Maria Papaspyrou

Birthing the Institute of Psychedelic Therapy with Maria Papaspyrou
Cosmic Sister
by Jasmine Virdi

“It is so important to have groups of people that you cross-pollinate ideas and share support with, so that you are not moving in isolation bypassing your learning edges and shadow.” – Maria Papaspyrou

Maria Papaspyrou (@towardswholenessconstellations) is a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, and Systemic Family Constellations Facilitator who recently co-founded and co-launched the Institute for Psychedelic Therapy (IPT) with psychiatrist Dr. Tim Read. The first of its kind in the UK, IPT was created to support practitioners and the public in deepening their inquiry into the healing potential of psychedelics and the expanded states of consciousness they engender. Maria and Tim co-edited Psychedelics and Psychotherapy: The Healing Potential of Expanded States, released by Inner Traditions this year.

Maria has given numerous talks, published articles, and co-edited books on the sacramental and healing properties of entheogens, supporting psychedelics’ potential to foster psycho-spiritual growth on an individual and collective level and advocating for their re-introduction in psychotherapy.

Originally from Athens, Greece, Maria emigrated to the UK in 1995 to train as a psychotherapist. With over twenty years’ experience, she now works through her private practice, Towards Wholeness, supporting people’s integration from psychedelic journeys as they get to know themselves, their wounds, and their resources in more intimate ways. As a student of transpersonal psychology looking to work in the field of psychedelic integration and facilitation myself, I was thrilled to talk with Maria about her work delving into “femtheogenic” consciousness, how she brings depth-relational processes like family constellations into psychedelic integration, and how the Institute of Psychedelic Therapy came to be. Maria also provides advice for individuals starting out on their path to become psychedelic practitioners.

Congratulations on your new project, the Institute of Psychedelic Therapy (IPT)! I think it is so important that more psychedelic education centers are appearing so we keep the conversation multi-voiced and nuanced. What was your vision for IPT and how did it come into fruition?

The first seeds were planted for the Institute of Psychedelic Therapy a few years back through a project called the TRIPP Network. TRIPP was an acronym for Therapy and Research in Integrating Psychedelic Practices. The idea of psychedelic practice is really important, and in the same way we talk about spiritual practice, we need to navigate what sustainable and safe practice looks like in the psychedelic space. At first, TRIPP was a database of practitioners offering psychedelic integration in the UK, addressing the demand that was out there for psychedelic-aware therapists as well as for validating this kind of work to the wider therapeutic profession as a clinical specialism.

Later, Tim Read and I started editing a book together that turned out to be a very significant and meaningful process, professionally, for us both. Our co-edited book, Psychedelics and Psychotherapy: The Healing Potential of Expanded States published by Inner Traditions has just come out in the US and will be available in Europe by the beginning of November. Writing and editing together helped us consolidate where we stand in this work, opening up wider dialogues about futures trajectories and recognizing what is missing in the current dominant therapeutic narratives. The book is a collection of essays from a number of practitioners in the field who we believe are making significant contributions to this work, and it is essentially about working with psychedelic states of consciousness, relating to preparation, the actual experience, and integration, with a greater emphasis on process as opposed to the mainstream narrative that focuses on often short and quick frameworks. As the book was coming to completion, we both felt nourished by the ideas we were working with and by our sense of creative co-creation, so we agreed to then collaborate on taking TRIPP into its next developmental stage, and that is how IPT was born.

With IPT, we hoped to take the ideas we felt most passionate about and focus on depth, transpersonal and eco-systemic approaches. The main mission of IPT is to create a space of professional growth and accountability, developing a network of therapists and aligned healthcare practitioners that can come together and co-create what this work means as it is growing into a distinct clinical specialism. Already, we are quite excited and grateful about the general feedback, support, and holding we are receiving from the professional community that is coming together. We have no idea what will happen as we are opening up this emergent space. Our intention is to hold and steward the space, but we hope IPT will be a collectively shaped, multi-voiced project.

How long will the training be?

We decided to support a two-year journey, which will equip practitioners to support the deeper layers of the process and develop a wide net of accountability, from preparation to experience to integration. We want to create a rich container by equipping people in therapeutic principles and frameworks, including embodied, depth, transpersonal and systemic practices. Some of the training will be clearly mapped out, while other parts will be experiential and emergent. We cannot deliver a depth training without the experiential component, so we will be hosting two five-day retreats each year alongside a required commitment to personal therapy. We are experimenting with how to develop a learning container that is co-creative. Most of the people who will join us will already be practitioners of some health-related profession, so we will be encouraging them to bring in their skills and expertise and enter reciprocal systems of relating so we can work as a group beyond the teacher learner dichotomy; in this training we will all be learning alongside one another. It is a journey that will require people to take personal responsibility for discerning their own learning growing edges and supporting their openings.

Why do you want to reintroduce psychedelics back to the therapeutic space? What do they have to offer that regular therapy lacks?

Psychedelics can offer a unique access into our deep unconscious, that is both the personal and the collective. While I am a big supporter of psychotherapy, I also recognise that some of our wounds lay so deeply in primitive and often pre-verbal or even ancestral layers of our psyche, requiring unique ways to access what is beyond reach in ordinary awareness. In psychotherapy, we can get hints of such wounds and recognize their trails, but we often don’t get the chance to face them in such direct ways as psychedelic experiences allow us to do. Expanded and psychedelic states have the potential to recover in visceral ways not only our deepest wounds but also our inner capacity for healing and growth.

Alongside their potential for healing and growth, I also hope they can help us usher through a new paradigm with regards to how we relate to all discomfort, illness, and health. I hope they help us reframe our current systems of healing and regeneration. Work in expanded states—as all depth work—requires inner agency and participation, an ongoing commitment to being in dialogue with our inner worlds, and an opening instead of a dampening-down of our inner experiences that express themselves in outer symptoms. Psychedelic medicines can help us address our deep collective woundedness and its destructive ramifications to our relational ecosystems (personal, collective, environmental).

I’d be curious to hear your advice to someone who wants to become a psychedelic practitioner and who is just starting out on their path.

Primarily, I would highly recommend they do one piece of solid therapeutic or psychospiritual training and really commit to immersing themselves in a learning that has applied therapeutic value. The second thing I would suggest is that they pace themselves. We have a tendency to want to go fast, but that is one of the challenges of the learning journey that we need to sit with. Foundations take time, but once you have built them, you are able to move forward with greater integrity. Another significant part of this path is to have a good network of support, growth, and accountability. It is so important to have groups of people that you cross-pollinate ideas and share support with, so that you are not moving in isolation bypassing your learning edges and shadow. Lastly, do your own deep inner work, both with expanded states and within therapeutic frameworks. Delve inward and learn about the deeper layers you discover within yourself, as well as through others you work with.

I would love to know more about your personal healing journey. What initiated your path of working with psychedelics and altered states?

For many of us in the helping professions, the journey has started a long time before we are even conscious of being on a path. The majority of people who decide to study psychotherapy have often had early developmental wounds that have then invited them to try and make sense of life.

I left Greece for the UK in 1995 to embark upon my training to become a psychotherapist. I was 17 years old at the time, both young and naïve, and the initiations were plentiful, but luckily, I had experiences I gradually found ways to integrate. Around the same time, I also had my first experiences with expanded states of consciousness. In the years and decades that followed, expanded states and psychotherapy became key in supporting my growthful unfolding; they broadened my capacity to question things, delve into the human condition, and become more available for supporting and accompanying others in their own explorations. Both expanded states and psychotherapy essentially engender the same process; they are both psyche-manifesting. And contrary to the magic-bullet approach, expanded states like psychotherapy ask that we sit with what we discover in ways that help us learn ourselves a little bit better, and that takes time and curious engagement. They both teach us that the journey of self-discovery is an ongoing process and commitment.

In your book, Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine, you talk about “femtheogenic” states. I’m curious as to what first connected you with the value of feminine archetypes.

Opening the work around femtheogenic consciousness became very much a personal process of getting back in touch with my own life experiences, inner terrain, and consciousness as a woman, wanting to recover what of feminine essence is of real value. It was a process that worked initially on a cognitive level starting as a piece of research, trying to assimilate information from the outside in. But this research project/learning journey was truly catalyzed by an initiation in my personal life through which I was confronted with the conflict that many women today face around not having children. In cultures world over, there is significant pressure on women to have children, and so I began a deep inquiry into motherhood, looking at what happens to fertility when it doesn’t go into the direction of child bearing.

Taking this powerful journey into myself as a woman taught me how to honor the fertility beyond the child-bearing process. I recognized how a lot of that fertile energy went into the work I do with others and how the projects I initiate into the world are part of fulfilling my creative, fertile, mother-consciousness potency, where I practice the movements of conceiving, cultivating, growing, and letting go.

In our society, the process of motherhood has been understood only as the direct physical manifestation of having children, and that has been a one-size homogenous model that often falls short of offering belonging to all the endless manifestations of ‘mother’ out there. So many stories speak of motherhood if we could only listen—stories of love and loss that link us to the deeper cycles of nature and the restorative movements of life and death. The great taboos surrounding motherhood’s rich complexity sadly disrupt our collective capacity to engage more deeply with these forces. In my work, I wanted to find a way to transmit the message that these are forces of womb intelligence and they are available to us all in endless ways.

Beyond your work with the feminine, I know you are also a Systemic Family Constellations Facilitator. What is that and how does it play into your work with psychedelics?

Family constellations is an experiential therapeutic approach that helps us uncover the deeper and hidden layers of truth that run through our family and ancestral systems. It can be quite extraordinary for a person to witness how far back the roots of the stories we are tied to come from. It is a practice that honors our wounds and resources and moves us respectfully towards compassion and healing. And compassion is a crucial medicine for our times.

A constellation helps us move deeper than ordinary reality. It helps us move through the ancestral experiences and psychospiritual left-overs that our family lines have tasked us with, in extraordinary ways. It shares the non-linear, deeper, and wise dimensions that psychedelic states can also open us up to. They both help us see things through a systemic lens where everything exists within a web of interrelation and as part of a larger ecosystem. And they are both essentially an animistic practice; they allow us to bring everything to life, and when everything is animated, then it also becomes available for relating to in clearer ways.

For example, it is one thing to speak to a therapist about a difficult psychedelic experience, and it is quite another to bring an embodied representation of that experience in the space and support a relational exchange to take place (as you would in a constellation). The second is a lot more direct and visceral with greater relational scope. Or to bring into presence the symbols or elements of an experience that one might be unclear about or might want to engage more fully with and bring to greater resolution. So, essentially, it is a practice that can support a deepening of the dialogue with oneself and of all the threads that come together to weave the whole person.

Based in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Jasmine “Jazz” Virdi (@jazz.virdi) is a writer who raises awareness and encourages people to make informed choices about the therapeutic potential and transformational capacities of sacred plant medicines. She is currently pursuing an MSc in Spirituality, Consciousness, and Transpersonal Psychology at the Alef Trust with the future aim of working as a therapeutic practitioner within the psychedelic space.

This interview was funded by Cosmic Sister (@CosmicSister) in support of women’s voices in the field of psychedelics. Opinions expressed by interviewees are their own.

October 2021