Kylea Taylor on the Woman Who Lost Everything
If psychedelic practitioners don't learn the basics of altered states ethics, they could end up losing their livelihood
Kylea Taylor, LMFT is one of the most important authorities on the ethics of psychedelic therapy and altered states. Kylea wrote The Ethics of Caring in 1995, and it’s now used as a textbook in many practitioner training programs. She has facilitated and supervised the facilitation of thousands of Holotropic Breathwork® sessions, and for a decade worked for Stanislav Grof, MD, as a Trainer. She received her Marriage and Family Therapist license after she completed the first three-year Holotropic Breathwork® Facilitator certification with the Grofs. She worked for nine years in a long-term residential substance abuse recovery program with residents who had been released to treatment there from prison, and considers this time to be particularly life-changing for her. In that program, she facilitated Holotropic Breathwork® groups every month or so, in addition to regularly facilitating groups in this Therapeutic Community. Kylea has spent the past twenty years as President of SoulCollage® Inc., an organization providing training and community for facilitators of an expressive arts process for self-development and integration, and that now has over 5,500 trained Facilitators in fifty-nine countries. In recent years, she created and began teaching her InnerEthics® model.
Joseph Holcomb Adams: How did you get into ethics, Kylea?
Kylea Taylor: Well, it's a really interesting question, because I didn't really like ethics to start with. Somebody asked me to be on an ethics committee and I went, “I don't think so, you know, that's about controlling people and things like that.”
But I was working as a Senior Trainer with Stan Grof and the Grof Transpersonal Training, and I saw a few good people who were well trained therapists - and people I would have readily referred clients to - who were getting into ethical trouble. This was happening when they went back to their offices in one on one situations, and were doing breathwork - which is an extra-ordinary state of consciousness, like psychedelics - with their clients, their long-term clients sometimes. So, what happened was they caused harm to their clients and they also caused harm to themselves. It was one situation in particular that really got my attention.
I call this case “the Story of the Woman Who Lost Everything.” She did breathwork with a client, a person who was a long-term client. This therapist had found breathwork to be very helpful to her, so she wanted to share it and do it with this person. And what happened was, while she was sitting in an ordinary state of consciousness, her client went into a deep state, and her attention was so locked into this other person’s experience that she “merged” with that person, her client. It was such an overwhelmingly powerful experience for both of them that they didn't know what to do with it, and they thought, ‘Well this happened, probably what we need to do is have a relationship,’ because they couldn't explain it any other way. Nobody had ever talked about this kind of process happening. So they began a relationship, and after a few months of the relationship, the client began to feel exploited. The client reported her to the ethics board and also sued her in a court of law, and she lost everything. She lost her house she because she had to pay her legal bills; she also lost her license. She lost her ‘relationship’ and, because it really was sexual abuse for a facilitator to have sex or have a romantic relationship with a client, the client was harmed, and the client lost a trusted therapist. That client was betrayed, in other words.
So I was really puzzled about this. I thought about it for a while, and I narrowed it down to the fact that most traditional ethics courses don't teach anything about extra-ordinary states of consciousness, about the power of them, about the amplification that occurs in them, about what might happen to therapists or facilitators when they are sitting for clients who are in them. Traditional ethics education also doesn’t teach about the motivations that happen, the impulses, the strong urges that happen, like in this particular case, before unethical behaviors happen.
And, so, then I spent these last three decades thinking about how could we fill those gaps in traditional ethics education that weren't even being talked about. In the last few years, I've come up with a different kind of ethical education that seems to fit well what's needed in psychedelic sessions for people, and to help facilitators become aware of what is needed in their own personal development to do this work. So I've tested InnerEthics® now for three years of teaching in close to 20 different programs, and I've gotten feedback from students and administrators that the information and the InnerEthics® Ethical Awareness Tools are useful.
JHA: What’s InnerEthics®?
KT: Yes. So I was going to do a workshop about my work about seven years ago, and I needed a title for that workshop. A friend suggested “Inner Ethics.” I thought that really did describe what I was teaching, which was a way to align values with actions, and provide some tools to recognize when something is in the way of alignment of our values and our behavior in relationship, especially when we are in a caregiving situation as the responsible person. InnerEthics® is an internal, complementary approach to traditional ethics education, and it is meant especially to help practitioners who work with extra-ordinary states of consciousness.
JHA: What’s special about working with extra-ordinary states of consciousness, including with psychedelics?
KT: I think there are two kinds of differences involved in working with psychedelic sessions or any extra-ordinary state of consciousness, breathwork, hypnosis, anything like that. One difference is that all the things that are in traditional ethical codes need to be paid more attention because the issues are the same, but also more powerful and more challenging. And then there are other differences. Extra-ordinary states of consciousness ‘change the channel’ - this is a way I like to talk about it. They ‘change the channel’ in a way that allows for tuning into things in our unconscious, for example, and semiconsciousness. And extra-ordinary states of consciousness might, for example, open what I call a ‘trauma capsule’ in the brain or the body.
It is challenging to hold space for deep grief, trauma recovery, breathwork, or psychedelic sessions. Sessions with clients in profound, extra-ordinary states of consciousness challenge us as practitioners personally and professionally. The intense emotional energy generated in a session can even activate things in us, the facilitators or therapists, in surprising ways.
For example, say I'm sitting here with a client and all of a sudden some unconscious stuff is synchronistically opened up in me because of what's going on with the client, stuff that I've never even worked with before. It's surprising, and it's captivating, and at the very least, what can happen is that I'm distracted from focusing on the client. But also I can get pretty involved in my own process and not be there in my role as Responsible Party to protect the client.
So, the difference in what is required of a psychedelic therapist is a lot more self-knowing, a lot more experience and personal work in the field of the extra-ordinary states ourselves, and doing a lot of self-inquiry and self-observation. We need all of this so that we can do trigger management when we're triggered, so that we are only momentarily distracted from focusing on, and really being there for, the client’s vulnerability.
JHA: This makes me think of a line from the very beginning of your book: “What I don’t know about myself can unintentionally cause you harm.” This makes a lot of sense, particularly when we’re talking about working with clients who are in highly sensitive, open, and suggestible states, who may be having very intense, profound, potentially-transformative experiences. If I’m a practitioner, and I’m not aware what’s inside myself, then this stuff can much more easily (and invisibly) intrude upon or obstruct the unfolding of the client’s potentially-transformative inner process. And, you’ve argued that it is very important for practitioners to be able to ‘stay out of the way’ of the client’s ‘inner healer.’ Could you tell us more about the ‘inner healer,’ and the need to stay out of its way?
KT: Yes, we all have an inner healer, and we know that we do because if we get a cut, it heals. We sometimes have to provide the right conditions for healing, by putting an antiseptic or a Band-Aid on, but then we forget about it, and the cut heals, and we see tangible evidence that there is an inner healer. The same thing, in my experience, is true of the psyche. Stan Grof taught this, Tav Sparks taught this, but some people have not recognized that there is such a thing. I think there is. I have supervised or directly facilitated thousands of sessions involving extra-ordinary states of consciousness, and there is just no question in my mind that the inner healer will do its work with the right conditions, the right protection, the right environment, and the right protection from the facilitators. In other words, the facilitators are not supposed to get in the way of what's happening. It's more like what we need to do is midwifery, just helping whatever is emerging to emerge whole.
JHA: It seems that sometimes a participant might project the healing power onto the facilitator, as if the facilitator is the person ‘doing something’ to them, rather than the person who is helping to set the right conditions for the participant’s own inner healer to do its work. How and why does this happen? How could it be avoided?
KT: Well, I think it happens for two reasons. One is that the person who is projecting can't quite hold that they themselves have that much power, or that the inner healer has that much power, and so they have to have somebody hold it for a while. And the other end of that, it can be really appealing to be looked at as a great healer. I think a lot of people starting out in extra-ordinary states of consciousness work encounter that in themselves: “Why do I want to do this work? Well, I want to be seen as someone who creates that much change.” The more experience we have, the less we do, and the more we know that we're not doing anything. But at first, it looks like - to the client and to us - that we're doing something.
JHA: I can see how if the facilitator feels like they are creating this change themselves, it could almost trigger some kind of ‘magician,’ ‘wizard’ or ‘witch’ archetype identification thing.
KT: I think that can happen in this work, and it's called inflation, ego inflation. But I think it's just a stage in the process of becoming an experienced facilitator, and I think it really helps to talk about it, and to teach in ethics and other classes that this kind of thing happens, because then you can recognize it and get through it faster.
JHA: It makes me think of the Story of the Woman Who Lost Everything. She wasn't aware of the ‘merging’ phenomenon before it happened in the session, and she was not prepared for it to happen. She didn't expect it, didn't know how to deal with it, and ultimately made some very serious ethical missteps as a result.
KT: And I think the other thing that happened with her is that she had done all her breathwork in groups, as the Grof Transpersonal Training does, so that you have a Sitter and a Breather, and you have a lot of pairs of Sitters and Breathers in the room. So everyone is kind of watching, and there's a community feeling, and a lesser chance of ethical problems happening. But in this case, she went to this one-on-one experience in a siloed office, and we know what happened there.
JHA: So, it sounds like you are pointing to isolation as one of the issues that can lead to the ethical missteps, harms, abuses, and whatnot. There’s isolation in the sense of talking about the one-on-one session in the room, and then also if a practitioner doesn't have certain kinds of community, they’re isolated in another way. I can't remember if it was in your book, or in a conversation, or in one of your videos, but you talked about how some types of isolation can happen when facilitators are not getting appropriate or sufficient feedback, community feedback. Could you tell us more about these isolation situations?
KT: Yes, I think most therapists who are working in an office are not - unless they have a friend who's a therapist, or have a group that's a therapeutic group, a Peer Consultation Group, or something like that - they're not getting this feedback. They can't talk about their situation with their client because of confidentiality with anybody but a therapist. So they're keeping all their feelings and thoughts and whatnot semiconscious. “Oh, I'm attracted to this person," or whatever it is that’s going on with them - they keep that to themselves.
The other kind of situation is when there's some kind of a community leader role - and this can happen in psychedelic churches, or any kind of spiritual community - that the leader is looked up to by everyone in that community and often doesn’t actually have ‘peers.’
JHA: Do you mean that the community leader doesn’t really have peers because they are the respected authority figure there, as in, no one is really their peer in that space?
KT: That's right. They're only getting devotion. They're not getting, “wow, that crossed the line here,” or the “you're human, too" kind of thing.
JHA: Say that someone is a prospective participant who is looking to engage in psychedelic practices, and say they're looking at different facilitators or different spiritual communities or whatever. Perhaps what they would want to figure out is does this facilitator or does the leader of this church have some kind of peer community feedback space, or are they siloed off in some way? The prospective participant would want to know if that person isn’t talking to anyone, or if everybody they're talking to is devoted to them. What are your thoughts on this?
KT: I think that a good question to ask any psychedelic practitioner is, “Do you have a support system?” This work is challenging, and you have a right to ask about the practitioner’s support system. You don't have a right to know exactly what their support system is, but you do have a right to ask about it. And there are things you can observe, if you go into a psychedelic church. You can observe, for example, if the agreements are being kept, and if you think that the leader is holding the best interests of the people, or is instead advancing their own agenda in some way.
JHA: Thanks, this sounds like some very useful advice for prospective participants. Now, on the matter of support systems for practitioners, your InnerEthics® model includes “Peer Consultation Groups” as an important element that’s meant to address practitioners’ needs for community feedback and whatnot. Could you tell us about “Peer Consultation Groups,” and a bit about how they work?
KT: Yes, this what I'm working on a lot right now, and I'm writing a book about it. I have come up with a structure - Peer Consultation Groups - to address the problem of we need each other. We need each other to know ourselves, to mirror ourselves to each other, and to be resources for each other when we have challenges - ethical challenges, therapeutic challenges, and so on. I tried to come up with a structure that would really protect the vulnerability of professional colleagues who are in a group together, and who are not wanting to look less than perfect to each other, but who are really needing to get into the heart of the matter of their motivations and beliefs and biases. And so, I figured out some key elements to allow practitioners to feel safe enough to go into unsafe territory with each other and hold each other with compassion.
JHA: Yeah, it seems like a practitioner - or anyone, really - might be embarrassed or ashamed of, say, some of their inner motives, and might be embarrassed or ashamed of any missteps that they may have made. And so it seems like it'd be very, very important to have the right kind of container for people for the community feedback and support process to work. It makes me think of a Goethe quote you include multiple times in your book: “Know thyself? If I knew myself, I would run away.” Most of us probably feel like that to a certain extent, at least sometimes, and so we need a safe, protected, compassionate kind of space in order for us to go into trying to know ourselves, especially when we are doing so with and through others.
KT: I really love that quote. I think we all feel to some extent like running away, but whether we do or not - that's where the rubber meets the road. And I think there's a lot of people who have been willing to take the risk of taking a psychedelic who are willing to take these risks, but they do need some structure - just because people are people - to make a container that's safe enough and protective enough to do the work.
JHA: Some readers probably noticed the use of the trademark insignia whenever we mention InnerEthics®, and might be wondering why that is. Could you tell us a bit about why you trademarked InnerEthics®?
KT: Yes, I can. For 20 years, my husband and I have been stewards of a company that trains and provides community for facilitators of an expressive arts method developed by Seena B. Frost. Early on, before we even started training Facilitators how to teach SoulCollage®, we trademarked it to help ensure the integrity of the method so it would continue to incorporate the values and understandings that Seena Frost had intended. That is what has happened. There are now more than 5500 Facilitators in 59 countries teaching this self-inquiry method and doing so as Seena would have wanted. When I started teaching InnerEthics®, I thought that trademarking this method, too, would help people be able to expect that work done under the name of “InnerEthics®” would be work that was up to a certain high standard.
JHA: That makes sense. So I think maybe, as a closing question, could you tell us about your vision is for InnerEthics® going forward here?
KT: Yeah, well I had a vision from the beginning that is partly done. I wanted to first teach and test this model, and that's pretty much done. I'm still teaching, and I have gotten some good reviews, so I feel like it's been tested in groups, groups of four or two hundred at times, on Zoom. I have created three licensable basic videos that teach the model, and they're available through us to training programs, or to individuals (with CE’s) through Psychedelic.Support. Two of the videos teach the concepts and tools and one teaches and demonstrates Peer Consultation Groups. Ultimately, my future vision is to teach practitioners the full InnerEthics® model. I want to eventually teach and certify experienced facilitators to be teachers of InnerEthics®, and that seems a long way off. But everything has happened so fast.
JHA: Things are happening really fast. And you know, we are very grateful to have you and other people who are trying to help us all navigate this as it happens so fast. I think you’ve shared some really important messages, information, perspectives, and whatnot for participants, prospective participants, and of course especially for practitioners and prospective practitioners. So you know, I think you've think you've got a really great approach here, Kylea.
KT: Thank you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. After the paywall, some more links to Kylea’s work, courses, and insights.
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