Well Woman Interview: Natalie Lyla Ginsberg

I met Natalie Lyla Ginsberg at Summit in LA last November and was immediately curious and impressed to learn about her career and the mission she’s on as Director of policy and advocacy for MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. We continued to bump into one another over the weekend and when I got back home, I began reading about MAPS, their work and mission which began in the 80s.

MAPS is a non-profit research and educational organization based in California that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana.

Natalie’s work takes her around the world, from speaking to conservative medical professionals to representing MAPS at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs where passionate and diverse professionals gather to end the drug war.

There is a lot of stigma and fear around psychedelics and it’s important to remember that plant medicine has been used in sacred ceremonies for millennia by indigenous communities worldwide. MAPS conducts FDA approved clinical trials using psychedelics and the results are impossible to ignore. People are healing.

I am inspired by Natalie’s open and bright mind, the social change she is working hard to create and the responsibility she has taken on in keeping politics out of the way of science. I hope she and this interview inspire and open your mind to the possibilities that exist for healing through psychedelics.

Who is Natalie? How do you define yourself?
I would describe myself as adventurous, passionate and compassionate. I’ve always been drawn to helping people work towards healing, and reduce suffering. My work is my passion, and definitely consumes my life, so it can be tricky to find separation. But, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I’m so interested in the work you do at MAPS, can you tell me more about your role there? How did you get into it? Why did you get into it? Was there one experience that shaped your trajectory into the field?
I’m the Director of policy and advocacy for MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.  I do the lobbying and policy work supporting research on cannabis and psychedelics, which is basically about keeping politics out of the way of science. The other work I do is intersectional community building and organizing among the psychedelic community, and advocacy and education to support policy change and social change.

I studied social work for my master’s degree and worked in a lot of highly traumatized communities as a therapist; I worked as a guidance counselor at  a middle-school in a high poverty neighborhood in the South Bronx , with women arrested for sex work, and I started to get frustrated with the systems and policies that I saw were at fault for what my clients were going through. I was frustrated at the approach to mental health that was focussed on the individual and their pathology. The tools that we had as therapists were so inadequate and were focused on the symptoms and were ignoring the root causes, many of which are greater systemic political issues. Through some of these frustrations I was launched into policy work.

At the same time, I had had a long-standing interest in issues of mass incarceration and racial justice so as I started to dig in to that, drug policy emerged. I worked as a policy fellow for a year at Drug Policy Alliance on a campaign focused on ending racist marijuana arrests in New York and then I was placed on the New York medical cannabis campaign. I’d always supported the idea of medical cannabis but I’d never truly understood the power and capacity of cannabis to heal. I started reading about MAPS and psychedelic research – the fact that psychedelics can work for addiction and depression, anxiety, all these things in social work school we’re being taught are different illnesses, different chemical imbalances in the brain; it really resonated with me that if something could heal all of them then it must be addressing the root cause. I reached out to MAPS from there which was almost four years ago now.

So there definitely was not one specific incident that directed my path here. I have always been drawn to things that people are resistant to speak about but that we really need to speak about.

What does a typical day look like for you? If your days aren’t typical, how do you find balance?
My day’s range from political advocacy at the United Nations to meeting change makers at Burning Man… to giving talks around the world.  I’m grateful there is really no such thing as a typical day!

Therefore, finding balance is definitely a process. I’m working on the balance piece! Every day is literally so different as travel is so integral to my work. Part of my balance comes from stepping beyond the day. When I’m travelling, and speaking at conferences or at festivals so much of what is required of me is engagement and connection, these are not times where I expect much inward time for myself. There isn’t much sleep! I accept and love this time for what it is and don’t put expectations on myself during it. When I return home from my trips, I find balance by becoming a homebody. I rest, give myself plenty of alone time, go for massages and practice yoga. Lately I’ve been focused on embodiment: getting grounded in my body, to give my mind a rest from all its hard work!

With the work of building social change, so much is about finding balance while also understanding that balance looks different for everyone. When considering balance, I think about male and female energies. Though I don’t love the gender binary, because gender is a spectrum… when I say male and female I mean the literal penetrative, active, aggressive, yang energy vs. the receptive, grounded, regenerative yin energy. We all have both energies, the spectrum of energies, within us. I’ve recently noticed that much of my policy work requires masculine energy– I’m often the only woman in the room, and usually at least a decade younger than my colleagues… Therefore, being assertive allowed me to create space for myself.  Now, I’m cognizant and trying to bring the grounded, feminine side into my interactions to create more balance.

Marijuana also helps me find balance in so many ways. People don’t give it enough credit. It helps regulate me, both physically and emotionally.

And also, dancing! Dancing with friends, dancing alone to Beyoncé in front of the mirror… dancing is always so restorative and nourishing for me.

Tell us about any daily rituals you have.
I don’t have too many daily rituals right now due to my travel and work schedule. I find that if I try to create these rituals I end up disappointed. Often, I’m in different time zones, catching a 5am flight so with my schedule varying so much it is tricky to have too many rituals.

But one ritual that I find huge connection through is smoking cannabis. It gives me time to think. I pause from the work I’m doing, sit outside in nature. The most important element of the smoking ritual for me is spending time outside, taking deep breaths, being with my surroundings and being here now.

What is your philosophy on food + nourishment?
In college, my friends described my diet as that of a 12-year-old boy– primarily pizza, cheeseburgers and chicken fingers.  Since moving to California, and developing a practice with plant medicines, I have found myself being drawn to plant-based eating, towards simper and healthier food choices. However, I definitely still eat a fair amount of meat, and have not come close to giving up cheese!  In drug policy, our guiding philosophy is called harm reduction. Basically, if you’re crossing a bridge and you stumble in the middle of the bridge, you’ve still made it halfway. You just have to keep crossing the bridge. The stumble doesn’t mean you start from the beginning. I like this analogy. Health should be a journey not a specific static goal– in my case, eating less meat is better than eating more meat!  We need to create more compassion for ourselves and for our journeys.

Growing up in NYC and attending Yale, so many of my female friends had eating disorders. I’ve been around so much obsessive and disordered eating behaviors so I don’t like to create any stringent rules around food because I’ve seen a lot of anxiety and pain created from obsessing.

I basically think of food as nourishment for my amazing body! My body treats me so well. I believe it’s so important to value our bodies for the functions they allow us to perform every day! My philosophy around food and nourishment, is that the ideal is to be guided in our food choices by the intention and desire to nourish and love our bodies.

Is there a main message you are working to bring to life with your psychedelic research?
Yes – the radical power of healing! Healing is so necessary and not just for self but for the collective.

Hurt people hurt people. As long as people are acting from a traumatized place of pain and fear, they will continue to inflict more fear and pain. Psychedelics help people move from operating from places of fear and instability, to operating from compassion and love and grounding.

MAPS is working within the drug development system to get MDMA-assisted psychotherapy approved as prescription medicine by conducting FDA approved clinical trials. However, plant medicine has been used for millennia by indigenous communities worldwide.  Indigenous practices involve sitting as community to come together for healing, and incorporating a plethora of rituals including singing and dancing. As people learn more and more about psychedelic medicine in a western psychotherapeutic framework, another main message of my work is ensuring the ancient wisdom and lineage of psychedelic community rituals are elevated, respected and protected, as these communities have suffered disproportionately from psychedelic prohibition, as well as all other forms of colonialism and capitalism.

What does a healthy mind, body, spirit look like for you?
A healthy mind, body and spirit is about recognizing the connection between the three. It looks like strong awareness in the relationships between these pieces, acting together and individually. We’re not really taught about the interconnectedness of the three, our society is set up to separate, internally and externally. So I believe awareness is first and then we can bring the three elements into balance and connection.

What is a common misconception about psychedelics that you find yourself working to restructure?
There is a lot of stigma and fear around psychedelics. I speak to such a wide range of people, from Republicans in DC to conservative medical professionals. Many are receptive to our work and others are just learning about it.

People aren’t always willing to question and examine what they’ve been told, but it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the research that we’re discovering at MAPS. The research speaks volumes.

Some of the stigma that people have around psychedelics is to be understood. Some people have seen or experienced bad psychedelic trips that have tainted their understanding. This makes sense to me and at MAPS we work within very safe guidelines to reduce the harms of use.

 If someone is interested in learning more about the psychedelic field what would you suggest? Are there any books or experts you recommend?
Michael Pollan – How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
Trauma and healing – Dr. Gabore Mate’s work and books
Psymposia – a leading educational media and events group rethinking drugs and psychedelics
Chacruna.net – redefining common knowledge about psychedelic plant medicines

What advice would you share with woman to empower them to feel strong and confident?
Develop the practice of deep self-love. Spend time in gratitude and focus on things you love about yourself. Have this be your source of power. And question what you don’t fully love or accept about yourself, and shower yourself in compassion in these areas.

As something I can’t stress enough is to look to other women for advice and as role models. Community is everything, you’re never alone. A huge source of my power is that I have support from so many inspiring women.

Stay in touch with Natalie here.
*Above banner image photo credit: Irving Penn, 1993

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