Topanga is a mystical mountain enclave located above Santa Monica in Los Angeles and it happens to be the place where I set out to do a Psychedelic Assisted Therapy training led by the Canadian advocacy group TheraPsil.
Topanga herself is rugged and dry and yet from her curves pours forth a wellspring of wisdom waves that emanate from her centre. It’s a place where I felt I might turn a corner and run into Neil Young, later learning that he owned a place there back in the day and also where he recorded After the Gold Rush. A place where in the middle of a bustling and cool courtyard you can pick up a paddle and play ping pong with a couple of seekers you’ve never met before and will always remember, ones who are steeped in earthiness and as such serendipitously prepare you for the breath work ceremony you are about to do the next day. “Eat very lightly early this evening; choose raw food. Then fast until after your breath work so that you can be light and go deeper,” insight I listened to and it worked out really well. Others in our group, who were not at the impromptu ping pong match with the traveling didjeridoo musician beside the so hip it hurts millenary shop, struggled with full bellies during the breath work after lunch.
This morning, exactly three months later in Canada, as I write about this outtake from my time in Topanga, the Internet is down. This means I am unequivocally free of the distraction of my flighty whims of searches and so forth. It’s myself and the page. This is so particularly poignant in consequence of the searing message that the breathwork facilitator relayed to me in an eye opening glint of cautionary advice that night that he drove me up the mountain to get back to my Mad Max meets boho Artist’s retreat airbnb after a most intense and deeply rewarding day of Holotropic breath work.
Holotropic breathwork is a tool designed by Christina and Stanislov Grof (the latter a founder of transpersonal psychology) who created this breathwork model during a time in the 1960’s when the War on Drugs - which was ultimately a war on awareness and love which can never be won - was implemented and Psychedelic substances were banned in the United States. Holotropic means “moving towards wholeness” and this form of breathwork facilitates a psychedelic experience that is incredibly deep, powerful, insightful and healing - which is what substance facilitated psychedelic experiences do when well managed in a therapeutic setting.
The breathwork session in Topanga was beautifully held in a therapeutic setting with two facilitators - Stacia Butterfield who had learned from and facilitated with Stanislov Grof internationally over the years and her colleague Dana, who considered Timothy Leary a grandfather presence in his life while growing up as a kid in California. I felt safe and confident in the abilities and experience of these two facilitators and in my glowing colleague, Tara, a nurse who facilitates therapeutic ketamine treatments, who I chose as my ‘sitter’ for my breathwork journey. A ‘sitter’ is someone who literally sits beside you in a therapeutic capacity during a psychedelic journey and ensures your safety and welfare, tending to duties such as passing you a tissue, holding your hand (consent is discussed before the journey), makes sure you are physically safe (from any nearby objects or guiding you to the restroom as needed). The sitter is a compassionate presence who holds space for your during your experience. For the breather, eye-shades or eye-masks are encouraged during the experience; there is a comfortable place for the the latter to lie down with pillows and a light blanket while a specially curated playlist fills the sound waves (in this case without words) - all which help to move the client through their internal journey.
Dana explained that the function of the breath during Holotropic breathwork - cycles of deep and quickened inhale followed by a deep again quickened exhale while minimizing the natural pause that takes place between the two - can be likened to a bicycle that takes you up a mountain, a metaphor for the internal place in one’s consciousness that has teachings, revelations and realizations for the breather to experience and glean learnings and healing. The intentional breathing rhythm can be paused once the client navigates the particular internal vista of their own consciousness or subconscious as the case may be. Once that particular experience feels complete the breather can harness the rhythmic power of their breath again and allow it to navigate them to the next mountain peak and experience the view from there. I really loved Dana’s analogy because I felt that it accurately described how the breathwork facilities a departure of one level of consciousness and the entrance into another. This analogy and way of breathing also lends itself well to empowering the client to recognizing that they hold the key to their own journey - if they’d like to go further, deeper and so forth then that is for them to decide and access through the vehicle of their own breath. I would be remiss if I did not highlight how incredible it is that our very own intentional directing of our breath can lead us into psychedelic worlds within us. Our breath is a tool, a naturally occurring vehicle that each of us is equipped with to provide us access to these realms within where we can journey, cultivate deeper understanding of ourselves and simultaneously heal. It is truly incredible and yet feels like a kind of common sense that has been made not so common.
After a long day of being the client in the morning followed by a grounding lunch and then being the sitter for Tara in the afternoon, replete with integration time: mandala art with pastel colours illustrating our experiences segued into a circle for discussing important parts of our journey that we wished to share with the group, it was finally time to go home. My colleague - a psychiatrist from New York - who often zipped me up the mountain to my airbnb in his Porsche Turo was long gone, and there was not an Über to be found. Kindly, Dale conceded to drive me ‘home’ as he knew the area well - it was his backyard. I felt terrible asking him to go out of his way but there are no sidewalks up the mountain’s twists and turn single lane roads upon which walking is very much not advised and it was dark. I, of course, was humbled that I was in the presence of a person who considered Timothy Leary to be family. In the car we talked about climate change and the fear and anxiety it brings especially in dry Topanga. Dale’s kindness and energy made it clear that he was a person of service; though not too much older than me I am sure, he felt like he had the presence of a dad, one who was taking his kid home to a safe place. Before I got out of the car he humbly imparted something to the effect of “If I can be so bold as to offer you one piece of advice to you after the day you’ve had?” He paused and I consented. “Don’t open your phone or your computer. Journal, draw, reflect on your experience. When you open your phone and start scrolling, it just wipes away your experience, your awareness of it.” Of course I took his words to heart and did some journalling that evening after eating some nourishing food and before getting ready for sleep. But something about what Dale said gave me pause. I grew up in a time before cell phones, so I know what it is like to not have one, to have free, unbroken, continuous time. I wrote a lot of poetry back then, had a lot of feelings that nourished me artistically. And what Dale said made me more aware of what we are doing to ourselves with our phones, wiping out memories, whole experiences, whole streams of thought that might lead somewhere if unbroken by our jarring habits. Our phone chops up the continuity of time, which has a disconcerting effect on us, rather than the open and spaciousness timelessness that happens when we are just riding the wave of being from moment to moment, perhaps the way that we do when we are sitting quietly at the dock of the bay, or maybe meditating if we do, or those moments in yoga when we have space and time and quietude to hear our own breath. Dale gave me something that day, on the ride home to my little cottage nestled in the lands of the ancient Tongva people - some of whom still reside in those magical mountains today - that there is something deep inside us that we have an opportunity, even a duty if we rise to the call to deeply honour and respect, that is there for us and that if we look away from it, outside ourselves where it does not dwell, that we can miss it, misplace it, that after all the work we’ve done if we do not take a moment or many moments to look within and honour it then it will be lost for now, until we cast away our fears and retrieve it again. For, in truth, it will always be there, just like any diamond and if we are being honest with ourselves we ought to never cast that part of ourselves away.