Episode 1: Spring Washam
Spirituality, Sexual trauma, & Ayahuasca
Welcome to the first episode of Inside Eyes. In this episode Laura lays out the purpose behind this season with thoughts on the political and spiritual significance of sexual trauma, followed by an interview with Spring Washam, renowned meditation teacher, Ayahuasca advocate, and author of A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage and Wisdom in Any Moment. Spring is considered a pioneer in bringing mindfulness-based healing practices to diverse communities. She is the founder of Lotus Vine Journeys, an organization that blends indigenous healing practices with Buddhist wisdom in Peru.
If you would like to support the show, subscribe! To stay connected, find Laura on Instagram: @lauramaenorthrup.
Special thanks to Joey Seward of Left Field Studios for additional audio engineering and to CHC & Nell for volunteering time to make this show more accessible by creating transcripts.
Inside Eyes n°1 with Spring Washam
Transcript by CHC & Nell
You are listening to Inside Eyes, and I'm your host, Laura Northrup.
=== Introduction ===
Welcome to the very first episode of Inside Eyes. My name is Laura Mae Northrup, and I am so excited for everything you're gonna hear in this series. For the last eight months, I've been doing interviews, writing and editing, and I'm just so honored to be able to share this series and the incredible voices in it with all of you. This series is several interviews with survivors of sexual trauma who have tried using entheogens and psychedelics to heal. However, these first two episodes are conversations with professionals who have some pretty interesting things to add to the larger conversation.
I decided to make this series because, despite all the therapy, medication, meditation, self-help books and myriad of ways that people attempt to heal after experiencing sexual violence, there is this threshold that many people struggle to make it past. And if you're a survivor listening and you've done a lot of healing work, you probably know what I'm talking about. It is absolutely devastating to work so hard and to find yourself still caught in fear, self-destruction, self-loathing, or just completely shutting down and feeling nothing. I know people are making it past that place with a help of plant medicines, entheogens and psychedelics.
What you'll hear in these episodes are people's stories told in their own voice. You may agree, you may disagree, you may love what people say and it also might make you feel uncomfortable. I did these interviews in the spirit of listening, without judgment, to each individual's process. My intention is to provide you with information and hope. This series is not an instruction manual on how to heal. It does not offer practical advice about how you can do this too. If you're interested in this work, you'll have to look elsewhere for guidance on how to safely and legally access it.
I've been working with sexual trauma for a long time. I have spent hours upon hours upon years trying to understand things like the impact on survivors, the impact on our larger communities, why people sexually assault adults and children, and how sexual violence is even possible in our communities and culture. And this episode really starts there, in that place where I ask: but why does sexual violence even happen?
=== Sexual violence as spiritual abuse ===
Let's rewind into a little history lesson. Sexual violence has been a major part of war, genocide, spread of religion, colonization and capitalism. In the United States alone, native American genocide, American slavery, the Vietnam war, the Iraq war and the Catholic Church have all employed rape as a means of psychological warfare or social control. The term "wartime sexual violence" even has its own Wikipedia entry.
Something unique about sexual violence is that it's all forms of abuse wrapped up in one. It is often physical abuse, it's emotional abuse, it's neglect, and it's also psychological abuse. But, furthermore, and this is critical to understand and why I'm making the series, I define sexual violence as a form of spiritual abuse. The spirit, or the life force that's in all of us, it's essential to our honest expression of ourselves. It's the place that we draw power from as living creatures.
In Audre Lorde's famous essay Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power, she makes the point that in a patriarchal society, erotic energy is viewed as simply just sex. Whereas what she is saying is that erotic energy is a place of personal and political power. Wilhelm Reich, who was a Freudian analyst and somatic psychology theorist, wrote a book called The Mass Psychology of Fascism, in which he explores some of these same ideas, not specific to sexual abuse, but to the human body as an essential location of social control for fascism. And he says "the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation". I'm referencing these two theorists because I think they say a lot about why sexual violence is so prevalent in our world.
When the entire population of the world has either been sexually abused or assaulted, or is scared of being sexually assaulted or is scared of their children or loved ones being sexually violated, that creates a huge spiritual impact on the world and the power of the people in the world. And, whether that is because the perpetrator is consciously or unconsciously aware of that, irregardless, that's an impact that cannot be overlooked.
So, why is it so popular to sexually abuse people in the context of war, genocide and slavery? Well, the effects of sexual violence are devastating and massive on the victim and the victim's community. Sexual violence creates lasting effects for the rest of a person's life and, frankly, it's an epidemic that is massively destructive to our culture and humanity. So, why are entheogens and psychedelics such an effective method of healing sexual trauma? Well, people go toward entheogens to have spiritual experiences, and I would say that that is a great idea if what you're confronting is a spiritual wound.
== Interview ===
To explore this more, I spoke with Spring Washam, a well-known Buddhist meditation teacher, author of the book A Fierce Heart, which I highly recommend, and a visionary leader in bringing mindfulness-based healing practices to diverse communities. She co-founded the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California (Shout-out! I love you EBMC!). She is also an advocate for the healing power of plant medicines such as Ayahuasca in combination with meditation. She offers meditation and Ayahuasca retreats in Peru through Lotus Vine Journeys. You can find links to her book and retreats in the shownotes.
This interview starts where I've just asked Spring how she thinks sexual violence impacts a person spiritually.
Spring Washam: I mean, I myself, I guess, you know, would really relate to being a survivor. You know, I write about in my book that I was sexually assaulted when I was sixteen and, earlier, all kind of impressions growing up in my neighborhood, there was, a lot of pedophiles everywhere, you know, it's so interesting how it's coming out now, and really painful to see, and important to see this movement of kind of pulling the rug back. We all know what’s there but, wow, it's a lot to take in. So, I only can really talk about it – how it's impacted me – from my own perspective. And working with people in a healing capacity and working with people in my retreats, you know, I can speak some from their experience, but I’ll really kind of talk about my own.
I think the first thing how it really impacted me was it created a place within me that became deeply disembodied. Right it was like, I think to survive sexual abuse as a child, as a young person, especially, like, you know, a rape or incest or repeated abuse, one gets into the habit of disassociating. And we know that, you know, that's really common because it's, you know, the psyche's defence, and it's how we survive, it's how we continue to get up everyday, it's that, you know, we create this places within us that are, you know, sort of walled off.
So, I think a big part of my own healing was coming back into my body. Someone can say that’s kind of level 1, is that I wasn't living in my body, and that living outside of one's body creates a huge loss of power. You know, we're not fully present, we're not here, we're gone. And, I feel like for the people that I've worked with on retreats, that is what I've seen the most, is that people are just gone. They're nowhere near their body. And bringing people back in means to kind of feel all of those experiences through kind of reliving them and letting them go, so that's the whole second part. But I just... I just really wanted to speak to that because I think as women, if we're not living in our body, we're just not accessing all the wisdom and our full capacity. We're living, like, you know, half, half-way or less, you know, half-charged or even less than that. So that... that is one way.
Also, I think one of the things that happened through my own healing and what I noticed about myself as I came in to meditation was that I didn't trust myself, and so I had a hard time loving myself, trusting myself, valuing myself. Because you don't really have boundaries or, you know, when someone is abused, their body, they inherently feel that they have no value, you know, that they're not worth honoring or respecting, so it creates a very deep feeling of worthlessness, not being valued and then that leads to, obviously, aspects of self-hatred. And so, all those layers, you know, we have to come and go through as we heal ourselves.
So I think those are the two biggest things that I've noticed and both of those become huge obstacles to presence, awareness, embodiment and insight.
Laura Northrup: Sort of piggybacking off that question, what do you think about the spiritual impact that sexual violence as on communities as opposed to just individuals?
Spring Washam: You know, if I think about it as a community [???], we can look at a family unit, right, and as sexual violence is there, it just sort of undermines trust, love, respect and value. Because, in order for sexual violence to really continue, it sort of takes a community. I was very – I have to admit – I got very interested and caught up in the investigation and the whole issues surrounding the R&B singer R. Kelly and I was watching the documentary Surviving R. Kelly, and because I grew up similar to that – I grew up around, you know, those kind of communities, I grew up with that music, and so I really felt somehow it really connected to me and I felt really hurt by that – the whole story and the women and everything about that... that case... that's... you know, gonna – it's in court now.
But I realized that it takes a whole community to keep sexual violence alive. You know, it takes people overlooking, it takes people denying, it takes people not speaking up, it takes people protecting, it takes lawyers, you know, fighting – it's like a whole community is involved in sort of allowing sexual violence to continue and I think we're seeing that, you know, with the Catholic priests as, you know, now it's coming out, people were hiding information and burying... A whole community is involved in denying and suppressing that. And that happens within families all the time. And so... I think that, in some ways, it just creates a toxic environment where people get hurt and there's no accountability. You know, these are crimes, so... When one is involved in suppressing that or normalizing that or even supporting those who are doing the crime or victim-shaming... Wow... It's really, really sad. So, yeah, it's interesting, the community... It's like the community tolerates it and then it perpetuates it...
Laura Northrup : So, I know that you've expressed that you really make a distinction between psychedelics and entheogens and can you just say a little bit more about what that is and why that is?
Spring Washam : Ok, so... When I think of the term... You know, words are powerful. You know, what we name things, and... And for me, the word "psychedelic"... Being that I’ve spent ten years working with the plant Ayahuasca in indigenous communities in the jungle... The word "psychedelic", it just has this baggage of being Western, being kind of from, you know, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass and the sixties and, you know, Haight-Ashberry and people tripping and LSD. It has a certain connotation, the word. It's almost like - I guess I hate to say the word “colonized", but it's very Western, right? It's a Western work. So, when I think about Ayahuasca, I think about Earth consciousness, I think about medicine, I think about ceremony, and that is my experience. So the words "psychedelic" or "hallucinogen", they don't really apply to what is happening in South America and how these plants are used. So, that word... I just don't relate to it. So, I, just... and for other people they may really relate to it and they may say it. But that's not a word an indigenous person would understand, or that's not how I refer to medicine. So, for me, these are medicines and they're used for healing. They're not just kind of mental games, you know, and some... So "psychedelic", the word conveys a lack of reverence to me. Like a... A clinical science or, you know, sort of hippies... It doesn't... And that word has a lot of baggage and so I'm just trying to move away from that word. I never use that. And that's just my own particular view, and I like to talk about what I don't to everybody who uses the word with me, you know. But I recognize that it is the only word that people know, but the more we use other terms, like plant-based medicine, entheogen, the more those words become more the norm, and we teach people what those words mean.
Laura Northrup: Why do you think people turn to entheogens for spiritual healing? What does it offer that other things don't, such as therapy or meditation?
Spring Washam: Right, that's a great question and... A couple of things, you know, again using my own experience and seeing others… One is that these impressions, or we know that children, particularly at very young ages are – and this is even goes people older – but particularly as children, the impression and the trauma rewires our DNA in some levels, right? Trauma does that, and so, when we are trying to heal and say we’ve gone to therapy, which is good, or we’ve done trauma work – and, you know, for me I did everything – and yet it still was this sense that something is wrong, something isn't right, I'm not over this, because the behaviors showed that. So as much as I tried to work on it on one level – and it was good I worked on it, worked on it in different ways – it was like there was an underlying stuckness there. And it was on a three-month meditation retreat where I really fell apart and it was old trauma coming to the surface, that the plants and what plant medicine can do is they can take us on a much deeper level, they can go – Ayahuasca particularly – can go into a DNA level, and we can purge something out, we can purge out these impressions... We move them out of our energy body, our emotional body, in a way that we can't just through maybe talk therapy. I think somatic experiencing has a lot of benefits, because again that's moving energy, but these things are now energized, and energy in the body, and so, how do we heal that? That's what we're looking at, is healing energy. And we know that... You know, I'm working with people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder... All these things are really real and the effects the entheogens have on healing trauma and healing from... rather it's, you know, hospitals, surgeries, accidents, that the effects of plant-based medicine are really amazing, they can help us move those layers... So, it's about going deeper, you know, it's about really getting down to the nitty-gritty, and I love that the plants can do that, that was my
experience, that's like I had all this energy that I couldn't move. I’d done everything, I'd been blessed by swamis, and all over the world, swam with dolphins, meditated, did holotropic breathwork, talked about it, danced it out, yet there was this piece that felt, like, at the core, was kind of broken. And that's what happens through sexual violence, is that something so deeply gets hurt. Gets wounded. Shuts down. It's like the betrayal is so painful that it leaves a scar, and so, for many of us, how do you move that scar, how do you begin to really heal on the deepest level. You can kind of work through stages and layers, but ultimately, we want to be free of it, we want to be free of that imprint. So, I feel that entheogens and plant-based medicines are amazing, and, in my own experience of my own healing process and healing others with Post-Traumatic Stress and healing from all types of trauma, abuse... And just the trauma being incarnated, you know, being alive has its own place too.
Laura Northrup: The next question I have for you – I don't know I you're want to answer it because of the "psychedelic" term – but I wanted to ask you: do you think meditation is psychedelic or has the potential to be psychedelic? And what I'm getting at in that question is, like, the altered state of consciousness that comes through entheogens.
Spring Washam: Oh, yeah! I mean, I think that question is a great question and I would say "yes, 100%". When somebody is doing a long retreat, they're definitely entering altered states. I mean, seeing the nature of reality is different than how we perceive it, right ? The true nature of things. So, when we start to see impermanence on a moment to moment level, or we start to see emptiness, I mean, this is a massive insight. And this is why I love mixing Buddhism and shamanism together – Buddhism and entheogens. Because we're, you know, in the spiritual perspective, in the dharma – we're looking for insight, we're looking to see the true nature of things. And it's very disillusioning, you know. If someone studies Buddhism, are they really getting what the Buddha is saying? You know, I often laugh about that. Are you really getting what's been said here? (laugh) Right? So, I definitely think meditation can lead to altered states, and I have accessed all kinds of altered states during long retreats, and energies and all kind of experiences and that actually piqued my interest in working with plants is that I... I guess I was someone who could kinda navigate between these worlds, or these realities, or these levels of awareness actually – that might be a better way to put it. This is all consciousness. With the plants, we just get a quicker opening, but it’s all the same. It's all consciousness.
Laura Northrup: That kind of segues into the next question that I have, which is: what kind a role can meditation play in the integration process after someone has used an entheogen?
Spring Washam: Yeah, I think, for me, that integration through meditation is the most important thing you can do. Because after, you know, you have these powerful experiences, sometimes the mind doesn't know what to do with them. Right? You see something, you see the true nature of something, or you experience a huge letting go, you have to then live it in your body, and the path of meditation is to live in your body, is to come into the present moment, is to ground that awareness. I mean, unless, you know... I would say spiritual insight doesn't mean a lot until it's lived, until it's fully integrated, it's fully embodied. You know, we’re moving from that place of insight, we're not just thinking about it. So, the fact that the path of meditation is about coming into you body, living in your body, feeling your steps, being present, being here now... I don't know of any other way to integrate. That is the path. That is what we all trying to do, is live more fully in the present moment. And what trauma does is it... it blocks our ability to be in the present moment. Because the present moment is scary and we're disassociated, so coming into the present moment is a huge movement forward as we’re healing from sexual violence and trauma and physical violence... You know, in some way we're fragmented, so present moment experience means danger for the... for our psyche. So learning how to ground from the entheogens, from the experience that we had with the plants, is key. You know, meditation is everything. That's what I... I think that's what I really try to convey to my guests that come on retreats with me. That... this is the acceleration. We work with the plants, we meditate, we live in the present moment, we learn more through being in the present moment, and that leads to kind of an acceleration of consciousness... Acceleration of healing.
Laura Northrup: One of the things that's happening in the popularizing of entheogens and altered states of consciousness in healing is that there's a lot of conversation around accessibility, in terms of criminalization, and legalization, medicalization, also just in terms of, like, who can actually financially access it. And I know that you are a co-founder of East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California, which is a very diverse and accessible meditation center, and I'm wondering how was it possible to make the center so accessible and why did you all make that choice?
Spring Washam: Well, with East Bay Meditation Center, it was just obvious that we wanted to follow a tradition. In that tradition, you know, for 2500 years in Asia, you can go to a monastery, you can go somewhere and you can stay, even ten days. I was just in Thailand over New Years, and there was a beautiful Vipassana center that you could just go and stay and at the end you make whatever donation that you could. So, in some ways we're following a very old, worn-in path. The Dana model, generosity model, is the way that you open the doors and that you can meet people where they are and you can take down all the barriers. So that, in some way, was really easy, and we wanted to work on that model, we wanted to see what it would be like to have a community based on giving, and see if that could be sustainable in an urban community. So that is a great experiment and, you know, East Bay Meditation Center is still thriving and still growing and so, that's a beautiful thing. And I wanna follow up on one of your questions or your comment about the accessibility. I think that plant-based medicines and entheogens is very new to urban communities, to communities of color, to younger people. I mean, they heard of psychedelics, but if you use that term, a lot of people think of people who are on drugs, partiers, ravers. So, for a lot of people there hasn't be an interest, and also the science hasn't come out around it as much as it has lately. Right? So, in some ways, people just aren't familiar with what that is, or how to use it, or how to work with it, there’s not a lot of people who are facilitating that work skilfully. You know, Ayahuasca ceremonies are illegal. So, people are just now, I would say, millennials and younger people or urban communities are just understanding what it is and what it can offer. And there's not a lot of clear voices on the topic, so, if you look at who are the voices, they're mostly very intellectual white males who own the topic. So, for me to be talking about it as, you know, "this can be helpful for you, healing your trauma, this...", and now we're informing a new generation and a new community. But it's very new. For a lot of people, when they hear that term psychedelic, they think of drug users, people freaking out, they don't think of the safe, loving ceremony held by indigenous people. That's part of the reason I don't like the word, right, 'cause it conveys to communities of color who this is for and who it's not. Right? So, there's a sort of re... An emergence, new voices on the topics have to come out and share experiences. People have to see that this is not a phenomenon that just happened in the fifties. This is thousands of years old. These are plants that, you know, mushrooms were in Oaxaca, Mexico with grandmothers. You know, these are Earth plants, these are... it's deeper. So, I think there's a lot of education, and so, that contributes to accessibility and who knows about this and who doesn't, and so, there's a lot of factors involved in that. So, one of the things I hope to do is kind of break through some of these barriers. Because, actually, like, psilocybin and other things are very easy to access and are actually affordable. They grow on the ground, you know, so they can be found, they can be worked with. But skilful containers, people leading the work, people - you're know, there's more that just the plants, there's also how this work is held and ceremony and, you know, healers to support... There's a whole infrastructure around skilful use of it. And we just don't have those facilitators, yet, coming online. It's, just... It's a new phenomenon.
Laura Northrup: Yeah, well, and I really appreciate you explaining more about that, because it also sounds like you're saying using the word entheogen is about making this more accessible, because of the associations with psychedelics and because of the very real systems of oppression and privilege that have existed around psychedelics.
Spring Washam: Yes, the work "psychedelic" in its own, people think of white males, sixties, intellectuals, Harvard, people freaking out, they don't think of sacred, they don't think of the Divine, they don't think of the Earth-based consciousness. So there is... That's why I want to reclaim that word, "entheogen", and speak to it because I think that is the word that will open the door for way more people that the word "psychedelic".
Laura Northrup: All right. You've been listening to Spring Washam. Many thanks to Spring for being a guest on the show and sharing her wisdom. Spring brings up some important points about access and language, which is a great segue into the part two of the show, which is coming next week. But, before we get there, I wanna add a little bit more about the spiritual impact of sexual violence.
Sexual violence really confronts us with some of the most horrifying parts of the human psyche. It is truly difficult to believe that anyone would do something so cruel. Many people report feeling so they were dying during the abuse, or that part of them has died after. And spirituality generally concerns itself with questions of life, death and morality. I was in a workshop once where the presenter said that people who’ve experienced child abuse have a high capacity for spiritual depth, if they're willing to do the healing work. I have pondered that statement for many years, and here is what I have to say about it at the moment. Sexual violence forces an individual to confront deep spiritual questions. Experiencing it brings you into contact with some pretty intense truths about humanity, powerlessness and death. And, if you're an adult at the time of the abuse, that is really, really hard to deal with. But if you're a child, like, an actual child confronting the spiritual reality of how cruel humanity can be, well... That's essentially impossible for a child to make sense of. So, when Spring talks about being disconnected from her body, or the ways that sexual violence undermines trust and love and community, it just makes total sense that being confronted with those deep spiritual questions that you can't make any sense of, would make you shut down in response and not trust other people. Like, to stay fully awake to the knowledge you gained through that abuse would be entirely too difficult to live with. However, in healing from sexual violence, one comes into contact with other aspects of humanity. One of the things that Spring spoke to is love, right? Like, one of the biggest part of healing from sexual violence is learning to love oneself. And, in addition to love, there is personal and collective power, embodiment and again, morality. And, I think the idea that someone who has experienced child abuse or severe violence at any age really has a high potential for spiritual depth speaks to the path that one walks when confronted with those truths of humanity and fully integrates them – both the horror and the love. And, one last thing I wanna add before we end the show is that, Spring talks about meditation as a part of integration, which I fully agree with. But, I wanna add something about why integration is so, so important for survivors of sexual trauma. When you experience the abuse, you probably didn't get what you needed after. Most of us don't. You probably needed love, someone to make it stop, someone to protect you, someone to understand you, someone to believe you. When you enter an altered state, and are again confronted with the abuse, not having any integration plan runs a very high risks of re-enacting your abuse, basically living trough hugely impactful spiritual experience, with no holding or help making sense of it afterward.
Ok, I'm sure you are full with things to think on, so we will leave it there for today. But, please, join me next week for part two of this conversation, where we will learn more about accessibility and talk with Ismail Ali of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, widely known as MAPS, and Jag Davies of the Drug Policy Alliance. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the podcast now. To stay connected and find out about my other projects, you can follow me on Instagram: @lauramaenorthrup. And finally, many, many thanks to Joey Seward at Left Field Studios for volunteering a lot of additional audio engineering to make this series possible. If you need an audio engineer, he is excellent. You can find his website in the show-notes.
Until next time.
[Article] Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power, Audre Lorde, 1978.
[Book] The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich, 1933.
[Book] A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage and Wisdom in Any Moment, Spring Washam, 2017.
[Documentary] Surviving R. Kelly, Allison Branding and Clarissa Kern, 2019.