The Myth of Normal with Gabor Maté – HPP 119
In today’s episode, we’re joined by renowned speaker and bestselling author, Dr. Gabor Maté, to discuss his latest book entitled “The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture”. Listen in as we discuss some of the highlights of the book, including the causes of illness, the effect that toxic culture has on our minds and bodies, and a pathway to health and healing.
First Impressions on the New Book – 02:54
Gabor, it’s interesting to hear you say, you know, 10 years of research, because I was telling Keith, I think it was yesterday, this must have been 10 years of research to put all of this together. It’s truly a tour de force. And I see elements in the realm of A Hungry Ghosts and When the Body Says No, and Hold on to Your Kids, and so much of your work coming together and just this massive synthesis. It’s very beautiful. So congratulations, and thank you for putting this out.
Defining The Term “Normal” in the Practice – 06:20
Our consumer culture, the whole app ethic, the capitalist ethic that people are born selfish, greedy, aggressive, competitive, and individualistic. These normalities, I think, are actually totally abnormal for genuine human needs, which also means that when you see pathology of mind or body, then we call these people abnormal. No. What they’re exhibiting is a normal response to abnormal circumstances.
Reality of Trauma for Medical Trainees and Why We Need to be Aware – 08:35
And there was a study done that I cited early in a book on telomeres being these chromosomal markers, let’s say of stress and aging. And when they looked at the telomeres of medical residents or students, they aged faster than those other people their age, going to the stress on medical people. And somebody once said to me how you build a cult where you isolate people from their normal lives and their families, you give them a uniform, you give them a jargon that only they can understand, you put them under authority and leaders and you deprive them of sleep. That’s how you create a cult. In other words, you send them to medical school.
The Significant Impact of Technology on Trauma – 24:06
That was assuming that people will be using it immaturely and for benign purposes. But that same technology can be used immaturely, impulsively and for purposes that are the very opposite of benign, such as the one you described where they create cell phones and games to make people addicted. And they call that neuromarketing they call it, neuromarketing where they tap into the nervous system in a way to make it more hooked, more addicted. And they use the latest technology in neuroscience to create products whose design is nefariously dedicated to enhancing the addiction process.
“The Wake up Call” – 38:10
Well, I’m kind of a slow learner, you know, so a lot of things have to go wrong for me to start waking up. Look, I was successful but I wasn’t happy. If I read my diaries, as an ADD person, I keep very fitful diaries, and very occasionally, and spasms, you might say, but the common theme is how depressed I am and how frustrated I am about my life, how I feel. I have potentials that haven’t begun to tap, I didn’t know what they were. But somehow I wasn’t reaching anywhere near what I was meant to be here for. My children were afraid of me. On weekends, when I wasn’t working, I’ve sort of the restless and listless and typical addict going through withdrawal actually. And my marriage with this woman that I absolutely loved was just so difficult and we were hurting each other so much. So that was the cumulative wake up call.
Full Episode Transcript
Keith Kurlander, Dr. Will Van Derveer, Dr. Gabor Maté
Dr. Will Van Derveer 00:05
Thank you for joining us for the Higher Practice Podcast. I’m Dr. Will Van Derveer with Keith Kurlander, and this is the Podcast where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health. Today, Gabor Maté returns to the show to discuss his latest book, The Myth of Normal, trauma, illness and healing in a toxic culture. We recorded this conversation on the book’s release day, September 13th. The book is a synthesis of a decade of research outlining the grave health issues that we face today in modern culture. Gabor Matés message is that once difficult and hopeful. This was one of our all time favorite conversations on the podcast. We hope you enjoy the conversation as much as we did with one of the elders at the intersection of trauma, medical disease, psychedelic healing and culture. Gabor is one of the most influential thinkers of our time weaving together his personal life long journey of integrating childhood trauma with his observations as a physician of the role of trauma underlying medical disease and autoimmune disease with a keen sense that there was more to the way we in medicine think about disease. Welcome, Gabor. Wonderful to see you.
Dr. Gabor Maté 01:27
Thank you. It’s good to be back with you guys.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 01:30
Well, it’s a big day today. Publication day for your new book.
Dr. Gabor Maté 01:36
Yes, today is the day after 10 years of research and two and a half years of writing, and hours of suffering then here we are.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 01:45
Keith Kurlander 01:46
You just asked a good question that I think we should start with which is what do we think about the book? I think that’s a great starting place.
Dr. Gabor Maté 01:53
What do you guys honestly think about it? Yeah.
Keith Kurlander 01:55
You want me to start there, Will? Okay. You know, I’ve read all your books and I’ve really enjoyed this particular book. I felt like you did something a little different than what’s been done, which is you really brought together so much research to support the understanding of why we need to focus on trauma in a real craft, like a really craftful like thought out way that it flowed really beautifully. So I was very touched by the book and yeah, moved by it and I think this is going to be a really important read for a lot of people about culture, to gain a deeper understanding of how we got here? And what do we do about it? So yeah, I really enjoyed it. And I’m excited for it to come out.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 01:57
Go ahead, Keith.
Dr. Gabor Maté 02:50
Keith Kurlander 02:51
Yeah. How about you, Will?
Dr. Will Van Derveer 02:52
Yeah, Gabor, it’s interesting to hear you say, you know, 10 years of research, because I was telling Keith, I think it was yesterday, this must have been 10 years of research to put all of this together. It’s truly a tour de force. And I see elements in the realm of A Hungry Ghosts and When the Body Says No, and Hold on to Your Kids, and so much of your work coming together and just this massive synthesis. It’s very beautiful. So congratulations, and thank you for putting this out.
Dr. Gabor Maté 03:24
Thank you. Well, you know, you can believe this that collected 25,000 articles, newspaper reports, scientific papers, medical journal reports, all collated under different subjects cataloged, you know, couple of 100 interviews, including yourself, Will, you know, and 230 books that were read and annotated, you know, and then all of that could be brought together into this project and use that to be, you know, transcribed and read and it was enormous. For a long time I didn’t think I was up to it actually.
Keith Kurlander 04:00
Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, but it definitely reflects that hard work, for sure. I mean, with the amount of research you put into it, it doesn’t read obviously, like, the scientific paper, which is nice. You know, it’s very approachable. And to have that much research in a book that’s that approachable. I mean, I’ll just say the job is well done. It’s really wonderful.
Dr. Gabor Maté 04:23
You can thank my editors for it whom we’re very vigilant on behalf of the reader that we don’t fatigue them with too much scientific gobbledygook. And also to my co-writer’s son who really knows how to lighten things up and put them in very reader friendly terms. It was a good effort, really and in the end, I was very happy with it.
Keith Kurlander 04:45
Well I thought a good leap is to talk about the title. As a kind of jumping off point of the myth of normal and to maybe, you know, you spent a lot of time in the book really kind of expanding on the concept of, here’s what we call illness, here’s what we call normal. And so I think a great place to start would be like, can you talk about sort of the fallacy of normal and what we’re saying is normal and why maybe normal isn’t the thing to strive for, actually, and how the whole medical paradigm has been set up around this?
Dr. Gabor Maté 05:23
Sure. So within the medical paradigm, there’s a very legitimate use of the word normal, so that within certain bio physiological parameters, you can’t sustain human life, outside of a certain temperature, too high or too low, certain blood acidity, certain blood pressure, for example, there’s no life. So in that sense, normal reflects what’s natural and healthy. We extrapolated that meaning and applied it to our daily experience and we think that whatever happens regularly and often enough is normal. So we’ve confused norm with healthy and natural. But I’m arguing that in this culture, what is actually normal, in that sense, is neither healthy nor natural. In fact, I think it’s pathological. Which also means that our way of life, how we raise children, how we gestate children, how we give birth to children, or how you raise them, have you worked the values that we live by? Our consumer culture, the whole app ethic, the capitalist ethic that people are born selfish, greedy, aggressive, competitive, and individualistic. These normalities, I think, are actually totally abnormal for genuine human needs, which also means that when you see pathology of mind or body, then we call these people abnormal. No. What they’re exhibiting is a normal response to abnormal circumstances. So that depression, anxiety, ADHD, psychosis, what do you want to call it, or autoimmune disease and malignancy are actually normal responses to abnormal circumstances in many, many cases. So the myth of normal refers to the belief that the way of living is normal, and also to the belief that abnormalities are when pathology happens. And then furthermore, there’s this third layer to this knowledge, which is that we assume that those that are not well, are abnormal and the rest of us are. And I’m saying it’s not like that. I think there’s a whole spectrum that very few of us are not on the spectrum have some degree of trauma inflicted suffering.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 07:33
One of the things that you and I have talked about a lot over the years Gabor is the trauma of medical training, and your book kind of opened my eyes to a deeper layer of not just how that system operates, which I’m very familiar with, but what underlies how that system operates, or where that system arose out of, and I wonder if you could speak a little bit about your perspective there on what we’re training into doctors, and for that matter, any helping profession any, you know, therapists, physicians, nurses, what are trainees up against? And where does that come from?
Dr. Gabor Maté 08:20
Well, I mean, as you recall, or maybe you haven’t read the last chapter, but you quoted in the last chapter, Will, where you say that medical students or medical residents are killing themselves.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 08:30
Dr. Gabor Maté 08:31
Well, they’re not killing themselves. They’ve been killed by their compliance with the system. And there was a study done that I cited early in a book on telomeres being these chromosomal markers, let’s say of stress and aging. And when they looked at the telomeres of medical residents or students, they aged faster than those other people their age, going to the stress on medical people. And somebody once said to me how you build a cult where you isolate people from their normal lives and their families, you give them a uniform, you give them a jargon that only they can understand, you put them under authority and leaders and you deprive them of sleep. That’s how you create a cult. In other words, you send them to medical school, and medical school. I talked to a lot of doctors, and they talked about how stressful it was, how shamed they were, or how they were made to feel ashamed if they weren’t up to the mark. How if they tried to be human, they were ostracized for it. They talk about Lissa Rankin, who was an obstetrical resident, who had a nightmare where four babies died in one night. When she cried in the doctor’s room, she was criticized for it.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 09:46
Dr. Gabor Maté 09:46
I talked to Jeff Rediger who was a psychiatrist at Harvard, who said that when he was a medical resident, he had a baby born with some abnormality or some pathology with the beena infant ICU for six weeks. He wasn’t given one day to visit with him. And then who goes into medical school? People like myself, and you guys can tell me if you fit the category, but very driven, people really willing to pull up with a lot in order to get through. For me it was, it wasn’t just a calling to become a doctor, which is legitimate. I want to help people that want to have some tactical understanding of human physiology and the human mind. Those are all great motivations, but I was also driven by my need to be important and my need to be an expert and all that now to the extent that we are driven. We’re not in charge. So I think that the kind of people that they recruit for medical school. Now, in order to get into medical school, I had to study calculus. And I had to get a really high marking calculus. I have very little aptitude for that. I mean, I could do it because I’m smart enough. So I had 95% in calculus. Two weeks later, I couldn’t have told you what calculus is about. Well, what was that all about? It wasn’t about anything I needed for medical school. Nobody ever asked me to do calculus in medical school. It wasn’t necessary. It was to prove that I can jump through the hoop. So much of the selection, the self selection, and selection and training of medical schools are traumatizing. And then of course, just to finish this, nobody talks to you about trauma, either way you or anybody else’s. So then there are a bunch of traumatized people who don’t understand trauma, and then they face a population, all of whom are traumatized because if they weren’t traumatized, they wouldn’t be in your office. So they’re whether they come in with depression, anxiety, psychosis, bipolar, ADHD, or even they’ve come in with autoimmune disease. They’re there because of trauma, but you have no way of recognizing it, and you haven’t dealt with your own. So then you are further up against the frustration of dealing with stuff that you can certainly play with the surface, you can only affect symptoms, and you can’t deal with the underlying dynamics. Oh, boy, I could go on. But I’ll stop here.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 11:57
Yeah, I didn’t know that about you and calculus. Calculus was my biggest enemy. I almost couldn’t jump the hoop. But I guess I’ve often wondered, on the flip side of medical training, if I would have even wanted to go to medical school, if I had done the trauma healing that I’ve done in the last 20 years before considering it, I don’t think I would have. So in some ways, I’m grateful that I have the privilege with the status of being a physician to help other people with trauma, that it would have been harder for me to have that influence if I had not been associated in medical school.
Dr. Gabor Maté 12:39
Yeah, that’s true. But I also think it’s possible derive it, this calling as a calling because you are an intelligent, sentient, compassionate being who wants a profession where you can apply your knowledge to alleviate suffering in our world and that means you just be a great physician, you know, so, yeah, it’s true. When you work with your own trauma, you learn a lot, and then you can apply that, but I don’t think you necessarily need that to start with. I think it’s possible to arrive at this great calling of medicine. More open minded and self aware way, I want you to be self aware and you have self compassion. That compassion will teach you other people’s trauma, it’ll teach you how to work with them. So you know, yes, it’s true. We go through this, and we learn a lot. But I don’t think it’s the only way of learning and the other side of it financially, most of our colleagues never do learn. They just get traumatized and they completely inflict the traumas on their clients, or they can continue not to understand the traumas of their client.
Keith Kurlander 13:46
Well I would also think that the traumas that we will already have experienced prior to our training is enough to learn from. We don’t necessarily need extra trauma to your core. Right, right. Well, let me take that a little further with you. So you know, you talk a lot about trauma, obviously, and trauma is becoming a very, I think this language and these frameworks of understanding the nervous system and psychology that’s been rising more recent decades, can become very helpful. And you talk in the book about obviously, like big tease, little tease and sustained little tease and can you say a little more about, first of all, most people working through trauma as you know, in their system, like, is that just a part of the journey? We don’t get away from that. And then the second part of this question is going to be how are we doing in terms of the arc of humanity here? Are you saying in this book that you think we’re getting more traumatized now as a species or I’m just curious, I couldn’t quite tell what you were saying in the book about that but it seems like you’re pointing to something there.
Dr. Gabor Maté 14:59
Great question. But before I get there, let me just jump on an idea that you threw in there in the beginning, what if in a medical school training, as you see we are already traumatized. What if in the medical school training that was actually part of the curriculum, and learning about our own traumas and how to deal with them? I mean, that would radically change the story.
Keith Kurlander 15:19
Well, that’s obviously what we’re trying to do in IPI is to re-educate. It’d be great if people caught everyone earlier. It’s true.
Dr. Gabor Maté 15:26
Exactly. And what you’re doing for your program is you basically compensating for what people didn’t get in medical school. Now as to your question, a two part question, I think in this society, if you understand the actual meaning of trauma, most people are suffering from some degree of it, and to the degree that we suffer from it without recognizing it. We’re working from it, but we’re not working through it. In other words, we’re operating from a template of trauma, we’re not aware of it. I mean I was like that a lot in my life. So I was traumatized, but I didn’t know and I was operating from it. It was my operating system without me knowing that it was affecting how I relate to my work, recalls and related to I, I relate to myself, to my spouse, to my children, you know, so until they understand it, and work it through. We’re working from it unwittingly with a negative impact on ourselves and other people. And trauma being not what happens to us, but what happens inside of us. So trauma, the meaning is a Greek word for wound or wounding. So the wounding is what happens inside of us. The wounding is not the fact that somebody hits me on the head. The wound is the concussion that I suffered, so that the wound is what happens inside of us, which is a good thing. Because there’s a wound that’s inside me, then it can be healed. It was the event that happened all those years ago, that will never change. The trauma wasn’t that somebody abused you, the trauma was that as a result of being abused, you develop a shame based, fear based view of yourself in the world. And you constrict yourself and you disconnect from your body in order not to feel. That’s what trauma is. Now rather what is going with this? Well, there’s two ways you can be traumatized, let me rephrase it and ask you that there’s two ways you can hurt people. Two basic ways. One is you can do bad things to them. You can abuse them emotionally, physically, sexually, racially, and so on. You can deprive them of proper nutrition, proper housing, and so on. You can subject them to racism. So that’s how we can wound people. But you can also want people by not meeting their needs, human beings, they’re not tabula rasa, as human beings, we’re not empty slates, that you can just write anything on, we do come into this world with certain needs and certain requirements, and at least as much physical, emotional needs. And the more you’re deprived of those needs, the more hurt you’re going to be. So if you look at what’s happening with our kids, I mean, you guys as psychiatrists, you may have seen this article in The New York Times, two weeks before now, I think, three weeks ago, this teenager was on 10 different psychiatric medications.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 17:49
I did see that. Yeah, not uncommon.
Dr. Gabor Maté 18:06
It’s not uncommon. Well what’s happening is that children’s needs are massively frustrated, then they add that out in terms of mental health challenges and behavior problems, and then we medicate the hell out of them to deal with the symptoms. So to answer your question, Keith, this world is increasingly traumatizing by its escalating deprivation of human needs for all the development and the stress that it imposes on people. I mean if you look at what triggers stress being the three major instigators of physiological stress, uncertainty, lack of control and conflict. Well, what characterizes the modern world better than those three words? So people are increasingly stressed, which means that their parenting is increasing stress. Children are increasingly deprived of their needs, the parents are increasingly under extreme strain. This world is getting worse. Right now. As far as I’m concerned. This is looking at it culturally or historically, this is a system in decline. And a system in decline puts heavy pressure on its members.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 19:47
Gabor, would you say that this increase in traumatization is simply a symptom of developing systems which are the foundation of which is based on the deprivation of these needs, and all of what results from that? In other words, the construction of a, Resmaa Menakem has said, you know, that we call wounding, we can turn wounding into something that we call culture.
Dr. Gabor Maté 20:20
Yeah. I think it is structural right now. I mean, one could give some simple examples of, say something basic like food, okay. There are huge corporations who scientifically research how to create unhealthiest foods for people with the biggest what they call sweetspot factor were they the most, the combination of fat, sugar and salt, that’s going to get more people hooked on his food. Terrible for their health, it’ll kill them. Or, hey, it’ll bring a lot of profit. Now, these people are respectable philanthropists, pillars of society, and contributors to the major political parties. That’s a structural aspect of this system. At this point, only the most inveterate denier would question the reality of climate change. But the one who said been coming for many, many decades, you know, when the first warning for climate change was given? The year 1800. That’s how far it goes back. Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist and geographer , saw the impact of climate change in Venezuela. But it’s been coming in with a decreasing frequency for decades and decades. Structural to the system is denying climate change and institution of policies that keeps it growing, let’s structure. So there’s so many ways, so many ways, the things that hurt people are structural to the system.
Keith Kurlander 22:01
And then there’s this other arc, that adds to the structural complexities that are making it challenging where cultures establish this arc of technology, that, on one hand, we could say, is improving lives and, you know, offering more opportunity to the masses. And then on the other hand, you speak to this a little in the book, we have technology offering, feeding more of these dopamine reward circuits. So you know, you basically have a slot machine in your hand now, looking for an imminent reward on your phone. And you’re basically playing a slot machine all day long now, in your hand, where you’re getting your particular fix, that’s better than the coin that would come out of that slot machine, you’re looking for your thing on social media. And so I’m curious about this, we have this arc right of technology that’s actually really cool to be alive during. But then it’s adding a very serious complexity to maintaining sanity and not getting into sort of an internal chemical imbalance from all the strive and you speak to this a little in your book. Do you want to just kind of elucidate on that a little bit?
Dr. Gabor Maté 23:24
Sure. Well, the very fact that the three of us are able to be together from totally disparate places and having this conversation and then seen by many people, you know, who’s in many different places in the world, that’s a terrific achievement of technology, you know. So how can one can’t say that, on the one hand, on the other hand, technology, in itself, is always neutral. It’s a question of who’s using it for what purpose? And this technology was never designed for the many purposes that it’s used for. It was designed basically for communication and the sharing of information. That was the information highway. That was the whole idea of the internet. That was assuming that people will be using it immaturely and for benign purposes. But that same technology can be used immaturely, impulsively and for purposes that are the very opposite of benign, such as the one you described where they create cell phones and games to make people addicted. And they call that neuromarketing they call it, neuromarketing where they tap into the nervous system in a way to make it more hooked, more addicted. And they use the latest technology in neuroscience to create products whose design is nefariously dedicated to enhancing the addiction process, let alone the fact that a lot of immature preachers are not using the internet that wasn’t designed for that so that in a world that deprives people of meaning, which it does deprives people a sense of belonging, and of attachment, a lot of people will be using the technology to try and get the attachment needs met. So now we have Facebook. Now Facebook is interesting. What is the name, Facebook is the face that you present to the world. It’s not really you, instantly showing your face to the world, and you want to be liked. And you’ll want friends, those have attachment dynamics. So the technology has replaced genuine human to human attachment dynamics in a way that leaves more people more empty than before. So there’s all these studies that the more kids use the internet, the less healthy they are, emotionally, let alone, we know that excessive use of the digital technology actually interferes with the development of essential brain circuits. And I quote those studies in the book, so let’s acknowledge the immense positivity, I mean, my work is now known all over the world simply because of this technology. It wouldn’t be otherwise. If it was only based on my books, I’d be known but not to the extent not nearly. You couldn’t do this teaching that you’re doing without the technology, the psychiatric education that you’ve created and enrolled so many people and you couldn’t do without the technology. But I want to say something heretical, which is if I could snap my fingers, and for all its advantages, if I had to compare the advantages with the time to snap a finger, I’d get rid of it all. I think the overall impact is negative. That’s my personal view on the development of human beings and our children.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 26:42
I think it’s especially true with teenagers and children. I watched my now 20 year old daughter grow up in sort of the first generation of Snapchat and Instagram and these social media platforms, and in particular snapshot seemed to me, you know, exquisitely designed for cyberbullying, and getting away with a disappearing message after you’ve cast a stone at someone in a way that in ordinary reality and physical face to face reality would never stand, right? There would be consequences. So it’s very disturbing you you mentioned in the book that executives from social media companies are not allowing their children to use iPads. Steve Jobs, for example. And so what’s coming to mind for me is this issue you brought up a few minutes ago of maturity and how do we, how do we actually handle a tool, it’s like, holding a scalpel at the wrong end of the tool and we’re, we’re hurting ourselves, right?
Dr. Gabor Maté 27:49
If you’re raising kids, if you’re cooperative, you’re raising kids, you will not put an electric drill in the hands of a two year old. You just wouldn’t do it. You would mentor them and your mentoring of them would be very much based on the quality of your relationship with them. If they want to connect with you, they will want to learn from you and they want to respect you. If you want to go about that relationship, you can lose whatever you think is appropriate when you think it’s appropriate. Not a moment before but once you introduce it, you know that you get bent to beneficially influence how they use that technology, how they use that modality. Well, no, we give these kids these tools. It’s like, literally, it’s like putting a power drill in the hands of a three year old.
Keith Kurlander 28:39
Right. And in some ways worse, because the power tool they’ll feel hurt by very directly. It’s much more inconspicuous and confusing about the ways people are being hurt. Right? Well, this kind of moves me into, you know, we started with this kind of set flippantly about oh you don’t need an extra layer in medical school of going through trauma. You already have trauma. And so we have all this, we’re relating to very complex elements right now of technology and culture that obviously could be very toxic to our systems if we’re not aware of it, then there’s also the conversation of everything that became for us that we’re relating to also. So there’s the present stuff that’s very new in history, obviously. This type of technology is very recent, right? And we’re in it right now. And then pre to the technological revolution, we’re also relating to trauma from our history right in our bodies. And just curious if you can talk a little bit about the excavation process if we can be mindful in the moment and really practice and work with all this coming at us directly in our face. But then the excavation process of our childhood and then past generations and how to work with these imprints in our systems around what’s been passed down and what we’ve learned. You know, what’s the work there? What are we doing here? What’s the work?
Dr. Gabor Maté 30:19
I think we’ll all agree that the first step has to be the recognition that something with the way it is, isn’t quite right. So there has to be some kind of a wake up call that warns us that whatever we think is going on needs to be examined. And so that wake up call can be a mental health crisis. And I’m sure that they are psychiatrists. You’ve seen people who are distressing and even catastrophic. A mental health crisis can show up some years later, or sometime later, that person will look back and say, Boy, I’m so glad that happened to me because I learned so much about myself and about how to live my life. So there has to be this wake up. Before we start excavating, we have to learn that there’s something there to be excavated, and some guide has to know how to deal with it. And that wake up call is very often a mental health crisis, that would be a physical health crisis and autoimmune disease or malignancy. It could be a relationship, breakup or relationship challenge. But there has to be something that instigates what you call the excavation process. The second thing is to realize that for all individual differences, for all the fact that we’re very unique in our makeup, in our histories, and perspectives, there’s something that we share in common share humanity, and humanity has a fairly reliable template for how to become a well developed human being and we have a template for how to subvert that. Calculate from developing in a healthy way and that’s the certain rules. You know, Freud, who had all kinds of, I’d say, distorted to say the least, ideas about human beings but nevertheless, he was quite right about the power of the unconscious, and how so many of our behaviors don’t reflect conscious beliefs and to the extent your conscious beliefs reflect unconscious dynamics so that the excavation has to be done precisely because this is unconscious. It’s under the ground. I think what all three of us have learned perhaps is that you begin by, first of all, making people feel safe, that it’s safe to engage in exploration, it’s not going to hurt them, it’s going to help them. And secondly, there’s certain questions that we can all ask that will guide people to look for that truth in themselves. So it has to begin with some kind of a wake up call. And secondly, some guidance, some safe guidance, some very safe context in which the excavation can take place. And thirdly, the trust that people do contain the whole truth within themselves if only we can just ask them the right questions in a safe enough way that they can face the truth of their existence.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 33:27
I’m reflecting as you’re speaking about the wake up call to Gabor on a time in my life where I was very deep in a Tibetan Buddhist community in practice and studying with a teacher. And I was incredibly, you know, as you can imagine, I was very ambitious in my meditation. I remember thinking I was going to get enlightened in one lifetime. If I worked hard enough in meditation, and yet, every time I stood up from the cushion, I was an absolute disaster in my marriage. And at one point, this was right before I met you, maybe 15 years ago, I was invited to an ayahuasca ceremony and by one of the members of the Buddhist community, and it happened to be the night before Mother’s Day, and the Peruvian shaman opened to this incredibly beautiful, incredibly long prayer about the mother and his mother, all the mothers, the Earth mother, all the sacrifices that mothers make for us on our behalf, how dependent we are and our mothers and it cracked something open in me that started, I think, to melt me in a way that ordinary therapy or the kind of therapy I had been involved in which I still go to, I mean, I still believe in and you know, I’ll be seeing my therapist later this week. But the way that a ceremony with an opening into the unconscious sometimes can get to a level that our healing technologies in North America or you know, traditionally Freudian, you know that the Western psychology tradition, sometimes I would say never can get to certain things, especially for people like me with really strong ego defenses and coping strategies. So I guess it’s just a, an introduction to the question for you of you have spoken your book about being in your 40s and being very ambitious, successful physician and feeling somewhat maybe not in retrospect, not being the kind of parent that you maybe would have liked to have been at the time, but what was the call? What was the wake up call for you if there was one or a series of experiences in that time in your life that led you to go in a different direction?
Dr. Gabor Maté 36:00
Well, I’m kind of a slow learner, you know, so a lot of things have to go wrong for me to start waking up. Look, I was successful but I wasn’t happy. If I read my diaries, as an ADD person, I keep very fitful diaries, and very occasionally, and spasms, you might say, but the common theme is how depressed I am and how frustrated I am about my life, how I feel. I have potentials that haven’t begun to tap, I didn’t know what they were. But somehow I wasn’t reaching anywhere near what I was meant to be here for. My children were afraid of me. On weekends, when I wasn’t working, I’ve sort of the restless and listless and typical addict going through withdrawal actually. And my marriage with this woman that I absolutely loved was just so difficult and we were hurting each other so much. So that was the cumulative wake up call. And sometimes, you know, if you’re lucky enough, you will achieve success. To people who have never achieved success that keeps thinking if only I did, I’d be happy. But people who have achieved success and that’s fortunate because they can find out just how achieving success doesn’t change anything for you at all. That inner emptiness is not any, honest to god I was talking to an NBA, I won’t mention names. I was talking to an NBA star a few months ago, and they told me that they reached the NBA championship. And they thought if only I was a champion, I had that ring, I’d be satisfied. No, the emptiness did not go away. So sometimes success is a good teacher because it teaches you your thought, what you thought was success doesn’t get you any closer to yourself or to reveal being alive. So I suppose it was my success. That was my teacher.
Keith Kurlander 37:49
Yeah, in some ways, success, and if I speak for myself outwardly, success has allowed me to bump up against myself more in a daily way. There’s just more and more material like, wait, but now I can find this that I’m not happy about. Or I can find that but I’m not happy about it. I agree there that, you know, this kind of age old saying like, you know, money doesn’t buy happiness or success, like whatever your version of success is. It’s not going to fill that void.
Dr. Gabor Maté 38:22
But that’s just the toxicity of the culture, which keeps telling you that if only if you achieve this, obtain that, you’ll be okay. You’ll be happy. And the whole ideology of the pursuit of happiness. Like it’s out there somewhere. You keep running after maybe you’ll catch up with it someday. Well, that’s a toxic belief. But a consumer’s materialistic culture can’t help but inculcate that ideology into its members. And no wonder, no wonder there’s so much suffering. And this is in the face of all the evidence, because how many people have you seen highly successful, angulated by millions, killed themselves? Or we keep thinking If only more, you know?
Keith Kurlander 39:05
Yeah, and I think for me, I’m curious why you would say that, because you talk about the difference between healing and cure in the last number of chapters and healing being a path that actually will bring fulfillment and there is no cure, there’s no touchdown. And, you know, I’m curious, because I think for me, the aspect of success that has fulfilled me is actually just about being able to feel that I’m in service in a way that is fulfilling. And as I see the evidence of that coming true and larger voids that’s fulfilling to me. So I’m just curious for you, because you’ve had a very successful career. What has been fulfilling for you? How are you doing right now, in terms of this pursuit of stabilization or fulfillment and like, what have you learned here about what’s actually helping you get well?
Dr. Gabor Maté 40:00
How am I doing right now is always a daily question, isn’t it? You know, I mean, I can’t give you a global answer. But I’m not nearly as driven as I used to be. I mean honest to god, here I am on the day that this book is being published, and I’m taking a drug in my stride, it’s just one more day really, and I’ve done the work, you know, and the rest of it is up for this book to do out there, it’ll do well, it’ll do. Naturally, I’d like it to be a big success as a cultural phenomenon. But if it isn’t, you know, it doesn’t reflect on me. And part of my problem, and when the book actually reaches a certain point, will you talk about seeing a therapist, you know how desperate I got at one point writing this book? I actually saw therapists desperate to, you know, I was writing this book about the wisdom of drama. And, and the reason was, what I had to learn was, I was in a panic, no kidding, my blood pressure was going up, and my blood pressure is normal, it’s really good. But I was so identified with the book, there was no space in myself in the book so that if the writing was stuck, then I was stuck. And so if the book wouldn’t be the success that I had envisioned for it, then I’m not a success. Intellectually, I knew better or on an emotional level, also so identified, so that the therapy really helped me just to identify, Okay, I’m doing the book. It’s a service to the world. And it’s also just an expression of what in me needs to be said. But the book is not me. And so now, here it is. And whether it succeeds in that external sense or not, I won’t be any more or less satisfied with my life or with myself. Because that contentment can only come from within. And it can only come from the thing that you touched upon, Keith. I have done what I can to help others, you know, in other words to be a part of humanity. That doesn’t depend on how successful this book is. You know, so yeah. And I’d say, you know what, at this stage, now, Peter Levine, you might remember this conversation with Peter Levine. And Peter Levine says, he’s eighty now, just a little bit older than me. And he asked himself, have I done enough? And he says, yes. Then I asked myself, am I enough? And I saw Peter in Zurich just a few months ago, we’re doing some work together. And I said, Peter, Have you answered that question yet? Or, you know, he said, I’m still working on it. But you know, what? Intellectually at least, intellectually, I can tell you. That’s an unanswerable question. Because who’s asking it? Who’s asking? Am I enough? Only some part of you that believes that you may not be.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 42:46
Dr. Gabor Maté 42:47
That question itself, I’ll tell Peter next time I talk to him comes from our wounded egos, you know. So yeah, I’m a lot more comfortable with who this person is than I used to be.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 43:00
Reminds me of this tension that you outlined in the book between, for infants and across the whole lifespan of between authenticity and detachment.
Dr. Gabor Maté 43:11
Dr. Will Van Derveer 43:11
And, you know, it sounds like what I’m, what I’m hearing you say is that there’s an authenticity that has come forward, in you that the book represents is the fruition of your authenticity of your voice. In some ways, it’s kind of irrelevant what the book does, because it’s not you. You’ve listened to the call, and you’ve produced the work. And then you, as Nietzsche would say, you throw the golden ball, and then you don’t know what happens to it after that.
Dr. Gabor Maté 43:43
Yes. That’s how I feel about it. And it’s as close to authentic as I could be, as I was writing it. I think the authenticity is, there’s more layers, I’m sure that I’ll discover it, depending on which time I have left. But at this point, it’s that book is as authentically, as I can say, what I’ve seen and experienced, and learned about the world and myself and other human beings. And so I am content with that.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 44:12
Keith Kurlander 44:13
I want to circle back to the sources of trauma and the trauma of history, versus the trauma of the present, that were resisting the trauma of the present, but talking about the trauma of our history, and you reveal in many books, your childhood and you talk a little more about in this book, and I saw the book vessel says to you at some point at a restaurant table, you don’t have to bring Auschwitz with you everywhere you go or something.
Dr. Gabor Maté 44:44
Yeah we went to Maygo in New York, and we’re having lunch and he says Gabor, he says, you know, you don’t have to drag Auschwitz around with you everywhere you go. You know, I don’t know if that’s his accent very well, but that’s I said, and I originally got it, but it didn’t fully penetrate two years later, as a matter of fact, about a year and a half ago, I was participating in a psychedelic ceremony with psilocybin. And I wrote this afterwards. And I said, so I finally got what you meant, which is that it was under the effects of psilocybin, and I got that. Now, that wasn’t the first time that message was driven onto me. But I really, it took layers for me to understand it. But everything that could have happened, yes, my grandparents died in Auschwitz. Yes, I almost died in Auschwitz myself. Yes, my mother gave me to a stranger. And I didn’t see her. And I interpret that as abandonment because I wasn’t lovable. All that happened. None of that needs to determine who I am in the present. None of that needs to determine how I see the world. None of that I’d have to determine how I experience myself in this world. Which is what I mean about trauma being the wound that we sustained trauma is not what happened to us. It’s the wound that we sustained and that can be healed. And not having to drag and OSH was a determined perspective on me, you know. And the funny thing, of course, was that, intellectually, as a healer of my work is all about, we don’t want to be stuck in the past. And I’ve helped so many people liberate themselves in the past. But myself, it took something, including those words of vessel, including that mushroom experience, including other experiences as well.
Keith Kurlander 46:34
Do you mind saying a little bit what happened in the mushroom experience that helped you shift your relationship, another layer?
Dr. Gabor Maté 46:41
Oh, just downloading, I just forgot. And a year later, which is to say this March, I had another mushroom experience with some indigenous people in British Columbia. And is well noticed, because we’ve shot a challenge together, everybody thinks call, it takes a lot to get to this little brain, you know, and it’s very defended, you know. So I took a fairly high dose of mushrooms, and these indigenous people with their deep sorrow and suffering, and actually experienced self love. And if you ask me, what that means. It’s not words, it’s, it’s impossible to put on the words because there’s always an experience, but it was just that area. And that’s all and that’s all there needs to be. It does not have to be any different.
Keith Kurlander 47:29
Yeah, I’m struck by thanks for sharing all that. Will, and I had an episode recently, where we went into intergenerational trauma a little bit and I shared a deep story about myself. And I don’t know if you remember a guy where I’ve talked about this a long time ago on this podcast about working through Holocaust, intergenerational trauma myself, released that was the frame that that’s what that was, maybe it was my childhood, I don’t know. But But what actually helped me heal was as I went deeper and deeper into the narrative of intergenerational Holocaust trauma, and then went on a pilgrimage out to the camps. And this deep healing happened. And it all started when I was 19, or 20. I had an LSD experience, and I’m with friends, and I’ve just started seeing swastikas everywhere. And I’m coming at me like Ninja Stars and cutting me up. And I’m having this massive internal experience. And I’m just really struck that, you know, we all have these sort of holograms of history, we’re relating to, yes. And often we don’t know it, right, we’re walking around. Most people are not at all able to contextualize that energy that’s in them, whatever that energy is. And so I’m just struck by this journey of healing. And, you know, I think, a part of the work, we have our biological years of healing, and then we have our historical years of healing and a part of the work is sort of facing the ghosts, right of our past. And even though for me, I have the opposite of you. I’m my density, I don’t have density. So I, I have asked, I’m so psychically overwhelmed, I feel like I’m being in a psychotic torture state. But, you know, I came to work with that as some of the Hewish damage that Jewish people have faced, and there was a lot of healing there for me, of just the psychic annihilation. And you know, this is I guess what I’m, I don’t know where I’m going with this other than saying back like.
Dr. Gabor Maté 49:37
Let me interrupt Keith and take it somewhere. What comes to mind as you’re describing your experience, is how much we’ve lost by the loss of myth. I mean, genuine myth. I don’t mean a myth. In a sense, it was a false narrative, but myth is an actual metaphoric relationship to the psychic world, and elders and ceremony, all of which provide Out of this space for all this. And if you talk to indigenous people there forever communing with their ancestors, that healing happens on a multi generational level. So we’re so challenged in this modern sterile world by what we’ve lost. And we’ve gained so much in terms of scientific knowledge and experience and technology. I mean, it’s not to be disputed or to be dismissed, but we’ve lost so much as human beings.
Keith Kurlander 50:23
Thank you for saying that we have lost a lot in reductionist views of reality, and losing connection to the magical. I mean, some people might take that to the opposite end of the spectrum and be overly magical. But we’ve lost connection to the magic. I’ll finish with one of the combinations. And it’s not done either as like, obviously, there’s more layers. But this is not a piece I’m actively needing to work on at the moment. One of the culminations of this intergenerational work was I had a ketamine therapy session years ago, and in the middle of the session, all of a sudden, I saw a million Jewish people, and they all put their hands up. And we’re going like the, you know, waving their hands at me with two hands saying, you’ve got this now, you don’t need to hold this anymore. And it felt like it was the first time where I really had a moment where I got like, oh, that’s communicating that to your ancestors. Now I don’t know who that what that was, or, but like, there was a communication of ancestry, where my ancestry was behind my success, and behind my healing, you know, that happened to be in a psychedelic medicine session. And I think that’s the power of psychedelic medicine that we can go there sometimes a little easier than without it. But um, I think this is I just glad you brought up this ancestry piece and ancestral healing and indigenous ways. And I think we can be in an overly scientific reductionistic world, we can lose touch of ways of healing that we need and ways of communication that we need to heal.
Dr. Gabor Maté 52:07
Yeah. In the book, I talk about Indigenous ways, my limited exposure to them, but rich exposure, and being in a sweat lodge. Have you guys been in a sweat lodge?
Dr. Will Van Derveer 52:19
Dr. Gabor Maté 52:19
You know, they bring in these hot rocks, and they call them now we’re going to bring in the grandmothers and grandfathers. You think what are they talking about? What they’re talking about is Don’t we all come from the earth, the same as those rocks. And we talk about imagining being in that kind of relationship with the whole universe, where the rocks are grandmas, your grandfathers, which they literally are, scientifically speaking. And if you could only combine Western wizardry and technology and science with some of these deeply wise, indigenous teachings, what a world we could have, if that will happen to medicine, not giving up any of our advances and our incredible scientific achievements, but combine it with this holistic Mind Body unity, the world is all one, which, incidentally, is as scientific as it gets only that we don’t study that science. So if you combine the science of oneness with indigenous understanding of it with the technological achievements, we can have such a rich healing medical system.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 53:25
Agreed. I think that’s our task is that integration?
Keith Kurlander 53:30
Well, I’m an optimist, sometimes, on certain days. And at this moment, I’m an optimist. And I kind of see it as you know, I left home when I was young, and I kind of was like, I’m not going to, you know, relate to my parents right now, as much. And as sort of like that, you know, the science has sort of been like, we got to go over here and not relate to what was, you know, before and, but I’m an optimist that we become together. And we transcend and include over time, as we evolve. And so I’m optimistic that we’ll find our way one day, but it might not be in the near future. It’s probably not in the near future.
Dr. Gabor Maté 54:08
If we weren’t optimists, none of the three of us would be doing the work that we’re doing. I mean, we must believe that some value to this is gonna have some positive consequences. It already is, you know, and I’m thinking we can all see that. Yes, I think even on the bad days, I think we’re probably optimists because we carry on doing it.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 54:25
Right. Agreed. Well, we’re a little over our time here and gobbler with you and want to really thank you. It’s a really busy time for you. And we’re so excited for this book to come out. For our listeners. I want to say Keith and I were given access, advanced access to the book and we’ve read it, we love it. We really recommend it. It’s a central reading. And we just want to thank you gobbler for, for being an elder, in the truest sense, being willing to say what’s uncomfortable sometimes to hear and we We also often we end our episodes with an invitation for guests to you had one statement that you could put on a billboard that everyone would hear in their lifetime. Just first thought best thought what would be your, your message to the people?
Dr. Gabor Maté 55:17
What immediately comes to mind is the quote that I borrowed from my teacher, H. Almos, where he says that being yourself is your greatest gift to mankind.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 55:29
Keith Kurlander 55:30
Thanks, Gabor so much.
Dr. Gabor Maté 55:31
Thank you guys. Appreciate the opportunity to speak with you again as always a pleasure.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 55:42
We look forward to connecting with you again on the next episode of the Higher Practice Podcast where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health.