The Myth of Normal

by Gabor Maté

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Chapters 31–33 Summary

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Last Updated on November 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1164

Chapter 31: Jesus in the Tipi: Psychedelics and Healing

Maté recounts his experience of being fired from a retreat which he was supposed to be facilitating in Peru by a group of Shipibo shamans. For many years he has run these retreats, in which participants take ayahuasca and he helps them to process the resulting visions and revelations. Although he performed this role well for others, he himself was stubbornly resistant to the effects of the ayahuasca. On this occasion, at the Temple of the Way of Light near Iquitos, the shamans told him that he had a “dense dark energy” which disturbed the atmosphere and imperiled the work the shamans were doing with the other participants.

Maté was isolated from the retreat and worked alone with a shaman. On the fifth night, he experienced an ecstatic vision which lasted for almost two hours. He cannot describe what he saw but recalls “the transcendent joy of it.” The shamans later told him that the other doctors and therapists on the retreat had been an unusually “heavy bunch.” As healers themselves, they recognized that these were people laden down with the pain and trauma their patients brought them but who had failed to care for themselves as the shamans did.

Since the publication of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, his book on addiction, in 2009, Maté has investigated the uses of psychedelics in treating addicts and developed a profound respect for their efficacy. The word psychedelic was coined by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond from the Greek words for soul and reveal, and the author regards “revealing consciousness” as an appropriate term for the effect these drugs have. Psychedelics allow more communication between the conscious and the unconscious minds, opening up the conscious mind to a more expansive view of space and time and releasing it from the grip of the ego. After his vision, the author understood the words of the Comanche chief Quanah Parker, who said, “the white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus. . . but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus.”

Chapter 32: My Life as a Genuine Thing: Touching Spirit

Until the vision described in the last chapter, which occurred in 2019, the author had never experienced a spiritual revelation. Through this experience, he learned that healing takes place outside the thinking mind, that such revelatory experiences as he had cannot be planned, and that he needed to surrender control of the situation for it to happen. When it did happen, he understood that healing was not necessarily “some monumental cathartic release.” He was able to alter his own relationship with himself and with the past in a way that went “beyond acceptance” and to embrace “the peace that was my birthright and essence, ever present and ever possible.”

Society encourages people to seek whatever is missing in their lives outside themselves rather than in any form of spirituality. The journalist Michael Brooks described the spiritual quest as “separating myself from the stuff that separates me from me.” This can be achieved in many different ways, through meditation, silence and contemplation, yoga, reading the spiritual classics, or encounters with nature. For the indigenous peoples of the world, unity with nature has always been a central element of their culture. Their relationship with the earth is not an ethical commitment to environmentalism but a love affair. The author describes the wisdom of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples as “a rich treasure trove of traditions about ways of living and dying that deserve and demand our humble curiosity and respect.”

The psychiatrist Lewis Mehl-Madrona, who is part-Lakota, recalls one of his teachers at medical school saying that the job of a physician is to slow the relentless decline of the human body into “death, disease, and decay.” This shocked him, because it was so at odds with what his grandmother had taught him, that you should be healthy when you die in order to “party on the other side.” She, like the rest of her people, saw no inevitable connection between sickness and death. This wisdom did not need to be taught in medical school. It came from the stillness that allows people in touch with nature to listen to the “still small voice” described in the Bible, and which is present in all spiritual traditions. 

Michael Meade refers to the collective knowledge and ancient wisdom of traditional societies as “a thought in the heart,” and the author believes that such thoughts can fill the absences in people’s lives left by individualism and contemporary culture.

Chapter 33: Unmaking a Myth: Visioning a Saner Society

The author asks how the myth of normal might be unmade and admits that it is much easier to describe the problem than to solve it. However, he wants at least to offer an alternative vision of how the culture could be. He recalls a conversation with Noam Chomsky, who said that he had to remain optimistic about the possibility of change or there would be no point in continuing to live. In order to effect such change in the real world, one must shed one’s illusions and even “welcome being disillusioned.” The author was an idealistic Communist when he was a child, but his illusions were shattered in 1956 by the “swift and bloody suppression” of the Magyar uprising. Later, his illusions about the inherent goodness of America were dispelled by the war in Vietnam. The loss of faith was painful at the time, but the author noticed in each case that when it was gone, something within him relaxed.

One change in society that would make an important and positive difference would be a greater general awareness of trauma and the nature of healing. If the medical system were well informed about trauma, it could prevent a vast amount of suffering. As things stand, the process of training to be a physician is in itself traumatic, and doctors perpetuate a system that compounds the problem. Much the same is true of the misnamed “correctional system,” which reduces people to their illegal behavior and fails to take account of the trauma they have endured. A trauma-informed educational system would prioritize the well-being and healthy development of young people.

The chapter concludes with examples of people who are trying to change the world, including Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, and Nan Goldin, who has attacked Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin. The author reminds the reader that the Chinese character for crisis is a compound of the symbols for danger and opportunity. Thunberg and her fellow activists can see both. Young people are thoroughly disillusioned with a system which places short-term profit over the survival of all life on earth, but this means they are awake to the toxic culture in which they are living and are trying to change it. If other people will also wake up to reality, there is now a great opportunity to reconcile what is normal with what is natural.

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Chapters 28–30 Summary