Integrative Psychiatrist James Gordon on Woodstock, Ayahuasca, Colonialism and His Work in the World’s Traumatic Hotspots

Integrative Psychiatrist James Gordon on Woodstock, Ayahuasca, Colonialism and His Work in the World’s Traumatic Hotspots

Two decades ago, James Gordon, MD was the chair of the top US government effort to examine integrative medicine policy. In an August 20, 2019 blogpost, the integrative psychiatrist shared how 50 years ago he traveled with crisis intervention nurse Sharon Curtin and singer Joan Baez to Woodstock where he treated hundreds of hallucinating attendees through a co-caring model. His August 9, 2019 letter to the New York Times challenged the Trumpian portrayal of mass-shootings motivated only by mental illness. Gordon described himself this way: “Though my professional work is devoted largely to trauma healing for survivors of such mass murders — and of wars, state-sponsored torture and climate-related disasters — I have known and treated a number of violent extremists, including mass murderers.” Trauma is us. On September 10, 2019, trauma hot-spots healer Gordon has a new book coming out on the transformation needed. I reached him for a brief interview.

My initial encounter with Gordon was in 1991 at a small dinner arranged by a mutual friend during a historic conference at Georgetown University. That event sought a transformation of its own: to shift the medical industry with its attendant morbidity and mortality to a focus on wellness. I was pleased to meet Gordon. He was a headliner for a conference that also featured the outspoken former JAMA editor George Lundberg, MD. I was surprised by the dinner’s conversation. Gordon had just returned from Brazil where his self-exploration and respect for natural agents led to my first lesson about what one might experience via ritual with the psychotropic agent Ayahuasca. Through recent research and work of authors like Michael Pollan, the psychotropic agent is gaining attention for its potential value with individuals suffering from trauma conditions.

About that time, Gordon’s career began going international. It started with work with former child soldiers in Mozambique then to post-Apartheid PTSD work in South Africa and on to Bosnia, Kosovo, Gaza, Israel, indigenous U.S. tribes, Haiti, Broward County following the mass shooting and elsewhere.

I’ve come to view Gordon as a sort of Red Adair for global healing. Adair became a folk hero in the 1970s for his ability to descend into threatened or massive oil disasters and stop the spread. For the last 20 years, Gordon and his Center for Mind-Body Medicine teams have been dropping into the world’s traumatic hot-spots to teach self-care skills and group support. They use the empowering, multiplier strategy of training trainers. In integrative health circles, it is not uncommon to hear expressed the belief that the movement’s principles for individual human health will also help heal nations, and the world. Gordon has set out to do it. The title of the upcoming book is The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma.

Integrator: Your recent Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) newsletter was remarkable for the diversity of your trauma-related activities. I feel compelled to start with Woodstock. You were taking care of scores of people who’d gone over the edge from drug overdoses. That sounds challenging.

Woodstock: grouping the traumatized around candles

Gordon: There were hundreds of people who needed help and only two of us for the medical and psychological work at the back of the amphitheater where the main stage was. The most awkward moment was waiting for the tent, which I wanted to shelter to the kids who were having terrifying drug experiences. Sharon and I decided that what might work best was to have people help each other out. I asked the kids who had taken too much speed to walk around the ones who were drowsy from too many downers. And then I got the kids who were on bad trips with psychedelics to sit next to each other around candles – to hold one another. The Hog Farm, the wonderful hippie helpers who had found the tent, had to scramble to find enough candles. It was a gathering within the gathering.

Integrator: Moving forward 20 plus years to our meeting over dinner. That encounter also revolved around substance ingestion. You’d just that day returned from Brazil. May I share that the dinner subject was your Ayahuasca experiences?

Gordon: (pause) Sure. When I first took Ayahuasca in Brazil, the clearest message I received was to “take care of your Mother, your Mother is dying.” The plants were telling me to do everything possible to preserve our planet’s rainforest. I haven’t systematically studied or written about the use of psychedelics for trauma, but I do think they may well be very helpful. In Brazil, I saw that some addicts and criminals seemed to be able to use Ayahuasca to work through psychological blocks and to have spiritual experiences, to become more compassionate and responsive, and find a greater sense of meaning and purpose that – in some cases – seemed to transform their lives. Recent research on psilocybin, Ayahuasca, and MDMA suggests that, down the road,  it could be important to study the use of psychedelics, together with the mind-body skills groups that we offer at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine. Especially for people whose trauma is long-standing and complex.

Integrator: To what extent do you think that the rituals of your own mind-body programs through the Center are shamanic?

Shamanism and the Center’s programs

Gordon: That’s a good question. In a sense, the root of all medicine is in shamanism, in re-establishing balance in ourselves and between ourselves and the social, natural, and spiritual world. Jerome Frank, who was on the board of CMBM and a distinguished professor of psychiatry at Hopkins, wrote a wonderful book called Persuasion and Healing where he showed clearly the connection between shamanism and modern medicine, the elements of healing that were similar across cultures – for example in creating a relationship and mobilizing hope. Modern medicine has become too perfunctory and often too mechanical. I’ve seen this in China, too, where the richness and complexity of the tradition is being eclipsed by algorithms. What we do (with CMBM trauma work) can be seen as democratizing the shamanic experience.  We know that it’s not just shamans, but everyone, including children, who can mobilize their imagination, go inside, find the hope and the resources to heal themselves and use the self-care techniques that we teach to do this.

Integrator: It’s a basic set of skills and techniques you and your teams use, isn’t it?

Gordon: We use slow, deep, “Soft Belly” breathing, Drawings, “Shaking and Dancing”, Guided Imagery and Written Dialogues, Genograms (family trees), the power of small groups and community.

Integrator: Viewed from outside the integrative culture, I’d guess many would call that mix “shamanic”. Give us a sense of the reach of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine since you founded it in 1991.

Gordon: We have close to 7,000 people who have come through the first phase of our mind-body medicine training. Roughly 4500-5000 of these have gone on to complete the second training so that they are able to lead groups as well as work with individuals.  Probably 4500 graduates of the first phase are here in the U.S., and 2500 graduates of the second phase. We have ongoing work in Kosovo, Israel, Gaza, Haiti, Jordan, and Turkey. We are working with Save the Children in the Middle East and are developing programs in South Sudan and Somaliland. We are just beginning, with support from the US Institute of Peace, to work with 4 governments in Central Asia that will be meeting the challenge of integrating returning ISIS fighters and their families. We’ve been working with a number of communities in the U.S. after climate-related disasters, in Southern Louisiana, Houston, Northern California, and Puerto Rico, as well as on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I’ve always been interested in the power of community to promote healing.

Dealing with privilege and colonizer issues

Integrator: Do you get accused of being a colonizer? Do you get challenges as a privileged white man coming in to save them?

Gordon: Once in Gaza I was asked if I was  C.I.A. (laughs) and I imagine that, initially, others have been suspicious. When we go in to a new place, we always work with local partners and are completely transparent about who we are and what we do. We are using an approach that draws on many of the world’s healing traditions and it’s easily recognized. Many people point out similarities to what’s been used in their own cultures. They’ll say,  ‘our grandparents used to come together in groups like like this’. We are always interested in combining what we do with what they do. For example, in Gaza we bring mindfulness to the 5 daily prayers of Islam.

Integrator: You’ve a number of studies showing effectiveness. How important has that been?

Gordon: Crucial. Absolutely crucial. In the beginning we just did the work with a sense of urgency. We had no time or money for research. After a while, we began to study what we were doing, because I understood that research is crucial. We published the first randomized controlled trial of any intervention with war-traumatized kids [in Kosovo]. 80% of high school kids with diagnosable PTSD  no longer had it after participating in an 11-week long small mind-body skills group, led by their teachers. These gains held at 3 months follow-up. Research is crucial. People, including funders, can see the outcomes.

Integrator: How did you get started with the global work?

Gordon: The first visits were in Mozambique and South Africa where we did brief workshops with former child soldiers and people who’d suffered under apartheid. People in the workshops there seemed to benefit. When we got back, a friend said ‘why not Bosnia?’ Then, family physician Susan Lord [now at the Center for Peace through Culture] and I went. It was just after the peace accords were signed, and a very big challenge. The war, which had killed 200,000, had been devastating and Bosnia was very much in the world’s spotlight. We recognized that the physiological, psychological, and behavioral results of trauma had become fixed in the population. We did some work with leaders in medicine as well as the Monsignor of the Catholic church, and the president of the Islamic University.

Once the war in Kosovo began in 1998, Susan and I knew that we had to be there. We understood that the time to begin work with population-wide trauma was now, before it became chronic and debilitating as it had in Bosnia. So we went to Kosovo during the war and stayed there after the war. Our CMBM team – now a dozen faculty and two staff – trained 600 people, including more than 200 who worked in the community mental health system. Mind-body medicine became an official part of the health care system in Kosovo, and continues to be available 20 years later to all 2 million people through the community mental health centers.

Integrator: I saw that Penny and Bill George have supported you bringing your trainings to tribes in Minnesota through their Catalyst initiative.

Gordon: They’ve not only supported our program for indigenous people, Penny was the first to support our work with integrative cancer care and with veterans in Minnesota, as well as with Native people in Minnesota. Our work in Indian Country began on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota 8-10 years ago on a small-scale. One of our faculty, Matt Erb was an adopted son of the Lakota, and Basil Braveheart, a distinguished Lakota elder, invited us to the reservation. Several of our faculty went back each year as volunteers.

Then, about 5 years ago, there was a suicide epidemic:  22 school children had killed themselves within one year. I was able to raise the money from Battery Powered, a group of young philanthropists in San Francisco, to begin a more intensive effort. That went well, and 3 years ago The Little Wound School received a U.S. Administration for Native Americans’ grant to bring our program to all 7 tribal schools.

The reservation is a very complicated place, that has suffered greatly from historical trauma. The economic situation is dire, and there are rivalries on the reservation and distrust of outsiders. But, there’s also great strength and dignity, and a powerful healing tradition.We’ve now trained people in all 7 schools, and they’ve shown us how to combine our work with traditional Lakota ceremony – with prayers, chanting, dancing, and smudging. Our program of mind-body medicine is now an integral part of life on the reservation. Well over 100 adults – clinicians, teachers, community organizers, tribal elders – have come through out training, and 90 kids are on their way to becoming peer-counselors.  In the last 3 years there has been only 1 youth suicide in the tribal schools.

Integrator: Most of your work is philanthropically funded?

Gordon: Most. We have trainings each year in ‘Food as Medicine’ as well as in ‘Mind-Body Medicine’ for which people pay. These produce some of our operating income though 40% of those who come – people working with the underserved – attend on scholarships. We have worked in some places through government grants – from the Veterans’ Administration, the Department of Defense, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and have received funding from the governments of Great Britain, Kosovo, Israel, and Qatar, as well as the United Nations.

More and more, we are working with whole communities here in the U.S. that are raising the funds to bring us. The initial work we did at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and in Broward County, Florida, was supported by a $1.3-million grant from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative [Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan]. This year the Broward County School Board and the Children’s Services Council are continuing to support us.

Integrator: As you look back, what do you see as shortcomings or failures?

Gordon: There are a couple of pieces. There were times when we haven’t been able to establish a firm enough foundation for our work in a community. This happened with firefighters and their families in New York City after 9/11. It was great to work with them. We did for a couple of years, and they were really enthusiastic. But, sadly, we didn’t have the infrastructure or the funds to continue. Also, every once in awhile I push too hard and too fast. I get impatient, and my team has to remind me that we need to slow down.

Integrator: Any closing reflections?

Gordon:  This is the work of my heart, my spirit, my life. Sometimes it’s a challenge to help institutions and communities to understand this work is not just about classes or learning techniques -yoga or tai chi or meditation –  even though these can be helpful. It’s ultimately about transformation,  about helping everyone to experience and embrace this larger vision of self help, group support, mutual understanding, and community building – of developing a more compassionate and loving culture which will continue to sustain every aspect of health and healing.


Note: Gordon’s new book, The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, will be available September 10, 2019.  Pre-publication orders are being taken.


%d bloggers like this: