitators and often still gives the participant a very big experience.  I wondered whether Somatic Experiencing® could reach those deeply held traumas, such as near-death-experiences, in a more titrated fashion. (It is important to know that not all near-death experiences are traumatizing.  Sometimes, one is left with a profound knowing beyond rational thought that brings dramatic changes to one’s life in the aftermath.  But about 15% of near-death experiences are horrific.  It is the NDEs that interfere with one’s ability to fully live that I am interested in learning how to work with.)


Why am I so interested in near-death experiences?  Because birth is a near-death experience and I have a client who had severe birth trauma and I am always looking for deeper ways to help.  And, (there are so many ‘and’s!) in a course I took last winter on ‘Advanced Somatic Resolution Skills for Perinatal Trauma’, I learned how to look for birth imprints in the face and body of clients, which made me really look at my own face for once – and then could see the imprint of my own birth trauma in the left side of my face.  I have struggled forever with sinusitis, TMJ and a constricted ear canal on my left side, as well as problems with my right shoulder (for which I am now a candidate for a shoulder replacement.)  Understanding how the baby turns to enter the birth canal led me to connect all these issues for me.  I think that I got ‘stuck’ going into the pelvic inlet with the right shoulder getting jammed (shoulder dystocia) and the left side of my face being pressed into the pelvic bone.  All my mother could tell me was that she was exhausted from a long labor so the doctor ‘put her out’ and delivered me.  I suspect there were forceps involved because of the pain I have worked through already, although mom says that I looked beautiful to her!

Anyways, with that background, I signed up for the Somatic Experiencing Masterclass called ‘The Eye of the Needle®’ (EOTN), held last week in Vancouver.  I didn’t realize that people would come from all over the world to attend this course and that it was led by two very distinguished faculty from Somatic Experiencing International®.  Ian Macnaughton has worked with Peter Levine since the 1970’s and is one of only five legacy faculty members of SEI.  Joshua Silvae is one of the second-generation leaders in the SE world.  Together, they made a powerful team of teachers and facilitators.  I also submitted a request to be a ‘client’ for a demo session of teaching.  When I got the news that I was accepted for that, and that I would be the demo for the last day of the course, I suspected that I may have the opportunity to go through ‘the Eye of the Needle’ myself and perhaps unlock more of the bound trauma energy that has been stored in my body for 64 years.  Birth trauma is particularly challenging because there is no explicit memory of our birth.  However, the experience is stored implicitly in our tissues, such as in the left side of my face and in my right shoulder.

We learned the there are three P’s to Eye of the Needle work – Patience, Preparation and Precision.  I envision it like this:

Patience is required in all somatic healing work.  This work is slow!  The body and the mind must trust what we are doing and where we are going.  We need to get to a place where we can be curious about what we are sensing and feeling in our body (see my Youtube video on ‘To be Curious, You Must Feel Safe’).  By small increments, the body learns to trust and will open to what it has stored away because it was overwhelming at the time it occurred.


Preparation is all the work we do to create safety, and then connection – to oneself, to others and to whatever is one’s highest power (the spiritual aspect).  Only after someone feels safe and has learned how to go inside themselves and begin to explore the sensations, emotions and memories that are stored there (connecting to oneself), can we begin the precise work of going through the Eye of the Needle.  As Peter Levine told us (yes, he joined us via Zoom for a demo on the first day), 95% of the work is about stabilization and preparation.  Another thing we were told is that, as we approach the EOTN, there are no emotions and things get very still and quiet.  Emotions have already been worked through in the Preparation Phase.  The client must have the ability to go inside themselves and witness what wants to happen in a calm and quiet way.  This is the Precision.


I would argue that Somatic Experiencing allows this deep trauma recovery work by having the client stay in their body to fully experience how the stuck trauma energy lives there.  So, we must first deal with dissociation or numbing, where one leaves the body to escape the overwhelming sensations, emotions and memories.  (And, to further complicate things, dissociation is not all bad!  It saved the person from fully experiencing the initial horror.)  The client can hopefully get to a place where they can witness themselves going into an altered state of dissociation.  This requires a skilled facilitator who can be a ‘tether’ for the client.  Eventually, the client may be able to stay present to the sensations in the body.


The little I have learned about the approved clinical trials of psychedelics for trauma treatment require that an experienced therapist facilitate the experience to ensure that the client has the ability to stay with what is happening.  Preparation is done to ensure that the client has this capacity.  From talking to a few people who are gung-ho about using psychedelics, I wonder if they like the feeling of leaving their body and the psychedelics allow that.  But, as we were cautioned in our EOTN training, psychedelics may take someone to a place where they can’t come back from.  That’s the risk. 


So – what was my experience as the demo person on the last day of EOTN training?  As I told Ian Macnaughton, it seems that all my personal work for the last 20+ years culminated in me sitting in a chair across from him that day.  I was ready and curious to experience whatever was to happen. 


The only emotion that came up for me was a sense of gratitude for the chance to be there.  Once I named that and experienced it through a few tears welling up, I could settle and go inside.  Ian guided me to a place of stillness and I learned that the work is even more nuanced than I thought.  It is not about doing anything, but noticing what the body wants to do.  As I settled into the sensations in my body, I kept being drawn back to the tension in the left side of my face.  This is usual for me.  As Ian helped me to stay with those sensations, I began to feel a gentle ‘pull’ up and to the right of the crown of my head.  That was the direction that the stuck energy wanted to go.  This surprised me, as I had never felt that before.  To try and explain an experience that is beyond words, I could follow the energy up and out the right side.  I experienced gentle trembling as energy got released, but never became overwhelmed.


So, is that it?  Is the trauma resolved in one session?  Sometimes that happens, as Peter Levine demonstrates in his story of ‘Nancy’, one of the clients early in his work.  But I suspect there will be more for me to work with yet.  As I said to Ian, I now know how to do the work myself, having experienced it.  There are already palpable changes to my face, with me sensing that there is more space in the left side of my face and less tension. 


It was such a privilege to put myself in Ian’s capable hands.  As he seems proud to say, he is almost 86 years old, and I don’t know how much longer he will continue to work.  Ian’s vast experience and ability to be fully present to the client is so reassuring.  It made me feel safe.

Ian and me after my demo session

I will continue with more EOTN training as it becomes available.  This is powerful somatic therapy and I feel led to it by the same Source that has accompanied me on my whole healing journey.  What one learns in their own healing journey can be transformative as we accompany others on their journey to wholeness.


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