Sunday morning instead of church I went to hear Doctor Gábor Maté address a mixed crowd at the George Ignatieff Theatre. Maté has a huge following from his writings & lectures exploring such pathways as the role of trauma & stress in addiction, ADHD, and the mind-body connection. Whatever mysterious process brought this small crowd together, they were decidedly sympathetic to the homily from their guru at the pulpit, a message titled “Ayahuasca transformation & a truer life”.
If you google “Gábor Maté Ayahuasca” you’ll find words from both him and his supporters, but also dissenting opinions. Nobody has all the answers, or so we’re told. Maybe so, but I’ve never heard such an elegant explanation of so many things. While Ayahuasca may have been the subject, the discussion of this herbal brew with psychedelic properties was the occasion for Maté to articulate a simple but lucid understanding of human consciousness under the influence of trauma and stress. Our time in the theatre was an escape from the world of blame & stigmatization, into a parallel realm of unconditional love, forgiveness, support and healing, in some respects a lot like a church service.
Speaking of parallel worlds, Maté walks the dividing line between the positivistic world of measurements & scientific proofs and the realm of metaphysical belief. At the very least he is aware of the requirements, the rules the scientists play by, even if they don’t really work for the kinds of questions Maté probes. Yet he seems reluctant to fully surrender to the world of his followers, at least using the language of science even as he mocks so many of the tenets they hold sacred. In that world Ayahuasca can be employed in a coldly clinical way, or within a more spiritual context such as that of the South America shamanic communities who were the first to brew the mind-altering drinks. The assembled listeners were not skeptics demanding proof, but rather a group of believers dissatisfied with the failings of traditional medicine, eager to hear his wisdom.
While I am comparatively new to Maté and even newer to Ayahuasca, I share their skepticism from my lifelong struggles with Ankylosing Spondylitis, an auto-immune disorder. Or perhaps I should speak of my experiences with the medical profession, a noble cause whose banner is sometimes carried by dogmatic practitioners who seem to be throwbacks to the Dark Ages given the rigidity of their thinking.
But Maté strikes me as a genuinely humble man who doesn’t claim to have all the answers, using a no-bullshit language that deconstructs his own status as a media darling, a reluctant icon if ever there was one. At one point he alluded to that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the prophet loses patience with the flock and tells them where to go. And even after that rather colourful command, they simply ask for his instructions on how to F-off.
Maté doesn’t want to be anyone’s messiah, but one who empowers by offering ways to find out for ourselves. We heard a number of anecdotes about healing, stimulated by the encounter with Ayahuasca. As a retired doctor Maté can testify to the usual approach of western medicine, its cultural assumptions and ultimate limits.
What I think I saw was someone who has learned to respect the limits of the conservative establishment, after championing harm-reduction in his role at a Vancouver clinic. If we accept that psychedelics –such as LSD, psilocybin or Ayahuasca—can all be powerful, Maté makes a big deal out of context:
- There is a difference between an experience under the supervision of a shaman who is part of a community, the drug part of their belief system, as opposed to drugs without the sheltering context
- At one point he stopped a questioner from the floor who spoke of “mood-altering” to offer another goal, namely “consciousness-altering”
- And there is a third item that touches upon context at least in a metaphorical sense, in the distinction between drugs that come from plants as opposed to those that are chemically synthesized. Does it matter that the shaman connects to the plant? You tell me.
But I see Maté taking a safer pathway –where the drug is grounded in something quasi-religious—to avoid some of the resistance encountered previously, and perhaps to get a kind of legitimacy. I believe this context question is vital, because it removes quibbles like the sort raised by the government & policies resisting harm-reduction initiatives. There is for example a letter of his I saw re-produced online that’s directed to Rona Ambrose, the Minister of Health, concerning government policies.
And –perhaps as an indication of the man and his choices—there’s the indirect evidence of a question from the floor, a totally charming inquiry from a young U of T medical student, asking how the paradigm of medicine could be fixed. His reply, a self-deprecatory joke about the limits on his time and energies, suggests that he is picking his battles carefully, a man humbled but not daunted.
I am grateful for the simple construct Maté gave me to explain the power of psychedelics, namely how they put you in touch with your authentic self, the version of yourself that you may repress or perhaps not even know. In passing Maté said “there are no bad trips”, perhaps because context is really the key. If we approach these powerful consciousness altering tools not as a roller-coaster to offer a fun ride, but rather with the respect & awe that is their due, we will make great discoveries about ourselves. We could possibly help to heal illnesses such as auto-immune disorders that have a psychic component. I’m not saying I am going to turn to Ayahuasca to fix my AS, but I do see how there is surely merit in the investigation of these pathways.
After the lecture I bought one of his books complete with an autograph. I will be reading Maté’s book When the Body Says No, as I seek clues to find health & wellness.