On Death Denial, Truth, and Transcendence with Dr. Jordana Jacobs

On this episode, I talk with Dr. Jordana Jacobs, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. Her approach is integrative, combining psychodynamic and existential therapy into her treatment of patients. Dr. Jacobs’ training at Memorial Sloan Kettering working with terminally ill cancer patients, her studies in Northern India, and her Vipassana meditation practice inspired her research on the complex relationship between death awareness and love. Her dissertation, entitled “Till Death do us Part: The Effect of Mortality Salience on Satisfaction in Long-term Romantic Relationships” specifically explored the ways in which priming for death has the potential to increase intimacy in partnerships. In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Jacobs now speaks and leads retreats aimed towards helping people accept inevitable mortality so that they are able to live and love more fully.

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On the Ecopsychology of Religion with Dr. Tom Berendt

On this episode, I have a discussion with Dr. Tom Berendt. Dr. Berendt is a Professor of Religion at Temple University whose work focuses primarily on the veneration, or worship, of animals and nature in different religious traditions throughout history. I first met Dr. Berendt when I took his “Earth Ethics” class at Temple, and continued to have discussions with him in this field when I joined his Pagan Studies club, where we looked deeply into nature-based religious traditions. In this episode, we explore the broad question of how religion mediates humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
Thanks again for listening to the lifting the iceberg podcast. Dr. Berendt is not currently active on social media, but within the next year he will be upon his release of his new book, “The Animality Manifesto”. So stay tuned and I will be posting about that when it is released.
You can stay up to date on any new podcasts at liftingtheiceberg.com or by following Lifting the Iceberg on Facebook and Instagram. Podcast available on Spotify and Itunes, and Youtube.
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Five Lessons from Existential Psychotherapy

As humans, there are fundamental problems that we all face. These problems arise from the very nature of our existence; that we are mortal, impermanent beings who are ultimately alone in our experience of life.

But don’t be depressed about that. Research has shown that realizing certain fundamental truths about the human condition can have valuable therapeutic effects.

Irvin Yalom, author of the landmark textbook Existential Psychotherapy, describes a study that he administered on twenty-six successful group psychotherapy patients. He wanted to find out which outcomes of the psychotherapy sessions were most highly valued by the patients. The patients were given a sixty item Q-Sort test, where they were given cards that had sixty “mechanisms of change” written on them and were asked to sort the cards amongst seven categories from “least helpful” to “most helpful”. These sixty items were developed from twelve “curative factor” categories that each contained five sub-categories, including Catharsis, Self-Understanding, Identification (with members other than the therapist), Family Re-enactment, Installation of Hope, Universality (learning that others have similar problems), Group Cohesiveness (acceptance by others), Altruism, Suggestions and Advice, Interpersonal Input (learning how others perceive them), and Existential Factors.

When the results were analyzed, the results were surprising. Even though the therapists who administered the group therapy weren’t existentially oriented, the Existential Factors category was ranked as the highest in value by the patients. These were the five curative sub-categories:

  1. Recognizing that life is at times unfair and unjust.

When we are children, our perception of our world is skewed. But, necessarily so. We have faith that when we are hungry, our parents will be there to feed us. We are showered with love, attention and unconditional positive regard. But as we grow older and more of our life becomes out of the hands of our parents’ curation, we realize that we don’t always get our way. Our needs will not always be met as soon as they arise. Our loved ones will not always be within reach. We will not always get what we want when we want it. In our early childhood, we learn these things. But as we get older, our concept of the unfairness of life gets tested even more greatly.

In our teenage years, we often experience the disciplining from our parents as a grave injustice. Whether it be getting grounded, being forced to stay in when all your friends are going out, or being denied the money to buy something that you insist that you need, we experience our concept of how unfair the world is get more tempered and matured by our experience of reality. But as we get older, we experience levels of unfairness and injustice that are not dealt to us by our parents, but by life. Our loved ones might pass away, we could lose our job, our money, our home, or we might get injured or sick, just to name a few of life’s curveballs. But it is important to know that this is a part of our existence. Life is not always fair, and believing that it should be can cause an incredible amount of distress that could ultimately lead to a mental pathology. It may not make the pain caused by life’s unfairness hurt any less, but it will prevent one from creating more pain for themselves by believing that tragedy should not exist. It does. We can either accept that, or deny it, to out detriment.

  1. Recognizing that ultimately there is no escape from some of life’s pain and from death.

 

Are often told as we go through life that it is wrong when things go wrong. But this isn’t true. Things will go wrong throughout everyone’s life, and you shouldn’t feel like this is unnatural. Also, if things are going wrong in your life in a way that is causing you pain, believing that you should never experience pain will only cause more of it.

It is also important to recognize that death is the inevitable outcome of life. Most of us will try to deny this. In fact, some psychologists believe that the entire structure of the human psyche is built on top of a foundational denial of mortality. But, this is a truth that we can grasp and internalize as much as we can. Death can happen and will happen to us all. It may be hard to conceive, but embracing that will help you live a more fulfilled life.

There is a valuable idea from Stoic philosophy that pertains to this. Whenever something is causing you pain, ask yourself; is there something you can do about it? If not, then don’t give yourself additional grief. If there is something that you can do about it, then do what you can. Do not cause yourself additional suffering from trying to escape pain that is inevitable. Remember; pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

  1. Recognizing that no matter how close I get to other people, I must still face life alone.

 

We all need a network of friends and family to lean upon, to support and be supported by. Relationships with other people are a crucial part of what constitutes human happiness. Think back to some of the most meaningful moments in your life; chances are, they didn’t happen when you were alone.

Many people, at some point in their lives, will feel the highest amount of intimacy with a romantic partner. This is what many people think a long-term romantic partner is for; to have someone to face the difficulties of life with. Though this is true under many circumstances, such as facing the challenges of raising children, financial troubles, and some emotional difficulties that can be soothed simply by having a hand to hold. But no matter how close you get to anyone, they cannot come inside of your mind to help you face life as an individual. Putting the expectation on others that they can save you from the fundamental burdens of the human condition puts an unrealistic pressure onto them.  Ultimately, you must face life alone.

But, with this realization, one can come to adopt a sense of individual responsibility for how they manage themselves in the face of death and impermanence. Adopting responsibility in this way is the first step in developing the psychological toolkit for being existentially resilient.

  1. Facing the basic issues of my life and death, and thus living my life more honestly and being less caught up in trivialities.

Try this as an exercise; next time you get worked up about any problem in your life, to the point where you get angry and flustered, consider that you might die tomorrow.

Seriously.

You would be very surprised how many problems that arise in life are trivial when in the light of the greater realities of life.

Just take it from Marcus Aurelius;

You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every part of everything, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.

So maybe, because of facing the basic issues of your existence, you can forgive and release the petty, trivial grudges that you might hold against your loved ones or yourself. The precious and limited time we have in this life is best spent lovingly, because who really knows how much time you have left.

  1. Learning that I must take ultimate responsibility for the way I live my life no matter how much guidance and support I get from others.

 

This life is yours to navigate. That realization can come with a flood of anxiety, as this realization of the ultimate freedom to live your life comes with a heavy dose of groundlessness. Other people may offer helpful philosophies for navigating life, and many others may try to convince you that their religion is the best reference to follow in the course of living your life, but you are ultimately responsible for sorting out what is right and what is wrong and acting in light of that. You might be able to lean against the structure that other people impose onto your life, but know that the only structure your life has is the structure that you place upon it.

With much of this advice given through the lens of existential psychotherapy, there is an underlying theme of personal responsibility. We all have a responsibility to face life as it is, to face it alone, to face it in a way that adds to our lives rather than subtracting from it, in a way that allows us to forgive others easily and to live life fully.

Develop this sense of responsibility that you have in the face of the difficulties of human existence, and it will only make you stronger.

How Psychedelics Can Heal Humanity’s Relationship With Nature

All of the different species of life that have ever existed on planet Earth have been confronted with changes in the environment which threatens its survival, and the competency, aptitude and adaptability with which it deals with these changes dictates that species’ effectiveness and favorability as an organism in the grand scheme of life. Our species, Homo sapiens, is facing an environmental crisis. This is not a localized crisis, isolated in a remote part of the world; this crisis is a planetary one. This crisis is a unique one when compared to the environmental cataclysms that have plagued life in the past. Most environmental changes that create hardships for life are caused by some inorganic event; volcanos, asteroid impact, sea level rise, climate change, and the like. Yet the crisis that Man finds himself in right now is one of his own devising. Our behaviors are directly causing catastrophic environmental changes, as the current scientific evidence makes abundantly clear. The life-threatening environmental changes that happened in the past were out of the control of the all those species affected, but Man has the power to avert this environmental crisis if he is able to acquire a new power over his own nature. What could possibly alter the current ideological, moral and ethical state of Man as well as his relationship to his environment, and do it quickly enough that the momentum of our current situation can be diffused before another mass extinction results from our own folly? The answer to this question is currently growing out of countless piles of cow shit across the world. The intelligent and responsible consumption of psychedelic drugs can be demonstrated to be the most efficient and effective way to lead humanity towards a new ethical relationship with the Earth, and ultimately save us from ourselves.

Before I continue, it is important to note how an individual experience can change the collective thoughts and behaviors of a species. Contrary to popular belief, changes at the micro-level can have drastic effects on the macro-level. It is easy to fall into the intellectual trap of thinking that an individual on the micro-level cannot affect something as large as society as a whole on the macro-level. Though, just like how an ocean is a multitude of individual drops, a society is a multitude of individual humans. Though the psychedelic experience is only experienced by the individual under the influence of the drug, and does not affect society in the same way that the introduction of a sports stadium might affect a city, it still affects society as a whole through each individual in that society being influenced by their personal experience. With cultural transformations pertaining to psychedelics, the first occurs with the individual, the second with the social system.

“Psychedelic” is just a word; though it does happen to be the most accepted word for a class of substances that have profound effects on the human mind. There are other words that people have created to define and categorize the incredibly broad effects of these substances, and these words include hallucinogens, psychotropics, mysticomimetics, empathogens, entheogen, and countless other names that attempt to encompass the mysterious effects that these substances have. “Psychedelic” has been the one to stick though; and for good reason. The term psychedelic comes from the Greek roots psyche, meaning mind or soul, and delos, meaning to manifest or to make clear. Psychedelics, in the root sense of the term, manifest the mind. To manifest means to bring up into awareness those contents of the mind which were previously latent, or submerged beneath conscious thought. Though this is just one thought as to what they do or what role they play in the scheme of nature. If one were to take a step back and see these substances in the grand scheme of nature, one would see that they are actually allemones.

An allemone is a chemical that one species produces to influence the growth, reproduction, and survival of another species. The process of communication with said allemone is called allelopathy. The chemical psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic” mushrooms, exerts a strange experience amongst animals that consume it. Psilocybin is not the only psychoactive substance which the natural world organically produces that has the mysterious “psychedelic” effect; dimethyltryptamine is another such chemical endogenous to life. It is found in high concentrations in thousands of different plants and animals, including the human brain[1]. Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is suspected to be produced by the pineal gland in the brain, and to be the brain’s way of causing dreams during REM sleep. Mescaline, the active ingredient of the peyote cactus used by multiple Native American populations, is also a very powerful psychedelic agent. These chemicals produced by nature may influence us in such a way that is beneficial to our growth, reproduction and survival of a species, the process of which will also be ultimately beneficial to the species who creates these allemones. Even past simply influencing us in a positive way, it may be a way to “allow contact with what we might call the mind of nature”[2], or the “mind of Gaia”[3]. Under the influence of psilocybin or DMT, it is not uncommon to encounter entities or spirits which represent parts of the natural world, or to have incredibly profound and humbling experiences that put into context one’s place amongst the natural world, and we must keep open to the possibility that all the experiences in which these plant-based psychedelics offer are intelligently tailored by nature to influence those who consume it in a way that benefits that species, and subsequently the entirety of the natural world.

How could these experiences induced by these plant-based chemicals have an effect on Homo sapiens in a way that helps benefit our relationship to the environment? One way may be the experience of death that the plant-hallucinogens predictably offer.

“Man is the only animal whose existence is a problem in which he feels he needs to solve” said Erich Fromm, the famous humanist psychoanalyst[4]. We are born into these heart-pounding, breath-gasping, decaying bodies, and this causes us a tremendous amount of anxiety. We exist as animals with a finite existence on this planet, animals that will die and rot in the ground, yet at the same time we house in our psyche a drive for an immortal destiny, a need to assign grandiose meaning to our lives in an attempt to transcend our physical mortality. Ernest Becker, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, states that “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with”[5]. Ernest Becker asserts that the human psyche is in a constant struggle with the reality of death and mortality, so much so that the human condition can be characterized by the active effort to deny all things that face us with the reality of death. Irvin Yalom elaborates on this in his book Existential Psychotherapy, where he says “to cope with [the fear of death], we erect defenses against death awareness, defenses that are based on denial, that shape character structure, and that, if maladaptive, result in clinical syndromes. In other words, psychopathology is the result of ineffective modes of death transcendence”[6]

Examples of how the human capacity to deny mortality can be demonstrated through many cultural taboos. One such example is the censorship of sexuality which, to varying degrees, is present in every known human culture. Breastfeeding in public is a very present taboo in our society, as well as the censorship of female breasts in general. Male nipples are also censored in society; almost all children cartoons show shirtless male characters with an absence of nipples. We seem to be the only animals that hide and censor our genitals and sexual organs, and this is due to the fact that human beings are the only animals who are ashamed of sexuality, as genitals and the need to sexually reproduce are symbols of the fact that we are mortal animals. Angels and gods are always depicted as not having genitals, because it is engrained in religious mythology that divine beings have transcended mortality, and have thus transcended the need to sexually reproduce. The act of sex is as characteristic to animals as is eating and defecating, two other things that divine immortal beings have no need to do. We long to be immortal, so we create and idolize transcendent and immortal mythic figures that represent the highest aspirations of the human species.

Humans are also the only animals that shave the hair off of our face and bodies in an attempt to be more attractive to the opposite sex. Hairlessness is a desirable trait in the sexuality of the human species; which may explain why we are the only hairless ape, or what Desmond Morris calls “the naked ape”[7]. Shaving the hair off of our face and body is an obvious denial of our animal nature, literally removing traces of evidence that we have small patches of hair of the same like as chimpanzees. We also are the only animals that disguise and place a sensory façade over our natural body odor; we use deodorant and perfumes to overpower the natural smell of our pheromones which are naturally useful to subconsciously communicate genetic information and to find genetically compatible sexual partners. Another mascot of the denial of our animalistic mortality is the blatant denial of the processes of urination and defecation. Humans are the only animals that must hide behind locked doors to feel comfortable enough to defecate, as the act of defecation is an animal act, and thus a mortal act. The human propensity to feel shame about defecation and urination is thus another way in which we try to escape and deny our own animalism.

How is this denial of death affecting the human relationship to the environment? It is quite simple, actually. Humans want to believe that we are not animals; that we are not beings that are doomed to blindly and dumbly rot in the ground and disappear forever. Because we so strongly desire to be something which we are not, we reject and push away everything that hints at the reality which we do not want to see. Because we don’t want to believe we are mortal as is the rest of nature, we push away and turn nature into the other. This othering creates a fundamental disconnection between humans and the natural world, as we crave to believe that we are something separate from it, and subsequently not subjected to the reality of mortality which curses all living things. This othering of the animal allows us to literally dehumanize the animal world, which allows us to reason our negative actions towards the environment which may cause ecological stress or even eventual extinction of certain animals that live in the areas which we choose to exploit. How can psychedelics help dissolve this human propensity to turn nature into the other?

Psychedelics help decondition our fear of death through offering the experience of death. “A fear must be experienced before it can be reduced or destroyed”[8], and the plant-psychedelics reliably induce the experience of death. In terms of treatment of death anxiety, the most important component of the psychedelic experience is the religious “sense of oneness and unity with the universe”[9]. This is often called ego-transcendence, and is the primary factor of the psychedelic experience that alleviates death anxiety. This experience is characterized by the loss of the body and the sense of self, as “ego identification and ego boundaries are weakened”[10]. If a human holds the belief that they are nothing more than their body and do not exist outside of their body, death entails the destruction of everything we perceive ourselves to be; true death. This mindset is anxiety-producing to an individual because through this interpretation, death is seen as the true end of one’s existence. When the fear of death is dissolved, it is usually done so through a deep realization of cosmic unity. This sense of cosmic unity compels one to identify themselves with the universe as a whole compared to just their ego. The patient transcends their ego, and death anxiety is alleviated because the patient is left with a profound revelation that they are one with the universe. In other words, “the person becomes very much aware of being part of a dimension much vaster and greater than himself”[11]. When this revelation is had authentically through the psychedelic experience, death is seen as a transformation rather than an end. This alleviates, dissolves and allows one to transcend the innate death anxiety that characterizes the human condition, the anxiety which causes humans to create a psychological disconnect between us and the other animals. The experience of death allows us to lose the anxiety associated with death, and brings us closer to fully realizing that we are just another animal in the kingdom of life, and would make Man less apt to see himself as something separate from nature; a separateness that allows us to dominate and destroy nature.

When we move closer to seeing ourselves as a part of nature and identifying with the natural world, as a strand in the web rather than the spider on top of it, our behavior towards the nature will profoundly change. Theodore Roszak, author and champion of theEcopsychology movement, states that “if the self is extended to include the natural world, behaviors leading to the destruction of that world would be experienced as self-destruction”[12]. This is a profound notion; if one was to see the natural world as an extended part of who they are, any action that destroys the natural world will be experienced as harm being done to themselves. Psychedelics often produce a profound sense of “unity with nature” in those who ingest them, and this extension of the sense of self to include nature would drastically change that person’s relationship with the Earth. If each person in a society had a profound experience of unity with the natural world as a product of a psychedelic experience, the entire ideological orientation of society would shift. We would see that the Earth is one whole living system in which we are an inseparable part, and that polluting the oceans or cutting down forests is ultimately harmful to ourselves. When we fully realize that we are merely a strand in the web of life, we will be less likely to destroy that web and more likely to act symbiotically with it. Psychedelics may be the most efficient way to realize our connectedness to nature and to bring about the behavioral changes that come with that realization.

In conclusion, psychedelic substances are incredibly powerful and mysterious chemicals that assert a powerful and profound impact on the human psyche, and the intelligent use of these substance may cause certain changes which will collectively shift humanity in ways that influence our species to behave more ethically towards the natural world. These chemicals may very well be powerful teachers that evolved specifically to function as such, as a way to learn from the mind of Gaia. These substances could help absolve humanity from our inherent denial of mortality and help us accept death, and help rid us of our othering of the natural world on the basis of our subconscious rejection of the reality of death that our animal nature entails. The profound effects of the psychedelic experience could also shift our sense of self to include the natural world, and thus lead us to treating the health of the Earth as we would treat the health of our own bodies. These incredible substances may very well be the catalysts that change the ideological state of our species and bring us closer to a new Earth ethic.

 

[1] Rick Strassman, DMT: The Spirit Molecule (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2001), 31.

[2] Paul Devereux, Whispering Leaves: Interspecies Communication? (San Francisco: Disinformation Books, 2015), 78.

[3] James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), ix.

[4] Erich Fromm, “The Psychological Problem of Man in Society” in On Being Human, (New York: Bloomsbury Academics, 1997), 32.

[5] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973), 15.

[6] Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 27.

[7] Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape (New York: Dell Publishing Co, 1967)

[8] Michael Mithoefer, MD “MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy: How Different Is It from Other Psychotherapy?” in Manifesting Minds (Berkeley: Evolver Editions, 2014), 126.

[9] Lerner, Michael, “Values and Beliefs of Psychedelic Drug Users: A Cross Cultural Study” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs (2006), 150.