“I was wiping my mouth after another round of puking bitter, liquorice-flavoured gunge when the shaman took a seat at the top of my mattress and started singing to me. My body started shaking. Then my father appeared in front of me, and then his father, too, lying in bed moments from death, exactly as I remembered the scene six years earlier. Except this time, I watched through the eyes of my father as he died all over again, with tears that felt like two-ton weights falling out of my eyes. It felt as though my soul was emptying itself out.”
Journal entry, Temple of the Way of Light, Peru, Dec 2019
By Alexander Faubel
Why did I spent a wedge of money to travel to Peru, drink some kind of strange brew cooked in the Amazon jungle, lie in a circle with a bunch of strangers being repeatedly sick and re-play my grandfather’s death? Because somehow, I knew it would lead me to where I am right now, my shoulders lifted, my soul lighter, totally focused, doing work that is more fulfilling than I could ever have imagined. The jungle, the shaman, the foul brew — they are the reason I –
- Have started a life coaching practice, helping others to become their true selves, find their purpose and see the beauty in life.
- Have launched the Journeys podcast — a platform for others to share their personal stories of inner work, self-development and over-coming mental illness, and for academics, psychotherapists and psychedelic healing facilitators to share their expertise and insights.
- Am now launching this publication, which will pull together a writing team of psychedelic facilitators, yoga teachers, psychotherapists, neuroscientists and others engaged in their own healing work or guiding others. We will publish more personal journeys, yes, but we will also commission and curate content that answers the questions raised by podcast listeners, our clients, friends, families and readers. My dream is that it will become a rich hub of resources around psychedelic healing and other modalities, including links to the latest scientific research being carried out at world-leading health institutions as well as other resources we’ve found invaluable over the years on our own Journeys.
But let’s back up a bit and I’ll explain what happened in between.
I thought I had a pretty ‘normal’ childhood. A happy childhood.
Small town, ordinary family, two parents, two boys, born to a housewife and her IT sales executive husband. School, after school clubs, friends over to stay. Family holidays to various Turkish Robinson clubs with water-sports and teen clubs, camping trips to Italy or beach holidays across the border in Bordeaux. Mother so loving, dad — well… I knew he loved me, but nothing was ever quite good enough for him. I could never quite do enough to impress him — to get him to say…
“I’m proud of you, son.”
But that’s dads, right? All boys want to impress their dads, and their dads hold out in order to push them. That’s normal. Right?
When the time came to decide what to do with my life, it seemed obvious: I would do what my father did, like his father before him: become an IT sales exec. It was like the family tradition. I didn’t know what else to do, I might get rich quick and maybe — just maybe — that would make Dad proud and therefore me happy.
I joined IBM at the beginning of my 20s. In my first year, I was given impossible targets but being naïve and full of enthusiasm, I did whatever it would take to conquer them. I worked 80–100 hours a week and felt great about it. My girlfriend at that time said I’d burn myself out if I kept up that pace, but I didn’t listen. I just kept going. Work, work, work. Deliver numbers each quarter, get paid handsomely, plan to retire at 30 and sip mojitos on a beach for the rest of my life. I was out-earning my peers and enjoying spending it on myself — drinks, parties, travel. I was living the life, right…?
Until I wasn’t.
The more I put in the time and impressed my superiors and colleagues, the emptier I became inside. I began to feel I wasn’t actually going anywhere. The numbers weren’t coming in and my self-confidence slipped from week to week. Where once naiveté and enthusiasm carried me, increasingly self-doubt and worry kicked in. I was waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweats, lost almost 10kg and couldn’t find the strength to do the simplest things, like going grocery shopping.
Then one day I got a call that changed everything. It was my father. My grandfather had been unwell and fighting cancer for some time, and he was telling me that the end was coming. He asked if I would go and be there with him, said it would mean a lot to him. Of course, I dropped everything and got to his house as quickly as I could. I was able to be there by my father’s side when his father took his last breath.
There is something I will never forget. It was the look in my grandfather’s eyes as he looked out of them for the last time. Regret. It haunts me even now.
I quit that very day.
I joined a smaller software company, thinking an escape from the corporate culture of IBM might give me greater satisfaction. It also paid more. I thought: if I earn more, I can get out more quickly. In the meantime, the six-figure salary and first-class trips to Vegas, Costa Rica or Hawaii would surely deliver the proof of success — the happiness — I craved. I still wasn’t getting the message.
Five years later, I was a lot richer but no happier, and still haunted by that look of regret.
I felt as if I could see the years running through my fingers.
Finally, I decided to take a year off. No work, no plans, no agenda, just me, a one-way plane ticket and a lot of time to think.
It was the end of 2018 and I was unemployed. My journal entries from that time opened with questions like –
“What’s my purpose?”
“Why am I here?”
Essentially what I wanted to answer was –
“How can I get rid of that fear of regret?”
It became a journey of deep self-exploration. I spent most of the following year in solitude and nature. I devoted at least one-two hours a day to meditation and experiencing the beauty of this planet. I listened to educational podcasts and self-help books that focused on personal development and spiritual growth, while cruising along the beautiful coastlines of New Zealand or walking within one of the world’s most biologically diverse rainforests in north-east Australia. Between them, Sam Harris, Eckhart Tolle, Don Miguel Ruiz and Jon Kabat-Zinn helped me to focus on my inner chatter and connect me more with what might be beneath all that noise.
“…having an ego is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you’re thinking. It’s the feeling of being identified with your thoughts…”
…kept me company all day and night and I tried to identify what was keeping me anchored to a way of being that was getting me nowhere. Money was a big theme. It gave me security and paid for everything that I valued, adventure and fun being highest on the list. Jealousy when in relationships was another. I forced myself to face these fears and shadows. Just as I had worked hard at selling IT software for over a decade, I worked hard on deconstructing myself and came to some conclusions:
- That I could be happy without so many material possessions. $10a day in Nepal gave me shelter, food and company, which made me feel completely at peace and content.
- That instead of asking ‘what’ I needed to do or change to feel fulfilled, the real question was: ‘why?’ Why did I do the things I did? Only then was I able to separate out the parts of my personality that had led me to career success so far and the parts that yearned for something that served more of a purpose. The key to a life I wouldn’t regret.
- That I felt a tremendous amount of gratitude for my parents. I was given the best set of circumstances to create my own life the way I wanted it. I just had to overcome my fears and believe in myself.
Yet I was still looking for things outside myself in order to be satisfied now, in the moment, with ‘what is’. Why?
I needed more answers, bigger answers.
Called to the jungle
They say that ayahuasca ‘calls you’ when you’re ready for it and I now believe this to be true. I’d first heard about this powerful plant medicine of the shamans of the Amazon about five years ago, and knew I wanted to experience it. But it never seemed to be the ‘right time’, given everything else I was racing through in life. Now I was on my own, without distractions, and a friend suddenly got in touch with details of a retreat centre regarded as ‘the best in the world,’ The Temple of the Way of Light, buried in the jungle just outside Iquitos in northern Peru.
The centre runs several retreats throughout the year, and I decided to go for a 14-day ‘Ayahuasca, Yoga, and Meditation Retreat.’ Five traditional plant-spirit healing ’ceremonies’ led by male and female healers of the Amazonian Shipibo tribe would be supported by a program of progressive therapeutic and Eastern psycho-spiritual practices to aid processing and integration. There would also be regular ontological workshops to help us learn how to create and sustain positive change in our lives.
Sold. To the salesman who’d lost the will to sell.
I landed in Iquitos in early December 2019. It was hot, humid and noisy, and something about it felt completely right.
There were 23 other guests on the retreat with me, who’d come from all over the world. In the first sharing circle, listening to everyone’s reasons for being there — childhood rape, PTSD as a result of a tour in Iraq, making peace with the imminent loss of eyesight — I began to feel a bit like an imposter. Here I was, feeling unfulfilled, seeking a purpose in life, and with some daddy issues.
But it’s not a competition.
Also, I was learning, through reading books by renowned addiction, trauma and childhood development expert Gabor Maté, and talking to our retreat facilitators, that there are different forms of trauma. A game-changer for me was to understand that not all trauma is ‘big’ trauma, the kind that can make everyone gasp in horror, like some of the stories I was hearing in our sharing circle. There’s ‘little’ trauma too, and it can show up in every ‘ordinary’ home, village and childhood. It’s generally nothing inherently life or bodily-integrity threatening, more ego-threatening, and so tends to be overlooked, people rationalising their experience as common, normal even, which makes it very insidious.
While a parent’s emotional unavailability once in a while may not cause much stress, being raised by a parent who is never available for emotional guidance while you’re a teenager can cause significant distress and trouble with emotional functioning. I began to see that the negative beliefs, like I’m not worthy of my dad’s time or I’m confused and lack direction, hence I’m a failure that crept into my day-to-day consciousness, could have been silently shaping my way of showing up in the world, setting up unconscious emotional and behavioural patterns.
For the boy with the ‘perfect’ childhood, a new avenue of thoughts opened up. I began to look with fresh eyes at questions like: why did I struggle for years with addictions to weed, porn and unconscious sex? Why couldn’t I relax into relationships without feeling suffocated when it got committed? Why did I judge my self-worth according to the opinions of others? Above all, why was I unable to love myself just as I am, with all my flaws and unique traits, never feeling enough?
Trust and surrender
All our ayahuasca ceremonies took place in a maloca, a traditional, open-sided round hut with palm-thatched roof. Twelve of us were arranged in a circle around the hut, each on our own mattress with a blanket, a sick bowl and toilet paper, the sounds of the jungle all around, everyone quiet and nervous. Major emphasis was placed on ‘setting an intention’ to take into ceremony with you. The idea is to use it as an anchor but without any hard expectation. I used these tense moments to focus on mine:
“I’m scared to step out of the shadows and share my gifts, truth and message with the world, because the fear of judgement, rejection, criticism and ridicule consumes me. I want to resolve my traumas so I can use my gifts to do good in this world.”
The moment our shamans entered all eyes focused on them like a group of 12-year-olds waiting for their idols to perform, and my intention went out of the window. I needed something short and prayer-like.
“Show me self-love and acceptance, show me self-love and acceptance, show me self-love and acceptance…”
…I repeated to myself, over and over.
I experienced so much across my five ceremonies that I could be here telling you about it for hours, so I’m just going to pull out the biggest hits and the lessons they held for me.
- You never get what you want but you always get what you need. In my first ceremony, as I asked for ‘self-love and acceptance’, I expected some great revelation of loving kindness towards myself, to finally be able to step out of my shadows and feel invincible. Instead, I cried for four hours straight as if my soul was emptying out the sadness of several generations and multiple lifetimes. I experienced and relived the memory of my grandfather’s death and felt as if I were my father, standing in his shoes, watching through his eyes as that scene unfolded again, going through it on his behalf, purging his grief with my tears. This release must have shifted some emotional blockages because I had the most restorative sleep I’ve had in years. I later understood this to have been an experience of ‘trans-generational’ healing.
- Trust and surrender. I went into the next ceremony feeling as though I knew what to expect and thinking I would steer the process. Wait for the shaman to arrive and sing to me, get ready to puke, have a big emotional release and feel bliss afterwards. Instead, I had apparently signed up for a ‘hell ride’. Impatient that nothing was happening at first, I asked for three booster doses, which catapulted me into spinning, spiralling, brightly coloured fractal visions that didn’t seem helpful at all and just made me feel out of control. For a while I tried to fight it, to steady myself, but then I remembered what we’d been told: trust the process and the medicine and surrender to whatever it is showing you. As soon as I accepted my situation, let go of worry and softened humbly into the experience, the visions changed and my whole body and heart filled with love. All the worries and doubts I’d brought to the retreat were washed away. The medicine seeming to work its way through a checklist, ticking them off one by one, peeling away all the conditioning, all the roles I’d played, until I got back to Alexander Faubel. The human being beyond the name, even. Perfect with all flaws, and with so many gifts to offer. A download — or upgrade, perhaps — of complete self-acceptance and self-love. As soon as I stopped trying so hard, I received.
- Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. I’ve never been a religious person. I find the world of sermons and sin, and the idea of some almighty guy up in the sky judging everyone and church every Sunday or else pretty off-putting. So, imagine my surprise when ‘God’ gave me a whole-body orgasm. I think the sound of my moans may have kept half the jungle awake that night. By the time I got to my last ceremony, I’d seen and heard so many miracles happening around me in the maloca that I thought — why not ask to meet God, whoever or whatever that is? I guess I’d asked nicely, because the medicine kindly introduced us, and we hit it off. The experience of God surged through me, an ever-present, all-pervasive energy of inexplicable, inexhaustible love powering all that exists and holding this wonderful thing we call life together. It’s another dimension, one from which we all come and ultimately to which we return. There is no time, no space and no fear. I saw and felt my highest self — my essence, my divinity — and understood that I, too, am this God, as well all are, and that everything I ever thought could hold me back was irrelevant. As my friend said so beautifully later that day, after I had described my experience to him, having seen this, I couldn’t ‘unsee’ it. Having been shown, I knew my purpose: to help others to work with this incredible tool, technology, healing modality — whatever you want to call it — so that they will see it, too — their innate wholeness, and the beauty of life.
I left the jungle feeling as though all my problems had been solved.
Breaking up with Mum and Dad
When I got back to Germany I got straight to work with coaching training and developing ideas for bringing what I’d learned to others, including launching the podcast.
But ayahuasca had more in store for me. I had entered into a new relationship, with someone I really loved. But as the ayahuasca ‘afterglow’ wore off, I felt trapped. Why? This is what I had wanted, and for some time. But there it was, that old familiar feeling of suffocation. And I responded in the same way I have done before; I ended it, and the bubble of serenity in which I had floated since leaving Peru popped. I felt sabotaged by a part of myself I thought I’d healed. As we went into lockdown, I hit the ground hard, with only an endless stream of painful emotions for company in an Airbnb in the middle of nowhere.
I was trying to make sense of it on the phone to a friend who’d been on the retreat with me, and he surprised me by suggesting there might be a ‘mother wound’ I had yet to meet. I’d always been convinced that it was my relationship with my father — my apparent unworthiness of his attention and inability to live up to his expectations — that had been the cause of my troubles. Ayahuasca had helped me dig through this ‘little’ trauma, to become aware of the cumulative effects of day after day of hoping for the words: ‘I’m proud of you,’ and being disappointed. But I had little awareness that a ‘mother wound’ was something that could also show up in men, nor that it might shed light on the patterns in my relationships with women.
I needed help getting to the root of it all. I started seeing a psychotherapist.
He helped me to see that I had been blind to my biggest wound of all. Unhappy in her marriage, my mother poured her love and her reason for existence into my brother and me. I had the most loving mother a boy could have. We never had to fight for her approval or affection. Pure love and unconditional support are all she ever was. And the love she got from us was all she needed to feel validated, the bandage for her wounds.
As I got older and forged my own life, often travelling, her pleas for me to visit became more and more insistent, and she would shame me if I left it too long. I became ‘the lost son’ and felt overwhelming guilt for not being there to give her the affection she craved. I sought out anything that could numb that pain — the weed, the porn, the sex; here lay the root of those addictions.
But the net effect was that it pushed me further and further away, because the other side of that coin was my feeling suffocated by the weight of her neediness. This pattern of wanting to heal with my love, but then retreating when the other’s dependence on my love became too much, wound up in my love life. I looked back at my relationships and almost-relationships and recognised it for the first time — an endless love-addiction and love-avoidance cycle that never stopped.
My therapist suggested that in order to be free to be myself, living life without these puppet strings, I could write my parents a letter each. It would be written from the ‘emotional authority’ of the inner child version of myself, who was hurt and needed to be able to say the things he was never brave enough to say growing up, for fear of losing their love, and could help me cut those strings.
I did it. I sat down in front of them and read each out in turn. I told them that there was a period of time when I had felt alone, abandoned, unloved and irrelevant compared to the struggles they faced in their lives and marriage. And that I was left feeling it was my job to try and fix what was broken, suppressing my own needs to be there for them, the little hero trying to keep the family together. I told them I could no longer carry the weight of their unhappiness or feel responsible for making it better by living up to their expectations, whether through professional success in a respectable job or quickly ‘settling down’ and providing grandchildren. Or even just by being there, pretending there’s nothing wrong, a buffer between them and all they did not want to confront.
Their shock at receiving the letters made me feel awful. It’s the hardest and most frightening thing I’ve ever done. Allowing myself, for the first time ever, to speak my truth out loud and stand by it, the deepest pain of my life: the knowledge I was not and will never be able to rescue my parents (nor anyone else).
Yet it is proving to be the most liberating act of my life.
The road ahead
And it has made me more determined to share my lessons on this Journey, creating a platform for others to bravely share theirs.
I believe that there is huge potential in plant medicines, supported by many other modalities like bodywork and meditation, to foster greater mental wellbeing across the world. There are ongoing successful trials in which mushrooms are being used to treat depression and addiction and the anxiety suffered by people with terminal illness. Studies with ayahuasca have had extremely promising results, revealing the mechanisms behind its commonly reported ability to release people from severe substance dependences. The body of research is growing rapidly, yet there is still a lot of fear and misunderstanding to overcome. The only way to change things is to talk about it, to help each other, to walk each other home.
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t still dark days, that I was somehow ‘cured.’ This is not what life is all about. Ayahuasca showed me the path, but it’s up to me to choose to walk it. I have to choose every single day to remember that I am enough. I have to choose to see myself, and others, in the light of love instead of through the microscope of comparison. And I have to choose to keep living and breathing my purpose, to help others see the beauty of their lives, so that when I die, I do not have that look of regret in my eyes.
What I want to say to you is this:
There is an authentic you, the ‘you’ you’ve always wanted to be, hiding in plain sight, but you don’t ‘become’ that version of yourself by losing weight, having more friends or accomplishing more in your career. You don’t ‘become’ at all; you just remember who you are.
So, welcome to Inner Journeys. We’ll be bringing you more people’s personal stories, as well as different kinds of content that will answer all your questions about working with psychedelics and other healing modalities.