I’m fascinated by the psychedelic, and what it means for something to “be” psychedelic.
For me, the psychedelic eludes definition, and must be experienced to be comprehended. As such, each person’s orientation to it and practice with it is unique and different. Beyond any substance or medicine, beyond any bodily, emotional or spiritual experience, to be psychedelic is to be both transcendent and descendent; separate and together, sovereign and inextricably linked; sacred and profane, familiar and bizarre; dying and giving birth, selfish and selfless; everything in between, and so much more. To be psychedelic is to be groovy, radical, gnarly, amazing, cool. The fact that you are one tiny speck of sand on an infinite seashore, that you are a fully and utterly unique and irreplaceable being, and that you and I are made of the same stuff, one with every plant, animal and fungi on this spinning rock—that is psychedelic.
The amazing Bett Williams has spoken about what it means to be psychedelic. I have made the case that activism is psychedelic and consent is psychedelic— so is honing our conflict skills and practicing community accountability, and I invite you to explore this with me.
In Spring 2022, Psychedelic Interpersonal Harm Reduction (PIHR) organized a class with Kai Cheng Thom, award-winning author, teacher, mediator, and somatic practitioner. Kai Cheng shared some wisdom with us, psychedelic folks, about how to navigate conflict and harm within our communities. In a three-part series called Loving Justice, we learned about approaching conflict and accountability in a compassionate, generative, and life-affirming way.
In the first workshop, we explored conflict, trauma, boundaries, and the window of tolerance/window of transformation. Kai Cheng emphasized that cultivating the capacity for holding multiple truths will serve us well in conflict.
In the second workshop, we learned that compassion and curiosity are two of the keys to loving justice, and that conflict de-escalation lives at their overlap. Kai Cheng shared three conflict de-escalation strategies with us: compassionate statements, curious questions, and firm boundaries. We learned about triangulation, the attach-cry trauma response, and the importance of recognizing our own agendas that may show up when we’re in conflict.
In the third workshop, Kai Cheng differentiated conflict from harm/accountability scenarios, and how we approach them differently. We learned about terminating a conflict, dove deeper into triangulation, and explored how power dynamics play into situations of harm (and how to deal with that).
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We also learned about restorative and transformative justice. These technologies come from indigenous communities and disabled, queer, BIPOC leaders who practice community care and accountability without engaging with police or the “criminal justice” system, a system which more often than not is harmful and violent, rather than just.
Kai Cheng taught us about the struggle of asking people to buy into something like transformative justice. “We can’t quite feel it yet, because it’s not in our tangible, present moment reality.” Perhaps we can be part of making this possibility into a known and felt reality.
One of my favorite nuggets from the series was that conflict resolution work is sometimes about relationships ending. This does not necessarily mean that conflict resolution, or an accountability process, failed. Indeed, sometimes that relationshift is the success, is the resolution.
“Everyone deserves relationship and connection. We all are responsible for doing what is right for us,” she said, “and we get to choose who we are in connection with.” Coming in with the bias that restored relationship is always better than a relationship ending can do even more harm to trauma survivors, Kai Cheng explained. “In our darker moments, we discover who we are. We can learn about ourselves by how we are in conflict.”
What could you learn about yourself, if you chose to get informed and practice conflict and accountability in your life?
Conflict Skills and Wisdom for Psychedelic Communities
Conflict lives both inside of us and outside of us. Turn your attention inward: what feelings, thoughts, images, memories, and bodily sensations arise when you think about conflict?
Kai Cheng taught us that conflict with another person can bring up a feeling of inner conflict. For example: ‘I want to be here, and I don’t want to be here;’ ‘I was right, they are wrong;’ ‘they are right, I am wrong.’ As children, many of us were not taught this skill for recognizing the multiplicity of experience. Can we welcome these dualities, and all of our big feelings associated with conflict?
According to Kai Cheng, the more we develop the ability to work with conflict within ourselves, the more we are able to feel okay in conflict with others. This is a key to managing conflict in a trauma-informed way: permitting ourselves and other people to have more than one truth at the same time.
“Try to embrace the ambiguity and not get overwhelmed by it,” Kai Cheng says. “Ambiguity is triggering for a lot of people, and it is the space for repair in most conflict situations.”
If you notice that your inner parts are not all in agreement, listen to those notions and gain wisdom from them. When we’re holding space for others, whether a group or an individual, we must strive to welcome in another person’s “no,” as well as our own. This is what Kai Cheng calls “harvesting the no.” The objection coming up probably has some important wisdom we can gather and learn from.
Kai Cheng explained that compassion and curiosity can help us in conflict situations.
Conflict may involve unmet needs, competing needs, and/or strategies/values not aligning. Betty Pries Ph.D., mediator, calls conflict “an invitation for the system to transform.” This resonates with me, feels good, and also…why does conflict often make me feel like I’m going to die?
Perhaps this is one way that embracing conflict is psychedelic. It can feel like shit. Like death. And death is transformation. Every trip, every experience, changes us in some way. Conflict is psychedelic, because it demands that we face and accept contradicting realities. Rather than trying to shrink reality, or find one “truth,” we can expand our capacity for the multiplicity of experience.
Kai Cheng suggests that cultivating the meta-skill of equanimity is helpful, alongside our micro-skills (such as nonviolent communication). “Conflict is often about needs, such as basic survival needs and resources, or social needs that sometimes get missed: belonging, freedom, and safety,” she says. “Addressing these basic social needs can help de-escalate a conflict.”
The next time you’re in a conflict, perhaps try asking yourself if all these needs are being met. If they are not, what can be done to shift that? This may help you stay regulated and able to come to the other person with a more neutral, open-minded attitude. When trying to understand someone else in a conflict, you could consider what type of need it is that they have. Is it about Belonging? Freedom? Safety? These questions may rehumanize another person, helping us to have conflict conversations with dignity.
Kai Cheng explains that trauma is a damaging of one or more of these three human needs. When we have diminished access to our basic needs, it becomes much easier for those needs to feel or be threatened. “As healers, when we work with oppressed populations or highly-traumatized populations, we’re likely to see conflict and we’re likely to have conflict get more escalated,” she says. “So we want to be sensitive to that, sensitive to the power we hold, and able to hold it well.”
The second meeting of the class, students discussed experiences with power differentials in the psychedelic scene, tokenism, movements prioritizing white comfort at the expense of historically-marginalized groups. Kai Cheng offered her perspective, that bringing in dignity and compassion, even when folks are showing up with a lot of entitlement or ignorance, can help. It isn’t everyone’s job to do that, but if there is capacity, this can de-escalate conflict.
“There is always conflict in the room,” she said. “Sometimes it’s underneath the water, sometimes it will erupt. Often a misunderstanding, miscommunication, an action may prompt this conflict to burst forth, in a ‘transformative disruption’ that shows us what was under the surface. We get to see the power dynamics that are at play. Which is why it’s so important in conflict de-escalation to make the invisible, visible. Bring it into the room.” It’s worth noting that folks with privilege should stand up and illuminate injustice as much as possible, as it is often less risky for them to do so.
Accountability Skills and Wisdom for Psychedelic Communities
In conflict resolution, we may use de-escalation strategies to try to come to a common understanding and agreement. We may have to suspend our definitions of right and wrong in a conversation. If we can’t, we may separate. Conflict resolution can look like two people agreeing to part ways well.
Distinct from a conflict framing, a conversation about harm and accountability necessitates that we hold onto some ideas about right and wrong. Holding onto the central idea of right and wrong (ex: violence is wrong) is what makes the space safe enough. In the case of a harm or abuse in the community, we may need to escalate in order to protect others and be ethical.
Harm/abuse often requires us to escalate the situation to involve other people. This can make things safer, especially if power is disproportionate (for example, if someone with a lot of power, such as the leader of an organization, caused harm).
Kai Cheng explains that there are many nuances to escalation. We run the risk of doing things outside of our values/increasing harm to others or survivors if we are not considerate in the steps we take (for example, calling the police might create much greater risk than was there in the first place). “A decision to escalate needs to be carefully measured, even when we feel justified in doing it.”
To remove the power-holder/leader from a position where they could do more harm is an escalation that reduces the capacity for harm. This is not punishment. A person who has been abusing their students, for example, can’t continue being a leader because it puts the community members at risk.
We must also recognize the water we are swimming in—systemic issues, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia, ableism, capitalism (and more)—that may be factors beneath the surface of a conflict or a harm.
“Oftentimes, the harmful event itself is just the tip of the iceberg,” Kai Cheng “There can be so much underneath it. We’re here because of things that have happened for generations. Let’s try to have expansive conversations that frame and hold that. There’s more to harm than the harm itself. This polarity will cycle in any group you’re in, particularly, healing groups. That external conflict is an expression of the fractal inside ourselves.” The more we can acknowledge those internal and external forces, the more we might bring down the level of intensity, allowing for a conversation that acknowledges the polarities and the full context of a situation.
“When someone has acted unethically in a healing community, you might try thinking about what it would take to get them able to acknowledge and integrate the feedback about the harm they have caused,” she continues. Kai Cheng thinks that, generally, it has something to do with creating belonging, freedom, safety while still holding that person accountable. It’s critical that any harmed parties are also given support, attention and the resources to help them as much as possible.
For more on harm in psychedelic spaces, check out this roadmap to accountability and transformative justice in the psychedelic space by Rebecca Martinez. She includes a section about the potential misuse and co-opting of transformative justice, an equally important trend for us to remain aware of so we do not replicate it.
Trauma, the Nervous System, Conflict, and Accountability
A basic understanding of the nervous system is helpful in conflict scenarios.
If you find yourself in a conflict, you can try taking the temperature of the room. Are things speeding up? Increased speed may indicate that nervous systems are getting more activated, and people are outside of the window of tolerance (more on that in a moment). You can also take the temperature of yourself: Are you speeding up? Slowing down and collapsing? Do you feel frozen? Are you shifting into people-pleasing behaviors, in order to maintain a feeling of safety?
Conflict can feel devastating, especially for people who have had difficult past experiences with it. We might do anything to get rid of that feeling, because it threatens our sense of integrity. Although conflict is always going to be activating in some way, we don’t need to abandon our values or integrity or boundaries in order to understand or be in generative conflict with someone else. We may be able to revisit our perception of the other person.
Dan Siegel and Pat Ogden’s window of tolerance refers to the idea that stress is mediated by the nervous system. In each mammalian human body, there is a certain threshold of nervous system stress or arousal that we can experience while remaining socially connected. This is the window or, what Kai Cheng, calls The Window of Transformation, which relates to conflict as well as harm and accountability. At a certain level of stress, we go outside this window and it becomes hard to learn, and hard to remain connected to others.
How do we get into the place, this window of transformation, where we can hear other people, even if their opinion is really different from ours?
“When you lean into connection with others, nature, spirit, whatever context we can belong in…it will make conflict less terrifying. When we know that we won’t lose belonging, no matter what the outcome…there’s something magical there,” says Kai Cheng.
The more we tap into resourcing the nervous system, the more we can find what would feel a little bit more OK, a little bit safer. Our capacity for accountability increases. Our relationship to the conflict, our questions and our relationship to the questions, can change.
In sum, trauma will get triggered by conflict. How does one stay “OK” when triggered by conflict? This Okay-ness, our own personal feeling of being able to hang on to some level of OK, will allow us to be in conflict more generatively, more transformationally.
A Call to Action
This article is my call to action for anyone who feels connected to the world of psychedelics. Let’s bring the resource of conflict skills, restorative and transformative justice, and intentional peer support into our psychedelic communities, groups, organizations, clinics, and families.
I believe that many psychedelic communities lack these foundation skills. Our negative experiences with conflict, harm and accountability (or lack thereof) may teach us, incorrectly, that we can’t work with one another, that there is no hope for repair, solidarity or healing justice. We may take on the belief that some people are simply bad and should not exist in the space; we may see ourselves as victims, as perpetrators in hiding, or both. The meta result is despair, fear, shame, heartbreak, and massive division in our coalitions, while climate change worsens and corporations interested in psychedelics gain even more power.
Prentis Hemphill, group and conflict facilitator, says “boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me at the same time.” I believe that we can tend to the connections between us, without compromising our values or autonomy.
There are phenomenal teachers and practitioners of this work all over the country and the world. They have experience in navigating this messy, murky terrain. Just like in a psychedelic trip, there is so much promise of healing and wisdom for us, if we can stay with the messiness and trust the process. Check out the resources below for a list of schools and practitioners of these skills and technologies. Please compensate them for their time and wisdom. This investment is so worthwhile.
Studying conflict and accountability is a psychedelic act. When we learn strategies for bridging our divides, repair harms we’ve done, request accountability from the people who have harmed us or our community, we live the message that we are all one. When we gracefully end a relationship, or decide to stay in relationship and take care of one another through these messy times, we live the message that we are all one.