This interview was transcribed from our Navigating Psychedelics: Lessons on Self-Care & Integration master class with Elizabeth Gibson of Dreamshadow Transpersonal Breathwork. In this interview, Elizabeth shares her insights of integrating exceptional experiences from facilitating and working with Holotropic Breathwork for over 25 years. Elizabeth has a great wealth of knowledge about the integration process and we are honored to present her insights.
Kyle Buller: Welcome to the Psychedelics Today exclusive interview for the Self Care and Integration course. Today we are here with Elizabeth Gibson of DreamShadow Transpersonal Breathwork to talk about integration and breathwork. Thank you for joining us today, Elizabeth. It’s great to have you on.
Elizabeth Gibson: Thanks for having me, I’m happy to be here.
Kyle: So, let’s dig in, what does integration mean to you?
Elizabeth: Well, it’s a big topic and a really important topic to me. To me, integration is one of the most important aspects of work with extraordinary experiences. How do you take material that’s come up for you and bring it into your everyday life? That’s where the real benefit of this work comes from. I think it’s a topic that’s often overlooked.
So, how do people go back out into the world and realize the benefits of the intense inner work that they’ve done? That’s what it’s about to me. It’s about how people figure out how to do that and supporting them in that process.
Kyle: To backtrack a little bit, you have been facilitating breathwork for almost 20 years at this point? [25 years as of 2019].
And then you also were part of some MDMA therapy back in the 80s, right? When it was legal? So, you’ve been in this work for a while — working with people with non-ordinary states and doing integration work.
Elizabeth: Trying to, yeah.
Joe: What are some of the most important thing you see people maybe not do adequately to try to integrate?
Elizabeth: Well, I think the basic principle that we always remind people of when they are leaving a workshop or leaving a session that has involved an intense experience of any kind is the ongoing nature of the process. So, a lot of people who are, especially people who are new to this work, tend to think it’s all about the session.
The session, of course, is extremely important, but the process continues after the session is over. The intense emotions or material that has begun to come up during the session, if it’s a very organic process, can continue in the days and weeks after the session has actually taken place.
So, it’s really important to remind people that it’s important to give themselves space and to allow that process to continue and to really respect what’s going on inside and not try to jump right back into everyday life and the demands of work. given that, for many people, that’s a very difficult thing. People have jobs and families and relationships that they’re going back to.
It is important to remind them to remember the ongoing nature of the process and that it’s not all about your hours in the session. I think all of us who have done this work ourselves personally, I mean, I remember after when I did MDMA-assisted psychotherapy back in the ’80s, I can remember for days afterwards just kind of yearning to get back in the space I had been in.
It seemed like such a sweet experience and my life outside of the session seemed pale by experiences. It’s almost if I was trying to get back to where I had been in the session instead of understanding that I needed to pay attention to what was happening to myself right now in the moment and reconnect with myself in that way.
I think that’s really what integration is about — learning to be more present and authentic with ourselves in the moment. No matter what we are doing, whether we’re in an intense session or you know, even something as mundane as washing the dishes.
Kyle: Yeah, you make some really great points. Joe and I put that quote, “chop wood, carry water” in our presentation in this course. But also, it seems like people want to jump back into sessions again, like I think we brought up the fact that people may want to just go back and do ayahuasca ceremonies over and over again.
Maybe not because of the purging aspect, but just continue taking drugs to stay in that state (of consciousness). Or go back and do a bunch of breathwork sessions to move through some stuff. I think it is important to have that downtime and really be able to embody the experience and really understand what that means.
Elizabeth: I agree, Kyle. I think a lot of the changes that come about as a result of doing this work are subtle changes. The traumatic changes are fairly obvious and maybe don’t need as much attention in the sense that with the subtle changes they can be easily overlooked. The long-term changes that take place over time, those are the ones that I think you really want to honor and respect and give space to allow that to happen in yourself.
Developing A Daily Practice
Kyle: Do you have any tips or advice to how to stay in the moment after a session for the next week or a couple months to really embody what just happened?
Elizabeth: Yeah, well that’s the challenge. I think that it really is a very individual thing. There are specific techniques that can be used. I was looking this morning, and Stan Grof spoke in his book, Holotropic Breathwork, He has a couple of entries for integration. He talks about specific kinds of techniques that can be helpful for people after they do this kind of work. And you know, it’s the kinds of techniques that allow you to tap into yourself, be it whatever kind of form meditation works for you.
Some people like sitting meditation, some people like more active kinds of meditation like tai chi. Some people can’t really connect with meditation at all and there can be other kinds of activities like I remembered when I read Stan’s passage that he used to recommend for people who had intense kinds of physical experiences, that aerobic exercise, like swimming, running, for people who might be inclined in that way, who are more physically active, just as a way of connecting with the kind of energy and feelings that are operating at the deeper levels.
So, for me, I always have found it helpful to journal about my experiences in the days afterward. Not right after an experience because I’m not that verbal yet, which is why initially after a breathwork session, for instance, we offer drawing materials so people can just work with shapes and colors and begin to work with their experiences symbolically on that level before even putting words to them.
But then maybe a day or two later, I always find it really helpful to write about my experience. I notice if I keep up the process journaling in the days moving forward from there, I’m apt to stay more connected with the feelings of the experience.
But again, it’s whatever works for an individual person to create space for themselves to just sink into themselves. Basically, that means some kind of ongoing form of practice, daily practice, whatever works. And that’s a very personal and individual kind of thing.
And we’ve all, I know, tried in our lives to stick to some kind of practice. We’ve tried lots of things. What I’ve learned over the years is for me, I have to make my practice manageable. I can’t try and make it too big. So, I’ve learned for me, if I do something every morning for about half an hour, that’s probably the most realistic expectation I can have for myself.
So, I like to do yoga and tai chi, and I like to journal. Some combination or at least one of those, ideally in the morning. But then during the day, I mean, think what you like to do to nurture and support yourself. Get outside, go for a walk, connect with nature, to work it into your daily life as much as you can so it’s not like a separate kind of thing that becomes one more thing to do every day that you may not get to.
Kyle: Right. And then if you start acting that way, then you start beating yourself up that you’re not practicing, so yeah. I know that happens to me. I’m like, “Ah, I should really meditate more.” Then I think to myself, “Well, why am I beating myself up over it?”
Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah.
But do you find that? I mean, I do. I know that if I do something first thing in the morning, then if I wait ’til the end of the day, it’s less likely that it’s going to happen, so-
Elizabeth: My tai chi teacher used to say, “Just do it before you think too much about it. Get up and do it.”
The Importance of Community and Group Process
Joe: Can you think of any things not to do that might impact integration in a negative way?
Elizabeth: That’s a really interesting question, Joe. Things not to do. I think it’s important not to isolate yourself after you do this kind of work. So, that in addition to the whole principle of the ongoing nature of the process, I think the principle of community is really important.
I’ve come to appreciate the community around breathwork over the years — the relationships that we have created and the support that people offer each other. I really think we can’t do this kind of work completely on our own. We need support not just during the sessions, but in the days and weeks, months and even years between sessions.
We need support. We need to be able to talk with people about our experiences. We need to process our experiences verbally. I mean, we’re very social animals as human beings and we thrive in group kinds of settings. Now, some people at first are put off by group experiences and prefer to work one on one, maybe with a guide or a therapist. And that’s fine, but usually, there’s at least one other person involved. Somebody who can help you get through the rough spots in a way that’s supportive and not overly directive. And that can be a good friend as much as a therapist or an experience facilitator.
Kyle: Yeah. What’s Lenny’s saying? “We’re the descendants of very successful tribes.”
Elizabeth: Yeah, we’re all the descendants of successful tribes. So, that’s part of our heritage. I think in our margin, in our modern culture, that’s something that’s missing. And you see a lot of people just yearning for that kind of communal experience.
A lot of people come to our workshops, I see them get so much meaning and joy out of just the personal connections that are made. A lot of people are simply lonely, and you just need that kind of contact and the building of community and relationships.
Kyle: It makes me think a lot about rites of passages, how those are formed, say, in some of those traditional cultures where maybe the adolescent would go out and you’d have this experience, but then they’d have the safety net of the elders, the container, and the community to come back to.
And when we have these really big experiences, I mean, we might have a few people to talk to, but we don’t really have that community to come back to. I know after my near-death experience, I was like, “Whoa, who do I talk to you about this now? I can’t really talk to my parents about it.” And I had to leave to find that. And I found it in Burlington. I found it in breathwork with you and Lenny.
Elizabeth: I remember that about you, Kyle. And that was a process that took many years for you to build that kind of community. So, as a young teenager, that was really … As I understand it, that was one of the hardest aspects of it afterwards was that you didn’t have anybody you felt you could really talk to.
Kyle: Yeah, exactly. And that’s been one of the biggest integration pieces for me when I think about integration — how do you just be okay with the people around you and learn how to just embody that experience even though you might not be able to talk to that person necessarily? How do you continue to be in a relationship with them and not feel so isolated?
Elizabeth: Well that kind of goes back to your last question, Joe, of what not to do. So, Kyle just touched on that really when he mentioned who you can’t talk to about these experiences. So, I think it’s important to search out people who you know will be supportive and understanding, and not share your experiences with people who might discount or trivialize your experience because they just don’t understand this kind of work.
And that can be lonely if it’s somebody important in your life that you can’t discuss these kinds of experiences with. That’s definitely a big dilemma.
Kyle: Do you have any tips or advice to work through anything that arises after a workshop or an experience? We talk about the process continuing, but maybe how to work with some of that stuff that comes up in the next coming weeks to months.
Elizabeth: Well, so if there’s somatic stuff coming up in the body, it can be really helpful to go get some bodywork after a session. A really good deep tissue massage or any kind of work that’s going to help resolve things that might still be coming up in the body. We’re fortunate now in this day and age, there are so many different kinds of bodywork.
Bodywork can be extremely helpful.
And then those of us who are holding the space for people and supporting this kind of work, I think it’s on us to make ourselves accessible to people after the sessions and to say that we can be available for them to reach out and contact us if they’re having trouble — so that they know there’s somebody who understands what they’ve been through who’s there for them to listen to them.
I mean sometimes people just need to talk. It’s not like you have to do much else than just listen and support them with your attention. People need to be heard and feel that what they’re experiencing isn’t totally abnormal but it’s just a normal part of their process. That can be all they need maybe. Just a friend or a person who understands that they can talk with.
Joe: That ties into a lot of what we’ve been talking about lately where, maybe you have these integration groups, but that’s the essence of it right there is just to talk and be heard.
Elizabeth: I love the idea of the integration groups that you guys are doing. I mean, I think that’s exactly the kind of format that will help fill in the space in between experiential sessions and give people the sense of community and belonging.
I mean look at the whole AA thing, the fact that that’s done as group work. I mean, people struggling with in the addiction field, they go to groups that meet regularly where they can talk about their experiences and share them and feel that kind of support.
That has been an incredibly successful approach over the years. So, I think your idea of having these integration groups is exactly the kind of approach that’s going to be helpful for people who are struggling with integrating extraordinary experiences. I’m really happy you’re doing that.
Kyle: Thank you. Yeah, part of it too is we come to your workshop for a weekend, have these really close connections, have these really powerful experiences, and then in between it’s like, “Oh, where’s that community?”
So, part of it for me is how do we keep it going? How do we keep the conversation going and finding those people that we can support and hold space for so the process can continue and it’s still healing with it.
Elizabeth: Technology has made that easier too. I mean, look at what we’re doing right now. And the fact, even as an email group, you can continue sharing. It definitely has its limitations, but it’s better than nothing.
Don’t Make Any Big Changes Right Away
Joe: You often speak about not making any big changes in the next six months. Can you speak about that?
Elizabeth: Yeah. Well, a lot of times people take material that comes up in their sessions, there’s a tendency maybe to take it literally and think that to interpret their session in a certain way that makes them think, “Oh, that means I need to leave my job right now, or I need to end this relationship now.”
We encourage people to sit with that for a little while before they act on it, to be sure that things have settled and that they’ve had some time to process their experience a little more before making any major life decisions.
But there are no hard and fast rules about that. It’s just something to be aware of. People can have amazing insights and extraordinary experiences that are … Can be taken literally. But sometimes as you know, there are many levels to these experiences, and you have to treat them symbolically or metaphorically. So, it’s just a caveat, but not a hard and fast rule.
Joe: Is there anything, any additional points you might want to raise before we kind of wrap up here?
Elizabeth: I would just encourage people to reach out when they feel like they’re having difficulty or trouble understanding something that might be going on, and knowing that there are all kinds of groups out there. And to be sure that when they do this kind of work, they do it in a safe setting, and that they have access to people who will be able to support them afterwards.
The MAPS website is a really good resource for understanding this aspect of the work. I think there’s material there about safety set and setting. So, to keep all of those considerations in mind, I would just end with that reminder.
Joe: You’re never alone and people do want to help you.
Elizabeth Gibson, thank you very much. You can find her website at dreamshadow.com.
Elizabeth: Thank you.
About Elizabeth Gibson
Elizabeth Gibson, M.S., holds a bachelor’s degree in literature and a master’s degree in biology from The University of Tulsa. She has completed Herbert Benson’s Clinical Training in Mind/Body Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Previously she worked as a consultant at Arthur D. Little, Inc., and Radian Corporation in the areas of environmental protection and food research. She is a writer, editor and homemaker with interests in environmental literacy, yoga, music and gardening. Elizabeth is the editor of Stanislav Grof ’s The Ultimate Journey: Consciousness and the Mystery of Death and a contributor to the teaching manual MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, both published by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. For the past 12 years, she has been responsible for local news for the Town of Pawlet, and from 2008 – 2014 she was the editor of the weekly environment section for the Rutland Herald and Montpelier Times Argus newspapers in Vermont.