How I Healed My Trauma
My Experience with IFS, Non-Duality, and MDMA-Assisted Therapy
I used to think trauma was a word reserved for extremely horrific events. My parents died suddenly when I was 22, and still I didn't feel like I'd earned the right to say that I was traumatized. But last year, I attended an online retreat with Dr. Gabor Maté that transformed my understanding of trauma.
Gabor makes an important distinction between trauma and the traumatic event that caused it. Whereas a traumatic event is something that happened, trauma is emotional resistance to what happened. Trauma is a wound that forms when you don't yet have the resources to truly accept what happened. The intensity of a traumatic event is obviously relevant, but what matters most is what you believe about what happened.
Our minds resist reality when something happens that is seemingly unbearable. This belief about what happened distorts reality in a way to make life seem bearable once again. Counterintuitively then, trauma is an adaptive survival mechanism. Without resisting a seemingly unbearable reality, we're at risk of psychologically breaking or acting in ways that are too risky given our current capacities and resources. Especially when we're children, we may not yet have the psychological, physical, emotional, philosophical, and spiritual fortitude to accept the reality of a traumatic event and its implications.
I'll use an example from my own childhood to ground this point. My mom was a mentally and emotionally unstable alcoholic. She was an unreliable resource for love and safety. And as a five-year old who needs their mother's love and protection, accepting the reality that my mom couldn't give me what I needed would have been too much for me to bear. And at that age, I didn't have the power to change my circumstances. So I did what I could to give myself the illusion of control — I blamed myself. I couldn't control my mom, but I could control how lovable I was. And in my mind, lovability meant perfection. So I did what I could to be so perfect that my worth could not be doubted.
But once we do have the resources and capacity to accept reality, the beliefs attached to our trauma no longer serve us. For example, I needed my mom's love and protection as a child, but as an adult I could now survive on my own. Yet my trauma remained. So I continued striving for an illusion of perfection for the sake of proving that I was worthy of love. And when inevitably my unworthiness was revealed to my mother and the world, I'd dissociate from my seemingly unbearable reality. I'd leave my body and the present moment for a numb but comforting fog within my mind, so that I could avoid facing the truth that I wasn't, and could never be, perfect.
This is just one of many examples of how trauma has negatively impacted me. A few years ago, I realized the true extent of how trauma has shaped my life. I had written a list of everything I wanted most, and there wasn't a single thing that wasn't at least partially motivated by trauma.
And this was after spending a few years treating healing like my part-time job. I wrote around 500,000 words through journaling. I went on a couple silent meditation retreats and practiced mindfulness for up to two hours a day. I spent about 25 hours in psychotherapy. I relentlessly tried to get rid of negative thoughts using cognitive behavioral therapy and stoicism. I read more self-help books than I care to admit. And I went on about 10 psychedelic journeys using LSD or psilocybin.
But I'm now happy to say that trauma no longer runs my life. To say that I'm healed isn't quite fair. As I'll explain below, I think that healing is an endless process. But I think that the most painful and uncomfortable work is likely behind me. And for that there are three healing modalities that I have to thank: nonduality, internal family systems (IFS), and MDMA-assisted therapy.
But before I explore these modalities and my experience with them, there's something that I think I should try to make clear. Healing (and waking up) will be painful and uncomfortable. It has been easily the most painful and uncomfortable thing I've done. My trauma was severe. Yours might be more or less intense. But either way, you will need to face pain, discomfort, resistance, and the truth of your reality if you're going to heal and recognize true happiness from within.
I'm now happier than most despite having suffered circumstances worse than most. Why is that? Luck. I'm lucky to have stumbled upon the healing modalities I have, and I'm lucky to have been uncommonly willing to fully embrace immense amounts of pain, discomfort, resistance, as well as brutally harsh truths.
Part of my intention with this essay and with Infinite Happiness is to encourage you to be willing to face the truth too. You have it within you to accept everything. It's in your nature to. It's a matter of recognizing what you truly are. And to truly know, feel, and live as the peace, love, freedom, and happiness that you are, you will need to give everything.
I didn't realize it until later, but I was introduced to nonduality almost immediately after starting on the spiritual path. In fact, I got an experiential glimpse of nonduality before I spent any time meditating. It was this awakening experience prompted by the sudden death of my parents that got me interested in spirituality, consciousness, and the true nature of happiness and suffering.
I couldn't have found a better introduction to these topics than Sam Harris' book Waking Up: Searching for Spirituality Without Religion. I was highly skeptical of religion, and I thought that religion and spirituality were two words for the same thing. While Sam too is critical of religion and dogma, in Waking Up he describes spirituality as being a rational and transformational pursuit.
"The sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of 'self-transcendence' are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by 'spirituality' in the context of this book."
This was a spirituality that I was interested in. I'd gotten a taste of the peace, love, freedom, and happiness that's revealed when recognizing that the separate self is an illusion. And I wanted more.
Sam recommended mindfulness meditation as a way of cutting through the illusion of separation. As I mentioned above, I practiced mindfulness intensely for a few years. With time and effort, I gained the ability to notice thoughts, feelings, and perceptions for what they really are — fleeting contents arising in consciousness.
Learning to notice the contents of consciousness more clearly helped me recognize my conditioning. And catching myself in the midst of thinking, feeling, and acting on behalf of my trauma gave me the choice to live more authentically. At least in these moments when I was mindful.
But I still spent most of my time lost in my thoughts and feelings, as I wasn't yet reliably recognizing that the separate self was an illusion. And when I was, it was usually after long continuous periods of practice, like on a silent meditation retreat.
As I contemplated the idea of pausing my career in tech to spend some years (or decades) on silent meditation retreats, I reread Waking Up again. I had much more experience with meditation and spirituality on this second reading, which I think gave me a stronger foundation for understanding the parts of the book about nonduality.
Nonduality is the understanding that you are not two. You are not a separate self that's distinct from everyone and everything. You are one with everyone and everything. And intrinsic to this oneness that you are is the peace, love, freedom, and happiness that you seek.
Consciousness or awareness is the prior context in which thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations arise. And it's not just that these contents arise in awareness. They arise as awareness. It's all awareness. It's all one.1
Awareness doesn't resist experience or seek to change it. Awareness seeks nothing and resists nothing, because there's nothing that awareness lacks or needs. Awareness accepts all because awareness is one with all. Awareness is the definition of peace, love, freedom, and happiness. Awareness is what you truly are. Your true Self is pure open awareness.2
You don't become one. You're already one. It's just a matter of clearly knowing and feeling what's already true.
This is what generally distinguishes most other spiritual practices and paths from nonduality. The starting point in nonduality is the eventual goal of other spiritual paths. Nondual teachings and meditations point you directly to the true nature of your being, because what you've been seeking is what you already are.
The nondual framing of spirituality resonated deeply with me, because I'd experienced nonduality before I knew anything about spirituality and meditation. So I sensed that something was off about the idea that you needed to spend thousands of hours deliberately paying attention to the contents of awareness in order to recognize that what you truly are is the context in which it all arises.3 Why not just go directly to the context of awareness if that's what you already are and always have been?
To start, nondual teachings can be hard to grasp even for experienced spiritual seekers. The nondual understanding is non-conceptual and non-objective. It can't be truly understood through words, as words can only point to concepts and objects. Any instructions, practices, teachings, or meditations are at best words to help you go beyond words.
Most other spiritual teachings and practices can be easily understood by the mind. An instruction like "pay attention to your breath" is concrete. Nondual teachings and meditations, on the other hand, can seem frustratingly abstract.
But once you've experienced nonduality directly, the words pointing to nonduality can take on a new character. Just as the words describing what a peach tastes like take on a new character after you've taken a bite of a peach for yourself. But until you've taken a bite, you can't really know what a peach tastes like. The same is true of nonduality. The words won't make much sense until you've experienced it for yourself. And once you have, the words can act as a gentle reminder to remember the true nature of experience that you are now becoming familiar with.
What distinguishes eating a peach or deliberate meditation practices from nonduality is that the experience of nonduality is not a fleeting experience that can only happen under the right conditions, like eating a peach or paying close enough attention to the breath. Nonduality is the essential character of experience itself. It can be recognized, felt, and lived in the midst of any experience. And it can be recognized at any stage of the spiritual path.
But until you've gotten at least a brief taste of nonduality, nondual teachings and nondual meditations could be too steep of a hill to climb for spiritual beginners. It seemed this was the case for me, as nonduality was a major piece of the book Waking Up and I didn't realize it until I'd practiced mindfulness for a few years.
I began exploring nonduality more deeply with the release of the Waking Up meditation app. I started with Sam's wonderful introductory course. And then I began devouring the books, meditations, and retreats offered by nondual teachers like Loch Kelly, Adyashanti, and Rupert Spira.
With the help of these nondual teachers and friends who shared the nondual understanding, oneness became more familiar. Before I was only recognizing my true nature after taking psychedelics, going on a days-long silent meditation retreats, or enduring some extreme suffering. But now I was waking up in the midst of ordinary life.
I couldn't believe it. On one hand, I felt immense relief knowing that waking up from my suffering wouldn't require a lifetime of intense meditation practice. On the other hand, I felt immense regret knowing that I'd spent my whole life suffering needlessly, and that the peace, love, freedom, and happiness I'd been seeking had been so close and so obvious that I missed what had been within me all along.
At this point I was tempted to abandon my efforts to heal. I was already free from suffering, and no effort is needed to recognize what you already are. So deliberate effort was now the enemy.
But realistically, I still mostly thought, felt, and perceived myself to be separate. And while I did feel more peaceful, loving, free, and happy, I was still often triggered by life. I still had deep wounds to heal.
While it is true that what you are is already and always open and free, this insight doesn't do you much good if you don't know, feel, and perceive it clearly. Your true nature is revealed in the absence of seeking change and resisting the now. But it's generally harder to stop seeking and resisting when your mind is overwhelmed by pain, discomfort, suffering, and trauma.
So I think that taking measures to ease the severity of pain, discomfort, suffering, and trauma can be wise. And deliberate healing modalities and deliberate meditation practices can be practical tools for helping your mind feel more comfortable with the prospect of truly accepting what is.
One of the most effective tools I've found for easing pain, discomfort, and resistance with the intention of healing trauma and living as your true Self is internal family systems (IFS).
Internal Family Systems
I was introduced to IFS during an online retreat with the nondual teacher Loch Kelly. There were a few things that I liked about the IFS model.
First, IFS insists that your mind is made of parts. With each part having its own distinct thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors that have been influenced by family interactions, culture, and traumatic events.
This idea resonated with me. I'd always felt like I had something bordering on multiple personality disorder. My thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors were so conflicting. I often felt like I wasn't myself. And IFS seemed like a good explanation for why I could seemingly be a different person depending on the circumstances.
Second, IFS is compatible with nonduality, unlike most other models of the mind or therapy.4 IFS suggests that what you essentially are is unbounded awareness, or open awareness free of any form. And your true Self is awareness bounded or localized in your unique human form.
The goal of IFS is to embody the openness, oneness, compassion, freedom, peace, love, and happiness that's natural to pure awareness, and to allow what you truly are to inform your thoughts, feelings, and actions in a way that’s authentic to your true Self.
Third, IFS doesn't deny the usefulness of the thinking mind, unlike some other nondual and spiritual teachings. The mind is not the enemy. It's our minds that allow us to think, feel, and act in the ways that make us human. Knowledge, creativity, innovation, art, civilization, relationships, and much of what we care about is a function of the human mind. (And it's our minds that allow formless awareness to be expressed in form.)5
Thinking isn't the problem. Believing that you are your thoughts or the thinker is the problem. But if we know thoughts for what they truly are — fleeting expressions of awareness — then we can use thoughts without being a prisoner to them.
So the goal of IFS isn't to stop thinking. Nor is it to get rid of the parts of your mind. In fact, the goal of IFS is to become Self-led. Not self-less.
To be Self-led is to heal your parts so that they think, feel, and act in alignment with the peace, love, freedom, happiness, and oneness that you truly are. By healing your parts, you give them the chance to use their talents and resources to play the roles they are meant to. And through these roles your parts play, formless awareness can be expressed authentically through your unique human form.
Ultimately it's all one, open, formless awareness, but relatively we can concede to the practical usefulness of concepts to say that your true Self is awareness expressed in human form. The seeming challenge then is to play the roles of our parts when their unique and human talents are called upon without forgetting that these characters are not who we essentially are.
When we do forget who and what we truly are, we hand our power over to our parts who may not yet be playing roles that are fully aligned with our true nature and our true intentions. When we fail to simply be aware of thoughts and feelings as they arise, and instead we identify with those thoughts and feelings, those unaligned thoughts and feelings become unaligned behaviors. And these behaviors may be harmful to yourself and others.
Emotional suffering only comes when we forget that we're not our parts. When you identify with a part, you believe and feel that you're separate — you're someone or something that's fundamentally distinct from others and the world. The illusion of separation is the root form of resistance to reality as it truly is. And this seeming separation opens the door to all other forms of seeking and resisting. Only something that believes in separation can seek happiness outside itself. Only something that believes in separation can resist what it's not.
But most of these explanations and insights were foreign to me when I started experimenting with IFS therapy. I think that a conceptual understanding of IFS and nonduality can be helpful, especially for critical thinking types, but I think what matters most is understanding this experientially. And the concepts are really just imperfect tools to help you arrive at an experiential understanding. So don't worry if this doesn't yet make sense conceptually. It will be clearer once you have more experience with this.
However, there are a few basic concepts and frameworks within the IFS model that were helpful for me to at least reference back to when needed.
There are three types of parts in IFS:
Exiles: sensitive parts that feel traumatized
Managers: controlling, rational, and preemptive parts that work to prevent Exiles from doing harm to themselves and the system
Firefighters: reactive and impulsive parts that try to stop, dull, or distract from the feelings of Exiles
Here's a simplified overview of the IFS process:
Find a target Manager/Firefighter to become aware of
Unblend from your other Managers/Firefighters
Develop trust with the target Manager/Firefighter
Find the Exile that the target Manager/Firefighter is protecting
Unblend from the Exile
Develop trust with the Exile
Unburden the Exile
Release related Manager/Firefighter from its protective role
(For more detail on how to do IFS work, I highly recommend the book Self-Therapy.)
IFS therapy can be done by yourself, with a friend, or with a therapist or coach. I did most of my work with IFS alone using an adaptation of the method outlined in the book Self-Therapy. But approaching traumatized Exiles can be triggering. For this reason, I think it's safer to use a therapist when working with Exiles. At least while you're still getting familiar with IFS, your parts, and your capacity to self-heal.6 A therapist might be especially helpful if you didn't have a caregiver in your childhood that you could safely go to, and be truly authentic with, when you needed help emotionally.
I was methodical with my approach to IFS therapy. For about six months I set aside an hour every day to work deliberately with some of the 32 parts I'd identified. And if a part of me was triggered at some other point in the day, I'd try to stop what I was doing to spend some time with that part.
IFS seemed almost magical. It's hard to exaggerate how transformative it is to simply be with your parts as the loving, compassionate, and accepting awareness that you truly are. By just being open awareness in the presence of your parts, you give them the space, freedom, and permission to express and let go of their fears, memories, beliefs, and pain like they've never been able to. Because until then, all they knew was resistance.
One part of me, for example, that I called Mr. Perfect spent decades berating me for my perceived imperfections. And in his mind, he had good reason to. He was trying to protect another part of mine that felt unlovable. So in an effort to remove any evidence that this traumatized part was unworthy of love, he aggressively urged us to pursue an impossible standard of perfection. But as soon as I found the internal courage to be with this unlovable part and his trauma without resisting, the pain and stories dissolved. He cried tears of joy and relief as he felt that true love is unconditional and within us always. Once Mr. Perfect was reacquainted with this previously traumatized part who had released his burden, Mr. Perfect was free to take on a more adaptive role. And he was relieved to do so.
I didn't realize how much tension I'd been storing in my body and mind until I found the courage and willingness to let go of resistance that had become so familiar. And in the absence of the immense amounts of background effort required to resist what is, I've become more free to think, feel, act, and live authentically, intelligently, and creatively like I always knew I could.
Here are a few more things that I think helped me heal with IFS.
Journaling. Journaling (specifically with the note taking app Roam Research) helped me list my parts and record the inner dialogue that revealed their roles, thoughts, and feelings.7 Writing out these inner dialogues seemed to help me not get lost in them. And referring back to them later allowed me to quickly remember any progress we previously made.
Nonduality. Having clear access to your true Self while working with your parts is essential. The IFS process can help you disidentify from your parts, but I had clearer access to my true nature when I did a nondual meditation before and during an IFS session. And I think my familiarity with nonduality helped me not only return to oneness, but recognize when a part of me was pretending to be my true Self for the sake of maintaining his role.
Willingness. I don't think you can heal without enduring some pain and discomfort. And I embraced this reality. I was willing to face pain and discomfort, because I knew I'd grow from it. And I knew that my true nature could accept anything.
I'm not exactly sure where willingness comes from. I think maybe I was lucky to have had an awakening experience in the midst of pain and circumstances worse than anything I could have imagined. I think from that point on I trusted, at least sometimes, that true happiness did not depend on my circumstances.
But a part of me took this conclusion to extremes. A part of me wanted desperately to get my healing over with by facing as much trauma as I could as quickly as I could. But often I wasn't healing but retraumatizing myself. Seeking pain and discomfort doesn't lead to healing if you continue to resist it. Some of my trauma was, practically speaking, still outside of my capacity to fully accept.
I told a friend of mine about these struggles, and she recommended I try eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to help me lower the intensity of my trauma. So I found a local EMDR therapist who happened to also offer MDMA-assisted therapy.
I first heard about MDMA-assisted therapy from the podcaster Tim Ferriss. Tim has endured some trauma of his own, and after watching the documentary Trip of Compassion, he invested his own resources to help the film's worldwide launch.
Trip of Compassion follows a few trauma survivors in Israel as they participate in MDMA-assisted therapy trials. Their transformation after just a few MDMA-assisted therapy sessions is stunning. People who had their lives derailed by extreme traumatic events were transformed over the course of just a few MDMA-assisted therapy sessions.
I was eager to try it for myself. I immediately applied for a study, as MDMA-assisted therapy is not yet an approved treatment option in the United States. I wasn't accepted, but luckily I stumbled upon a therapist who'd been working underground with MDMA for years.
MDMA is a powerful tool for healing because it can significantly lower emotional pain and discomfort as well as the resistance to it. MDMA can also help make oneness clearer. It seems to especially emphasize the love and compassion that's natural to your being, which is crucial for healing the parts of you that feel unloved or wronged by others.
That said, MDMA-assisted therapy can be intense. It was for me, but maybe rightfully so. My life was intense. And I wasn't interested in prolonging my suffering any longer than necessary. So my therapist and I condensed healing work that might have taken a few decades into a few months. And while it seems to have worked for me, we probably went faster than we needed to.
We entered each six-hour MDMA session with a list of the traumatic events and topics to explore, and we went through the list fairly systematically. My therapist would listen, hold space, offer support, and ask questions when appropriate as I worked through any steps of the IFS process that felt called for.8 This would often lead to some recollection of a traumatic event.9 Before these sessions, I couldn't help but to resist my deepest pain and darkest memories. But with the help of MDMA, I found the courage and willingness to see what it'd be like to fully embrace these fleeting mental images and sensations.
There was one moment that stood out. I was recalling one of the darkest moments of my life. I could feel myself begin to dissociate in an effort to numb myself from this intense trauma. But then the intuition arose to ask myself, "Do I need to resist this?" The answer to this question seemed to reverberate through my entire being. The memories, stories, beliefs, pain, discomfort, and resistance passed as quickly and effortlessly as it arose. And on the other side of truly accepting what seemed to be unbearable, was the peace, love, freedom, and happiness that I'd spent my life seeking.
Prior to our MDMA-assisted therapy sessions, my therapist asked me to create a timeline of the significant traumatic events in my life. She also asked me to rate each event, on a scale of 1-10, for how traumatic it is for me to recall the event now. There were about 10 traumatic events that I rated as being 8/10 or higher. After four MDMA-assisted therapy sessions, and some time to integrate, I now wouldn't rate any of these events above 4/10.
The title of this essay is misleading. I'm not healed. I don't think that anyone is ever totally and forever free from their mind's conditioning. Nor the urge to seek and resist. At least not for those engaged in the world. Maybe a monk with a deep nondual understanding that lives their life in a temple or a cave can safely avoid anything that might trigger them. One such monk might have been Mingyur Riponche. That was until he put his enlightenment to the test by suddenly and secretly abandoning his role as a revered Tibetan meditation teacher to spend a few years as a homeless yogi wandering India. As he shares in his wonderful memoir In Love With the World, he was flooded with anxiety, fear, and resistance before he even left the gates.
Some of my past conditioning still arises. And more of it is revealed as I rest deeper in and as awareness. More too is revealed as I'm introduced to new experiences in the world, some of which I would have previously avoided out of fear. But I don't identify with my parts, nor get lost in their reactions, to the degree and frequency that I used to. I don't make as much of a problem of thoughts, feelings, and actions that I might have once admonished for being "unenlightened".
I allow conditioning to arise and pass naturally like any other fleeting content of awareness. I rest in being. And as time passes, and as I continue to become more familiar with my true nature, I notice that circumstances that were once guaranteed to trigger me don't any longer. And if they do, more and more I find myself gently smiling as I allow my past conditioning to dissolve as soon as it's ready to.
My life is increasingly becoming an expression of happiness instead of a reflection of trauma. I'm not at the mercy of my circumstances like I once was. I'm free to think, feel, act, and live authentically. And if you're lucky enough to have the means and free time to read this, you too have the opportunity to heal and realize your true nature. All you need is to be willing. All you need is to give everything.
Other potentially helpful resources
This is at least true experientially. I'll be exploring whether non-duality applies to the metaphysics of reality in a future essay. But for the sake of waking up and healing, I'm not sure that claims about metaphysics are necessary.
Even to say that Self is awareness is to say too much. To say that it's anything is to imply that it's some thing that's distinct from some other thing. This is why many non-dual teachers opt for saying what you are not: you're not two. Saying that you're one isn't quite right. But I think at some point we need to concede that language can't speak to what's beyond language. We can use words to point to Truth while acknowledging that the map isn't the territory.
It’s slightly more accurate to say that you’re the context and the contents. The contents too are made of the context. I’ll say more on this in the next essay on the nondual understanding.
I might be making some connections between IFS and nonduality here that aren't strictly made in the IFS model alone.
I'll say more on formlessness and form in future essays.
Doing IFS work with another person also has risks. You will often be revealing vulnerable parts of yourself that can be taken advantage of. This work can also trigger harmful responses from the other person's parts. For this reason, it's important that you try your best to only do IFS work with someone who's both trustworthy and is with you (at least mostly) from the perspective of their true Self and not their parts.
Using Roam Research for my journaling made this a lot easier than it would have been with a handwritten notebook or even another online notetaking tool. While Roam has a bit of a learning curve, it offers bidirectional linking. Which means I can link to a page for one of my parts in one journal entry and reference back to every journal entry that linked to that part within that part's page. This allowed me to easily and quickly reference all of the previous work I'd done with a part. Often rereading our progress was enough to remind me to return to my true Self and ease the concerns of my parts.
What I've outlined here is highlighting what I think were the most important components of our MDMA-assisted therapy sessions. There was more meandering and quirks to these sessions than I'm letting on. (This is probably to be expected from a deeply spiritual underground MDMA-assisted therapist.) And while my therapist didn't explicitly use the IFS model, she gave me the space to use whatever I thought would be helpful.
My understanding is that MAPS, which will likely be responsible for most of the training and certification for MDMA-assisted therapists in the United States for the foreseeable future, takes a less deliberate and maybe gentler approach to MDMA-assisted therapy. You can learn more about their approach in their online treatment manual for MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD.
Something important that I learned from Gabor Maté is that there's a distinction between a memory and the recollection of specific details of some past event. For years I thought I needed to remember clear details of past traumatic events if I was going to heal. But it seems that even accepting a vague memory of what happened, and the trauma attached to it, is enough.