by Constance Ryan
My inward journey began in 1998 when I experienced a personal crisis. This article describes the steps taken to find recovery and the unexpected outcomes. An outline is given of my personal background and what prompted me to seek help. This is followed by a description of my experience as a client in therapy and the motivating factors that led to my decision to become a psychotherapist. I write about other forms of inner exploration undertaken, including my experience of Holotropic Breathwork. The concluding section reviews the resultant changes which have occurred in my work as a psychotherapist and in my personal life.
When I was 39 years old, I had been married 12 years and we had recently realised we would not be able to have children. The realisation was overwhelming and I became overwrought with anxiety. My sleep pattern was severely disrupted. I was unable to concentrate or work and was rapidly losing weight. There were no words to describe my feelings nor could I understand what was happening. The most prominent and recurring thought was of going insane. At the time it was impossible for me to see any link between my life events and current feelings. During the same year both of my now deceased parents were re-admitted to psychiatric hospital for treatment of depression.
At the time of my own crisis I went to see my doctor. She immediately diagnosed depression and prescribed psychoactive medication. As a lifelong witness to my parents’ mental health experiences, I knew that medication could not resolve depression. The realisation that I was taking the same path as my parents was terrifying. Leaving the doctor’s surgery I felt hopeless. I took the medication because I did not have an alternative. The effect of taking the medication was to feel even more out of control.
Two months later a cousin suggested going to see a psychotherapist. Even though I had never heard of a talking therapy, I was desperate and willing to consider any alternatives. Fortunately, an understanding and experienced psychotherapist was available at short notice and an appointment was made. It felt strange talking about myself but after the first session I felt a glimmer of hope. It was deeply shocking to realise that I had never been listened to. This was the first time I spoke of my childhood and inner world. After the third session I knew there was genuine help available. My first step of recovery was to stop taking the medication.
Being in therapy was exciting and I looked forward to practically every session. After two years of weekly therapy sessions the depression lifted. I was astonished that there was a cure for depression. Over their lifetimes, my parents had taken many types of anti-depressants, tranquillisers, anti- psychotics, sleeping tablet medication, spent various times in psychiatric hospitals and received numerous electric shock treatments, but regrettably they never recovered from depression. It was during this time that I started thinking about studying to become a psychotherapist. My interest was initially for my own benefit so as to help copper-fasten my own recovery. Because of my self-doubt I did not dare to think I would be good enough to become a psychotherapist. My goal at the time was to learn as much as possible about how the mind works and to complete the training. I signed up for the course and spent four enjoyable years in college.
As a student, I was introduced to inspirational writers such as Freud, Jung, Rogers, Yalom and Klein, learning about psychodynamic and Rogerian approaches, cognitive and Gestalt therapies, group processes, skills training and group supervision. I discovered that depression was “an emotion and not a disease” (Corry & Tubridy, 2005: 7-8).
In 2003 I qualified as a psychotherapist. I had achieved a level of competency and confidence that I could work as a psychotherapist. Surprisingly, I also had more questions than answers. My life was definitely improving but I lacked confidence in my own abilities. I still struggled with intense fear, guilt, self-doubt, fear of authority figures and had difficulty with intimate relationships. I knew I could help clients overcome depression and get in touch with feelings. But could I really help them when I had so many doubts about myself?
On a friend’s recommendation I decided to attend a weekend workshop on Holotropic Breathwork. It sounded interesting and different from any previous workshop or course attended. Holotropic BreathworkTM was developed in the late 1970s by Czech psychiatrist Dr. Stanislav Grof, based on his many years of research into the therapeutic effects of the psychedelic drug LSD in a hospital setting. He concluded from his research that the drug can be considered “an amplifier or catalyst of mental processes” (Grof, 1985: 29) that encouraged the subject’s own unconscious dynamics to emerge into consciousness with dramatic emotional and physical power. During the 1960s, the popular unsupervised use of LSD for recreational use resulted in negative publicity and the subsequent banning of LSD in most countries. Grof looked to other cultures to learn alternative techniques for gaining access to the deeper levels of consciousness. He decided on a simple non-drug technique of accelerated breathing, supported by music, which could induce states very similar to LSD effects and he called it Holotropic Breathwork (Boroson, Duffy & Egan, 1995: 233).
The venue for the workshop was the Irish Centre for Shamanic Studies which is located in Dunderry Park, Co. Meath. The venue is a 200-year-old, secluded, beautiful Georgian residence located at the end of a long winding avenue, surrounded by many ancient oak trees, beside a lake and nestled among twenty-five acres of woodland. On the evening of my arrival the three facilitators warmly welcomed the participants and introduced themselves. A brief lecture was given about Holotropic Breathwork theories, the breathing technique, safety guidelines and the range of experiences that participants could expect during the three-hour session the following day. The facilitators explained that their main role was to provide safety, containment, support and help when requested. They offered bodywork when asked but otherwise did not intervene with the breather’s experience. Participants were then given an opportunity to ask questions. Each individual chose a partner for the weekend and decided who would breathe first the following day. Those breathing in the morning were asked to fast and refrain from eating breakfast the next day. I decided I would breathe first. I was excited and nervous when I went to bed.
The next morning the 24 participants arrived in the workroom and picked either a mat or beanbag. I took my place on the mat and discussed practical guidelines with my sitter, such as support when needing a bathroom visit and supplying, when needed, a purging bucket, tissues and water. The room was darkened and those on the mats were offered eye shades. I lay down and put on my eyeshades. A facilitator read a poem and guided us through a brief relaxation exercise and the breathers were asked to increase their rate of breathing. I listened to the tribal drumming music and, as suggested, accelerated my breathing.
During the end of the first hour, I started to feel cramps in my hands and a build-up of tension in my body. It seemed as if my body had a life of its own as it began to move and I started to make sound. The movements and sounds seemed to be coming from a source other than myself. I purposely did not try to analyse what was happening. Gradually the movements became more exaggerated and energised. This continued until the music style changed from percussion to emotional and spiritual. I then relaxed and I lay quietly on the mat. I got in touch with very intense childhood emotions which had until then been repressed and shut off from awareness. Towards the end of the session one of the facilitators offered and I accepted bodywork techniques to help release energy blockages. My voice erupted and I roared. I eventually got sick. By the end of the session I felt deeply peaceful and also very excited. After the session food was served and a group sharing took place later. That night I was unable to sleep due to excitement. Most of the night was spent writing and trying to capture the numerous insights which kept coming from an unknown source. What impressed me most was the absence of fear for the first time in living memory.
My experience in Dunderry Park had a profound effect and made me determined to find out as much as possible about non-ordinary states of consciousness. I discovered that there was a vast field of study called transpersonal psychology. Abraham Maslow and Stanislav Grof coined the term ‘transpersonal psychology’ in the mid-20th century in order to describe peak or spontaneous mystical experiences which were generally discredited or ignored by the existing fields of Freudian and behavioural psychology.
Stanislav Grof believes that transpersonal experiences occur when an individual:
feels that his or her consciousness has expanded beyond the usual ego boundaries and has transcended the limitations of time and space.
The experiences can involve the superconscious mind and include visions of archetypal forms, deities or demons, complex mythological sequences, intuitive understanding of universal symbols, experiences of the flow of chi energy, arousal of kundalini, activation of various chakras, identity with the universal mind or meta-cosmic void.
(Grof, 1985: 131)
I returned to Dunderry Park many times over the next three years to participate in more workshops on Holotropic Breathwork and to study shamanism. The director of Dunderry Park and a Jungian psychotherapist, Martin Duffy, defines shamanism as:
humanity’s most ancient tradition for healing, solving problems and for keeping in harmony with nature, society and other people. Traditionally a shaman is a person who can change their state of consciousness at will in order to journey to other realities to obtain power and knowledge for themselves and others.
I travelled to various countries to train as a Holotropic Breathwork facilitator and to investigate cross-cultural shamanic practices. I read various books on traditional and contemporary shamanism, Zen Buddhism, mythology, near-death experiences, perennial philosophy, contemplative Christianity and mysticism.
The Jungian analyst, scientist and author, Arnold Mindell, provided a frame of reference and context for my breathwork experiences. I could relate to his descriptions of the “dreambody” or “shaman’s body”:
The shaman’s body is a name for unusual experiences and altered states of consciousness that try to reach your everyday awareness through signals such as body symptoms, movement and movement symptoms, dreams and messages from the environment
(Mindell, 1993: 3)
Mindell believes that “access to the dreambody is the key to health problems, relationship problems and it gives insight into the nature of the world” (4).
According to the author, your dreambody wants to wake you up and to discover your authentic self. It is constantly trying to get your attention. It tries to get your attention and awareness through signals such as chronic illness, addictions, unsolvable problems, impossible relationships, and feelings of insanity, despair or powerlessness. Its greatest challenge is to present you with impossible problems and wait for you to find a solution. It calls on you to transcend yourself and become more than you think you are.
Returning home and integration
As exhilarating as my altered state experiences were, I wondered about their practical usefulness. If they were to be of value I needed to find ways to integrate them into my day-to-day reality, my personal life and my work. Mindell expressed this point also in his book where he tries “to make the dreambody less mysterious and more accessible to reality so that it can be used to transfer mundane reality into that special place where life feels deep and meaningful” (Mindell, 1993: 4).
Psychotherapy training and the experience of being a client provided a comprehensive and broad understanding of how the psyche functions, but I still had the same struggles with intimate relationships and fear of authority figures. When I discovered shamanism and breathwork, I was somehow able to access a deeper layer. For example, during one of my Holotropic Breathwork sessions which took place in Spain, I found a portal into a hidden and mysterious deeper self. With the help of a skilled facilitator, I experienced what is called in shamanic teachings a “soul retrieval” (Ingerman, 1991: 128). I suddenly understood why I felt so fearful. I saw very clearly that I was needy and co-dependent in relationships. In other words, I had an addiction not to a substance but to caretaking and fixing other people. Melody Beattie describes a co-dependent person as “one who had let another person’s behaviour affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behaviour” (Beattie, 1987: 36).
After much searching I found a transpersonal psychotherapist with expertise in healing family trauma, co-dependent relationships and addiction. With the therapist’s help I was able to see and accept the unacceptable. As an adult, every time I walked down the street and in every room I entered, I was continuously looking for my lost father and mother. I had not realised how deeply my childhood had affected me. Having this awareness brought profound shame and grief. On the therapist’s recommendation, I attended psychodrama workshops based on transforming co-dependency and joined a twelve-step support group and programme of recovery. Gradually I learned to let go of the shame and find self-acceptance.
My earlier work as a psychotherapist was guided by Rogers’s person-centred approach and his emphasis on the core qualities of congruence, empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard (O’Farrell, 1999: 31-34). Freud’s theories of the ego, id and superego were useful in understanding the structure of the psyche (Hall, 1954: 39-49). Aaron Beck’s cognitive behaviour therapy helped me unravel and understand distorted thinking patterns (Burns, 1999: 196-200; 272-273). The therapeutic tools I used were active listening, identifying defences, coping mechanisms, changing distorted thinking and identifying feelings.
After my transpersonal experiences my method of working changed. The same therapeutic tools are used but I now work on a deeper and more sensitive level. I am less judgmental when clients deflect, disconnect or avoid staying with uncomfortable feelings. I endeavour to role-model how to be a compassionate witness or observer. Clients are challenged but hopefully this is done in a gentle, respectful and empowering way. They are encouraged to identify and take responsibility for their projections. Body signals and signs of inner conflicts are observed and feedback is offered when appropriate. When I feel bored, useless, disconnected or doubt myself, it can indicate projective identification and the issue is brought to my next supervision session.
Fate allowed me take a different path to my parents, and I will be forever grateful for this gift. Psychotherapy empowered me and was a key factor in my recovery. I believe in it because it really does work. It offers genuine help and hope. I wish someone had told my parents about psychotherapy. It is a privilege to be able to offer real help and hope to those in distress.
My personal journey to recovery has taken many years and is ongoing. It has required my taking a multi-disciplinary approach which has included psychotherapy, transpersonal psychology, shamanism, co-dependency, addiction and twelve-step programs and contemplative Christianity. To my surprise I discovered that these diverse disciplines have in common a belief in a transcendent self, a higher intelligence, a higher power or a benign and loving God. My inward journey will continue. I don’t know the final destination nor who the driver is. It is mysterious, exciting and unpredictable. I wonder where my eclectic journey will take me next?
Constance Ryan is an IAHIP accredited psychotherapist in private practice and facilitator of co-dependency group work in County Wicklow.
Beattie, M. (1990), Codependent no more. Minnesota: Hazelden Press.
Boroson, M., Duffy. M. & Egan, B. (1995). Holotropic breathwork. In Boyne, E. (ed.). Psychotherapy in Ireland, Dublin: Columba Press.
Burns, D.D. (1999). The feeling good handbook. New York: Penguin Group Publishers.
Corry, M. & Tubridy, A. (2005). Depression: An emotion, not a disease. Cork: Mercier Press.
Duffy, M. (2006). Shaman’s journey: Basic workshop. Retrieved 12 April 2015 from:
Grof, S. (1985). Beyond the brain: Birth, death and transcendence in psychotherapy. New York: State University of New York Press.
Hall, C.S. (1954). A primer of Freudian psychology. London: World Publishing Company.
Ingerman, S. (1991). Soul retrieval. New York: Harper Collins Press.
Mindell, A. (1993). The shaman’s body. New York: Harper Collins Press.
O’Farrell, U. (1999). First steps in counselling. Dublin: Veritas Publications.