‘Inner Healing Intelligence’; an embodied therapeutic process

Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy is already an accepted approach in some parts of the world, and several influential treatment protocols suggest that its healing power is rooted in an ‘Inner Healing Intelligence’ (IHI). The idea of an Inner Healing Intelligence is fundamental to the MAPS protocol for MDMA-Assisted psychotherapy, and the principle is echoed in the draft rules on how to prepare clients for a facilitated psilocybin experience issued by the Colorado Office of Natural Medicine. The rules state that preparation should include a discussion of “the concept of trusting inner guidance”, which may include references to Inner Healing Intelligence, Wise Mind, Soul, etc.

Although the idea of some kind of inner healer is widespread in psychedelic circles – and quite common in psychotherapy – there’s no agreement on what it actually means. Nese Devenot frequently rails against the whole concept of an ‘Inner Healer’, and in a recent article, Jules Evans and Sam Woolfe identify numerous problems with the notion.

Many perceived problems with the idea of an ‘Inner Healing Intelligence’ emerge from the name, as describing something as ‘intelligence’ sets the stage for confusion. It would be far better to talk about a therapeutic process. My PhD thesis identified several processes that helped environmental activists deepen their connection with the more-than-human world and supported their wellbeing (2008). I subsequently realised that the same processes are used in therapy. These processes, which I now call the Embodied Pathways of Connection, are therapeutic because they all enable greater access to our embodied knowing.

Eugene Gendlin was a philosopher and psychotherapist who researched Rogers’s non-directive approach extensively. Gendlin has much to offer to the conversation about IHI, and his somatic experiential model points to that process. Gendlin writes that “your body knows much that you don’t know” (Gendlin, 1981). Those embedded in the Western cultural tradition often baulk at the idea that the body might ‘know’ something. The absurd Cartesian split of mind and body is surprisingly resilient, and Western philosophy is grounded in what Grosz describes as a ‘profound somatophobia’ (Grosz, 1994). However, evidence of the importance of embodied ways of knowing can be found in a diverse range of disciplines, including anthropology, business studies, cognitive neuroscience and religious studies (Harris, 2024).

Psychedelics can facilitate the kind of embodied experiential knowing that I’m talking about. Mat, one of the participants in the first Imperial psilocybin trial, explains:

“Talking therapy helps you believe something to be true. Psilocybin helps you know it to be true. And I think that’s why I felt, in my case, psilocybin worked well for me, because it showed me so much that I now know to be true.”

(Eastall, 2021).

Recent discussions support the idea of IHI as a process that facilitates embodied knowing. In their recent paper on IHI, Peill J, Marguilho M, Erritzoe D, et al. conclude that it can be partly understood as a process “where ordinarily occluded, suppressed or compressed information arises into conscious awareness” (2024).

Jules Evans and Sam Woolfe (2004) invited several therapists to comment on IHI. Dr Inna Zelikman echoes Mat’s experience, stating that psychedelics give “people access to their unconscious material”. Dr Ingmar Gorman, commented that IHI is sometimes called “intuition” or “inner wisdom”. He concluded that we should understand it as “a psychotherapeutic process”. Dr Max Wolff believes we can make sense of IHI within “a coherent scientific model of psychological change” and relates it to the actualising tendency which underpins the Rogerian approach noted above.

I propose that ‘Inner’ more accurately means ’embodied’, ‘healing’ is more precisely rendered as ‘therapeutic’, and the word ‘intelligence’ actually refers to a process. While referring to ‘Inner Healing Intelligence’ may prove to be useful in our conversations with those being treated using Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy, calling it an ’embodied therapeutic process’ is more accurate and facilitates scientific validation.

Animism: An idea whose time has come?

I’ve been writing about animism for years, and I sense that it’s an idea whose time has come. Animism has never gone away for Indigenous peoples, of course; it’s those of us in the Global North who lost the plot. But perhaps there’s an animist awakening coming.

Earlier this month, I read the news that Traditional Māori and Pasifika leaders had signed a declaration that granted legal personhood to whales. Crucially, this opens the way to discussion with governments across the Pacific to create a legal framework of protection for whales and a $100 million fund backs that. Reactions in the media have been positive. The reason, I suspect, is because animism makes sense to us. The evolutionary psychologist Bruce Charlton suggests that we are born animists; it’s “the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans”.

Orion magazine recently hosted a conversation between Sumana Roy and Mary Evelyn Tucker about how spiritual traditions can reconnect us to the more-than-human world (The Rites Of Nature). Sumana Roy, author of the non-fiction book How I Became a Tree, explained the importance of inviting plants to a traditional Hindu wedding. Roy emphasises that we exist in a living earth community. She referenced the work of scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, who, in the 1900s, argued that plants may be sentient. More recent research supports this idea, with some leading plant scientists claiming that plants can distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’ (Witzany & Baluška, 2012).

Rachael Petersen contributes a different perspective in her article Zen Mind, Vegetal Mind. Reflections on Buddhist practice and plant science. Petersen considers contemporary and traditional discussions in Buddhism about plants. Are they sentient? Do they have Buddha-nature? Petersen concludes that “not only do plants have a spiritual life, they are the spiritual life”, adding that “through deep practice that we may hear the voice of plants ‘with our eyes’.”

That intriguing suggestion echoes a recent experience of mine. I’ve been experimenting with super-slow-motion videos of water, including one of a river on Dartmoor. As I watched one of these videos, it occurred to me that the spirit of this place – the genius loci – was communicating through the mesmerising patterns of light and shade. Is this the voice of the more-than-human ‘speaking’ through an image?

Watching the river reveals the Spirit of Place

Your mind creates your reality

Shortly before Valentine’s Day, I took a lovely long walk in the woods. As I stepped out, I was playing with the notion of romantic love and how I feel about the natural world: ‘I love yew!’ I smiled at my silly pun and then forgot all about it. Hours later, I found myself on a familiar path; I’ve walked there many times every season. I typically wander along at a gentle pace, enjoying the changing cycles of nature and marvelling at the trees, plants and fungi. Then, I suddenly noticed a distinctive tree I hadn’t ever seen before. I was puzzled at first: How had I missed something so obvious? I realised I’d probably looked at this tree many times before but hadn’t seen it until now.

heart shape on tree bark

This heart-shaped stood out so clearly on the bark that I was amazed I’d never noticed it. Then, I recalled an insight I often share with clients: we see what we’re looking for

Our senses pick up far more data than the conscious mind can process, so we have a filter system that cuts out the noise. Have you ever been at a party and suddenly heard your name amidst the babble of chatter? That’s the Reticular Activating System (RAS) at work. When I was learning to drive, it seemed like there were ‘L’ plates everywhere! It’s not that there was a sudden surge in people learning to drive: My RAS had been set to filter for ‘L’ plates because that was significant for me. At the start of my nature walk, I’d mentally ‘set’ heart shapes as important, and although I’d forgotten about Valentine’s Day, by the time I saw this particular tree, my RAS picked up the pattern.

We see what we’re looking for

A little later, I stopped to read an information board. It told me that the field in the near distance had been seeded with wildflowers and would develop into a meadow over time. I stood for a little while looking out over the muddy ground, imagining how wonderful it would look in the Summer. When I returned to the path to continue my walk, I noticed a figure in the middle distance looking out over the same view. I saw that they had one hand held up near their eyes, and I wondered if they were holding binoculars. What were they looking at?

A few steps later, the reality dawned: It wasn’t a person but the roots of a fallen tree! My perceptual error is a simple example of what psychology calls ‘priming’ which is when a specific stimulus primes us to behave in a particular way shortly afterwards. I’d been looking at the meadow, so I was primed to notice others doing the same. Our minds are naturally inclined to see human shapes and faces – even when they aren’t there. This explains pareidolia – our tendency to see faces in the patterns on things like trees and stones.

Both of the examples I’ve given illustrate my main point: We see what we look for. Crucially, this is an unconscious process, always structuring your perception of reality. This is related to the idea that ‘We see the world and things not as they are but as we are’. Anaïs Nin and Steven Covey used this quote. Still, its origin is obscure, with the Talmud and Immanuel Kant cited as the source. You might be curious about who you think said it first. While your answer may not be accurate, it will certainly tell you something about yourself.

The Power of Ritual

How did your holiday celebrations go? Whether you marked Hanukkah, Yule, Guru Gobind Singh’s Birthday, Christmas or something else, ritual played a key role. Even those who count themselves secular have their rituals around this time. It could be decorating the Christmas tree, baking a special cake or lighting a candle. 

Rituals include a wide range of practices from the everyday to the esoteric. They’re a fundamental part of human culture and one of the embodied pathways of connection. But how do rituals work? More importantly, why do they sometimes fail? Most of us have endured an ’empty ritual’, an old tradition that’s lost its power. A graduation, wedding or funeral marks a transition, and such rituals function as social markers however the participants experience them. But the real work of a ritual lies in its impact on us. Did the wedding serve to change the new couples’ perception of themselves? Did the funeral contribute to the process of grieving? Such changes happen below the level of conscious experience, changing the what or how of our embodied knowing.

This is the aspect of ritual that inspired me to study embodied knowing. Through my ritual experience, I came to “a deep knowing of the sacredness of the Earth that is more than just an intellectual awareness of the facts & figures about species decimation & habitat loss” (Harris, 1995). By allowing us to think “through and with the body” (Raposa, 2004: 115), rituals can provide access to what I call the ‘deep body’, a level of awareness where embodied thoughts and thinking function.

We create new rituals all the time, and if we do that with thought and clear intentions, they can be transformative. The transformative power of ritual is part of the inspiration behind a project I’ve just launched. 

The Element Festivals logo. Graphic representation of Air, Water, Fire and Earth.

The Element Festivals

Many people use the classical Greek Elements of Air, Water, Fire and Earth in their spiritual or psychological practice, and our lives depend on them. The Element Festivals provide an opportunity to celebrate these archetypal forces. Each Element has one day a year dedicated to it, a time of honouring and celebrating its power and our relationship with it. Individuals or groups will mark each Festival with rituals, creating artwork, having a party or simply enjoying that particular Element. I’m especially encouraging people to bring an environmental dimension to their celebrations, but even if participants choose not to explicitly do something to help the planet, the ritual of celebration will help deepen their connection to nature.

Minds and mountains

Early ecopsychology considered the mental health benefits of what we call ‘green space’ – natural areas covered by vegetation, such as parks, forests and gardens. Later, we started to think about ‘blue space’ – oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds and streams. The research shows that both can have a positive effect on our mental health. But what about mountains?

I spent my Summer holiday hiking and climbing in the Dolomites, a beautiful mountain range in Northern Italy. Being in the mountains – typically well over 2000 meters above sea level – felt very different from being in the woods or by a river. First, there’s very little in the way of flora or fauna: There are birds of course, plus patches of lichen and the occasional hardy alpine plant. But we were well above the tree line, and most of the water there remained frozen even in late September.

Instead of gentle green or the soothing gurgle of a stream, there are wide open vistas, stunning views, precipitous drops, and mountains high enough to dwarf a skyscraper. At times I’d be at the highest point for miles, looking out across lower peaks with the cloud layer far below. Spaces like that seem to open your mind: The far horizon proclaims a pure vastness that invites a crisp clarity to thought.

A high mountain Refugio seen from afar with distant mountain tops on the horizon.

At other times mountains towered above, revealing just how tiny I am! Psychologists researching the feeling of awe talk about the ‘small self’, and that certainly fits my experience. Awe puts life into a new perspective: Our everyday concerns feel less significant, and we feel more connected with everything beyond the narrow confines of self.

Looking up at a high mountain towering above.

It’s somewhat dangerous being on the side of a mountain that’s 3000 meters high. Common sense and proper equipment reduce the risk, of course, but the perception of danger sharpens one’s awareness. Daydreaming on a woodland walk or a stroll along the beach is fine, but don’t try it on a narrow ledge with a steep vertical drop! Existing research shows that being in nature can create a more mindful state, but that’s in ‘green’ or ‘blue’ space. The same thing happens in the mountains, but there’s an edge – literally. Mountains don’t simply invite presence; they demand it.

I think ecopsychology needs to consider a third kind of natural space: ‘mountain’ or ‘M space’. I don’t think there’s a colour that fits, and ‘M’ looks a bit like two peaks and a deep valley. ‘M space’ is significantly different from ‘green’ or ‘blue’ space. It’s more likely to provoke feelings of awe, seems to encourage more open, exploratory thinking, and often demands a focused, mindful awareness.

Is all this a clue to why Nietzsche valued the mountains so much?

“We do not belong to those who only get their thought from books, or at the prompting of books – it is our custom to think in the open air, walking, leaping, climbing, or dancing on lonesome mountains by preference, or close to the sea, where even the paths become thoughtful”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

Psychedelic group psychotherapy

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the power of community to support psychedelic journeys. It’s well established that psychedelic experiences are characterized by a sense of connectedness, but sharing that journey with others can enhance those feelings. Community is fundamental to indigenous psychedelic healing, and it’s fundamental to the ACER integration program.

Seating in a circle: Room set up for a group psychedelic integration session.
Group psychedelic integration

Two recent research articles move the discussion forward. The first, ‘(Dis)connectedness, Suicidality and Group Psychedelic Therapies‘ (McAlpine & Blackburne), notes that social disconnectedness is a significant risk factor for suicidal thoughts or behaviours. They consider the “potent synergy“ of psychedelic group therapy and suggest that “such a collective space … has the potential to not only awaken a renewed awareness of social support but also to establish a sturdy framework of communal care”.

The second one takes a different route but comes to the same conclusion. ‘Psychedelics and neonihilism – connectedness in a meaningless world’ (Plesa and Petranker) highlights the tension between the “contemporary neoliberal” context most of us live in and the connectedness at the heart of psychedelic healing. The predominant psychological model reinforces this neoliberal ideology because it’s “based on the individual as self-contained, as atomic – a self which fashions itself as separate from the other” (Bhatia, 2020). Plesa and Petranker suggest that psychedelic group psychotherapy could help us overcome modern experiences of meaninglessness. It may offer “a collective confrontation of meaninglessness as a radical departure from individualizing therapeutic practices that further reinforce neoliberal forms of individualization, responsibilization, competition and self-governance”.

I’ve focused on psychedelic experiences here, but any of the embodied pathways of connection can disrupt the alienation fostered by neoliberalism because they reveal that we are fundamentally interconnected.

Interoception: The Sixth Sense

Back in the 1860s, a Russian psychologist called Ivan Sechenov noted the existence of an “obscure muscular sense” at the border of consciousness. He was probably the first to suggest that bodily sensations might be significant, but no one paid much attention. It wasn’t until 1907 that Charles Scott Sherrington named this internal sense ‘interoception’, finally giving a name to our ability to sense bodily signals like heartbeat, breath, thirst, hunger and muscle tension.

Although we’ve known about interoception for over 100 years, research into this powerful ‘sixth sense’ has taken off in the last few decades. Why the sudden interest? It’s become increasingly apparent that interoception is fundamental to emotional regulation and can play a crucial role in our wellbeing.

Interoception feeds a vast amount of information to the brain: While most of that input will remain outside conscious awareness, it all significantly impacts our emotional state and thinking. We all differ in how intensely we experience emotions, and the research suggests that this might be due to individual differences in interoception. People with greater interoceptive awareness tend to feel emotions more intensely, are more empathic and are better at emotional regulation. Conversely, research links a lack of interoceptive awareness with emotional disorders. In summary, listening through your body can enhance your emotional life and mental health.

So how can you learn to listen to your body? I asked Jennifer Tantia, a Somatic Psychotherapist and Dance Movement therapist. Many years ago, Jennifer “went on a quest” to find the answer to a vital question: “How am I going to teach people how to get into their bodies?” Jennifer explains that the body is “a gateway between consciousness and unconsciousness”, and she talks us through ways we can learn the path through that gateway. The key is to “really pay attention, start listening through [your] body”. You need to let go and be open to listening and receiving information “outside of what you think you know”. Meditation, dance, and Focusing can all help develop your interoceptive awareness; perhaps unsurprisingly, these three are embodied pathways of connection.

Mindful breathing and body scan meditation are especially valuable to developing your interoceptive awareness, and mindful movement can also help. Jennifer talks about a form of dance movement therapy called Authentic Movement: “It’s like putting your brain in the back seat and putting your body in the driver’s seat, and you really are in a different state where your body is moving”.

My conversion with Jennifer goes deep, and we identify presence as an underlying theme. You have to be fully present to listen through your body. Jennifer notes that it underpins meditation, nature connection and psychedelic experience. As our conversation ends, Jennifer emphasizes the importance of practice.

“You can’t just do it once and get it. It’s a practice; it’s tolerating your own frustration, it’s letting yourself be surprised until everything is a surprise. And that’s presence, right, and it’s worth the effort to practice”.

Learning to listen through your body takes time – and you need to keep practising – but the reward is no less than becoming fully human.

The Neuroscience of Interconnection

Western culture has a curious habit of rediscovering what’s already known. Typically, spirituality comes to a profound understanding first, and a philosopher gets it next. Sometime later, psychology catches up, and neuroscience finally ‘discovers’ it with a brain scan.

Cutting-edge neuroscience has found that the brains of social species like mice, bats and humans tend to synchronise, creating what neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley describes as “a single überbrain that isn’t reducible to the sum of its parts”. Like when oxygen and hydrogen combine to make water, what emerges is qualitatively different.

The researchers studied what happens when two people create a story together. Starting with the prompt “A group of children encounters aliens”, each person took turns to tell the next part of the tale. Caitlyn and Lorie set their account in a strange landscape, and during one of her turns, Caitlyn told of how the ground started to rise up beneath the feet of the children. A moment later, Lorie took her turn, saying that “It felt like the creature took a breath.” This is exactly where Caitlyn planned to take the story: the kids were walking on the alien itself. Caitlyn felt that they “were on the same page”, while the research neuroscientist concluded that this was synchrony at work.

I’m always pleased when new research upsets the myth of an enclosed, Cartesian individual, but social psychologists came to a similar conclusion a while ago. Take, for example, the phenomenon of ’emotional contagion’. You may have noticed how the mood of people you’re with impacts your own, how we tend to unconsciously ‘catch’ other people’s moods. You may also be familiar with the ‘contact high’ phenomenon, where simply sitting with someone on a psychedelic journey makes you feel like you’ve taken the substance too. Although this goes against the Western model of the enclosed individual, the evidence for this kind of connectedness is overwhelming.

Decades before psychologists came to this realisation, a few philosophers grasped that we are profoundly interconnected. In 1945 Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote:

“as the parts of my body together compromise a system, so my body and the other’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously.” (1962)

Each of us is woven into the rich tapestry of existence. As the philosopher of consciousness, Christian de Quincey wrote:

“We are constituted by webs of interconnection. Relationship comes first, and we emerge as more or less distinct centres within the vast and complex networks that surround us” (2005).

The spiritual traditions knew this long ago, and Zen Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh echoed the wisdom of the ancients when he said, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

Psychedelics and nature connectedness

Can psychedelic experiences enhance our connection to nature? So far, the evidence is a resounding ‘yes’, and some philosophers suggest that careful administration of psychedelics could be a valuable way to catalyse the development of environmental virtues (Kirkham & Letheby. 2022).

‘Nature connectedness’ is much more than simply spending time in the park: It measures how strongly a person identifies with nature and can be defined as a sense of ‘oneness with the natural world’ (Mayer and Frantz, 2004). Nature connectedness is very beneficial for humans; it helps give our lives a deeper sense of meaning and supports personal growth. People who deeply appreciate our connection to the wider natural world are more likely to protect it. So nature connectedness isn’t just good for us; it’s good for the planet.

Earth seen from space in a psychedelic style.

I often saw evidence of a deeper nature connection in my work on psilocybin retreats, and that’s been backed up by the research (Gandy et al., 2020). There’s some evidence that psilocybin is especially powerful in this regard and can elicit robust and sustained increases in nature connectedness (Forstmann et al., 2003). Psychedelic experiences and nature connection are woven together like threads in a tapestry. The weave is tight, but I’ll tease out a few of those threads.

Both psychedelic experience and nature connection can catalyse feelings of awe and increase our capacity for mindfulness. Many Indigenous peoples use psychedelics as a sacrament. In most cases, they are animists with a profound respect for the more-than-human world. Robert Greenway is a pioneer ecopsychologist who used to take people on ‘wilderness’ treks. After many years of leading these adventures, Greenway concluded that extended time in nature could engender an altered state that closely parallels the psychedelic experience. There are several aspects to this altered state, but fundamentally it involves “feelings of expansion or reconnection”, which Greenway unhesitatingly describes as “spiritual” (Greenway, 1995). (See The Wilderness Effect).

A pattern is emerging in this tapestry; connectedness. In my recent interview with Sam Gandy, he suggested that we can see “connectedness itself being a fundamentally interconnected or interwoven construct” and that cultivating nature connectedness can deepen connectedness to self, others and the wider world (Embodied Pathways).

It’s quite common for people to have mystical experiences while using psychedelics, and nature mysticism is ancient and global. Are they the same? It seems so: Feelings of interconnectedness, unity, sacredness, and a transcendence of time and space characterise mystical experiences emerging from both psychedelics and nature connection.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

I would quote Blake’s words in the introduction to the nature connection exercise I used to lead at psychedelic retreats. They are a perfect example of nature mysticism and could also speak of aspects of the psychedelic experience.

The conversation about psychedelics and nature connectedness is ongoing and may be crucial in these times of climate crisis. If you’d like an accessible deep dive into this fascinating subject, listen to my interview with Sam Gandy on Embodied Pathways.

The Psychedelic Connection

I’ve been very involved in work and research on psychedelics over the last year or so. I’ve mentioned psychedelics in a few of my posts here, but I wanted to flag up a couple of presentations. The first is online next week: I’m talking about Sacred Ecology: The Psychedelic Connection at the Embodied Spirituality event.

Back in 1996, I wrote Sacred Ecology. Now, nearly 30 years on, I’ll be exploring that territory through a psychedelic lens. Psychedelic experiences can be profoundly spiritual, often inducing mystical experiences. What does this tell us about the power of awe, nature connection and the future of therapy?

I started working as a Facilitator on psychedelic retreats in The Netherlands last year. This involved spending hours supporting people on their psychedelic journeys as well as helping them to prepare for and integrate the experience. Nature connection is widely recommended for psychedelic preparation and integration and as this is a particular interest of mine, I’ve begun to develop and refine this approach. In this presentation at the University of Exeter, I talk about the work I’ve done on psychedelic retreats and explain how we might apply ecotherapy to integration.