Tools for Trauma: An Interview with Dr. Gabor Maté

Tools for Trauma: An Interview with Dr. Gabor Maté

What follows is a transcript for the podcast Tools for Trauma: The Research on Self-Compassion, Awareness and Empowerment

Topics include the following:

  1. Bringing 2020 Into Perspective
  2. Addictions: Salt, Sugar and Fat
  3. Stress from 2020 Linked to Increase in Drug Overdoses
  4. What Causes Disassociating from Stressful Situations?
  5. The Link Between Government and Health Issues
  6. Illusioned Vs. Disillusioned
  7. How to Handle Anger and Rage
  8. Healing and Integrating Trauma
  9. How Can People Manage And Overcome PTSD?
  10. What Gives You Hope?
  11. About Dr. Mate’s Book

Bringing 2020 Into Perspective

Jamie Wheal: Welcome Gabor Mate, a clinician, a therapist, a pioneer in the field of trauma and addiction, the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and Scattered Minds, and a new book that's coming out in 2021. Gabor, thank you so much for joining us on Homegrown Humans.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Jamie, it's nice to be here.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. We began a little bit of a conversation just before coming on about really the state of things, and that's very much the theme of Homegrown Humans, which is just sort of where we come from, who are we, and what do we do now. Obviously, this year has been and looks like it's going to keep being an intense one with all sorts of change and challenge around the world, and in a lot of parts of the world that maybe aren't used to it, that haven't come up that way. Knowing your background in Hungary, coming right out of the aftermath of World War II, all of these kind of things, how are you seeing this moment, what are you feeling, and what is top of your mind as far as where we go from here?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, I sort of have a double pronged answer to that question. First of all, when people talk to me about how bad the world is I'm thinking back to my birth, which was during the Second World War in 1944, and as an infant I could easily have been sent to Auschwitz into the ovens, I mean it was very close, and my grandparents were.

The tens of millions of people who died in that war, on both sides, on all sides, and the terrible suffering and privations that people experienced, and then I think of the terrible suffering that is endemic in the world and has been, the hunger, the poverty, the oppression, the multiple wars, the three million Vietnamese that were killed in that war, the 50,000 Americans who died, many of them coming back from PTSD. So when catastrophe strikes the world today and people say the world is just going to hell in a basket I'm thinking, "Well, yes, but when has that not been true?"

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Oh, we got here in a basket as well.

Dr. Gabor Mate: So the question is, who's experiencing it? So that on the worldwide global level there's many things about the current situation that have always been with us just not being in our face here in North America where we've been relatively spared. So when something like 9/11 happens that strikes us as a major disaster, which its own right it is, but compared to the number of people that I've been seeing massacred in Guatemala in the 1990s, which is about 100,000 it was a relatively minor event, I'm talking about on the global scale.

What I'm saying is that to some extent it depends on whose ox is being gored and when. Having said that, there are some definite threats now that didn't use to exist before on a global level, like climate change is affecting everybody, it's not a localized disaster, it's not a regional war, or even a world war that involves certain countries, but it affects and threatens everybody in the world. So that's something new, that's something ominous, that's something hanging over our future that people here either deny or are aware of it but even the ones that are aware of it really don't know what to do about it, don't know how to confront it.

Then, of course, on top of that this year we've had the COVID situation which has created tremendous anxiety and isolation for a lot of people, and I have to say I'm affected by it as well. I noticed a kind of heaviness, a strange heaviness about me sometimes that I'm just not used to experiencing in my adult life, although this probably resonates back to my infancy, but in my conscious awareness I've not quite experienced it.

So, on one hand what I'm saying is that the challenges that we're facing are not new to humanity, and things changing rapidly and life being unstable that's been a spiritual teaching going back to at least about 2,500 years ago, and on the other hand we're seeing global threats that are new. So it's a mix of the old and the new, and it's a heavy brew, and then on top of that you take something like the death of George Floyd, well there's nothing new about Black American males being lynched by the police, that's been going on for decades, but it's not been shown on YouTube before, it hasn't gone viral before.

So for a lot of people it's a wake-up call, something that we might have been woken to a long time ago but we weren't, nevertheless for those who had not been aware of such dynamics it comes as a shock, and that comes on top of the COVID shock, and then particularly in the States it comes on top of some very tense, and divisive, and aggressive political dynamics. It's a difficult time.

Jamie Wheal: Well, you bring up something interesting because you are basically saying, "Hey, what is our relative amount of suffering now and our reaction to it compared to World War II, compared to Guatemala, compared to these other situations?" These sorts of things, the fact that life has been nasty, brutish and short more often than not compared to our expectations, and compared to what's put front and center in front of us that would feel like we just need to toughen up more because nobody ever promised us a rose garden, and on the other hand you're pointing out new and different levels of intensity.

I mean, a global quarantine, existential risk to the whole planet, these are new, and those are potentially without precedent. I know that you've done so much work in the realm of both trauma and addiction, and I'm curious as to how you see our current state of both because a friend of ours, Tristan Harris, has just released a film called The Social Dilemma which is going quite large on Netflix and everywhere else where it's been produced. It's basically about big tech and the optimization algorithms of addiction, and it's smartphone addiction and social media, which compared to your work in the inner cities of Vancouver, with deeply and profoundly addicted people, to physically addictive compounds, this must feel relatively like a lighter form, and the same with-

Dr. Gabor Mate: I don't see it that way Jamie, I don't compare degrees of suffering, and just to clarify in my comments about the world's changeability and the horrible suffering that has always existed, I certainly wasn't implying that people should toughen up, that would not be from my point of view a compassionate thing to say. I just meant to put it into perspective, I just meant to say that it's a question of being aware how aware we are because if we've not been aware of what's been going on we'll be more shocked by what's going on now. But I'm not saying we should toughen up, I mean, that would not be my advice to people.

Jamie Wheal: No, that was in quotes, that was not intended to be a paraphrase of you.

Addictions: Salt, Sugar and Fat

Dr. Gabor Mate: No I know, yeah, if you paraphrase it that's not how I would language it. Now, in terms of what you said about the addictions, again, I think it's really important just to look at dynamics rather than to compare. So what you said and what your friend has just written about is absolutely accurate in my own new book, I talk about it.

So, in a nutshell the drug-addicted population that I worked with, people that are living in the streets, or in single room occupancy hotels in Vancouver, Downtown Eastside with their addiction to cocaine, or crystal meth, or the opiates like fentanyl, or heroin, or morphine, their alcohols, and their cigarette addictions, and so on, the circuits in the brain that are being activated and engaged in those addictions are also the same circuits in the brain that the cellphone companies, and the food companies deliberately go out to agitate in people's minds. So they actually have neuroscientists figuring out how to get people addicted to food, the food that we eat.

Jamie Wheal: That's salt, sugar, fat.

Dr. Gabor Mate: That's the whole salt, sugar, fat hypothesis, not hypothesis but revelation, they actually study. Now, the impact of the food addiction and the neuroscience, the nefarious neuroscience that goes into fostering food addictions from my point of view is far greater than the impact of drug addictions.

Jamie Wheal: They even called it the bliss point, they had a term for it.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Yeah. What level are you releasing the top level of dopamine and endorphins in the brain which are the addictive chemicals in the brain that the stimulant drugs and the opiate drugs also target. So these food companies, or the cellphone companies, they go to work and say, "Well, how do we get the brain in its most addictive state?" Now, if you look at the health impact of that, just take the food for example, who's more culpable? An executive who then sells junk foods to millions knowing the impact and therefore fosters an epidemic of diabetes and obesity around the world, which is what we're seeing right now, and by the way diabetes and obesity are major risk factors for COVID of course.

So these people, from a certain point of view, they don't mean to, they're not trying to kill us they're just trying to sell us products but they do kill us, they just don't care if we die. So they're considered great corporate executives who get huge payouts as opposed to somebody in the Downtown Eastside who sells an ounce of cocaine and ends in jail, and they're doing the same thing. So this is the nature of our culture, and they both feed on trauma. I think we live in a highly traumatized culture.

It's when people are traumatized that they need to soothe themselves through junk food, and they're traumatized by isolation, by economic stresses, by childhood experiences, by the increasing separation of life in this society, these all discombobulate people's brain physiology and they want to soothe themselves through all kinds of addictive behaviors. Now, with the Downtown Eastside patients that I had, and not just my own addicted patients, but if you look at the literature the more child trauma you experience the more your brain then is programmed to turn to addictions, for all kinds of reasons, some of which have to do with the impact of trauma and brain development itself, and some of it is just the fact that the more trauma you experience the more pain you'll have, and the more pain you'll have the more escape from pain you'll experience, or desire.

In all addictions, whether to food, whether to sex, whether to gambling, whether to work, whether to political power, whether to drugs, whether to shopping, did I stay eating? All have to do with self-soothing, and when do people have to soothe themselves? When there's some kind of pain, and what is the source of that pain? Some degree of past trauma and present stress. So during the COVID crisis, for example, we're seeing a real uptick in drug overdoses here in Vancouver, all of which-

Jamie Wheal: You've actually been seeing that ...

Dr. Gabor Mate: Sorry?

Jamie Wheal: ... clinically? You've been seeing that clinically? That is actually what's happening?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Oh, yeah. No, they're setting records for overdoses now ...

Jamie Wheal: Wow!

Stress from 2020 Linked to Increase in Drug Overdoses

Dr. Gabor Mate: ... historical records. In one month, in July here in Vancouver, we had 170 people die of overdoses, up to that period in all of the six months of COVID we've had 204 deaths. So in one month we had nearly as many deaths from overdoses as we've had from COVID in six months.

Jamie Wheal:  Wow!

Dr. Gabor Mate: We're seeing this internationally, increase in overdoses, increase in alcoholism, increase in domestic violence under the COVID stress, but really it's a combination of past trauma acting on, or I should say current stress acting on past trauma, and that's a combination that drives people into dysfunctional behaviors, or they either act out their traumas on other people, or they try and soothe it internally through substance use, or some other addictive pattern.

Jamie Wheal: Also, talk to me about this because in my understanding of your work on both trauma and ADD you've taken a sort of environmental constructivist stance in the sense that it is people's lived experience, it's their exposure to their environment, it's how we go and neuroplastically, epigenetically, psychosocially develop and encode our experiences that set the conditions for these things. Good news is that if that's how we got there we can also lead our way out of it.

When we're describing the hacks or modifications to our diet versus big AG marketing campaigns for salt, sugar, and fat, or we talk about social media and tech algorithms doing the same, or online shopping, at first there's a desire like, "Oh, we need to get back to some better, more natural, more balanced state where people had connection, belonging, touch, all of the things that appear to be absent that are prompting us to self-soothe with these less constructive addictive behaviors." So I have a question that gets us to the Russoian ideas of tabula rasas where their ideal states, Maria Montessori famously laid out the ideas of what does a child in their natural state want to learn and express versus what's put in front of them these days.

So, if things like salt, sugar, and fat, the reason we lose our minds for them is because if salt was a rare essential mineral sweet was only true for honeycombs, and two weeks of fruit flourishing, and fat was the highest quality storage of calories you could possibly get your hands on, so now if you have them all at once in one place you'll lose your mind, and the same with pornography, sexually available abundant mates were incredibly rare, especially uncontested teens by other alphas and suddenly young boys have access to that. So how do we strike the balance, is there a more natural state for us to get back to these days or not?

Dr. Gabor Mate: For the line, no. I don't much favor these evolution-based explanations, they don't explain why the big change in the last 30, 40 years.

Jamie Wheal: In what way would we explain change?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, people have always wanted sugar, salt, and fats but that wasn't the level of addiction that we have right now. There wasn't the level of mental illness that we have right now, all these kids being diagnosed with ADD but where did that come from? Why are more people developing autoimmune disease? Why are women having 80% of all autoimmune diseases as opposed to men?

Jamie Wheal: Did you say 8-0, 80?

Dr. Gabor Mate: 8-0, yeah. So these evolution-based explanations they may touch upon some aspects of it, but they don't explain the full picture. So the fully explained that I believe you have to really put people, as you said in the beginning of this question, in the context of their experience. So I don't think that human beings are tabula rasa that you can just paint or carve any message onto, I think you have to begin with what human needs are, so what are the essential needs of a human infant? Now, our needs are not arbitrary, they're natural-based, and as a natural-based that's how we evolved.

Our nervous system is a wire of expectation for certain needs being met, and when those needs are not met development doesn't happen optimally, in fact it's distorted. Now, if you look at human evolution our species has been on the earth for, I've seen various figures, 130,000-200,000 years, homo sapiens. Before then there were other hominins, homo-creatures that were not sapiens, so that's been hundreds of thousands of years, and if you look at hominids, which are human-like but ape-like, I think it's been millions of years. So we're talking about millions of years of evolution that builds in certain needs that human beings have. Every animal, every plant, every organism has these evolutionary needs, and if the environment meets those needs they'll develop optimal and if the environment does not provide them development will be distorted.

Now, if you look at just our own species, never mind even our ancestors, for most of those 130,000 or 200,000 or 100,000 years that homo-sapiens have been in the earth how did we live? Well, until of a blink of an eye lives ago we lived in hunter-gatherer small groups out there in nature, so lived in community, in touch with nature, [inaudible 00:21:13] isolated individual, aggressive competitive individuals who could not possibly have survived that way. The needs of the human infant, like the needs of any mammalian infant, is to be held, to be nurtured, to be responded to, to be seen, to be received, to be protected, to be loved, not just by an isolated mother or father struggling in an apartment or a bungalow, cut off from extended family, cut off from community, but actually in a communal group.

We're wired for connection, we're wired for interaction, we're wired for being understood, for being seen, for being held, and that was the human being in the state of nature until this long ago in terms of evolution. So then civilization happens, first with agriculture about 12,000 years ago, and then with various levels of urbanification, and then social divisions, and class divisions, and the subjugation of the matriarchy to the patriarchy, and then the rise of some more sophisticated civilization, you go through slavery and feudalism, and then you come to capitalism, and under each of these civilized systems the actual needs of the human child are being met less, and less, and less, and less until you come to today where they're met the least.

If we're looking at the problems in human development it's the environment that we have to look at. Take something like ADD, which is what I've been diagnosed, well you can say it's a genetic disease, which it isn't, I'm not going to go into the argument, but the genetic argument is laughably scientifically thin based on twin studies that don't stand up to scrutiny if you think about them for a moment.

Jamie Wheal: Because you're much sort of like Ned Hallowell's original thesis and some of that?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Yeah, most experts on ADHD regard it as a genetic, it's a heritable disease. I mean, I could go into the argument about it, I feel like I will ...

Jamie Wheal: No, it's okay.

Dr. Gabor Mate: ... but I'll skip it for you.

Jamie Wheal: I'm more of a Sertraline, yeah.

What Causes Disassociating from Stressful Situations?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, let me just start with something. What is the hallmark of ADD? Tuning out, absent-mindedness. Now, what is tuning out? Is it a disease, genetic or otherwise? No, it's a response to the environment. We tune out, we actually disassociate to some degree when the situation is too stressful for us to deal with.

Jamie Wheal: Or not salient, right?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Right.

Jamie Wheal: Or not salient, not interesting or relevant to my ...

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, I'm talking about the infants, I'm talking about the infants here. If somebody's not interesting you might not tune out you just might turn your attention to something else, but tuning out in the sense of dissociation is a defensive response. So when does that happen? That happens when we're in the situation of stressed and we can't escape it or change it. If you take my infancy in Hungary under the Nazis, and my mother's emotional states, and terrors, and fears in that terrible year that we went through never knowing what might happen when, of course I would tune out a lot as an infant. It's the only way I could survive, but this is when my brain is developing.

Then the tuning out becomes wired in. Now they say I got a genetic disease, no I don't. I've got this defense mechanism, this adaptation that became ingrained, and once it's ingrained it's really hard to dislodge it. So it looks like a disease but it isn't. If you're looking at what's happening with kids across North America now, why are millions being medicated now for ADHD, and by the way it tends to be the poorer kids, the more traumatized kids who get diagnosed and medicated, it's because there's so much stress in the parenting environment. It's not because parents are not loving their kids, or because they're less dedicated, or less devoted to their kids, it's because the parents themselves are so stressed.

I mean, their parents are stressed the kids are stressed, and one way they deal with it is to tune out. So rather than looking at the problem from the point of view of individual neurobiology, let's look at it systemically, and what is happening to a lot of families and a lot of kids in this culture of increasing separation, and heightened stress, and increasing insecurity. That's the real question. That means when we deal with these kids, rather than just trying to change their brain biology by giving them a pill how about working to change their environment? How about working to teach teachers how to recognize the signs of trauma and help them accommodate? So that rather than punishing the child or controlling the child how about healing the child through warm, loving, nurturing relationships? but unfortunately, this is not a perspective that's taught in medical schools, or in educational faculties, or legal faculties, and certainly not to politicians.

Jamie Wheal: Well, so again I mean you're making such a compelling case that so much of this is culturally constructed environmental exposure and experience, and then you were hinting at a couple of asymmetrically high impact levers, and whether that's food companies, whether that's the medical establishment, the educational systems, those kind of things, what happens, and you said they're not trying to kill us they just don't care if we die.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Yeah. Actually that's a title out of a chapter out of my new book, by the way.

Jamie Wheal: Is it really?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Yeah.

Jamie Wheal: Is it exactly that?

Dr. Gabor Mate: They're not trying to kill us, they just don't care if we die.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Well, I mean, I remembered it because it's a zinger. There's that question of, okay so we're not on a blank slate, we're not in a state of nature, and in fact our environmental conditions are being asymmetrically shaped for goals, and outcomes, and agendas that are not the same as all the beautiful humanistic ones you're laying out. So what do we do now?

I mean, is this the protest in the streets, is this socialist movement to take down the capitalist system, is this peaceful non-violence, is this starting independent communities that just the Buckminster Fuller, the best way to change the system is to go build a different better one? What is your sense? You're obviously deep in this work writing this book right now, and I doubt that you would have taken the trouble to diagnose the problem so thoroughly if you didn't at least have some hope for solutions.

The Link Between Government and Health Issues

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, this is where I hesitate because the problem is systemic. I mean, if you have a system that's costly and with almost self-glorified glee is based on greed on everybody getting for themselves whatever they can at the expense of everybody else, I mean during this ... I just read an article yesterday, let me even find it if you give me a moment. In the United States during COVID, the wealth of billionaires has surged by nearly a trillion dollars since the beginning of the pandemic. Can you get that? The wealth of billionaires has surged by nearly a trillion dollars. Jeff Bezos of Amazon was a dirt poor like a church mouse little man back in March with only $113 billion, now he's got 200 billion.

Jamie Wheal: Wow!

Dr. Gabor Mate: This is during COVID, when millions are being thrown out of work and they're-

Jamie Wheal: Naomi Klein's term in disaster capitalism.

Dr. Gabor Mate: It's totally Naomi's disaster of capitalism. But when that's the gold standard, and these are our heroes, then what are you going to do about it? I don't have the political answers, I know what I would like to see, but you can't prescribe political change to somebody else. Political changes happen when they're ready to happen, so I personally don't believe that inside this system there are systemic solutions. I think this system is designed to work precisely the way it does.

When people say that this system is failing, it isn't, it's succeeding in doing exactly what it's designed to do, which is to enrich the rich and to impoverish the poor, and to empower the powerful and to disempower the weak and the vulnerable. It's working beautifully. Now, so people are going to have to come to terms with themselves what they want to do about them on a political level, but the politics as we run it these days, as you know, are designed to keep things going the way they are.

Well, most people recognize that Trump is a servant of the billionaire class with his tax cuts and so on, but the same transfer of upward transfer of wealth happened under Clinton, happened under Bush, happened under Obama. Politicians may vary to the degree, but not in equality of which system they serve. I mean, and then Obama with all his progressive rhetoric, and terrific charm, and intelligence, and grace, and articulateness, and probably good intentions, but nevertheless when he gets $400,000 to give a keynote to Wall Street executives they know what they're paying for.

But inside the system I don't know what to say. So then the question is, what do we do? Well, I do think people do have to engage in political activity to the extent that it motivates and makes sense to them, so whether that means politics, whether that means community organizing, whether that means street protests, whether that means trying to foster locally alternative type communities, it's whatever people ... but anything that gets you going and motivated and active is going to be beneficial for your health, because it's the disempowerment, and that helplessness, that passivity that this system fosters that really frustrates people and leaves them so stressed.

Then when you engage in those activities just keep an open mind, keep an open eye, "Okay, is this working? Is it not working? And if it's not, what else needs to happen?" That's some-

Jamie Wheal: That's an important critique. I mean there's that sense of change comes from within and we need to do what's right for us, take steps that are true for us, those kinds of things, and there's real empowerment in that. Then you'll hear people make systemic structural critiques and say, "That's really naïve." Because you are in fact powerless, and waking up to that fact is actually the critical thing to cause consciousness or whatever the next step in their story is that they're suggesting.

So how do we strike that balance between the personal as political, but also the trans-personal as political? How do we between individual life growth healing and then understanding that the levers of power ... because there's a few things that came up as you were describing the status of capitals, and one is Howard Bloom's book called The Genius of the Beast, and he basically describes capitalism like algal blooms, like galaxies, and supernovas, and black holes, he just says, "Look, boom bust is actually one of the most effective ways for propagating novelty in nature."

So when we look at the capitalist system and we see booms and busts and we say, "That's signs of moral rot." It might not be. I mean, it could also be, but it might not be. It might simply be that this system has its own internal intelligence, and this is how we ended up with cellphones and rockets to mars, and the collapses, the collateral damage, the creative destruction, is a feature not a bug of that specific system. You can't deny it, we got a ton more novelty in the last 500 years than we had for the last 100,000. Then you add in the brain scans on power, and how power can actually warp people's relatedness and the studies that show that the more people earn the less inclined they are to be generous.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Absolutely.

Jamie Wheal: It feels like we've got some structural things, so in the age of capitalism where we're hoping that all the winners are going to turn around to make the world a better place, it doesn't seem structurally like that's necessarily true. When you're talking about, "Well, hey, this system is designed to do what it does." And fill in the blanks and is taking us off a cliff, we don't have the time to be patient and wait for the new forest to grow up, we kind of have one crack at this it feels like. So what's your sense of, how do we strike the balance between a system that may at its fundamental levels not be designed for pro-social humanitarian outcomes that we care about, and we may not have the luxury of sitting on our hands waiting for an organic regime change, and I use that in the ecological sense not in the political sense, to take place? 

Illusioned vs. Disillusioned

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, that's a tough one. I think something that you said that struck me that you had to realize that you're actually powerless, well that also happens to be the first step in a 12-step groups is that you recognize that you're powerless over your addiction. I really highly recommend disillusionment, because when people say I've been disillusioned, people say, "I was disillusioned by Barack Obama." A lot of people say that, my question to them is, well that's okay, would you rather be illusioned or disillusioned?

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, or deluded, or disillusioned.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, illusioned is that would you rather have illusions or would you not have illusions, which is a more powerful state to be in? So to be disillusioned, to recognize the nature of the way things are is actually, which is that this system renders most people powerless, and there's lots of stock biz that show that the opinions of the average person makes slight bit of difference to policy because the opinions of the rich has all the impact on political policy. I mean, these studies have been done.

We might as well wake up to that fact. Now, on the other hand what are you supposed to do? Run out in the streets with guns and start shooting people? Clearly not. I think to some extent we do have to have a long-term view of it, so the question is not, then we say we don't have the patience, patience for what? When you take somebody like the Buddha or Jesus who each clearly had visions of a very humane human and divine reality based on empathy and love, just how successful were they in getting their regimes established on earth?

Jamie Wheal: Well, which is your assessment? Are you saying they were amazingly successful, or not that successful?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, if you look at in terms of results 2,000 year or 2,500 years later how successful were they? I'm saying they were not, not if you look at it in temporal terms, in the States particularly, but it's hardly a new phenomenon that some of the most rapidly violent, and aggressive, and hateful people do so in the name of the loving Jesus.

Jamie Wheal: Well, let's talk about that because clearly-

Dr. Gabor Mate: Just let me ...

Jamie Wheal: Okay.

Dr. Gabor Mate: ... finish, because I have to. What I'm saying is, but were they really failures? No, they were not. Because they spoke a vision, they experienced and spoke a vision that goes right to the heart of humanity, and their teaching and their examples are still with us, and still inspire many. There's a Jewish rabbi about 100 years before Jesus who said that, "The task is not yours to finish, but neither-

Jamie Wheal: Hella, yeah. Was it Hella?

Dr. Gabor Mate: I think it was the other who said that, who said, "The task is not yours to finish but neither are you free not to take part in it." So the question is not patience but question is with the time that I have what can I do, and how do I want to engage? Each person needs to answer that for themselves, and that's on the social level. Then, of course, on the individual level I certainly find that the more I integrate myself the more I deal with my trauma, the more conscious I am the more effective my speaking is and my actions are, and the less conscious I am the less effective I am.

I think it's a double pronged, again, you have to yes, okay, I don't want to relate to what's happening on the outside, but continually how do I relate to what's happening on the inside? That's very much an individual question for everybody. So I don't know what advice to give other than that. 

How to Handle Anger and Rage

Jamie Wheal: Well, let's try and stitch this together because you just referenced the sort of avatars of human compassion, whether that's Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tzu, et cetera, and the ripple effect that their example can hold, and we saw Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King take those lessons up very explicitly, Gandhi even called it satyagraha, Howard Thurman and Dr. King ended up calling it soul force. There was that sense of true Christ-like compassion, the ability to give beyond my own personal needs, and at the same time, which I'm seeing two trends right now, and I completely agree that that's our X factor, that's the transformative capacity right now in the face of lots of darkness.

I mean it always has been, all of our stories are like small bands of rebel misfits at the last minute against all odds to deliver goodness, truth, and beauty back to the world, but we have two things that are going on right now which we've been speaking of which is the accumulation of grief and trauma, and decentralized anti-hierarchical movements, and whether that's Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, any of these protest movements which for lots of understandable reasons are saying, "We don't want to follow a leader, we want this to be community based." But on the other hand, that Bodhisattvic impulse, the reason we know Gandhi's name and we know MLK's name is because they did something extraordinary in the face of hate. They transformed it.

As we are leveling our organizations and our movements right now, and many of us are suffering increasingly intensified trauma, which is prompting us to act out and lash out, how do we coalesce around some of those higher frequencies of human potential and transformative compassion?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, I could speak about it, the real history that, let's try the second one first. For yourself, do you notice that kind of impulse to lash out and to be aggressive or you're speaking more in general?

Jamie Wheal: I'm speaking in general, and just following the news cycles and seeing particularly further left turning their guns on center-left populations, whether that's in Academia or with any of these movements, and just feeling saddened by it.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Yeah, I understand. So here's what I can tell you, if you look at brain scan studies the more conservative people are, there's a structure in the temporal lobe of the brain on each side called the amygdala, and the amygdala is like an almond-shaped structure, it's the brain's fear center. Now, the bigger the amygdala the more likely is to somebody to have conservative authoritarian oppressive views politically.

So a lot of what goes down for right-wing politics is actually fear-based, where's that fear come from? Knowing that the brain develops an interaction with the environment, as I said earlier, those people were intimidated and hurt in childhood. So the political views, although they may think they have to do with rational principles and logic, actually has to do with childhood fear, and that's why they want an authoritarian father to take care of them.

Now, trauma also shows up on the left, and I've experienced it in myself that when I felt rage for other people who didn't agree with me, if I checked in with that rage, once I looked at it and for a long time I didn't, but once I did it had to do with rages that I've had since infancy at not being seen, at not being respected, at not being held, not being nurtured, and so on. All I can say is in response to your question is that when anybody notices that kind of rage in themselves and they think it's about the present situation and about the political situation, no it isn't. Your opinion might be, but the emotional charge that you infuse those opinion with have to do with your personal psychology.

Because Gandhi didn't dislike injustice any less than you did, but he wasn't rageful about it, and you might say the same thing of a Mandala, and you might say the same thing of a Martin Luther King, they weren't less principled, they weren't less politically analytically astute, but they weren't coming from a position of rage, which means that if they had rage and anger they dealt with them, but they didn't project it outwards onto other people.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, that's good.

Dr. Gabor Mate: So whenever we do that it's about our own stuff.

Healing And Integrating Trauma 

Jamie Wheal: But then we go back to, well, but none of those guys had cakewalk lives, it's not that they were absent the kinds of traumas that can hijack and block others. So, that kind of leads me into another curiosity I had with your experience with ayahuasca and psychedelic therapies, and obvious I would imagine that compared to methadone, and compared to lots of other more conventional interventions in the addiction space that something cathartic like eboga, ayahuasca is something that allows people to go deeply into their traumas and potentially release them is potentially powerfully helpful.

On the other hand, we end up with all of these asymptotes of improvement where one to three sessions of these kinds of compounds can provide really profound breakthroughs, 33 not so much, there's the entire baby boomer generation and the first round of psychedelics didn't create a lot of Bodhisattvas, it created a handful, but an awful lot of people just kind of lost the plot along the way. So what is your sense of that, what's your sense of the healing and integration power of peak experiences, and their relationship to true integration of trauma, and where are the limits, how can we set appropriate expectations for that?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, to go back to Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, I'm sure that what they did all have is some kind of rigorous practice. So they weren't looking to psychedelics, they were just looking to Gandhi was very aware of his own failings or foibles as a human being, but he did have a practice.

Jamie Wheal: Specifically sitting meditation in his ...

Dr. Gabor Mate: Yeah, that's right.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Yeah. Martin Luther King was a very spiritual person, I mean he had his foibles as well but his personal life was far from exemplary, but he nevertheless did have a strong spiritual commitment. Now, to go from that to psychedelics, so psychedelics are not drugs in the sense of drugs in the western sense are designed to change your brain state chronically. So if you've taken Prozac for depression, as I have, it was really designed to keep my brain in a certain state with certain serotonin levels so I wouldn't be irritable, or reactive, and depressed.

Psychedelics aren't drugs in that sense, they're not taken to change the biology of the brain, they're there to accept very momentarily so that in that altered state you have access to parts of your unconscious that otherwise would be repressed. So whether with ayahuasca, or eboga, or psilocybin, or MDMA, whether the natural plant substances, or whether the man-designed substances, there's an alteration of brain chemistry that can also happen for example with deep breath work.

So you don't have to take a substance, if anybody knows Stan Grof's Holotropic Breathwork, you breathe deeply and rapidly and that'll change the chemistry of your blood long enough that your brain gets into a different state and parts of your unconscious hidden or repressed are allowed to open up. So that's what the psychedelics are about.

They don't do what on their own spontaneously what they do for some people, but for most people there has to be guidance, there has to be the right setting for it, there has to be the right intention. So it's quite one thing for people to drop acid to have a good time at a party, it's quite another for them to have a nasty experience under a guide to really explore what's happening inside them, and to have a transformative experience, and it's the same with any of these substances.

So intention, and the setting, and the guidance makes all the difference in the world. In the right setting, when intentions are fulfilled you get to know parts of yourself that you didn't even know existed, and you do that in two senses. One is that you might get to see some pure loving, open-hearted part of you that had been really closed because of early trauma, I've had that experience, or on the other hand you might really get in touch with early sorrow, and agony, and primitive angst that you didn't know you experienced, and rage, and fear.

But if that's held in the right context then you can go through it and let go, as opposed to continually repressing it. Having said all that, for all the psychedelic work I've done over the years and I've facilitated over the years I certainly cannot say that, I've learned a lot from them and I know they've had an impact, I cannot hold myself up as, "Look at me, I'm a transformed person." Because of psychedelics or because of anything else, because I know how much my patterns still keep showing up, and how much I have to deal with them on a regular basis.

So there are no panacea, I've known people whose lives have been profoundly changed by psychedelics, whose light directions has altered a dime and they're on 180 different direction to their joy and satisfaction and happiness, I congratulate such people, but I don't think there's any recipes. It's just another modality to explore in the right environment, so I'm not an evangelist for psychedelics, I also see their potential, and I've seen it in practice.

Jamie Wheal: So final question, given your assessment of the state of things, the state of the world, the need for people to take responsibility for their own healing and integration, and then also take responsibility for their part in a bigger conversation. If you were to, and I don't know whether you're doing this in your current book or not, but if you were to lay out what is your sense of an integrated model of trauma relief, so you can pull any tool you would like off the shelf and you could put it together what would be a core set of practices or experiences that you would think would be most helpful for the most people in managing micro and macro PTSD?


How Can People Manage And Overcome PTSD?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, and beyond PTSD there's a lot of people who are traumatized who don't qualify for this specific diagnosis of PTSD. PTSD is only a specific constellation of symptoms, on the trauma spectrum it's only a small swath of the general autonomous spectrum, and then most of us in the society are somewhere in that trauma spectrum, even though we don't have PTSD.

It's impossible for me to have a general response to that, there's so many good treatments out there, so the first thing is what you pointed to earlier about just waking up to the fact that it's not right, and that something else is possible. I mean, there's two things that are necessary, first of all, some dissatisfaction with your experience of life, of yourself, and of the world. The Greek playwright once said in one of his plays that human beings, the way that God's created us we have to suffer into the truth.

So to some degree of suffering usually some people have the fortunate experience but they're very rare of being woken up just because of grace, most of us, and if I'm any example, you have to suffer repeatedly. Then that's the first thing, but suffering is not enough because suffering may also lead you to get totally despondent and helpless and disheartened, so you also have to believe in the possibility that you deserve something different and something else is at least possible. So those are the two beginnings, the recognition of suffering and of course what the Buddha says that there's a way out of suffering, it doesn't have to be this way.

Having said that then, specifically, well it depends on what your resources are, and what you're up for, but there's ways of working with the body, somatosensory experiencing, and somatic experiencing, and working with the mind, EMDR, various types of counseling, the modalities of mindfulness work in all its various shapes and forms, some of it more spiritually inclined, some of it is just more for its own sake of just being mindful regardless of any spiritual aspirations. Certainly from a spiritual angle some recognition that the world is bigger than our little egos, that we belong to something much greater, and that we're a natural part of something much greater, whether we recognize it or not, it's some opening to strive for.

My own method is called compassionate inquiry, which really means to be curious about everything that happens to you, and to be curious about it in a compassionate way. So, for example, the next time you say to yourself, "Why did I do this?" That's not compassionate, there's no question there, it's a self-judgment, but what if you said, "I wonder why you did this given that I'm a good person, well-intentioned, intelligent, and I keep doing this over and over again, what is that all about? How's that serving me? Where did it originate from?" That's called compassion inquiry.

There is Dick Schwartz and his internal family systems where we work with different parts of ourselves, the hateful parts, and the lovable parts, and the addicted parts, and we accept them all, and we're inquiring to them all, this work really-

Jamie Wheal: I love that, because that just resolves so much of the normal tension to fix things, or solve things, or repress, or transcend, you're just like, "Hey, you all play a part."

Dr. Gabor Mate: Yeah, and both his method and my compassionate inquiry is designed exactly to do that, just to be curious about it, to look at it compassionately. Then of course as you do either of those then the person who is looking and wants to understand, you start to learn, that's the real you.

Jamie Wheal: Make an offering to our hungry ghosts, feed them.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Yeah. So, lots of methods but overall it's the recognition of suffering, the recognition that I deserve not to suffer and other people deserve not to suffer, that's compassion, and that there are ways out of the suffering.

Jamie Wheal: Final thing, what looking into the world ahead gives you hope?

What Gives You Hope?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Well, I always quote Noam Chomsky on that one, he was once asked if he was a optimist or a pessimist and he said, "Strategically I'm an optimist, and tactically I'm a pessimist." What I take that to mean is in the long term if I didn't believe in the ultimate goodness and potential wisdom of human beings, the potential in human beings to wake up, I wouldn't be doing the work that I'm doing nor do I think anybody I know would be doing the work they're doing. So that's my optimism, is about human beings.

Tactically, in the short term, I think things are going to get worse for a lot of people. I think that's the nature of this system, it's going to extract a lot more suffering from people. That's how it's designed, and I don't believe present political arrangements are adequate to reverse that trend, on the contrary I think they're designed to keep it going in the same direction. All the more reason for people to wake up, but then look at all the waking up that has happened.

10 years ago, and certainly after 9/11 which is almost 20 years ago now, if you questioned the system and if you mentioned the word capitalism you'd be seen as a raving lunatic, but right now people are talking about the nature of the system very openly in the pages of The New York Times.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, the financial times. You're like, "Holy shit! People are talking about the collapse of neoliberalism." Yeah.


About Dr. Mate’s Book

Dr. Gabor Mate: So people are actually looking at these things now. So my book which comes out in a year, if I can be shamelessly unctuous here for a moment.

Jamie Wheal: Please, do. We want to hear about it.

Dr. Gabor Mate: The title is The Myth of Normal: Illness and Health in an Insane Culture, and that's what I think we're looking at. I don't think the system on its own is going to recover from its insanity without a lot of impetus, and activism, and engagement on the part of a lot of people.

Jamie Wheal: Please say that again, say that title again.

Dr. Gabor Mate: The Myth of Normal: Illness and Health in an Insane Culture.

Jamie Wheal: That's beautiful, and is it available for pre-order yet on Amazon and book sites?

Dr. Gabor Mate: Oh my God. Listen, one of my anxieties have been I've got four more weeks to finish this long overdue manuscript and I've written much more than necessary because I'll have to cut it down. Sometimes I feel deep anxiety in my heart, I'm genuinely sharing this, that I have too much to say and not enough to say. So I got to get this done, and nothing is available yet, but it has been taken up by big publishers in the States, Canada, and the UK so if I succeed in finishing it and I'm whittling it down to size it should be out in about a year or so, and perhaps then I could talk about it again then if that's of interest to you.

Jamie Wheal: We absolutely will. I told you, I'm right there with you and I submit in a week, and the title of the book is Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex and Death for a World That's Lost Its Mind. We're right on the same page, and I ended up with 120,000 words because as this year happened basically the first third of my book, which was just setting up, "Hey, we might want to conceive of the inconceivable." It all happened. So it was like, "Boom! Never mind, I don't need to make that argument anymore." And then found myself with this out of hand giant manuscript which we've been taking a chainsaw to.

Dr. Gabor Mate: This one I have doubled the number of words that you've got and I'm still not finished yet, but I'll have to cut it down, but I've had the same experience that everything I was writing about all of a sudden gets confirmed by COVID.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Everything.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, and you're like, "I don't need to relitigate this, in fact everyone's going to be tired of these points by the time my book comes out." It's fascinating. Well, Gabor, thank you and I mean thank you for taking the time today, thank you for your entire life, and body of work, and testimony to courage and compassion, and we absolutely count you as a emeritus member of Homegrown Humans. You're on the team of humanity finding its way forward, so thank you again for spending time with us, and good luck on your manuscript.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Thank you. It's a great pleasure to chat with you, thanks a lot.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, cheers.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Okay, thank you.

Jamie Wheal: Be well.

Dr. Gabor Mate: Okay, you too. Bye-bye. So you let us know when this is on so we ... 

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