Dr. Gabor Maté was the cover star of our Spring 2020 issue, and we were excited to have the chance to learn more about his work. We previously published a sneak peek of the article to our website, and today, we are sharing the full piece! Read on and enjoy.
Ending Pain, Embracing Love
We interview Dr. Gabor Maté
by Aisling Cronin
Interviewer: Noel Sweeney
Dr. Gabor Maté is a world-renowned speaker and author, well-known for his expertise on a range of complex issues, including addiction, stress and childhood development.
Rather than offering quick-fix solutions to these complex issues, Dr. Maté weaves together scientific research, case histories, and his own insights and experience to present a broad perspective that enlightens and empowers people to promote their own healing and that of those around them.
His books include the award-winning ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts’: ‘Close Encounters with Addiction’; ‘When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.’ His works have been published in twenty languages.
For twelve years, Dr. Maté worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with patients challenged by hard-core drug addiction, mental illness and HIV, including at Vancouver’s Supervised Injection Site. He is the co-founder of Compassion for Addiction – a non-profit that focuses on addiction – and an advisor of Drugs over Dinner.
Dr. Maté has received the Hubert Evans Prize for Literary Non-Fiction; an Honorary Degree (Law) from the University of Northern British Columbia; an Outstanding Alumnus Award from Simon Fraser University; and the 2012 Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award from Mothers Against Teen Violence. His groundbreaking medical work and writing has also seen him honoured with the Order of Canada, his country’s highest civilian distinction, and the Civic Merit Award from his hometown of Vancouver.
We were thrilled to speak with Dr. Maté recently, exploring topics as diverse as addiction, the roots of pain, plant medicine, leadership, and more.
Many people will know you as a medical doctor, and the name of Gabor Maté has become well-known within the holistic world. Can you explain a bit about how you came to the holistic approach, given that you had a conventional medical background?
If your eyes are open, as a medical practitioner, you can’t help noticing that people are not just ailments. They also have stories. They have lives. And after a while, you begin to see, very clearly, the connection between their lives – their social status, their social experiences, things that have happened to them – and their illnesses. The Western separation between mind and body, which views people as separate from their environment, has increasingly proven to be quite unscientific. There have been many studies produced from a Western perspective, demonstrating that people’s social environment, and their experiences, can have a significant impact on their health. Western medicine, as it is currently practised, hasn’t caught up with Western science. So I started noticing that in my practice, especially when I noticed several generations of the same family presenting with the same condition. It prompted me to explore the subject on a deeper level.
You’re well known for your work in addiction recovery. Can you tell us a bit about where your views on addiction stemmed from, and at what point did you notice that people’s stories were intrinsically connected to their addictions?
When asked about why they use a particular substance, addicts will always tell you about the emotional effects they experience: it gives me a sense of connection, it distracts me, it soothes me, it numbs the pain. Addictions are always a response to emotional pain, and so to say that they’re a choice is inaccurate, in my view. Nobody chooses to be in pain. Nobody chooses to be an addict. And to say that addiction is a disease – as mainstream medicine describes it, by and large – is also wrong because it’s actually about pain. It doesn’t begin as a disease: it begins as a response to a person’s human pain. So the real question is not ‘why the addiction?’ but ‘why the pain?’ Successful addiction treatment needs to include not just the physical symptoms, but also the underlying trauma.
I believe the work you did, at a certain point in your career, led you to find out about the potential therapeutic effects of plant medicines, such as ayahuasca. Was that something you were unsure about initially, or was it something you embraced?
Until the very end of my medical career, I knew nothing about ayahuasca, or indeed, any other alternative medical substances. However, when I was given the opportunity to take part in an ayahuasca ceremony, I availed myself of that opportunity, and I could see that this substance – or the particular process connected with the substance – had the potential to take people very deeply into their psyches and into their selves. The possibility of wholeness beneath the pain: this is what the plant can, in the right circumstances, offer to people. I understood then why people had been asking me about it, and so I decided to find out more.
You mentioned the right circumstances: could you expand on that?
There is a risk involved in using ayahuasca with no ethics, or no pure intention. It is important to ask yourself, how well-trained are the people you’re working with? If you go to places like Peru or Colombia or Brazil, and you can find an indigenous plant worker who has integrity and knowledge, that’s great. Wherever you are in the world, though, check the credentials of the people who are running ayahuasca ceremonies. Have they had the right initiations, and do they know how to work with the plant truly and deeply? I’m glad that people who feel called to work with plant medicines are now able to do so in places like my own country of Canada, because not everybody can afford to go to Peru. Trips to South America are prohibitive for many people. In Canada, I know several people who are trained thoroughly in Native traditions – who are Native practitioners themselves – and I have no concern about the people working with them.
Do you see psychedelics ever being integrated into the mainstream health system, anywhere in the Western world?
Psychedelics is a broad category, of course, but there have been a number of very encouraging peer-reviewed studies in this area – one study that I know of indicated that psychedelics could be helpful in treating certain stress-related health conditions. There needs to be a careful gathering of evidence before certain substances can eventually be legalised for medicinal purposes. I think it will be a very slow, long-term process.
What can the Western and shamanic medical practitioners learn from each other?
I certainly wouldn’t recommend Western practitioners to start appropriating shamanic initiations or customs, but there are many things they can learn from shamanic traditions. If you’re going to be a person working with human beings – troubled, traumatised, hurt human beings, as many people with illnesses are – then you should go through a process that leads you to deal with your own pain. You need to be at peace with your own trauma and suffering before you can really have an insight into the pain of others. This is exactly what shamans have to do. This is certainly something we could learn how to incorporate into our Western model. This can be done without using any particular substances. It’s about embracing self-transformation. This is what makes you a true healer. From the shamanic perspective … I wouldn’t regard them as having much to learn from Western medicine. Of course, there are certain procedures within conventional medicine that have proven to be enormously beneficial. If I had a serious tumour, I wouldn’t go to a shaman, I would go to a surgeon!
In the future, how do you think we are going to look back on the way we treat people with addictions today?
We’ll look back on it as a time of ignorance. A time of wasted opportunity. A time when the knowledge was available, but we didn’t apply it correctly. It is an indictment on society that we have accumulated so much knowledge, and so much research has been done, but we still can’t use all of this information correctly. Western science basically starts from the neck up. You can do a lot of great things with the intellect and logic and hyper-rationality, but it is also important for us to find a sense of compassion for the human experience. This is how we can start to heal the pain that underpins addiction.
Dr. Maté on how we can transform the world
You can see, throughout history, that humanity has placed huge emphasis on division, with nationalities as one major point of division. Historically, there have been very few people, in any country – whether in Canada, Germany, Russia, Britain or anywhere else – who have had the courage to say, ‘we are more than just people who belong to particular nationalities.’ They have very often been jailed or suppressed in some way. This trend has continued even today. To overcome the status quo, we need to cultivate a sense of deep, abiding love for all of humanity. This will overcome the barriers we have created around ourselves.